The original subtitle for this series was “Trip Of a Lifetime” ( or “TOAL”) and, just to cut to the chase, that is an exact description of the journey from London to Venice on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express (“VSOE” after this). I’d had this trip penciled in from when our move to Europe was barely more than a whispered suggestion. I had first dreamed of riding the Orient Express as a young girl, after reading…. well, you know the book. I gave up on owning a pony or ruling absolutely over all the earth (you had your dreams, I had mine ok?) but the Orient Express has hung in there with me for all these years, and we are now at the culmination of this dream. Let’s go!
John and I were up at a relatively early hour as our train would be leaving Victoria Station at 9:30am. Of course we were packed and ready to go from the night before, leaving only our day clothes and toiletries to take care of. Moreover, it was a single line on the tube, making it utter simplicity for us.
One thing about the VSOE, you really need to be thoughtful about what you want to take on board. There isn’t a lot of room in the cabins, and management limits you each to a small bag and one case. They will happily take all the luggage you care to bring to your final destination, but it is stowed freight-style until you arrive. We opted to just bring a backpack and garment bag and were glad to have had so little to deal with.
Just to break for a moment, I’m not sure we’ve shared our appreciation for the hotel which has been our lodging in all of these journeys in and through London — Hyatt Place East.
The hotel is located outside the central core, which mostly means its not super expensive. (Although, being London, all lodging is more than a little brutal.) It is just a few short blocks to the Whitechapel and Aldgate underground stations, making it dead easy to get to anywhere in the city. While its not direct to Gatwick, our new favorite airport, a quick cab ride from London Bridge makes it nearly so.
Back to the important bits . . .
Victoria Station is great. Full of commuters, of course; it’s always been the hub for the British Pullman trains, the luxury trains which would provide the starting point for our TOAL. In an inevitable digression, it’s important that y’all know that the VSOE does not operate in Britain, but starts in Calais for those of us starting the journey in London. (In a digression within a digression: Poirot’s journey in the famous book about the murder starts in Istanbul and ends in London.) [Is this like the 4th wall of acting? If so, did we just break the 16th wall?]
The British Pullman area is against the left wall of the station, and it’s not well-signed for the sleepy. Like, there’s only so many places it could be, like most train stations there are only so many directions you can walk around, but still. You can’t see any sign, until you are almost on top of it which makes it a skootch nervous-making.
We checked our bags and were given a folder with our Pullman car and seat assignment information, as well as our sleeping cabin number. No food was offered, so one of us went hunting for a muffin and tea, easily found of course. We were almost the first to show up, so it was a lot of fun to people-watch as more passengers arrived. It was, a bit surprisingly, a varied group. There were couples like us celebrating life events, families spending Very Special Events, and a few people who’d done the trip before and were enjoying it again. Pretty much everyone took the dress code seriously; although one older guy was in chinos and a polo shirt, his (much-younger) wife was in a cocktail dress and jewels. (Clearly the trip was her idea and he was there to keep her company. He seemed like a kind of a grump every time we saw him.)
When it came close to the arrival time, many of us went out to the track area to watch the British Pullman cars pull in. It was well worth braving the chill.
This is an exquisitely beautiful train of restored 1920s/30s/50s cars. Each features plush armchairs in open-plan saloons, arranged as intimate tables for two or four on each side of the main aisle. There are enclosed 4-seat compartments at the ends (called coupés) for people interested in privacy for their party.
Can I just say that I think ergonomics have not improved on the comfort of these armchairs? Hundred year old chairs and I don’t think I’ve ever been more comfy-cozy.
After we’re all boarded, the train left the station and began it’s slow journey across the Thames past Battersea Power Station, and then headed to Folkestone. Our car was the Minerva, built in 1927 and appointed with swags, crystal, silver, plush fabric, and everywhere you look — gorgeous! Lisa basically just GLOWED the whole time we were on this train, She was so ‘high’ at how perfectly it matched her vision of what this trip would be like. And to be clear – this is the warm-up train.
Even the bathrooms are *perfect*. I mean, look at this floor.
Over the next few hours, as you meander through the British countryside full of meadows, distant castle ruins, and sheep, you are served a lovely three-course brunch with bottomless Bellinis* (like, ok, the entire trip is a level of expensive I’ve never even considered acceptable before, and we’ll talk about that later on, but once you’ve paid at least they don’t nickel and dime you after that) made of prosecco and white peach puree. The bellinis were divine, so much better than the ones we had at Harry’s Bar in Venice, and perfect way to connect to our destination. (John here for just a second: I am occasionally giddy at the fact that we get to live a life where we can make informed comparisons between the Bellinis on the VSOE and the pub in Venice where Hemingway used to drink.)
The food did not disappoint (although you have no options unless you have allergies). We began with a “Battersea Bowl” of granola and fresh berries over whipped yogurt with a tangy citrus syrup. We then enjoyed perfectly poached eggs, silky smoked salmon, and a crisp crumpet. Dessert was a cracked-top pastry which we’ve only ever seen on GBBO and the menu reminds me is called a Choux au Craquelin.
The couple across from us were very nice people, British and celebrating a major anniversary, and we enjoyed chatting with them.
Finally, we arrived at Folkestone where we disembarked and got on . . .
Honestly, this part of the journey seemed to come as a surprise to many of us. We went from the gorgeousness of the restored train to something so plebeian. They were very nice buses, with tables and couches instead of typical bus seating, but still . . . buses. The highlight for us was meeting a family who we ended up connecting with a number of times over the journey. They’ll come up again later, but the short version for now is that the mom and dad had a clutch of sons and a daughter who all seemed to have good heads on their shoulders and didn’t have a lot of pretensions, but the deal was that they basically had carte blanche to celebrate their 21st birthday. Several had huge parties, but the most recent celebrant had been a train enthusiast his whole life, so the family and loved ones were taking the fancy choo choo. Anyway – the buses took us to a terminal, where we went through British Customs. We were there for about 30 minutes and passengers were able to get off and wander around the shops and food court, get money from the ATM, or use the restrooms. Then we re-boarded and drove about 15 minutes to another terminal, where we went through French customs.
Trains cannot cross the Channel Tunnel, so the solution is to load the bus aboard a car-carrying EuroTunnel shuttle train. It is quite an interesting experience to be seated in a non-moving coach as it sits within a moving train.
Finally, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express.