On board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the lavishly revamped wonder of rail

'It's not the destination it's the journey there that matters,' truer words have never been spoken about this glorious train ride through the heart of Europe

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has been restored in keeping with its 19th-century origins. Photo: Belmond
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For many keen travellers, the journey to their destination can often be a dreaded experience, a tiring necessity to navigate to reach an anticipated escape. However, on Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the journey itself is the destination.

Embarking on this historic train is an experience like no other, keeping the golden age of luxury travel alive. From incredible lunches and dinners devised by Michelin-decorated chef Jean Imbert, to live piano in the entertainment car and breakfast from the comfort of your cabin, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers the expedition of a lifetime.

Known for the onset of continental travel between London and Istanbul, and then made famous by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – the original Orient Express, created in 1883 by Belgian company Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, ran until 2009.

Today, this train lives on in the VSOE, which, in 1982, bought more than 35 original 1920s and 1930s sleeper and dining carriages, which have been lovingly restored by expert craftsmen. The result is a luxury experience bedecked in Art Deco glamour and the magic of slow travel, as passengers watch the scenic European countryside roll by.

This June, Belmond launched a new category of suites, which are now offered alongside their existing accommodation, which comprises charming cabins with twin bunk beds, and the grand suites, opulent rooms with full beds, a lounge area and private bathrooms.

The eight new suites combine the two categories, featuring private marble bathrooms and a lounge area by day, converted to a bedroom by night. Two additional carriages have been restored, with incredible pearl inlay marquetry by artisan Philippe Allemand and plush furnishings that channel famed Art Deco designers.

“The design is meant to immerse guests in an experience that bridges the train’s iconic past and modern comfort, a space in continuous motion, inspired by Europe’s ever-changing landscapes,” Pascal Deyrolle, the general manager of VSOE, tells The National. “They feature lavish bathrooms with heated floors, which can also be found in the six existing Grand Suites.

“We’ve added a second window overlooking the train’s corridor, which is unique to the new suites,” Deyrolle adds. “This design choice makes the guests feel totally immersed in the outdoor environment as they can admire the landscape on both sides of the room – it’s brilliant.”

Designed by Wimberly Interiors, the four unique styles pay homage to the exceptional landscapes that the VSOE passes through on its many routes. La Foret Suites echo Germany’s Black Forest, a route taken when travelling from Prague to Paris. La Campagne Suites are adorned with green velvet and intricate flower marquetry, echoing Northern Italy’s pastures and vineyards.

The Alps and Austria’s Arlberg massif, witnessed on the classic route to Venice, inspired the Les Montagnes Suites, embellished with pearl inlay mountains in the marquetry, Alpine flower fabrics and frosted-glass light fittings. Les Lacs’s motif reflects the many stunning lakes passed en route, from Switzerland’s Lake Lugano to the famed Lake Como in Italy, with swirls of blue and silver laced throughout the room.

“Each suite is bespoke with unique designs inspired by the locations. The handcrafted glass bowls [sinks] are each designed to reflect the suite’s design inspiration,” says Wimberly senior studio director Rachel Johnson. “Each carriage was stripped back to the shell and rebuilt, to incorporate the technical requirements – such as air conditioning and electrics – to enable these to be concealed and seamlessly integrated into the designs.

“One of the most important things for Belmond for the VSOE is the design heritage of each suite. The VSOE is an iconic train that means so much to many people,” she adds. “We do so much research to bring to life and encompass that history and the legend of the train. The joy of working on these suites is our ability to access some of the best craftsmanship across Europe. A lot of attention is paid to those details.”

As the train pulls up to Paris’s Gare de l’Est, passengers are greeted by the blue-liveried crew and helped to their cabins, pausing for photos with the excited guests. The run between Paris and Venice takes almost an entire day, leaving plenty of time for meals, getting to know fellow passengers and quiet moments to appreciate the stunning views.

“I enjoy having breakfast in the privacy of my cabin or having a coffee at the bar early in the morning, when it is very quiet,” Deyrolle says. “It’s calming to watch the world go by and disconnect from the surrounding environment. I often found myself thinking: ‘This is one of life’s little blissful moments, when everything feels great, and nothing matters but the present.’”

The journey begins with a four-course dinner – a black-tie affair – serving up seasonal dishes such as lobster bisque, turbot fish with ricotta-stuffed courgette flowers, raspberry sorbet and a pain perdu with honey ice cream and cooked cherries. The train’s food is all supplied by Paris’s Rungis Market, the largest fresh market in the world dating back to the fifth century, ensuring only the highest-quality produce is used to craft the menus.

The late evening is spent carousing around the entertainment car, with carefully crafted refreshments, live piano and decadent snacks in case anyone gets hungry. Upon returning to your cabin, it’s been turned down for the night and now boasts a feather-soft double bed.

Come morning, the train is making its way through the Swiss Alps, and breakfast in your cabin is a laid-back affair, allowing passengers to enjoy flaky pastries, fresh coffee, as well as a selection of cheeses and fruit salad in the comfortable setting.

By lunch, the train is passing the picturesque Lake Lugano, followed by a brief stop in Chiasso on the Swiss-Italian border. Every time the train crosses into a new country, a new engine and train driver must be used – giving guests a great opportunity to stroll along the platform and wander around, or maybe write a few postcards to send from the train’s complimentary mailbox.

Too soon, we pull into Venice and expect to come back to reality, but the Italian city itself is the perfect place to readjust, filled with old-world charm and magical architecture. Many passengers spend a few days in the floating city, taking in the splendour of St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, or simply getting lost in the winding canal-filled streets.

The VSOE organises private water taxi transfers to the guest’s hotel – the Palazzina Grassi, a fusion of modern design with traditional architecture and craft located directly on the Grand Canal in our case – a wonderful experience itself.

For many, it’s only natural to end a trip on a famous train by staying at an equally famous hotel. Belmond’s Hotel Cipriani sits on the quieter Giudecca Island, with a five-minute shuttle boat from St Mark’s Square ferrying guests.

Opened in 1958, the hotel has hosted Yves Saint Laurent, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra. More recently, George and Amal Clooney held part of their wedding there. With the largest swimming pool in Venice and many lush gardens, it’s the perfect spot for a secluded escape or a scenic lunch, as the hotel is often fully booked.

The waterside restaurant, Il Porticciolo, serves some of the freshest Venetian seafood, plating local flavours with a twist.

The octopus on a bed of smashed potatoes with parsley oil, or the sweet langoustines with courgette tempura, creamy ginger sauce and burnt lemon powder, are exquisite. For pasta lovers, the clam linguini with herb crumb and lemon is the way to go.

The view of the lagoon from Il Porticciolo, watching boats busy about, marks the end of a spectacular journey across Europe – a true “Grand Tour” for the modern era.

While this route took passengers to Venice, the VSOE offers several routes, stopping in Amsterdam, Brussels, Rome, Prague, Istanbul, Vienna and Budapest, among other destinations.

Last year, Belmond extended the season into December, allowing festive journeys between Paris and Vienna to visit the renowned Christmas markets and enjoy seasonal merriment on board.

“For the very first time this December, we will take mountain enthusiasts and skiers from Paris to the French Alps, and vice versa,” Deyrolle says. “The train will glide through some of France’s most untouched countryside and up to the Alpine train stations of Albertville, Moutiers and Bourg-Saint-Maurice.”

Whatever time of year, the enduring popularity of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express proves there is still a market for slow travel.

Updated: November 11, 2023, 3:07 AM