Agatha Christie would still recognize the resurrected (in 1982) and highly re-priced Orient-Express although the name of the train is now the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE). You can travel from Victoria Station in London across the Channel (by boat, not train) and Europe to Santa Lucia Station in Venice, or you take the less crowded reverse route starting in Venice. Service is twice a week in each direction. A friend who has taken the train in both directions is convinced that leaving from Venice allows one to see the best scenery during daylight hours. She also advised that the bar car was the place to meet the rich and famous. And since the London office of VSOE threw in airfare from London to Venice for a song, I was easily persuaded to begin in that wonderful Italian city no larger than New York City’s Central Park.
After three exquisite days in Venice, we took a water taxi to the ferrovia (train station). I though we had a gondola arranged but there was obviously a communication gap. It took thirty dollars and ten minutes from Pensione Accademia to ferrovia. On the way we passed three traffic lights above the canals. There was even a traffic cop giving a ticket to a taxi driver on one canal. For 2 euros, I let a porter carry my two small bags. I’m glad I did. He went straight to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express red carpet reception area. They had me listed as a Mrs. But a quick check with a supervisor confirmed the clerk’s suspicion that I was a man and all clear for departure.
Don’t bother moving your bags while in the short and fast moving line. Leave them where they are dropped by the porter. The clerk will leave the counter and attach the baggage labels designating which car and compartment your bags should be placed in. An official VSOE porter, wearing the proper symbol on his jacket, will then take care of the bags. Sit down as a nearby table and have a cup of espresso and watch the parade of smartly dressed passengers. You cannot overdress for the Venice Simplon-Orient Express. Admire the gleaming blue cars with gold lettering. The cars of the Compagnie International Des Wagon-Lits await your personal pleasure. Savor the anticipatory moment before the rush of ecstasy. It’s a proud train. Take its picture.
My bags were delivered to my cabin by Frankie. His Scottish accent caused some minor strain at first as I listened to his brief but thorough introductory explanation of how everything operated. Push the button to turn on the blue light if I needed his assistance. I tried it out a few times over the next day and a half, and he was there instantly. I don’t think they sleep at all. I wanted to take little Frankie home.
Before the headwaiter arrived to ask me which lunch seating I preferred, there was time to examine my personal gift catalogue and VSOE magazine describing the train and route. The magazine includes a history of each wagon in the train. My sleeping car, No. 3544, was used as a brothel during World War II and was used by the owner of the train during the VSOE’s inaugural run in 1982. The Italian vineyards of the Veneto passed into the city of Romeo and Juliet, Verona. Lunch was ready and so was I.
The dining car was nicely appointed, not gaudy or overdone as I had half expected just a bit more decoration and wood than the old Canadian Pacific. But the food! The light lunch consisted of scallops in pastry followed by veal, ravioli, and spinach. The finale was dark chocolate mousse with a chocolate covered cookie. Every time my wine got to within an inch of the bottom, the waiter was there to pour more. He even had this mildly annoying habit of straightening my knife at every opportunity.
I cannot describe the perfection of the food. Let me just say that I do not eat veal but entirely enjoyed my two medallions. My companion, a veal gourmet, said it was the best she had ever eaten. And she’s eaten a lot.
You can keep the menus as souvenirs. But please don’t be so tacky as to take the thick, soft towels in your compartment. You will be charged for anything missing from your room. An $89 hand towel is not a bargain keepsake.
Some basic facts about the sleeping cars would be helpful to timid travelers. There is a toilet at either end of each car. However, one toilet is in a restroom large enough to hold an Oakland Raiders huddle. The toilet seats are wooden and have handles. There are two comfortably wide berths in each compartment. If you are more than 6’2″, you will find them a bit short. Those people who suffer from cold feet should take the upper berth; the hot water pipe runs along the ceiling next to the outside window. There are plenty of towels, soap, and bottled mineral water. The hot and cold water faucets are marked with the first letter of the French words for hot and cold: F for cold and C for hot.
You are carefully moved to a different dining car for each meal. This gives everyone an opportunity to view the unique character of each car, and the unique characters in each car. Although you can never overdress for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, you can arrange ahead of time for special meals. I do not normally eat red meat. While the others had duck, I dined on a melt-in-your-mouth thinly sliced turkey breast. Its preparation and presentation were superb. The turkey and sliced colorful vegetables fanned across my plate. The sight was straight from the cover of Gourmet Magazine.
Before and after dinner, you can mingle with the rich and famous, or maybe just the rich, in the bar car. This car with its piano player will stay open as long as there’s a patron. It’s cozy. I especially enjoyed it in the morning before it was crowded. At night, the lack of ample seating made it too uncomfortable to enjoy during the rush times.
VSOE held the boat to England for us. And why not? The same company that owns VSOE owns the ferry. Our train was two hours late because of something VSOE called “technical difficulties in France.” We had our own private reception lounge on the boat. When we landed at Folkestone, we were quickly moved through British Customs and taken aboard the finely refurbished first class Pullmans for the fast ride to Victoria Station. The car we were in was called the Peruses. It was used as Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965. Of course, there was more food: cakes, scones, sandwiches, coffee, tea, and liquor. If you’re hungry, go ahead and ask for seconds on the food. No worries. I took thirds. And be sure to get up and look at the restrooms in all the cars. Don’t worry. Everyone does it. Each one has a different mosaic. There are baskets filled with miniature bars of Atkins’s soap in all the restrooms. Atkinson’s has been supplying the royal family with soap for hundreds of years. I only took a couple. Okay, twelve. But I have a lot of relatives.
I made a mistake at Victoria Station; I didn’t have a limo waiting. Almost everyone else did. It would have been a relief, a perfect ending, and a reasonable way to slip back into reality after our fantasy two-day trip. We made do standing in line waiting for a taxi. Next time I’ll have the Bentley waiting. And I would take the Venice Simplon-Orient Express again. It was worth the extra expense to be treated as though you were worth the extra expense. And you are. So what are you waiting for? Forget about saving for aluminum siding or new kitchen cabinets. Go play dress-up on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express.