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Leisure and Luxury What used to be the exclusive privilege of the rich and famous is now available to the modern traveler in search of exquisite refinement.
By Carole Kotkin
T rains that recall the time when railroad travel was a pleasure are an all-but-extinct breed. Today we want to get where we’re going fast, never mind the sights we might miss along the way.
For the nostalgic traveler, only a few deluxe excursion trains still exist, like Europe’s fabled Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the luxurious train immortalized by British mystery writer Agatha Christie.
On the Orient Express the emphasis is less on getting there than on being there. The Orient-Express offers several itineraries, including an overnight trip that takes travelers on a 20-hour journey between Venice and Rome, with a four-hour stop in Florence for sightseeing. For me, the tour was an ideal way to savor the Orient-Express experience, a throwback to the glamour of yesteryear’s unhurried train travel.
Launched in 1883 by Belgian railway enthusiast Georges Nagelmackers, the Orient-Express initially ran between Paris and Romania. In 1889, connecting service from London to Paris was added. After the Simplon Tunnel from Switzerland to Italy was opened in 1906, the Orient-Express itinerary was extended to Istanbul, Turkey. The train’s glory came between the two World Wars, when regulars like King Boris of Bulgaria, Leopold II of Belgium, King Carol of Romania, many Habsburgs, the Prince of Wales, and Mata Hari could be found aboard.
The legend began in 1883, when the Train Express d’Orient, as it was called then, left Paris. Three days, nine hours and 40 minutes later, its passengers arrived in Istanbul. What these elite passengers found was luxury, impeccable service, deference, and discretion.
The Orient Express ran for 94 years. Its fortunes declined, however, with the changed company, bought several of the Orient-Express’ cars at auction in 1977, and eventually political and economic climate of post-World War II Europe, and the advent of air travel. Service was terminated in May 1977.
James Sherwood, the American president of Sea Containers Ltd, a London-based shipping spent $16 million to refurbish 35 vintage sleeping, parlor and restaurant cars.
In May 1982, almost a century after the initial run, the Orient-Express was reborn in a style that makes traveling on it an event. Every detail is meticulous. The interior walls are adorned with intricate wood marquetry, from circa-1898 templates; the lush fabrics, upholstery and carpets are in the deco style; lamps and decorative panels are Lalique.
Pampering begins immediately upon arrival at the Venice train station, where the staff welcomes passengers at a separate check-in desk. Passengers are then whisked off for a glass of Champagne at one of Venice’s wine bars.
Upon boarding the gleaming dark blue cars, stewards, dressed in crisp navy uniforms, sharp navy caps and white gloves, escort passengers into the sleeping cars, and explain procedures. I watched the landscape unfold from a comfy sofa in the leather-walled, brass-appointed club car, and sipped wine from French crystal stemware in the opulent Piano Bar. Later, at dinner, as passengers clad in tuxedos and evening gowns filled the three restaurant cars, I wondered if this was where Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor decided the future of Britain.
Each dining car has its personality. One featured panels of Lalique glass between the windows, another had black lacquer chinoiserie, while the third glowed with delicate marquetry inlaid on mahogany.
The four-course gourmet meal was exquisitely presented on Ginori china. The seasonal menu featured foie gras, Sauternes and vegetable terrine; filet of lamb with braised fennel, a cheese plate, and lemon baba.
Cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner on a moving train for 188 passengers poses a challenge for the chefs. The food arrives vacuum packed (sous vide) and is cooked in an air-compression oven (powered by gas outside the train) or steamed. Extra ingredients are carried on board in case there is a loss due to the unexpected motion of the train, when food and plates end up on the floor.
French executive chef Christian Bodiguel supervises three kitchens staffed by three chefs, one sous chef and four cooks (the chefs are French and the waiters are Italian). Prior to joining The Orient Express, Bodiguel was head chef at the Hotel Warwick in Paris. Three-hundred-fifty outstanding bottles of French and Italian wines including Krug, Vintage 1989 Champagne, Château Beychevelle Grand Cru Saint-Julien 1990, Gavi di Gavi, La Scolca, 1998, to name a few are stored in coolers in each of the two dining cars.
Needless to say, I lingered long over dinner.
Why rush? My bed was only a couple of cars away. Sleeping car compartments have both upper and lower berths, made up with Frette bed linens by the stewards during dinner. This is a vintage train so space and amenities are limited (a sink, but there are no showers and the toilet is down the hall), but for train lovers, such details are all part of the Orient Express experience. Breakfast will make you forget any inconvenience freshly squeezed juice, hot croissants, sliced tropical fruit, and cups of steaming, rich coffee.
When the train arrives in Florence at about 8 a.m., travelers may take a free, guided tour offered by Orient Express, or wander independently.
If my fantasy trip had to end, it might as well be in a spectacularly beautiful place. Palazzo Arzaga, the 1,000-acre luxury resort in Italy’s diverse Lombardy region between Milan and Venice, filled the bill and then some. Palazzo Arzaga, the 15th century country mansion overlooking Lake Garda, is one of Italy’s premier resorts, offering one of the country’s most renowned spas, the Saturnia Wellness Center.
The spa replicates its world-famous Tuscan namesake whose origins date back to ancient times, and features every health and beauty treatment imaginable herbal wraps, reflexology, aromatherapy, therapeutic massage, and bio-peeling all executed by a young, eager-to-please staff. There are two golf courses one designed by Jack Nicklaus, and one designed by Gary Player and the Palazzo Arzaga is the site for the only PGA-sanctioned gold academy in Italy.
The most dramatic feature of the palazzo is the floor-to-ceiling original 15th and 16th century frescoes, some of which are in the 84 guest bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as in the public areas. Each of the guest rooms looks out onto either the golf course, an orchard, or the interior courtyard, and is decorated in 18th and 19th century Italian furnishings.
Sleeping here is a distinct contrast to the Orient Express Train’s small compartment. The rooms are huge, silent, and the shutters and drapes block out any trace of sunlight.
Food and wine are key elements of the Arzaga experience. Award-winning chefs using the best Italian ingredients create local specialties in their three restaurants.
Il Moretto, the hotel’s main restaurant is located in a 15th century conservatory, and has a menu of regional specialties fish from the nearby lake with local olives and tomatoes; excellent tortelli di anatra (duck-filled pasta) with butter; risotto di funghi porcini; local cheeses. The milk-fed lamb served is raised on the Palazzo’s nearby farm, also home to some 14,000 pigs; and many of the excellent local wine and outstanding sparkling wines, come from the nearby Franciacorta winery.
The palazzo is a short drive from the Franciacorta vineyards, where winetastings are offered; from Verona, the fictional home of Romeo and Juliet; and from Cremona, where Stradivarius violins are crafted. Venice is only two hours away, and Lake Garda and the charming town of Desenzano are just a 10-minute drive. Carole Kotkin is co-author of Miami Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks.