A ride on the modern-day Orient Express recalls an era of opulence

A journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is an elegant example of once-upon-a-time travel. With gourmet food, fresh flowers, and tinkling piano music, the trappings of yesterday are stunningly restored. Once again this delightful train carries passengers almost the entire length of Europe. American entrepreneur James B. Sherwood rescued the train, haggling at auctions and spending five years on costly restorations before returning it to the rails in 1983.

Last fall, a dramatic Alpine route that passes through Swiss valleys and mountains and picturesque Austrian villages and crosses the Brenner Pass was added to the regular Italian run. This proved so successful that it has become the permanent route to Venice, with skier stops in Zurich, Landquart, and Chur in Switzerland, and Innsbruck and St. Anton in Austria.

On May 3, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express inaugurated service to Istanbul, augmenting its 32-hour sentimental journey from London to Venice. (This train is not to be confused with the Orient Express, operated by Society Expeditions, which offers rail tours using similarly restored cars.)

Weekly service will include a transfer from the train station in Venice to the refurbished Baltic ferry Silja Star, renamed M. V. Orient Express. Featuring the only regularly scheduled service from Venice through the Corinthian Canal, the 835-passenger vessel offers a choice of accommodations ranging from super deluxe suites with verandas and deluxe cabins to more modest quarters.

Although passengers may disembark in Istanbul, the eastward leg of the journey is not a simple ferry crossing to Turkey. It is really a week-long cruise that incorporates a stop in Istanbul with other calls at the island of Patmos, the ports of Piraeus and Katakolon, Greece, and Kusadasi, Turkey.

But a trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express needn't take days or even a week. If personal scheduling places you in Paris, Zurich, Innsbruck, or small places in between, you may want to avoid driving on unfamiliar roads or hurrying for planes, and take one leg of the scheduled trip on this train.

If you begin your journey in London's bustling Victoria Station, it's clear from the moment you arrive that this is no ordinary trip by train. Inside the main entrance, passengers are greeted with a modest but welcoming sign: ``Board Here -- Orient-Express.''

Beyond the sign, along the tracks leading to the special check-in point, the crowd turns amazingly homogeneous. Everyone is smiling. Women in designer suits escorted by men in marvelous tweeds stroll along carrying fine hand luggage, hatboxes, and even bouquets of flowers, from nosegays of posies to a single rose. There is a sense of expectation in the air.

At the check-in desk, midway down the tracks, brown-uniformed aides assist with table and compartment assignments and baggage ticketing. They advise stowing most luggage in the baggage car and taking no more than one overnight case and a soft hanging bag into the small passenger compartments.

During check-in (passengers are advised to arrive almost two hours before departure), the elegant brown-and-cream-colored Pullman train rolls into the station, virtually noiselessly. Its appearance signals such excitement that a photographing frenzy ensues even before it comes to a complete stop.

Thus, the beginning of the journey is recorded in pictures showing travelers in front of signs, posters, and the gleaming crests on each individually named car.

On the first leg of the trip, which follows the Folkestone route to the English Channel, the train is very different from the one passengers will encounter in France, since it is made up largely of restaurant carriages with historic names.

Ours, called Cygnus, is a beautifully polished, handsomely restored time capsule with contrasting veneer designs, art deco mirrors, and brass-fitted overhead racks. Approximately 10 tables with window views are set with snowy cloths and napkins, crystal, cutlery, and red carnations. Banquettes fill both ends of the car.

After coats and bags have been whisked away, we settle into commodious, flocked-velvet armchairs. The city of London is left behind for rows of working-class cottages. Small farms fan out around tile-roofed villages. Meanwhile, at our table, crusty French bread is passed around, followed by a delightful cold duck pat'e with orange sauce and a rainbow of fresh vegetables.

An artistic garden salad seems the appropriate accompaniment for the lushness of Kent. Broad expanses of new winter wheat are contained by stone walls and neat hedgerows. Miles of orchards, bent with yellow, crimson, and green apples and ripening pears and plums, bake in the afternoon sun as we slip along the tracks.

It is all so civilized. So perfectly orchestrated. Dessert, a special confection of hardened milk chocolate filled with mocha souffl'e, arrives just as the plains begin to yield to rounded hills. The 1-hour trip passes much too quickly and some passengers appear disgruntled at having to leave their cozy cocoons. But debarkation, customs check, and transfer to the Channel ferry is smoothly efficient.

Red carpets extend from the train to the gangplank. Once on board, passengers are directed to a special lounge outfitted with wide reclining seats and offering nonstop refreshment service. It feels and looks like an airplane pretending to be a train.

But it is the train, the real Orient Express, the half-mile of gleaming blue and gold cars, that everyone is straining to glimpse as we traipse through the welcoming area of Boulogne station three hours later. Here, another photographic session erupts as well-dressed grown-ups act like cavorting children.

Inside sleeping, dining, and lounge cars, ash and rosewood marquetry and veneer gleam from perfectly articulated art deco and art nouveau designs.

Each car differs in age, origin, and interior theme. Some feature popular motifs like tiger lilies, delicate baskets of flowers, fragile leaves, or dancing nymphs. Others are enhanced with black lacquer animals, mother-of-pearl inlay, or Lalique glass. All are outfitted with heavy pewter and polished brass.

Once passengers are escorted to their compartments, baggage is stowed, the whistle sounds, and the train whirs away. Tea is served almost immediately, and everyone unpacks finery for the evening.

Dusk unsuccessfully attempts to settle over the gentle Normandy countryside. One by one, rose-shaded lamps are lit in each compartment. There is nothing visible in the pastoral silence now, except an isolated glow of a farmhouse or the brief flash of a town. Passengers drift in

Dinner is served at 6:30, 9, or 10:30 p.m. Happily, we are able to book the 9 o'clock seating, which allows plenty of time for dressing as well as a leisurely hour to mix with other guests and listen to piano tunes in one of the elaborate lounge cars.

This is even more fun than anticipated, as passengers drift in, attired in everything from sequined flapper dresses, tiaras, vintage capes, and veiled hats to contemporary evening wear. By the time dinner is announced, the flower-filled car resembles a festive Agatha Christie stage set, creating a mood that prevailed for the rest of the journey.

We were dining on poached salmon, filet mignon garnished with tiny vegetables, a selection of cheeses, and dessert, during the stop in Paris. By the time we were on our way again, the rocking of the train was creating its own lullaby.

Upper and lower berths, swaddled in ironed linen, transform each small compartment into irresistible nests. (Each roomette also contains a tiny bureau with flip-top sink for shaving and teeth-brushing. Other facilities, located at both ends of each car, make robe and slippers absolute necessities.)

In the morning, many of us are up at 7 o'clock, in time to inspect Zurich station and lean out the windows (they all open) to greet the awakening Alps.

After breakfast, compartments revert back to velvet-couched sitting rooms. But their cozy comfort is largely ignored as passengers prowl the passageways or sit transfixed before windows, watching the spectacular scenery. At one moment the train teeters on the banks of pure mirror lakes; the next, it follows pebbly streams. We return shy greetings of waving blond children who call out as we pass.

Six miles from Innsbruck another engine called a ``crocodile'' is attached to the train. Now one will push and the other will pull us over the towering mountain valleys and passes, the most daring part of the trip. At times, it's possible to see the entire length of the train, spanning a curve or inching up steep inclines. Onion-domed churches and geranium-laden chalets become specks in the distance. ``It's getting pretty dramatic, isn't it?'' a anxious-looking woman asks her husband, just before we pierce the dampness of the Arlberg Tunnel.

On the other side, there is a crispness in the air. It has a bite, scented with wood-burning stoves and fresh, thick stands of spruce. Walled, medieval villages

The Brenner Pass with its splendid bridges is eventually followed by walled medieval villages and ocher-colored stone hamlets. Brooding above and beyond, the crevices of the Dolomites preside over this self-contained land, with miles of unyielding stone faces that finally soften into waves of ripening vines.

Lunch, another formal affair, is followed by afternoon tea. Again the sun dips low, then vanishes, this time into a misty Italian dusk.

``Ah, I hate to leave,'' an English gentleman sighs as we disembark in Venice. ``This journey reminds me of the grand days of travel, when we didn't rush to the airport to continue our rush from point A to point B. Yes, I must do this again and continue to Istanbul.''

It was impossible not to agree. For more information contact Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, 1 World Trade Center, Suite 1235, New York, N.Y. 10048. Tel: 800-524-2420 or (212) 938-6830

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