When my alarm went off at 5:55 AM on a Tuesday morning last month—the sky still deep grey, the temperature 31 degrees—my first thought was: will the train have a sleeper car? As my previous rail experiences were of the more upright, local variety—Long Island Railroad, Amtrak, Eurostar—I just wasn’t ready to stop dreaming. As I approached platform B at Paris’s Gare de L’Est to board the infamous Orient Express, frequently portrayed on stage and screen, I realized I wouldn’t have to—though, I also wouldn’t be getting much shuteye. The legendary line that once brought the continent’s jet-setters from France to Constantinople doesn’t contain sleeper cars, but while my destination would be Reims in the Champagne region, I knew the journey itself would remain something of a dreamscape—and a fantasy one at that.
“If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination,” wrote Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar, “a corner seat is enough and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to.”
Channeling Theroux—and Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and a host of other writers who once rode the fabled line in its heyday—I climbed aboard and found a seat in the Taurus car 2979. Here, embossed velour curtains, mahogany armchairs, and square patterned carpets were all a uniformed shade of olive green—more Picholine, less Manzanilla. I didn’t have any luggage, but admired the perforated, polished bronze racks above me and thought about the hat boxes and carpet bags that must have once filled them. Then, I settled in for the 128-minute ride.
Without an outlet to charge my phone, and having made the serious travel faux-pas of forgetting a book, I stared longingly out the window at vast green fields with little trace of the snow that fell a week earlier; occasionally turning to survey my fellow passengers. Like a would-be Hercule Poirot, I paid particular attention to The Overdressed Influencer, The Headset-Wearing Publicist, The Morning Show Journalist and The Award-Winning Costume Designer, not that I thought any were up to nefarious acts (a la Ms. Christie’s famed novel). Rather, these were the cast of characters who, in addition to myself and about two-dozen other lucky passengers, had been invited on this exclusive excursion.
The Orient Express first debuted on October 4, 1883, as the first of its kind to connect Europe and Asia, but is no longer in formal operation. Today, it runs only for events, hired by the likes of 20th Century Fox who that morning was celebrating the digital release Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. To clarify, there is actually another train called the Simplon Orient Express, owned by SNCF—France’s regional rail service—but licensed to the elite rail service Belmond. This 17-car train is bookable by the average luggage-toting traveler. Its cars, however, which date back to the early 20s and 30s, have been updated to reflect more modern aesthetics, including blue panther-patterned armchairs and electrical outlets. (Extra bonus: sleeper cars.)
Created in 1927, the seven-car caravan I traveled on was known, in its heyday, as “The King of Trains and the Train of Kings”; transporting dignitaries, adventurers, and spies with deep pockets in cabins that featured breakthrough technology. Then, the latest luxury amenities were central heating, hot water, and gas lighting.
All that’s a given on regional and international cars these days, along with a basic snack bar selling the likes of packaged Oreos or stale sandwiches, so I reveled in being called into the legendary Anatolie car 2869 for a dignified breakfast at a white cloth-covered table set with embroidered napkins and fine cutlery. There, channeling a bygone era, waiters in white dinner jackets served fruit kebabs off three-tiered trays, round-after-round of fresh pressed coffee and moist orange cake with apricot marmalade. All the while, we were whizzing by the countryside at a respectable 80-miles an hour with nothing but a low, reverberating hum to remind me that I wasn’t actually floating in the clouds, but chugging along on solid ground.
Disembarking in Reims for our visit to Maison Veuve Cliquot, the storied home of the Cliquot Champagne dynasty, we descended 65-feet below ground to the white limestone quarries known as crayères to see where the 246-year-old house produces its bottles. We didn’t tour all 24 kilometers of Veuve’s underground network—the largest in the Champagne region and listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO—but it made for a lovely detour, one any traveler visiting the region via France’s railways can make.
Back on the train with a slight buzz after a tasting of the rosé vintage, I navigated between cars; feeling a cold rush of winter air as I cautiously kept balance walking from second class, through the Train Bleu 4160—the infamous club car whose tufted leather booths and panels etched with flower bouquets were designed by art deco pioneers René Prou and René Lalique.
I made my way through the dining car, where they were setting up afternoon tea, and on to First Class. I peeked in on private, boxed-in rooms with four facing wingback chairs upholstered in hues of gold and burgundy. Appearing off-limits, I settled into a similarly-styled seat in the Flèche d’Or 4159 car where Princess Grace Kelly sat for her journey to Monte Carlo in 1977. It wasn’t quite as flat or private as I’d hoped, but at long last, I’d finally get that petit nap I’d been hoping for since waking hours earlier—that was, until they called us in for tea. But who was I to stop fighting with my eyelids? But ultimately, aboard the Orient Express reveries are best realized while awake and alert.
For more info on booking or schedules, visit orient-express.eu.