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The Egyptian Locations that inspired Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile

Armie Hammer as Simon Doyle and Gal Gadot as Linnet Ridgeway in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“When I read it now I feel myself back again on the steamer from Assuan to Wadi Halfa,” Agatha Christie wrote of her novel Death on the Nile published in 1937. Christie was inspired by a holiday in Egypt, escaping the British winter, and observed that the resulting book “is one of the best of my ‘foreign travel’ ones… the reader can escape to sunny skies and blue water in the confines of an armchair.” Kenneth Branagh’s lavish new film version of the murder mystery will likely also have viewers vicariously visiting Egypt. 

Like Agatha Christie and her Death on the Nile characters, I stayed in Aswan and travelled by boat to Abu Simbel several winters ago. And like them I checked into the Old Cataract Hotel which felt like stepping into an Agatha Christie novel. The writer not only stayed at the grand hotel, she partly set Death on the Nile there. At the “Cataract Hotel at Assuan” her fictional detective Hercule Poirot first met heiress Linnet Ridgeway on honeymoon with her husband Simon Doyle, the pair being stalked by Simon’s jilted fiancée, Jacqueline de Bellefort. Along with a cast of other intriguing guests they subsequently took an ill-fated Nile cruise on the SS Karnak.

Branagh shot most of his film at a studio in England (even recreating the Karnak steamer and Abu Simbel temple there) but the equally star studded 1978 movie included extensive shots of the Old Cataract. Though refurbished and renamed the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, the cocoa powder coloured exteriors adorned with terraces and balconies were kept intact (there’s also now an Agatha Christie Suite).

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

It was easy to enjoy Aswan without leaving the hotel, dozing on a sun lounger by the pool or sitting on the cool, canopied terrace where there was a bird’s eye view of the Nile, Elephantine Island, and the desert beyond. Like Poirot however I did venture into town to visit the souk (a frenzied experience involving the world’s most persistent salesmen) and took a felucca straight from the hotel’s dock to Elephantine Island. 

Following in Christie and her characters’ footsteps I boarded a boat at Aswan that would take me to the magnificent Abu Simbel temples. In Christie’s day the temple complex was on the Nile but the Aswan High Dam built across the Nile in the 1960s created Lake Nasser and the temples were moved and rebuilt on higher ground. Abu Simbel was the scene of a pivotal part of the plot in Death on the Nile, indicated by the fact that the original UK book dust jacket featured an illustration of a graceful steamer moored in front of the temple. Although the boat I travelled on was not a steamer like SS Karnak it was designed to look like one on the exterior. And the luggage brought up the gangway at Aswan consisted of roll on aluminium suitcases rather than vintage leather trunks.

Ali Fazal as Andrew Katchadourian, Letitia Wright as Rosalie Otterbourne and Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Our trip had its share of intriguing Christie-esque characters: the eccentric couple in the presidential suite who never mixed with the rest of the passengers, the lone man who bombarded the guide with questions at every temple and tomb and the tall, pale woman permanently dressed in clothes more suited to The African Queen.

We would be taking a gentle jaunt around Lake Nasser, visiting lesser-known temples and tombs rescued from the area flooded by the creation of the High Dam and culminating in a stop at the the massive temple dedicated to Ramses II and the slightly smaller, but no less impressive, one to his wife, Nefertari. 

Annette Bening as Euphemia Bouc and Tom Bateman as Bouc in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE, a mystery-thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel. Photo by Rob Youngson. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Lake Nasser had far fewer boats than the popular stretch of the Nile between Aswan and Luxor. Admittedly, there was a lot less to see than on the river but as Christie said through the caddish Simon Doyle, “It feels, somehow, so much less touristy – as though we were really going into the heart of Egypt.”

Most visitors take a day-trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel by plane but by taking a four night cruise we were truly able to appreciate the temples. We had been told to start looking out for Abu Simbel half an hour before we were due to reach it. Once I spotted the grey hulk on the horizon I looked through binoculars to see four colossal figures hewn from a mountain of rock that marks the main temple’s entrance. I was hooked, keeping my focus on them until we disembarked to see them up close.

Staying overnight we visited the temples in both daylight and darkness, the latter including a light and sound show. And by staying aboard a boat rather than at a hotel, we were treated to dinner on deck with the floodlit temples as a back drop. Just as Christie had done in the 1930s, it felt wonderful to escape the winter weather back home.

What it’s like to travel on Emily in Paris’ “Orient Express” train

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In Netflix’s Emily in Paris Season Two, Emily (Lily Collins) catches a train to St Tropez that looks suspiciously like the Orient Express. In reality the modern day version, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, does not journey from to the South of France but here’s Chopstix’s experience of catching the VSOE from London to Venice via Paris:

Our first sight of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the smartly uniformed staff lined up alongside the gleaming navy train to greet us. We are welcomed aboard by our personal steward in blue and gold livery complete with cap and white gloves who’ll take care of us for our two day trip. He leads us along the narrow corridor of our designated wagon lit (sleeping car) to our cabin where our luggage is already waiting.

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Our journey had begun that morning at London Victoria. It’s a popular misconception that the VSOE travels between the UK and mainland Europe. In reality its sister train, the equally plush and storied Belmond British Pullman, covers the English leg. After enjoying a three course lunch on board the Pullman while travelling through the countryside we disembarked at Folkestone on the south coast, met with terrific fanfare by a brass band playing on the platform. We were then transferred by coach onto another train, Le Shuttle, that passes through the Eurotunnel under the sea into France. 

Safely aboard the VSOE at Calais station we settle into our cosy Art Deco cabin. We’ve booked a twin which comes with bunk beds though during the day there’s no sign of the sleeping arrangements – unlike Emily’s experience of boarding in Paris. Instead there’s a luxuriously upholstered banquette seat – perfect for taking in the view through the large window. While our cabin is lovely it’s small so we’ve brought overnight bags only (more luggage can be stored but not accessed on the journey – Emily would definitely not have brought her gigantic Rimowa collab aboard). In true authentic 1920s fashion, there’s a wash basin concealed in a smart wooden cabinet but no shower and the lavatories are at the end of each carriage. 

Although often mistaken for the Orient Express, the train service synonymous with Agatha Christie that ran between Paris and Istanbul, the VSOE is a collection of vintage carriages bought by businessman James Sherwood (who launched a luxury travel group, now called Belmond, on the back of it). Each carriage has been exquisitely restored, all polished wood and richly coloured upholstery, some feature marquetry and some Lalique glass panels. Combined they make a beguiling luxury train of several sleeper cars positioned either side of the dining and bar cars. 

Once we’re off an ever changing view unfolds outside the window. When we pass families out for a stroll or bike ride it’s lovely to see their faces light up at the sight of the handsome train.

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We opt for the later sitting for dinner (there are also two sittings for lunch) and request a table for two rather than a shared table of four. Beforehand we make our way to the bar car for an aperitif. It’s a bit of crush with passengers crowding in either before or after dinner but luckily we find a seat. You’re encouraged to dress up on the VSOE and evening is particularly fun with most of us in glitzy frocks and tuxedos.

Serendipitously our dinner coincides with the train crossing Paris so we’re treated to a view of an illuminated Eiffel tower from our upholstered arm chairs as we tuck into the four course set menu. The table is beautifully laid with fine china, crystal and silverware perfectly framing the lobster lasagna followed by fillet of beef, a cheese course then bitter chocolate and pistachio and souffle. We finish off with coffee and petits fours then retire to the bar for a night cap.

Back in the cabin we find our steward has transformed the banquette into inviting beds with crisp sheets and warm blankets. An upholstered ladder leads to the top bunk which I leave Mr Chopstix to clamber up. Our passports are with the steward so when we cross the border into Switzerland during the night we won’t be woken.

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In the morning we open the blinds and see the snowy mountains of the Alps. It’s a magical backdrop for breakfast in our cabin. We spend the day walking the length of the train (a half mile each way), browsing in the onboard boutique and simply watching the scenery as we pass into Austria and then Italy. Punctuated by eating of course. The three course set lunch is as impressive as dinner: seared scallops, roasted rack of lamb and a poached pear with salted caramel. 

As our journey comes to a close in the late afternoon we return to our cabin. Our steward opens our door so that the window in the corridor is visible and tells us to make sure we look out of both sides. What follows will remain one of my favourite travel experiences: the train crosses the Venetian lagoon and we have an expansive view in each direction. It’s a stunning arrival in the floating city.

One caveat, back on firm ground we weren’t prepared for the rocking sensation, similar to how you feel when you’ve been on a boat. Even so as we checked in at Venice airport, how we wished we were returning on the VSOE. 

[UPDATE: For the first time, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express will offer journeys during the month of December this year. The VSOE will travel the Classic Journey from Venice to Paris on 2nd and 12th December 2022, and from Paris to Venice on 20th December. The train will stop in Florence on 7th December (Venice to Paris) and 8th December (Paris to Venice). The train will depart from Paris to Vienna on 17th December, and will make the return journey (Vienna to Paris) on 18th December 2022.]

All Aboard the Wes Anderson express – the film director’s reimagined carriage on the Orient Express sister train

Wes Anderson aboard his reimagined Cygnus carriage

As I sit at a white clothed table, take a sip of wine from a cut glass goblet and watch the countryside roll by through the train window, I feel as if I could be in a Wes Anderson film. Not just because trains are a recurring fixture in Anderson’s productions but because the carriage I’m travelling on has been revamped by the movie director himself. 

Paris-based Anderson dislikes flying and is a regular on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express so Belmond asked him to redesign a carriage on sister train, the British Pullman, which every year takes one of its vintage carriages out of service for a refresh, a spokeswoman for the luxury travel company tells me. 

The British Pullman loops through the English countryside

From the exterior, Cygnus (all the carriages have names rather than letters) looks the same as the rest of the coffee and cream coloured train waiting at London’s Victoria station. I had been greeted aboard that morning by a friendly, white-gloved steward and shown to my upholstered seat where canapes were waiting on the table and a flute of champagne swiftly poured.

“Are you a fan of Wes Anderson?” the steward asks. I reply that I am. But I am also an Agatha Christie and art deco fan and having been on the train a few times, including this very carriage, I’m curious to see the changes.

The walnut walls and overhead brass luggage racks have been kept intact to which Anderson has added his own touches. He’s brought in angular seating in place of the oversized upholstered armchairs; replaced the traditional, shaded lights with sleek art deco style lamps and the furnishings now all feature geometric prints.

Wes Anderson reimagined carriage with pink ceiling

What catches my eye the most though is the ceiling painted a divine pink. This sugary shade is one of the director’s signatures and it occurs to me that the green and pink colour scheme of the carriage is the same as showstopper pastry from Mendl’s bakery in The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as the main character’s costumes in Moonrise Kingdom.  

Since cygnus means swan, Anderson has played on the waterfowl theme from the marquetry on the walls to the shape of the champagne coolers in the private coupes – like all the British Pullman carriages Cygnus has two private compartments, seating up to four people, at either end. 

Tiny swan in the marquetry
Cygnus private compartment

Unlike the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the British Pullman has no sleeper cars, it is entirely made up of restaurant carriages and so offers day trips from London to various destinations in England and Wales. The inaugural journey for the revamped Cygnus was fittingly to the Welsh capital, Cardiff – Anderson’s middle name is Wales. Upcoming trips next year include Bath, Oxford and Blenheim Palace. I have chosen The Golden Age of Travel which involves a five course lunch onboard while looping through the Kent countryside.

From the tiny kitchen the chef and his team create impressive dishes including duck terrine, roast pumpkin soup, wild sea bass and pineapple upside down cake. The menu is served at a leisurely pace and perfectly timed to be spread out throughout the five hour journey. And all the staff are unfailingly personable and attentive.

Anderson has chosen the tableware for Cygnus, a modern bone china by Royal College of Art graduate, William Edwards who also works with hotels including the Four Seasons, Fairmont and Intercontinental. And the pattern itself – continuing the carriage’s green theme – was designed in collaboration with the owner of Cobblers Cove, Barbados.

Wes Anderson chose the William Edwards china

Like the VSOE, the Pullman is made up of salvaged vintage carriages from the 1920s and 30s. Cygnus was built as a “first class parlour” that was frequented by heads of state. During a break between the main course and cheese, I take a walk through to see some of the other cars. There’s Audrey where the marquetry depicts landscape scenes and Lucille where the inlays feature Greek urns. All the cars are filled with the sound of chatter and laughter. Belmond encourages passengers to dress up and most have which adds to the merriment.

Back in my seat the view turns to farmland with a smattering of oast houses with their distinctive cone shaped roofs that were traditionally used to dry hops. Further on, a glimpse of the sea and the beach huts at Whitstable signal that the train is looping back towards London.

We’re on coffee and chocolate truffles as we edge towards the capital. One last party comes to take a look at “the Wes Anderson carriage”. A train manager catches my eye as we hear the latest proclamations of “Oh wow!” With a smile he says: “Everyone is very jealous of you travelling in this carriage.”

For pricing and to book see: https://www.belmond.com/trains/europe/uk/belmond-british-pullman/

The Orient Express Revisited

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[UPDATE: For the first time, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express will offer journeys during the month of December this year. The VSOE will travel the Classic Journey from Venice to Paris on 2nd and 12th December 2022, and from Paris to Venice on 20th December. The train will stop in Florence on 7th December (Venice to Paris) and 8th December (Paris to Venice). The train will depart from Paris to Vienna on 17th December, and will make the return journey (Vienna to Paris) on 18th December 2022.]

Now synonymous with Agatha Christie and that infamous journey, the original Euro Night train number 469, monikered the more romantic sounding “Express d’Orient”, made its inaugural journey from Paris bound for Constantinople in October 1883. The train which Christie caught, and placed her fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot onboard, however was the Simplon Orient-Express – one of several luxury sleeper trains that cropped up as an offshoot linking the port town of Calais in northern France with Istanbul (previously Constantinople) and ran through the 1920s and 30s.

Luxury trains fell out of favour with the advent of the second world war and airplane travel. Then American businessman James B Sherwood bought a few antique carriages at auction in Monte Carlo in 1977 which seemingly sparked a quest for him to seek out more vintage carriages. After finding them variously abandoned in sidings and people’s gardens across Europe, used as pigeon transporters and in one case a brothel, they were lovingly restored to their Art Deco splendour and launched as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in 1982.

One of the carriages bought by Sherwood at auction in Monaco was sleeping car 3425. It is the oldest of the sleeping cars on the VSOE having been built in 1926 and was marooned in a snow drift 60 miles from Istanbul for 10 days in 1929 (allegedly sparking the idea for a certain murder mystery).

And the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (a mouthful but now the official name for legal reasons) is in the spotlight once again with the release of the new Kenneth Branagh film Murder on the Orient Express starring Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz. So what’s it like to travel onboard? You’ll be greeted aboard by your be-capped and white gloved personal cabin steward who’ll take care of you for your entire trip. Firstly by showing you to your cosy cabin where your luggage will already be waiting.

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The twin cabins come with bunk beds – probably the most deluxe ones you’ve encountered with an upholstered ladder. During the day time there’s no sign of your sleeping arrangements but when you return from dinner your cabin steward will have cleverly transformed your sofa into cosy beds with crisp sheets and fine blankets. After breakfast perhaps while you’re taking a stroll the length of the train, your steward will whisk away the beds and your cabin will once again become a sitting area. In true authentic fashion, each cabin has a concealed washbasin while loos are found at the end of each carriage.

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As well as the famous sleeping cars the train is made up of three dining cars and a bar car complete with grand piano and resident pianist. Each carriage features polished wood, beautiful marquetry, plush fabrics and antique details.

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The VSOE operates on continental Europe – contrary to popular belief the it does not travel to the UK. Rather, the train is embarked or disembarked at Calais and the journey to or from London is completed through the Euro tunnel and the Belmond British Pullman train once in Britain.

While the most popular route is to and from Venice, just once a year the VSOE makes a five night journey between Paris and Istanbul. The exclusive journey follows the route of the inaugural 1883 train journey stopping in Prague, Budapest and Bucharest along the way.

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While the Venice journeys have a feel of celebration the journey to Istanbul is about adventure, says general  manager Pascal Deyrolle. The six day journey from Paris Gare de l’Est station follows in the footsteps of the original train route in 1883. As the VSOE journeys towards the edge of Europe passengers stop for overnight stays at hotels in Budapest in Hungary and Bucharest in Romania with the rest of the nights spent onboard.

After crossing the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria the train arrives in Varna, a beach resort town with a surprisingly grand station building with a wonderful Art Nouveau roof. You’ll spot the Black Sea and then smell the scent of the ocean in the air when you disembark, just as the original passengers experienced. On the early routes, passengers would disembark at Varna and cross the Black Sea by ferry before picking up another train.

Crossing the border from Bulgaria to Turkey, the train stops and all the passengers alight to have their passports stamped in person at the customs booth. Pascal admits to being worried about how passengers would react but has found that they think it’s fun and enjoy chatting to their fellow passengers on the platform as well as the passersby who gather to look at the train. “It’s a social element on the platform. It’s absolutely my favourite aspect of the trip,” says Pascal.

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Guests are encouraged to dress up onboard so cocktails and dinner is particularly fun with everyone in Art Deco inspired frocks and Black Tie. The bar car can be a bit of a crush with guests crowding in between the two dinner sittings but a Champagne Bar has been created within one of the dining cars. Most importantly, like all the best bars it doesn’t close until the last guest has gone to bed.

https://www.belmond.com/trains/europe/venice-simplon-orient-express/

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