In a sequel to her Venetian sojourn, Rebecca Lipkin makes a long, slow train journey back to London. But this is not by unfortunate circumstance; this one is out of choice, on one of the most enviable train journeys in the world…
How many journeys can promote as much anticipation as a first trip aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express? Undoubtedly the most famous luxury train in the world and one that will forever be associated with the glamour of the golden age of travel, back when First Class meant precisely that, it’s an experience sought and fleetingly attained by today’s lucky passengers, among whom we felt privileged to be joining for the Venice to London route. I was almost more excited to be leaving Venice than I had been to arrive.
It would be clichéd and unnecessary to remind you of the great many literary and film tributes paid to the train throughout its history, nor provide you with a long list of the famous guests it has welcomed over the years, suffice it to say, it is as prestigious as its ‘King of Trains’ nickname would imply, and is something that adds a further mystic to discovering the story of your own designated carriage; for each boasts its own remarkable tales and unique design, lovingly restored and maintained by a team of master craftsmen.
Our own experience began when the immaculately embossed VSOE pack containing our boarding passes and luggage labels arrived in the post; a welcome preamble to the great attention to detail that was to prove a constant theme of the entire journey, carefully co-ordinated by luxury travel company Belmond, of which Kentucky businessman James B Sherwood is the founder and chairman. It was his hugely ambitious (and mightily expensive) determination to reunite 35 sleeper, restaurant and Pullman carriages in the 1970s and painstakingly bring them back to their former glory that was finally realised in 1982 when the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express made its maiden journey from London to Venice. A new era was born and, train-spotter or not, the shining blue coaches proudly bearing her name still prompt all who catch a glimpse of her to smile or wave.
Those, like ourselves, who were staying at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani the night before, were asked to register with a representative of the train, who informed us that luggage to be stored in the hold should be placed outside our chamber doors ready for collection at 8am. All we needed to do was to adopt our Sunday best and make our way to the lobby, where we duly joined the rest of the eager party; each of us basking in the inevitable buzz generated by those keen to relate their expectancy at what was to come or recount past Venice Simplon-Orient-Express memories; it being not so much a once in a lifetime trip for some as a highly addictive means of seeing the world, with many passengers booking their next trip the minute the last is over.
The atmosphere was akin to a rather jolly school trip as our group was escorted by another representative to Santa Lucia station via a reserved water taxi, with said lady holding a clip board aloft as she led the way to our platform, but for honeymooners like ourselves it was admittedly something of a relief to be finally introduced to our charming steward Thibault before going in search of our cabin; an immaculate wood-pannelled suite comprising of two berths opened up via an interconnecting door. The two seating areas meant no-one had to take top bunk and instead both seats would be miraculously transformed into two single beds by our steward come the night, while two large windows offered a never-ending slide-show of scenery, and two wonderfully old-fashioned built-in wash basins (toilet facilities are located at the end of each carriage) gave us both the space to simultaneously freshen up ahead of lunch.
To kick off the festivities ahead of our meal in the Côte d’Azur dining car, (famous for its glass panels by René Lalique), our steward delighted us with two glasses of sparkling English wine to enjoy whilst settling in. Along with a brochure promoting various souvenirs available to purchase from the on-board gift shop, complimentary in-cabin goodies included a beautifully arranged bowl of fresh fruit, a specially designed toiletry pack by Temple Spa, slippers and robes in Orient Express blue to lounge about in and take away with you, and a stationary pack filled with VSOE embossed writing paper and postcards which they will happily post for you.
The Venice to London route is particularly scenic due to taking in Northern Italy, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and France, and it seemed that eating was the only thing that could distract our attention from those mesmerising views. This overnight journey grants the pleasure of three gourmet meals; lunch, dinner and brunch the following day, aside from those served in our cabin (afternoon tea and breakfast) with the maître d’ calling on us before each so as to enquire our preferred sitting, whilst making sure we had the opportunity of experiencing all three exquisite dining cars due to their completely unique design and history.
While a later dining hour would have given us a chance of getting our appetite back after a superb lunch of chicken oyster and foie gras lasagne, monk fish with Colonnata lard and a dark chocolate teardrop with pineapple poached in a griottine syrup, I’m thankful that we took the maître d’s advice and opted for the earlier sitting in the Etoile du Nord car so as to enjoy the glorious Swiss sunset whilst travelling through the Alps.
Dinner was a lavish affair, while the guests added to the sense of occasion by almost unanimously adopting evening attire and quaffing champagne. After a four course menu featuring turbot with a cuttlefish ink sauce, pistachio-crusted rack of lamb, a selection of fine cheeses and a beautifully light passion fruit cake, Christian Bodiguel, who has been Executive Head Chef of the VSOE for over thirty years, greeted every table, whilst graciously receiving the many compliments paid to him and his team. The food is an integral part of the experience and Bodiguel’s legendary skill at masterminding classical cuisine in such a challenging environment is unparalleled.
We retired to our cabin to find our beds invitingly made; the VSOE monogrammed sheets immaculately presented and our slippers ready and waiting. After the novel experience of passing two ladies in sequins in the corridor whilst I, in my pyjamas and robe, was on my way to brush my teeth, I tucked myself up and came upon a night-light, perfect for bedtime reading and cleverly concealed in what was once an ashtray – an amusing sign of the times. However, no matter how comfortable my bed, or how soothing I initially found the motion of the train as we passed the lights of Lake Geneva, I soon discovered that there is an art to sleeping on a locomotive which unfortunately I don’t seem to have learnt.
That said, I’d be only too willing to practise if all train journeys were like this one, for such is the thrill of passing the night on the VSOE that any tiredness pales into insignificance as soon as you open your dozing lids and summons your steward to bring you breakfast; a tray of pastries, fruit salad, juice and restorative coffee which succeeded in bracing us for some bad news. As the train had been stationary for the larger part of the night and early morning due to a national railway strike in France, it was no longer possible to meet the British Pullman that was originally to take us back to London Victoria. All guests were therefore to be escorted back to London via the Eurostar from Paris.
These things happen, but thanks to the apology we all received from the blameless train manager and his highly professional approach to remedying the situation as best he could – reassuring everyone that the remaining leg of the journey would be offered on another occasion – this didn’t detract from the high spirits at brunch, on the contrary, guests were determined to make the most of every minute of the curtailed trip. In the L’Oriental car we were delighted with a final meal of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs followed by lobster with a mushroom, shallot and cress butter sauce, and rather special duchess potatoes. I salute all who managed to polish off the classic apple Tart Tatin with bourbon vanilla ice cream.
There might be other luxury trains in the world, but none possess the old-fashioned glamour of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and I can certainly see why, what starts out as a once in a lifetime treat, turns out to be an obsession for many. As I was close to fainting at the prospect of a full afternoon tea on the British Pullman, I preferred the idea of saving up the final leg of the journey for another day. After that, who knows?
A one-way journey on the Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Venice to London starts from £2,210 pp including all meals. For more information and reservations please visit the website.