Blog post

The Orient Express

'King of trains, train of kings'

map of Europe showing the routes of the Orient Express
Éva Tompa (opens in new window) (Forum Hungaricum Non-profit Ltd.)

The Orient Express is a lavishly designed train which crossed Europe linking West to East. Its route also covers the history of 19th and 20th century Europe, travelling via these era's aspirations for independence and the emergence of nation states.

Colour poster advertising the Orient Express, it features a panorama of Istanbul and the names of numerous cities which are on the train route

The best opportunity to realise the idea of the Orient Express came in the last decades of the 19th century, when the weakening of the Ottoman Empire led to a surge in independence aspirations in the Balkan countries which it had occupied. The desired rail link between Paris and Constantinople (today's Istanbul) was, of course, largely due to the interest of Western European countries in Eastern Europe, as the word Orient in its name suggests.

The construction of the east-west railway line across Europe was realised by a Belgian banker, Georges Nagelmackers. In 1873, he established the first European dining car and sleeping car company, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The railway company's reputation was enhanced by the fact that the King of Belgium, who was also the main shareholder in the train company, gave his blessing to the use of the royal lion emblem on the sides of the carriages.

gold logo of Wagons Lits International Train Company on a black background, the logo shows a crest of two lions surrounded by a circle of ribbons and leaves

Nagelmackers bought the most modern carriages of the time. Known as bogie carriages, they were equipped with all the comforts and splendour of the time. His idea was to give rail travellers the luxury of a journey in the same conditions as if they were staying in a comfortable hotel.

photograph of the bar carriage on the Orient Express

However, it wasn't just the interiors that made train travel a luxurious experience: the bogie carriages did not shake as much as other less modern trains, which ensured that men didn't have to worry about cutting themselves during shaving and ladies didn't have to worry about their lunch ending up on their clothes.

photograph of sleeping car on the Orient Express
photograph of the dining car on the Orient Express

The Orient was a true luxury train, for which only first class tickets were available at the time. Monogrammed leather chairs and shiny, ornate copperware awaited passengers with fat wallets. Not only was the Orient Express's design excellent, but so were the staff. First in rank was the chef de train, who was practically in charge of everything on the train, followed by the conductors of the carriages, who wore peaked caps, gold-fringed uniforms and shiny boots.

colour diagram showing images of the uniforms from the Orient Express
black and white illustration of staff serving passengers in the dining car of the Orient Express

The first direct rail link between Western Europe and Constantinople was established in 1889, on a Budapest-Belgrade-Sofia route.

The period between 1889 and 1914 was the heyday of the Orient Express, with the train reaching Constantinople from the French capital in 67 hours and 35 minutes. The Orient's viable model owed much to the consistent Hungarian railway policy of the late 19th century, which paid great attention to the development of rail links with the Balkan states.

After the Trianon peace treaties, the role of the luxury train was taken over by the Simplon-Orient express, which bypassed Hungary. The train returned to its original route only in 1924, and remained on it until 1939, when World War II broke out. Service was restored in 1948 - however, after the war, the train lost its luxury status, and second-class carriages were added. The Orient last departed for Istanbul in 1977.

poster for the Orient Express showing panorama views of Istanbul

Many celebrities travelled on it, including Agatha Christie, who was inspired when the Orient Express was stuck in a snowstorm not far from Istanbul in 1929. It was stranded on the open track for eleven days, during which time food was purchased from nearby villages for stranded passengers. This is said to have inspired the author's novel Murder on the Orient Express, which has been adapted into numerous films.

still photograph of a scene from Murder on the Orient Express showing two actors speaking
poster for 'Fermate l'Orient Express' showing image of a train on tracks

As a travel concept, the Orient Express was able to achieve the 'impossible', as it created a lasting connection between Western and Eastern Europe, despite uncertain political situations.

green book cover of the Paris-Constantinople Orient Express itinerary

Although the rolling luxury train was shattered by the world wars and the Cold War in the 20th century, the Orient is still synonymous with luxury and splendour in the public mind. Our accelerated world became the destiny of the legendary train, where the conditions of travel have become less important than the journey time.

This blog was translated by Zita Aknai, Forum Hungaricum Non-profit Ltd.