Mystery (and history) on the world's most iconic rail journey

“Will there be a murder during the journey? I can’t make any guarantees. After all, we are famous for that.” 

 Michele Rocca, the train manager, had a mischievous grin on his face as he played with the prospect of some serious skulduggery on board the train that more than any other conveys the magic, the mystique, the romance and, yes, the intrigue of travel – the Orient Express, known today as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. 

What an extraordinary story – and what an extraordinary train. 

 More than 80 years after the publication of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the story continues to exercise an unbelievable hold on the public imagination. So much so that despite the fact there have already been several film versions of the story, this November will see the release of another star-studded take on the story, an all-singing, all-dancing reworking directed by Kenneth Branagh, and starring, in addition to Branagh himself as super sleuth detective Hercule Poirot, Dame Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Derek Jacobi.

In Christie’s book, the murder takes place after the train gets stuck in a snow drift somewhere north of Belgrade, a key stopping point on what was the Orient Express route between Paris and Istanbul that was started in 1883. 

The routing fell on hard times after the war and by the late Seventies services to Istanbul stopped altogether. But for travelers keen to have an inkling of what it might have been like to undertake such a journey – and to experience it in the glamorous style for which it was famous in its Twenties and Thirties heyday – the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the private company which has breathed new life into the legend, once a year revisits one of the world’s seminal moments of train history by offering a journey all the way to Istanbul and back. 

I was talking to Michele earlier this week as one of the passengers experiencing this year’s return leg of the journey, in this case to Venice.

We had just left Istanbul, and were heading through fields of golden hues and late-summer sunflowers, contemplating what promised to be an epic six-day voyage taking in seven countries – Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Italy – and who knew how many adventures (and misadventures) along the way.

But first things first: it was time to dress for dinner. “In keeping with the spirit of the occasion you can never be overdressed on board,” passengers are advised. “You may want to don your most glamorous finery.”

Most of us did. On that first night, almost all the male guests were in black tie, accompanied by ladies in long dresses or cocktail style. Over pre-dinner drinks in the Piano Bar, there was the gentle hum of excited chatter and the joy of new acquaintance. We were a mixed crew both in terms of nationality – I spied British, Italian, Argentinian, American and French – and age, which ranged from the late 20s to mid-70s. There were celebrations: honeymoons, significant birthdays, wedding anniversaries (my wife and I were marking our own 25th). 

But there were many on board simply because this is a signature journey, something they had always dreamt of doing. Compared with the more frequent London to Venice sortie, this has richer historic resonance and involves a more complex itinerary.

Bulgaria passed in a haze of wheat fields and corn, and curious onlookers quick to smile and wave. I spotted the odd Orthodox church and sign in Cyrillic but before it had fully registered we were at the mighty bridge that spans the Danube, almost at its widest at this point, leading on into Romania, a key port of call on the original Orient Express, a favored mode of transport by Carol I, one of many royals to lend it their patronage and a man who used to enjoy trysts with lovers on the train. 

Our main destination in Romania was Bucharest, a city of such architectural delight in the inter-war years that it was referred to as the Paris of the Balkans. A little of that survives – we arrived at the Gara de Nord; there is still a mini Arc de Triomphe – but the city’s outstanding feature today is the gargantuan “Palace of the People” built by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The scale is astonishing (it is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon) and in a bizarre way it is a wonder to behold.

That said, the evening entertainment – dinner in the ornate splendor of a palace used by the National Military Circle punctuated by spirited performances of Chopin preludes and arias from operas – came as a very welcome antidote.

Music turned out to be something of a leitmotif. The following day as we reboarded the train at the Gara de Nord (given that there are no showers on board – the five-night trip involves two in hotels) – we were given an uplifting send off by a choir containing some of the best singers in the city. 

Later that same day we were greeted with brass band bravado at the mountain resort of Sinaia where Carol I used to host gatherings of the trains passengers in his fairy-tale castle of Peles. What with that and the constant waving, it was easy to understand why this train was known to some as the King of Trains and the Train of Kings.

As if on cue, a deep mist descended while we were at Sinaia, a town and resort high in the hills of the Carpathians at the start of the region best known as Transylvania. “You had better keep your necks covered,” warned Michael, our guide. “It would be very like Dracula to take advantage of this very unusual situation.” Later that evening in the Piano Bar, a French passenger revealed that the previous night the cupboard containing her wash basin had started creaking and opening slowly. Another guest said that as the rain pounded against the train she expected to hear a scream.

Adding to the mix, Pierino, our pianist, struck up the theme tune to the television series Poirot. We almost expected David Suchet – a huge fan of the train – to make a guest appearance. It is in the Bar Car and the adjoining dining cars that the scale of the achievement of James B Sherwood, the American entrepreneur who rescued the train by buying many of the original, old and sadly dilapidated carriages and restoring them to their pristine best, become clear.

From the Lalique glass panels in the Côte d’Azur car to the black lacquer finishings in the L’Oriental and the exquisite marketry in the Etoile du Nord, the attention to detail is astounding. As it is with the furnishings and fittings in the cabins too, each loyal to the art deco motif of the original and each equipped with a washbasin discretely contained within a beautifully embossed cupboard. Travelling on the train is like spending time in a living work of art. 

Of course, the main reason for visiting the dining cars is to sample the food – which included lobsters from Brittany, seared fresh duck foie gras, chicken oyster and soft water crayfish fricassee and a delightful ginger ice cream confection. Each meal is a mini miracle of Michelin-starred creativity. And in a lovely touch, Christian Bodiguel, the French head chef with more than 30 years experience on board, walked along the carriages asking us all if we had bien mangé and signing copies of the day’s

By day four I heard the odd muttering about there being too much food – but somehow we all made it back for the sittings at lunchtime and dinner, relishing the chance to experience the different atmospheres of the dining cars and enjoy animated conversation with fellow passengers. “It’s like going for a meal in your favorite restaurant with friends two times a day,” one confided. 

Our other overnight hotel stay was in Budapest, a city bisected by the River Danube with a neo-gothic parliament building, impressive echoes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a raft of hot-spring-fueled bathing houses and the hills of Buda that provide a soothing contrast to the urban buzz of Pest.

Lovely though sleeping on the train is, no matter how exquisite the wooden marquetry, the cosiness of the cabin and the authenticity of the light fittings, it does involve, well, being shaken around a bit and having to adjust to the constant chug-a-chug-chug of motion. The longer the journey goes on the more you get used to it. That said there were no complaints about a night at the Gresham Palace, a monument to Art Nouveau magnificence directly overlooking the city’s dazzling Chain Bridge and a very elegant Four Seasons hotel.

While Lake Balaton – a small diversion south from Budapest – offered an almost Mediterranean moment of repose, the journey took a very different turn as we crossed into Austria during the course of our final night on board. Some celebrated the moment – at about one in the morning – with another nightcap in the Piano Bar. Others waited for the dawn and the thrill of drawing the blind for a first glimpse of Alpine huts, rushing streams and the majestic mountains themselves, some already capped with snow. More visual stimulation awaited as we crossed the Brenner and came into that part of Italy known as the South Tirol (or Alto Adige) and the drama of the Dolomites.

Scenery wise this was probably the highlight of the trip and it was fitting that as we approached Venice itself we had time to reflect on what everyone I spoke to considered to have been a journey that not only met but exceeded expectation. Istanbul felt like a very long time ago. There may not have been a murder on board – but there was mystery and magic and music at pretty much every step of the way. It’s certainly the best train I have ever travelled on.

Murder on the Orient Express is released on November 3

The Telegraph UK