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Two-thirty am; the Swiss Alps. A slim crescent of a moon plays hide-and-seek behind towering black massifs. Its light shifts and slides on the surface of a lake like ice in a highball. Wood creaks; crystal on a bar shelf tinkles faintly; the muffled clak-clak-clak of wheelsets working along iron rails syncopates with the rocking of my bed. The continent is asleep but I’m awake as we roll gently eastward toward Austria at a pace that hasn’t altered in a century.
I’m travelling from Paris to Venice, via Zurich, Innsbruck and the South Tyrol, on arguably the world’s most famous train. It’s August 2021; but at this hour, in this quiet, it could as easily be 1951. Or 1921, when the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, in its modern permutation, was just a few years old – a new way to travel in style, emerging from a period of turmoil and launched into a decade of uncertainty and hope.
Now we’ve entered our own century’s third decade, and circumstances are not dissimilar. The VSOE was rebooted in June, with several debut European itineraries and ambitious plans to be at the forefront of a new golden age of travel, as we shed our Covid stasis. Can its caviar and champagne welcomes, white-coat service, gourmet cuisine and staggering scenery sell old-school, shading-to-decadent glamour in a new world that’s still interrogating the idea of luxury post-pandemic?
That depends to some degree on your inclination to dip a foot – a polished Oxford or stiletto-clad foot – into the fantasy. For the VSOE’s most popular itinerary, I boarded in the late afternoon, from track six at Gare de l’Est. The normally rather grand red-carpet reception is on hold this summer, to maximise social distancing for guests; we were whisked individually up each gleaming blue car’s steps and into the cool of our cabins, as an assemblage of porters rapidly tagged and delivered suitcases (I am tempted here to write valises). Requisitioned from other trains, bought at auction at Sotheby’s, and in one case rescued, derelict, from a garden, its 17 cars all date from the ’20s and ’30s. One has interiors designed by René Lalique; another doubled as a brothel in Limoges during the second world war; yet another was once marooned in 2m of snow in Turkey for 10 days (the event that inspired Agatha Christie’s mystery, now as much a part of the culture as the train itself is).
I was in the Venice Suite, one of the train’s new Grand accommodations on board; the first three were launched in 2019, another three added for this season. Named after the cities at which the VSOE has historically called – besides Venice there are the Grand Istanbul, Vienna, Prague, Paris, and Budapest suites (cue a yep from Wes Anderson, a long-time VSOE client and fan) – they are mini hotel rooms on wheels. There are just three to a carriage, awash in silk and flocked velvet and glossy burlwood and polished brass; they have their own full baths, with sinks of Venetian glass, marble tiling and rain-can showers. The rest of the train’s accommodation is far more compact but no less sumptuous; each cabin has its own washroom, tiny bar and seating area, which converts to twin or double bunks.
The VSOE allure, I can report, is entirely intact, despite all the shifts of perception about glamour that the years and the culture have occasioned. Or perhaps because of them; there’s plenty of full-circle, back-to-our-roots thinking in the pursuit of a post-Covid world. The lexicon of modern travel, at times exhausted into cliché, applies widely, and genuinely, to this experience. The VSOE is extravagant, and gilded (literally, some bits of it), and wholly fabulous. But it is also authentic, and slow (or Slow), and experiential. To every single car there is at least one quite fascinating story; some of the staff have worked on the train for 10 or 15 years, and will happily elaborate on them for you.
But the VSOE is also what you make of it. Pageantry, the staff’s and your own, is part of the deal. Them: royal-blue livery trimmed in gold braid, jaunty leather-brimmed caps, white gloves, welcoming smiles. You: holiday wardrobe game upped several notches (even if your game is already fairly A), because that’s the brief. Or at least it’s the steer (“You can never be overdressed aboard the Venice-Simplon Orient Express,” offers the booking confirmation’s paragraph on dress codes). Black tie is not expressly required at dinner, you understand; but it is definitely more fun. Perhaps more importantly, it honours the spirit of the enterprise. The train and staff bring the exquisite settings, the history, the fine food and rivers of really good drink. But for that old razzle-dazzle to manifest convincingly, everyone needs, as the song goes, to give it some.
The intention, then, makes the magic. And it’s worth bearing in mind that alongside the glamour, a little naughtiness is a signal thread of the VSOE myth – in literature, in film and IRL, then and (one hopes) now. After that Petrossian and Veuve Clicquot welcome, with the setting sun pitching slanted rays through the Parc National de Forêts as you speed past, and your decadent half-shell blue lobster supper, and a cheeky nightcap in the bar singing along next to the baby grand: who knows what you might get up to back in your sumptuously upholstered confined space, if the Alps aren’t too much of a distraction…? Best look the part.
Maria Shollenbarger travelled as a guest of Belmond Venice-Simplon Orient Express. One day Paris to Venice Itineraries from £2,750 per person, belmond.com
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