A legend of train travel is set to get back on track, after an Orient Express mystery was solved by a hawk-eyed historian. Few trains are as iconic as the Orient Express. Now, almost 140 years after the first OE trains transformed luxury rail travel, 17 original carriages have been rediscovered and restored to their former Art Deco glory. We dive into this real life Orient Express mystery, from the extraordinary discovery of the vintage carriages to how you can relive the Golden Age of train travel.
The great Orient Express mystery
Made up of carriages dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express was inaugurated as a dream train-cruise in the early 1980s by Swiss tour operator and businessman Albert Glatt. The luxurious train ran between Zurich and Istanbul. It also made the longest journey ever between Paris and Tokyo in 1988 under the name of Extrême-Orient-Express, but then disappeared a few years later.
No one knew what happened to these iconic carriages and it was a real life Orient Express mystery… Until now.
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Tracking down the missing Orient Express carriages
In 2015, industrial history researcher Arthur Mettetal was working on a PhD on the history of the Orient Express. He began a worldwide inventory to ascertain how many original Orient Express carriages exist today and where they were. He already knew that some original carriages were used on the Belmond Orient Express route and others were in museums. But many vintage carriages were abandoned. Mettetal spent a year trawling through archives, message boards, and online videos to find clues to solve this Orient Express mystery and hunt down the forgotten carriages.
He was watching a video on YouTube when he spotted something promising; train carriages, painted in the distinctive night-blue colour of the Orient Express. The video had been uploaded anonymously without any information, but when Mettetal examined the video closer, he was able to make out the name of the train station where the carriages were parked: Małaszewicze. He Googled the name but found there were several places in Poland named Małaszewicze. So he looked up each place on Google Maps and used the 3D view to zoom in and search for the iconic blue carriages with white roofs.
Then he struck gold. He saw a 13-carriage train that looked remarkably like the Orient Express. It was parked at the Małaszewicze station on the border between Poland and Belarus. Mettetal was instantly excited at the discovery – but this was only the beginning. He had no idea who owned the carriages, what condition they were in, or even if they were still there, as they may have been moved since the satellite image on Google was taken. There was only one thing to do – go and find them in person.
Solving the Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express mystery
Mettetal, along with his photographer friend, travelled to Poland in search of the lost treasure. They drove for hours to reach Małaszewicze, but arrived at night in an active border zone. It was dark and snowy – but they could still see the blue carriages and that famous print on their side: “Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express”. The two men were elated with their find, however, they were soon told to leave by police as they were in a border zone.
Undeterred, the pair returned the next day at sunrise to solve this Orient Express mystery. This time, they were accompanied by a translator and Guillaume de Saint Lager, the vice president of Accor’s Orient Express group. The group examined the carriages and when they peeked inside they found something extraordinary. Of the 13 carriages, nine were luxurious sleeping cars, all surprisingly well-preserved, with decorations intact and almost no damage. They found the same marquetry panels by English decorators Morrison and Nelson and glass panels by French craftsman René Lalique, synonymous with 1920s glamour and Art Deco style.
They had really hit the jackpot now.
Mettetal estimated the carriages had sat there in the open air for at least a decade but were anywhere from 75 to 95 years old. They spent two days meticulously documenting the carriages, inside and out. They also had to look into their history and find out who owned them and why they were there.
Bringing the Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express back to France
It took another two years for Accor’s Orient Express team to find the owner of the carriages and negotiate the sale of the coveted Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express. During this time, they also found another four carriages parked in nearby countries including Switzerland and Germany. Accor negotiated a deal for 17 carriages, including 12 sleeper cars, three lounges, a restaurant and one van. They finalised the purchase in 2018.
The carriages then had to be transported back to France. Since the vintage carriages could not run on modern train tracks, they had to load them onto trucks. The convoy of trucks was escorted by several police vehicles as they brought the 17 carriages across the continent.
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The rebirth of the Orient Express
Accor’s Orient Express group has a grand vision for the vintage carriages. They’re currently being renovated by renowned Parisian architect Maxime d’Angeac, in collaboration with some of France’s finest artisans. The carriages are set to get back to their roots, operating on a Paris to Istanbul route from 2024, to coincide with the Paris Olympics.
As the original Orient Express was the epitome of luxury train travel, the restored carriages have to live up to this legend. The restoration aims to encapsulate the nostalgic romance and elegance of train travel and preserve the timeless vintage elements, all while incorporating the best modern comforts and technology.
When the train begins its journey in 2024, it will be an unparalleled train travel experience. Travellers will be invited to relive the legend of the Orient Express, surrounded by extreme comfort and luxury.
And Mettetal? He’s now finished his PhD and is Accor’s Orient Express heritage and culture director. He remains fascinated by the Orient Express mystery and his historic discovery.
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The great train revival
The first Orient Express train set off almost 140 years ago. It was a dream turned reality by Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian civil engineer and businessman. The original Orient Express ran across Europe between 1883, redefining train travel forever, before ceasing operations in 2009.
However, interest in train travel is soaring again with a golden age of luxury travel in full swing. Since Accor acquired a 50% stake in the Orient Express name in 2017, they have announced plans for new Orient Express services, including the Orient Express La Dolce Vita. This new train will start welcoming passengers in 2023, with six trains set to travel across Italy and Europe.
Accor’s Orient Express train services are separate from the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express brand which is owned by Belmond. In the 1970s, Belmond hotels founder James Sherwood bought several old carriages at auction and restored them to their original glory as part of the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express. Launched in 1982, this opulent train runs between London and Venice, Paris and Istanbul, and other routes across Europe.
Both Accor and Belmond use the Orient Express name and vintage Orient Express carriages, but operate separately.
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How you can ride the Venice Simplon Orient Express
Want to experience your own lavish slice of Orient Express history? Join us on our Ultimate Italy luxury guided tour and add a night on the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Departing Venice on Day 11 of your tour, you’ll enjoy one night onboard the luxurious train, before arriving in Paris. You’ll feel like you’ve been whisked away to another world of timeless opulence, as you journey in the storied carriages of one of the best trains in the world.
Marvel at the passing scenery from your private cabin. Indulge in a delicious three-course lunch and mingle with fellow travellers in the gorgeous Champagne Bar. Then change into elegant evening wear for an exceptional four-course dinner, prepared onboard by French chefs. In the morning, you’ll be served a continental breakfast in your bedroom.
From the exquisite 1920s Art Deco flourishes to the sumptuous cabins and first-class dining, the entire experience embodies the glamour and luxury of the Golden Age of Travel.
Are you dreaming of taking a journey on the Venice Simplon Orient Express? Let us know in the comments below…
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