Orient Express on Polish tracks

It first took to the road 140 years ago. In 2008, it got stuck on a siding in Poland. Railway enthusiasts made a pilgrimage to Małaszewicze to admire the marvel. According to one of them, who somehow entered the abandoned carriages, there was still a smell of cigars in the upholstery of the couches.

Belgian banker Georges Nagelmackers wore a beard with sideburns, a cylinder and a cane as was befitting of the upper classes in the mid-19th century. The character of the pioneer was betrayed by a look of passion or madness, which is one thing. After a visit to America, where a railway was being built from east to west, the Belgian had dreamt of a similar project - linking the local routes in Europe into one, connecting the continent with steel rails. He had good foundations for them - his father, also a banker, had financed the first tractions in Belgium and neighbouring countries. Nagelmackers junior also had to negotiate permissions to travel across Europe, in which another promoter of the venture was helpful: the Belgian King Leopold the Second.

L for luxury

Nagelmackers wanted to cash in on other rich people - aristocrats, diplomats, politicians, businessmen, artists. In America, he met George Pullman, a manufacturer of lounges with reclining seats, which, in his opinion, had a flaw: in the dormitory, the sleepers were separated only by curtains, which did not take into account the sensitivity of the ladies. The Belgian designed four-person dormitories. He launched the production of such carriages at the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL).

Descriptions have survived that communing with the beauty of the train was a mystical experience. Everything was the best. In the sleeping carriages, the floor was lined with Turkish carpets, the walls with silk and mahogany. The dining car had windows with velvet curtains and candelabras with muffled light. Dishes characteristic of the passing regions were served on porcelain crockery with silver cutlery. Wine in crystal glasses was selected by renowned sommeliers. The bar wagon was equipped with a piano, useful for cognac. Porcelain washbasins, showers with hot and cold water. A boudoir for the ladies and a smoking room for the gentlemen are included in the line-up. A library for the willing. Service, too, was exemplary: waiters wore tailcoats, silk stockings and powdered wigs; a traveller in need called the conductor through an earpiece in the compartment.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The inaugural run of the Orient Express was set 140 years ago for 4 October 1883 from the Paris Gare de l'Est via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest to Constantinople. Before the 40 overjoyed passengers set off, Nagelmackers played a prank on them and steered them into a run-down and dirty depot. Shock! After a while, the bewildered company made their way to platform five, where a red carpet laid out in front of the gleaming Orient Express awaited. At 7.30 p.m., the conductor in a uniform with gold buttons and stripes gave the signal. Suddenly - a whistle! Suddenly - a swish! Steam - bang! Wheels in motion!
The machine moved slowly and sluggishly, but thanks to a modern steam locomotive, it developed a dizzying speed of 80 km/h! Faerovik Torbjorn in his book "Orient Express. The world from the windows of the most famous train" (Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 2020) describes passengers from a better world, who were entertained in the flesh by the Belgian owner, so that they did not notice that the axle of the dining car had overheated and it was replaced with a new one. High-Life magazine was handed out to guests, which described the passing world culturally and gastronomically. They were greeted by monarchs: the King of Romania and the Sultan of Turkey. In Szeged, Hungary, a Roma band playing violin and drums dropped by for a visit.

Yet in Giurgiu, Romania, all passengers democratically had to disembark from the train and take a ferry across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, to continue on a slightly poorer train. As compensation, they were transported to the Para Palace Hotel in Constantinople in glass lectures. It took the Orient Express 75 hours to complete its debut journey of 2,880 kilometres. And just six years later, after modifying the route via Budapest, Bucharest and Constanta, the time was reduced to 67 hours and zero transfers.

Legends were made. In 1891, near Istanbul, the train was attacked by bandits armed with revolvers and knives, who stole numerous valuables and were never caught - a scandal broke out. Shortly afterwards, the Orient Express-loving Bulgarian King Boris III, who often drove the depot to satisfy a whim, increased speed and stoked the fire too much, causing the clothes on the stoker to catch fire, at which point he jumped from the locomotive in shock. He died on the spot. The train with the king went on. It was said that most of the passengers were wealthy men who used women. Suffice it to say that Nagelmackers triumphed not only in railroading - he won a gold medal in equestrianism at the 1900 Paris Olympics. He died five years later, when the train had its sweet years ahead of it.

Although the service was suspended during the First World War, when the Germans launched a propaganda substitute called the Balkan Train (Balkanzug) between Berlin and Constantinople, the Orient Express was back in full swing from 1919. In three variants: the original route Paris-Constantinople; a modified one - through the longest railway tunnel Simplon in the Alps - continuing through Lausanne, Milan, Venice and Trieste - in a record time of 56 hours; and finally as the Arlberg Orient Express via Zurich, Innsbruck, Budapest and Bucharest to Athens. The CIWL ran a total of a dozen trains with Orient Express in the name: Venice Simplon Orient Express, Balt Orient Express, Nord Express, Nord Orient. Individual carriages were also incorporated into other international trainsets, which were marked 'L' for luxury in the timetables. Welcome aboard!

End of the route

In the winter of 1929, the train clashed with the harsh winter. Already before Budapest it stopped frequently and the staff had to go scouting along the tracks. In the Carpathian Mountains, the temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees and the cooks served barely warm food. Passengers asked if there was enough coal, food, water and wine. In Bulgaria's Svilengrad, the crew was warned of danger, the route had not been cleared of snow for two days, but the Orient Express owners telegraphed an order to continue. The train started and got stuck. In a snowdrift it was cut off from the world. Help was not coming. A struggle for survival began. One female passenger cut her wrists, but was rescued. Others came out from under their feathers to dig a tunnel in the snow. They managed to reach a Turkish village, where food and fuel were bought. Soon soldiers came to help.
In the winter of 1929, the train clashed with the harsh winter, getting stuck in a snowdrift 80km from Istanbul. Photo by Mary Evans Picture Library / Mary Evans Picture Librar / Forum
On 12 September 1931, near Budapest, a bomb placed by a Hungarian fascist destroyed a railway viaduct and the Orient Express fell into a ravine. Twenty-four people died. The stage artist Josephine Baker, one of the survivors, sang for reassurance. In 1933, writer Agatha Christie - herself travelling on the Orient Express, which got stuck in a snowdrift - wrote the detective story 'Murder on the Orient Express'. Here, twelve passengers kill Ratchett a.k.a. Cassetti for his past sins, as detected by the Belgian (!) detective Hercule Poirot. The book drew on and created the legend of the train, as the Orient Express became synonymous with suspense recurring in films, books, advertising, language.

The train also made great history. Restaurant car number 2419 was converted into the saloon of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who ratified the armistice with Germany on 11 November 1918 in the forest of Compiègne, near Paris. The carriage was donated to the Musée de l'Armée and displayed in the Place des Invalides in Paris. During the Second World War, after the defeat of France, Hitler wished to find wagon 2419 and on 22 June 1940 forced the defeated to sign an armistice. The war trophy then travelled to Berlin, where it stood in front of the city's cathedral. When the fate of the war was sealed, the wagon was destroyed by an Allied air raid or blown up by the SS.

The Orient Express soon resumed service, but the closed borders of Yugoslavia caused difficulties in reaching Athens, and courses to Istanbul were halted because of border problems with Bulgaria. It was not until the 1950s that the schedule was stabilised and the depot ran three times a week from Paris to Istanbul and Athens. The Iron Curtain did not stop the train, although the communist states were changing the comfortable carriages for their own, so luxury was replaced by a luxury-like product, to the understandable irritation of the rich.

The market for air travel, which reduced time and provided comfort, was also growing. In the 1960s, two of the three Orient Express services were discontinued and only the Venice Simplon Orient Express remained. In 1971, the CIWLT stopped production of new carriages. The last service on the original Paris-Istanbul route ran on 19 May 1977. The Orient Express was sidelined. French railways SNCF became the owner of the brand, the original carriages were parcelled out to minor carriers.

In the 1980s, American industrialist James Sherwood bought 35 carriages and restored them to their former glory. On 25 May 1982, the old-new train set off from London to Venice, although without SNCF permission to use the name Orient Express, the replacement Venice Simplon Orient Express was used. Tickets at £1,200 each were bought by celebrities Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, John Travolta. Success! Sherwood's company followed suit and launched further routes across Europe, including a ride on the original Paris-Istanbul route, albeit only once a year. Over time, the marshalling was reduced to three destinations - Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna. Finally, it was downsized to carriages attached to the Paris-Strasbourg express. In 2007, following the launch of the TGV service on this route, the Orient Express ran only on the symbolic Strasbourg-Vienna section. After two years, the service was finally suspended. End of the route! Get off! Honour was saved by mutations, including the Venice Simplon Orient Express, which ran from 1982 using the original carriages.

Three days in Krakow

The Orient Express in less valuable alterations regularly travelled through Communist Poland. The 1950s timetable shows the "Orient Express", soon to be replaced by the Nord Express on the Paris-Berlin-Warsaw route and the Balt Orient Express from Oslo or Stockholm via Poznań, Wrocław, Prague to Budapest. Strands of the luxury train ran to Warsaw and Krakow, the trainsets sometimes connecting at Zebrzydowice, from where they travelled to Prague or Paris. Individual carriages of the CIWL ran on routes not seen today: Warsaw-Istanbul, Warsaw-Trieste, Warsaw-Rome, Warsaw-Stockholm.
As a tourist train, not a scheduled one, the Orient Express visited Poland 35 years ago. On 9 September 1988, it stopped in Łowicz, from where guests travelled to Żelazowa Wola for a Chopin concert. The arrival at the Warszawa Główna station was recorded by a television crew. I stood among the onlookers, eager to watch the legendary train. As a souvenir, there were photos with the conductor in uniform and the cook in a white cap. I touched the gilded signboard of the 'Nostalgie Paris - Istanbul Orient Express', although the route was different: via Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow and Beijing to Hong Kong. The distance of 15,000 kilometres was covered in 19 days, which made it into the Guinness Book of Records. In order not to condemn the passengers to seeing the same sights a second time, they travelled back to Europe by plane, the wagons were sent by sea.

Preparations for the next mutation of the Venice Simplon Orient Express train to visit Poland began in 2004. The owners looked at tourist attractions and the hotel base. The railway infrastructure was also checked: platforms were measured, whether the train would stop safely for passengers and itself. The conditions of cooperation with the Polish State Railways (PKP) were asked about. In 2005, the Polish cross-country programme was included in sales catalogues. In 2006, Polish contractors were invited to Venice and travelled on the Venice Simplon Orient Express to Vienna. "It is a different world. There is an evening dress code, although many Americans take the train and, despite being reminded of the evening dress code, they often arrive for dinner in jeans or shorts. They are then asked to return to their cabins and eat at their place, so as not to spoil the entourage for those who want a return to the past with a piano bar, champagne, gowns and dinner jackets in original and antique mahogany carriages with marquetry and glass reliefs as described by Agatha Christie," says Piotr Rabczak of Intercrac, which looked after the train's visit to Poland. "It was only a year ago that air conditioning was installed in the undercarriage so as not to damage the structure of the carriage.

In 2007, the journey of the Venice Simplon Orient Express to Poland was dubbed the 'Slavic Dream' as part of Sherwood's 25th anniversary. Nineteen carriages - 15 passenger cars, three restaurant and one bar wagon - stopped at platform one of Krakow's Central Station for three days. "It's a break in the rules, because usually one night was spent in one place. That's the rhythm: overnight on the train, overnight in the hotel. Claude Ginella, general manager of the Orient Express, was delighted with Krakow and ordered an extra night at the five-star Sheraton Hotel. We visited Wawel Castle and Kazimierz. We had a gala dinner at the Wieliczka salt mine," recalls Piotr Rabczak. "The €6,000 ticket tempted 102 passengers, mostly Americans and some French. The train usually carries a lot of elderly people in their 80s, almost 90s. They travel with carers and couples and usually take combined single compartments. We knew how many wheelchairs we needed for the mine tour, how many people to push. We had four wheelchairs prepared. Then the other four ladies, although they were walkers, decided they wanted to go in wheelchairs too....

"It's an amazing, sentimental train journey of yesteryear. But you have to remember that these are luxuries by 19th century standards. It's mainly about the lack of air conditioning. The service, on the other hand, is top-notch. Everyone in business uniforms, like in an exclusive hotel," explained one passenger to a Krakow newspaper. "For me, this is the trip of a lifetime. Firstly, I am travelling on the most famous train in the world. I'm visiting Vienna, Krakow. Secondly, more importantly - I just proposed to my girlfriend in front of the Orient-Express. On this train we are embarking on our life together."
- On the train, guests are served a speciality of the place. In Krakow, it was sublime dumplings tested by a Swiss chef, a strict man, so we made adjustments. From Krakow we took a circuitous route through the night to Warsaw, otherwise we would have been in two and a half hours, where we had dinner at the Royal Castle. We also planned a stop in Malbork, as it was to Malbork that the capital of the Teutonic Order was moved from Venice - we toured the castle and had an elegant dinner. The train stopped for a while at the stations in Bydgoszcz and Poznań and then went on to Prague and Vienna," says Piotr Rabczak.

The Venice Simplon Orient Express returned to Poland in subsequent years, visiting Kraków, Warsaw, Bielsko-Biała, Czechowice-Dziedzice, Oświęcim and Zakopane. The last time it came was in 2011, when there was a change of ownership and the company from Saudi Arabia was not interested in the eastern direction. Some of the European routes were discontinued, although the Venice Simplon Orient Express still runs. It spends time from autumn to spring on the siding, but during the holiday season it visits Istanbul, Vienna, Budapest and Berlin on various routes from Paris or Venice. It has even had courses to the UK, where passengers are served from Dover to London by the elite carrier British Pullman.

Thirteen carriages

CIWLT carriages found their way to companies organising stylish tours in Russia. In 2008, after one of the tours, thirteen carriages - nine sleeping cars, a restaurant one, a bar, a luggage one and a bath wagon - stopped at Małaszewicze near Terespol. They could not go any further because it was not possible to change their chassis from wide Soviet tracks to narrower ones - the special carriages were left on the Belarusian side (Belaruskaja Chihunka), which demanded a huge sum for their storage. There was no one to pay the bill, as the company renting the depot went bankrupt and thirteen Orient Express carriages were stranded on a siding in Małaszewicze.

It was written that the sleeping carriages became a lair for the homeless, the restaurant and bar carriages a place for parties, although moonshine was served instead of champagne. Bonfires were burned on the floor, scrap collectors completely looted the furnishings. "Nonsense. From a siding by the main tracks, the train was moved to a loading ramp, where it was guarded by the Railway Protection Service. All equipment was stowed in wooden crates. When the glass was broken, the window was protected with fibreboard," says a railwayman from Malaszewicze. He toured the interior of the train himself and was impressed by the beautiful piano. He was not the only one: railway enthusiasts made a pilgrimage to Małaszewicze to admire the treasure. According to one of them, who somehow entered the abandoned carriages, there was still a smell of cigars in the upholstery of the couches.
Attempts were made to establish the owner, but without success. The portal rynek-kolejowy.pl has returned to the "complicated case" many times. In 2012, the owner of the rolling stock turned out to be an Austrian national, but he could not be contacted. It was only in 2017 that the French chain Accor Hotels bought a stake in the Orient Express brand from the SNCF railway and decided to take the carriages from Małaszewicze to France. This was handled by the haulage company MTD from Niemodlin. Marek Gutowski confirms the railwayman's words that the interiors of the wagons were in good condition. He shows a photo of leather seats in one of the wagons, where nothing is missing. "The inside was clean. There were some overnight homeless people who left their flasks, nothing else. Only the piano was out of tune. Worse trains used to go to university," jokes Gutowski.

The wagons were sent by truck, 4-5 at a time, to Opole, where they were covered with a tarpaulin so that the outer shell would not fall off during transport. And on to France, which was completed in December 2018. The wagons arrived safely, MTD was already hauling TGV and pendolino. From Vienna, it transported an even older and badly damaged Orient Express carriage. Why on trucks, not on the tracks? "It's too complicated. The cost of obtaining certification for the brake system of an old train travelling through Poland, Germany to France is greater than transporting it on trucks, says Gutowski. "We cut up wagons with a saw when we had information that a component would not be used later.

For Accor Hotels, hotels are the target: the Orient Express La Minerva will be built in Rome, the Orient Express Palazzo Donà Giovannelli in Venice. However, the company wants to return to its roots. The luxurious Orient Express La Dolce Vita, which - reminiscent of the Italian style of the 1960s - runs from Roma Termini station to Venice, Siena, Portofino or Sicily, has started on the Italian rails. The Orient Express itself is due to return to the rails in two years' time, which Accor had already announced in the business press and set for a 2021 debut, but pandemic has arrived. According to the plans, the legend will go from Rome to Paris, Split and Istanbul, i.e. a restoration of the legendary route is not planned for the time being.

The restoration of the carriages from Małaszewicze is still underway, but new bespoke ones have also been ordered beforehand. They have been packaged with 1920s design: rosewood, marble, wood marquetry, glass panels, fine leathers and fabrics have been used to evoke the spirit of the past. There are 30 regular suites for guests and one presidential which will occupy the entire carriage. "It's exciting to bring the spirit of the Orient Express back to life. The original train route was an innovation in combining Western and Oriental cultures and history with modernity. Travelling is our passion and lifestyle, so we want to bring the historic world to life and bring back the excitement of the journey," says the advert. Pricing unavailable.

In 2026, the 220-metre Orient Express Silenseas, hailed as the world's most luxurious yacht, will set sail for the Mediterranean - or the Caribbean, depending on the time of year. Its interiors will accommodate 120 passengers in 54 cabins, although a better word is suites of 70 m2 (the presidential one is 121.5 m2). Amenities: two swimming pools and a spa, two restaurants, an oyster bar and cocktail bar, an amphitheatre and a recording studio, should anyone catch the urge, not just seasickness. The French architect has also come up with three huge masts, whose innovative sails will be the main element of the vessel's ecological propulsion (natural gas may also be used, eventually hydrogen). Rumours of the death of the Orient Express have been greatly exaggerated. Hercule Poirot can still take his time in finding out who is to blame.

– Jakub Kowalski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: An exhibition on the Orient Express and its creator Georges Nagelmackers at the Belgian Railway Museum. Photo by Igor Pliner/bePress Photo Agency/bppa/ABACAPRESS.COM/AP/
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