The Orient Express, a Railway Legend

Exactly 140 years after its first voyage on June 5, 1883, the Orient Express is still a source of fascination. Archival images revealed in a 2020 coffee-table book immerse us in the atmosphere of these incredible journeys reserved for a clientele in search of adventure and exoticism.
Passengers aboard the Taurus Express bound for Baghdad, 1969. © Fonds de dotation Orient-Express

Launched in 1883 by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, a hotel and travel logistics company, the Orient Express was the very first luxury international train, traveling from Paris to Constantinople in just 81 hours. The man who made it all possible was a Belgian engineer by the name of Georges Nagelmackers. While visiting the United States in 1867 to distract himself from a recent heartbreak, he discovered the sleeping cars invented by George Pullman. As a businessman with a keen sense of intuition, he decided to develop a luxury hotel-train experience running from West to East in record time, departing from the Gare de l’Est railway station in Paris and arriving in what is now known as Istanbul, with stops in Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest.

The train was a showcase for modernity, boasting central heating, hot water, and gas lighting. And sophistication, of course! The interiors were carpeted, the restrooms crafted in marble, and the sheets made of silk. Decorator René Prou adorned the carriages with Art Deco inspirations, stylized flowers, and polished bronze. René Lalique, the Art Nouveau master, designed the dining car with sheets of blown glass and mahogany paneling from Cuba. Passengers slept as well as in their own beds after indulging in cuisine worthy of the finest Parisian restaurants, including scrambled eggs with truffle, foie gras aspic à la Lucullus, and praline parfait.

The Orient Express was talked about, written about, filmed and photographed, and quickly became a universal cultural object. It also represented contemporary economic and geopolitical issues by freely crossing the borders of different states and empires. The passengers were its greatest ambassadors, with artists, diplomats, writers, and businesspeople contributing considerably to the reputation of the world’s most beautiful train. Dutch spy Mata Hari, adventurer Lawrence of Arabia, artist Joseephine Baker, Coco Chanel, poet Jean Cocteau, Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, Sigmund Freud, film star Marlene Dietrich (and her lover Jean Gabin), and writer Ernest Hemingway all traveled aboard the iconic train.

The Ankara Express connecting Istanbul to the Turkish capital, passing along the Sea of Marmara, 1956. © Fonds de dotation Orient-Express
Advertising photograph for the promotion of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits’ new “Lx” sleeping cars, ca. 1930. © Fonds de dotation Orient-Express
Passengers in a club car at the inauguration of one of the company’s trains, 1933. © Fonds de dotation Orient-Express
Models posing onboard a Pullman lounge car designed by René Lalique, circa 1970. © Fonds de dotation Orient-Express

Along with posters and written documents, the coffee-table book Orient-Express & Co presents hundreds of images of the rich and famous who took the trip. Actress Sophia Loren is seen sleeping, curled up on her seat. Writer Georges Simenon smokes a pipe at the window, and singer and actress Jeanne Moreau waves at a photographer from her carriage. But it was novelist Agatha Christie, with her global best-seller Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934 (and adapted for the cinema with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery in 1974), which made the train an eternal, legendary character in itself.

While models posed aboard the Pullman lounge cars and businessmen gorged themselves on roast goose, other men and women worked behind the scenes to make the art of travel a reality throughout this extravagant era. The photographs also show this hidden side, which makes the book so interesting. Readers will discover the faces of the people who brought this technological feat to life, along with the stories of those in the laundries, workshops, warehouses, central kitchens, and wine cellars who worked tirelessly to ensure the exceptional Orient Express stayed on the rails until its final voyage in 1977.

Orient-Express & Co : Archives photographiques d’un train mythique
by Eva Gravayat and Arthur Mettetal, Editions Textuel, 2020.

Article published in the March 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.