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04 May 2010

Orient Express – Portal to Adventure


Orient Express… Just saying that train’s name conjures up images of royalty and spies, arms dealers and aristocrats traveling across Europe in unimaginable luxury. Crystal goblets and embroidered tablecloths set with the finest wines and most complex liqueurs, while peasants peeked through the windows at the gilded furniture and frescoed ceiling. Liveried stewards managed to know every passenger’s language – and keep all their secrets.

No wonder authors flocked to set their stories aboard it – Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, Eric Ambler, and even Ian Fleming. The amazing thing to me is that the reality was, in many ways, even better than the legends.

It all started with the maiden voyage in 1883, for which a ticket cost the equivalent of a year’s rent on a high-class London townhouse. If passengers had any qualms about the stewards’ ability to offer suitable service, they could provide their own servant at the price of approximately one year’s wages. Obviously, this was designed for the wealthiest of the wealthy – even if the route had been cobbled together. (King Leopold II of Belgium, the railroad’s original sponsor, pressured his relatives to allow the train passage, despite their suspicions that this was an attack on local railroads’ monopolies.)

The train had two wagon-lit sleeping cars accommodating twenty passengers each, a restaurant car, a car for baggage and the very high quality food, wines, liqueurs, and other required luxuries. The sleeping cars were as exquisite as music boxes. Even better, they were heavily carpeted, well heated, insulated against noise – and so well cushioned that a gentleman that a gentleman could shave without cutting himself. (Try duplicating that feat on a twentieth century train!)

The locomotive was equally carefully selected, since a breakdown in the Balkans during this war-torn period would have been disastrous.

The liveried waiters were not allowed to wear glasses but were required to wear powdered wigs. The Burgundian chef had a beard and was attended by six assistants.

Only men boarded the first train in Paris; two women would join them later, in Vienna. (Perhaps other ladies were offended that the dining salons were segregated by gender and hence declined to join? On the other hand, that was the era’s custom – and it must have made for fabulous gossip sessions, dahling.) The company included journalists: Edmond About later wrote De Pontoise à Stamboul, the official account, and Henri Opper de Blowitz, the Paris correspondent for The Times of London, made sure that millions could read about every mile of the trip in his syndicated columns.

The first Orient Express left Paris for Constantinople on October 4, 1883 so smoothly that few passengers realized they’d departed. A ten-course dinner was served at 8 P.M., which provided sustenance for the journey to Strasbourg. They crossed the Rhine at dawn (a sight most passengers slept through) and reached Vienna by late evening, where the Emperor’s Court Chamberlain led a grand reception committee. (Now I ask you: Would this happen to a modern airplane passenger? Hardly!)

Endless speeches were spiced by national anthems for all the passengers, performed by the Imperial Guard’s band. The exhausted guests probably enjoyed “The Blue Danube” more, since that marked a shift to the station restaurant for supper, champagne, and imperial Tokay. (Yes, more fine wine!)

After that, most of the passengers staggered back to their compartments to catch some shuteye. But a few brave souls boarded state carriages to see the newly lit – by that modern wonder, electricity – Ringstrasse, the floodlit Opera House, the Hofburg, and the House of Parliament. (This special tour may have been linked to the presence of Herr Porges, the European head of the American Edison Company, who could always find an opportunity to showcase his company’s products.)

The Orient Express left Vienna during the night and reached Budapest early in the morning. At the station, a military band played traditional airs, goulash was served from steaming kettles – and the passengers were not allowed to leave the building.

Any disappointment vanished when they reached Szegedin, an ancient Hungarian city. Here, a gypsy band dressed in traditional silks and gold jewelry sang and played for two hours in the dining car. The gypsy king danced with the Viennese ladies and they played “La Marseillaise” for the Burgundian chef. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as they rolled toward the Transylvanian Alps.

Once past the Danube’s spectacular Iron Gates, the passengers dined with the King and Queen of Romania at their private resort. The king wore his parade uniform, the queen wore Romanian national costume, the courtiers wore tails or uniforms, while the poor passengers were by this time becoming slightly bedraggled. Entertainment was provided by a famous Romanian soprano, badly accompanied by the queen – who undoubtedly received much praise for her portion of the performance.

Afterward, the party walked down the hill in a rainstorm to reboard the Orient Express and reached Bucharest well before midnight. There they enjoyed an excellent midnight supper. Romanian women were famous for their beauty and sexual inventiveness. Unfortunately, the journalists’ accounts stop abruptly short at this point.

Long after midnight, the train departed for the small frontier port and the ferry across the Danube to Bulgaria. There, the passengers sadly had to say goodbye to their beautiful accommodations and board a much more primitive train. Bandits were so prevalent here that the men rode with their pistols out, in preparation for an attack. (One came in 1891, which took over a million dollars in today’s currency.)

Finally, the intrepid adventurers reached the Black Sea port and the ferry for Constantinople. Dawn broke as the Espero entered the Bosporus and headed toward Constantinople. The sun sparkled on the blue Mediterranean waters and dozens of boats danced around the boat with its passengers. Ottoman palaces dotted the shores like white flowers arising from green gardens. Great domes and minarets climbed over the hills – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and more. The Belgian ambassador, the sultan’s chamberlain, and other Turkish officials greeted them on the pier. They were probably happiest to see the finest European hotel in the city.

Their visit included a private tour of Topkapi Palace, oldest and greatest of Ottoman palaces, and a lengthy shopping excursion in the Grand Bazaar, which was old before the Byzantine Empire fell.

The Orient Express returned to Paris exactly on schedule, eleven days after it had departed – and ready to give birth to legends.

Only a few years later, along came “Sir” Basil Zaharoff, an ethnic Greek originally from Constantinople but traveling with a British passport. Known in his own time as “The Merchant of Death,” he’s said to have earned at least a pound sterling in gold for every casualty in World War I, thanks to the armaments he’d sold to both sides. His mastery of bribery, corruption and “dirty tricks” can only be described as amazing.

But he met the love of his life aboard the Orient Express. María del Pilar de Muguiro y Beruete stumbled into Zaharoff’s compartment after her insane husband Don Francisco, Principe de Borbon y Borbon, tried to kill her on their wedding night. Zaharoff refused to give her up, even though her husband was a cousin of the King of Spain and the scandal imperiled highly profitable business ventures just before the Spanish-American War. Zaharoff and his lady were married almost four decades later, after the madman died, but only enjoyed eighteen months together before she passed away.

Zaharoff always used compartment No. 7 after that when he took the Orient Express – the same compartment where she’d found him. When he died, he gave orders that his ashes were to be scattered from the window of compartment No. 7 at exactly the same place and time of day where he’d first met his lady.

Sometimes true life offers the greatest romance and adventure, even if Zaharoff must have been one of the world’s most spectacular rogues.

Is there a place in history that you’d love to be whisked off to? What author told you about it first? What adventures would you hope to enjoy there?

I admit my own longing to visit Constantinople was a major inspiration for THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS and my book trailer for it.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love Istanbul! It's one of my favorite cities in the world. It feels like San Francisco in an alternate reality (Victorian houses line the water, there are suspension bridges everywhere, streets twist up hills, it even has its own version of street/cable cars).

And what a wonderful story about romance on the Orient Express! Real life truly is far crazier than anything we invent.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Kalen - Istanbul has got to be one of the most fabulous cities in the world. Water everywhere, ancient buildings/fragments turned to new purposes - and the food!

The story about Zaharoff and his lady always reminds me of the adage that fiction is just like real life - except fiction has to make sense. What author would dare make up a story like that? :-)

1:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I think my favorite thing in Istanbul is the Yerebatan Sarayı (the cistern just outside of Topkapi). Even on the hottest day it's cool, they play classical music, giant carp flit by under your feet, and they have lovely canteen where you can buy lunch.

The Medusa heads are amazing too. It's really quite amazing to see scavenged building materials that are that much older than the already ancient cistern. And the whole place is like that!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_Cistern

1:41 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh Kalen isn't that just the most unimaginably spooky and wonderful place? I too love it so much that I set a scene in The Devil She Knows there. Maybe we should share pointers about settings. LOL

5:56 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

What an interesting post. The Orient Express is out there as a symbol of intrigue, elegance, and suspense. Never knew any of the details. Oh, to be able to recreate that trip. It would be fantastic, interesting, and so expensive.
There are many places I'd like to visit. Hard to choose just one. My first trip would probably be to the Highlands of Scotland. I want to travel the mountains, visit the cities and the castles, and see everything. As for authors, Julie Garwood was the first one to bring the Highlands to me and there have been many, many others since.

In my youth I had a trip planned that would have taken me through Malaysia, Thailand, India, Damascus, Istanbul, Constantinople, Greece, Turkey, and I think Egypt. Unfortunately, 10 days into a 3 month trip I had to go home for a family emergency. I did make it to Singapore and Indonesia, with a very special stay in Bali. Wish I were 24, footloose and fancy free again. I'd love to do that trip today, but it wouldn't be the same at 63.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for a fabulous post, Diane! You so vividly recreated the Orient Express and the sights the passengers saw. So many wonderful novels set on the train and so many more possibilities for novels (I can't recall it ever being used in an historical romance?). "Murder on the Orient Express" was one of the first "grown up" movies I saw (I was seven or eight, my parents took me to lots of old movies but not that many first run ones). I remember being fascinated by the setting and the costumes.

Istanbul is also a wonderful setting. Tasha Alexander's recent historical mystery, "Tears of Pearl" is set there and brings it wonderfully to life. Can't wait to read your take on it, Diane!

As to historical settings I've long wanted to write about, I wanted to write about the Congress of Vienna for years before "Vienna Waltz" (which I'm currently revising). And I've also long been intrigued by Brussels at the time of Waterloo, which I touched on in one of my historical romances ("Shores of Desire") and am revisiting in my current WIP.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Wonderful post, Diane. It has always been my dream to take the Orient Express, at least from Venice to Istanbul, if not the full trip. I was in Istanbul for only a few minutes (from seaport to airport) a few years ago, and have always wanted to return and I have spent time in my belived Venice. And I've visted Paris and Vienna as well. But the whole atmosphere and experience of the Orient Express, not to mention all the points and vistas along the journey have a special, incredibly romantic aura for me.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Whoops! Sorry for the Freudian slip. Should have read "beloved Venice."

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Orient Express Trips said...

I am totally agree with you that Orient Express is portal to adventure and I think it is great trip. Train travel always pleased me and I really like to travel by train. I always gives priority to train and I am sure that if you people enjoy the train trip then you will also like train travels.

8:57 PM  

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