Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



July 1, 1986 -- Maybe it’s not quite the super-deluxe experience we’ve been led to believe it is, and it is pricey, even in these inflationary times, but the reincarnation of the Orient-Express between London and Venice, with stops in Paris, Zurich and Innsbruck, is certainly worth the ride at least once. The itinerary, end to end, spans 1,066 miles and some 30 cars, most of which were built in the late 1920s. Each car has a dossier: for example, Sleeping Car 3544, built by the French in 1929, was used as a brothel in Limoges during World War II. Maybe the car’s been haunted.

Boarding the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (its full name) at 10:30 on an overcast Venice morning in mid-November, we were treated to a ragged check-in that did not get things off to a warm start, nor did the chilly compartments. Boarding forms should have been filled out in advance and the train preheated. My single cabin struck me as rather cramped, as did the doubles I saw later. I was heartened, however, by the classy and complete literature; I’ve rarely seen a more evocative route map. Nice touches: the steward comes by to give you an introductory briefing; then the maitre d’ with dining car arrangements and a seating card.

Over lunch I decided that the dining cars are elegant and comfortable, the service agreeable and the food good, particularly for a train. Included in the fare is a set lunch, which you can augment or replace with a la carte selections. The wines are affordable and pleasant. The bar car is jammed before and after the meal, which has two sittings. The scenery slipping by begins to lock in my attention. A bleak morning has given way to brilliant afternoon sunshine as we head north into the Alps.

The train’s windows frame the scenery. A road marching in slender pillars over a steep valley; an occasional castle perched on high ground, from which they once radiated security, wealth and power, and collected tolls from transients entering the valley. The lower ground carries more snow as we move through the Brenner Pass. First visible only on higher peaks, the snow lies everywhere? (The train has become comfortably warm.) We’ve left Italy for Austria and afternoon tea is served, featuring Twining tea bags and a quartet of pastries, one of which is Austria’s national cake, Sacher torte.

I keep the door to the compartment open so I can sample the landscape on both sides. The mountains are higher, more massive, the snow looks deep enough to ski. (This early?) The seasonal trees still carry fading fall colors, although the evergreens with snow trim dominate. It is dark before five o’clock; the dramatic Swiss Alps will be lost to the night.

Any fantasies about romance on the Orient-Express should be shelved, unless you book three adjoining cabins to confide your activities to the middle one. Even then there’s not a lot of room—look for sprains and bruises. It should be kept in mind that these cars are narrow by today’s standards. That did not, by the way, keep me from getting a good night’s sleep; I like the rocking motion. The comfortable cots, made up by your steward while you dine, run along the width of your cabin, rather than in conventional lengthwise configuration. The cabin is equipped with towels, a wash basin with very hot water, plus bottled Evian drinking water and just enough room to wash, shave and change. The steward in each car stokes the furnace with coal and wood; remember, these are cars from the twenties.

Many of the 160-odd passengers climbed into tuxedos and flapper outfits for the Saturday night dinner. F. Scott and Zelda were not far away. Those of us awaiting a future sitting were invited into the bar car, where people sang at the baby grand and generally had a high old time. Of course, sardines in their cans have more breathing room, and navigating the bar car at peak hours requires the services of a Mississippi riverboat pilot. A second bar car would be welcome, but I was told that those of the required vintage are hard to come by.

Dinner was very, very pleasant, with many courses, nicely served (our table ordered a Sancerre white and a St. Emilion red); I especially enjoyed the wide selection of cheese after the beef entrée. There was a convivial, relaxed feeling abroad our train that Saturday night. Even the absence of celebrities didn’t diminish the luster. We’d been told that this train, on the way in from London, had carried Lord and Lady Snowden; you remember Tony, the posh London photographer who was once married to Princess Margaret?

When I raised my compartment shade Sunday morning, we were rolling through the featureless rural countryside of Central France just south of Paris, which did provide an easy backdrop to the continental breakfast served by the steward. (I tipped him $15, the captain and waiters another $15, although the latter is considered optional.) After Paris it poured all the way to the coast, obscuring the countryside. At Boulogne we boarded a Sea Link ferry for the two-hour Channel crossing (Sea Link is a division of Sea Containers Ltd., the people who also own the Orient-Express). Sunday brunch on the train had been excellent, with eggs and salmon, two half lobsters (langouste, no claws), and a fine dessert.

There was general agreement that the Orient-Express would be a better ride in high summer with sixteen-hour days and more sights to see for your money. (The $820 per person tariff this year ain’t hay.) Only a real railroad buff or maybe a ski maven would enjoy it fully in midwinter.

White caps, wind and rain accompanied us across the Channel, but it was comfortable enough. At Folkestone we climbed onto the British Pullman carriages for the final leg to London and afternoon tea. The car we were in, Ibis, a twenty-seat first-class kitchen car, was built in 1925, and it is truly elegant and impressive, as are the sister vehicles.

That very evening in London, ensconced at the Dorchester Hotel, I caught a movie with Cheryl Ladd called Romance on the Orient-Express. I won’t comment on the flick, but the roomy cabin occupied by Miss Ladd, playing a magazine editor from New York, could only have been conceived on a Tinsel Town set. It is nice to travel deluxe.

Just possibly the single most rewarding experience of this journey took place in Venice the night before we joined the Orient-Express. The Hotel Cipriani brought to you by the same London-based company which give you the train and the channel ferry, is an outstanding property. The setting alone is spectacular, on its won island within camera distance of the best of Venice (Piazza San Marco, etc.), or just minutes away by motor launch. The rooms in the new wing certainly rate as superior; James Bond would’ve been turned on by the gadgetry and luxury. There are cockpitlike control panels for moving drapes and sliding skylights, a television set that climbs out of a coffee table, six channels of music, a supper bathroom with family-size tub and Jacuzzi. Now there’s an environment for fantasy.

The hotel offered a fine meal in a splendid setting with graceful service. The Venetian cuisine included Carpaccio, pasta, scampi and turbot, chocolate soufflé. In better weather you can dine on outdoor terraces overlooking the lagoon. There’s also a tennis court. Room service for breakfast was snappy; I also liked the fast and clear telephone connections to the States. (One word of caution: the rooms in the old wing are not up to the quality of the new ones.) The ten-minute water taxi ride to the Cipriani was $30 U.S.—piracy!

Speaking of piracy, I was reminded of the taxi driver who had picked me up a week earlier at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. The dispatcher has quoted 42,000 lira, about $25 U.S. When we got to the Massimo D’Azeglio Hotel near the Stazione Termini in central Rome, this clown demanded 70,000 lire plus tax and tip to bring it to 88,000 lira, or U.S. $50. We finally settled on 50,000 lira, or U.S. $29. Not a nice welcome.

The Massimo D’Azeglio, incidentally, houses a very good restaurant with moderate prices. The hotel also has a high standard of service; I’ve never run into a better concierge desk; they actually do something for their guests. This standard holds true for all five Bettoja hotels in Rome, clustered near the railroad terminal, the best-known being the Mediteraneo.

Due to an Alitalia strike, four of us drove in a new BMW from Rome to Venice. Six hours plus. The segment from Rome to Florence is scenic and rewarding, even in early winter. There is good food at the frequent service areas along the Autostrada. I had fresh, delicious prosciutto on a crisp roll with a bottle of mineral water, under $2.50. These facilities are also very clean and well run.

The Florence-Bologna-Venice highway wasn’t much for the eyes, but it got us there. And arriving in Venice, any time of day or night, any time of the year, is always exciting. And then there was the Cipriani, which is represented for reservations worldwide by Leading Hotels of the World. Other Sea Containers Ltd. Properties include the Villa San Michele in Florence: the Lodge at Vail in Colorado; the Turnberry in Ayrshire, Scotland; the Welcombe at Stratford-upon-Avon; the Royal York in York and the Lochalsh Hotel, Kyle of Lochalsh; Ross-Shire, Scotland.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.