Romantic rail: taking the Venice Simplon Orient Express to Berlin
As a train lover whenever I hear the words ‘Venice Simplon Orient Express’ it lights up a special part of my brain. For most of my life that part dreamt of taking the ultimate romance of rail journey. These days it lights up with memories of the legendary train’s inaugural trip to Berlin, writes Amanda Woods.
I wasn’t the only one to dream of taking the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE, as she is also known) to Berlin. 25 years after he first had the idea when he worked as a steward on the train, last year the VSOE’s general manager Pascal Deyrolle turned his idea into a reality. Now Berlin is a permanent fixture on the train’s calendar and next year she will travel from London to Berlin on 21 June, returning Berlin to London on 23 June, with both journeys going via Paris.
As all VSOE journeys from London do, ours began at London’s Victoria Station on another train, the Belmond British Pullman.
Just as the VSOE carriages have been rescued from backyards and train graveyards and lovingly restored, so too have the British Pullman cars. As well as their physical beauty with detailed mosaics and marquetry each one has a tale to tell including the Cygnus car that once transported royalty and heads of state, and was part of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965, the last time a steam locomotive was used in a state funeral.
As we rolled through the English countryside, we sipped bellinis and discovered what adding caviar can do to a brunch of crumpets with salmon and eggs. Then after transferring to luxury coaches for the Channel Tunnel crossing to Calais we saw the VSOE for the first time, waiting for us in all her blue and gold glory.
A luxury time capsule on the tracks, the train’s journey back to life started when American entrepreneur James B. Sherwood bought a couple of the original carriages at auction in Monte Carlo in 1977.
He then became inspired to find more of the cars and now we can journey on cars steeped in history, including Sleeping Car 3309 which spent ten days stuck in a snowdrift in 1929, inspiring Agatha Christie to write Murder on the Orient Express which became the classic film that has just been remade by Kenneth Branagh and Ridley Scott.
For some, the authenticity of the original sleeper cars from the 1920s and ’30s is a bit too compact for comfort, but knowing this is how people travelled all those years ago made the journey all the more special for this train lover.
We may not have had showers on board, and the toilets may have been at the end of the carriage, but we had beautiful washbasins with Lalique glass to freshen up with in our cabins and I adored the detailed marquetry and other features from days gone by.
While no showers for our one night journey is one thing, longer VSOE journeys stop at hotels every second night so guests can have full bathroom access along the way.
Next year showers will appear on the VSOE for the first time, but not in the traditional carriages. Instead Belmond is introducing three private ‘Grand Suites’ with double beds, a living area, and private bathrooms with showers. The Grand Suites will stay true to the train’s 1920s art deco style and will take to the rails for the first time in March 2018.
Our journey to Berlin was among the first to experience another new feature on the train. The 3764 Bar Car was added last year with space for a piano and a small band, comfortable spots for lounging and a small bar with an impressive cocktail and caviar menu.
It’s a stylish and welcome new addition but the three most beautiful cars on the train in my eyes remain the distinctive restaurant cars from the 1920s: the Cte d’Azur with stunning Lalique glass panels, L’Oriental with Chinese style black lacquer, and Etoile du Nord with exquisite marquetry.
As well as being used for meals, you can slip away to the restaurant cars to have a pot of tea or glass of champagne while writing postcards to put into the onboard mailbox, or to simply soak in the beauty both inside and outside the train.
Our last morning through the German countryside took us along the Rhine where we watched castles, charming houses and vineyards go by, and as we looked out people were stopping to look back and wave.
As we pulled into Berlin Hauptbahnhof I was excited to be back in one of my favourite cities but far from ready to say goodbye.
I had always thought that the VSOE would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience but I’m now hoping I’m wrong and that one day I’ll have a chance to do it again. And next time I’ll make it on the longest journey possible.