The list of passengers reads like an international who’s who: Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Francis Ford Coppola, J.K. Rowling, Phil Collins... The celebrity guest book is already crammed with names, and the next time the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) rolls out of London bound for Venice, it will be expanded further.
In total, 365,000 passengers have filled the 17 cars of the VSOE since the reintroduction of the legendary service in 1982. In the past 30 years it has covered more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) and served more than one million meals. The total number of bottles of wines consumed is not recorded.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express first started life in 1883 and has a colorful history: transporting kings and queens across Europe, surviving two world wars and stimulating the creative juices of author Agatha Christie. The creator of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Christie penned “Murder in the Calais Coach,” a book that later became known as “Murder on the Orient-Express.”
Little has changed since Christie created the Calais coach-killing. Guests travel in vintage carriages, evoking the high-class rail travel of the Roaring Twenties. History surrounds each traveler, with the work of famous Art Deco designers adorning the carriages. René Lalique decorated one of the dining cars, while René Prou was responsible for the design of six sleeping cars between 1926 and 1929.
The three restaurant cars and the bar car are the social center of the VSOE. Train manager Silvia Cerroni says cocktails “are certainly very popular in the evening, when the bar comes to life to the sounds of the on-board baby grand piano.” The cocktail list ranges from the classic Martini to the train’s signature Agatha Christie cocktail. The recipe is a secret blend of ingredients – one from each of the nine countries the train visits on its different routes.
But it is bubbly that remains the drink of choice on this once-in-a-lifetime journey. “The most popular drink on board is without a doubt Champagne," reports Cerroni. "Most of our guests travel on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to make a special occasion, such as an anniversary, birthday or honeymoon.”
Indeed, during the season – which runs from March to November – more than 1,700 bottles of Champagne are served, with the average price per bottle around 70 euros ($86).
In the restaurant cars, the three-course lunch and four-course dinner are lavish affairs and guests are expected to make an effort: gentlemen need to dig out a lounge suit or black tie, and ladies should put on their best dresses. Wine is served by the train’s sommelier from one of two wine cellars on board. As the train sweeps majestically through France into Switzerland, Austria and Italy, passengers often request a taste of the local wines. Whites are the biggest sellers – perhaps because the season runs during the Northern Hemisphere’s spring and summer. “We tend to find that white wine is the most popular, particularly Sancerre, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé and Pouilly-Fumé,” says Cerroni. “Italian pinot grigio is also popular.”
The wine list is dedicated to the wines of France and Italy, so New World wine lovers must beware. Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley dominate the reds, with Burgundy also having a strong presence among the whites. The white wines include some interesting examples from Italy, such as a gewürztraminer from Alto Adige and a grechetto from Lazio.
Still-wine prices start from 40 euros ($49) for a bottle of Alighieri Valpolicella Classico, to 295 euros ($362) for the 1998 Château Beychevelle from Bordeaux’s Saint-Julien. There’s a similarly wide price range for bottles of bubbles. Budget-conscious passengers can enjoy one of Prosecco’s top sparklers, Bisol’s Crede, at a reasonable 50 euros ($61), or splash out on 1998 Krug for a cool 330 euros ($405).
If diners cannot decide what to drink, the sommelier is there to provide guidance. The dinner menu kicks off with dishes such as pan-sautéed back of bass dressed with truffle and potato flakes. Mains include Charolais roast beef filet with green asparagus and tarragon mousseline sauce, or bream and a carpaccio of scallops with finger-lime caviar.
The team of French chefs is led by Christian Boudiguel, who has spent more than 25 years creating meals on the move that are served by white-gloved waiters. Between meals, if passengers are not already full to bursting, an afternoon tea of pastries is delivered to each compartment.
All in all, it’s a luxurious experience – and it ought to be, with prices for the 31-hour journey from London to Venice (or vice versa) starting at 1830 pounds ($2870) per person. You can get from London to Venice for just over 20 pounds ($31) with low-cost airline easyJet, but that would be missing the point: this trip is not about the destination, it’s about the journey.