Inspired by a trip he took from Paris to Vienna on the Train Eclair de luxe (Lightning Luxury Train) in 1882, Georges Nagelmackers decided to develop his own high class, long distance passenger train. He called his train the Orient Express, a vehicle which was to become renowned for being the finest way to travel.
Nagelmackers founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which owned luxury trains, travel agencies and hotels all over Europe, Asia and North Africa. His Orient Express was built to sleep fifty-eight people and provide a restaurant coach which was as respected as any West End London establishment.
The first menu on board the (then stationary) Orient Express was served on October 10, 1882. It included oysters, soup with Italian pasta, turbot with green sauce, chicken ‘à la chasseur’, fillet of beef with ‘château’ potatoes, ‘chaud-froid’ of game animals, and a huge number of desserts.
A showcase of luxury, the Orient Express had many different routes, but was most associated with its regular services between Paris and Istanbul, and Paris and Vienna. Its first commercial run was on 4th October 1883, and it wasn’t until 1977 that the Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul. Service from Paris to Vienna ran for the last time on Friday, June 8, 2007.
Such was the train’s attraction, many stories were written about it. The most famous of these is Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, which was first published on 1st January 1934. Featuring Christie’s much loved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, the novel describes how, when he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, the detective finds the train unusually crowded. Not long into the journey, Poirot is approached by a fellow passenger, a Mr. Ratchett, an American businessman, who claims his life is in danger. He wants to hire Poirot to help him, but despite offers of a great deal of money, Poirot declines Ratchett’s offer, saying, “I do not like your face”. That very night however, Poirot is woken by a terrible scream…
Such was the popularity of Christie’s novel that bookings for trips on the Orient Express doubled after its publication, a phenomenon that was repeated when Murder on the Orient Express was first made into a film. A combination of the magic of the steam age and the luxury associated with the Orient Express has seen Christie’s book made into many more films and theatre productions over the years, and the train itself has been rebuilt to meet the demands of a new age of travelers.
Even if the original service is no more, the legend of the Orient Express just keeps on running.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.