LONDON--It's not often you take a train, look out the window all during the journey, and see people standing alongside the tracks with cameras at the ready so they can take pictures of the carriages going by.
Not often, that is, unless you're prone to taking Venice-Simplon Orient Express trains. If you are, be prepared for an almost uncountable number of train spotters looking for a rare glimpse of one of the most luxurious and storied conveyances in modern history.
I got a chance to take one of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express journeys recently as part of Road Trip 2011, a daylong meander from London to Bristol, England, and back aboard what's known as the British Pullman. Many people may think that the Venice-Simplon Orient Express is only a train that goes from London to Venice, or Istanbul, but in fact, these days the famous moniker belongs to a company that offers train rides, cruises, hotel stays, and other high end experiences all throughout the world, each of which has its own distinctive name.
The original Orient Express, operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, stopped running in 2009, but the Venice-Simplon Orient Express employs original, '20s- and '30s-era cars, and encompasses the original Paris-to-Istanbul route.
I had originally hoped to take the five-day trip from London to Venice and back, part of the Venice-Simplon route that also reaches cities like Bucharest, Rome, Krakow, and others, but that wasn't possible. Yet, there's no doubt that if, like me, you find yourself aboard a train like the British Pullman, you'll spend nearly 12 hours in a state of luxury that's well worth your time, and money.
My voyage began at London's Victoria Station, and almost immediately I had in front of me a Bellini and a plate of delicious scrambled eggs with chives and Inverawe smoked salmon (served on a warm potato-and-herb rosti). This was just to set the stage for a day of leisure, lovely views, a lot of champagne, and much more.
Drinking a Bellini at about nine in the morning may seem a bit decadent, but as my escort for the day put it, "It doesn't matter what time it is when you're on the Orient Express."
The British Pullman runs regular routes throughout England from Victoria Station. Each features the same "rake," or set of 11 classic carriages. "The carriages appear in such good condition you would be forgiven for thinking they had lain under dust sheets for most of their life," a British Pullman brochure boasts. "But nothing could be further from the truth. Before forming the magnificent British Pullman train, its cars were part of the most famous services in Britain--the Bournemouth Belle, the Brighton Belle, the Queen of Scots, and the Golden Arrow."
It turns out, however, that the cars were mostly withdrawn from service in the 1960s and 1970s, and gradually were neglected. Some were purchased by enthusiasts, but most spent their days ignored on railway sidings or worse, were consigned to the scrap heap. But in 1977, at a Sotheby's auction in Monte Carlo, James Sherwood, a man who had long hoped to someday bring back the original Orient Express, began the process of purchasing 35 historic Pullmans, restaurant cars, and sleepers. Many had to be restored, and before they could be put in service, they were totally stripped, and other changes were made to make the carriages ready for a modern clientele.
Perhaps the most important task was that of creating what's known as the marquetry, the beautiful art deco designs that highlight each car. "Restoring the marquetry was a very skilled job--luckily, there was Bob Dunn to assist," the brochure reads. "His grandfather, Albert, started the family marquetry business in 1895.... The family had made the original panels in the Pullman carriages Minerva, Ibis, and Audrey. Other prestigious commissions included the Titanic, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and even Buckingham Palace."
The British Pullman today consists of 11 cars: Audrey, Cygnus, Gwen, Ibis, Ione, Lucille, Minerva, Perseus, Vera, Zena, and Phoenix. My comfortable chair was in the Phoenix, a carriage that was built in 1927 but which burned in a fire in 1936. Its chassis was saved, however, and in 1952, it was rebuilt and, having risen from its ashes, returned to service with the Golden Arrow. The Phoenix features marquetry of flowers on American cherry wood. And it was a favorite of Britain's beloved Queen Mother, and over the years carried dignitaries like French General Charles de Gaulle.
The steam engine
My choice of a date for my British Pullman journey turned out to be lucky: it was one of the few each year on which a steam Clanline engine is used. Most trips use diesel engines. And the steam engine meant that once during each leg of the journey, the train had to stop so the engine could be refilled with water.
This turned out to be one of the biggest parties of the whole day. We stopped for about 20 minutes for the refilling, and there were quite a number of people waiting for the chance to see the train up close. And as 6,000 gallons of water was pumped in from a fire truck that pulled up in order to do the job, several volunteers stood atop the engine, shoveling in coal. Nearly every passenger got off and everywhere you looked people were posing for pictures, talking, and enjoying what might otherwise have been an annoying delay.
As we waited, steam rose from little valves underneath the engine and around the wheels, and of course, off the top. Suddenly, an ear-splitting steam sound startled everyone and major jets of steam shot from the top of the train.
Weddings, proposals, anniversaries, and more
Being for most people a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it's no wonder the British Pullman and other Orient Express trains are a natural for all kinds of essential celebrations--marriage proposals, wedding receptions, anniversaries, birthday parties, and pretty much every other similar event you can think of.
And why not? If you have the means, you can reserve most or all of a carriage and bring along a bunch of friends. And spend the day toasting each other in style as the lovely British countryside and classic English towns like Bath roll by outside.
And even though it's 2011 on the other side of the window, inside you're deep in the 1920s and 1930s, hopefully not clinging to your mobile phone, and enjoying the sommelier's choice of wine to go along with the seared Kentish guinea fowl entree that's part of your five-course dinner. And of course, lots more champagne. When the day was over, just about all the people who disembarked did so with big grin on their faces, and a bit of a wobble as they moved on down the Victoria Station platform toward the exits.
Before I got off, I had a few minutes to talk with Jeff Monk, the British Pullman train manager. He's worked for the Orient Express for decades, and has countless stories of life on the famous trains.
Though his favorite stories tended to be from other Orient Express trains, they nonetheless are representative of what can happen aboard such a famous line. For example, Monk recalled having Paul Newman on one of the overnight trains, and the famous actor waking up at 5:30 in the morning and just talking with him like a regular guy for more than an hour. Or when George Lucas reserved a whole carriage and his young daughter asked to have each of the beds set for her Care Bears. Keith Richards was also a passenger, Monk recalled, and he, too, woke up early, not being able to sleep. At 6:30 in the morning, the Rolling Stone pulled out his guitar and started singing "Johnny B Good." The other passengers couldn't help but open their doors and enjoy the show.
But while Monk has fun stories of someone asking the chef to prepare a Christmas dinner in August, and of a gentle but soused Bjork riding along, his best story might be about the English '80s band The Cure riding one of the overnight trains and partying in their black hair and makeup. An American passenger, unaware of his famous carriage-mates came up to Monk and quietly said, "Jeff, there's beatniks on board. Make sure my cabin's locked."