Orient Express to Venice
The cream and brown liveried carriages of the British Pullman looked rather out of place on a Saturday morning in London Victoria station. This though was where we were beginning our luxurious train journey to Venice, an over-dressed group of commuters waiting at Platform 2, having checked in at the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express lounge.
A normal morning commute this certainly wasn’t, and very quickly we were dispatched to our appropriate carriages, all with poetic names like Audrey, Gwen and Perseus – our home for the journey to Folkestone. All the carriages of the British Pullman have their own history and according to a card on our beautifully laid table, Perseus had formed part of Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965.
It certainly felt like we had gone back in time as we were served scrambled egg and smoked salmon on elegant china plates and peach bellini in fine crystal glass flutes. The route to the coast took us along quiet branch lines through rural Kent countryside. It was as if the modern world had been left behind back in the suburbs of London and we had been too pre-occupied with brunch to notice.
The magic was somewhat broken – or at least put on hold – once we reached Folkestone. A brass band heralded our arrival and the walk to the car park. Here we boarded a very modern coach and were despatched to the port, where we all wandered around the terminal building in our formal attire looking slightly lost for little while before being shepherded back aboard for the drive onto Le Shuttle. Our American neighbours on the coach were most bemused by this turn of events, especially once the coach was parked on the train and the lights all dimmed.
However, there was wine and nibbles to see us through to Calais where we left Le Shuttle and drove through the town centre to Calais Ville station, where the magic returned. Here was the famous train in all its blue, gold and cream glory, with a row of stewards in uniform to welcome us on board. Somehow our luggage had already been spirited to our compartment and our steward Wolfgang was on hand to point out the facilities and the call bell, which he would answer for anything we wanted. Apparently, if we were cold he would even shovel more coal into the fire that provided our heating.
This was the life, and a short time later we were changed into our finest and having a pre-dinner drink in the opulent bar-car, serenaded by a very tall musician at a very small grand piano. Dinner was a thing of gourmet beauty. There was a fixed menu with optional extras (like caviar) at additional cost. The only complaint I had was that even the house wine was very expensive – and not very good, considering that the food was so spectacular.
But we passed a lovely evening in the company of the guests sharing our table (you can request a table for two but it’s on a first come, first served basis and there is no guarantee unless you pay a supplement – as friends travelling together we weren’t bothered by this arrangement at all) and then repaired to the bar car for more bellinis and good company.
Wolfgang had advised us to get up early to see the views as we passed alongside Lake Zurich. But since this was a holiday and we didn’t really fancy getting up at 6am, that didn’t actually happen. The views at 8am weren’t too shabby though with the distant backdrop of mountains through Liechtenstein and into Austria accompanying us through breakfast in our compartment.
By lunchtime we were hungry again, and just as well because there were four courses of spectacular food to get through – some of the best food I have ever eaten in my life, cooked in a kitchen not much bigger than my hall landing. Because we lingered over lunch, it wasn’t long at all before Wolfgang was knocking on our cabin door offering us tea and cakes. Luckily the cakes were very small and the range of teas came in a wonderful wooden selection box.
I have always said that there is no better way of arriving in Venice than across the lagoon into Santa Lucia station by train. But I was wrong. Gliding into La Serenissima aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express – that is an experience you will never forget.