Please get in and close the doors. The luxurious Orient Express was steamed up for the first time 140 years ago. Even today, the hearts of railway fans beat faster when they encounter the old carriages of this legend.
Venice, Santa Lucia. The train from Austria has just passed the long railway bridge that connects the historic city to the mainland. Just before the locomotive approaches the buffer stop, the eyes of many travelers are drawn to the siding. It stands there in all its glory, the carriages shimmer in dark blue paintwork, peach-colored lampshades adorn the tables in the wood-panelled coupés. Train fans know who they are looking at: the Orient Express is waiting here, which is about to move towards Paris. Or rather the remains of it, operated under the name “Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express” by the American group Belmond, which today belongs to the business empire of LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton. However, the emblem of the “Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens” (CIWL), the oldest European company for the operation of sleeping cars, was founded in 1872 and is emblazoned in brass on the sides of the wagons. The kitchen brigade selects fruit and vegetables, the train manager greets the passengers, who have come in elegant clothes in honor of the luxury train and out of respect for the high performance of the staff. The locomotive and wagons then discreetly slide out of the station. No scoreboard recorded attendance. And we’re steaming right into the middle of a story.
Dear passengers, we welcome you on board our train into the past and wish you a pleasant journey. Our next stop is Paris.
In the spring of 1883 everything was prepared and then everything went wrong: the Orient Express was to set off for the first time from the Gare de l’Est in the direction of the city that was still called Constantinople and which was the enticing vision of the Orient for European travelers. But Georges Nagelmackers was torn from completely different dreams. The Belgian entrepreneur, who had put the idea of a fast and sophisticated train on rails under great technical, political and financial difficulties, had to cancel the maiden voyage due to serious problems with the suspension of the wagons. A short-term repair was out of the question. The journalists, already skeptical, were uninvited.
Next stop: Belgium
Belgium opted for the new means of transport early on and was the first country in continental Europe to push ahead with the expansion of a rail network. Georges Nagelmackers was born on June 24, 1845 in Liège into a family of wealthy bankers. He was supposed to be a mining engineer, but was soon fascinated by the new technology and, even as a young man, always saw opportunities a few positions earlier than others.
At that time, shipping under steam had already, like the hotel industry, relied on noble accommodation for a wealthy clientele. The Orient Express was the next link in this elegant chain. Its comforts included baggage services with collection and delivery, an attendant for each car, heaters and lamps, functional small bathrooms, good beds, fresh groceries bought at each station and local wines. In a tiny galley, the chefs conjured up dishes at toque level. The eye was not only spoiled in the dining car. Artists of the time decorated wooden walls with inlays, designed fabrics, bed linen, glasses and porcelain services. René Lalique, for example, refined glass reliefs and mirror coverings. The Christofle company, which still exists today, made silver cutlery.
But the perfectionist Georges Nagelmackers was not the man who was satisfied with a beautiful shell. Technically, the wagons were always state-of-the-art. Nagelmackers designed technical innovations themselves, which should guarantee smoother running of the wagons.
A network of workshops extended from France to Asia. In Austria, for example, specialists in Vienna-Inzersdorf took care of the maintenance of the rolling stock. All workshops kept all replacements in stock, right down to the screws and dishes. General goods depots along the route also ensured that there was never a shortage of clean laundry, drinks, tobacco products, canned goods and cleaning supplies.
Next stop: Constantinople. Dear guests, we very much regret the delay that has occurred in the meantime and apologize for the inconvenience.
After 81 hours and 40 minutes, the Orient Express reached the city on the Bosphorus on its maiden voyage, which was successful in October 1883 to the great relief of Georges Nagelmackers and his passengers. That is still a sensation today, considering the fact that a journey with the Deutsche Bahn from Salzburg to Paris, depending on the number of construction sites and breakdowns, costs more than
can take twelve hours. The Orient Express was often slowed down by snowdrifts, robberies and political entanglements. However, turning at terminal stations took no longer than five minutes – as old minutes of the European timetable conference show, which has ensured the organization of cross-border rail traffic since 1872. The customs officials at the many border crossings were also instructed to keep checks as short as possible. In 1889, the opening of the direct line via Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia reduced travel times by 14 hours.
In Constantinople, passengers disembarked at Sirkeci station and alighted at the Grandhotel Pera Palace. The CIWL had built it in 1890 in order not to let the comfort end at the station. The view over the Golden Horn from the terrace is still enchanting today. Agatha Christie wrote her hit novel “Murder on the Orient Express” in this hotel, which made the train a legend.
Dear passengers, next stop in two minutes. The train ends here. Thank you for choosing the “Salzburger Nachrichten” for your journey. Servus, goodbye!
THE FEARLESS PIONEER GEORGES NAILMACKER
An unlucky love set the course in Georges Nagelmacker’s life: it was evident early on that he was to become a determined and independent personality. Against the will of his family, he wanted to marry his cousin who was nine years his senior. But in Catholic circles, marriage between relatives was taboo. When Georges couldn’t be persuaded, his strict father sent him on a journey to America. There the young man saw George Mortimer Pullman’s dining and sleeping cars. He enthusiastically planned to introduce such trains in Europe as well.
That was the beginning a turbulent story that the Austrian journalist Gerhard J. Rekel researched with great attention to detail and published as a book. It is thanks to him that the man who invented the Orient Express was saved from oblivion. “It is the world’s only biography about Georges Nagelmackers,” says Gerhard J. Rekel. The luxury train is just the most famous example of Nagelmacker’s activity. In a divided Europe, where nationalism was spreading and different railway systems from country to country made cross-border connections almost impossible, he managed to set up a network of 180 night train connections between Lisbon and Constantinople.
Every country, every Grand Duchy, no matter how tiny, had its own railway company, with which Nagelmacker’s company had to sign contracts. “During the research, I often asked myself how the man did it. Banks and politicians shook their heads at him. He went bankrupt twice. His secret was probably that he was a very talented diplomat and thought big At the same time, he was able to empathize well with other people,” says Gerhard J. Rekel.
the lifetime his passion-driven struggle took its toll: Georges Nagelmackers died on July 10, 1905 in his Villepreux palace near the city of Versailles. Baudouin Nagelmackers – one of the descendants of the family – suspects that exhaustion was the reason Georges barely lived to be 61.
The beautiful book by Gerhard J. Rekel has been published under the title “Monsieur Orient-Express” by Verlag Kremayr & Scheriau.
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