The Orient Express is undeniably the train that has most marked the history of traveling. A crazy project initiated at the end of the 19th century by a visionary man from Liege who, for the first time, wanted to banish the drudgery of travel in favour of an experience designed for passengers.
The Orient-Express is the first luxury train to cross borders and connect the major capitals of the Old Continent. As early as 1883, it was possible to travel from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul) without changing trains. Never before has the East been so accessible for a Westerner. A new form of travel that would revolutionize European railways. Until then, trains had to be changed at every border, making any long-distance journey exhausting and particularly constraining. A disruption that would change the world forever, thanks to Georges Nagelmackers.
1. A crazy project
With his engineering degree in hand, young Georges decided to go to the United States after his studies, as most sons of good families did at the time. Isn’t it said that travel forms the young? And the least that can be said is that the man from Liège would return home with his head full of ideas.
In 1867, on the other side of the Atlantic, at the height of his 24 springs, our man was travelling from west to east by train, and noticed that at night the seats of the wagons were converted into bunks. It must be said that the distances are such that sitting for more than twenty hours is torture. In Europe, short distances do not yet require this kind of arrangement, as the various railway companies hardly ever consider crossing borders.
Back at home, Nagelmackers immediately set to work and designed the first carriage equipped with beds to suit the customs and tastes of the Old Continent. He also compartmentalized it and created cabins, which he equipped with sinks, mirrors and “useful conveniences”. Initially coupled with the very first international express trains, Nagelmackers planned to launch his cars all over Europe and even beyond. More than fifteen years would nevertheless be necessary to develop the project because, at the time, each country was partitioned within its borders; the rail networks had sometimes diametrically opposed technical standards.
Georges Nagelmackers achieved his goal in 1883. On June 5th, the Express d’Orient train left the Gare de l’Est with great pomp and circumstance in the direction of Constantinople, passing through Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia. Quickly, this luxurious convoy would adopt the mythical name of Orient-Express.
2. Reversal of fortune
The life of this palace on rails would be full of pitfalls, starting with the First World War. As early as 1914, the conflict interrupted the circulation of the Orient-Express. It lost many sleeping cars and dining cars, destroyed, lost or requisitioned. Put back on the rails in 1919, with new metal (and no longer wooden) cars, ever more opulent and comfortable, the Orient-Express experienced a prosperous period during the Roaring Twenties.
But this new impetus was interrupted again from 1939 until 1946. The Nagelmackers trains came out groggy from the Second World War. Finally, in 1977, it was the boom in air travel that precipitated the end of this jewel of the European railways. Shortly afterwards, several wagons were auctioned off, which meant that this exceptional heritage was scattered throughout Europe and even beyond.
Without the American businessman James B. Sherwood, this legendary train would never have been put back on track. Sherwood quickly understood the importance of saving and perpetuating this piece of European history. As early as 1977, he began to search for decommissioned cars, had them restored to their original state until he was able to build a complete train set combining sleeping and dining cars. Five years later, he launched the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, offering a brand new travel experience that would soon be emulated!