Keep it rail | Monocle

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It is mid-morning on a dazzling day in Venice and, as the Belmond group’s speedboat begins dropping guests off at the pier of the angular, Fascist-era Venezia Santa Lucia station, it already feels like walking onto a film set. A cast of characters approaches platform four, where a red carpet signifies the check-in desk of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the latest iteration of the legendary pan-European train that has captured imaginations around the world since its 19th-century heyday during the golden age of travel. 

Monocle’s fellow passengers size each other up ahead of our 22-hour journey through the Alps to Paris. Some guests exude old-school glamour and wealth: oversized sunglasses, Chanel bags, enviable tans. Others are clearly once-in-a-lifetime bucket-listers. All are united by the same giddy excitement, however, as 17 immaculately restored carriages in signature midnight blue make their grand arrival. The ice is swiftly broken as passengers admire the gleaming golden signage and make the inevitable Agatha Christie-inspired jokes about who is going to be murdered.

 Checking a passenger list beside the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
 Pre-lunch aperitifs in Bar Car 3674

While it is time for Monocle to board, it is also a crucial juncture for Belmond’s luxury train service. Business is steaming ahead but a rival Orient Express is set to launch next year, making it imperative that the Belmond train stays ahead of the competition. Passengers on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express cite the train’s fabled cultural history as their main reason to ride. “It was really because of the old movie Murder on the Orient Express,” says Eva Casias, an Austrian fashion designer in her late twenties, who is travelling with her American financier husband, Michael. “I watched the film many times and fell in love with it. It is so evocative and this train is so authentic.”

The suites are as luxuriant as you might expect and come complete with caviar, champagne and a fruit bowl so artfully put together that it could have been composed by a Dutch master painter. Monocle’s steward, Antonina, tells us that our carriage was marooned in snow for 10 days near Istanbul in 1929, the apparent inspiration for Christie, the writer who immortalised the service. It is this carefully curated mythmaking that ensures the Belmond train’s connection with the Orient Express brand, though, technically speaking, “Orient Express” refers not to a train but a particular route launched in 1883, when Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers realised his dream of connecting continental Europe by rail. 

The route has had many iterations and was plied by rather run-down rolling stock for much of its later years. But the Belmond train’s provenance is firmly placed in the art deco heyday of the 1920s and 1930s. The current Venice Simplon-Orient-Express came together in 1977, when late US shipping tycoon James Sherwood bought two sleeping cars and set about recreating the journey. All 17 carriages on the current train were built between 1926 and 1931; many ran on branches of the original route.

 Sous-chef Alexandre Viala
 Symbol of Venice
 Côte d’Azur dining car

Monocle’s three-course lunch is served in the Cote d’Azur dining car, a first-class Pullman carriage decorated by René Lalique in 1929. The French jeweller and designer installed his signature glasswork panels depicting classical figures and using slightly opaque blue glass to recreate the shimmer of the Mediterranean. Sherwood had all the original panels restored when he discovered the carriage languishing in storage in 1981, only for half of them to be stolen a few weeks before the train’s inaugural journey. Craftspeople replicated the missing ones and today all the blue-hued fabrics and patterns take inspiration from the glasswork. 

This honouring of the past – and what makes a journey worthy of the Orient Express label – is a topic that the train’s managers, Matthieu Ollier and Francesco Bonotto, are keen to talk about as we reach the highest point on the route: the Brenner pass at the Austrian-Italian border. As we stop to switch engines and smokers descend for their postprandial cigarettes in the crisp alpine air, Ollier concedes that the term “Orient Express” is an idea, a brand and “the title of a book”. But he also likes to look at it though a more romantic lens. “It’s a dream,” he says. “It was the dream of a Belgian man in the 1930s; it became the dream of an American man in the 1970s; and now it’s our dream.”

 Exquisite panelling in the Budapest Grand Suite
 Complimentary stationery
 Window seat

Determining which train can claim to be a “genuine” Orient Express will become even more complex next year, when Accor is due to launch its Orient Express La Dolce Vita, offering luxury train journeys across Italy. The group will follow that in 2025 with a pan-European, Orient Express-branded train featuring 17 original cars from the art deco period. (While Accor’s press materials talk about the “return of the legendary train” and the “rebirth of the Orient Express”, this second train has in fact been in service since 1982.) 

Yet despite some gentle jibes about the provenance of the carriages, Ollier and Bonotto are surprisingly magnanimous about the prospect of a little competition. “It’s another train, another offer and another product,” says Ollier in a matter-of-fact way. “It’s a very good thing because it means that the market is dynamic and we are very happy about this.” The pair seem confident about the Belmond train’s future – and well they might: it is booked up years in advance. Eight new suites were unveiled in June 2023, pitched between the historic cabins (which have shared bathrooms) and the six top-of-the-range grand suites. Belmond has also introduced a host of new routes across Europe and this winter will see the addition of another itinerary to the ski resort of Courchevel. 

Bonotto understands that competition means that Belmond must keep innovating, even with a historic marque. “Everybody knows the brand but we have to keep that up,” he says. “That’s where collaboration kicks in: with premium partnerships for the products offered on board and the menu creation.” 

Bonotto talks about the atmosphere onboard in which both staff and guests play a role. There’s a strict dress code of no casual wear in any public spaces and the need for black tie at dinner assists in the pageantry. “It is like theatre,” he says. 

After an opulent five-course menu from chef Jean Imbert accompanied by views of the dusky Swiss Alps, Monocle heads to the Bar Car 3674. Decked out in low lighting and sapphire upholstery, it is a relatively intimate space in a train that can accommodate 100 people. There is much camaraderie as a particularly sharp bend deposits dancing passengers in each other’s laps. 

 After-dinner sing-along in Bar Car 3674
 Singer-trombonist Luigi de Gaspari greets the guests
 Top brass

Head barman Gennaro Schiano mixes the signature cocktails with a flourish, as charismatic singer-trombonist Luigi de Gaspari works his way through the canon. As the drinks flow, the clock passes midnight and the train rumbles through Switzerland, De Gaspari ropes in various members of staff and passengers to join him for a number, before the whole bar finds itself bellowing along to the chorus of “Stand By Me”.

The next morning, as we approach a rainy Paris, the train is eerily quiet, passengers perhaps enjoying their last few moments in their beautiful cabins or sleeping off the last few cocktails before it is time to step out of the golden age and back to reality. 

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