I remember that I could hardly believe my eyes. There we were, on the platform of the Gare de Lyon in Paris. I was then just a young Parisian, the governess to a rich business man's family, who had to go to Cairo for a while. And I was allowed to go too! It was nine o'clock in the evening and the train was due to leave half an hour later.
All the way from Paris to Cairo in just 6 days! I was terrified but extremely excited as well.
That year, 1930, the Simplon Orient Express was at the top of it's fame. Behind me I overheard two gentlemen talking enthusiastically about the upcoming adventure and about the trains' history. Although the railways were invented in Europe, sleeper trains were conceived in America. Following their success the genius Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers launched them here too, but he made them far more luxurious! To do so he set up the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits.
From 1889 on, it was possible to travel from Paris to Istanbul twice a week in 3 nights. Istanbul was still called Constantinople at the time. In 1906, the Simplon tunnel was opened, allowing trains to cross the Alps and to travel thus from Switzerland to Italy. All this seemed unbelievable to me at the time.
On y va!
It was busy on the platform, but that was quite alright. Even the most imaginative among you would not believe what was going on there. Such a varied range of people!
There were diplomats and state leaders, stars and aristocrats, artists and writers, even traders from the East and Indian Maharajas on their way home.
Our baggage was stored in the luggage van and an attendant showed us to our compartments. We were ready to go! First stop: Dijon, then Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia, before arriving in Istanbul. There we stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel, built by the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hôtels belonging to Georges Nagelmackers.
As governess to a rich family I had witnessed considerable luxury before. But this was something else. The attention to detail was quite amazing. I shared a compartment with the daughter, while the mother and father each had their own. There were two beds, one above the other, and we had our own washbasin. The walls were decorated with marquetry, turning each compartment into a work of art. There were starched sheets and woollen blankets. And even a button to summon the butler!
The train was made up of 5 sleeper carriages, a dining car and two luggage vans. There was no saloon car. Fortunately we could fold up the beds in the daytime, giving us a small lounge area with a sofa and small table. Only the richest passengers could afford a compartment with one bed, as did the family I was working for at the time. Other passengers shared a compartment with a stranger of the same sex.
A meal fit for a queen
The first night went by. I slept extremely well. We got ready and went to the dining car for an extensive breakfast. Once again the luxury was a feast for the eyes.
Colourful carpets, white table linen, champagne buckets, crystal glasses and carafes, silver cutlery and bone china plates.
Someone told me that the metal dining cars were built in 1925 and decorated in art deco style, with geometric, floral and animal patterns. The marquetry consisted of wooden panels, inlaid with tropical woods, ivory, mother of pearl and precious metals. The comfortable chairs were upholstered in real leather.
The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits was well known for its sumptuous food. Gastronomic and the best of French cuisine.
We had a real chef on board. In the evening he served an excellent menu: consommé Xavier, saumon en Bellevue, Cuissot de veau ‘Ecarlate’, asperges à l’italienne, soufflé ‘Alaska’ and corbeille de fruits. It makes my mouth water just remembering it.
Across 7 countries
The journey from Paris to Istanbul lasted just 3 days. That was made possible by the fact that the train kept going day and night. I had expected it to be a tiring experience but after the first night I was pleasantly surprised at the ease and comfort of the trip. The train attendant collected all documents when we set off. That meant they didn't need to wake us when we passed through customs at a border.
It was exciting to watch the changing landscape. The further we went, the more exotic the surroundings became.
Part of the Simplon Orient Express travelled to Athens. The two carriages for that destination were uncoupled in Belgrade. Straightaway they were replaced by two other carriages: one coming from Berlin and one that came via Vienna. This gave us some time to admire the magical views in Belgrade.
A bridge between East and West
At last we arrived at the Simplon Orient Express train's final destination: Sirkeci station in Istanbul. Talk about exotic! This stunning station was built in 1890 by the German architect August Jachmund especially for the Orient Express. It was a magical blend of elements from east and west.
From Istanbul to Cairo
After staying the night at the Pera Palace Hotel we continued our journey with the Taurus-Express, also owned by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Because this train had two destinations, Baghdad and Cairo, it was split in Aleppo.
I have to admit that our journey from Istanbul to Cairo was far less of a pleasure than the part from Paris to Istanbul. It also took about as long. But we were swept away by the foreign and exotic culture, so I really had no reason to complain.
The Taurus Express first took us to Tripoli in Lebanon. Rolls Royce buses drove us on to Haifa, Palestine. Then we got back on the train to Kantara on the Suez Canal, where we boarded a ferry. One last train brought us to Cairo. So the whole journey from Paris to our final destination took 4 trains, 2 ships, one bus and 6 days. This day and age that seems unthinkable, but at the time it was really fast!
I could have met Agatha Christie!
The reason why I was so terrified beforehand was because I'd heard the story of the stranded Orient Express. That particular train got stuck 130 kilometres from Istanbul in a heavy snowstorm. The train remained there for 5 days, until a snow clearance team turned up. In the meantime temperatures inside had reached -10°C! That story incidentally was the inspiration for Agatha Christie's novel “Murder on the Orient Express” a few years later. Did you know that she travelled for the first time on the Orient Express in the same year as me? With a bit of luck I might even have met her!
Agatha Christie was not the only famous person to travel with the Orient Express. None other than Marlene Dietrich went aboard in 1928. She was discovered on the train, when she sat down at the piano in the dining car and began to sing. Oh, how I'd love to have been in her place!
Leon Trotsky also travelled on this train several times, after being exiled from Russia, whilst looking for support for the communist revolution. Apparently the Orient Express was also popular with spies. Mata Hari and Lawrence of Arabia were often to be found there. Maybe because it was an easier way to get across the border? Or perhaps because it was the fastest way to travel that kind of distance?
In any case, I will always remember that journey as the greatest adventure of my life. I can still picture every minute as if it were a film. I had the time of my life aboard the Simplon Orient Express.