In earlier years, going by train between Europe and the Ottoman Empire was slow and tedious. Each country through which the traveler’s route passed had a different railroad administration, and passengers were obliged to descend from one train, walk across the border and climb into the next.
Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers had a better idea: obtain permission to use the tracks along the route, supply luxury coaches, and just change locomotives at the border. He founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et Grands Express Européens to carry out this plan.
The journey between Paris and Constantinople took several days. Passengers relaxed in their plush compartments, complete with sinks, toilets, cabinets, other amenities, and comfortable beds. (Interestingly, sleeping cars came to be called wagon-lits in English, and sleepings in French!) Dining cars supplied all meals, and the steward brought you a cup of tea or a spot of brandy whenever required. Border formalities took place right on the train.
In fact, Nagelmackers’ train was a rolling deluxe hotel, with standards of service and comfort that exceeded those of all but Europe’s finest hotels. The fare was extraordinarily high, but so was the status—and, because train compartments were private—so was the opportunity for illicit romantic assignations.
In short, the train was a great success.
In the late 1800s various routings were explored, but by the mid-20th century the train’s route had stabilized:Paris (Gare de l’Est), Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Belgrade, Sofia and Edirne to Istanbul (Constantinople).
In Constantinople, however, Nagelmackers had a problem: there was no suitable hostelry in which to lodge his pampered passengers once they arrived. So he built the Pera Palace Hotel, a late-19th-century Orientalist fantasy that today is the Ottoman nostalgia-seekers’ favorite refuge in Istanbul.
By the time I rode the Orient Express in the 1970s, it was a mere shadow of its glorious former self. International trains were commonplace. The Compagnie Internationale still owned and operated the sleeping cars, but they were old now, and the posh passengers had been lured to air travel. Standards of service were still good, but the great age of overnight train travel had clearly ended.
You can get a whiff of the romance of the Orient Express when you stay at the Orient Express Hotel in Istanbul, not far from Sirkeci Station. This excellent 4-star hotel is decorated with posters and other memorabilia from the era of the great international trains. More…
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