Magazine article The Spectator

The Journey Is the Destination

Magazine article The Spectator

The Journey Is the Destination

Article excerpt

They do things differently on the Orient Express, writes Charlotte Metcalf

'Who'd want to go on a train full of old people?' asked the young businessman on the aeroplane. My friend and I were telling him we'd just been to Venice on the Orient Express. We assured him it was glamorous: 'We had to dress for dinner.' 'How awful, ' he grimaced.

Unwittingly, he had just put his finger on what defines the Orient Express. This is no train for young people seeking instant thrills.

Looking at the average age of the passengers, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled on to a Saga trip. There are polite, hushed tones rather than raucous laughter.

The train boasts no internet, air-conditioning, showers or in-cabin lavatories. Instead you find history, courtesy, a certain amount of formality and an intense sense of pride amongst the staff. The journey resolutely demands that you leave the modern age and step back into the past.

Here's how it works. From Victoria you take the lovingly restored British Pullman to Folkestone. In a private compartment we were served brunch: scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and caviar accompanied by coffee and bellinis. On the Folkestone platform a four-piece band serenades you as you leave the train and board the shuttle coach that takes you through the Tunnel. At Calais the Orient Express to Venice awaits.

Our luggage was already in our compartment. Each carriage has its own steward and ours was Stephen. He recommended that we explore the train and showed us the woodburner where he stokes the fire to heat the water and the narrow fold-down bench on which the stewards used to sleep. He also told us train stories: the spy who was thrown out of the window; the ageing cabaret singer who reignited her career by entertaining passengers when the train was stuck in a Turkish snowdrift for a week; the Spanish princess on honeymoon who was rescued from her knifewielding husband by the millionaire stranger in compartment seven. Stephen also gossiped deliciously and told us that the Arab prince, whose entourage had taken over the nextdoor carriage, was insisting on dinner being served on his compartment floor.

In the bar, there is a grand piano and Pierino, who has been on the train ten years, plays from teatime onwards. Before dinner he was playing favourites from The Sound of Music with doleful flamboyance as waiters skilfully delivered trays of cocktails and flutes of prosecco. It's not always easy to balance on a moving train - high heels are best avoided.

Dinner involved lobster, perfectly rare beef and an outrageously tempting pudding with passion fruit, white chocolate and lavender. …

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