Orient Express

Orient Express mystery in Thessaloniki

The Orient Express was a long-distance passenger train service created in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL).

The route and rolling stock of the Orient Express changed many times. Several routes in the past concurrently used the Orient Express name, or slight variations. Although the original Orient Express was simply a normal international railway service, the name became synonymous with intrigue and luxury travel. The two city names most prominently associated with the Orient Express are Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul), the original endpoints of the timetabled service. The Orient Express was a showcase of luxury and comfort at a time when travelling was still rough and dangerous.

In 1977, the Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul. Its immediate successor, a through overnight service from Paris to Bucharest—since 1991 only to Budapest, and in 2001 again shortened to Vienna—ran for the last time from Paris on Friday, June 8, 2007. After this, the route, still called the “Orient Express”, was shortened to start from Strasbourg instead, occasioned by the inauguration of the LGV Est which afforded much shorter travel times from Paris to Strasbourg. The new curtailed service left Strasbourg at 22:20 daily, shortly after the arrival of a TGV from Paris, and was attached at Karlsruhe to the overnight sleeper service from Amsterdam to Vienna.

On 14 December 2009, the Orient Express ceased to operate and the route disappeared from European railway timetables, reportedly a “victim of high-speed trains and cut-rate airlines”. The Venice-Simplon Orient Express train, a private venture by Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. using original CIWL carriages from the 1920s and 1930s, continues to run from London to Venice and to other destinations in Europe, including the original route from Paris to Istanbul. In March 2014 Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. was renamed Belmond.

The King of Trains and the train of kings

Some kings traveling onboard the train infamously exhibited very odd behavior. Ferdinand of Bulgaria, scared to death of assassins, was observed locking himself in the bathroom. Belgium’s King Leopold II rode the train to Istanbul after making elaborate arrangements to infiltrate a Turkish man’s harem. The king of Bulgaria, an amateur engineer, insisted that he be allowed to drive the train through his country, which he did at perilous speeds. Czar Nicholas II demanded that special cars be built for his visit to France, and some decades later the French President Paul Deschanel clumsily tumbled from one of these cars in the dead of night, an event that prompted such ridicule that he eventually resigned.

In its heyday, the train duly earned another nickname: “Spies’ Express.” Continent-hopping secret agents loved the train, writes Cookridge, since it simply “made their jobs so much easier and their travels much more comfortable.” One of the most remarkable of these agents was an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who posed as a lepidopterist collecting samples in the Balkans. His intricate sketches of the forms and colors of butterfly wings were actually coded representations of the fortifications he spotted along the Dalmatian Coast, which served as great aids to the British and Italian navies during World War I.

Though the two World Wars severely limited Orient Express service, a single car played a fascinating symbolic role in both. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed a surrender document in an Allied commander’s Wagons-Lits car, which he used as a mobile conference room. The French proudly exhibited the car in Paris until June 1940, when Hitler ordered that it be hauled to the precise spot where the Germans had been forced to surrender 22 years before; there he dictated the terms of French surrender. Four years later, when Hitler’s loss seemed imminent, he ordered that the car be blown up, lest it “become a trophy of the Allies once more.”

Source: wikipedia – smithsonianmag.com

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