Orient-Express: the golden age of the train

C.I.W.L. and the great european express trains
Inspired by the Pullman express trains linking the East to the West coast of the United States, George Nagelmackers, a Belgian industrialist, founded C.I.W.L., the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits (“International Sleeper-Carriage Company”) in 1876, then launched a luxury train able to cross Europe in a few days. The Orient Express is born: making the trip from Paris to Istanbul, via Vienna or Venice, twice a week.

The novelist Edmond About takes part in the inaugural voyage, in October 1883, and writes these enthusiastic lines: “In the last thirteen days, I have been to Constantinople, where I walked about, educated and entertained, and came back again not at all tired, ready to leave again tomorrow if asked, in the same carriage, for Madrid or Saint Petersburg. And note that we enjoyed a twenty-four hour stop-over in Romania, that France of the East, witnessed the inauguration of a summer palace in the Carpathian Mountains, took tea with a king and queen and banqueted sumptuously at the table of the Pignon of Bucharest.”

The company’s carriages criss-cross the whole of Europe and other continents as well: Lisbon, Venice, London and Berlin are all within the range of the railway tracks… and as far as Vladivostok or Baghdad, reached by the Trans-Siberian and the Taurus
Express. International meetings are convened to ensure the trains’ passage and routes: it is a matter of prestige for the areas covered. The names of the Grands Express Européens (Great European Express Trains) and theirs itineraries evolve with the various European alliances, in which they become a stake. His Majesty King Ferdinand of Romania even stops a train in the middle of the countryside so he can play train-driver!

One encounters a cosmopolitan and fantastical social set on board these trains: the Princess Royal Victoria, the spy Mata Hari, the Russian Serge Diaghilev, or the secret agent Lawrence of Arabia... A victim of its own success, the Orient Express is hijacked in 1891 and its passengers taken hostage. The train is even dynamited in September 1931 by Hungarian nationalists. The actress Josephine Baker who is on board at the time distinguishes herself with her devoted care of the wounded.

The Orient Express, an art deco palace on rails
Made up of several sleeping cars, one or two dining cars and a piano-bar carriage hitched up to the middle of the assembly, the Orient Express is a luxury train. French chefs and fresh produce, great wines and aged spirits ensure an exceptional journey. While the staff is of the very highest quality, particular attention is paid to the construction of the cars. Workshops in England, France, Belgium, Poland and Austria bring together the precious materials needed for these legendary carriages.

The interiors are entrusted to renowned designers, whose imaginations vie to embody the travelling symbol of Art Deco. Complementing the “Côte d’Azur” blue glass panels by Lalique are the panelled interior walls in knotty birch from Finland by René Prou, illuminated with polished bronze lighting. The “orient-express style” experiences its apogee in the 1920s: it can be called without hesitation “the most beautiful train in the world”.

The Orient Express inspires numerous writers: whether Graham Greene, in 1904, with his legendary Stamboul Train, or Guillaume Apollinaire, a few years later, who takes advantage of a journey by Prince Vibescu to give us an erotic tale called Les onze mille verges (English title: The amorous adventures of Prince Mony Vibescu)… It is the setting for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient-Express, which becomes a best seller for the crime writer. The C.I.W.L. inspires the greatest talents: Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux write their best pages in the hotels set up by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits throughout the world.

P.L.M., unparalleled luxury on the way to the Côte d'Azur
Created in 1857, Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée company (P.L.M. – “Paris-Lyon-Meditteranean”) services the South-East of France from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, passing through the Gare de Lyon-Perrache train station in Lyon and the Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille. It is a company that attracts every superlative: the most powerful in France, carrying several tens of millions of travellers and storing up profits in the billions… The 1990 Buffet restaurant of the Gare de Lyon is one of the living testimonies to the splendour of this line, in its magnificent descendant the Train Bleu.

From 1860, P.L.M. invests in the Côte d’Azur, where rich Englishmen are taking their winter residences. A symbole of the entente cordiale between France and England, the train becomes the favoured method of transport of the international social set of La Belle Époque, then the Roaring Twenties. The fabulously wealthy heroines of Henry James or F. Scott Fitzgerald meet their ruin at sumptuous parties, buy magnificent villas, wear incomparable jewels with grace and become patrons of modern art or muses of Monte Carlo palaces!

King George VI of England, accompanied by his Queen Consort Elisabeth, gives France the honour of his first state visit in July
1938. He is welcomed on board the No. 11 lounge-car of the P.L.M., today one of the exhibits at the Cité du Train museum in Mulhouse. The No. 12 carriage being offered for sale is the little sister of this historic railway car. Designed in 1909 for travelling across France without leaving one’s car, this carriage overflows with a luxury of details: spotted mahogany, leather panels, spacious compartments with built-in WC and fully-equipped kitchen…

A legend of Cheverny
Despite the enthusiasm of the Shah of Iran or James Bond, who travels on it in From Russia With Love, the Orient Express disappears at the end of the 1970s, faced with the competition of plane travel and a collateral victim of the Iron Curtain. P.L.M. is nationalised in 1938 and the line quietly passes away with the onset of electrification, then the T.G.V. Today, several trains are once again following the nostalgic path from Paris to Venice. They sometimes even go as far as Istanbul, on board carriages similar to ours, for the simple pleasure of their passengers, gently rocked by the dreams of their illustrious predecessors.

Tintin used this elegant method of transport… Two C.I.W.L. carriages, one of which is a historical monument, are being offered for sale at Cheverny in 2010. These restaurant and sleeping carriages, like a PLM lounge-sleeping carriage, date from the great age of rail transport. They can be seen – by appointment – in the grounds of the Château de la Ferté-Saint-Aubin (near Orléans), a short hour’s trip from Cheverny by mechanical horsepower!

On description, Cheverny, Saturday 5th June 2010, 12 noon.
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