The Orient Express: Train of thought

It is late evening in the bar car of the Orient Express as the train clears the outskirts of Paris and begins the overnight run towards the Swiss frontier.

Men in tuxedos complement women in amazing gowns in a setting straight from an MGM musical; art deco fixtures on the walls are framed by wooden panelling, awash with the glow of soft lighting. The sound of a baby grand floats around the room, mingling with sudden bursts of laughter and the muted popping of champagne corks. There are gleaming silver buckets and waiters in starched white uniforms delivering martinis to overflowing tables, the glasses shuddering gently as the train charts its course. Outside, the rolling countryside of old Europe pass by unseen, part of an entirely different world to all the revelry within.

The Orient Express is unique, in that it takes you on two parallel journeys at the same time. The obvious one is the celebrated 31-hour run that begins in London and continues via Dover, Calais, Paris, Innsbruck and Verona to Venice; the other is a trip back in time to the 1920s, in a mobile time capsule offering flawless food and service, where the benign shades of Agatha Christie, Poirot and countless other legendary figures hang in the air like perfume.

The Orient Express is an improbable means of transport in the jet age, taking a day and a half to complete a journey that takes two hours by plane. It crosses five frontiers, changing the locomotive that pulls it at the border of each. And yet, it is so utterly compelling that people are drawn to it like moths to a flame. In a world where hype is king, the Orient Express is one of the last bastions of true style, one of the few real refuges of the good life.

The carriages are a sumptuous sweep of rolling stock, rescued from oblivion in 1982 and lovingly restored at ridiculous expense; each carriage had some 750,000 lavished on it to bring them up to date for safety standards, and to restore the neglected interiors back to their original lustre.

Marquetry and upholstering for the overstuffed chairs were painstakingly recreated, as were the fabulous oriental carpets. Tiffany lamps and gleaming brass fixtures added to the resurgent mix. Finally, in May 1982, the Orient Express was "resumed" in an emotional inaugural run.

The reborn train has been a spectacular success, and with very good reason. For this is no Disney-esque recreation; these are the original, authentic Wagon-Lits carriages from the 1920s, many of them built in Birmingham.

The galleys meet incredible standards of food preparation and service, some achievement on a train shuddering along 900 miles of some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe.

Service is old-style European. That is to say, deft, unobtrusive and attentive. The Orient Express is basically the Ritz on wheels; a shimmering conga line of carriages conveying you on a time-warp trip of a lifetime.

The cabins are as ingenious as they are diminutive. They come with a comfortable sofa that converts into a bed that gently rocks you to sleep; there is a wash basin and a little area for evening clothes, plus a large, pull-down window, all framed with gleaming woods and artful interior lighting. And that is pretty much that.

There are toilets at the end of each corridor, but no showers. This explains why the celebrated "King of Trains" can only spend one night per trip in transit. European law forbids anything else.

The journey begins at Victoria Station in London, at a platform especially reserved for Orient Express passengers. Only the hard-hearted could contain a shudder of anticipation as the rake of cream and umber carriages of the British Pullman comes sweeping up to the platform to embark for the run to Dover.

When we have settled in, champagne arrives as the Thames yawns underneath us and a fabulous three-course lunch materialises as we saunter through the rolling Kent countryside. These carriages also date back to the 1920s; many of them were used as parts of boat trains for the Queen Mary, or as part of the famous Golden Arrow. Today, they constitute the British section of the Orient Express, and provide a suitable introduction to what awaits across the channel.

The journey through the tunnel is somewhat more of an ordeal. Luxury coaches whisk you to the Chunnel trains, which seem to take forever to pick you up. Then you spend a further 30 minutes clattering uneasily through endless darkness until you emerge into the sunshine of Calais.

And now, the lead act in this show is unveiled. A quarter of a mile long, the 17 carriages of the continental Orient Express await at Calais, as smartly turned out as Grenadier guards. Gleaming, royal blue paintwork topped by snow-white roofs, lined with brass lettering that bears the same legend atop each carriage: "Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits et des Grandes Express Europeens".

Beneath windows already opened and lined with curious passengers, the great brass seal of the company adorns the centre of each coach. Train staff in the unmistakable blue uniforms bustle about, as luggage is delivered to the baggage car at the rear.

Chefs examine local produce brought alongside the train, accepting and rejecting items as they see fit. On the next platform, a local train pulls up, and a sea of faces squash up against its windows to gawp at the spectacle unfolding around the Orient Express.

On board, excitement builds until a single whistle shatters the silent expectation like a brick through a frosted window. There is a short, sharp shudder, and then a gentle surge. Passengers on the other train wave like excited kids. Railway navvies stop work and wipe their grimy brows, pickaxes hung lazily as they gaze up. The Orient Express is on its way again, destination Venice.

In the bar salon, excited gossip bubbles with the champagne at pre-dinner cocktails. Friendships form quickly, fused by the common bond of being part of an exotic, shared adventure. The piano tinkles into life, and seems to keep going for the next 24 hours. Up ahead lies Paris, and more embarking passengers. The Orient Express rolls across the Seine as dinner is served, with the train coming to a half-hour halt at the Gare de L'Est, allowing those who want to, time to stretch their legs briefly in France.

Dinner is a spectacular piece of theatre; five tremendous courses that emerge, one after another, over the course of two hours. Three of the train's art deco carriages act as the restaurant, the tables little islands of white table linen and polished silverware. As the train picks up speed for the run to the Swiss frontier, we relax and enjoy.

The evening continues in the bar car, with the revelry continuing until the early morning hours. Sleep comes with surprising ease, lulled by the rattling of the train and the fun of the evening. Few of us are awake as the train halts briefly at the Swiss frontier to take on newspapers and fresh croissants.

Continental breakfast is served in our cabins, as we watch distant snowy peaks give way to the flower-strewn fields and valleys of Austria. By noon, the Orient Express is lumbering into Innsbruck, and another tip-top lunch is served as the great train hits its stride, and rolls towards the Italian frontier.

Back in the less crowded bar salon, the champagne is flowing again as we anticipate the final curtain. Afternoon tea is served in our cabins as we reach Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame. Our own improbable love story shudders back into life, rolls out of Verona, and sets course for the causeway, Mestre and, ultimately, Venice itself.

Our first glimpse of the great sea city is a series of spindly spires and ancient, distant domes that seem to be dancing on the sunlit lagoon. As we get closer, clarity is achieved and we can make out arched, ancient bridges, the odd canoeist and a wealth of buildings in shades of blue, white and terracotta, with paint peeling in the mid-afternoon sun. Finally, the Orient Express approaches the yawning platform at Santa Lucia station, sags into slow mode and slews to a final, elegant halt. We have completed the great crossing of Europe, and in matchless style.

Venice itself is, of course, magnificent, awash with tourists in the heat of high summer, and populated, as ever, by hordes of ravenous pigeons and flotillas of rapacious gondoliers. Street cafes do a roaring trade, with waiters in starched uniforms delivering drinks to the crowds of sated tourists that throng Piazza San Marco.

As the evening sun hangs like a languid ball over the amazing sea city, I drink in the view with a Bellini to hand. The sights, sounds and sheer street theatre of Venice are reason enough to make it one of the most compelling cities in Europe, but without doubt it has been that exalted, 900-mile sweep across those five European borders that has been the real highlight.

The Orient Express is not fast, is far from cheap, and is not a holiday. But it is, without doubt, the most incredible journey you can possibly embark on anywhere in Europe, and it will sear itself into your memory for ever.

If you have an ounce of romance in your soul, or simply an itch to scratch, then I suggest that you just go with the flow, embark, and let the King of Trains take you on a joy ride like no other.

Factfile: Orient Express

HOW TO GET THERE

• Return flights from Scotland to London Heathrow start from 77 from Edinburgh or Glasgow, both with British Airways (tel: 0844-493 0787, www.ba.com)

• One-way on the Orient Express next summer from London to Venice costs 1,595 per person. Visit www.orient-express.com or tel: 0207 805 5000 for more details.

• For a range of European holidays see www.holidays.scotsman.com

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