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Volume 28, Number 3May/June 1977

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Murder of the Orient Express

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Apart from the fact that it was Zurich, not Paris, all was as it should have been: the cavernous railway station, the smell of trains, the platform bustle, and the brown-uniformed conductors in their smart, pillbox caps helping the blue-blooded and the wealthy into the gleaming, deep blue-and-gold coaches of the Orient Express.

Shouts, whistles, banging of doors, waving of flags, and the unique collection of refurbished vintage rolling stock pulled slowly from under the station canopy into the driving rain.

Ten-thirty on a cold, gray April morning, and the start of a majestic, 56-hour, 1,200-mile journey across Europe that was to include lavish, candle-lit dinners with beautiful strangers, tense moments at a Communist border, a brass-band welcome by the Turks, and a sharp return to realityat the end of the line.

As the antique train picked up speed through the Zurich suburbs, pretty secretaries waved to us from modern office buildings overlooking the tracks and a conductor moved noiselessly along the corridor placing crystal vases of fresh-cut flowers in mirrored niches at each end of the seven sleeping cars.

The brochure I had picked up from my bedside table told me we were travelling in one of the few extant Lx 16/20 luxury sleepers built in 1929 to the original Wagon-Lits design. It comprised eight richly upholstered mahogany-paneled compartments, each with its own washstand discreetly hidden behind folding doors, and was heated by an old coal boiler that, despite the fact our locomotive was electric, gave an impression of authentic steam.

The handout also advised that the light-stall shower car was available to passengers around-the-clock and although, unfortunately, the bar car had been left behind, drinks were available in the two, 50-year-old Côte d'Azur Pullman parlor cars. As if on cue, a waiter in a white, starched uniform with gold-braided epaulets, moved along the corridor shouting: "Apéritif!"

Slowly the 102 passengers gravitated toward the parlor cars and, over Negroni cocktails, began sizing each other up.

Through a careful bit of sleuthing —"I can't give you their names; they're traveling incognito," a tour guide had told me—I discovered they included Prince Friedrich Karl von Preussen and his wife Princess Luise, Baron and Baroness Huschke von Hanstein and Count Westerholt.

"What? No spies?" I queried my informant. Not this trip, he said. But last year, he confided, there was a retired British Secret Service officer who had made dozens of secret missions on the train during the two world wars. Disappointed, I surveyed the rest of the list: a mixed bag of rich businessmen and eccentric train buffs—mainly from Switzerland and West Germany, but with a smattering from Italy, France, Canada and the United States—who had each paid 2,000 Swiss Francs ($800) for a ride back into history, a weekend in Istanbul and a first-class charter jet flight back to Zurich.

The "Nostalgic Orient Express" was the brainchild of train buff and entrepreneur Albert Glatt, director of the Intraflug AG charter flight agency of Zurich, who first organized a trial run in 1976, with rolling stock rented from La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Railroading into the past was an instant success and Glatt then bought and restored the vintage train, which has so far made six fully booked runs between Zurich and Istanbul and Athens.

"My dream," Glatt told me over the international babble of voices in the parlor car, "is to take the train from Paris to Baghdad."

By now we were speeding through the vest-pocket state of Liechtenstein, across the Rhine, and beginning the tortuous ascent of the Austrian Alps. Our route—through the Arlberg tunnel to the Adriatic Sea and then across the Balkans to the easternmost rim of Europe—was that of the former Arlberg-Orient, one of the several super-deluxe expresses that linked Western Europe with the Orient in earlier days.

The first Orient Express left Paris on October 4, 1883—the outcome, so the story goes, of a shattered love affair. It was created by a young Belgian engineer named Georges Nagelmackers, whose father sent him to America to recover from a broken heart. There, he met George Mortimer Pullman, the architect of luxury, longdistance rail travel, and, reportedly inspired by him, returned to Europe to found Wagons-Lit.

Nagelmackers' inaugural Express d'Orient—six sleeping cars and a diner—took some 40 passengers via Munich, Vienna and Bucharest to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, from where they proceeded by overnight ferry to Istanbul. Later, a direct service was established to Istanbul, with onward connections from the eastern shore of the Bosporus to Damascus and Baghdad. . . . But now we had stopped and . . . were going backwards?

Not to worry, said Glatt. Unlike Nagelmackers' express, for which all tracks were cleared, we had to give way to an up-coming local.

Lunch—hors d'oeuvre de Lombardie, nouilles à l'Emilienne, faux-filet de boeuf a I'ltalienne, frontages, and fraises chantilly—at least lived up to the legendary haute cuisine of earlier Orients, even though we were running one hour late. We made up time in Innsbruck, Austria, by cutting short a scheduled three-hour sightseeing tour.

Back on board and wending our way along crag-sided Tyrolean valleys, preparations began for dinner (evening dress required). A lady in a pink bathrobe tripped past on her way to the shower car, and the faint smell of asparagus drifted down the corridor from the closet-sized kitchen where Italian master chef Vitaliano Falciola was cooking up another moveable feast on his primitive coal-burning stove.

Dressing for dinner took some doing in the swaying, six-by-four-foot compartment. The window blind unexpectedly shot up as we trundled through Kitzbuhel station, leaving me embarrassed in my underwear, and Eigeland and I ricocheted into the woodwork when we bent down simultaneously to put on our pants.

Such minor discomforts were quickly forgotten once we were seated in the candle-lit Pullman car, decorated with carved glass nudes by Rene Lalique, and paired off for dinner with two charming strangers. The famous "femmes fatales" of the Orient Express? Another disappointment! Just two working girls on a reporting assignment for a West German women's magazine. Or so they said.

As the train rattled through the night we ploughed our way through crème à la reine, saumon en bellevue and cuissot de veau, pausing briefly midway through Alaska souffle to have our passports stamped by customs officers who boarded the train at the Yugoslav border, and finally sinking into similarly overstuffed armchairs for coffee.

Well past midnight as we nursed a nightcap, conversation turned to the earlier days of the Orient Express. Talk of the Marquise of Polignac, who always brought along her own chef. Talk of King Leopold II of Belgium and his infamous royal sleeping car—Paris dancer Cléo de Mérode was such a frequent guest it was nicknamed "Cléopold." And talk of Princess Pauline Metternich of Austria, who scandalized her fellow passengers by wearing tight black dresses and smoking cigars.

Back in our compartment, now even more cramped with the beds down, I sympathized with Princess Pauline. Who, I wondered as I fell asleep, could expect anyone in such confines to get in and out of a crinoline?

I slept fitfully that night, cut myself shaving as we bounced along the Yugoslav roadbed, and was glad of a mid-morning leg-stretch during a two-hour stopover in Belgrade. We lunched—the usual five courses plus Irish coffee—in the less formal, red-walled dining car: there was not enough room for all of the passengers to enjoy the opulence of the Pullman parlors at every meal. Mid-afternoon saw one of the highlights of our journey. For old times' sake we were coupled up to a black steam engine and, belching clouds of gray coal smoke, trundled even deeper into the Balkans. The first trains to span Europe's 1,800 miles set new standards in speed as well as comfort. Early Orients astounded passengers by going as fast as 45 miles per hour. By the turn of the century they were chugging along at 60.

The countryside was now green and rolling and the mood on board the Nostalgic Orient Express friendly and relaxed.

But not for long.

As the train ground to a halt at the Bulgarian frontier, gray-uniformed Yugoslav border guards leapt aboard and converged, yelling angrily, on our sleeping cars.

Eigeland, a veteran of countless brushes with officialdom, instinctively put his cameras out of sight. Not so the amateur in the next compartment, who was still blissfully clicking away at border scenes—an absolute error in the Communist bloc—when the police pounced. The film was quickly confiscated, Glatt's pleas for its return were angrily rebuffed and the capitalist train was stonily packed on its way, its passengers somewhat jarred.

"They made me get out of the shower to show my passport," shrilled the lady in the pink bathrobe, en route from yet another visit to the bathing car.

It was dark by the time we pulled into Sofia's ultramodern railway station, alongside a Moscow-bound express. As passengers tumbled out to get a closer look at Bulgarian folk dancers performing on the platform for our benefit, a crew of railway workers pressed their noses to the windows of our carriage for a closer look at the antique bourgeois trappings of the train.

Another hurried sightseeing tour and we were off again, rattling through the night and another five-course meal. It was almost 2:00 a.m. by the time we had killed the last of our champagne with a toast to master chef Falciola, who bowed his way down the aisle of the diner to spirited applause.

Exhausted, we collapsed into bed . . . only to be rudely awakened two hours later by Bulgarian frontier guards demanding our passports (Did people really travel this way for pleasure?) . . . and again at 8:00 a.m. by a ragged rendering of a classical march I was too sleepy to recognize. It was banged, blown and blasted by the local brass band at the Turkish border town of Edirne. They meant it as a cheerful welcome, but I wasn't up to it. I was soon restored to good humor, however, fortified by fresh coffee and rolls and a stroll in the sunshine along the platform, now crowded with wide-eyed, happy children brought by their teachers to see the show.

It took us nearly seven hours to cover the last 150 miles from Edirne, along the Marmara Sea to Istanbul. The final portion was by coal-fired steam engine. As we chugged past the six minarets of the Blue Mosque, by the towering cupola of St. Sophia and beneath the walls of Topkapi Palace, I bade farewell to my fellow passengers. We had reached the end of the line. Asia faced us across the Bosporus.

And as we plunged into the noisy, milling crowd outside Sirkeci Station on the banks of the Golden Horn I remembered Agatha Christie's words from Murder on the Orient Express:

"It lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again."

John Lawton, a veteran U.P.I. correspondent, freelances from Istanbul and is a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

End of the Line
Photographed by Tor Eigeland and Khalil Abou El Nasr
Additional reporting by John Lawton
Additional photographs by Patrick De Noirmont

Meanwhile, in Paris, the original Orient Express—along with nearly a century of legends—neared its end.

It was May 20, 1977. It was seven minutes before midnight. Appropriately, it was a gloomy night and above the deserted station—the famous Gare de Lyon—scattered clusters of gourmets quietly finished dinner in the ornate restaurant where Express passengers once enjoyed leisurely farewells.

Suddenly, as the train's whistle echoed through the station, a heavy-set woman, clutching a small overnight bag, sprinted into the station and raced down Platform Eight toward the train. Simultaneously the old blue locomotive hummed into life and the 11 cars behind it glided slowly away from the platform.

The woman ran a few more steps, faltered and then stopped. She had missed it. And, since it was the last run of the Orient Express, she had missed it for good.

On the train, pretty 20-year-old Rosita Dikova settled herself comfortably into the orange, leatherette seat for the long journey to Sofia in Bulgaria. "The last run," she said. "That's too bad. This train had glamor."

She was quite correct. The Orient Express had glamor—back in the early days so frequently described in the novels and films that added so much to the glamor. But not on that gloomy night of May 20, 1977. No, by then things had changed.

On the final regular run of the famed Orient Express, the only car on the train going all the way to Istanbul was an olive-drab, second-class, French commuter car sandwiched in between others bound for Athens and Belgrade. At $88 one way, fewer than half of the 72 seats were taken.

"Nobody wants to sit up for three nights and two days if they can avoid it," said a French Railways official.

Passengers were mainly students and homeward-bound foreign workers carrying beverages, blankets and biscuits for the long ride: a far cry from the days when the royal and the rich slept on embroidered percale with feather comforters, and white-gloved waiters served champagne and caviar aboard the world's most exotic train.

"It was a great way to travel," said conductor Maurice Barillot, "if you had the time." Time and Barillot's chocolate-brown uniform, familiar to viewers of Murder on the Orient Express, were all that remained of the legend on the legendary train's last trip.

The last sleeping car, a remnant of the old days, had left the night before. Most of the two dozen passengers aboard it were journalists covering the next-to-last trip in first-class comfort rather than the last trip in second-class discomfort. Some 300 enthusiasts had begged Wagon Lits for accommodation on the final run. The company had planned to put two or three extra sleeping cars on the last journey, but French Railways, the overall authority, rejected the request for reasons of "economy."

An announcement in English and French of the train's departure from the Gare de Lyon did not even mention its name. Even the familiar sign "Direct Orient," the name by which it had been known since 1962, had been removed from the side of the train to avoid tempting souvenir hunters.

By the time it reached Yugoslavia, where the Istanbul through coach was unceremoniously hitched onto another Turkey-bound train after a two-hour wait in a siding, the once-proud Orient Express had all the appearances of a milk train. Peasants carrying farm produce hopped on and off at its numerous stops, and compartments and corridors overflowed with perspiring people eating fruit and cheese.

When it eventually limped into Istanbul's Sirkeci Station six hours late, hardly anyone gave it a second glance. "It just looks like any other dirty old train," said a porter, as a plump cleaning lady in baggy trousers gave it a cursory dusting.

The platform emptied of passengers and baggage and the train stood silent against the bright red painted buffers blocking the track.

For the Orient Express, it was the end of the line.

Nostalgia Rides the Rails

Royalty used it for their pleasure, couriers for their secret missions and writers as the setting for the most famous thrillers in print. (Aramco World , March-April, 1968).

Boris III of Bulgaria would insist on driving the train across his Balkan kingdom. James Bond dueled SMERSH's chief executioner as the express hurtled under the Alps. And Agatha Christie's villanous Samuel Ratchett met a sticky end aboard a Wagon Lits stuck in a Serbian snowdrift.

Once "The King of Trains and the Train of Kings," the Orient Express had deteriorated over the years from a trans-European extravaganza to a travelling slum. As the wealthy took to jet travel, its cozy sleepers, elegant smoking cars and three-star diner disappeared one by one. Finally, in a major reshuffle of Continental services, the train made famous by fictional murder has itself been killed (See box).

But for those who would mourn its loss there is good news. In a strange twist of a Christie-like plot, the Orient Express lives on. And not in name only, but as photographer Tor Eigeland and myself discovered on a recent three-day train ride, in all its former splendor.

This article appeared on pages 12-21 of the May/June 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1977 images.