Making tracks on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express

Enjoy a vintage experience filled with good food, beautiful scenery and gleaming carriages

 

I ate lobster three times in 24 hours. It all began when I stepped back in time to the 1920s and entered a world of Art Deco luxury, fiction and quite a dollop of glamour on a trip from London to Venice by train.

The journey began in Victoria Station on the vintage British Pullman train, the first stage of the trip to join the famed Orient Express train, now called the Belmond Venice Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE).

The British Pullman dates from the 1920s and regularly brings people on day trips around Britain. It is one of a stock of vintage trains owned by luxury travel company Belmond and used for the England leg of the trip to Venice. Ireland is due to get its own super luxury style train in August when the Grand Hibernian arrives.

The Pullman brings us in great luxury to the Eurostar Terminal in Kent where we take Le Shuttle to Calais to join the VSOE. Sitting on Liberty-upholstered armchairs we are served a smoked salmon brunch with Bellinis, champagne cocktails with peach juice. Everyone is giddily excited.

Arriving at the siding in Calais Ville the uniformed staff is lined up to welcome the guests. The VSOE is so much bigger than the British Pullman, sleeker and glossier. The navy, cream and gold paintwork gleams and glows.

The steward Marco is waiting to show us our compartments, masterpieces in quality and compactness. There are 15 layers of varnish on the French-designed marquetry panelling. For ablutions there is a wash stand behind the circular-polished veneer doors. No sign of the bed, the steward will see to that while we dine.

There is time before dinner to have a look around the train – the cocktail bar, the three dining cars, gifts in the tiny shop and the beautiful Lalique panels and Chinese lacquered walls. We peer into the tiny kitchen that will serve amazing meals, and I even find the cubby-hole where the coal-fired boiler is busy making heat.

It is winter and there is little to see from my window as the train gathers speed for Paris. A pre-dinner cocktail in the piano bar is the first opportunity to look at the other guests. Everyone is dressed up – you can never be overdressed on this train. No famous faces, just a lot of very nice people, some celebrating special events.

Poring over the menu choices of salt-marsh lamb from Mont St Michel or lobster from Brittany, I opt for the lobster soup with truffles to start. That is followed by Charolais beef with scalloped potatoes, a selection of French cheeses and chocolate mousse. The service is perfect, the table setting beautiful, with specially designed crystal glasses and monogrammed plates.

After dinner I am more than a bit excited to see my compartment turned into a bedroom. It is just perfect, crisp cotton sheets all turned down awaiting me. I am soon fast asleep, until morning when clanking at Strasbourg signals the changing of the engine for a Swiss one. This next stage is the most spectacular part; we are travelling right through Switzerland in daylight.

The lakes and mountains are stunning – like paintings, with snowy peaks reflected in still steely blue waters. It almost distracts me from my second lobster meal – lobster medallions with avocado tartar and Taitinger for breakfast!

The morning is spent admiring the view, the train takes the St Gotthard Pass and there is quite a bit of climbing, looping, switch-backing and tunnels. Lunch time arrives and we try the Cote d’Azur dining car with its beautiful Lalique panels. Duck this time with Chanterelles and delicious poached figs with gingerbread ice cream. We get to the changeover point for the engine, at Chiasso. The gleaming red Swiss one is replaced by an older green Italian version. As we cut a path through northern Italy, the scenery becomes more industrial. Afternoon tea provides a distraction, chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea. The steward offers vintage postcards that will be sent with the train postmark.

The train enters the plains of Lombardy and follows the Po valley. I feel an opera coming as we pass the famed Verona; many an opera singer used the VSOE to travel around Europe. As it gets dark we see the lights of Venice and pulling into Santa Lucia station, the staff line up to say goodbye.

My legs are feeling slightly wobbly. The 32-hour journey has felt like days away. Our launch arrives – a Riva boat. How else would you end such a trip, other than a night in the famed Hotel Cipriani, where I had lobster for the third time? This time it was served as a delicious risotto in the beautiful Oro restaurant.

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