It’s a great pleasure to welcome author Merryn Allingham today. Merryn is a fellow member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and I was excited to find her latest book features a trip on the Orient Express. I love travelling by rail around Europe and this is a journey I’ve always wanted to do.
Merryn is here today with a fascinating look at the history of the Orient Express and some photos of the journey…
The Orient Express – A Very Special Train
Place is so often an inspiration for writers – it has been for me – though with my latest novel, A Tale of Two Sisters, it wasn’t so much a place as a journey.
Two years ago on what was a special occasion, I travelled to Venice on the Orient Express and was stunned by the train’s beauty: the gleaming blue-and-gold carriages, the art deco compartments, the mosaic-tiled bathrooms. For two days I felt cocooned in the past and it started me wondering what it must have been like to travel on this train in its early days, a time when the long journey to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was part of its regular timetable. That led me to research the last days of the Ottoman Empire which, in turn, became a story of mystery and romance, but loss and tragedy, too. A story big enough to match its magnificent beginnings.
The Orient Express was Europe’s first transcontinental express and ran from London to Constantinople for eighty years, stopping only during the two world wars, until in 1977 it was discontinued due to steadily declining traffic. When the train was revived five years later as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, its primary route was between London and Venice.
In 1907, though, the period in which A Tale of Two Sisters is set, it covered a route of more than 1,700 miles, with brief stopovers in Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, before reaching Sirkeci station in Constantinople. As the journey went on, the train gained more cars, and locomotives were changed at every frontier where one national railway system handed over to another.
From the outset, the Orient Express was unmatched in luxury and comfort and attracted the elite of Europe’s society, including royalty. The train was a small town on wheels, with sleeping and restaurant cars, ladies’ drawing rooms and salon cars that housed smoking compartments. Its customers were treated to oriental rugs, velvet draperies, mahogany panelling, deep armchairs covered in soft Spanish leather and fine cuisine.
Orient Express passengers from London had to board a ‘boat train’ at Victoria that would take them to Dover for the ferry to Calais, where they would join the train ‘proper’. Here they would settle in their compartments for the three days’ journey to Constantinople. Today, passengers take the Eurotunnel to Calais, but essentially the journey to the port is the same. And afternoon tea is still served!
Alice’s sister, Lydia, travelling the same route a year earlier than her sibling, delights in having the compartment to herself:
In her absence, the compartment had become a bedroom and she looked forward to the night ahead. There was an excitement in travelling through darkness, anonymous and untethered. It was another kind of freedom. She remembered to hang her frock on one of the many hooks that dotted the carriage. Tidiness did not come naturally to her, but in such a confined space it was essential.
And it was! But the mahogany panelling hides all sorts of shelves and niches and it’s extraordinary how much can be squirrelled away. The compartment’s large picture window offers great views and I loved the way that each country we passed through was an individual experience – from the flat landscapes of northern France to the mountains of Switzerland and finally the unforgettable approach to Venice. I guess it’s one of the biggest joys of travelling by train, though I’m afraid Alice was far too tense to appreciate it!
A Tale of Two Sisters, by Merryn Allingham
Separated by time and distance, two sisters seek answers for all they’ve lost
When Alice Verinder’sbeloved sister Lydia goes missing, Alice boards the Orient Express bound for Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, determined to find her.
Lydia was governess to the Sultan’s young children and though her letters spoke of exotic delights and welcoming hosts, the reception Alice receives is decidedly cold and answers unforthcoming.
Now, as Alice digs deeper into the secrets of a land foreign to her she has only Englishman Harry Frome to help her. But as their search uncovers unforeseen dangers and exposes an unexpected ardour, is Alice ready for the truths they’ll uncover?
About the author
Merryn Allingham was born into an army family and spent her childhood moving around the UK and abroad. Unsurprisingly it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world.
Merryn still loves to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach at university.
She has written seven historical novels, all mysteries with a helping of suspense and a dash of romance – sometimes set in exotic locations and often against a background of stirring world events.
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Thanks so much for the post, Merryn, and for the wonderful photos. You’ve really whetted my appetite, and I’m even more determined to make the trip some day!
If you’ve enjoyed Merryn’s article, or have any questions or comments at all, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you!