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Georges Nagelmackers, creator of the Orient Express, envisioned "a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles," writes one historian. (Michael S. Yamashita / Corbis)

A Brief History of the Orient Express

Spies used it as a secret weapon. A president tumbled from it. Hitler wanted it destroyed. Just what made this train so intriguing?

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To most people the Orient Express is more an idea than a tangible entity. We are most familiar with its life in fiction and cinema: Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case on it, Alfred Hitchock's lady vanished from it and James Bond rode it from Istanbul to London. But what was the real Orient Express like, how did it first attain its aura of mystery and intrigue and what was the famous train's ultimate fate?

A Continental Vision

In 1865, a prominent Belgian banker's son named Georges Nagelmackers first envisioned "a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles," as E. H. Cookridge writes in Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train. During a trip to America, Nagelmackers witnessed the many innovations in railway travel there—chief among them George Pullman's unprecedented, luxurious "sleeper cars"—and he returned determined to realize his vision.

In 1883, after a number of false starts, financial troubles and difficulties negotiating with various national railway companies, Nagelmackers's Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (wagons-lits being French for "sleeper cars") established a route from Paris to Istanbul, then called Constantinople. The newspapers dubbed it the "Orient Express"—though Istanbul was as far towards the "Orient" as this train would ever travel—and Nagelmackers embraced the name.

On October 4, the Orient Express set out on its first formal journey, with many journalists aboard to publicly marvel at the train's luxury and beauty. (Nagelmackers, a clever showman, even arranged to have shoddy, decaying old Pullman cars stand in contrast on the tracks adjacent to the Express as it left Paris's Gare de Strasbourg.) Aboard the train, the delighted passengers felt as though they'd entered one of Europe's finest hotels; they marveled at the intricate wooden paneling, deluxe leather armchairs, silk sheets and wool blankets for the beds. The journey from Paris to Istanbul lasted a little over 80 hours.

The King of Trains

 

Some of these kings exhibited very odd behavior on the train. Ferdinand of Bulgaria was observed locking himself in the bathroom, scared to death of assassins. 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."

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