In this third installment of an ongoing series, historian and author Nicholas Foulkes looks back to the most lavish of trains to have traveled through Europe
It is ironic that the most luxurious train service ever conceived was partially born out of one man’s parsimony, but without the penny-pinching mentality of King Leopold II of Belgium, the storied Orient Express might never have steamed out of the station.
In 1869, Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a wealthy Belgian banker, traveled in the United States and returned home impressed by George Mortimer Pullman’s eponymous railway line. He dreamed of bringing similarly luxurious transcontinental travel to Europe. The plutocrats of the 19th century would be able to board a train in London or Paris and travel in style, comfort, and opulence across the continent, arriving refreshed and invigorated in Constantinople, to gaze across the Bosporus to Asia. The problem was that Europe was a polyglot patchwork of empires, kingdoms, and principalities, more often than not jealous guardians of their railway systems.
Fashion illustration from Art Goût Beauté magazine, 1927
But most of Europe’s crowned heads were related to one another, and King Leopold II used his relationships to help clear the way for Nagelmackers’s transcontinental railroad. The king had a fondness for trains, and that coupled with the offer of free rail travel—if he were to assist in securing contracts for Nagelmackers’s Wagons-Lits company—made the endeavor impossible to resist. So were the charms of his mistress, the Parisian dancer Cléo de Mérode, with whom, it is said, he enjoyed quality time in his private railway carriage. With Leopold II’s backing, the train set forth on its inaugural journey on October 4, 1883, from Paris to Constantinople. The press dubbed it the Orient Express, and the name stuck with Nagelmackers and passengers alike.
Leopold II was far from being the only European monarch in love with the Orient Express. King Boris of Bulgaria liked it so much that when the carriages steamed through his realm, he would assert his royal right to conduct the fabled train. The monarch of neighboring Romania, Carol II, also had a penchant for the service and used it to transport his mistress from Paris to Bucharest (and to ship his former wife, Princess Helen of Greece, into exile). And in 1940, when he fled to neutral Switzerland, he did so by train, taking treasures and works of art with him.
Engraving of an Orient Express saloon car, circa 1895; vintage poster advertising the Simplon Orient Express, circa 1930
But not all passengers traveled with their artworks. For many, the carriages were works of art in themselves, with fittings by the eminent names of the era, including furniture and glass designs by masters René Prou and René Lalique. Just as the great ocean liners linking Europe to the New World were paradigms of floating extravagance, so the Orient Express wrapped a silken sheath of myth and legend around rail travel.
At its height, the train could transport passengers from the center of London to the heart of Cairo, via the exotic Balkans and the historic cities of the Levant.
Travel on the Orient Express was an elite adventure, and at its height, the train could transport passengers from the center of London to the heart of Cairo, via the exotic Balkans and the historic cities of the Levant. It became the perfect setting for novels of suspense and intrigue. Graham Greene wrote Stamboul Train in 1932 (renamed Orient Express when it was published in America), and two years later Agatha Christie penned arguably her most famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express, which juxtaposes a brutal killing with the luxurious surroundings of the train.
But by the 1970s, the train that had inspired kings and novelists seemed to have reached the end of the line, and in 1977, Sotheby’s staged an auction of several of the railway carriages in Monte Carlo.
Although no one could have predicted it, this poignant auction came to mark a spectacular rebirth of the most glamorous of trains. It was at this sale that an entrepreneur named James Sherwood bought two of the carriages. The interest generated convinced him that he could achieve the impossible and turn back time. He then located and purchased more of the carriages.
Restored by some of the world’s leading craftsmen, these glorious railway carriages lived once more. From the intricate veneers to the crisp snowy linens and glinting silverware, they are a remarkable re-creation of what grand luxe transcontinental travel must have been like decades ago. The routes are once more plied by beautifully finished and impeccably run trains that do more than transport their passengers between the great cities of Europe; they actually take them back in time. And this romantic form of travel has proved exceedingly popular: Over the last 30 years, the Orient Express has grown into one of the best-known travel brands of the 21st century.
(Left) Restored Orient Express carriages, 1982. (Right) Vintage poster advertising the Orient Express, circa early 20th century
Sherwood, however, did not manage to buy all the carriages that came up for sale in Monaco that day in 1977; two of them were bought by the king of Morocco, who wanted to add them to his royal train. A century after King Leopold II of Belgium turned his private passion for rail travel into the most evocative rail service to take to the tracks, it was good to see that the Orient Express still maintained its royal appeal.
Nicholas Foulkes is a British historian, author, and journalist who has written books on subjects as diverse as James Bond, porcelain, and the trench coat. He is best known for his trilogy of 19th century histories: Scandalous Society, Dancing into Battle, and Gentlemen and Blackguards. He is the luxury editor of the British edition of GQ, the cofounder and editor in chief of Finch’s Quarterly Review, a contributing editor to the FT How to Spend It, and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.
- Courtesy of Ralph Lauren
- © Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, France/Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library
- © Getty Images; © Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, Paris, France/Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library
- (left) © SSPL via Getty Images (right) © Private Collection/Archives Charme/The Bridgeman Art Library