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Oct. 4, 1883: First run of the Orient Express

Christy Karras
October 4, 2013

In the 19th century, interest in the Orient — East and central Asia — was growing, with eastern influences on everything from art to clothing to theater. And Istanbul, Turkey — on the border between Europe and Asia — was the gateway to the East.

The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (International Sleeping-Car Company) realized the dream of a train route between Western Europe and Istanbul on Oct 4, 1883, when the first “Express d'Orient” train left Paris on a journey through Munich and Vienna to Giurgiu, Romania. From there, passengers took a combination of trains and ferries across Bulgaria and on to Istanbul (then called Constantinople).

The itinerary changed over the years, especially after World War I. The Simplon Orient Express, a southern route through Italy, opened in 1919 and soon became the most important route across Europe. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Orient Express gained a reputation for opulence, with plush sleeper cars and upscale cuisine in its dining cars. In 1934, Agatha Christie published “Murder on the Orient Express,” solidifying the route’s place in popular culture.

Although political changes, airplanes and faster trains led to the route’s gradual demise, the Orient express lives on as the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, which uses restored train cars from the 1920s and 1930s on luxury rides through Europe and elsewhere. Each August, it recreates the legendary journey from Paris to Istanbul.