All Aboard the Orient Express: Looking Back at the Golden Age of Train Travel

When a rail line opened connecting Paris to Istanbul, the world was changed forever, allowing people from faraway places to embark on a romantic adventure to see how the others lived.

Since its early days, train travel has been shrouded in an aura of romanticism. It has become emblematic of a bygone era of epic voyages, adventures, and discovery—the excitement and possibility of accessing vast new territories. Today, our fascination with train travel continues, as evidenced in the heavy buzz surrounding the Amtrak writer’s residency, or that episode in Sex and the City where the gals take a long locomotive trip from East to West coast (“Think about it as an adventure. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” Carrie says overconfidently, squealing at the conductor’s “All aboard!”). There’s something that continues to enthrall us about this storied form of transportation. 

Photos: Relics from the Golden Age of the Orient Express

In Paris, an exhibition at the Arab World Institute makes the most of this allure. "Il était une fois l’Orient Express” (“Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express”), on display through August 31, is a collaboration between the SNCF (France’s national railway company) and the Arab World Institute that marks the 130th anniversary of the fabled Orient Express route. This pan-European crossing bridged Paris and Istanbul (a trip lasting three days and two nights), eventually connecting to other far-flung destinations like Cairo and Baghdad.

One locomotive (“woot woooot!”-ing at regular intervals) and three original passenger carriage cars, on loan from the railway museum in Alsace, sit in the courtyard directly in front of the Institute. There’s a newly restored sleeping car, a salon car with deluxe Lalique inlays, and a bar/restaurant car. It’s easy to understand why they are classified as historical monuments, with their kitted out furnishings and Art Deco flourishes. Visitors enter the train and snake through its corridors and opulent interiors. In a playful revival of the golden age of travel, each section is littered with vintage accessories and totems of the era, as though, in medias res, the phantom passengers momentarily left their compartments and stepped off the train. Exhibition curator Claude Mollard (who is one of the founders of the Centre Pompidou) worked with a production company to find the authentic accessories, making facsimiles when the original objects couldn’t be procured to complete the still life scenes.

This first part of the exhibit is essentially a film set, and it's amusing to feel like one has stumbled upon a former era, characterized by plush seats and sleek marquetry. Cognac glasses, long leather gloves, Gitanes cigarettes, games of splayed cards, beaded clutches, pipes, and little round eyeglasses are dotted throughout, with film clips and bodiless voices providing extra context to amp up the folklore. Homages to the pop culture figures who helped make the Orient-Express famous are seen throughout the display: a clickety-clacking typewriter is ascribed to writer Graham Greene, a fez hat to author Pierre Loti, pearls to performer Josephine Baker, a trail of blood to the Mata Hari. In an homage to Agatha Christie, there’s a stack of faux passports citing the characters from Murder on the Orient-Express, Christie’s 1934 novel on which a namesake film was based. Christie herself was a frequent traveler as she followed her archaeologist husband on expeditions. The exhibit is made even more immersive thanks to the little extras: the train is staffed with “ticket inspectors” dressed in uniform, and information about the scenes and characters are noted on luggage tags.

The second part of the exhibition is rather less entertaining, occupying the lower floors of the World Arab Institute building (a luminous Jean Nouvel-designed edifice with 240 photo-sensitive shutters that control the amount of sunlight entering the building). The exhibition darts in and out of the history of various train journeys and the links they developed between cultures. The Orient Express was conceived by Georges Nagelmackers, who sought to build a modern and sumptuous train that could span the entirety of Europe. In the second half of the 19th century, he updated the sleeping cars created by American George Pullman, and made them roomier compartiments couchettes. Launched in October 1883—crossing through France, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and Romania (and reaching Istanbul as early as 1889)—the Orient Express was especially novel at a time when border crossings were so tricky. The route became a legendary line embodying the “art of travel,” remaining a strong symbol until after World War II.

Archival documents, posters, model trains, film clips, and photographs are shown—mostly within immense presentation ‘trunks’ that are a bit literal and heavy-handed. The swish décor seen in the cars outside is further explored in the second section by way of stained-glass windows, dishware, restaurant menus, and luxury luggage. Additional information revolving around travel—vintage guidebooks, travel advertisements, maps, and itineraries—fill dedicated vitrines.

The myth of the Orient, and the Orient Express, both facilitated and quelled illusions about foreign cultures. The expanded rail network enabled Western travelers to access regions that had otherwise been untapped by Westerners, barring some trailblazers. Arriving at these faraway destinations allowed Westerners to confront the cultural and geopolitical realities of the locations, rather than perpetuate fantasies. Inversely, of course, figures from the Orient travelled the other way to discover Europe. The close confines of the train facilitated encounters and contact between cultures, helping to blur borders, if only provisionally. The Orient Express is, in many senses, an early example of budding globalism. Accessibility to other ways of life was part of the monumental lifestyle shift enabled by the Industrial Revolution.

One of the last works in the exhibit is by Felix Tahar Aublet, a protégé of the French painter couple Sonia and Robert Delauney. His colorful and large painting states “Le train va vite” (“The train goes fast”). Although the exhibition ends somewhat abruptly, without explaining how this age of haute travel ultimately died out, it goes almost without saying that Western society has long prized immediacy and efficiency over slow-burn pleasures.

"Il était une fois l’Orient Express” (“Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express”) is on display at the Arab World Institute through August 31.