From Venice to Rome:
A boys dream from 1935 come true

By Cyriacus W. Schultze


With over one hundred and fifty canals, around four hundred bridges, and countless churches and palaces with facades that are constantly but charmingly crumbling, Venice is not only worth a trip for lovers or honeymooners. The Laguna Veneta inspired poet Thomas Mann as well as Rainer Maria Rilke or Ernest Hemingway, and anyone who has ever taken a water taxi on the Canale Grande to the Gran Campanile on St. Mark’s Square will always want to drink their café at Café Florian, Quadri or Lavena. The boat takes just under 20 minutes from our palazzo near Santa Maria della Salute to Santa Lucia station. After two almost tourist-free days in the lagoon city and a short visit to the “Aman Venice”, the next sensation in terms of lifestyle awaits us at the Stazione Ferrovia…

And then it’s really there, pulled in on track five: This sight accelerates the heartbeat of anyone who will now depart here. Fifteen blank, dark blue carriages of the railroad legend, with flashing, golden borders: The signs set by the Orient Express (it should more correctly be called the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, or VSOE for short) are unsurpassable sophisticated, representing royal luxury and pure elegance. Just like its passengers, who already walk reverently along the train an hour before departure, as if afraid of damaging the aura of glitz and glamour of bygone times by taking countless photos with their mobile phones. But as soon as the signal to board is given, at the latest, everyone loses their reticence. Everyone wants to conquer the king of trains first, to catch a whiff of her glamour in the footsteps of Agatha Christie, Mata Hari, Marlene Dietrich, and Gracia Patricia of Monaco. This trip is definitely not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

At the latest when the navy-blue-uniformed train attendant hands them his white-gloved hands and guides them comfortably up the steps into the freshly washed train, the stylish flair of the “Golden Age of Travel” on the eve of Art Deco captivates everyone. Never-ending aisles of immaculate lacquer panels prepare a glittering welcome, and while the globetrotter is still admiring the wooden intarsia work, faithfully restored to original designs and the decorative, rounded triangular shape of the compartment’s precious wooden folding table with washbasin below, the grand dame of luxury trains starts moving with a leisurely rattle. Time to admire the original brass fittings, the fine upholstery and the amenities provided: soft towels, toothbrush and toothpaste branded VSOE – a pleasant service as well as a stylish souvenir. That is, if there is enough room in the hopefully not-too-big travel bag. The luggage compartment above the window is designed for the light traveller. Whether Agatha Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot, who was about 150 centimetres tall, solved the “Murder on the Orient Express” of Mr. Ratchett alias Cassetti without his black tie is not known. What is certain is that today’s travellers in the “Historic Twins” have only three hooks (which are really lovely, after all) at their disposal. Those who find this too cramped might opt for the newly designed Suites or Grand Suites, which were fully restored by expert craftsmen in France and complement the Historic Twins. Plush fabrics and exquisite furnishings channel famed Art Deco designers, such as Dufrene and Lalique.

Beginning the departure over the Mestre embankment passengers find themselves excellently accommodated in their compartments. Is secluded privacy the ultimate luxury? The exclusivity of the room gives everyone the feeling that the princely care and butler service is for them alone. You close the wooden door behind you as if you were in your own apartment. Everything you need will be brought to you by a steward, whom you call with the bell button. But there he comes all by himself, as soon as you lean your head against the damask-covered pillow. The smiling man in blue livery, defying the rattling and shaking of the train, brings the tea, nimbly unfolds the little window table and sets the silver down on shiny mahogany. All around, the polished wooden walls catch the light of the setting sun, the inlays iridesce, and the chiselled grilles of the luggage rack glimmer softly.

So the first hour passes in dreamy swaying and the greatest comfort as the train crosses Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna. The renewed gentle knocking of the maître is hardly a disturbance. Frazzled and adorned with golden braid, his figure seems to spring straight from the half-light of fantasy, but no, the maître politely asks for a decision: “A glass of champagne now or perhaps later? When and with whom do you wish to dine?” As the door closes behind his coattails, a sense of foreboding rises: Oh! How important this meal will be! The „carrozze ristorante“ with bar carriages are the hub of the train, the other carriages merely dormitory towns, satellites, so to speak, circling around the centre of fine taste.

Of course, “You can never overdress on the Orient Express” applies. Drinks, dinner and digestif are legendary and perfectly organized with two sessions that are relatively strictly limited in time. Already the steward’s voice can be heard from the aisle, pointing the way to the dining car amid excited door slamming, laughter and hollers. After the long walk through the carriages, everyone pauses in amazement at what now awaits them: Meals on Wheels! Three dining cars light up like a living art deco museum. Rosy silk-covered lights. Calyxes growing out of the walls, fine chinoiseries, reliefs of frosted glass. A shimmer lies on the upholstery, a sparkle on the glasses and the plates. Liveried staff, heavy crystal and just such salt and pepper shakers, silver vases with always fresh flower arrangements determine the picture when the guest sinks into the heavy, comfortable upholstery. The weighty accessories are as decorative as they are practical: After all, it’s not just chefs and service staff who are constantly on the move during meals. The fact that they can travel at speeds of up to 140 kilometres per hour on rails adds an extra dimension to the evening: free-floating plates and overflowing coffee cups are part of the everyday life of skilled waiters. If spilling coffee can be defused by placing a spoon into the cup, the only thing that helps with edible flying objects is a healthy dose of humor and perfect, personal service. The gallant bespoke service does not undo the splash on the tablecloth or robe – but why resist the charm of an obliging but never indiscreet Venetian who expresses his regret about the mishap in perfect and picturesquely accented English? 

Today, renowned French chef Christian Bodiguel is responsible for bringing up to 200 five- to seven-course gourmet menus to the tables: 

Such as a light pastry case filled with vegetable julienne and air-cured ham from Montagnana, followed by a tarragon-flavoured roast fillet of Tuscany beef, tender broccoli on artichoke heart and breadcrumbed potatoes. Later, with a glass of champagne, a tart of the finest Piedmontese hazelnuts is served, preceded, of course, by a selection of the best Italian cheeses on the white-covered tables. No easy task if always an option for the constantly growing number of optional vegetarians and vegans is to be kept ready. In the evening, they enjoy, for example, cannelloni with celery and spinach on white truffle puree, vegetable papillote in cracker dough, stuffed fennel, aubergine caviar with sesame crackers and, last but not least, a fruit selection with lemongrass. If that’s not enough, the dedicated travellers can choose from the a la carte section with about eight items and classics like smoked wild Scottish salmon, lobster au gratin on white truffle sauce, fresh foie gras simmered in nutmeg wine, a plain steak or beluga caviar with blinis. 

Wine is served by the train’s sommelier from one of two wine cellars on board. As the train sweeps majestically through the moonlit hills of Tuscany passengers can choose between white Sancerre, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé and Pouilly-Fumé or classic red wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. Lovers of Italian wines will find an excellent selection of regional growths, from Pinot Grigio or Gewürztraminer from Alto Adige to Chianti and Barolo, and Prosecco’s top bubbly from Valdobbiadene, Bisol’s „Crede“ – all remarkable wines whose elegance and finesse are embodied in perfection.

If the mood was initially still rather wonderous and solemn, it is loosened up as the hour progresses with Cantuccini and Vino Santo. People laugh, toast each other across the aisle, and here and there passengers begin to talk about their gallivanting experiences and adventures around the globe. Like, for example, the Bardot-aged lady from New York, perfectly dressed in Chanel, who, after a visit to her Tuscan vineyards, is looking forward to arriving in Rome and thus to long-faded memories of marriage vows once made on the Spanish steps. A young couple makes a big appearence. They show themselves only smiling and always looking for company. A railroad aficionado expertly explains why the train’s brakes need to be knocked off three times. And one, yes, he had a dream: A very aged gentleman who, with great kindness, is always standing in the way of the waiters and stewards. But who can be angry with such an enchanted person? Asked about the reason for his joy, he happily turns back time: During 1935 (!) World’s Expo in Brussels, where a carriage of the Orient Express had been showcased, a fixed idea had taken root in the boy’s head. Now, 83 years later, he was finally riding on this train, and nothing could dampen this experience for him. Everything was a thousand times more beautiful than he had thought. 

Any sense of time gradually dissolves on this fairy-tale train. Over a drink in the bar, where the pianist punctuates the rhythmic rumble of the tracks with modern classics, and a slightly greying Chinese man lovingly holds on his knees a souvenir he has just purchased from the on-board boutique. Over the tender contemplation of a handbag-sized dining car, his bourbon on the rocks melts away, and only when the clinking of all the glasses falls silent will the maître invites even this last guest into the compartment, which the cabin steward has already converted into a sleeping car. 

The carelessly discarded daytime wardrobe is now carefully draped on the brass hangers, and on the spotless white linens, the steward has placed a bedtime souvenir: sugar-sweet pearls of various colours and flavours. Not a must, but with the VSOE logo certainly an original souvenir as are the white slippers, which have been thoughtfully placed in front of the bunk for the nightly walk to the washroom.

Hours later and almost in time for sunrise, the comfortable jolting, restful companion of a peaceful night’s rest, is unexpectedly interrupted: Tea, coffee and freshly baked croissants shortly before Ostia. The impressions of the coast are limited to boring grey in grey. However, breakfast is not served to us on a silver tray in bed every day (something you could well get used to). Spoiled to such an extent, the weather outside loses all meaning. 

As the suburbs of Rome pass by, the aisles outside the cabins begin to fill with the first restless passengers. Finally, it is only a few minutes until the Orient Express majestically pulls into the unmajestic brown-grey Termini Roma Ostiense at just after eight. Subsequently, the reverie comes to an end. The train is empty. Does the prevailing melancholy among the travellers stem from the enigma of arrival or bidding adieu? The crew unloads our suitcases in a final wistful and elegant gesture, fellow passengers scatter, and Rome welcomes its guests. Only the rattling and bumping of the luxury train remains in our memory for several hours – even when we have already ordered our second cappuccino at Café Greco. 

Book your journey:
For Clatu-Travel-Members via → www.heavenly-travels.com
Direct Booking → Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express Website

Cyriacus is the publisher and co-author of “www.gourmet-travels.com”, the food blog “www.culturefood.org“, the stock images platform “www.myfavourite.photo” and founder of the Clatu Group.  He’s working as a business consultant for the food and hospitality industry and always looking for entrepreneurial ways to drive positive change in the world…

Note: This story was first published in 2018 and describes a journey or stay with offers, prices, routes, services and people that were current at the time of publication. Please note that all destinations, routes and offers are subject to change and are regularly adjusted by the operators. Up-to-date offers can be found on the operator’s website.

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