The romantic Orient Express

Nostalgia reigns aboard the famed line, which spawned stories and movies. Now the luxurious hotel on wheels rides again.

For 94 years, the Orient Express carried princes and tourists, petty crooks and great spies. Its gossips became legends that fed fiction. It has been used to set the scene in mystery novels and films.

For example, a trivia question: Who had fistfights aboard the Orient Express in two different films? Answer: Sean Connery and Robert Shaw demolished a compartment in "From Russia With Love," then did it again - older and slower - in "Murder On the Orient Express."

You don't need to be a rail fan to recognize it. If you go to the movies or you read Agatha Christie or Graham Greene, then you know the Orient Express, even if you can't name another single train.

No other has become a living legend.

"Living?" Nearly a quarter-century after it stopped running?

Sort of. A sad, squalid train by the same name still shuttles between Paris and Bucharest, but the legend is kept alive by a string of luxurious antique cars on the Simplon route to Venice.

The legend began on Oct. 4, 1883, when the Train Express d'Orient, as it was called then, left Paris. Three days, nine hours, and 40 minutes later, its passengers arrived at Istanbul. The journey was a masterpiece of organization: The world's first transcontinental train rolled across a then-fragmented Europe that hadn't even agreed on a coordinated time system then.

The enterprise was the work of one man, Georges Nagelmackers, who begged and bullied kings and bureaucrats to let his passengers travel smoothly through seven countries without changing trains, in undisturbed comfort.

Marshallers jumped at every border to change engines, dispatchers assured the right-of-way, stations were ready to supply coal and water for the engine, food and drinks for the passengers.

The luxurious first-class cars, sleepers, and diners were owned by Nagelmackers's Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits.

The company paid fees for the services of the national railways that owned the tracks on which the train rolled and the engines that pulled it.

For those who could afford the best, the Compagnie spared no effort to provide the ultimate in service. This was not just a night train with a diner, but a grand hotel on wheels. Stewards served breakfast in plush bedrooms. A busy kitchen supplied the restaurant with regional delicacies from pheasant to sturgeon. In its first years, there was nothing to rival it.

It was called the train of kings - and not only for the occasional royal passenger. Ferdinand I of Bulgaria had helped build the train's route through his country and took a proprietary attitude, which he expressed by occasionally driving it himself.

The Wagons-Lits Co. was relieved when Ferdinand abdicated after World War I, but then his son, Czar Boris, took control, literally. Clad in a custom-tailored white coverall, he would climb on the locomotive and highball the express into Sofia with the pressure gauge past the red line most of the way.

The passengers, falling about in the rocking carriages, were not amused.

The regulars included Leopold II of Belgium (a patron and shareholder), many Habsburgs, and the Duke of Windsor, who preferred Wagons-Lits Co. service to private royal trains. King Carol II of Romania found many reasons to travel, reportedly in order to conduct a long, clandestine affair aboard. There were elegant ladies, diplomats, king's messengers (chained by their wrists to dispatch cases), the super-rich like oil billionaire Calouste "5 percent" Gulbenkian and Basil Zaharoff (the arms merchant who traveled in Compartment 7 for decades), and Margaretha Zelle, who danced under the name of Mata Hari and was executed for spying.

What all these passengers looked for - and found - aboard the Orient Express was impeccable service, deference, and discretion.

The Orient Express ran for 94 years (could a ship or plane match that?). It was already 36 years old when commercial plane flights started with passengers seated in open cockpits; it still ran when jumbo jets flew daily.

It survived World War I and its aftermath, when the Allies routed it outside defeated Germany and Austria, via Switzerland and the Simplon Tunnel.

After World War II, few travelers wanted, or were permitted, to cross politically opposed territories, and the Wagons-Lits Co. was reluctant to send expensive first-class cars to the Balkans, where they tended to get lost. The great express ran with ever-fewer cars and poorer service - and had ever-fewer and poorer passengers.

I took this train a few times. On the socialist frontier, the smiles and salutes of stationmasters had been replaced by the frowns and grunts of gray-clad police. Border guards peeked under the seats and lifted ceiling panels. They kicked their way around large cartons in the corridors, TV sets, and washing machines ferried home by Romanian guest workers.

The train still followed its old route, but with cars detached and attached at major stops, one had to be nimble to stay on it.

Finally, the bickering railways killed it in 1977. On May 20 that year, the last direct train from Paris to Istanbul took off - 20 minutes late.

The rattling skeleton that is left of the old express still reaches Bucharest, but only twice a week when sleepers run through from Paris. On other days it stops in Budapest.

There is now talk of stopping even this shortened service.

But that wasn't the end of the luxurious Orient Express.

The Wagons-Lits Co. gave up on its eastern route, but two entrepreneurs believed that there was a market for nostalgia and splurging.

The first to revive the glamour was Albert Glatt, a Swiss businessman who bought and restored 1920s vintage sleepers and dining cars to be used in private trains. Starting in 1976, these plied the route around Reims and ventured on long excursions to Russia and China. The flagship of the enterprise is the Nostalgic Orient Express, a luxurious land cruise between Zurich and Istanbul a few times a year.

Since 1982, another Orient Express has been running between London and Venice. Like the original, this is not an occasional trip but a scheduled service. But, scheduled though it may be, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE) is not an ordinary train. Its code, OEX, may appear on railway station monitors, but few passengers line up on the platform with their ornate, blue ticket envelopes. This is an exclusive private train.

The VSOE is the baby of James Sherwood, boss of Sea Containers Ltd., who also liked old rail cars and bought some. He restored their original beauty - the inlaid wood paneling, brass, and Lalique glass fixtures. He had them brought up to current safety standards - new flame-proof upholstery was woven to original patterns.

My journey on this train was exquisite. As soon as I boarded, nostalgia for times before my birth washed over me. My sleeping car was built by hand in 1926, and its condition met the standards of that vintage. In the nickel-plated fixtures, the slots of all the screws lined up vertically, a tiny detail to delight those of us who recognize and admire craftsmanship from a prouder time.

I had a drink in the bar car where a live pianist enlivened the 1920s art deco opulence. A couple sat on the other side, the man in black tie, the woman in a flowing white wrap. Between them, framed in the window, I saw the last light of the day glint pink on a snowy peak.

Back in my compartment, I found my bed made and slippers laid out. The coal-fired furnace, stoked by the steward, heated as well as any 21st-century system. I slept the sleep of the rich, and in the morning someone brought breakfast and the day's International Herald Tribune. Then, I was in Paris.

Was it like that in the good old days? Neither I, nor the operators were there in 1926, so we couldn't compare it. But the dream worked.

European trains just keep getting faster and faster

Europeans are determined to have in their future unclogged airports, unjammed highways, and unpolluted air - so they keep on making their trains better and faster, and therefore more popular.

This year the French Railways celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first high-speed Train a grande vitesse. When the TGV started service in 1981 between Paris and Lyon, it cut travel time from four to two hours. Within a month, the airlines lost half of their passengers between the two cities to trains, and car traffic dropped by a third. Why fight on the highway when you can get there in half the time while having lunch - at 172 m.p.h.?

For its 20th birthday the "old" TGV Southwest will see its speed raised to 186 m.p.h. when the new TGV Mediterranee opens this summer. The line has been extended to Marseille to bring it and the whole Cote d'Azur closer to Paris by 1 hour and 20 minutes. The high-speed track now stops at Marseille, but in 2005 will continue through a tunnel under the Pyrennes to Barcelona - 186 m.p.h. all the way on a 710-mile stretch.

The TGV Med will add to the ever-increasing high-speed network for the continent's premier trains, such as Spain's Alaris, AVE, Euromed and Talgo 2000, the ICE in Germany, TAV in Italy, X2000 in Sweden, the French-Italian Artesia, the Swiss-Italian Cisalpino, the five-country Thalys, and the undersea Eurostar, which connects London, Brussels, and Paris. Even regular trains on conventional tracks run at 125 m.p.h. in Europe.

But the best things in life often cost more, and train fares are no exception. The affordable way for overseas visitors has been with go-as-you-please passes that offer considerable savings over point-to-point tickets. They are valid for unlimited use - as often and as far as you like - on all trains, on many ferries, lake ships, and some buses. You pay only for seat and couchette reservations. However, some premier trains are not covered by passes, but pass-holders are offered fare reductions.

Choose a pass according to the length and breadth of your trip. The classic Eurailpass covers 17 countries. The latest addition, the Eurail Selectpass, lets you tailor your region by choosing any three adjacent countries. Europass covers the five most-visited core countries.

Other international passes, such as ScanRail or East Europe, let you roam four or five adjacent countries. Use a national pass (like BritRail or Italy Rail Card) if you visit just one country. You may also choose a pass that includes the option of car rental.

The passes are sold only to overseas visitors and must be bought here before leaving for Europe. Contact a travel agent or one of the European railway agencies:

BritRail, 1-800-677-8585, www.britrail.com

CIT Tours, 800-223-7987, www.cit-tours.com

DER Travel, 800-782-2424, www.dertravel.com

Rail Europe, 1-888-382-7245, www.raileurope.com.

London to Venice and back

The Venice Simplon-Orient Express runs in two sections, from London to the English Channel, then, after transfer by boat, to Paris and on to Venice, extending on some runs to Rome, and including Prague on some runs.

London depart 11:05 a.m.

Paris arrive 9 p.m.

depart 9:35 p.m.

Venice arrive (next day) 5:28 p.m.

Venice depart 10:42 a.m.

Paris arrive (next day) 8:42 a.m.

depart 9:30 a.m.

London arrive 5:15 p.m.

Fares begin at $1,990 per person and include meals. Call 800-524-2420 or visit www.orient-expresstrains.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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