Orient Express: The Journey Begins

Day One Aboard the Orient Express

In a way – I’m kinda glad that the beginning of my journey from my fancy-pants hotel in Istanbul to the train station was – well – kinda dicey. It was Turkish Independence Day so families were out in force, no work just play and the cranky taksi driver wouldn’t drive me to the train station.

Here is how I wrote it on Instagram.

The hotel hailed me a taksi – and after minutes of heated dialogue back and forth, I got into the cab.

The driver seemed to know two words: “Hotel.” And “walk.”

“No no – I don’t want a hotel. I want the train station Sirkeci.” (God knows how to say sirkeci properly).

After driving through tiny streets that only had room for pedestrians – we “arrive”. He lets me out – ok (I lied) with a few more words I could understand “100 metres. Walk 100 metres.”

Oh yeah – like I know 100 meters. And I am left standing on a sidewalk with my – thank god – light luggage.

No freakin’ train station in sight. From the lap of luxury — headed to a lap of luxury. With a whole lot of WTF is this!!!??!!

Took out my trusty iPhone which amazingly still has data left. I entered the word “Sirkeci” and prayed.

Left right left right left left right right right — follow the little blue dot.

Finally – I see what is clearly a TRAIN STATION!!

I have rarely been soooooo happy to see a group, nay, a cadre of elegant looking people. All wearing VSOE badges.

Thank GOD!! And oh!! That looks like some kind of film mogul or something.

As one of the VSOE people put it: the driver tells YOU what he will do – not the other way around.

Once inside the Orient Express exclusive terminal – it was back to luxury.

I must interrupt this dispatch. While sitting in my room writing this – Poirot came by. We conversed. It was a little schizophrenic: on one hand I was speaking with the actor who told me he and his wife once spent three hours – only – in Manhattan. Because “she’s crazy!” They went up the Empire State Building. Saw Macy’s and Madison Square Garden – then returned to JFK. I asked, is your wife with you on this trip? “Oh no. Poirot is not married!”

While outside my room – he commented on the beauty of my ensemble for tonight. He loved it. Said it was perfect. I can’t begin to calculate how many hours I fretted over the black-tie outfits I needed to wear. And fit into my tiny carry-on for this trip.

Guess we did good!!

This is magical.

There was this great scene before we boarded the train in Istanbul where dozens of people were buzzing back and forth. To serve the 90 passengers.

I think they have a staff of between 100 and 200: cooks, porters, managers, assistant managers, camerieri (waiters — mostly Italian) and, my fave: stewards. Each carriage has a steward who we can summon by pressing a button in the cabin.

Mine’s name is Rory. A charming, young man from Great Britain. “Yes, Madam.” He answers the call within about a minute. Takes care of my request immediately. “Sparkling water, Madam?” “Should I turn the fan on, Madam?”

This particular trip is a big deal for the VSOE because six days is the longest in duration (Paris to Istanbul or Istanbul to Paris). They do it only once a year – in one direction or the other.

Once settled in my cabin – having pushed and tested all the buttons – I sat in the carriage in its day setting. Long padded bench, with rolled pillows on each end. Cushions that hang along the back with antimacassars (ha!! Auto correct has no clue how to spell that word. And right now, neither do I). I invite you to Google it if you don’t know what it is. A little stool – which is good because my feet don’t reach the ground. Lots of hooks and a towel bar. Behind a gleaming wood cabinet – a sink with non-potable water — and shelves filled with La Prairie products: from lotion to anti-aging creams. A little box of tissues. Small cans of San Benedetto water (brush your teeth? Wash your face?) A small carafe and a couple of glasses in gleaming silver holders.

During the first hour on board – besides the surprising and oddly exciting appearance of Hercules Poirot – I was visited by several people: the train manager. Lucretia (stunning young Italian woman) who is the assistant to the woman in charge of this voyage. Marie – that woman – flies from destination to destination to make sure everything is ready for us – leaving lovely Lucretia “on the ground” asitwere. The maitre d’. He talks menu, food allergies, likes/dislikes/preferences. “Do you want to sit alone, madame – or share?” I opted for “share” because isn’t that the point really in this small select group of travelers – to meet one another? The maitre d’ then assigns my seat. His assistant Renzo hands me a card.

There are three dining cars: I was assigned seat 301 – in the Oriental Car. Dinner: five courses: tuna tartare with 3 little cubes covered with black sesame seeds, two mille-feuille (little pastries) filled with cheese served with a dollop of yogurt and chives. Lamb dribbled with angar oil and a sort of subtle curry sauce with a side of risotto that had a touch of peppermint. “Madame, the lamb will be a little pink – is that okay?” A liquid amuse-bouche of raki — a traditional Turkish liqueur – kinda licoricey. Followed by a cheese course (my tablemate Sun – he’s from Taiwan – went with the lemon sorbet)

And, finally, a plate with three “candies.” One – white chocolate molded in the form of a man’s head and filled with a touch of citrus, orange I think. Two – a dark chocolate head with a touch of vanilla or caramel inside. Three – a gelatina di frutta. It’s a small square fruit jelly.

After that – I retired to the bar, had an Armagnac, and visited with a mother and son who were traveling together. (He had broken his hand in Italy).

This trip on the Orient Express was her birthday gift. He had just told her about it two days before departure.

At 9:30 – we had a passport moment at the Turkish border of Bulgaria. We had to deboard, car by car, to present our passport to a couple of stern looking polizie.

By the time I got back to my room – it had been transformed to my sleeping quarters.

I was quickly lulled to sleep. And definitely to dream.



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