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?

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)

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A True Original

What remains of the Orient Express? The pedigree of the train became rather complicated in later years, as Nagelmackers's original line spawned similar ones following slightly different routes, and as other providers began to use the phrase "Orient Express" for promotional purposes. The Direct Orient Express, the Simplon Orient Express (the train Poirot rode), the Nostalgic Orient Express and many others have existed over the years. One descendant of the original Orient Express became rather shabby, crowded and cheap—a disillusioned journalist called it a "roving tenement." Today's Venice-Simplon Orient Express aims for the opulence of the original; for about $2,300, a person can ride in its restored original Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits cars.

But attempts to maintain the old glamour of the Orient Express have largely fallen into self-parody—promoters of the line have encouraged patrons to dress in 1920s garb, and even once staged a murder mystery game during a journey. Writing in 1976 for the Los Angeles Times, one reporter meets a tired and cranky contessa who says, on the trip's last leg, "If there are going to be any murders on this train, it will be the Turk that wakes me up at 5 a.m."

Modern versions of the Orient Express are a far cry from the original that Cookridge lovingly and nostalgically portrays: "Kings and crooks, millionaires and refugees, big-game hunters and smugglers, prima donnas and courtesans traveled on it; tycoons and financiers clinched their deals across its sumptuous dining tables; diplomats, spies, and revolutionaries on board the train moved secretively to their moments of history." The era of such intrigue and excitement aboard the Orient Express is over. But in a world that becomes more connected every day—and one in which there is no shortage of luxury travel—much of Nagelmackers's vision lives on.

The Orient Express became the train of choice for Europe's wealthy and high-born, a rolling symbol of the economic disparities of its age. "Peasants in half a dozen countries would pause in their work in the fields and gape at the glittering cars and the supercilious faces behind the windows," writes Cookridge. It came to be called "the King of Trains and the Train of Kings."


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