In 1883 the era of great international
express trains began with
Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul).
In earlier years, going by train between
Europe and the Ottoman
Empire was slow and tedious.
Each country through which the traveler's
route passed had a different railroad
administration, and passengers were
obliged to descend from one train,
walk across the border and climb into
Belgian entrepreneur Georges
Nagelmackers had a better
idea: obtain permission to use the
tracks along the route, supply luxury
coaches, and just change locomotives
at the border. He founded the Compagnie
Internationale des Wagons-Lits et
Grands Express Européens to
carry out this plan.
The journey between Paris and
Constantinople took several days. Passengers relaxed
in their plush compartments,
complete with sinks, toilets, cabinets,
other amenities, and comfortable
beds. (Interestingly, sleeping
cars came to be called wagon-lits in
English, and sleepings in
French!) Dining cars supplied
all meals, and the steward brought
you a cup of tea or a spot of brandy
whenever required. Border formalities
took place right on the train.
In fact, Nagelmackers' train was a rolling
deluxe hotel, with standards
of service and comfort that exceeded
those of all but Europe's finest
fare was extraordinarily high,
but so was the status—and,
because train compartments were private—so
was the opportunity for illicit romantic
In short, the train was a great
In the late 1800s various routings were
explored, but by the mid-20th century
the train's route had stabilized: Paris (Gare
de l'Est), Lausanne, Milan, Venice,
Trieste, Belgrade, Sofia and Edirne to Istanbul (Constantinople).
In Constantinople, however, Nagelmackers
had a problem: there was no
suitable hostelry in which
to lodge his pampered passengers once
they arrived. So he built the Pera
Palace Hotel, a late-19th-century
Orientalist fantasy that today is the Ottoman nostalgia-seekers'
favorite refuge in Istanbul.
By the time I rode the Orient
Express in the 1970s, it
was a mere shadow of its glorious
former self. International trains
were commonplace. The Compagnie
Internationale still owned
and operated the sleeping
they were old now, and the posh passengers
had been lured to air travel. Standards
of service were still good, but the
great age of overnight train travel
had clearly ended.
In 1977 the Orient Express was removed
from the timetables, having
connected Paris and Istanbul/Constantinople
for nearly a century.
You can get a whiff of the romance
of the Orient Express when
you stay at the Orient Express
Hotel in Istanbul, not far
from Sirkeci Station. This excellent
4-star hotel is decorated with posters
and other memorabilia from the era
of the great international trains. More...