It’s late at night, and as the carriage suddenly lurches, your cocktail – the aptly named ‘Choo Choo Train Martini’ – might have spilt over the coupe glass. There’s a tinkling of laughter all round, as you clutch the side of the bar, to regain your balance. As the train proceeds smoothly again, the pianist at the Baby Grand picks up the rhythm of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and there’s a distinct feeling of euphoria in the air.
There’s something inherently romantic – and joyous – about an epic train journey, and there’s nothing more iconic than a voyage aboard Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. This is not a journey which takes you simply from A to B, but, rather, it is one that carries you cinematically through beautiful landscapes, the windows giving way to ever-changing scenes of corn fields, medieval villages and snow-capped mountains. Harking back to the golden days of travel, a ticket for this most famous train harnesses a feeling that a world of infinite possibilities could lie ahead.
While the VSOE has one foot in the past (and that, of course, is its charm), owner Belmond also has its eye on the future. The luxury brand has launched new routes across Europe aboard the legendary train thus ticking the box for travellers who are in search of slow, meaningful travel experiences following a year of travel hiatus. Named the Grand Tour, the routes criss-cross through Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and The Netherlands and call at the finest cities along the way.
Capturing the sun-baked vistas of Italy is the Florence to Paris route, for which you can also opt to stay overnight at Villa San Michele, A Belmond Hotel, Florence, to kickstart your trip in style.
There’s a palpable excitement as the midnight-blue train pulls into Florence’s Campo Marte station. At once, a white-gloved, liveried attendant whisks guests on board to settle you in one of the 17 original 1920s and 1930s carriages. Each one has its own décor and original features – such as ornate marquetry of pastel flowers by the Art Deco master René Prou, and engraved glass panels by René Lalique.
In the bijoux twin cabin for two, you lounge on deep Moquette seats with plush carpet underfoot, while dainty, tasselled lights give an evocative, old-world feel. Glossy walnut cabinets house ceramic wash-basins and soft towels; rose-pink velvet hangers await your evening attire, and crystal glasses are polished ready for your welcome Champagne.
“To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers. In fact, to see life,” said Agatha Christie, who famously wrote Murder on the Orient Express, and forever helped to cement the train’s iconic status.
And indeed, aboard the train, you can’t help feel like you’ve entered an Agatha Christie novel. There’s your personal butler, complete with peaked cap and brass buttons; then there’s the dress code which stipulates that ‘you can never be too overdressed’ – so guests are in black tie, sequin gowns or silk cocktail dresses – and there’s also a feeling of intrigue from travelling on one of the most storied carriages in the world.
The pinnacle of the experience is the lavish dining. Formal lunch and dinner are served across three dining cars – themed around 1920s motifs. Etoile du Nord is pretty with its wood-paneling and tones of green, the blue-hued Côte d’Azur features stunning Lalique glass panels and L’Oriental is moody with black lacquer decorations.
New head chef Jean Imbert says he is tapping into the train’s gastronomic heritage with his own passion for “fresh seasonal produce, prepared classically and with precision”. Cementing existing relationships with local farmers and producers, while forging new connections with specialist artisans along the route, Imbert says his aim is “to transform the finest ingredients into original menus over the course of the train’s calendar, as the seasons change”.
As the train meanders through Tuscany to northern Italy, lunch is served. As you look out upon the sun-drenched fields and villages, the fresh, chef Imbert’s light dishes hit just the right note – tomato water, sprinkled with herbs and summer flowers, is followed by sea bass and candied fennel in a shellfish sauce, and the meal ends with cooling roasted cherry and pistachio ice cream.
As well as the new chef appointment, Belmond has also announced new suites for next year, carved out of two original carriages, which have been restored by expert French craftsmen and designers. Inspired by the landscape unfolding through the train’s picture-windows, the suites will have four different designs: La Campagne (the countryside), Les Montagnes (the mountains), Les Lacs (the lakes), and La Forêt (the forest). It’s all part of the knowledge that even the most iconic names in travel need to keep innovating and moving forward.
Come night-time, the mood switches up a gear from quietly elegant to uber-sophisticated. Soft lighting casts a warm, candle-lit glow across the dining tables, which are laid with crisp white tablecloths and sparkling silver cutlery, bespoke art-adorned French porcelain dinnerware and unique menu designs reflect the distinct colour palette and history of each carriage.
There’s caviar and lobster; filet of beef in devil sauce; fine cheeses, peach melba and Mignardises to end what is a gloriously decadent meal. But the evening has only just started, so it’s on to the Bar Car ‘3674’ for cocktails and chat. By now, the scenery has changed from rolling fields to Switzerland’s glassy lakes and you’ll soon be passing through the Gotthard Pass. The pianist has moved on to ‘Night and Day’, and more drinks are raised to mark the different guests’ celebrations.
Paris is next, but for now everyone is caught up in a golden moment that we thought had been forgotten.
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express travels through Europe – Czech Republic (Prague), France (Paris and Cannes), Italy (Florence, Venice, Rome and Verona) Austria (Vienna and Innsbruck), Hungary (Budapest), Romania (Bucharest), Switzerland (Geneva), Belgium (Brussels), and the Netherlands (Amsterdam) – from March to November, as well as the iconic route from Paris to Istanbul once a year.