On October 7, 1883, three days after departing from Paris on its inaugural journey to Constantinople, the Orient Express made its first stopover in Budapest. Europe’s first transcontinental express would end up completely redefining the notion of long-distance travel.
In 1867, to recover from a heartbreak, young Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers left Europe for the United States, where he marveled at the world’s first sleeping cars, most of which were owned and operated by George Pullman. It was there that Nagelmackers first got the idea of launching luxurious trains that would span the European continent and lead to the Gates of the Orient.
Georges Nagelmackers and l’Express d’Orient
A decade later, in 1876, Nagelmackers founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), which initially only ran sleeping and dining cars attached to train services operated by the various European state railways.
Nagelmackers’ sleeping cars quickly became known for their luxurious decorations, unparalleled comfort and unprecedented services on board, but it wasn’t until 1882 that first CIWL-only train became operational. Featuring crystal chandeliers, a piano and the finest crockery and cutlery, the “Train Eclair” left Paris on October 10 and arrived in Vienna the next day.
The following year, after a number of false starts, financial troubles and difficulties negotiating with various national railway companies, Nagelmackers finally realized his dream of establishing a route from Paris to Constantinople. And in October 1883, Nagelmackers’ flagship, dubbed the Express d’Orient by the press, embarked on its inaugural journey.
An inaugural journey across 19th century Europe
With forty passengers aboard, including many journalists to publicly marvel at the train’s luxury and beauty, the “Orient Express”, as it would later be called, pulled out of the Gare de l’Est in Paris on Thursday, October 4. By the time dawn broke the next morning, the train was approaching Strasbourg and borders of the German Empire, before making its way through Bavaria to Munich, where it made its first brief stopover.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6, the Orient Express crossed the border into the Austro-Hungarian Empire by passing through the Austrian border town of Branau am Inn, where, five and a half years later, Adolf Hitler would be born. By late afternoon, the train pulled into the central station of Vienna, to the sound of the national anthems of France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, namely each country the train would pass through on this inaugural journey.
The Orient Express then slowly chugged further eastward through the night, making a brief stop in Poszony, today known as Bratislava, but then part of the Kingdom of Hungary. By mid-morning, on October 7, the train arrived at the newly merged cities of Buda and Pest, which had been renamed Budapest, and its brand new Nyugati railway station, designed by the Eiffel Company.
After being greeted by a military band, followed by a buffet that favored Magyar cuisine, specifically goulash, served to the sound of Hungarian folk music, the Orient Express continued its inaugural journey towards Szeged, where a gypsy orchestra was invited to come aboard and perform during the two hour trip that would take them to Temesvar, today known as Timisoara, in Romania.
The Orient Express then headed further east toward the Romanian border and out of Austria-Hungary. After a brief stop in Bucharest, the Orient Express made its way to Giurgiu, where the passengers left the Orient Express and were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, in Bulgaria. There, they picked up a second train for the journey to Varna on the Black Sea coast, where an Austrian steamer would take them on the 14-hour sea voyage to Constantinople.
With the complete round trip lasting 13 days, the inaugural journey of the Orient Express turned the geography of Europe upside down and completely redefined the notion of long-distance travel.
The Orient Express through the years
While service Service increased to daily over the Paris-Munich-Vienna section, the Orient Express continued to operate twice days a week beyond Vienna to Giurgiu. On a third day each week, it would beyond Vienna to Belgrade and Niš, where horse-drawn carriages took passengers from across the mountains to Plovdiv, where the rail journey to Constantinople resumed.
A direct line between Paris and Constantinople was only completed in June 1889 and in the Express d’Orient was officially renamed the Orient Express. Throught the years, the Orient Express attracted the elite of European society, including royalty, such as Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Belgium’s King Leopold II and, famously, Tsar Nicholas II.
Its service was stopped by World War I but resumed in 1919, with a second route running from Calais and Paris to Lausanne, then via the Simplon Tunnel to Milan, Venice, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Sofia; the train was then called the Simplon–Orient-Express. Interrupted again during World War II, service resumed in 1947.
The glamour and rich history of the train caught the imagination of numerous writers, among them Graham Greene and Agatha Christie, whose works helped to make it world-famous, feeding the imaginations of travelers for nearly a century.
Europe’s first transcontinental express, the Orient Express was eventually discontinued in 1977 after several decades of steadily declining ridership. The development of the air travel market at the end of the 20th century was a blow to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, who was forced to sell some of its cars at auction.
In 1982, an American, James Sherwood, revived the Orient Express as the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, which uses original CIWL carriages from the 1920s and 1930s and runs several routes between London and Venice.
Are night trains making a comeback?
But night trains could well be making a comeback after years of neglect. With COVID grounding flights for a good part of the past year, travelers increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their modes of transportation and EU governments looking at the transport sector as one of the main industries to cut carbon emissions, experts point to a “European trend” that could accelerate in the post-COVID era.
Earlier this year, European Sleeper announced plans to launch a night train service connecting Prague and Brussels in the spring of 2022. But much like Georges Nagelmackers 250 years ago, to get the four-country international line on track, the Dutch startup will have to overcome a number of hurdles, including raising enough funds, finding carriages and navigating through EU bureaucracy…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.