“The toilet is charming, you have to lift up a lock and it folds out. It’s utterly divine,” said Patricius, the cabin attendant, topping up my glass of Prosecco and swelling with pride. In almost 80 train journeys around the world I was yet to discover a toilet that could be described as “charming” or “divine”, but later that afternoon, as I perched on the lid of the loo for a selfie, I was certainly impressed by the brass fittings and fifteen layers of varnish on the mahogany walls.
In truth, over the previous few weeks my faith in the romance of train travel had begun to shake: my companions snored, got drunk, and threw food on the floor, they took off smelly shoes, hogged luggage racks, and looked more like Russell Grant than Cary Grant. While this had its own comic charm, the notion of romance was now as creaky as the carriages I slept in – that is, until I boarded the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and spent two days riding through a train traveller’s dream.
Amid the row of grey, grubby trains at Venezia Santa Lucia station, stood a blue and gold beauty at platform four. Polished and prompting curious stares, the 1920s carriages embodied the elegance and thrill of travel in the movies. Handing over my evening dress and incongruous rucksack, I was escorted to my carpeted suite where I wound down the wooden window and stretched out on a cushioned banquette, breathing in the scent of fresh flowers on my table. As the train eased out of the station I lay back and watched the Venetian waters twinkle past in the sunshine. No strangers would be entering my cabin other than Paolo – in a black tailcoat with yellow trimming – to offer a choice of two lunch sittings. As we travelled from Italy to Austria, through Switzerland to France, I wouldn’t have to shuffle up, move my bags or stuff cotton in my ears. I was free to read, doze or listen to the silk-suited pianist play Moon River in the bar until we drew in to Calais and changed trains for the journey to London.
That night, dolled-up in a 1950s rose-pink dress, wearing matching pearls, I cupped my hands to the window of the Etoile du Nord dining car and watched the almost-blue snow of the Austrian Alps sweep down into a valley where chalets glowed like a cluster of golden orbs. In the reflection from the table lamp I observed men in black tie clink glasses with ladies wearing elbow gloves and flapper headbands, and waiters deftly catching bottles and carafes as the train curved around the mountainside.
A perfectly rehearsed performance played around me and I felt like the star of the show. This was the railfan’s fantasy brought to life: to dine on foie gras lasagne with sweet chicken oysters; to sleep in a butler-prepared bunk; to close eyes in Geneva and wake in Paris. The museum-like train, with its René Lalique décor was no more than a hologram, and a recreation of a time now gone. But we were all in on the ruse, and I had my fellow passengers to thank for playing their roles for one night only and keeping the romance of train travel alive.