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Splendors of the Orient-Express.

Traveling across Europe on the famed train is like a trip in a time machine, treating passengers to the elegance and luxury of a bygone era.

Elegant women wearing evening gowns - a few in daringly short chemises layered with fringe - lace shawls draped over their shoulders, jewels flashing, sat back in the velvet-covered easy chairs, sipping cocktails. Their escorts, with dazzling white, pleated dress shirts contrasting crisply with their tuxedos - some in beribboned military uniforms, backs as starched as their collars - hovered over them. Similarly clad couples leaned on a black-lacquered baby grand, listening to popular tunes lightly flowing from the fingertips of a pianist with a seemingly bottomless repertoire. Subdued lighting from the antique wall sconces lent a cozy atmosphere typical of a 1920s salon.

Just when we expected the door to open and Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence to stroll in, the room swayed. We glanced out the window into the starlit night and saw the landscape flash by as we went around a curve, reminding us that we weren't in the midst of Europes Cafe Society. Instead, we were streaking across the continent on the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

That morning, we had stepped ashore from a water taxi at Venice's Santa Lucia railway station. A porter loaded our luggage onto a trolley and led us into the terminal, turning us over to the Venice Simplon representatives. Smartly clad in the Orient-Express' traditional blue-and-gold uniforms, they greeted the arriving passengers, undaunted by what seemed like a mini United Nations of travelers. In a virtuoso display of multilingual brilliance, they deftly fielded questions and supplied information in French, Italian, Spanish, English, German, and even Japanese. Briskly and efficiently, they checked tickets and other documentation, then gently separated us from most of our baggage - in our case, bulging with enough clothes to get us through two weeks in three of Europe's major metropolises. All we would need aboard were an overnight case with toiletries and other necessities and a garment bag with formal wear for that evening. The rest would disappear into the train's baggage car, not to be needed or seen again until we debarked.

Railway stations are built for utility, not beauty, and Santa Lucia is no exception. In contrast to the typical harsh cement of the other platforms, however, the Orient-Express' was carpeted, immediately establishing that this was no ordinary train. As we gazed down its length, that became readily apparent. Each of the railway cars - whether sleeper, restaurant, bar, baggage, or kitchen - was more than half a century old. Like everything else about the train, there is a story behind this.

After 94 years of serving the crowned heads and other elite of Europe, the original Orient-Express reached the end of the line and was terminated in 1977. Saved from oblivion by American entrepreneur James Sherwood, president of the Sea Containers Group, it was restored carefully and lovingly. Cars were located in Spain, where they recently had been retired from active service, and other carriages were acquired from private collectors, railway museums, and catering companies that were using them as stationary restaurants. The refurbished Venice Simplon-Orient-Express took to the rails on May 25, 1982, to the delight of all who remembered its glory days, as well as those who only knew the legends.

We made our way along the platform to our assigned carriage, where we were helped aboard by our cabin attendant, Jean-Marc. He led us down the wood-paneled corridor to our private compartment and ceremoniously unlocked the door. A marvel of compactness, the room had a broad, brocaded, couch-like seat running its full depth with dainty, snow-white antimacassars to lean back against. Richly grained paneled walls bore shelves holding glasses and Evian water, with raised rails to prevent them from tumbling out. A rack held the Orient-Express Magazine and other literature tracing the history of the train and describing available services, a map to help passengers track the 1,065-mile journey from Venice to London, and postcards and stationery. Tucked into a corner, double doors swung open to reveal a mirrored washroom with sink, fluffy white towels, toothbrushes, the lines exclusive VSOE soap, and a dual voltage plug for electric razors. Alas, compactness can go just so far - the toilet is located at the end of the car. Browsing through the fascinating lore of the train's illustrious past, we found that, as usual, Hollywood had taken liberties with fact. Agatha Christie's book actually had been titled Murder in the Calais Coach, and the Pullman car in which most of the movies action took place never existed on the Orient-Express. Before we could become disillusioned any further - perhaps to discover that spies and arms merchants really did not skulk around every corner - Jean-Marc knocked on the door to announce lunch.

For travelers used to eating off a tray as they speed toward their destination, the Orient-Express offers something refreshingly different. Settled in the restaurant car, surrounded by etched-glass and marquetry panels, ensconced in high-backed, upholstered chairs at a table set with heavy, pristine white linen, Limoges china, crystal stemware, and fresh flowers, we perused the menu. Our first thought was whether the execution could live up to the mouth-watering descriptions and sumptuous setting. After all, what could even the most talented chef turn out from the cramped kitchen we had glimpsed as we made our way through to the forward dining car? The answer proved to be an unequivocal gastronomical triumph that heartily was maintained throughout what seemed like a continuous movable feast as we proceeded across the continent.

A tantalizing appetizer of smoked goose pate and spring vegetables in an airy pastry shell was followed by a flaky, delicate angler's fish wrapped in spinach leaves and complemented by a grilled tomato with rosemary and broth-baked potatoes. For those who preferred to depart from the set menu, the choices were dazzling: Beluga caviar with blinis, smoked Scottish salmon, broiled baby lobster, or veal medallions sauteed in honey and pink pepper. Dessert was a frothy pineapple and toffee cream, an unlikely, but deliciously refreshing, combination. It was no wonder that, at the end of the meal, Chef de Cuisine Christian Bodiguel stepped out of his tiny workplace to chat with the guests and graciously accept the spontaneous round of applause that greeted him. This scene was repeated after each repast, as even the most jaded epicures paid homage to a culinary genius.

As on an airplane, there simply is no way to work off the calories after such a fulfilling - and filling - dining experience. Short of briskly walking up and down the train's corridors, patiently explaining to the ever-attentive cabin attendants in each car that we simply were seeking a little exercise, there was little that could be done but resign ourselves that weight-watching would have to wait until we debarked. Although the maitre d' indicated that lighter fare is available, it is hardly a Spartan diet. Besides, settling for fresh fruit and vegetables when surrounded by such splendidly inspired choices borders on the masochistic.

Returning from our sojourn through the train, we encountered Jean-Marc sitting at the end of our carriage, ready to answer the summons of a call button pushed in any of his charges' compartments. With our fellow travelers resting up after lunch, he had a few spare moments to fill us in on the life of an Orient-Express cabin attendant. It soon became evident that this respite was a rarity, for he usually is on the go virtually around the clock.

After being at the beck and call of the passengers throughout the day, serving tea, coffee, or juice, assisting with luggage, and dealing with minor emergencies by providing aspirin or sewing on buttons, one would think he could relax after they are tucked in at night. This hardly is the case, even though he has a tiny sleep cabin at the end of the car. Part of his duties include presenting passengers' passports at border crossings, so he invariably is awakened several times to go through this bureaucratic ritual, as well as to answer summons to fetch extra blankets or cope with any crisis, real or imagined. In addition, he must be on the move at the crack of dawn, preparing breakfasts, which are served in the compartments beginning at 7:30 a.m. Jean-Marc shrugged off these demands on his time with Gallic elan, preferring instead to mention the delights that awaited us in Paris, his home and our next destination.

Putting our feet up in our compartment, we traced our route across the countryside on the map. The train swept through bucolic valleys, pastures and farmland, orchards and vineyards, and small communities nestled close by the tracks. Traveling in late spring, we were bemused to gaze out over acres blooming with early growth grapes that someday would be crushed to make fine wine, then, moments later, as the train climbed to higher elevations, snow-capped mountains still bearing the white mantle of the previous winter. Particularly breathtaking was the Brenner Pass, piercing the Alps between Austria and Italy, with a broad elevated highway busily flowing with cars and trucks delivering agricultural products and other goods throughout the European Economic Community. It was hard to imagine that this peaceful vista had been the scene of centuries of carnage as armies on foot, horseback, or in tanks fought back and forth over this strategic piece of real estate.

At 4 p.m., there was a knock on our door. Venice Simplon had realized that a couple of hours had passed since we last were fed. Fearing that starvation was imminent, they had dispatched Jean-Marc with afternoon tea. Freshly baked pastries and cookies, hot chocolate, and tea would have to tide us over until dinner. We were beginning to feel like Strasbourg geese with our feet nailed to the floor while food was forced down our throats. Was it possible, we wondered, to explode from a surfeit of rich food?

Elegance personified

The combination of the train's gentle rocking motion and satiation soon had us dozing in our seats. What seemed like moments later, Jean-Marc was back, discreetly tapping on our door to remind us that it was time to dress for dinner. Each meal on the Orient-Express is memorable, but dinner has a special panache. Venice Simplon invites its guests to return to the elegance of the train's storied past and dress formally. Surprisingly in these far more casual times, the vast majority eagerly comply.

When we first had entered our compartment, we had marveled that it could be so compact without giving the sensation of crowding. As we began to change for dinner, however, we realized that this compactness threatened to turn the entire operation into a scene from a Marx Brothers' movie. Evening gowns and tuxedos are a struggle to get into at the best of times. Trying to do so now in a narrow swaying cabin made it infinitely more so. Nevertheless, despite much good-natured bouncing off each other and a lot of "whoops!" and "excuse me's," we managed - though the male half of the team had to retreat to the train corridor at one critical junction to allow his mate to complete her toilette. Cooperation definitely is the key, with zippers to be zipped, cufflinks fastened, bow ties tied, and makeup applied, and, as a crowning touch, a delicate black lace shawl draped over bare shoulders. It was with a feeling of great triumph that we headed for the restaurant car.

The brightness of the roses and tiger lilies on the tables vied for attention with the plumage of the diners as, outside the windows, the last of the rosy sunset faded into dusk. With his patrons so elegantly turned out and in such a vivacious mood, Chef Bodiguel might have been hard-pressed to match the tone of the occasion, but he rose to it admirably. Both in presentation and execution, the meal met all expectations. Instead of starting simply and building from there, he daringly began with the exotic - steamed turbot cutlets and sea bass tartar - then followed up with what almost could be considered a commonplace entree. After all, roast beef, vegetables, and roasted potatoes are hardly what one would expect an award-winning French master chef to produce as the high point of such an affair. Yet, what sounded so pedestrian on the menu proved sublime to the taste.

The beef was done to perfection, rare enough for the most bloody-minded carnivore, its natural juices highlighted by piquant bark mushrooms. The baby vegetables, set upon the plate in bouquet-like clusters, were cooked just to the point where natural crispness begins to soften, then whisked to the table before they could turn soggy. The potatoes, meanwhile, had achieved that fine balance whereby they were browned and crusty on the outside, yet succulently soft within once that crust had been pierced. Letting us down gently, a gossamer mocha and chocolate mousse and a selection of fine cheeses completed this marvelous repast. It's not easy to put a four-star restaurant on wheels, but Venice Simplon unquestionably has done so.

At the maitre d's suggestion, most of the passengers opted for coffee and cognac in the bar car. Despite disparate national backgrounds and a variety of native tongues, common ground quickly was achieved. Fortunately for Americans like us, most Europeans have a firm grasp on English, bridging the linguistic gap. As our dinners settled comfortably, tales of dressing experiences were exchanged, each couple good-naturedly attempting to out-exaggerate the others. Many turned out to have put great effort into coming up with exactly the right outfit to suit the Orient-Express ambience, whether through painstaking shopping in the boutiques of New York, London, Paris, and Rome or by exhibiting even more ingenuity. The hands-down winner was the woman who had unearthed her silver-and-black, spaghetti-strap, fringed dress and matching headband in the family storage attic. The resultant Roaring Twenties flapper look was a fashion coup. Soft piano music provided a gentle undercurrent to convivial conversation until weariness overtook us. Bidding our new-found friends goodnight, we headed back down the length of the train to see how Jean-Marc had succeeded in turning our compartment into a bedroom for two.

Sleeping arrangements turned out to have been ingeniously devised, so much so that we insisted on hanging around the following morning, as the compartment was being converted back into a sitting room, to observe just how it had been done. We discovered that the couch seat swings up, revealing a storage compartment for sheets, pillows, blankets, and the mattress for the upper berth. Returned to its original position, the seat becomes a lower berth, while the upper drops from a heretofore hidden compartment. The system follows that devised by George Pullman more than a century ago and fits the nostalgic tone of the Orient-Express to a T. A beribboned box of liquid-centered hard candies was on each pillow; terry cloth scuffs emblazoned with the Venice Simplon escutcheon were laid out on a cotton mat at the foot of the bed; and a padded ladder provided the means to scramble into the upper bunk. Lulled by the motion of the train following an event-filled day aboard, we fell asleep quickly.

As we slumbered, the train traversed Austria, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland before entering France. An hour preceding its arrival in Paris, the indefatigable Jean-Marc roused us and, after giving us time to dress, reappeared with a continental breakfast of juice, croissants, brioches, jams, rich creamery butter, hot chocolate, and tea. Although we were disembarking in Paris, Venice Simplon was not going to let us get away without feeding us yet again.

One of the best features of a trip on the Orient-Express is that passengers are allowed to get off at some point in the journey if they please, then rejoin it later. (The train makes two round trips each week, meaning you can spend three days or a week in the stopover of your choice before continuing onward.) The northbound route runs from Venice to Verona, Innsbruck, Zurich, Paris, Boulogne, and then across the English Channel to London. As an alternative, it is possible to start in Budapest, then go on to Salzburg and Munich before following the Innsbruck-London route. Southbound simply reverses the itinerary.

After a week in Paris, we reboarded the train for the final leg of our journey. At the Gare de l'Est (East Railroad Station), we were welcomed again by the VSOE personnel, who efficiently assured us that the "gentleman's request" for a brunch substitute had been noted and would be taken care of. We had seen the brunch menu on the first day aboard and, as one of the handful of people on this planet who do not regard lobster as the ultimate delicacy, the gentleman had inquired casually if anything might be had instead, no matter how humble. The maitre d' murmured that "something might be managed," and the request had slipped our minds completely during a whirlwind week in the City of Light. Nothing, however, seems to fall through the cracks with Venice Simplon.

With only about three hours to reach the Channel, the challenge to the kitchen was to get the lobsters out of the bed of seaweed and ice in which they had been transported from Marseilles, into the pot, and onto the table. One of the amazing features of the Orient-Express is that everything comes aboard the train fresh, whether vegetables, fruit, meat, or fish. This means that, invariably, each station it stops at has cartons of food on the platform waiting to be rushed aboard. As we were settling into our cabin, the chef was working his customary miracles and, an hour or so later, we were heading to the restaurant car, back on the cycle of ride and eat, ride and eat.

As usual, mere mortals and Venice Simplon seem to be at odds as to what constitutes brunch, normally a simple late morning affair. The smoked salmon and scrambled eggs starter might have qualified, but the lobster took the meal into a whole new dimension. The giant crustacean was stuffed with crab meat, broiled, and cleverly cracked so that the delectable morsels could be removed easily without the indelicate struggle such a dish customarily requires. Meanwhile, the "humble" substitute turned out to be half a roast duck suitable to head the menu at any of Paris' finest restaurants. Add the caramelized apple dessert and it was no wonder that Chef Bodiguel received his final well-merited ovation.

At midday, the train pulled into Boulogne, and it was time to bid farewell to the fabled Orient-Express. Escorted by a VSOE representative, we proceeded through a covered walkway, shielded from the misty coastal fog, to the SeaCat hovercraft that would ferry us across the English Channel. Skimming above the water on a cushion of air, we hardly were aware of the choppy waves forming whitecaps beneath us.

Arriving at Folkstone Harbour in Dover, we went through a perfunctory passport check, then boarded Venice Simplon's British Pullman train for the less-than-two-hour run into London's Victoria Station. As if to help us taper off gently from the constant barrage of spectacular food we had been experiencing, refreshments were limited to the company's version of afternoon tea. A selection of finger sandwiches, Norfolk fruitcake, and assorted biscuits were mere preludes to the ultimate, albeit irresistible, cholesterol fighters' nightmare - country scones slathered with creamy Devonshire butter, layered with fragrant English strawberry preserves (light on sugar, heavy on fruit), and topped with rich clotted cream. It was a fitting conclusion to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express' movable feast.

London luxury

Our odyssey had begun in Venice, then taken us to Paris. Its conclusion completed the trifecta of great European cities with a few days to enjoy London's theaters, museums, stores, and historic sites. Even after several visits to this urbane metropolis, there were things we had not found time for previously, such as the Imperial War Museum, which always seemed to be closed for renovation whenever we were in town. Best of all when visiting a familiar city is the opportunity to re-create favorite treats - loading a basket in Fortnum and Mason with the finest English preserves and honey, old masters at the National Gallery, Yorkshire pudding and rare roast beef carved directly from the rolling trolley at Simpson's-on-the-Strand, finding unexpected treasures in the Reject China Shop, strolling along the Thames Embankment, the inexhaustible inventory at Harrod's, where you literally can shop till you drop, feeding the swans in Regent Park, riding atop a stately red double-decker bus, etc.

After the elegance of the Orient-Express, an ordinary land base would have been a letdown. Inn on the Park, a luxurious link in the Four Seasons hotel chain, proved anything but. Desirably located on Park Lane just off Piccadilly, it is within walking distance of fashionable shopping areas, theaters, museums, Green Park, Buckingham Palace, and the Hard Rock Cafe - in short, something for everyone.

However, a hotel is more than just an embarkation point for day trips and nights on the town. As ones home away from home, it should be counted upon for the creature comforts and amenities that make a stay memorable. From the moment we stepped into the vast lobby, Inn on the Park provided just that. Registration is handled quietly and unhurriedly at an antique desk instead of the impersonal computerized processing at a cold marble counter so prevalent today. We immediately got the feeling that we were welcome guests, not merely interchangeable bodies to fill rooms.

After having undergone an extensive overhaul that did away with its former heavy, overstuffed armchair-dark wood paneling-men's club look, the hotel now radiates a country home atmosphere. Light-colored carpets, pastel floral print fabrics, and creamy brocade reign throughout. Our room faced Hyde Park and a portion of Inn on the Park's conservatory gardens, both idyllic for sitting and strolling when the weather is cooperative. As always, London is capricious when it comes to doling out good weather. During the same month in various years, we have been blessed with brilliant sunshine or felt as if an umbrella had become a permanent adjunct to our wardrobes. Alas, this was one of the dank, gray years. Nevertheless, London is one of the few spots in the world where rain will not put a permanent damper on your vacation. There are just too many things to do, and nobody comes to London to lie on a beach and bask in the sun.

Service - with more than one staff member for each guest - and comfort are the keystones at Inn on the Park. Americans are especially fond of the huge marble bathrooms with forceful showers, still a rarity in many of the finest European hotels. King-sized beds with embroidered linen, VCRs with complimentary videos available from the concierge, thick terry robes, an in-room safe secured by your personally selected security code, theater booking, and other amenities are becoming customary in luxury hotels, but the Inn manages to go that one extra step. Leave your shoes outside the door at night and not only are they returned shined, as expected, they are individually wrapped in tissue paper - an especially nice touch if you plan to pack them the next day - and accompanied by a copy of that morning's International Herald-Tribune.

Food is not neglected, with the Four Seasons Restaurant offering an intimate setting overlooking a private garden and award-winning cuisine under the supervision of Chef Bruno Loubet. Lanes, the hotel's less formal restaurant, lures people around the clock, from its seemingly miles-long breakfast buffet to lunchtimes three prix fixe menus, elegant a la carte evening dining featuring fresh regional products, and a fight after-theater supper menu. Paintings by an Aboriginal artist make Lanes' setting as striking as its food is delicious.

Choosing among Venice, Paris, and London for a vacation is a no-lose proposition. Linking all three via the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express made it unforgettable.
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Title Annotation:train trip across Europe
Author:Rothenberg, Sheila; Rothenberg, Robert S.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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