A history of the Orient Express and A Tale of Two Sisters, by Merryn Allingham @canelo @merrywrites

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…

helena fairfax, merryn allingham, orient express

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.

helena fairfax, merryn allingham, orient express
A modern-day journey on the Orient Express, but the coaches remain exactly the same

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.

helena fairfax, merryn allingham, orient express
Sirkeci Station, Istanbul

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.

helena fairfax, merryn allingham, orient express
A modern-day dining car

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!

helena fairfax, merryn allingham, orient express
Today’s train from London Victoria to Dover – still very luxurious

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!

helena fairfax, merryn allingham, orient express
Crossing the causeway over the lagoon to Venice
A Tale of Two Sisters, by Merryn Allingham

merryn allingham, helena fairfax, a tale of two sistersSeparated 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.

For the latest news of Merryn’s writing, visit her website or join her on Facebook or Twitter @MerrynWrites

* * *

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!

17 thoughts on “A history of the Orient Express and A Tale of Two Sisters, by Merryn Allingham @canelo @merrywrites

  1. Love the sound of this, Merryn, as we travelled on the Orient Express many years ago – when we still took the sea crossing to Calais! Have always wanted another journey on it but at least I had the experience. I do like the fact your novel is set in the past – it sounds a most intriguing story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosemary
      I think I prefer the tunnel to the sea crossing, although it felt a bit odd. I’ve travelled on Eurostar but never taken a car etc over the channel and having the coach we were travelling in encased in a box felt very strange. I hope you get to go again – I’d like to, but next time all the way to Istanbul.


  2. I have only heard about the Orient Express in a book title, so this article was an eye opener to me. Thanks for the history of this very special train. What a magical, romantic setting for a book.
    Wishing Merryn great success with this new release!
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JQ, I’ve seen the Orient Express as it set off from London. It looks amazing! I’d love to travel on it some day. it certainly does make a fabulous setting for a book. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your good wishes for Merryn!


    1. I love travelling by train, too, Kathleen. There’s something so much more romantic about it than travelling by plane, plus you get to experience the countries you’re travelling through. A trip on the Orient Express sounds amazing.
      Thanks very much for your comment!


    2. Hi Kathleen
      I agree with you and Helena that travelling by train is an entirely different experience. It takes more time to reach your destination, but that’s part of its appeal, I guess. I’m sure you had a wonderful holiday last year. I know Inter Rail can be fun – my daughter did it some years ago, though not first class!.


  3. Hey, Helena. Lovely to meet Merryn. I’m familiar with the train only from Agatha Christie, but I think traveling by train is romantic. I wish her well with this intriguing book. I’ve shared.:)


  4. Saw the Orient Express several times when I stayed on the Venetian Lido in a flat owned by an Italian Contessa for whom I worked as a rare books librarian at a Scottish stately home (sister house to Abbotsford).

    Yes, you did read all that correctly! A formative experience, but although it was occasionally referenced in later works, oddly enough not one I particularly want to write about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that does sound an amazing experience, James! It would be the perfect setting for one of my romance novels :) I hope you do write about it some day. Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment!


  5. I agree – it sounds an amazing experience, James.There’s one scene in my next novel, The Venice Atonement, that takes place on the Lido, though so far I’ve never managed to visit. But I’m making good on that next month when I’ll be in Venice on holiday.


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