The Venice Simplon-Orient Express

“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.

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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.

http://www.belmond.com

Vietnam: The Reunification Express

A groan came from the bunk above, followed by the sound of a pillow being punched, then furious muttering. I don’t speak Danish but I recognise foul language when I hear it. Mandolin music had begun to whine from a speaker outside our compartment accompanied by a woman’s voice so shrill that only dogs should have heard it. As it swelled and flooded the carriage it was now my turn to let loose a few expletives. At 6am this was not conducive to a relaxing journey.

I had departed Hanoi at around 9pm the previous night on board what is commonly known as The Reunification Express – though no single train in Vietnam bears the name. Completed by French colonists in 1936, the line running from Hanoi to Saigon was severed in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into north and south. The railway then suffered from American bombing throughout the Vietnam War, but resumed its regular service in 1976. Now it’s a run-down, shabby service that has lost custom to budget airlines, but it is still the only way to witness the country in all its glory.

During peak season an extra service numbered SE17, the Limited Express, is put on to cope with the demand and, to my delight, was limited in more ways than one. Paint peeled off the walls like dead skin and the air conditioner’s grill was secured by four pieces of sellotape – two of which were flapping off. The berths creaked, squeaked and clanked and the gold polyester curtain contained more dust than the inside of a Dyson. But the magic of this journey lay outside the carriages.

For the first hour the train ran parallel to the highway with little more than a single wooden fence separating us from couples on scooters and trucks flitting past in the opposite direction. Racing neck and neck with lorry drivers chewing cigarettes and casting sideways glances into our compartment, the train then broke away from the road, swerving into the guts of the city and disappearing into the darkness of run-down houses lit by hurricane lamps and strung with children’s laundry. But the city soon fell away and the train thundered on through the night.

By morning tiny tufts of cloud hovered around the sun as it rolled its way alongside the train. Thick waxy leaves flapped at the sides of the carriage parting to show stacks of green bananas like fists of fat fingers. Palm trees stood to attention and buffalo wallowed in lotus-filled water, tiny white birds perched on their backs. Children clattered from one end of the carriage to the other, peering into compartments then running away while parents in vests gazed out of the windows or played cards. Patriotic classical hits were cranked up high and a metal cart of deep-fried chicken legs, cabbage and rice was wheeled up and down around noon.

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Between Hué and Danang the jungle crept up the hill and wrapped itself around the train, rising up like a green fortress. This section is renowned for its scenery and as the train slipped in and out of tunnels, and curled around cliffs, the ocean appeared below. Strips of creamy yellow sand trimmed the edges of the water at Lang Co Bay and continued all the way to Danang where I had decided to break up my journey for a few days and grudgingly disembarked. From Danang to Saigon I could only book a ticket sitting upright overnight surrounded by Vietnamese families eating tinned luncheon meat in baguettes, but that’s another story…

vietnam-railway.com is a sales agency which will book your tickets and have them promptly delivered to your hotel in Vietnam.

The lead up to departure

In the space of two weeks, I have left my beloved job, moved house twice, and condensed my life into a 60-litre rucksack. I knew that planning for a 10-month trip around the world was going to require patience, resilience, and balls of steel, but what I never anticipated was that attempting to coordinate 80 train journeys with visa bureaucracy, border restrictions and below-zero temperatures would reveal less about what lay ahead, and more about what I was leaving behind.

Every morning, until the day of departure, I updated my to-do list which, somehow, grew at least five items overnight: walking shoes, Kindle cover, cancel phone tariff, travel insurance, new retainer. But soon a different list began to grow in my head: spend time with mum and dad, visit Kelly and Violet, stay at Ham Yard Hotel, enjoy a last BLT sandwich at Brioche. And it was that latter list that eventually overrode all my other stresses until they ceased to exist. The evening before I left, I found myself on a sunny bench outside London’s National Theatre with a glass of prosecco in one hand and Violet, my friend Kelly’s three-month-old baby, in the other. I was supposed to be buying a pair of walking shoes and the shop was about to close, but I’d shelved the trip to meet them on the Southbank. Kelly had Violet in early February but I’d been too “busy” to organize a time to see them. Only I wasn’t busy, I just had skewed priorities. I could always buy a pair of shoes en route, but I couldn’t give Violet a big cuddle or see her smirk at her mum. Two days earlier, I was toasting a family friend and his new wife at their wedding in Norfolk. They had decided to celebrate 21 years together by getting married and I had initially told them I couldn’t travel up because I had to collect last-minute tickets from Riga to Moscow and there was no other appointment available. But when I saw Tony appear in a top hat and tails and twirl Lizzie onto the dancefloor, I knew that attending their wedding had been the right thing to do, even if it meant having to have my tickets FedEx-ed abroad.

Then there came the seemingly frivolous things. I love bacon. Not that streaky nonsense that Americans call bacon, the rigid strips of crisped fat that snap in two, but the thick-cut baby-pink rashers of smoky meat, curled at the edges and trimmed with rind. My Saturday mornings aren’t complete without a couple of slices snuggled between hunks of white bread and slathered with ketchup, and on my last trip, I really missed the home comfort. So I took myself off to Brioche, my local café in West Hampstead and ordered the cinnamon toast with bacon and maple syrup—twice if I’m honest—just to make sure the taste and smell were safe in my memory bank.

Having rented out my home to a young Polish couple for the next year, I was essentially homeless for my last week in London and had to rely on the kindness of friends and the scum of the King’s Cross Travelodge for a bed until I checked into the Ham Yard Hotel for my last night. The newest edition to the Firmdale group of hotels owned by husband and wife team Tim and Kit Kemp, Ham Yard is carefully slotted into a square just behind Piccadilly Circus, and you would never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. I’ve long been a fan of the Firmdale group, largely because they’re at once so utterly barmy and beautiful—much like London. From the Union Jack flapping above the entrances to the stripped-bare wooden floors, blast of colours and fabrics and lighting and action, the Kemps’ properties are the hotel equivalent of a mad British family, odd and delightful, but always warm and welcoming. After my last stay at the Haymarket Hotel, I foraged around the pillows to see that they were from The Best Bed Linen in the World, and bought some for my own bed. Ham Yard is even more outlandish than its siblings: the reception is strung with a giant cat’s cradle of multi-coloured wool, the orangery is lit with a tangled bunch of at least 15 different lampshades, and the cosy, colourful library has a tiny Queen Elizabeth in a jar—complete with tiny handbag. After dinner, I lay in the huge bath watching Britain’s Got Talent and drinking a cup of tea. Ham Yard isn’t exactly subtle in reminding you where you are. Not to say it’s like a UKIP rally, but they like their flags and British bulldogs and the Archer room, a navy-blue private dining room with swirly chairs has LONDON emblazoned across the wall and a phone box painting by the mirror. It’s quite comic at the best of times, but that night it just felt reaffirming. At breakfast, I went for my last real Full English and although this terrifying patriotism may be misconstrued as that English reluctance to let go of the familiar and venture into foreign territory, it was my way of taking a good long look around before I left it all behind. The next day I bought my walking shoes at 12.15pm before meeting my friends and family at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel bar at 12.30pm to board the first train to Paris. And they were none the wiser.

The first screw up…

It was inevitable that trying to coordinate this many trains and hotels and bookings and going square-eyed from timetables was going to cause a few glitches along the way. With all good intentions to ride the steam train through the Douro Valley it turns out that the train only runs on a Saturday and I need to hot-foot it tonight to Madrid and then on to Valencia so I’m afraid it isn’t going to happen.

But I can tell you that São Bento Railway Station, or Estação de São Bento is probably the most beautiful station I’ve seen so far. The tiles tell an amazing story but I will leave that for you to discover yourself…

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