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A Passage to Elegance

Jump on board for some old-style opulence, writes Mark Parren Taylor

 

Traversing Europe by rail in the heyday of train travel conjures up images of sumptuous velvet upholstery, glamorous passengers, fine dining, and dreams of exotic destinations. Couple that with fog-bound platforms, shady characters, and the ensemble of mysterious intrigue, and the stage is set for Agatha Christie's classic 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. It's hard to imagine 1930's train travel without it.

However, such romance would have largely vanished from contemporary train travel if not for the Pullman carriages saved and restored by Venice Simplon-Orient-Express' (VSOE) founder James Sherwood.

Pullman coaches were originally sleepers, launched in 1864 by US railroad entrepreneur George Pullman. He called them "palace cars": innovative, they came with velvet sofas, feather-stuffed berths, chandeliers and gourmet food. They had all the trimmings - and exemplified Pullman's desire to satisfy the middle class' yearning for affordable grandeur.

Pullmans - principally, dining cars - became widespread at the end of the 19th century, but their glory days were the 1930s when most parts of the British Isles could be reached by one luxury service or another. The Queen of Scots and the Brighton Belle were two-such classic all-Pullman expresses. They were made up of dining, parlour and kitchen coaches that were each known by a unique name.

Some were simple, girl-next-door epithets such as Doris, Vera or Lucille, but others were classically derived. The Golden Arrow's Phoenix was so named because it was remade after being burnt to a crisp in 1936, and it was coupled with Minerva, Pegasus and Hercules.

When the trains were withdrawn, their Pullman carriages were sold off cheap or left to languish in sidings. After all, some had seen 30 or 40 years service and were looking distinctly shabby in an age of pop art and moulded plastic.

But it wasn't long before a new company started to acquire those worn-out coaches. Sherwood started with two carriages bought in 1977 at a Sotheby's auction in Monte Carlo. The next few years were spent locating, purchasing and restoring 35 other vintage carriages. One had become home to an enthusiast in Kent, England, another housed racing pigeons, and one was a brothel in Limoges, France, (where, incidentally, some of the train's china comes from).

Thanks to his efforts the restored Pullman coaches have been busy carrying passengers and calling on cities, castles and sporting events across Britain for a varied schedule of excursions. A nod, perhaps, to Pullman's original plan to provide "luxury for the middle classes", these day trips are at the "affordable" end of the scale - designed to bring old-style opulence within the reach of many.

And indeed the carriages are sumptuous: plush wing-backed armchairs with crocheted antimacassars create intimate spaces around free-standing mahogany tables topped with crisp linen, silver bud vases and quietly clinking cutlery. Walls are decorated with fine marquetry panels, while brass racks and tasseled tie-backs ensure a journey free from sliding top hats and spilt drinks.

The kitchens produce exceptional food despite the constraints of the galley. Stewards - in white mess jackets with gold-braid epaulettes and little dicky bows - move between tables, coaches and each other with quickstep timing while pouring bubbly or spooning caviar in tune with the bumps and jumps in the track.

Some passengers are comfortable enough to take a monthly outing on this train, others embark on the trip of a lifetime. All however recognise the luxury of these grand old carriages because luxury is not just about fixtures and fittings, it's about having the space and time to enjoy them, and to enjoy the romance of it all.

 

CLASSIC RAIL JOURNEYS OF THE WORLD

Orient-Express British Pullman provides a range of excursions in Britain, starting at HK$2,350. For further details visit www.orient-express.com/uktrains

Return journeys between London and Paris aboard Eurostar start at HK$830. Visit www.eurostar.com

Other classic rail journeys include …

The Canadian: a journey between Toronto and Vancouver. From HK$5,400 return. Visit www.viarail.ca

Australia's The Indian Pacific: a 4,350 kilometre journey between Sydney and Perth. From HK$5,900 return in a day-nighter seat. Visit www.gsr.com.au

Vietnam - for a 30-hour trip between Hanoi and Saigon. From HK$950. Visit www.internationalrail.com

The Transylvanian East: a four-day journey between Istanbul and Budapest. From HK$33,500 one way. Visit www.danube-express.com

The Trans-Siberian Express "Golden Eagle": the world's longest rail journey between Moscow and Vladivostok. From HK$108,000 per person based on two sharing. Visit www.gwtravel.co.uk

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