Photo credit (banner): Lola Hakimian / Orient-Express

The Orient Express: The art of travel—in a single train

If ever a train made its mark on history, it was the Orient Express—a legend that began in 1883 at the Gare de l’Est in Paris. A timeless icon of the art of travel, the Orient Express is among the crown jewels of France’s rail legacy.

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4 October 1883: Maiden voyage

On the afternoon of 4 October 1883, a curious, elegantly dressed crowd pressed into the Gare de Strasbourg, now the Gare de l’Est. Political figures, journalists and writers had gathered to see the inauguration of a revolutionary new train composed of sleeping cars and dining cars—the Train Express d’Orient, renamed the Orient Express a few years later.

For the first time, a train for Constantinople would travel night and day across Europe to Bucharest. Passengers took another train to Bulgaria, then boarded a ship that took them to the Black Sea and the Bosporus. When direct travel by train began in 1889, Constantinople became the majestic final destination for the Orient Express—a synonym for luxury and romance.

The train made its first return journey in under two weeks, drawing enthusiastic accounts from the press. In the Figaro of 20 October 1883, special envoy Georges Boyer reported, “We made the trip from Constantinople to Paris in 76 hours instead of the usual 111, in perfect comfort and without the slightest fatigue.”

From innovation to success

During a trip to the United States in 1868, the young Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers travelled on Pullman trains and experienced their famous sleeping cars. But while some American trains were more technologically advanced than their European counterparts, they were still very uncomfortable.

Nagelmackers returned to Europe inspired by an idea: to create luxury trains for a wealthy clientele. With the Orient Express, he successfully united long-distance travel with comfort and refinement. And the response to this new form of transport was so enthusiastic that imitators quickly appeared. Other trains offering similar services went into operation: the Nord Express, the Sud Express, the Calais-Nice-Rome Express and more.

The timeless art of travel

Known as “the King of Trains and the Train of Kings,” the Orient Express paired innovation with elegance. Its cabins featured the most modern amenities of their day—central heating, hot water and gas lighting.

Their many luxuries included an upholstered interior, where passengers found impeccably dressed beds and robes sporting the company crest. Only the finest materials were used: silk sheets, marble bath fixtures, crystal goblets and silver cutlery. During the day, twenty cabins were converted into a lounge.

Around 1920, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits commissioned master glass designer René Lalique and interior design specialist René Prou to decorate select coaches. They installed glass panels and marquetry made of precious woods, making the Orient Express a showcase for Art Nouveau style.

Creating a myth

In its heyday, many celebrities travelled 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 included adventurers such as Lawrence of Arabia and spies like the famous Mata-Hari.

Literature and film also helped create the legend of the Orient Express, as its mystique inspired authors from Joseph Kessel and Ernest Hemingway to Agatha Christie. The British mystery writer met her husband on board, and her journeys inspired her to write three novels, including Murder on the Orient Express, which gave the fabled train a place in posterity.

When he filmed Christie’s well-known mystery in 1974, director Sidney Lumet brought some of the world’s greatest actors aboard, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Anthony Perkins. A new version with an equally prestigious cast was released to cinemas in 2017, with Kenneth Branagh directing and playing the lead role as the famous detective Hercule Poirot.

Living legacy

When Europe was divided into East and West after World War II, it was a major blow for the fabled train. The Orient Express made its last return journey between Paris and Istanbul on 20 May 1977, 94 years after its maiden voyage.

Today SNCF still owns one train made of seven coaches, including some that have been classified as historical monuments. 

Now entirely restored, these roving ambassadors of French Art Deco style operate only on special occasions, for private events and charters.

  • In this 4160 bar and dining car, decorated by French glass designer René Lalique, politicians and writers mingled with film and music stars, secret agents and more.

  • Passengers delighted in René Lalique’s crystal panels.

  • The 2869 dining car is decorated in a style worth of the finest restaurants.

  • By 1883, the Orient Express offered direct service between Paris and Constantinople, stopping in Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.

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