Orient Express – Portal to Adventure
Orient Express… Just saying that train’s name conjures up images of royalty and spies, arms dealers and aristocrats traveling across Europe in unimaginable luxury. Crystal goblets and embroidered tablecloths set with the finest wines and most complex liqueurs, while peasants peeked through the windows at the gilded furniture and frescoed ceiling. Liveried stewards managed to know every passenger’s language – and keep all their secrets.
No wonder authors flocked to set their stories aboard it – Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, Eric Ambler, and even Ian Fleming. The amazing thing to me is that the reality was, in many ways, even better than the legends.
It all started with the maiden voyage in 1883, for which a ticket cost the equivalent of a year’s rent on a high-class London townhouse. If passengers had any qualms about the stewards’ ability to offer suitable service, they could provide their own servant at the price of approximately one year’s wages. Obviously, this was designed for the wealthiest of the wealthy – even if the route had been cobbled together. (King Leopold II of Belgium, the railroad’s original sponsor, pressured his relatives to allow the train passage, despite their suspicions that this was an attack on local railroads’ monopolies.)
The train had two wagon-lit sleeping cars accommodating twenty passengers each, a restaurant car, a car for baggage and the very high quality food, wines, liqueurs, and other required luxuries. The sleeping cars were as exquisite as music boxes. Even better, they were heavily carpeted, well heated, insulated against noise – and so well cushioned that a gentleman that a gentleman could shave without cutting himself. (Try duplicating that feat on a twentieth century train!)
The locomotive was equally carefully selected, since a breakdown in the Balkans during this war-torn period would have been disastrous.
The liveried waiters were not allowed to wear glasses but were required to wear powdered wigs. The Burgundian chef had a beard and was attended by six assistants.
Only men boarded the first train in Paris; two women would join them later, in Vienna. (Perhaps other ladies were offended that the dining salons were segregated by gender and hence declined to join? On the other hand, that was the era’s custom – and it must have made for fabulous gossip sessions, dahling.) The company included journalists: Edmond About later wrote De Pontoise à Stamboul, the official account, and Henri Opper de Blowitz, the Paris correspondent for The Times of London, made sure that millions could read about every mile of the trip in his syndicated columns.
The first Orient Express left Paris for Constantinople on October 4, 1883 so smoothly that few passengers realized they’d departed. A ten-course dinner was served at 8 P.M., which provided sustenance for the journey to Strasbourg. They crossed the Rhine at dawn (a sight most passengers slept through) and reached Vienna by late evening, where the Emperor’s Court Chamberlain led a grand reception committee. (Now I ask you: Would this happen to a modern airplane passenger? Hardly!)
Endless speeches were spiced by national anthems for all the passengers, performed by the Imperial Guard’s band. The exhausted guests probably enjoyed “The Blue Danube” more, since that marked a shift to the station restaurant for supper, champagne, and imperial Tokay. (Yes, more fine wine!)
After that, most of the passengers staggered back to their compartments to catch some shuteye. But a few brave souls boarded state carriages to see the newly lit – by that modern wonder, electricity – Ringstrasse, the floodlit Opera House, the Hofburg, and the House of Parliament. (This special tour may have been linked to the presence of Herr Porges, the European head of the American Edison Company, who could always find an opportunity to showcase his company’s products.)
The Orient Express left Vienna during the night and reached Budapest early in the morning. At the station, a military band played traditional airs, goulash was served from steaming kettles – and the passengers were not allowed to leave the building.
Any disappointment vanished when they reached Szegedin, an ancient Hungarian city. Here, a gypsy band dressed in traditional silks and gold jewelry sang and played for two hours in the dining car. The gypsy king danced with the Viennese ladies and they played “La Marseillaise” for the Burgundian chef. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as they rolled toward the Transylvanian Alps.
Once past the Danube’s spectacular Iron Gates, the passengers dined with the King and Queen of Romania at their private resort. The king wore his parade uniform, the queen wore Romanian national costume, the courtiers wore tails or uniforms, while the poor passengers were by this time becoming slightly bedraggled. Entertainment was provided by a famous Romanian soprano, badly accompanied by the queen – who undoubtedly received much praise for her portion of the performance.
Afterward, the party walked down the hill in a rainstorm to reboard the Orient Express and reached Bucharest well before midnight. There they enjoyed an excellent midnight supper. Romanian women were famous for their beauty and sexual inventiveness. Unfortunately, the journalists’ accounts stop abruptly short at this point.
Long after midnight, the train departed for the small frontier port and the ferry across the Danube to Bulgaria. There, the passengers sadly had to say goodbye to their beautiful accommodations and board a much more primitive train. Bandits were so prevalent here that the men rode with their pistols out, in preparation for an attack. (One came in 1891, which took over a million dollars in today’s currency.)
Finally, the intrepid adventurers reached the Black Sea port and the ferry for Constantinople. Dawn broke as the Espero entered the Bosporus and headed toward Constantinople. The sun sparkled on the blue Mediterranean waters and dozens of boats danced around the boat with its passengers. Ottoman palaces dotted the shores like white flowers arising from green gardens. Great domes and minarets climbed over the hills – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and more. The Belgian ambassador, the sultan’s chamberlain, and other Turkish officials greeted them on the pier. They were probably happiest to see the finest European hotel in the city.
Their visit included a private tour of Topkapi Palace, oldest and greatest of Ottoman palaces, and a lengthy shopping excursion in the Grand Bazaar, which was old before the Byzantine Empire fell.
The Orient Express returned to Paris exactly on schedule, eleven days after it had departed – and ready to give birth to legends.
Only a few years later, along came “Sir” Basil Zaharoff, an ethnic Greek originally from Constantinople but traveling with a British passport. Known in his own time as “The Merchant of Death,” he’s said to have earned at least a pound sterling in gold for every casualty in World War I, thanks to the armaments he’d sold to both sides. His mastery of bribery, corruption and “dirty tricks” can only be described as amazing.
But he met the love of his life aboard the Orient Express. María del Pilar de Muguiro y Beruete stumbled into Zaharoff’s compartment after her insane husband Don Francisco, Principe de Borbon y Borbon, tried to kill her on their wedding night. Zaharoff refused to give her up, even though her husband was a cousin of the King of Spain and the scandal imperiled highly profitable business ventures just before the Spanish-American War. Zaharoff and his lady were married almost four decades later, after the madman died, but only enjoyed eighteen months together before she passed away.
Zaharoff always used compartment No. 7 after that when he took the Orient Express – the same compartment where she’d found him. When he died, he gave orders that his ashes were to be scattered from the window of compartment No. 7 at exactly the same place and time of day where he’d first met his lady.
Sometimes true life offers the greatest romance and adventure, even if Zaharoff must have been one of the world’s most spectacular rogues.
Is there a place in history that you’d love to be whisked off to? What author told you about it first? What adventures would you hope to enjoy there?
I admit my own longing to visit Constantinople was a major inspiration for THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS and my book trailer for it.