Franck Fernandez – Translator, interpreter, philologist
The train is a means of transport widely used throughout the world. In Switzerland, large articulated lorries passing through that country must board specially equipped trains to pollute their country as little as possible. However, there are ways of traveling by train that are exceptional and I cannot stop thinking about the famous Orient Express.
This idea is due to the young Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers (1845-1905), from the city of Liège, a member of a family with a great fortune started by his grandfather, who was the first great banker in Belgium. Fortunately for history and unfortunately for Georges, it all started with Georges’ desire to marry his first cousin. His family, contrary to this marriage, sent him on vacation to the United States. On the ship trip, he met Samuel Cunard, founder of the Cunard Line, an English company that was dedicated to maritime transport between the old continent and the United States. In this ship, he could see all the comfort offered to wealthy travelers to make their journey more pleasant.
In the United States, like any other tourist, he toured the country and there he knew about the recent invention of Pullman coaches. Pullman was a young inventor who created coaches to transport well-off passengers who could afford it, but these coaches lacked the comfort to which these ancestry people were accustomed, particularly to ladies who complained about the lack of privacy in these coaches. .
The idea was quickly born. With the necessary adjustments, he could create a train network that could transport the wealthy class in Europe from one country to another. This is how the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons-Lits was born. His family was again against this project and with his personal fortune and other partners; he set out to give life to his project, confident of its viability and success. This is how the “sleeper coach” concept was born.
The first trip to Paris-Constantinople (which would be Istanbul from 1922) left the old Strasbourg Train Station, known today as the East Paris Train Station, on June 5, 1883, before an elegant, large and curious crowd who came together to discover this revolutionary invention of transportation. The trip took 76 hours as opposed to the 111 previously necessary.
These coaches were the height of modernity and refinement. They were called “The King of Trains” or “The Train of Kings”. They had central heating, hot water and lighting (which at that time was by gas), interiors upholstered in velvet, silk sheets, marble bathrooms, crystal goblets, silver cutlery, bath robes with the company logo embroidered on silk, teak wood, stained glass windows by Lalique for interior decoration and mahogany from Cuba. The Orient Express was a showcase for the expression of Art Nouveau.
With the arrival of World War I, the French government requisitioned the coaches to transport soldiers. At the end of the war in 1918, practically none of the famous coaches existed that had made the company famous. One of them, the one with the number 2419, was transformed into an office by the French Marshal Foch to go across the different battlefronts. On November 11, 1918, the armistice with Germany was signed in that coach, ending that horrible war that lasted 4 years. In June 1940, already with World War II, it was the Germans’ turn to use the same coach to sign the surrender of France in a humiliating meeting with the Frenchmen. General Pétain and Adolf Hitler signed the surrender document. Coach 2419 was taken as a war trophy to Berlin and, in 1944, the SS dynamited it before the advance of the allies.
The Orient Express was reborn and could be used again. Today, it belongs to the Société Générale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF), the national railway company of France. Seven routes are proposed (each one has its own name) that allow reaching different destinations in Europe. Despite its high price, it is an excellent option for an unforgettable honeymoon or a refined trip through different European cities.
The myth of the Orient Express was constructed with its refined and famous clientele of yesteryear and later with Agatha Christie’s famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express”, murder solved by the everlasting hero Hercules Poirot (“not French, Belgian”, as he said). In 1974, great actors of the time gathered to make an unforgettable movie of this great thriller, among them Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery among others.
If your pocket allows it, do not hesitate to book a trip on the Orient Express on your next trip to Europe. Be part of the charm, luxury and history of this emblematic train.