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The Orient Express made its mark on history like no other train. From its 1883 launch at the Gare de l’Est in Paris, it soon become a timeless symbol of the art of travel and is still one of the crown jewels in SNCF’s historic rail collection.
On the afternoon of 4 October 1883, the Gare de l’Est—then called the Gare de Strasbourg— was overflowing with people. A crowd of curious, elegant Parisians had come to get their first look at the Orient Express—an invention that would revolutionize travel. With leading politicians, journalists and writers looking on, the new sleeper train was inaugurated with pomp and ceremony.
Its first destination was Constantinople: after travelling day and night from Paris to Bucharest aboard the luxury train, passengers took another train to Bulgaria, and then a ship to the Bosporus. The direct rail link began in 1889, making Constantinople the majestic final destination for the Orient Express—an icon of luxury and romance.
The train made its first 3,094-km return journey in less than two weeks, drawing enthusiastic accounts from the press. In the 20 October 1883 edition of Le Figaro, special envoy Georges Boyer wrote, “We made the trip from Constantinople to Paris in 76 hours instead of the usual 111, in perfect comfort and without the slightest fatigue.” And a legend was born.
The Orient Express was created by Georges Nagelmakers, a young Belgian engineer. During a trip to the United States in 1868, he travelled on Pullman trains and experienced their famous sleeping cars. But while some American trains were far more technologically advanced than their European counterparts, they were very uncomfortable. Nagelmakers returned to Europe inspired by an idea: to create luxury trains for a wealthy clientele. His bold gamble would pay off, uniting long-distance travel with comfort, elegance and refinement.
The early success of the Orient Express spawned a new generation of luxury trains—the Nord Express, the Sud Express, the Calais Nice Rome Express, and many others. In addition to transporting passengers across Europe, including parts east, and Asia, Georges Nagelmakers founded Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hôtels to accommodate them when they reached their destination. The legendary hotels he created—including the Pera Palace in Constantinople and the Riviera Palace in Monte Carlo—became the world’s first international hotel chain.
From its beginnings, the Orient Express combined innovation and refinement. “The King of Trains and the Train of Kings”, it was built on breakthrough technology, and its cabins featured all the latest amenities of their day—central heating, hot water and gas lighting. Their many luxuries included upholstered interiors, where impeccably made beds and robes sporting the company crest awaited passengers. Only the finest materials were used: silk sheets, marble bath fixtures, crystal goblets and silver cutlery. During the day, twenty compartments were converted into a lounge.
Before World War I, the coaches were made of teak, but after 1920, wood was replaced with metal to eliminate creaking. French glass designer René Lalique decorated the walls of the dining cars with glass panels inlaid in Cuban mahogany, making the Orient Express a showcase of Art Nouveau style.
In its heyday, many celebrities slept in the luxurious berths of the Orient Express, including King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, American actress Marlene Dietrich, and Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Other well-known passengers were adventurers and spies, from Lawrence of Arabia to Mata-Hari.
Later, literature and film fuelled the legend of the Orient Express, and it inspired authors from Joseph Kessel and Ernest Hemingway to Agatha Christie. The British mystery writer met her husband on board, and her journeys prompted her to write three novels about it, including Murder on the Orient Express, which immortalized the fabled train. When he filmed Christie’s mystery in 1974, director Sidney Lumet brought some of the world’s greatest actors aboard—Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Anthony Perkins. Eleven years earlier, in 1963, James Bond had taken the Orient Express in From Russia with Love.