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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/

The Romance of the Railway: On Board the Venice Simplon Orient Express

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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.]

Now synonymous with luxury train travel, Agatha Christie and that infamous journey, the original Euro Night train number 469, monikered the more romantic sounding “Express d’Orient”, completed its inaugural journey from Paris bound for Constantinople (Istanbul) 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 and ran through the golden age of travel in the 1920s and 30s.

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