Dear Veritas, I break my rule of never sending cards while on foreign soil to tell you that I have today been on the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express. Not wishing to mislead you, when I
say that I have been on the train, I mean literally that: I boarded at one end of the platform at Victoria Station and descended at the other.
Despite its brevity, it was a memorable journey. I learned, dear Veritas, that the civilized world continues and in a manner to which you and I would like to be accustomed.
The train was to depart at 11:44 a.m. As the passengers arrived, so well dressed that one knew immediately to which platform they were bound, their matching luggage was spirited away by the porters, not to be of concern again until Boulogne.
The passengers immediately sat at their reserved dining tables, for the section between London and Folkestone comprises Parlor Cars only. It is a short journey, allowing time for a leisurely lunch. At Folkestone, they leave that train, cross the Channel by ferry, and at Boulogne board the sleeping- car train on which they will arrive in Venice at noon of the following day.
It is the Pullman Parlor Cars of which I want to tell you more, Veritas. They are superb. They are the originals, built in the '20s and '30s, the heyday of Pullman. Restored (at what price? $20 million for the entire project, I am told) to their former splendor: wood paneling, lacquer inlays, marble fittings, original design of livery, Limoges china, crystal. I was discreetly advised that the only concession to 20th-century science has been to improve the plumbing in the lavatories.
As soon as one is settled into an armchair in Cygnus, or Minerva, or Phoenix -- for all the Pullman cars have classical names -- the steward serves a glass of sparkling wine. And how welcome it must be. The only white wines poured on the English side of the Channel are the sekts of Schloss Reinhartshausen, the German estate of the Princes of Prussia, which has as illustrious a history as the Orient Express itself. A glass of the Riesling Brut or the '79 Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen Riesling Brut de Brut is soon followed by another, said the steward, so delicious are they. He did add that American passengers have a fondness for Buck's Fizz, a mixture of sekt and orange juice (perhaps to settle their stomachs before the Channel crossing?), and that the most consumed beverage of all is Perrier water (perhaps for the same reason?).
I noticed a claret standing on the sideboard. You know how the English feel about clarets, Veritas. However, the summer luncheon menu is such that I could not foresee much demand for the red wine. It was light, seasonal fare, described as an Ascot menu. Cold watercress soup was to be followed by West Country Salmon-Trout Ring, salads, fresh fruit and coffee. How sensible to avoid heavy food, in view of the often choppy waters ahead.
The Orient Express resumed service this past May and is fully booked until November. The national railways, on whose tracks the privately owned Orient Express runs, have all entered into the spirit of the venture. Even the British Railways staff has agreed to wear the 1920s style brown and cream uniforms. And you know how uncooperative British Railways staff can be on occasion.
One day I may enjoy a longer journey. In the meantime, I am appeasing my thirst for elegance with a glass of the sekt, and am, as ever, yours in vino.