We need to slow down. Humanity has toiled and innovated for centuries to get everything done more efficiently – presumably so that we will have more time to relax, despite the irony that no one seems to have any. The “slow movement” covers everything from mindful living to the preservation of cultural cuisine, but let’s look at its most direct interpretation: slow travel.
Rushing to work each day often can’t be helped, but why should your vacation be a frantic race to the destination, followed by another tiresome quest to cram as many hashtags as possible into your rapidly taken vacation photos? This is why we are going to tell you to ditch that first-class plane ticket and board a train. A train trundles along its rails, unchanged for decades, oblivious to the cult of speed that has developed around it. It is why rail journeys have always been thought of as romantic, and we are boarding the most romantic one of all: the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
THE RAIL DEAL
It was on a Simplon-Orient-Express, now owned by luxury hotel and travel company Belmond, that Agatha Christie found inspiration for her novel, Murder on the Orient Express. That very route still exists today, making all the same stops as it did since 1883. But even a short trip, like the one-night journey from Venice to London we are taking, is enough to imbue travellers with a sense of forgotten wonder.
For starters, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a splendid vehicle. Parked at Santa Lucia Station, it stands out like a polished sapphire among its rusty, grime-covered modern neighbours. With 17 cars, some of them dating back to 1926, it is one of the longest in Europe with a total length of 430m.
The train’s key staff members line up proudly outside the train to welcome guests boarding this beautiful, anachronistic time machine. Nearly nothing about the train is modern. There is no Wi-Fi and the carpet patterns look like they were in vogue before Vogue existed. But everything is immaculate. The wood panels are polished to a mirror sheen, and the linen, uniforms and bedding are so perfectly pressed and fitted, the only wrinkles you’ll find are on the faces of smiling stewards.
“Our passengers aren’t the sort who will stop travelling because of what they read in the papers,” says train manager Bruno Janssens, referring to the political climate in Turkey. Most of the passengers are retirees but, indeed, you will not find the same vigour in folks lining up for a plane or bus.
Janssens continues his tour of the train. “Car 3309 is famous because it was stuck in snow for six days on the journey that inspired Agatha Christie. We still have letters from passengers expressing how happy they were despite the delay. Villagers brought food and firewood,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I love working here. There is real etiquette, and it’s something money can’t buy.”
Etiquette is something the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express takes quite seriously. A smart-casual dress code is observed any time you’re outside your cabin. This means jeans, shorts and trainers are not allowed. At dinner, cocktail dresses and tuxedos are encouraged, and guests are delighted to oblige. If this seems overly fussy to you, you’re missing the point. Back in the golden age of travel, the journey was just as enjoyable as the destination, and it’s something the Orient-Express family is bent on safeguarding.
When lounging around in a first-class airplane suite, it’s an isolated experience. You’re closed off from other passengers behind a smooth shell of indifference. But here, with tables only a couple of feet away from another and everyone dressed to the nines, people can’t help but want to interact. The sunlight that pours in through the windows acts as a natural spotlight on the food, and the absence of an entertainment-filled screen means diners can fully appreciate the feast before them.
“I have had two CEOs from major airlines tell me they just can’t make food like us,” continues Janssens. “They have Michelin-star chefs working with them but they aren’t the ones who are cooking. Our food is prepared fresh and served hot – and not out of a microwave. We can’t do a la carte for everyone, but we have catered to people with allergies, and some (of the allergies), I kid you not, are two pages long.”
The train doesn’t just make stops to let passengers stretch their legs. The kitchen staff are also able to pick up fresh produce and ingredients. With two kitchens and three chefs on board, the menu is comparable to any stationary fine-dining establishment.
PARTY LIKE ITS 1929
While Singaporeans might be content eating their way through a holiday, it’s worth checking out the bar car. It is at night when the train feels most alive, when the wines, accoutrements and conversation sparkle. A jazz pianist adds to the atmosphere, reading the keys off handwritten scribblings in his Moleskine. No one is holding a smartphone. For entertainment, they have one another’s company. In a corner, a group is playing cards.
“Thirsty American tourists in the 1920s is what pushed cocktail culture in Europe,” says head barman Walter Nisi. He prepares the train’s signature cocktail, the Guilty 12, a concoction of 12 ingredients inspired by the victims of Christie’s novel. He teases that anyone who can correctly guess each ingredient could win a trip to Istanbul. “It is also the number of countries the train travels to in a season.”
Unsurprisingly, the bar menu focuses on classic cocktails, though Nisi has created a number of originals. He proceeds to make a layered cocktail, hands remarkably steady despite the train’s occasional rocking. He has accumulated numerous stories in his nine years behind this moving bar, and has seen everything from a woman’s 80th birthday party to a Bulgari event where the bar car was essentially transformed into a disco. “I am behind the bar and I tend it but I am also in the lounge. I want to off er my personality,” he says. “On this train, we really want style. In 20 years, maybe the bartender would be changed, but the atmosphere will be the same.”
The piano may need tuning every two to three weeks due to vibrations from the train, a new champagne and spirits bar opened earlier this year in one of the dining cars, and plans to install air-conditioners in the sleeping cars are under way, but we agree that the train’s spirit will remain unchanged.
Travel can also be an excellent opportunity for quiet time, and the train’s comfortable sleeping cars provide privacy when needed (though many passengers prefer to leave their doors open). There are three cabin types. A single cabin (1,903mm by 1,350mm) has one lower berth, a twin cabin (1,903mm by 1,478mm) has both upper and lower berths, and a cabin suite connects two twin cabins.
Each cabin has its own wash-basin cabinet with hot and cold water and toiletries, with the lavatories located at the end of each carriage. The steward will convert the couch into a bed while passengers are having dinner.
Now, do you remember falling asleep in your parents’ car as a child and deeming it one of the best naps you’ve ever had? It’s the same here, except with wool blankets, downy pillows and a constant but steady rumbling that will rock you to sleep in a cradle of luxury. Sleeping in is almost inevitable, so continental breakfast can be served in bed before you dress up for a champagne brunch in the late morning.
In the quiet of dawn, with mountain ranges to greet you through the window, take a moment to pen a letter. Whether it’s to practise your penmanship, self-reflect or to make friends back home jealous, take advantage of the complimentary (but not express) postal service the train off ers. With no Wi-Fi, even communications take on a charmingly gradual twist.
Once at Calais, France, passengers disembark. A brass quartet is present for the transfer, playing jubilant tunes in smart, stripy jackets as people make their way to sister train the Belmond British Pullman for the passage to London. They understand that even intervals, however short, are part of a journey that ought to be celebrated.
The whole reason we go on vacation is to take a so-called break from the rat race, and yet so often the holiday itself becomes just a different kind of frenzy. So let’s slow down. Board a train suspended in time and savour the course to your destination, if you even need one at all.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’ Classic Route takes passengers from Venice to Paris then London (and vice versa) with a night’s stay in a luxury sleeper car. Extended journeys will bring you all the way to Istanbul from Venice in five nights, which is the same route Agatha Christie took when she was inspired to write Murder on the Orient Express.
THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
Want to add some variety to your rail journey? Here are two more Belmond properties to begin and end your adventure with.
BELMOND LE MANOIR AUX QUAT’SAISONS, GREAT MILTON, UK
Good food is a given when a hotel is run by a renowned French chef. Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has maintained its two Michelin star rating since it received them in 1984, the first year of opening, and has trained at least 28 Michelin-star chefs since. So the food is, without a doubt, phenomenal, thanks in part to the manor’s kitchen gardens and fruit orchard, but the hotel is just as much a reason to make the trek to Great Milton.
For an establishment of this level (and in England, no less) the staff aren’t intimidatingly prim – perhaps an extension of Blanc’s own loveable manner – and the rooms, each one unique and inspired by Blanc’s travels, are awash with warmth and personality. Being a restored manor house in the countryside, it’s not big on flashy facilities. However, simply spend time with the gardeners and hunting bird handlers (Le Manoir’s answer to pest control), all of them brimming with love for their jobs, and you’ll find that is all the entertainment you need.
BELMOND HOTEL CIPRIANI, VENICE, ITALY
Opened in 1958 by Giuseppe Cipriani, inventor of the Bellini cocktail, the hotel isn’t just known for having the world’s freshest peach Bellinis, but also for regularly welcoming the world’s biggest stars. George and Amal Clooney held their private wedding here. Meryl Streep has a favourite suite for her summer holidays. Gwyneth Paltrow thinks the hotel’s pasta pomodoro is perfect, and the list goes on. It’s easy to fall in love with the place – classic Venetian style, heartfelt service, a new Michelin star restaurant and the fact that it’s just a 5-minute boat ride from St Mark’s Square tick all the boxes for a top-tier stay.
Most celebrities pop by during the Venice Film Festival, but the city is best explored outside the silver screen and the Venice Carnival seasons. With the streets slightly calmer, it’ll be easier to find anecdote-rich gems like Caffe Girani, whose family owners have been roasting full-bodied coffee since 1928. Or walk into Murano bead shop Venetian Dreams and hear about its history from Marisa Convento, a vivacious woman whose hugs have restorative powers. The throngs of tourists that pour into the square have done nothing to dull the rich histories of Venice.