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The Orient Express, a Railway Legend

The Orient Express, a Railway Legend

Some 130 years after its first voyage, the Orient Express is still a source of fascination. Archival images revealed in the exhibition “Orient Express & Cie” at the Rencontres d’Arles festival, immerse us in the atmosphere of these incredible journeys reserved for a clientele in search of adventure and exoticism.
Service on board a CIWL dining car, circa 1930 © Fonds de dotation Orient Express

Launched in 1883 by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, a hotel and travel logistics company, the Orient Express was the very first luxury international train, traveling from Paris to Constantinople in just 81 hours. The man who made it all possible was a Belgian engineer by the name of Georges Nagelmackers. While visiting the United States in 1867 to distract himself from a recent heartbreak, he discovered the sleeping cars invented by George Pullman. As a businessman with a keen sense of intuition, he decided to develop a luxury hotel-train experience running from West to East in record time, departing from the Gare de l’Est railway station in Paris and arriving in what is now known as Istanbul, with stops in Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest.

The train was a showcase for modernity, boasting central heating, hot water, and gas lighting. And sophistication, of course! The interiors were carpeted, the restrooms crafted in marble, and the sheets made of silk. Decorator René Prou adorned the carriages with Art Deco inspirations, stylized flowers, and polished bronze. René Lalique, the Art Nouveau master, designed the dining car with sheets of blown glass and mahogany paneling from Cuba. Passengers slept as well as in their own beds after indulging in cuisine worthy of the finest Parisian restaurants, including scrambled eggs with truffle, foie gras aspic à la Lucullus, and praline parfait.

Models posing in a Pullman salon car with René Lalique designs, circa 1970 © Fonds de dotation Orient Express

The Orient Express was talked about, written about, filmed and photographed, and quickly became a universal cultural object. It also represented contemporary economic and geopolitical issues by freely crossing the borders of different states and empires. The passengers were its greatest ambassadors, with artists, diplomats, writers, and business people contributing considerably to the reputation of the world’s most beautiful train. Dutch spy Mata Hari, adventurer Lawrence of Arabia, artist Joséphine Baker, Coco Chanel, poet Jean Cocteau, Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, Sigmund Freud, film star Marlene Dietrich (and her lover Jean Gabin), and writer Ernest Hemingway all traveled aboard the iconic train.

Along with posters and written documents, Orient Express & Cie presents hundreds of images of the rich and famous who took the trip. Actress Sophia Loren is seen sleeping, curled up on her seat. Writer Georges Simenon smokes a pipe at the window, and singer and actress Jeanne Moreau waves at a photographer from her carriage. But it was novelist Agatha Christie, with her global best-seller Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934 (and adapted for the cinema with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery), which made the train an eternal, legendary character in itself.

Poster advertising the Simplon-Orient Express train by Jacques Touchet (1930) © Fonds de dotation Orient Express
Passengers on the Taurus-Express to Baghdad, 1969 © Fonds de dotation Orient Express

While models posed aboard the Pullman lounge cars and businessmen gorged themselves on roast goose, other men and women worked behind the scenes to make the art of travel a reality throughout this extravagant era. The photographs also show this hidden side, which makes the book so interesting. Readers will discover the faces of the people who brought this technological feat to life, along with the stories of those in the laundries, workshops, warehouses, central kitchens, and wine cellars who worked tirelessly to ensure the exceptional Orient Express stayed on the rails until its final voyage in 1977.

All the staff of the Milan-Greco workshops (Italy). Cozza, 1933 © Fonds de dotation Orient Express

By Jonas Cuénin

Jonas Cuénin is the editorial director of Blind and the former editor-in-chief of the magazines L’Oeil de la Photographie and Camera.

« Orient Express & Cie, Between History and Mythology », Until September 26, 2021. Espace Van Gogh, as part of Rencontres d’Arles 2021. More information here.

Passengers in a bar car at the opening of a company train, 1933 © Fonds de dotation Orient Express
The Ankara-Express connecting Istanbul with the Turkish capital along the Sea of Marmara, 1956 © Fonds de dotation Orient Express

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