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No Time Like the Past: A Journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

David Downing, the British author most famous for his marvelous World War II espionage novels, takes the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’s inaugural journey from London to Berlin.


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Victoria Station, London. A gray morning in early June. Electric trains, their flat sides blazoned in bright modern colors, are discharging hordes of commuters from Kent and Sussex. Away on one side, invisible to most, an elegant train in old-fashioned colors waits for its 182 passengers. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is about to take its inaugural journey to Berlin.

Before this trip, I had visited Germany twice, as a hitchhiker en route to India and again years later to interview a magazine editor in Nuremberg for a book on the soccer rivalry between England and Germany. But since then I had written a series of novels collectively titled the Station series, which take place in Berlin from 1939 to 1944. A research expedition to the German capital had seemed necessary when I began writing them in 2006, but I soon realized that such a trip was more likely to hinder than help. The Berlin I wanted to write about had been almost erased by Allied bombs and Soviet artillery, and if I was to imagine that city, I didn’t want the current one hanging in front of my eyes.

But now, ten years later, I was actually going, and in much more style than I had once envisaged. My wife, Nancy, and I walked down the platform in search of our carriage and seats. The latter were sitting room–style armchairs, the table between us draped in linen, a nosegay in a vase to the side. Champagne was served in crystal flutes, breakfast was delivered on silver trays by stewards in 1930s-style uniforms.

The train itself was a feast for the eyes. The walls were lined with exquisite marquetry, the floors with plush carpet—a commuter train it was not. An initial visit to the restroom revealed a mosaic floor and a cute brass handle on the toilet. It felt like the past in all its glory, come to haunt an inferior present.

The trip I took—offered only once a year in June—actually involved a couple of trains. Let me explain: First we boarded the Belmond British Pullman that took us to Folkestone, then the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express that picked us up in Calais, France, after we passed through the Chunnel by bus. Both trains are steeped in history.

Two of the British cars had been in Winston Churchill’s funeral train; another brought Soviets Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev up from Portsmouth to London on a state visit. Most had served in famous British trains like the Golden Arrow or Queen of Scots.

Explore more luxury train routes around the world »

The Continental train has an even grander backstory. The original Orient Express enjoyed almost a century of global fame—the name was virtually synonymous with romance and luxury. From its debut in 1883 to its heyday in the interwar years, it exemplified extravagance in travel, and its glamour served as an elegant backdrop to movies like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and the James Bond classic From Russia with Love.

In postwar years, with Europe divided and air travel becoming more commonplace, the Orient Express lost its luster. “It was a sad affair, just three scruffy modern-day coaches and a sleeping car...chugging mournfully into Istanbul five hours late,” wrote James B. Sherwood in his memoir, Orient Express: A Personal Journey, describing the train’s final trip in 1977.

Sherwood, an American businessman long fascinated by railroads, learned of the train’s demise and set out to bring it back. He bought two of the prewar cars at auction in Monte Carlo a few months later, and then spent the next five years putting a whole train together. In the end he bought 25 original 1920s cars. Eighteen were meticulously restored; seven were stripped of their furnishings. The son of one of the men responsible for the original marquetry was among those hired. Each panel received 15 coats of varnish. Chairs, fabrics, mirrors, lamps, even the cutlery were replicated; the china was the same 1820s design. It took 6,000 hours to refurbish each carriage, at the staggering total price of $31 million, and on May 25, 1982, the reborn Orient Express left London for Venice.

This was the train we boarded in Calais, a serpentine monster in all its gold-and-blue Art Deco splendor, three dining and two service cars topped and tailed by luggage and sleeping cars. We were escorted to our sleeping quarters: twin cabins, complete with connecting door and intricate marquetry panels, each containing a basin and a long seat, lovingly reupholstered in the original 1930s pattern, on which we could sit or stretch to watch the world go by. The compartment windows, wonder of wonders, actually opened. As did the ones in the carpeted corridor. I stuck my head out like a schoolboy.

There was foot-tapping jazz music in the recently renovated bar car, and, yes, champagne to sip in the blue velvet chairs. Dinner was served in three restaurant cars, each of which has its own distinctive decor. L’Oriental was striking, with black lacquered panels accented in red and yellow. We found ourselves in the Côte d’Azur and worked our way through Brittany lobster, Charolais beef, and Black Forest torte under the watched eye of naked maidens carved in glass by René Lalique. Returning to our cabins, we found them transformed into bedrooms, the night-lights in just the right place, the oh-so-comfy mattress a welcome surprise for those with experience of normal sleeper trains.

We woke to find ourselves in Germany, albeit only just. At Saarbrücken what looked like a bunch of German railway buffs with long-lensed cameras were waiting on the platform, and one put his nose up against the windows, like a child peering hungrily into a sweetshop. The sun was soon out, and after Kaiserslautern the line twisted through tunnels and deep valleys, passing through towns nestling in the hollows, giving sudden views of forest paths that Hansel and Gretel might have wandered down.

The long stretch beside the Rhine was eye-catching, the outskirts of the Ruhr rather less so. I wandered the corridors—each car bears a plaque outlining its particular history. Car 3544, for example, had formed part of the famous interwar Blue Train, and then served as a brothel for German officers in wartime France.

As evening arrived we entered the outskirts of Berlin. No city offers more to the traveler interested in recent history. In less than a century at least seven different Germanys have followed one another in rapid procession: imperial Berlin; the failed Weimar Republic, noted for its cultural excesses; Hitler’s capital at peace and at war; an occupied city later sundered by a wall; the cosmopolitan capital of a reunified country. I was most interested in the ones I’d written about; I knew the topography from maps, and as our train skirted the northern side of Berlin’s famous Tiergarten park I knew exactly where I was. But my postwar expanse of bomb- and shell-blasted tree stumps was once again a forest, and the flak tower where my heroine had sheltered was mercifully gone. Our hotel, the famous Adlon, had been rebuilt following a fire in May 1945, and though most of its former sumptuous decor had been restored there was no sign of the bar where my hero had shared his cynical musings with fellow journalists.

The Brandenburg Gate was only a hundred yards from the hotel; beyond it, in 1945–8, the adjoining corner of the Tiergarten had hosted the city’s largest black market. Today’s park, with its tranquil glades and lakes, must be one of the world’s finest. We headed for a spot on the southern side, where Rosa Luxemburg, a mostly forgotten leader of the German communists, had been tipped, half-dead, into the Landwehrkanal. She had always been a heroine of mine. Had she survived the 1919 uprising, her influence on Lenin might have saved the Russian communists from some of their more catastrophic mistakes.

My wife and I split up, she to visit some galleries, me in further pursuit of the Berlin I knew from old maps and photos. The German Museum of Technology seemed a likely place to find the right sort of past, and so it proved. A bomber was mounted on the roof, and the two roundhouses that once served Anhalter Station were packed with locomotives from the different eras. Among these sat a single cattle truck. A photograph of a young woman wearing a yellow star was pinned by the open door, but the inside had been left empty, for the imagination to fill.

Back in the city center, I visited another hero, one whose story of idealism, resistance, and disillusion seems so characteristic of the 20th century; his poem “To Those Who Come Later” hugely influenced my Station books. The Dorotheenstadt cemetery is just north of Friedrichstrasse Station, and within its trees I found bertolt brecht engraved in a slab of stone.

The next day, as we waited at the airport for a delayed flight home, I couldn’t help remembering the sight of our resplendent train on the morning before. We’d been making our way out of the Tiergarten, and there it was on the embankment above us, gliding past a snub-nosed U-Bahn train on the first leg of its long trip back to Calais. I wished we were returning by rail, with a window to gaze out of, a comfy seat to sit in. Exploring the world, rather than skimming across it. Trains feel romantic for a reason—they always tell you a story.

The once-a-year, two-day journey from London to Berlin—or vice versa—aboard Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and two-night stay at Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Berlin, starts from $3,300 per person. (A five-day there-and-back trip is $10,000 per person.) It departs London June 1, 2017; 800-524-2420;


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