Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Spanning a continent, from Paris to Istanbul, the Orient Express was the "King of Trains".  Presidents rode it for its luxuries; spies used it as a secret weapon; businessmen rode it for its connections.  The train would be the subject of books and movies.

In the mid-1800's, Belgian businessman Nagelmackers had a dream for a train route from Paris to Constantinople.  He travelled to America where the Pullman sleeping car made quite an impression on him.  In 1883, Nagelmackers' Compangie Internationale des Wagons-Lits opened a Paris-Constantinople route.  The journey would span 1500 miles and would take 80 hours.  Newspapers dubbed the route "The Orient Express", even though it never reached the Orient.

The train resembled a fine European hotel with its wooden panelling, its deluxe leather armchairs, its silk sheets and its five-course meals.  Its elegance attracted royalty.  The king of Bulgaria, an amateur engineer, insisted on driving the train through his country.  Czar Nicholas II ordered extra cars built for his trip to France.  And one president, likely in the sauce, fell off the train.

Diplomats made history on the train:  the German surrender of 1918 took place in one of its cars.  Hitler ordered the same car for the French surrender of 1940.  Later when the tide of the war turned, the dictator ordered the famous car destroyed.

Spies conducted operations on the train.  Robert Baden Powell posed as a lepidopterist during the war.  He made intricate butterfly sketches which turned out to be coded representations of the enemy's fortifications, helping the Allies to clinch a victory.

Agatha Christie wrote her famous "Murder on the Orient Express" in the 1930's.  The movie adaptation was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Ingrid Bergman in the 1970's.

Shortly after Hitchcock's movie, the Orient Express stopped its service to Istanbul.  Bit by bit it cut back its service.  Finally, in 2009, it shut down completely.

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