THE INTERNATIONAL Herald-Tribune arrived on our morning tea trolley and on Page 1 was a four-column photo of St. Mark's Square in Venice under 18 inches of water. The forecast was for another torrential downpour in the afternoon.
There we sat in London with reservations on the most talked-about train in the world, the Orient Express, which was scheduled to leave for Venice in 90 minutes. My wife and I weren't about to let a little cloudburst interfere with our plans. Besides, water is what Venice is all about!
The mere mention of Orient Express sets many people a-tingle with visions of glamorous intrigue and international scandal involving slinky women and sneaky men. The prospect of riding it certainly excited us. We'd been chatting incessantly about the trip for the previous six months. Were we setting ourselves up for an expensive disappointment, just another uncomfortable ride on an antique commuter train?
On the other hand, Agatha Christie, Elsa Maxwell, royalty and heads of state, and all those actors and social butterflies of legend couldn't be that far off target. There must be some redeeming virtues about that ancient rattler, even though it no longer regularly services Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul. (In the old days, the journeying time from Paris to Istanbul was 67 1/2 hours. Today, from Paris the Orient Express knifes See ORIENT EXPRESS, Page X, Col. X ORIENT EXPRESS, From Page 1 through the Alps, terminating at Venice in 24 hours).
As our taxi slalomed through the drizzly morning traffic toward Victoria Station, I brushed aside all negative thoughts, sat back in the comfortable leather and built up a head of steam in anticipation of our forthcoming rendezvous with nostalgic elegance.
Victoria Station, which resembles a baroque Astrodome with railroad tracks, was bustling with midmorning activity. The porter deposited our baggage at the Orient Express check-in table on Platform 8, pocketed his two quid and disappeared. We already had decided which pieces would be shipped in the baggage car and which would be placed in our compartment, mindful of these instructions received earlier:
"We suggest that you each take only one small overnight bag with you into your cabin plus a garment bag to carry your dinner clothes and check the balance of your belongings which will travel in the baggage car. This will be more comfortable for you in your compartment. We also recommend that if you are a couple and you are joining us for dinner in the dining car, one dresses first and then moves to the bar for a refreshment allowing the other more space."
Fellow passengers milled about the platform, alternately appearing suspicious, mysterious, sultry or sophisticated-looking--or was my imagination beginning to churn? There was a dashing fellow, sporting dark glasses, leather boots and a full-length black cape. A well-coiffed young lady in a red evening dress accompanied a startling youth who was a Xerox copy of a 1929 New Yorker cartoon by John Held Jr.: snap-brimmed straw hat, cigarette holder, bow tie, pencil mustache, two-tone wing-tipped shoes and all!
The baggage car backed slowly to a stop right behind us and seven heavenly-looking dining cars, like a chorus line in highly glossed cafe' au lait makeup, but unlike anything I've ever seen on two rails. Each bore a name from classical mythology, such as Cygnus, Perseus and Ibis. We climbed into the walnut-paneled one called Phoenix and were escorted to our private luncheon table.
Sparkling Riesling soon bubbled in our fluted glasses and we just sat and gawked and grinned and felt good all over, agreeing that this time we really did something right. The engineer evidently was aware that he was pulling a ton of Limoges porcelain, a king's ransom in Lalique crystal and 180 very fussy travelers, for he inched so quietly out of the station that not a tinkle of glass was heard.
Soon we were rocking along nicely, enjoying the view of the passing English countryside, waited on by cheerful, white-jacketed stewards ladling up celery soup and stilton cream. This was followed by thin slices of rare roast beef with horseradish sauce and a green salad seasoned with a special Orient Express dressing accompanied by a bottle of St. Estephe Cha teau Lavillote 1975. And, mind you, that wasn't all. We still had to force our way through chocolate tipsy cake, cafe' and a liqueur.
Folkestone harbor appears in a fast two hours, just as we were becoming quite comfortable, getting chatty with our neighbors and wondering why the railroad couldn't simply float us across the English Channel on barges and hook us onto a French engine. A reasonable thought, but clearly this was no time to start complaining. We bid a fond cheerio to our chocolate cream chariot, walked through British Customs and trudged up the boarding ramp of the S.S. Roi Baudouin, a Belgian ferry from Ostend, dragging our carry-on satchel and garment bag behind us.
A special section of the ferry's passenger lounge was reserved for the Orient Express contingent. It was furnished with long, plastic leather benches where we could park our gear, take a nap or just sit and enjoy the free cocktails offered by our hosts, obviously an apology for interrupting our gracious trip with this rude intrusion of crass commerce. It was only 3 p.m. but already getting dark. The rain swept across the ship, driving the camera clickers back into the main lounge, just as the famous white cliffs faded into the mist. The ship was as long as a football field and she throbbed her way through the choppy sea at a brisk 20 knots, but the two-hour trip was, frankly, a bore.
On the French side, the nasty weather was continuing so it was an umbrella dash from dockside to the sheds under which our new train awaited, a handsome assemblage of rolling stock all decked out in regal blue and gold and evidently designed for sipping, dining and slumbering in elegance and comfort. Who could ask for anything more?
Our wagon-lit, or sleeping car, had a fresh smell of newness about it, although it was built in 1929 in Birmingham, England, and had been part of the Train Bleu and Rome Express until 1937, when it was put on the Nord Express to Riga. During World War II it was used as a hotel in Lyon. We found it now in glistening, tip-top condition.
Our attractive young porter, Jean-Luc, ushered us down the narrow passageway to Compartment 5, a miniature masterpiece of woven brocade, lacquered mahogany, brass hardware and bevel-edged mirrors. The attention to detail was apparent throughout and the painstaking marquetry, inlaid Art Deco designs in five-inch circles on the wood panels, is an art form that has all but disappeared elsehwere.
However, I must confess that we first were attracted by the frosty bottle of champagne nestling in a silver bucket on the tiny writing table. It was 6:38 p.m. when we pulled out of Boulogne-sur-mer and barely a minute later when Jean-Luc rapped on our door asking when we would like to dine. Since the train was crowded, there was a seating at 7:30 and another at 10. The thought of facing another four-star table within the hour made us woozy, so we opted for the late, late show. Ninety-five passengers now were starting to dress for dinner (one at a time), while 95 others concentrated on ways to stay awake for the later feeding.
My nostalgia for railroads is undoubtedly what motivated me into planning this adventure in the first place. Few people younger than 50 would have had any real curiosity or interest in shelling out $550 for a sleepless night in a 2x4 closet with a bath 50 feet down the hall, no matter how fancy the interior decoration. The Ritz it ain't and if the Orient Express was an airplane, the seat belt sign would be permanently lit. But for those of us who grew up near railroad tracks, as I did in Seattle, this ride is the thrill of a lifetime, a reprise of an era of elegance, opulence, craftsmanship, taste, tradition and romance--stuff we see today only in books and movies.
Dressing for dinner was no problem but I could see that once our bunks had been prepared, getting ready for bed could be a challenge. There was still an hour to kill before dinner so we decided to check the action in the saloon. Imagine a bowling alley (one lane) furnished with a fully stocked bar, a grand piano, four facing sofas, eight upholstered chairs, two bartenders, a couple of waiters and 50 thirsty customers. As one could purchase drinks with most any currency or a variety of credit cards, the jam of paperwork caused some minor delays. The noise level was about what you might expect: the high pitched chatter of the sippers coupled with cocktail bar piano music and the clickety-clackety-clickety of the rails. Lip readers had the advantage. The French engineer was determined not to be late arriving in Paris, so as the train began to rocket along, we perforce took a wider stance, hanging onto the Steinway and sipping with care. Even the conductor stumbled and lurched.
We entered the wagon-restaurant car just as the train was slowing down for arrival at Paris' Austerlitz station, and by the time we were served the L'Emince' de foie gras confit, it had come to a standstill.
Again we were struck by the ambiance of the rich appointments. The de'cor of our compartment was echoed in the dining car by the tulip-shaped glass lamps, the intricate inlaid wood panels, brass package racks and overhead curtain rods, silver bud vases, and the pink silk lampshades on the white damask-draped tables.
Only a very few of the male passengers wore dinner jackets and, while there was a sprinkling of designer dresses, most women diners were dressed in attractive, no-nonsense, conservative attire "suitable for traveling." But the stylish fellow who had reminded me of a New Yorker cartoon in London showed up in a turn-of-the-century tuxedo, wearing spats and sporting a blackthorn walking stick. I have a deep-down feeling that he was a management plant.
At dinner I was never concerned with catching the waiter's eye; he always was there, a smile on his Gallic face and most anxious to please. I selected a Margaux 1964 (280 francs, or $40, certainly a bargain these days), sat back in my comfortable arm chair and watched with great interest as the menu began to unfold. Following the excellent pa te', the steward presented poached turbot, decorated with thin slices of green beans, a sprinkling of red caviar and a tangy cream sauce. The mignon de veau grille' was accompanied by zucchini slices arranged in a floral pattern interwoven with strips of tomato, along with a dollop of corn souffle'. When taken internally with mineral water and vintage bordeaux, the results are gratifying.
When we came up for air, we noticed that the train was moving at a good clip. We were rattling into the darkness through country upon which the civilized world depends for such essentials as champagne, burgundy and dijon mustard. I seldom turn my back on L'Ambre glace'e au caramel et son Craquelin de nougatine, but the hour was late and we were feeling a bit out of focus. I settled the check ($100) and we stumbled and lurched back to our compartment.
At 5:45 a.m. I guess I awoke when I felt our horizontal hotel change attitude. We seemed to be coasting down a long grade, probably the south side of the Jura mountains. I peeked behind the window shade and, sure enough, far below us was the familiar sight of a fog-covered Lac Leman, the bouquet of lights from Evian with the snow-kissed French Alps barely visible in the pre-dawn mists.
We paused briefly in Lausanne to take on boxes of freshly baked croissants and a bundle of International Herald-Tribunes, then resumed our journey eastward along the lake past Montreaux, turning south into the Rhone Valley where the early morning sun was touching the highest alpine peaks.
Though 6 a.m. may seem like an uncivilized hour to rise when on vacation, the views of this lake country--where Caesar's army camped nearly 2,000 years ago--are breathtaking. You always can go back to sleep during the 12.3-mile run through the Simplon, the world's longest railroad tunnel.
We burst out into blinding sunshine on the Domadossola side, joyous with the promise of fair skies over the piazzas and gondolas of Venice.
By the time we pulled into Milan, Jean-Luc had removed the breakfast trays and transformed our compartment to its original condition, placing a fresh carnation in the pewter bud vase. Venice was only 166 miles away.
Pitchers of bloody marys and screwdrivers were being prepared in the adjoining bar car, while many of us continued into the dining car to pick and nibble at the decidedly Italian-looking brunch-buffet and to examine the passing plains of Lombardy. Shortly we'd be deposited in Venice.
This collection of tastefully refurbished rolling stock is neither "express" nor "oriental." The train dead-ends far short of Istanbul, ancient gateway to the Orient. But it is a comfortable and classy ride and, for my money, a memorable 24-hour adventure.
There was no murder on the Orient Express the night I traveled it, but we did kill several bottles of wine.