The Orient Express was originally launched 140 years ago by Belgian rail company ‘Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits’.
It had terminal stations in Paris, London, Athens and Istanbul and was designed to be the height of comfort and luxury at a time when rail travel was still uncertain and dangerous.
The first journey on October 4, 1883, left the Gare de Strasbourg (now the Gare de l’Est) in Paris and took four days to reach Constantinople (now Istanbul) with no stops or changes of train.
With gourmet restaurants, bars and salons, the train was described at the time as a palace on wheels.
Royalty and celebrities
Well-heeled travellers flocked to buy tickets, attracted as much by the exotic destinations as the safety and comfort of the journey.
For a century, the Orient Express was the favoured transport for royalty, celebrities, aristocrats, heads of state, and wealthy travellers.
Towards the end of the 20th century, as low-cost flights ate into the travel market, the routes were cut back and back until in 2009 the vestigial remains of the service were finally axed altogether.
The original dining car where scenes from Murder on the Orient Express was filmed is actually in the Railway Museum in Thessaloniki. There are other exhibits in train museums in Istanbul, Holland and Brussels.
Modern alternatives still offer glamour
Today Austrian company ÖBB Nightjet runs modern trains from Paris to Vienna three times a week, and it is still possible to travel the same route from Paris to Istanbul via Munich, Budapest, and Bucharest, or alternatively via Zurich and Belgrade on modern trains. But they are not branded as the Orient Express.
The Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express is a privately-owned company running trains on various routes from March to November each year. The decor throughout the carriages is deluxe vintage.
Passengers are not expected to use the train as transport; the journeys are marketed as experiences in themselves.
Passengers are encouraged to dress formally, and ticket prices (starting from around €2,500) include all meals aboard.
Original Orient Express carriages discovered
But this year, Accor Hotels in partnership with SNCF plan to re-launch the iconic train as the ‘Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express’.
Initial routes will run across Italy including Rome, Florence and Milan, followed by international routes to Paris, Split and Istanbul in 2025.
Seventeen of the carriages will be originals which were discovered in 2015 at the Małaszewicze station on the Polish border with Belarus.
They have now been transferred to France where they are being restored.
Relaunch is project of French national pride
The new Orient Express interiors are designed by Maxime d’Angeac, maintaining the Art Deco style but incorporating modern conveniences, especially in the bathrooms.
There will be a variety of accommodation on offer from a presidential suite occupying a whole carriage to a modest double compartment.
As well as sleeping cars, there will be dining cars, bars and lounges from which travellers can enjoy the spectacular scenery.
The intention is for some of the train carriages to be on display at the 2024 French Olympics.
“The Orient Express should be a project of national pride, a showcase for French hospitality and savoir-faire,” says Accor’s CEO Sébastien Bazin.
Ticket prices not yet revealed
The exact routes, timetables and ticket prices are currently under wraps however, but are expected to be published before the summer.
The Orient Express has been immortalised by authors including Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Bill Bryson and Ray Bradbury.
It has also featured large in the films Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, From Russia with Love, Travels with My Aunt, Murder Mystery, and Around the World in 80 Days.
The list of television programmes and series set on the Orient Express is virtually endless.
It has also inspired symphonic musical pieces, board games and computer games.