‘Who’d want to go on a train full of old people?’ asked the young businessman on the aeroplane. My friend and I were telling him we’d just been to Venice on the Orient Express. We assured him it was glamorous: ‘We had to dress for dinner.’ ‘How awful,’ he grimaced.
Unwittingly, he had just put his finger on what defines the Orient Express. This is no train for young people seeking instant thrills. Looking at the average age of the passengers, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled on to a Saga trip. There are polite, hushed tones rather than raucous laughter. The train boasts no internet, air-conditioning, showers or in-cabin lavatories. Instead you find history, courtesy, a certain amount of formality and an intense sense of pride amongst the staff. The journey resolutely demands that you leave the modern age and step back into the past.
Here’s how it works. From Victoria you take the lovingly restored British Pullman to Folkestone. In a private compartment we were served brunch: scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and caviar accompanied by coffee and bellinis. On the Folkestone platform a four-piece band serenades you as you leave the train and board the shuttle coach that takes you through the Tunnel. At Calais the Orient Express to Venice awaits.
Our luggage was already in our compartment. Each carriage has its own steward and ours was Stephen. He recommended that we explore the train and showed us the wood-burner where he stokes the fire to heat the water and the narrow fold-down bench on which the stewards used to sleep. He also told us train stories: the spy who was thrown out of the window; the ageing cabaret singer who re-ignited her career by entertaining passengers when the train was stuck in a Turkish snowdrift for a week; the Spanish princess on honeymoon who was rescued from her knife-wielding husband by the millionaire stranger in compartment seven. Stephen also gossiped deliciously and told us that the Arab prince, whose entourage had taken over the next-door carriage, was insisting on dinner being served on his compartment floor.
In the bar, there is a grand piano and Pierino, who has been on the train ten years, plays from teatime onwards. Before dinner he was playing favourites from The Sound of Music with doleful flamboyance as waiters skilfully delivered trays of cocktails and flutes of prosecco. It’s not always easy to balance on a moving train — high heels are best avoided. Dinner involved lobster, perfectly rare beef and an outrageously tempting pudding with passion fruit, white chocolate and lavender. We asked for a tisane and Remy, the waiter, produced a sublime brew of apple, lemon and basil. He whispered that the secret ingredient was a drop of Grand Marnier. Paris was way behind us by the time we returned to our cabin around midnight, where our day-sofa had been transformed into bunk beds.
At six Stephen woke the few who wanted to see Lake Zurich. A handful of us stood companionably in the corridor, in our Orient Express navy robes and monogrammed slippers, admiring the scenery while Stephen brought us tea. After the majestic lake, there were valleys with cows, churches and flower-festooned chalets. Then there was a tunnel and we burst out into silvery sunlight alongside Wadensee, the lake smooth as a steamed-up mirror in the mist. At seven I went back to bed and by the time I felt like breakfast we were in the Austrian mountains and approaching the Brenner Pass.
After the Tyrol and a quick stop at the Italian border, we ate a splendid late lunch, thundering through northern Italy, its craggy mountains topped with fortresses and castellos. After Verona, down in the great plain, it grew hot. Back in our cabin Stephen brought us iced mint tea and chilled towels. We finally drew into Venice around 6 p.m.
Thanks to Abercrombie & Kent, we slipped into the sanctuary of the Hotel Cipriani, on the Guidecca, a five-minute boat ride from San Marco. Here we had a graceful, airy suite with balconies facing the garden. The hospitality of the staff matched the courtesy we’d received on the train. San Marco was hot, hectic and heaving so we were delighted to loll about in our tranquil haven, sipping cappuccinos by the pool and eating linguine vongole at the lagoon-side Cips Restaurant.
It’s easy to say, but I reckon even if we had stayed somewhere far less salubrious, the Orient Express would have kept us in good humour. I’ve been to Venice several times but never via a two-day train trip. It gave us time to talk, read and decompress so that by the time we arrived in Venice we were in the mood to enjoy ourselves no matter what. We wouldn’t really have minded what happened next because we felt we’d already been on a sumptuous adventure into the past. After all, on the Orient Express, the journey is the destination.
Abercrombie & Kent
Tel: 0845 618 2106 A&K
Private Travel at Harrods
Four-day trip including two days full board and a night on the Orient Express and two days and nights in Venice at the Cipriani (bed and breakfast) including flights and transfers. From £2948 per person based on two people sharing.