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Orient Express: Europalia exhibition on the timeless art of travel at Train World

Orient-Express at Train World (c) Lolo Hakiminian
16:24 27/10/2021

The mythical and mystical world of the Orient Express train reveals its opulent secrets in a major exhibition at Train World in Schaerbeek.

Celebrating the European year of rail and Belgium’s pioneering role in railways around the world, the Europalia Trains & Tracks arts festival exhibition Orient-Express runs until 17 April.

Orient-Express carriage interior Train World (c) Lola Hakimian

Steam locomotives, original carriages, posters, decorative objects and memorabilia recreate the atmosphere of the golden age of the transcontinental train service in the 1920s and 30s. The focus is on its history and the story of its Belgian creator, the visionary Georges Nagelmackers.

Orient-Express Georges Nagelmackers library

The civil engineer and black sheep of the Liège banking dynasty founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits after travelling across the US in the Pullman Company’s sleeping cars. He was inspired to launch luxurious trains that would cross the European continent to Constantinople, the gateway to the orient (George Nagelmackers' recreated library pictured above).

His priority was to deliver a first-class service with separate sleeping compartments guaranteeing safety, especially for solo travelling women. Nagelmackers’ financial background and technical know-how proved invaluable, while his influential contacts, including King Leopold II, resolved the diplomatic obstacles of running a service across sometimes hostile countries.

Orient Express books and souvenirs

The Orient Express embarked on its inaugural journey from Paris in October 1883. On board were 40 VIP passengers and a few invited journalists. Three days later they arrived in Constantinople, the final stretch across the Bosporus completed by steamer. The notion of long-distance travel had been completely overturned and the service became synonymous with luxury, glamour and intrigue.

Over the ensuing years, the Belgian entrepreneur extended, expanded and improved the network and the Orient Express indelibly earned its place in the collective imagination and culture. Welcoming politicians, the rich and famous, adventurers and spies, it counted Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich, Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Lawrence of Arabia and Mata Hari, among its celebrated passengers. It also played a key role in 20th-century history with the signing of the armistices of 11 November 1918 and 22 June 1940 occurring in its Compiègne Wagon carriage.

Orient-Express steam locomotives Train World (c) Sarah Crew

From the beginning, the Orient Express operated with a national train engine heading each convoy as it crossed a border. Two steam locomotives used to haul the elegant luxury dining, sleeping and luggage carriages are on display (Type 10–1913 and Type 7–1922, pictured above). The magnificent Belgian machines helped forge the country’s reputation for building railways worldwide.

Orient Express maps and tourist guides at Train World (c) Sarah Crew

After the first world war, the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express (connecting London and Venice) and then the Arlberg-Orient-Express (London to Athens/Bucharest) entered into service. In the 1920s, the company adopted its recognisable blue and gold livery. Maps, itineraries and lavishly illustrated publicity posters from the period were designed to attract affluent travellers. Belgian neo-impressionist Théo van Rysselberghe was among the many talented artists called upon to promote the service.

Orient Express at Train World Art Deco glass and marquetry 

In a section devoted to the staff and service on board, exhibits include works by some of the finest Art Nouveau and Art Deco craftsmen. French glass master René Lalique designed the glass panels in the train, while the sublime marquetry was signed by René Prou. In addition to the stylish linen, silverware, crystal and porcelain, printed menus reveal the fashionable gastronomic dishes of the day, from crayfish soup and dover sole to Catalan sweetbreads, braised celery with port and pheasant with truffle.

But life on the rolling palaces was not without danger. Passengers were advised to carry a pistol when travelling through Bulgaria as the train had to slow down to navigate the county’s rail tracks and the steep surrounding landscape enabled local bandits to attack the passing trains.

Orient Express carriage interior Train World (c) Sarah Crew

Visitors are invited to step aboard two original carriages - dating from 1927 and 1929 - to experience first-hand the atmosphere of the legendary train. Time has apparently stood still in these plush and polished interiors. A backgammon board is ready for play on one table, a bottle of champagne idling in an ice bucket at another and linen-covered tables are set for tea or an extravagant three-course dinner.

Orient Express sleeping cabin (c) Sarah Crew

The galley kitchen resembles that of a modern aircraft with its refrigerated compartments. To ensure smooth service, special stable chassis were designed for the trains to prevent a drop spilling from a tea cup or champagne glass. Sleeping cabins converted into private lounges during the day, complete with monogrammed furnishings (pictured above). The Wagon Lits company was also responsible for King Leopold II and Albert I’s 1901 royal carriage, part of the museum’s permanent collection and a shining example of the Orient Express's earlier Edwardian style.

Orient Express at Train World - luxury travel spawned luxury luggage (c) Sarah Crew

Snapshots and videos evoke the varied landscapes viewed from the train as well as their exotic destinations. Guide books, cameras and stylish luggage by designers such as Louis Vuitton all arose from the luxurious tastes of the Orient Express’s wealthy passengers. To meet their needs during stopovers and once they arrived in Turkey and Egypt, Nagelmackers created an international hotel company that built exclusive palaces located strategically close to the train stations.

Orient-Express at Train World - film and popular culture

The exhibition concludes with a presentation of the films, books and other works inspired by the luxury service. Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Josephine Baker are among the writers and artists who have contributed to ensuring the Orient Express’s iconic and timeless stature.

A full programme of activities accompanies the exhibition, including talks (part of Europalia Trains & Tracks), literary tours and guided visits, plus workshops and events for children.

Orient-Express
Until 17 April
Train World
Place Princesse Elisabeth, Schaerbeek

Written by Sarah Crew