I'm not sure that there's any idea that captures the romance of travel more completely for me than that of the Orient Express. Just the words "Orient Express" bring to mind a golden age - a time when people dressed to travel and crossing a continent by train was the epitome of luxury. There was a sense of mystery to such journeys, the feeling that anything could, and would happen along the way...
The first crossing of the Orient Express held none of the glamour that we would later come to associate with the train. In fact, it didn't even have toilets. But it was a revolution in travel, and one that quickly gathered steam as a luxurious endeavor. The Orient Express first set off in 1883, traveling from Paris to Vienna. Six years later, the route was modified to include Bulgaria. And later that same year, the famous Paris to Istanbul route was created. This is the route that lives most in my imagination and has embedded itself in my wander-lusting heart.
It's an event that occurred on this route (an Istanbul-departing train, stuck deep in snow for six days in Turkey) that inspired Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, a work that will be forever tied to the mythology of the train itself. Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Orient Express was the travel mode of choice for nobility and glitterati alike -- royalty, actors and authors, to say nothing of the notorious -- spies, criminals, and other questionable characters -- all aboard to sample the elegant dining, gracious service and outright extravagance that couldn't be found anywhere else. It was a melting pot of the famous and the infamous, and a rolling reinforcement of its own mystique.
As it had been with the First World War, service was interrupted with the Second World War - and occasionally over the years following - due to political unrest along its route. Over time, routes were added, renamed and modified until, finally, in 1976, the Orient Express, as we envision it stopped running altogether.
Thankfully for the romantics among us, the Orient-Express has been resurrected as a private venture and is once again providing a unique aspirational travel experience. In 1977, James B. Sherwood bought two of the original railcars at a Sotheby's auction in Monte Carlo and spent the following five years acquiring and completely restoring 35 vintage carriage cars to their original 20's and 30's grandeur. Five years later, the storied train was reborn as the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, and began running regular luxury service from London to Venice. Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express includes many of the line's original stops, including Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Dresden. And in 2013, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will break new ground, with its first regular service from Venice to Stockholm, via Copenhagen.
Oh, and for those of us that still long for the exotic possibility of a luxury voyage from Paris to Istanbul? Once a year, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express revisits that route too...