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|Venice Simplon Orient Express
The Queen Victoria was spending the summer in the Mediterranean and passengers joined the ship at Rome , Venice or Barcelona after a short flight from the UK. Our cruise began in Venice and we found a luxury alternative to flying which is to travel by train from London. We had wanted to travel on the famous Venice Simplon Orient Express for many years, we had always thought of it as one of the classic indulgences which one ought to do once in ones lifetime and we had missed Concorde, another indulgence on our list!
The brown and cream carriages of the Belmond British Pullman departed London on 20 September, and connected in France with the blue and gold carriages of the Venice Simplon Orient Express train which then arrived in Venice on 21 September. The Queen Victoria also arrived in Venice on 21 September and new passengers embark on 22 September so we had one night in Venice Island at the Hotel Kette near San Marco. There were then 3 enjoyable weeks on board before returning to Venice and flying home. We celebrated our wedding anniversary on board and also achieved the milestone of 1000 days on Cunard ships, both good excuses to eat and drink in the special Verandah restaurant.
We travelled to London on 19 September by an ordinary electric train and transferred to the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall. It is Pauline's birthday on 20 September and we were delighted it find a beautiful large bunch of flowers waiting in our room. Fortunately we were not flying else it would have been quite a challenge as extra hand luggage. After an excellent dinner and comfortable quiet night we were ready for the taxi to go to London Victoria station. There is an excellent description of the complete journey from London to Venice at www.seat61.com/Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.htm .
The British Pulllman departs from Platform 2 at Victoria Station, some distance from the taxi drop-off point. Our train was scheduled to depart at 10.45 and checkin opens 2 hours before. There is a special check-in facility, with uniformed doorman to great us outside the waiting room with marquetry on the walls from historic carriages. We arrived early and found a seat where we met several other travellers who would also be joining the Queen Victoria in Venice. Two heavy suitcases were checked through to Venice. Neither train has a baggage car and we later discovered that the baggage was loaded onto trucks and taken by road. On arrival in Venice it was then delivered to the Hotel Kette and placed in our room to wait for us. We joined the train with standard hand luggage for overnight and a suit carrier containing the formal clothes required for dinner. "Tuxedo and glamorous finery is encouraged" so the dress code matched well what we already needed for the Cunard formal evenings.
In 2002 we had used the British Pullman for a day trip from London Victoria to Southampton, when it was pulled by the famous Flying Scotsman steam train. That trip had also been in September to celebrate Pauline's birthday and we had been allocated a table in the carriage Ibis which is decorated with Greek dancing girls marquetry and has seating upholstered in the Liberty Ianthe pattern. Pauline has lots of Liberty blouses which match the train. There had been lunch served on the way to Southampton, with champagne and lots of wine, and then dinner on the way back to London, again with champagne and lots of wine. This trip we were allocated the carriage Ione at checkin and were pleased for a change.
The carriages all date from the 1920s or 1930s. Our information sheets from 2002 described all eleven carriages on the British Pullman : Audrey, Cygnus, Gwen, Ibis, Ione, Lucille, Minerva, Perseus, Phoenix, Vera and Zena. Ibis is the oldest carriage and was built in Birmingham in 1925 whereas Ione was built by Metropolitan Cammell in 1928. Both were retired in 1968 and then purchased from the Birmingham Railway Museum in 1981. Ione was also upholstered in Liberty Ianthe and has burr wood panels and Victorian frieze. Each carriage has different decoration and upholstery and there was plenty of time to walk through the carriages and admire the different designs. Tables seated two people, although there were a few compartments which seated four. Our steward stored the flowers safely and we settled into our seat to watch the world go by. Leaving in the morning it was too early for lunch and we were disappointed there was only a brunch and Bellini's, a cocktail made with champagne and peach juice, originally invented by the barman at the Cipriani Hotel in Venice.
Once brunch was served there was a general promenade from end to end of the train to admire all the carriages, and also to see the pretty floor mosaics on the toilet floors. There are boards at the end of each carriage giving their history.
Belmond VSOE had provided a book containing information about the journey and we knew the British Pullman would go to Folkestone where everyone would get off and be escorted to the coaches which would take us on "le shuttle" through the tunnel under the Channel. The train was met by a brass band, our flowers were cared for in the kitchen of the coach, and glasses of Balfour English sparkling wine were served. We shortly discovered there was a problem with the timing of our shuttle and the TV screens in the terminal building were all marked "Retarde" and "Service actuellement perturbe". Fortunately we were not going to miss our connection at the other end and some extra glasses of Balfour appeared !
At Calais the coach continued to Calais Ville Station where the legendary Wagons-Lit carriages of the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express train were waiting, with a line of smiling stewards standing to attention by the carriage list. Carriages go from letter A to L and we were in letter K. A steward was instructed to carry the flowers to our cabin (yes they sometimes call them cabins now, like on ships) while we dealt with the hand luggage and suit carrier. The sleeping-cars are mostly the classic 1929-vintage LX-series with ten 2-berth compartments each containing a convertible sofa which changes into bunks overnight, a footstool, coathangers and a small folding table. There are racks for small luggage and a nice washbasin in the corner. The flowers spent the next 24 hours in the washbasin. The cabins are not en suite and toilets are at the end of the corridor. Slippers and dressing gowns are provided. When we explored the train we found the vintage S-series, carriage L, which is sold as single cabins as they are slightly smaller.
There was just adequate space to change into our formal clothing and to store bags out of the way. The food on the train is reported to be excellent and we were looking forward to dinner. There are 3 restaurant cars: in order from our carriage there is the Etoile du Nord, l'Oriental and the Cote d'Azur. The next car is the Bar Car 3647. We had asked for the early sitting at 1845 in the Etoile du Nord which was built in Birmingham in 1927 and had been allocated to share a table for four. More passengers get on in Paris so some tables for the second sitting are reserved for them. We hoped to start the evening in the Bar Car listening to the grand piano. We walked down through the Dining cars and had a quick look at our table whilst it was quiet. When we got to Bar Car 3647 all the seats were taken and after sitting on a small stool a long way from the music and the bar we decided it was best to set off back and get to our restaurant on time.
The meal and service was excellent and the Restaurant car was all we had hoped for. Our lobster starter was followed by an excellent steak and then cheese, dessert and petit four with our coffee.
We reached Paris Gare de l'Est just before 22.00 with a few minutes to take photos and then go back to our compartment which had now been converted into its overnight format. It is quite narrow to squeeze around the ladder to change into nightwear and hang up the formal clothes. The beds are comfortable although do not choose the upper berth if you expect to get out often during the night. Pauline climbed up the ladder and decided she would not descend until breakfast time. The train was marked London - Calais - Paris - Strasbourg - Chiasso - Venezia so we expected to miss seeing anything of France overnight.
We awoke as usual before 07.30 and looked out having heard noises, just as a locomotive passed the window heading towards the front of the train. The locomotives are changed as the train travels through different countries. Our steward arrived to restore our cabin to daytime layout and deliver our continental breakfast. For the hungry there is also the option of a celebration breakfast in the restaurant car at a supplement of 150 euros. By 08.00 we were eating and enjoying the magnificent Swiss scenery through our window. September is a good time to make the journey because the days are long but the disadvantage is we never saw snow on the mountains. The journey is through the Gotthard Pass, not the Brenner, towards Lugano and Milan and is very pretty, especially around Lake Lucerne.
It was now time for exploring the rest of the carriages which was a real delight. The carriages themselves are largely original and all pre 1930, although they have modern running gear underneath them - a requirement of current regulations. They were all beautifully decorated and in superb condition with gleaming varnish, exquisite marquetry and polished brass - a level of luxury which could never be attained these days. Pictures can barely do justice to it.
We chose lunch early, at 12.00 with a table for 2 in the Cote d'Azur restaurant which was built in 1929 and decorated by Rene Lalique and has lovely Lalique glass panels. The VSOE shop also sells matching Lalique jewelry. It reminded us of the old RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach which also had Lalique glass panels. We could watch the Swiss landscape in comfort from our table. The fixed 3 course menu was salmon fish trio, magret de canette with fresh fig sauce, broccoli puree and turnips, and finally pistachio and raspberry cake with crystallized violet petal ice cream. This was perfect but there is also La Carte from which we chose one alternative main course: the fresh duck foie gras tossed in Muscat wine served with seasonal vegetables at a supplement of 49 euros, which we shared alongside a duck. The Carte also offers Beluga caviar and a trilogy of caviars, and we had admired the display of tins in the Bar Car, but these are very expensive.
We were now definitely in Italy and passed through Milan at 15.00. It was soon time for afternoon tea which arrived with champagne in our cabin at 1600. We passed Verona at 16.45, Padua at 17.45 and Venice Mestre at 18.05 before setting off along the causeway to Venice Santa Lucia where we arrived on time at 18.25. As we arrived the sun was setting we saw the distinctive red Cunard funnel close to the platform. We were almost home.
Our tour firm had originally booked a nice saloon car to our hotel on Venice Island. Fortunately the VSOE provide a complimentary shared water taxi transport from Venice Santa Lucia station to hotels on Venice Island, Lido and Giudecca Island. We were accompanied by a VSOE representative who escorted our small group from the platform to motorboat 17 and we were soon on our way to the private landing stage of the Hotel Kette. It was all very efficient and easy because we only had hand luggage although our large bunch of flowers caused some amusement. There is no motor transport in Venice Island and the only access to hotels is by water. It is very important to choose a good hotel which has its own private landing stage otherwise there can be a difficult walk across bridges to reach public piers.
Once we had checked into the hotel we took an evening walk round some of the central areas already familiar to us - we did not need to eat as we had lunch and tea on the Orient Express. The Hotel Kette is a good choice because it is in an area of expensive shops and was very central and it was only a short walk over some bridges to St Marks Square which was starting to liven up for the evening. We continued walking along the water front passing the Relais and Chateau Londra Palace Hotel where we had an excellent lunch on our last visit. It was tempting but we had eaten too well over the previous few days so we just had a gelato in the square on the way back. It is now prohibited to sit anywhere in the square and most tourist areas except in approved restaurants but one seemed to be able to carry an ice-cream!
We ate in the hotel in the morning as the buffet breakfast was included and then had another walk round passing the famous La Fenice opera house and glanced into several churches - an increasing number now seem to charge and many try to ban photography. The less said about the travel arrangements to the ship where our tour firm again failed to deliver transport despite calls from us and the hotel to the UK and they finally suggested we organised a water taxi ourselves and sent them the receipt. The hotel arranged one for us which arrived in ten minutes and we had an interesting high-speed journey - water taxis to the port seem to have a fixed charge of 100 euros. The boat was in beautiful condition with gleaming varnish you could see your face in. Because we were later than scheduled there were no check-in queues and we were on board in time for a late lunchtime snack in the Lido.