The Orient Express Takes Its Final Trip

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    The Orient Express arrives at the Gare d'Austerlitz, Paris, in December 1978. After 126 years, the famed Orient Express train will end service Monday.
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    An 1886 illustration of the dining car. The Orient Express was a symbol of luxury, wealth and mystique, but the train route was also a practical way to travel across the Balkans.
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    A celebration at the Athens Railway Station marked the reopening of the Orient Express in 1951. Service was suspended during World Wars I and II and was mostly restored in 1945. The Athens portion of the Simplon Orient Express was not reopened until March 1951.
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    Agatha Christie's famous novel Murder on the Orient Express added to the train's mystique. Albert Finney played the role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the 1974 film version of the book.
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    Direct trips from Paris to Istanbul and Athens ended in May 1977, and the Orient Express was reduced to a single sleeping car and three day coaches.
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    In 1982, rail enthusiast James Sherwood began offering a service also named the Orient Express that took passengers from London and Paris to Venice aboard refurbished, 1930s-era train cars, complete with uniformed waitstaff. Although not the original rail line, this luxury version of the Orient Express restored a nostalgic thrill for train buffs.
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    Passengers arrive in Istanbul in September 2007. In recent years the train continued a direct route from Paris to Istanbul once a year.
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The Orient Express — the very name carries an aura of glamour and mystery. Van Helsing rode it to his battle with Dracula. James Bond romanced a beautiful Russian aboard it. And Agatha Christie set one of the best-known murders in literary history aboard that train.

Now the original Orient Express is itself about to become part of history. On Monday, the route will disappear from European railway timetables, a victim of high-speed trains and cut-rate airlines.

The height of the Orient Express' fabled luxury was probably in the 1930s, PBS travel guide Rick Steves tells NPR's Scott Simon. That was back when the train was four sleeper cars and a single luggage car. "But in practice, the Orient Express is the practical way you get across the Balkans," Steves says.

"Back in the Cold War, you were dealing with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and barking dogs. And I remember everybody with a briefcase looked mysterious to me, anybody with an overcoat — what's under that overcoat? And of course, it was that mystique of going east."

Steves points out that there are actually two Orient Expresses. The one that people probably think of now is a tour company that renovates 1930s-era cars and takes people from London to Venice. It's the other Orient Express that's taking its final trip.

"The historic Orient Express — that's the one that was established back in the 1880s — that took you from Paris or London to Istanbul," he says.

Aboard the real Orient Express, you were more likely to meet scruffy people than beautiful Russian spies. Steves remembers corrupt conductors from his trips. "You'd have to bribe your way to get across a border or to get your seat."

"I remember literally sleeping in the hallways of those trains with peasants coming on and off," he says. "It was a vivid, ever changing world. And it was the best, easy, accessible adventure to get on that Orient Express."

The train was the scene of many adventures — both real and imagined — in its 126-year history. Steves says a murder occurred aboard the Orient Express in 1929 while the train was stuck in a snowstorm about 70 miles outside Istanbul. That crime inspired Christie's famous mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express. Christie even traveled to Istanbul while writing the book.

That kind of romance fuels nostalgia for the golden era of train travel, Steves says, the days when people would spend two days on a train to get from Paris to Turkey.

A trip that now costs just $40 and a few hours on a budget European airline. That's an amazing thing, Steves says. "I mean, kids are flying off to another country just to have lunch with their friends, and the glamour and class of train travel has changed quite a bit."

"Travel buffs and train buffs really lament the passing of the good old days of train travel," he says. "Every year there are fewer overnight trains and fewer elegant overnight trains.

"This is just one more loss as we morph into a more modern and affluent world."



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