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.
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.
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.
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.