“It’s a different world in here. The Orient-Express is exclusivity and luxury, a particular brand of Old World finery that remains unchanged”
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express waiting room at Victoria station resembles a scene from an Oscar Wilde play. There are women in fur coats, evening gowns and diamond necklaces. Men in patent leather shoes and silk handkerchiefs. I spy one, two, three tuxedos. They all banter boisterously as they check their luggage, talking of travel, investments and horseracing. Someone’s even smoking a pipe.
It’s a different world in here. The Orient-Express is exclusivity and luxury, a particular brand of Old World finery that remains unchanged. While the original train service no longer operates, in its place the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) is a private venture by Orient-Express Hotels using the restored carriages from the 1920s train. Routes run within Europe and outside, including the historic Paris to Istanbul trip that the original train was built to service, and a two-day journey from London to Venice, which is what I’ve chosen.
At exactly 10am, the British Pullman train arrives. It’s a two-hour journey to Folkestone, where we’ll board a coach to cross the Channel to Calais to meet the VSOE train. I’m seated in the Ibis car riage. My cabin steward is Mitch, a bubbly, friendly gentleman who’s more than willing to impart titbits of gossip about the Pullman’s history. It turns out Ibis is the train’s oldest carriage, built in 1925. One of the other carriages, Xena, appeared in an Agatha Christie biopic (but not, inexplicably, in Murder on the Orient Express), while the Phoenix carriage once held Winston Churchill’s burial casket. I ask Mitch if there’s anything particular about my seat – number eight – that he remembers. He then relates the story of a Japanese passenger who came onboard once and seemed unusually jumpy. After a few bellinis and a hearty brunch, Mitch asked the gentleman which was his destination: Paris or Venice? In answer, the man produced his ticket: a £5 return to Bromley South. Everyone had a good laugh. Mitch tells me two more anecdotes before we reach Folkestone – one about Keith Richards and the other about a group of British Scientologists – but I’m sworn to secrecy before I disembark.
The VSOE is waiting for us at Calais. The train is glamorous; all polished wood and gilded doorknobs and an on-call pianist who takes requests in the bar carriage. My cabin consists of a banquette sofa that will convert to a bed at night, a small table and washbasin, and a large window with old-fashioned pull-down shades. Even the toilets are sophisticated – the same rich, polished wood – although it’s hard to appreciate their finery while the train is moving. My steward is Claudio, a charming young Italian who tells me tales of his upbringing while taking my breakfast order. And since there’s no Wi-Fi onboard, I put on a frock and head to the dining car to mingle with my fellow passengers.
At dinner, I’m paired with a lovely British lady in her 60s who, like me, is travelling solo. We make polite chitchat over a pleasurable three-course meal before she suddenly reveals that she has a passion for heavy metal – Tool and Meshuggah are her favourite bands – and that she once hung out with John, Paul, George and Ringo after one of their early Cavern Club performances. And she belly dances in her spare time.
The next morning, I take breakfast in my cabin and gaze out the window. We’re crossing the Alps. I’ve never seen so much snow in my life. Once or twice the train stops and I convince Claudio to let me out onto the platform so I can make a snowman. The other stewards laugh. After lunch, the train stops. It doesn’t move for a long time. Silvia, the train manager, informs us we’re running three hours behind schedule. The staff react quickly, offering everyone onboard dinner and complimentary porter service on our arrival in Venice.
But then there’s more bad news. My partner calls to say that he missed his flight to Venice. And it’s my fault – I had accidentally sent him to the wrong airport. Distraught, I catch Silvia’s attention. I tell her the story and, after giving it some thought, she signals me to follow her to the dining car. There’s someone I want you to meet, she says, someone who may be able to help you.
I follow her to the dining car. The other passengers, all dressed for dinner, stare as I pass in my faded jeans and baggy jumper. Silvia stops in front of the table of a well-dressed foursome, makes a quiet introduction that I do not catch, and fades into the background. The diners spring into action, entreating me to sit, pouring me a glass of wine and ordering
another round of duck l’orange. Jay, one of my new friends, then asks my partner’s name, and, without further explanation, leaves the table. He returns as I’m finishing my duck and tells me he’s booked my partner on the first flight out of London the following day. He writes down the confirmation number and hands me his phone. “Do you want to call him to tell him the news?”
I am stunned. I offer confused thankyous, but Jay waves me away. The train arrives in Venice. I say goodbye, and promise to meet them for dinner again the following night. In Venice, it’s almost 10pm. The streets are quiet. The moon hangs big and yellow above the city. I head to the Hotel Cipriani, one of the Orient-Express Hotels that comes recommended for the end of the VSOE trip (indeed, a large number of my fellow passengers are present at breakfast the next morning). The hotel is a five-minute boat ride from the Piazza San Marco – there’s a complimentary water shuttle that runs to and from all hours of the day – on a beautiful part of Giudecca Island island surrounded by vineyards and villas. I happily pour myself into bed.
My junior suite is a whirl of elegance and sumptuousness and I awake to find it overlooks the hotel gardens. But I barely have time to enjoy the view once I discover a bath in one of the two bathrooms in the room. I take my lunch in the tub before taking a walk around the grounds. The pool overlooks the lagoon and is heated – it’s too tempting to resist. I also meet the hotel’s resident rabbit, Princess, who wanders around the garden munching on grass.
That night, my partner arrives from London. We cross the water to Piazza San Marco and meet Jay and his companions in a small restaurant tucked away in the Venetian backstreets. Having come to my senses, I finally manage to ask them what compelled them to help a stranger on a train. “Because it’s the Orient-Express,” Jay says. “And that’s just what happens on the Orient-Express.” Then he flags down the waiter and orders another bottle of champagne.