Romance of Orient Express
Rowan Mantell has wanted to travel on the Orient Express ever since she first saw it 25 years ago so her wedding anniversary trip was a dream come true.
That first morning I opened the blinds and we were gliding past a ridiculously beautiful lake, with the Swiss Alps towering behind and the sun just rising.
We'd gone to bed somewhere south of Paris, and were lulled through the night by the sheer opulence of our surroundings and the rumble of the train pulling us towards the orient.
This was the Orient Express.
We were on our way to Venice via some of the most extravagantly beautiful scenery in the world, and aboard the most romantic train in the world.
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The Orient Express itself truly is magnificent. I first saw it 25 years ago. We were travelling through Europe with InterRail one sweltering August and waiting for yet another train in the dusty heat of the evening, when this vision in gleaming walnut, brass and glass slid by. Every window was lit by a peach lantern and through each glowing window we glimpsed a table laid for dinner, or a compartment with a sofa or beds.
Ever since, I have wanted to catch the Orient Express to somewhere wonderful.
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So, a quarter of a century on, and celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary, we were thundering through the mountains.
It was everything I had dreamed of for more than two decades and throughout our journey I had to keep reminding myself to soak up and remember every last luxury-drenched moment.
The adventure begins in London Victoria, where an olde-worlde Pullman train, in brown and cream, is ready to begin our journey to Venice. We are allocated our own private carriage with armchairs pulled up to the table. Brunch is served with champagne and caviar as we travel to the Channel.
At Calais the Orient Express itself is waiting at the platform, stewards in royal blue and gold livery lined up alongside the towering navy blue carriages.
The excitement is palpable. I had been worried that it might all be so posh and formal that taking photos could be frowned upon, but this was obviously a hugely-special event for everyone booked on to the Orient Express and there were gasps of appreciation, grins and hundreds of camera flashes as we were helped on board.
Our luggage was already on the shelves of our compartment and our steward brought the champagne as the train pulled out of Calais.
The compartment – all 1920s inlaid walnut, mahogany, marble and brass, polished to a mirror-like sheen – was in a beautifully-restored carriage with a history including both a stint as the Dutch royal train and as a wartime brothel, parked in a railway siding near Limoges.
The train halts just to change engines and drivers, and load more food. In Paris we watched the chef select turbot, carried in ice-packed boxes to the platform. In Innsbruck we saw the iconic ski-jump. There were snow-capped mountains to gaze at, villages clinging to the sides of gorges, tumbling waterfalls and wide rocky rivers.
The route and timings are arranged to ensure passengers see the most dramatic scenery during daylight.
I opened our blinds on the first morning and we were gliding past a lake, with the Swiss Alps behind, and the sun just rising. A little later we had crossed Lichtenstein and two engines were pulling us up through Austria to the Italian border. We had lunch with the majestically-spiked Dolomites rising on both sides of the dining car and a mountain river racing us down the valley.
There are various different routes, most of them ending in Venice. Once a year the Orient Express goes all the way to Istanbul, and back.
We were expecting to take the same route back, but a strike by French railway workers meant we were rerouted up the magnificent Rhine valley.
So on our final morning we were lulled to sleep by the Orient Express surging through the night and woke to the sun rising over the Rhine in lovely Koblenz. We saw Bonn and Cologne and Brussels before arriving in Bruges. Everywhere, on both routes, passers-by seem almost as excited to see the train as we are to be on board.
A short coach trip took us back to the Channel. Being the Orient Express, they had not simply called the local bus company, but requisitioned the Arsenal FC team coach.
While on the Orient Express in the Dolomites we enjoyed lobster and chilled Grand Marnier souffl�. We have never tasted food like it (or known so many meals existed.) We were barely back from lunch when our steward – one lavishly-uniformed steward per carriage of nine compartments – was offering afternoon tea. Actually I rather fancied a cup of tea after our four-course lunch, but it arrived with ditzy little cakes too.
We rolled through ancient lakeside cities and, late in the afternoon, finally crossed the causeway across the lagoon to Venice.
It would have been almost unbearable to leave the train in most stations, but disembark at Venice and wander through to the main station doors and you have stepped into a Canaletto painting of golden domes, pink fairytale towers, shimmering canals and shining gondolas.
A water taxi took us to our hotel – booked through the Orient Express company there is a choice of stunning places to stay. We spent the evening and the following day wandering the maze of alleys, squares and bridges of the incomparable city. With two nights in Venice we packed in as much sight-seeing as possible and now knew to do loads of walking so that we would be able to do justice to the chef's creations on the return journey.
It was such a treat to be able to go both ways by the Orient Express – and, in our case, doubly so because of the route change.
It could even be a money-saving exercise too. We may never be able to eat out again because can anything compare with the exquisite menus of chef Christian Bodiguel, served as some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe unreels before you? The dining cars are utterly magnificent too – three different art deco masterpieces of splendid upholstery plus mirrors, mosaics and marquetry.
I'd taken a couple of books to read, in case the hours on the train ever palled. But even Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was not as exciting as our real-life trip.
It was decadent, dream of a journey. For 25 years it was just that, a dream, but now our own Golden Age of rail travel should shine forever as part of our own history.
We travelled with Orient Express Trains. For more details of its journeys and holidays visit www.orient-express.com
Our Orient Express adventure was entirely by train. We travelled with National Express East Anglia to Liverpool Street in London. For more info visit www.nationalexpresseastanglia.com
Travellers can catch the Orient Express from Norwich.
The Orient Express Company is running luxury sightseeing and dining trips from Norwich, in its British Pullman carriages this month, September and December.
Our journey from London Victoria to the Channel was made by British Pullman. These historic 1920s carriages, which were often part of royal trains, have been beautifully restored into sumptuous dining carriages and run occasional special journeys elsewhere in the county.
The train will visit Norwich three times this year. On Thursday it will travel from Norwich to London, on September 17 there is an opulent excursion to Harrogate and on December 13 there is a special Christmas lunch train trip. All the journeys include champagne and lavish gourmet meals.
For more details of Orient Express day-trip departures from Norwich visit the website at www.orient-express.com