Wednesday, February 12, 2020

101 Things #60 - Rails to the East

This is going to be tough. I, like many, (such as the contributors to Lifeline 24) have nursed the ambition to one day alight from a taxi at the Gare de l'Est station in Paris, entrust my steamer trunk to a smartly dressed porter, stride calmly and with authority to the appropriate quai and nod approvingly as we reach the little steps leading to a gleaming compartment. A uniformed attendant salutes. "All aboard for Istanbul, M'sieur".

Hearken to me then as I explain why this no longer something I wish to achieve. I'll go further. I shall recoil utterly from travelling in this way and shall consign the very idea that I should

Travel on the Orient Express

to my surprisingly popular and increasingly authoritative compendium 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Before we proceed to the case for the prosecution, let us revisit the glorious literary past.

Grahame Greene despatched eastward an unhappy group of misfits and loners in Stamboul Train, Agatha Christie caused a murderous bunch of revenge seekers going the other way to encounter Hercule Poirot (in Murder on the Orient Express) and here, in an extract from From Russia with Love, we find Ian Fleming's James Bond arriving at the station.
The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris.
Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another. Wisps of steam rose from the couplings between the carriages and died quickly in the warm August air.
The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul's main station. The trains on the other lines were engineless and unattended–waiting for tomorrow. Only Track No. 3, and its platform, throbbed with the tragic poetry of departure.
The heavy bronze cipher on the side of the dark blue coach said,
Above the cipher, fitted into metal slots, was a flat iron sign that announced, in black capitals on white, ORIENT EXPRESS, and underneath, in three lines:

Bond finds sex and death on the train but that's just his normal working day.

For an antidote to the romance I recommend Paul Theroux's 1975 book The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux travelled by train from London to Japan, going out on the Orient Express and back on the Trans-Siberian. He was on the Orient Express as it was declining rapidly from flagship to unwanted and unloved.
The Orient Express, once unique for its service, is now unique amongst trains for its lack of it
Theroux encounters unhelpful conductors, uncaring station staff and shoulder-shrugging officials, but no glamour on this leg of his huge journey. Experienced travellers brought plenty of booze and spent most of the time drinking it for want of anything else to do.

I learn from the fascinating article about it on The Man in Seat 61 that there was no such thing as "The" Orient Express. Trains from Paris to Vienna were first called by that name, then a route using the Simplon Pass to Milan, Belgrade and Constantinople became identified with the classic route but there were variants going off to Ostend, Calais and Berlin amongst others. Greene's train was the Ostend-Istanbul, Christie invented one with Pullman cars that didn't exist, Bond took the Simplon route. In any case the last through trains to Istanbul were in 2009 and today the luxury train that still bears the name Orient Express runs merely from Venice to Paris (with a few add ons). Glamorous it may be but it is not the train of legend and it is very expensive (about £2,800) for just one night on board.

And there you have it. If you take this train you are travelling with relatively affluent tourists. You are not mixing with desperate salesmen, runaway actors, dodgy duchesses, elegant but unassuming detectives or men with a past. You will not be requested for 'papers' at several frontiers. The train will not halt in a bleak unpopulated landscape without warning for a few hours. The police will not halt it with a roadblock and proceed to search every compartment. It is just a posh train ride across Western Europe.

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