The Orient Express is not merely a passenger-train ; it is a symbol, a gate of the East, through which there flowed the passions and the tastes of Oriental connexions. In the the early 1900’s the Simplon Orient Express boasted an eight day trip from Baghdad to London, a trip that Agatha Christie made and used as the basis of her novel, “Murder on the Orient Express.” The Orient Express on its thrice-weekly runs between Paris and Istanbul continued to exercise the imagination of Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Graham Greene readers long after the grand train ceased being grand.
Before the Great War there was but one big international sleeping car line in continental Europe, a Belgian company known as the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, according to the Railway Gazette (London). This company was organized in 1872 and owned and operated sleeping cars throughout Europe until the time of the war. There was ot late years no competition anywhere except in Prussia and that only within the boundaries of the state. Wagons-Lits was always very progressive in the adoption of new devices for the safety and comfort of passengers.
In the early 20th Century the Sofia basin was the strategic center of the Balkan peninsula. Typical valleys are too narrow and too steep for any natural routes N.e.—s.w., except at Sofia, where the projected Bucharest-Salonica route crosses the Belgrade-Constantinople route; and, therefore, traffic is forced into the Dragoman and Vakarel Passes. The Orient-Express route goes round, not actually through, Trajan's Gate — the old landmark between Illyrium and the Orient. The really critical points are the two ends of the Great Balkans — the Upper Isker valley and the Shipka Pass, and the central route across the Little Balkans — the Dobral Pass. The construction of the railway made the Upper Isker much the easiest and most important, even apart from its command of the Orient-Express route. The weakness and the strength of the Bulgarian railway system (some 1,000 miles) lay in the fact that a considerable portion of the 'toe' of the horseshoe formed an integral part of the great Orient-Express route to and from Constantinople, which entered Bulgaria at Tsaribrod (Caribrod), and follows the route of the great trunk-road via the Dragoman Pass and Sofia.
Servia was very poorly provided with roads and means of communication. The only railroad artery was the line of the Orient-Express, which crossed the Save at Belgrade and follows the course of the Morava to Nisch, where it branched off in two directions, one line running to Constantinople by way of Sofia, and the other to Salonica by way of Uskub. From this trunk line insignificant branches ran toward Semendria, Kragujevacs and the valley of Timok. Wagon roads were few and badly kept. Those to the Bosnian frontier were scarcely more than pathways.
The Pullman Car Company, or rather its founder Mr. Pullman, ran the first vehicles affording sleeping accommodation over the Chicago and Alton Railroad in 1858, and in 1867 the Pullman Palace Car Company was founded. This was followed in 1873 by the "Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Expresses Europeens," called for short the International Sleeping Car Companv, which placed some similar toadies in service on various Continental lines. Ten years later— i.e., on 03 June 1883, the same company commenced to run a through "hotel train" between Paris and Constantinople, to which they gave the title ot the "Orient Express." It was composed exclusively of sleeping and dining cars. The distance between the French and Turkish capitals is roughly 1,900 miles, and the train occupied eighty hours in transit, but even this was an acceleration of thirty hours on. the shortest time in which it had previously been possible to accomplish the journey.
The mere gain in time was, however, by no means the only advantage afforded by the new service. The train itself was the first example of a "travelling hotel," in which it was possible to both eat and sleep in comlort for several days together. Travellers had read with bated breath of the extraordinary luxury and sumptuous equipment obtaining on American railroads and had marvelled if such things could really be, but here was the proof actually before their eyes — brought home to their very doors, so to say.
But the original "trajet " of four days and three nights — as long, that is to say, as it took to travel from Chicago to San Francisco— was eventually considerably reduced as a result of the increasing popularity and importance of the train. By 1902 sixty-one hours is the time of the direct journey from Paris to Constantinople, via Belgrade, Philippopolis and Adrianople, and this was accomplished three times a week. On two other days the train runs to Kastendje (Constanza), whence a fast steamer leaves for Constantinople directly the mails are on board.
The Orient Express consisted of a smart-looking locomotive and five cars. Next the engine there was a sort of combination express, baggage, and commissary car, where the stores were kept. Then came the dining-car, one-third of which was made into a beautiful smoking-saloon, with great easy-chairs put up in dark leather. Back of the " diner " there were three sleeping-cars of the Mann patent, and running along under the roof, above the tops of the high windows, in bold gold letters, was the name of the company unabridged : " The International Bed-wagons Company and the Grand European Express," only it was in French.
The Orient Express ran "solid" from Paris to Constantinople—the same cars and the same table steward. The fare for the trip one way in this train de luxe is sixty-nine dollars. The sleeping-car fare is eighteen dollars. Only first-class tickets are taken, and the different railways over which the train passes have an agreement to issue no free passes. Any company violating this agreement is liable to a fine of six hundred francs (one hundred and twenty dollars).
In outward appearance this company's trains are similar to the trains run on the American continent. The cars are long and rest on eight wheels. Passengers entered the car at or near the end, and pass through a narrow corridor, from which you enter the compartments. A compartment holds two or four people, and often, with the judicious expenditure of a few francs, the "voyager" can secure a small compartment all to himself, and be quite as secluded and comfortable as he would be in the stateroom of a Pullman or Wagner. There are certainly many advantages in a compartment sleeper.
All the reading matter belonging to the train is printed in three languages, but only French is spoken, save when another language is absolutely necessary. The cards posted in the cars have these headings: "Avis," "Notiz," and "Notice." The dining-car service is equal to the best in any country, and the rates at the end of the 19th Century were reasonable. The first breakfast is the regulation European bill — bread, butter, and coffee — with fruit if wanted, for one franc, seventy-five centimes (thirty-five cents). At eleven o'clock they served a good dejeuner for five francs (a dollar), and at evening a splendid dinner for six francs (one dollar and twenty cents). So you have three good meals for two dollars and fifty-five cents, which, in America, in the average dining-car, would cost three dollars. When dinner is over the men lounge in the smoking-room for a couple of hours, and then go to their boudoirs.
Customs House regulations are responsible for some curious arrangements in the commissariat department of the Orient Express. For example, food must be purchased in the country in which it is to be actually consumed —that is to say, the train is not allowed to be provisioned in Paris with comestibles sufficient to last until it reaches Constantinople. The meals therefore, though as a rule excellent and cheap, vary somewhat in quality. The regulation, however, is not one of those against which passengers rail.
Though long ousted from its pride of place by younger rivals, it was always famous as the pioneer of those many other through express " trains de luxe " which have done more than anything else to draw the nations ot Plurope together. To Vienna the "Ostend" and "Calais-Vienna" expresses compete with the "Orient" Express, and there is also rivalry on the part of the companies operating the express trains between Paris and Vienna via the Arlberg tunnel, and between Ostend and Flushing and Vienna via Cologne.
Twenty-four hours took the traveller to Vienna, over eight hundred miles. The locomotives used in Austria are more like American machines than those of England and France, and the day cars were the best seen on the Continent. They were heavier than the ordinary European railway carriage and rest on eight large wheels. First-class carriages are heavily cushioned with beautiful Russia leather, clean, cool, and comfortable. These cars are entered, not at the side, nor at the end, but at the corner; the compartments opened into a corridor.
Dropping down the Danube for six or seven hours, the sun rises in Servia, and the first stop on the following day is at Belgrade. It is warmer here, the earth is dry and the'sky clear. The voyager begins to feel in a new world, with strange people. Here are evidences of dress reform. The pantaloon is merging into the gown, or the gown into the pantaloon, perhaps, as it is in America. Each succeeding hour carries the traveler farther into this desolate country, so old and yet so new; with so little of what are now regarded as signs of civilization.
On board these trains travelers must tip, and liberally to boot, if they wished for any comfort, for the conductors absolutely control all the arrangements, and as they were most ill-paid by the company naturally look to gratuities to supplement their slender incomes. They were usually civil and obliging, and were besides wonderful linguists, speaking three or four languages with ease and fluency.
During the Great War the services of the European luxury trains, including the Orient Express train, were cancelled. After the hostilities ended, on 15 April 1919, a new international luxury train called Simplon–Orient Express was introduced, connecting London and Constantinople via Paris. The last Orient Express train of the C.I.W.L.T. Company left Paris for Istanbul on 19 May 1977 on the route Paris – Milan – Venice – Zagreb – Belgrade – Sofia – Istanbul (Sirkeci), the entire journey lasting about 56 hours.
The fabled luxury train was however saved by entrepreneur and rail enthusiast, James B. Sherwood. In 1977 he bought two of the train's carriages at a Sotheby's auction in Monte Carlo. The next few years and $16 million were spent locating, purchasing and restoring some 35 vintage carriages. In May 1982 the legend was reborn when the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express made its maiden run from London to Venice.
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