Since the 1800s, the Orient Express has defined the platinum standard for luxury tourism. A triumph of late-nineteenth-century engineering, it linked the banks of the Seine with the shores of the Bosphorous for well over a century.
Synonymous with romance and glamour, the train's fabled opulence attracted passengers as illustrious and varied as Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, David Bowie, and Queen Elizabeth II of England. Meanwhile, its sprawling routes and onboard intrigue captured the imaginations of Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Ian Fleming, and Leo Tolstoy.
The real Orient Express was discontinued in 2009, after nearly 130 years in operation. Now, the only direct rail journey between Paris and Istanbul occurs once each year aboard Belmond Ltd.'s Venice-Simplon-Orient Express. A single ticket for this trip costs around £17,0000 on average.
Thankfully, for those whose travel budgets do not surpass what 20% of Americans make in a given year, the historic Orient Express can be experienced for a fraction of that cost. The trick is to use a series of connecting railways to independently re-create any of the train's three original routes.
Knowing how requires knowing a bit of its history.
1883-1891: The Express d’Orient
For decades, the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) had aspired to bridge Europe and Asia Minor by rail.
From Giurgiu, travelers were ferried across the Danube River to Bulgaria, where a passenger train followed by a steamboat would to carry them to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), on the opposite shore of the Black Sea.
In 1889, CIWL eliminated the need for rail and ferry connections by completing its eastern railway. Subsequently, the Express d’Orient routinely ran an approximately 80-hour route between Paris and Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest, and Constantinople twice each week.
In 1891, CIWL began billing this service as an intercontinental sleeper train under a new name: the Orient Express.
1891-1977: The Orient Express
In July 1914, the rechristened Orient Express suspended all operations at the start of the First World War. In February 1919, it resumed running between Paris and Constantinople along a carefully revised route.
Whereas the classic Orient Express line had connected Paris with Vienna through Munich, the new Arlberg Orient Express line called at Zurich and Innsbruck, thus avoiding post-war Germany.
From Vienna, it alternated between the classic Orient Express's route to Istanbul (via Budapest and Bucharest) and a southerly path through Belgrade to Athens.
Just a few months later, in April of the same year, the Arlberg Orient Express was joined by the Simplon Orient Express, which offered a third parallel route between Paris and Istanbul by way of the Swiss-Italian alps.
After calling in Milan and Venice, the Simplon Orient Express arrived in Belgrade where, on scheduled days, it intercepted the southerly alternate Arlberg line bound for Athens. From there, it continued to Istanbul via Sofia.
In 1920, the Arlberg and Simplon lines were rejoined by the classic line, which resumed its original route through Germany.
In other words, while often envisioned as a single train, the Orient Express was actually a railway comprised of three interlocking lines—the classic, the Simplon, and the Arlberg—supplemented by various alternate routes and shared terminals across two continents.
Collectively, these lines connected over 30 major European cities on an east-to-west axis between their shared terminuses in Paris and Constantinople.
Between 1930 and 1939, at least one Orient Express line connected Paris with (newly renamed) Istanbul each day, while another linked Paris and Athens.
From Paris, ferry, rail, and motorcar connections stretched as far as Bordeaux, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam. From Istanbul, starting in 1930, the Taurus Express extension carried travelers to Baghdad, Tehran, Cairo, and beyond.
In the forties and fifties, the Orient Express became legendary for more than just its decadence. Nicknamed the "Spies' Express," it played a pivotal role in the transmission and expropriation of classified materials and political secrets across Europe.
As war again broke out across the continent, the Orient Express became the main artery of communication for the era's intelligence officers, insurgents, diplomats, and double agents. A favored means of transportation for American, British, and European operatives behind the Iron Curtain, it facilitated key political efforts toward both peacekeeping and espionage.
Despite its import, the Orient Express suffered intermittent shutdowns on all of its lines as a result of World War II, Communist expansion, and the Cold War. These factors, paired with the advent of commercial air travel, lessened passenger demand over time.
In 1962, the Arlberg Orient Express ceased operating as a part of the Orient Express network. That same year, the Simplon Orient Express was replaced with the Direct Orient Express, a slower train following the same route.
Both the classic Orient Express and the Direct Orient Express continued to link Paris with Istanbul thrice weekly until 1977 when the latter was discontinued. The classic line stopped servicing Istanbul shortly thereafter.
The disappearance of Istanbul from every Orient Express route in 1977 marked the end of its status as an intercontinental passenger train.
Technically, though, its classic line did remain on the rails for another few decades, running a reduced service between Paris and Vienna. By 2007, it was indistinguishable from any other ÖBB EuroNight train; however, it retained the famous Orient Express name on official timetables.
On December 12, 2009, the classic Orient Express line made its final run from Strasbourg to Vienna. At midnight on that date, the Orient Express name became absent from European timetables for the first time in over a century.
1982-present: Belmond’s Venice-Simplon-Orient Express
Not long after the historic Orient Express stopped servicing Istanbul, the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE) emerged as its self-appointed replacement.
In its own right, the VSOE is magnificent: striking an exquisite balance between cultural nostalgia and turn-of-the-century luxe. Besides that, though, it has little in common with its namesake.
Perhaps most importantly, while the historic Orient Express was a regular (albeit stylish) passenger rail service, VSOE is purely a luxury vessel.
It recreates the journey from Istanbul to Paris once each year as a stunt: otherwise, it follows incomplete renderings of the Simplon and Arlberg routes, or else offers routes unrelated to the historic Orient Express.
VSOE's parent company, Belmond Ltd., heavily insinuates in its marketing that the VSOE is a refurbished version of the historic passenger train operated by CIWL. In fact, the only real connection is a retained agreement with SNCF, the transportation company that now owns the "Orient-Express" trademark.
Similarly, while it is true that all of VSOE's cars bear the crest of CIWL, this is only because CIWL leased and sold sleeping cars all over Europe during the twentieth century.
The VSOE’s own cars were bought at auction in the 1980s. They are the LX model rail that CIWL developed in 1929, which were used by the company's younger trains, such as the Train Bleu and the Nord Express.
The Orient Express, by contrast, used mainly S-type cars before the Second World War, and almost exclusively Z-types thereafter. As such, it is highly unlikely that any of VSOE's restored cars were ever used on their historic namesake.
In other words, Belmond’s VSOE is really only a desirable option for travelers who seek to cosplay the twentieth century bourgeoisie on a train with little or no connection to the original Orient Express.
Travelers who wish to experience a more authentic passenger journey, which mirrors the historic Orient Express—or who simply seek a rail route between Paris and Istanbul for less than $20,0000—should forego purchasing their VSOE ticket and recreate the journey themselves.
Recreating The Routes
Each of the three original Orient Express routes is a modern odyssey of historic proportions. Anyone can be independently recreated for under $500 as a series of interconnecting train journeys, all fully customizable and completable in as little as four days.
The classic Orient Express:
The Simplon Orient Express:
- Sofia (alternately: Athens)
The Arlberg Orient Express:
- Bucharest (alternately: Belgrade)
- Istanbul (alternately: Athens)