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The original Orient Express service from Paris to Vienna is due to end in June 19 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in France, History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Sunday Telegraph (UK), March 18, 2007 Sunday, Pg. 10

Sue Attwood

It’s 5pm and the night train to Vienna is preparing to leave from the Gare de l’Est in Paris. The departure board says simply that train number 263 will be departing at 17.17 for Strasbourg and Vienna.

Platform 7 is a flurry of Wagons-Lits catering trolleys, business travellers with briefcases, backpackers, Eastern-European families and over-bred little dogs on leads tripping after their elegant, high-heeled owners.

But all is not as it seems. This apparently unexceptional train is almost the last remnant of arguably the most famous service in the world: it’s the Orient Express and, with a couple of breaks for the First and Second World Wars, it has been running on this line without interruption since 1883. On June 9 this year the new high-speed, 186 mph, TGV link to Strasbourg opens and the name Orient Express will finally disappear from the boards over the platform at the Gare de l’Est.

The Orient Express service has nothing to do with the privately owned Venice Simplon Orient Express with its wonderful vintage rolling stock. It is a service and always has been, just as Eurostar is a service, involving many engines and carriages, not just a single train.

In 1883 the Belgian industrialist Georges Nagelmackers ran the Express d’Orient from Gare de l’Est to Constantinople via Strasbourg, Vienna and a ferry across the Danube at Giurgiu in Romania. Here the passengers were taken on a second train to Varna, where they embarked on a 14-hour ferry journey down the Black Sea to their destination. The line was finished in 1889 and in 1891 the service was renamed the Orient Express.

In 1977 the direct service between Paris and Istanbul was withdrawn, but the ordinary Orient Express went on running between Paris, Budapest and Bucharest until 2001, when it was reduced to a Paris-Vienna service.

The Compagnie des Wagons-Lits still provides the staff and catering on the OE sleeping-cars and couchettes, and Sasha, the attendant, allocates me space in a six-couchette compartment with a family of ardent rail fans and regular travellers to Vienna from London: Ken, Susie and seven-year-old Rosie. We fold the couchettes away to make seats and more space for the evening and soon we are travelling comfortably, east through the Paris suburbs with their commuter-lined stations and then out into the countryside and on through the vineyards of Champagne.

There is no dining-car nowadays but drinks and snacks are provided and those in the know take a picnic. Soon our compartment is full of delicious smells as food is laid out.

European couchettes are mixed-sex: no one gets undressed before going to sleep and it’s a tight squeeze. Tactful choreography is necessary at bedtime.

We have a night of fitful sleep: train travel is exciting and it’s hard to settle down, whatever your age. Sasha has urged us to lock the door so that passengers who get on at stations along the way don’t blunder in but the lock is complicated and only Susie and Rosie (who loves locking everyone in and Sasha out) can work it.

Next morning, when we wake up we are in Austria and there are mountains and houses with roofs like hats pulled down over their ears. Sasha brings us rolls and jam (which we resist) and we pull into Vienna at 8.30, perfectly timed for a proper Austrian breakfast at Café Grienstedl in Michaelerplatz, 50 yards across the square from the Spanish Riding School where Morning Exercise to Music begins at 10 (no booking required).

The same evening, at eight, I waft back to the Vienna Westbahnhof and the Paris-bound Orient Express, this time to a first-class sleeper.

It’s very cosy, with a soft bed made up with full-size pillows, duvet and sheet. Helmut, the attendant, brings towels, soap, drinking water and fruit. Is there anything else I need? Stupidly I have again not brought a picnic so it’s back to sandwiches and a glass of Austrian wine.

Next morning, breakfast is brought and eaten as we pass through the rural Alsace-Lorraine countryside and some three hours later, at 10.24 on the dot, we pull in to the Gare de l’Est and I am handed, like an Edwardian dowager, down the sleeping-car steps by a solicitous Helmut. It has been a thrilling and poignant trip between two beautiful cities.


Getting there

Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512400; www.festtravel.co.uk) offers rail tickets from London Waterloo to Paris from pounds 59 return and from pounds 246 Paris Gare de l’Est to Vienna Westbahnhof, including couchette. « Leisure Return » tickets from London to Vienna cost from pounds 276, but must include a Saturday overnight stay in Vienna. After June 9 the Orient Express will run between Strasbourg and Vienna only.

Note that by booking a holiday with Ffestiniog Travel, customers support the preservation of the historic Ffestiniog Railway. Profits go to preserving and developing the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways.


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