The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express: A grand tour of an iconic train

As the new film version of "Murder on the Orient Express" opens in theaters, we step aboard Belmond’s legendary train to experience its timeless opulence.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express: A grand tour of an iconic train

Photography by Laura Stevens / Image of train by Martin Scott Powell

In 1928, mystery novelist Agatha Christie, then in her late 30s, took her first solo trip abroad. Recently divorced, she boarded the Orient Express to the Middle East, a journey that would provide rich fodder for her writing. Meeting “chatty people at breakfast in the dining car,” she diligently jotted down character details and observations in her notebook. An incident the following year, when the train was snowbound for six days in a blizzard in Turkey, gave her further inspiration, resulting in her legendary 1934 book, Murder on the Orient Express. On November 10, a new film version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh—with an all-star cast including Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer—is being released in the United States. “What is very much the same today is the huge conglomeration of people from different countries you can meet [on the train],” says Christie’s great-grandson, James Prichard, who acts as executive chairman of the company that manages the author’s literary rights. “You can see how my great-grandmother’s mind was winding and thinking about what would happen if there were a murder.”

The book, regarded as one of Christie’s greatest achievements, conjures the allure and elegance associated with the fabled train. Established in 1883, the Orient Express reflects a time when guests dressed to the nines for dinner, drank champagne from Lalique crystal flutes, and dined on five-course meals in art deco carriages while traveling to the great cities of Europe. It was a golden age of travel.

Today, that glamour, mystique and charm endure with the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, operated by Belmond, a company synonymous with luxury travel. Steeped in history, the train employs fully restored, breathtakingly opulent carriages from the 1920s, ’30s and ’50s. Unique details include original Bacchanalian panels by René Lalique in a dining car, as well as marquetry by acclaimed designer René Prou in the cabins, whose banquette seating converts to upper and lower sleeping berths. The stylish bar car, a popular post-dinner spot open until the wee hours, offers an art nouveau-meets-contemporary vibe with its navy and white chenille tiger-striped upholstery and baby grand piano. And in 2018, three new grand luxury suites will be unveiled: Inspired by the cosmopolitan style of Istanbul, Paris and Venice, each will incorporate a bedroom, living room and en-suite bathroom, with decorative details inspired by their namesake cities, including embossed leather, silk and hand-carved timber.

Many of the accommodations enjoy an illustrious history. Book sleeping car 3309, the train’s oldest, and you will reside in a wagon-lit that was marooned in the snowdrift that gave Christie the idea for her novel. King Carol II of Romania staged his romantic trysts in number 3425, and celebrities from Marlene Dietrich and Mata Hari to Ernest Hemingway and Lawrence of Arabia all crossed the continent on the original route.

Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers overnight journeys departing from London and Venice, and two-, three- and ten-day excursions to cities including Prague, Vienna, Istanbul, Budapest and Innsbruck. As passengers traverse Europe, they sample the world-class fare of executive chef Christian Bodiguel, who has been on board for 30-plus years. Three different restaurant cars—Côte d’Azur, Étoile du Nord and L’Oriental, each launched in the 1920s—offer menus reflecting the train’s particular journey, with signatures dishes such as Charolais beef with truffle caviar and potato-leek soup with chervil and crème fraîche.

The day-to-day operations fall to general manager Pascal Deyrolle, a 28-year veteran of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. He began his career as a cabin steward and rose through the ranks, taking time off to pursue a master’s degree at Cornell. “Doing something I love is never work, but the job does have its challenges,” he says. “First is the infrastructure—often we need 12 different timetables for 12 different countries. Another issue is the unexpected, like climate surprises; since we are moving, anything can happen.”

With the train’s ambience of prewar romance and luxury, Deyrolle’s credo is: “We are not in the transportation business; we are in the entertainment business.” He continues, “Dinner, much like the period of the 1920s, is theater. People come here for the atmosphere—you have afternoon tea, dress for dinner and enjoy a postprandial drink in the bar car. It’s very similar to the aristocratic life of the old days.”

The French-born Deyrolle says experiential memories are the biggest takeaway for his passengers, who hail primarily from the U.K., France, the United States and Australia. “They draw people to this train. We see around 300 engagements per year, and one man just celebrated his 70th trip.” One evening, Rolling Stones legend Keith Richards surprised the staff by playing a late-night mini-concert at the bar. (A less pleasant moment? When Deyrolle accidentally left a couple on the platform in Budapest during his steward days.) Ultimately, his multifaceted job is all about service: “We have one single class, which means every passenger is treated the same.”

Frozen and Book of Mormon actor Josh Gad—another Murder on the Orient Express star—recently took his first trip on the train. “The level of service is really worth the price of admission,” he says. “The crew definitely feels the pressure of living up to the standards set in the late 1800s. That tradition carries on today.”

As the world continues to change, it’s good to know that some institutions are timeless. Deyrolle sums it up this way: “There are not so many occasions in life when you can really dress to the nines."

Murder Most Glam

On November 10, American film audiences can experience the fabled train via 20th Century Fox’s mystery thriller Murder on the Orient Express. Like its predecessor in 1974, this version features a celestial cast of stars, including Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer. Acclaimed actor, director and producer Kenneth Branagh does triple duty on the film, donning the elegant wardrobe and mustache of Agatha Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot. Filmed at Longcross Studios near London, the production positions the train as an important character. On a mile of track inside the facility, designer Jim Clay re-created the Orient Express in period-perfect detail, down to the cutlery, glassware and luggage. Branagh notes, “There is an appreciation of the finer things that represent a high level of craftsmanship.”