Travel: A rail journey with the Orient Express

I DON'T know who was more excited as the Venice Simplon Orient Express slid away from Prague Smichov station. Me or the trainspotters. As we sped through the Czech Republic following the fat loops of the Vltava River then through Germany and France, the quarter-mile-long flash of famous blue and gold livery caused a huge stir.

Farm workers paused in admiration, dead-eyed commuters at stations flickered out of their reverie and spotters thronged at the platform end to take pictures when we halted, the more daring hunkering under the 15 gleaming carriages to inspect the 1928 bogies. Fascinating as that might be, I was more captivated by the interior as I settled in for the overnight journey that would see us go to sleep in Germany and wake up in France before crossing the Channel and catching an equally historic British Pullman train to London Victoria.

In the piano bar we toasted our departure with champagne cocktails while the pianist tickled the ivories and the winter sun sliced through the spotless windows to bounce off the crystal, chrome and rocks worn by my 70 or so fellow passengers, many of whom had been on the train since it left Venice the day before. But who are the 300,000 people a year who travel on the train?

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Is this your first time on board, I asked a couple clinking glasses at the next table? "No, second. We're celebrating our wedding anniversary," the woman beamed. I asked her husband what line of work he was in, curious to know who can afford to drop a grand on an overnight train journey when a budget airline will get you there for under 50? "I work for the Russians," he said. And what did he do for the Russians? "Oil, vodka, whatever they want…"

Mystery, glamour and a hint of danger have always pervaded the carriages of the Orient Express since it first puffed out of the Gare de Strasbourg in Paris in 1883, carrying among its 40 passengers, its instigator, Belgian Georges Nagelmackers. Soon the ultimate in luxury and prestige for the rich and famous travelling to Vienna, Bucharest and on to Constantinople, with the opening of the Simplon Tunnel under the Alps in 1906 linking Switzerland and Italy, it became simply the only way to travel to Venice.

However, the glamour of the Edwardian era was shattered by the First World War, and at its end, the German surrender was signed in one of the cars at Compigne in November 1918. Hitler later forced the French to sign their surrender in the same car in 1940, following which it was taken to Berlin and later destroyed by an SS unit in 1945 to prevent it falling into Allied hands.

The Iron Curtain meant difficult times for the Express but it limped on until 1977 when James Sherwood bought two sleepers at auction in Monte Carlo and began the process of resurrection. He tracked down a further 33 restaurant, Pullman and sleeper cars, rescuing some from their duties as restaurant cars, hen coops and a brothel. Once restored at a cost of 11 million, in 1982 the Orient Express left Victoria Station bound for Venice again.

There was no indication that my Pullman compartment had ever seen life as a hen coop or brothel; it oozed glamour and was to your average ScotRail train what Angelina Jolie is to wee Jimmy Krankie. No wonder the likes of Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Elton John and royalty have felt at home on board.

Small but ingeniously formed with its sleek wooden panelling and exquisite marquetry, the carriages represent the peak of the railway craftsman's art. A curved cupboard in one corner opened to reveal a sink and shaving mirror, complete with its own smoky glassed art deco lamp and hot water fired up by a coal boiler at the end of each carriage, and the Art Nouveau Liberty print velour seat folded out to make a bed, or bunks if you're travelling deux. I did wonder how the honeymoon couples, keen to make the most of "the world's most romantic train journey" manage. "They manage," smiled Rupert, my steward, who gave up a career in engineering for the glamour of the Express.

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But no sooner had I slipped into my slippers and the VSOE kimono that put me in mind of the scarlet silk one Hercule Poirot finds in his luggage in Murder On The Orient Express than there was a knock at the door. It was Rupert with a tempting proposal: afternoon tea. Exquisite little pastries and lashings of piping hot Darjeeling served in bone china cups. Oh, go on then. It beat a plastic cup of PG Tips and an Aero bar on the East Coast Main Line any day.

Food was to become a recurring theme over the next 30 hours, with six meals measuring out the miles from Prague to London in each of the three original restaurant cars decorated with Lalique glass, wooden marquetry panels and lacquerwork.

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On the second morning I snuck off for a lie down in my carriage after lunch but soon I was summoned again for yet another heart-stopping meal from chef Christian Bodiguel, whose one-metre-wide kitchen and one gas oven manage to produce food that could compete with Michelin star winners. It turned out the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon followed by broiled lobster then tarte Tatin I had already consumed was brunch, not lunch. Which was about to be served.

Overfed and overexcited after dinner and an evening in the piano bar, I counted German stations until I was rocked to sleep. When I woke up we'd paused in pernay, the home of champagne. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Perhaps we'd stopped to take on more bubbly. Next stop was the Gare de L'Est in Paris, where the chef picked over a delivery on the platform as I dashed past to grab a glimpse of Paris, performing a few star jumps on my way to offset the gluttony.

After Paris we munched our way on to the coast, then through the Channel tunnel in a luxury coach, before boarding the British Pullman train at Folkestone for the UK leg back to London. Inside the 1920s and 1930s coaches – one of which starred in the film Agatha, while another was part of Winston Churchill's funeral train – there is yet more marquetry and mastication, but there's no stopping the train, and all too soon we're at Victoria and the 21st century rudely kicks back in.

Deposited on the dirty platform I make my way sadly to the Tube, forced to carry my own baggage, and reflect that never was there more truth in the saying "It's better to travel than to arrive." r

Travel facts

Sample fares include Prague to London, 1,440 per person. Paris to Venice, from 1,295, is popular with Scots who can fly direct to Paris. Venice to London (and vice versa) costs 1,595 per person. London to Paris (and vice versa) costs from 480 per person and Paris to Istanbul costs 6,370 per person. Venice to London (via Krakow/Dresden/Paris/ London) costs 2,695 per person. The train runs from March to November, see for details of the 72 journeys over various routes.

Flights to Prague direct from Scotland with Jet2 start from around 39.99, see, or from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London with Easyjet from 22.99, then London to Prague from 29.99, see

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• This article was first published in Scotsman on Sunday on 10 January, 2010.