A wedding is planned
The Orient Express is legendary. Immortalised by Agatha Christie and Graham Greene, it has a romantic appeal that surpasses every other train. As my wife and I planned our wedding in April 1984, what better honeymoon could we have than to travel on the train to Venice.
The wedding itself was fairly unremarkable. The sun shone. Daffodils were everywhere. Family and friends joined us for the ceremony and help us celebrate. We spared everyone the embarrassment of a disco and around 5:30, we set off for the first leg of our journey, from Lincoln to London and on to La Serenissima.
Back then, Lincoln had two stations, both close to the city centre and less than 500m apart. Lincoln Central served the North while Lincoln St Marks, where we were to leave from, connected to the east coast main line at Newark. The stations weren’t linked (and wouldn’t be for another year or two), meaning disruption to city centre traffic when the level crossing barriers were down was the stuff of legend. But we would be leaving this nightmare behind for romance, luxury, even a surprise or a celebrity passenger or two. Expectation was at fever pitch.
Sights for sore eyes
Another train was waiting at the platform opposite. Its passengers seemed to be football supporters (Lincoln City had been at home to Wimbledon that afternoon). I don’t remember the catalyst but as we waited for our train, one of them suddenly dropped his trousers and mooned at us through the window. Of all the sights we were expecting to see that weekend, a large pair of male buttocks certainly hadn’t made the start line. That gave us something to talk about as we headed for London.
The following morning we presented ourselves at Victoria Station. The train was already there. From then on, we entered a different world. Our suitcases disappeared (we didn’t see them again till our arrival) and we were shown to our Pullman quality compartment in coach Cygnus (built in Birmingham no less and full of polished marquetry, plush upholstery and curtains) for the journey to Folkestone and the ferry.
Barely had we settled in than the train departed, just before midday. By 12:30, we were in the restaurant car for lunch. None of your British Rail sandwiches, thank you – this was a four course meal that started around 12:45 and finished in time for our arrival in Kent. Waiter service, wine, impeccable table settings, more marquetry – we barely noticed what was happening outside.
Across the Channel, more elegance awaited on the European section of the train. A sleeping compartment for the two of us, another elegant dining room, a cocktail lounge with a grand piano and cabaret. We had dinner somewhere between Boulogne and Paris. What we ate seemed incidental.
Off we then went to the cocktail lounge. Was there evening dress? Of course there was. Was there a glamorous celebrity? Naturally – ours was Ringo Starr. Was there a murder? Not that we were aware … but had there been, I doubt we’d have noticed.
“Turn it up to 11”
Next morning, the volume was turned up to 11. We woke early, somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Believe me, it’s disconcerting to look out of your window to see snow-capped peaks wherever you looked.
A concierge knocked at the door. Would we like coffee? Is the Pope a Catholic? And a newspaper? But of course. It was the International Herald Tribune which added to the sense of unreality. Back in the UK, 1984 was coming true. The miners were beginning their strike, Tommy Cooper was dying live on TV, WPC Yvonne Fletcher was about to be shot by Libyans and British Leyland were launching the Austin Montego. None of that was mentioned; we had escaped and were on a different planet.
A stop in Milan briefly brought us back to reality before the final leg of the journey to Venice. Northern Italy couldn’t rival the splendour of the scenery we’d seen, so thoughts turned to our arrival. I’d been there once – briefly – while interrailing around Europe a decade previously. My most vivid memory of that trip was of grubby rail journeys, tiredness and incessant rain. My wife had never been before.
Trains approach the city across a bridge that spans the lagoon. It was more of a trundle than an approach, but at least the sun was shining. Slowly we pulled in. As slowly, we disembarked. Everyone looked slightly dazed. It wasn’t possible to tell if it was because of hangovers or tiredness. Was this real? Yes, it was.
Streets full of water: please advise
In the 1930s, Robert Benchley, the American wit and writer for the New Yorker magazine was sent by his editor on assignment to Venice. On his arrival he despatched a telegram which said, “Streets full of water. Please advise.”
Santa Lucia Station is like that. We passed through the concourse onto a flight of steps, at the bottom of which is the Grand Canal. The sun sparkled on the water. Boats and water taxis buzzed hither and yon. Anyone expecting cars gets the shock of their life. My wife was speechless.
The next ten days passed in a blur. There was so much to see, we just wandered. We discovered quiet courtyards and scores of churches. Everyone headed for St Marks. We did too, the Sunday after our arrival (Easter Sunday as it happened.) We thought we’d find ceremony and music. We actually found people at the back of the church, chatting and smoking.
But we also discovered the place where both the artist Titian and the composer Monteverdi are buried. Unlike St Mark’s, it was all but empty. We went to Murano to watch glassblowers. We sat at cafés, gawped at artists, the Rialto bridge, the Campanile, mosaics. No, we didn’t go in a gondola.
It had to end of course and now, thanks to Brexit travel rules, the full wonder of our experience is no longer available. Yes, you can join the train in France but to get there involves all the border bureaucracy of passport checks and biometric scans taking back control has led to. The romance of the journey has been killed stone dead and not even the luxury of Pullman class carriages can offset that.
Good show Brexiters: jolly good show.
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