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SUNDAY: The Orient Express

As part of our New! Sunday Series®, please enjoy these articles culled from around the world; giving you more enjoyment than the regular “Short N’ Shallow” posts usually constrained for entertainment purposes.

– Mr. Anonymous®

Even aspiring to travel on the legendary train, the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul meant that you were a king, a peer, head of state, a celebrity or at least a wealthy man used to luxury. The “king of trains and train of kings” first set out on the more than three thousand kilometres of its route in 1883.


The locomotive was once driven by a train-mad emperor, was kidnapped by bandits and remained stranded in the snow for days. These are just some of the legends that live on even today.

The interest of western European countries in the oriental world and the long-cherished wish to connect Europe from west to east by railway played a major role in establishing a rail link between Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul).

It was Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banker who managed to turn the legend into reality. Inspired by an American example, he founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the first European company to supply dining and sleeping cars in 1872. These carriages also followed an American model: Nagelmackers bought the latest, bogie carriages and fitted them out with all possible conveniences and splendour. His sleeping and dining cars turned out to be by far more elegant and comfortable than their American Pullman counterparts. The prestige of his company was further raised by the Belgian king (who was the main shareholder in the company) consenting to the use of the royal crest on the side of the cars.

The Orient Express was a true luxury train, first-class only. A train usually consisted of five carriages: a baggage carriage, two sleeping and one dining carriage and another baggage carriage followed the locomotive. One of these carriages, number 2347, which has a wooden frame encased in wood panelling and was the type used until the First World War, is displayed in Budapest, in the Park of Hungarian Railway History. The dining carriage, considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of its type, now runs on a nostalgia train.

In 1882, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits made a test run between Paris and Vienna. It took 28 hours for this “lightening fast train” to cover the 1350 kilometres. After the successful trial run, the first train from Paris to Constantinople departed on June 5, 1883 and brought huge publicity to the Orient Express. This offered the fastest possible and the most elegant means of making the journey of 3186 kilometres.

The railway track between Varna and Constantinople was only completed in 1889; until then passengers travelled by train from Paris to Varna initially and took ship from Varna to Constantinople. The entire journey took 83 hours and a half, 15 hours of which was spent on the ship. The first run was not without complications: the luxury train had to halt for a while due to flooding near Varciorova, somewhat later a landslide hindered the progress of the train.

Even as early as the year when the Orient Express was launched, the train was a frequent target of gangs of robber gangs. In 1891, a Greek gang managed to kidnap the passengers and crew of the train, only releasing them for a huge ransom.

The first route taken by the Orient Express (until 1888) was Paris-Strasbourg-Stuttgart-Munich-

orient2.gifOriginally, the train ran for 690 kilometres in Hungarian territory, but with the completion of further lines in 1884, the length of the Hungarian section grew to 1048 kilometres, around one third of the entire route. In the seventh year of operation, the Orient Express took 67 hours and 35 minutes to reach Constantinople.

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