It never actually matters how you travel, it soon becomes a drag. The thrill of upgrading always diminishes. The tragedy of material success is that you get to experience the finer things, but, like every other sensory experience worth its salt, one becomes inured.
After flying business class for a while, you just long for the deep pampered joy of first class. Get yourself comfy in First and before long, you’re sick of travelling on someone else’s schedule and you just want to get a private charter. Screw that, you should own your own. Actually, why fly at all? It’s cramped and risky, yes even in the latest wide-berth Embraer. See? The jading process has no end. Then there’s eating. A luxurious dinner is all well and good if it comes with Michelin appendages, but restaurants are a selection of tedium-inducing issues after a while. Booking, washing, dressing, standing. Yuck. Why leave your favourite recliner if you can hire Tom Aitken to cook for you in the comfort of your home/yacht. Other people’s eyelines are after all, utterly offensive. Yes, we are easily bored and take things for granted. Modern life offers us no respite from ourselves. Sometimes one needs to give thanks and to indulge for the sheer thrill of being alive. Thankfully, there are still pockets of sublime luxury to be found around the world that provide insurance against inurement.
There’s travel as utilitarian necessity and then there’s travel as temporal experience. A chance to actually indulge in time travel, however briefly, to experience the world before we lost our sense of wonder and became, in essence, a bunch of spoilt brats. In other words, to sample tradition in it’s purest form. There aren’t many left – but the Orient-Express is one that needs to be on any person of tastes’ bucket list. Even if the bucket is from Tiffany. However, before the train, boats.
Reaching San Marco Square in Venice, one is instantly struck by two things. The place is not just a tourist trap. It’s the dictionary definition. The Venice Fly Trap, if you will. The Babelish buggers swarm, hither, thither and zither, occasionally settling on a limp, exorbitantly priced panini, before buzzing off to get into the Basilica or the Doge’s Palace, an infestation of fluorescent-coloured, puffer jacketed bugs. I try and lift the general standard in petrol grey linen, knitted tie and Italian loafers, but there’s only so much one man of style can do. The other thing that strikes is that even with the pestilential presence of the sightseeing drones, this city is still stunningly beautiful. Due to improvements in environmental legislation, the Thames only channels Monet on certain misty days. One has to catch the right sort of sunlight to get Provence as Van Gogh depicted it. But Venice always looks fresh off of a Canaletto canvas.
And there, beacon-like, outside the legendary Harry’s Bar, is a small pier, where a little varnished Riva launch waits under Hotel Cipriani’s banner. Let the good times begin.
One gets used to messing about in boats in Venice, but this is one of the great travel experiences of the world. Leaving the bustle to skim across to Giudecca island, 5 minutes and another world away and arriving at the little steps that lead you to a waiting committee that lets you know you’re custom and presence is most valued. Suddenly, the Old Europe is back to it’s classic best. Peace and tranquillity. Subtle refinement. An air of sensuality and just a little wit. It’s no coincidence that this perfect little corner of serenity is perhaps Venice’s most famous celebrity destination. Opened in 1958 by the owner of Harry’s Bar, Giuseppe Cipriani, it was designed as an airy retreat from the bustle of the main islands across the Grand Canal and financed by the three female scions of the Guinness family.
Even in ‘58, one can only imagine what the plot was worth. La Giudecca is actually like the Dalston of Venice – a strip of warehouses and factories, slowly being turned into boutique properties. Cipriani has enough actual land to rise above such a classification. Amazingly, it has grounds. Beautiful lawned gardens – once the place where Casanova brought ladies of good name for , tennis courts, a kitchen garden filled with fruit, vegetables and herbs and vines for wine production make for a hidden retreat that has lured 50 years of A listers. And Michael Winner. 1967 saw the construction of their swimming pool. 600 square metres, a constant 28°C and one of the finest in Europe. A perfect azure, surrounded by low trees and shimmering white parasols. It’s the jet-set vision of paradise that watching 50s films would have made you think was everywhere on the continent. It’s not though. Harry’s has been taken over by the banks. Lollobrigida is long gone. Mastriani is no where to be found. The cruise ships bring in up to 12,000 passengers on a busy weekend and when set loose on their organised tour parties only want a pizza slice and a piss. Hotel Cipriani is the sanctuary of a lost world.
We’re lead to our suite which is not in the main building but in the adjoining facility – the 15th century Palazzo Vendramin. Given our apartment is the one above Brangelina’s favourite, there’s very little to complain about. Well, Brad’n’Ang get the double heighted ballroom and a much grander lounge. I can let that go. Marco, a wonderful butler of diminished height but augmented charm leads us in. Sumptuous. Clean. And look, there’s a massive painting of St. Mark’s Square. Oh, no. That’s the real thing. You really do find yourself staring in wonder at the beauty of it all. Cloudy, grey, sunny or dark, Venice is one peach of a city. Talking of which, a stay in Cipriani would be incomplete without taking in their most famous refreshments – the Peach Bellini. This perfect iteration is now unique to the hotel. The Cipriani family have been producing a peach premix for Harry’s Bar and its New York variants for ages – but since they have no commercial interest in the hotel, standards are maintained here. Only the juice of fresh white peaches in season may be used. The brilliant head barman, Walter Bolzonella, makes us a brace and since my companion is teetotal, I get both. Wow. Now that’s a delicious (if deceptively simple) beverage. Walt shows the world how it’s done, which is thusly:
For the peach purée:
• 1/2 cup water
• 1/4 cup lemon juice
• 1/2 to 3/4 pound ripe white peaches
• 2 teaspoons sugar
For the drinks
• A few raspberries, if desired, for colour
• 1 bottle Prosecco sparkling wine, preferably Nino Franco
• Pour cold peach purée into a pitcher. • Add one bottle of chilled Prosecco sparkling wine and stir gently. Pour into glasses and drink at once.
Walter also insists I try the cocktail he created for George Clooney, the Buona Notte (half a lime, fresh ginger, a spoonful of cane sugar, angostura bitter, vodka, cranberry and crushed ice). I tell him I may need a couple more to nail my critique. My critique? Life’s good with George.
After a wonderfully erudite day spent inspecting Da Vinci’s (ludicrously small) Vitruvian Man at La Academia and taking in the conceptual delights/disasters of the Biennale, we’re stuffed with culture and so dine at their famous Fortuny restaurant. The degustation menus – one modern, one classic – are a perfect gastronomic distillation of everything Venetian. Chef Renato Piccolotto has devised the modern ‘Lush’ menu to offer a lighter, smaller (6 dishes instead of 8) and, perhaps, healthier selection of Venato meets Asia-type dishes, including a beautifully citrus-inflected tuna ceviche and a melting pork belly with girolles. But I’m here for the real deal. Perfect iterations of Cipriani’s invention, beef carpaccio, thin green linguini au gratin with prosciutto, sautéed scampi tails in a sauce of capers, gherkins and tomatoes on a fluffy rice bed, fegato of liver and risotto primavera line up to be consumed in an indecently Italian gusto by yours truly. I don’t fail them.
Disappointed to not have rubbed boney shoulders with Gwyneth or Leonardo, we are made to feel A List ourselves as Cipriani’s Master of the Steps, Roberto Senigallia, waves us bon voyage for our trip up the Grand Canal, under the Rialto bridge and on to Santa Lucia station for our journey home. A sleek modernist 1950’s strip of concrete sat amongst the wedding cake confections, it is the place to get the best rail-based espresso in the world. And, secondly, but not leastly, the Orient-Express. There’s a wonderful moment before one is allowed to board the train, where you and your fellow passengers are all waiting together for the signal to board. Perhaps, the most interesting people watching opportunity in the world, since one cannot escape the ever-present shadow of M. Poirot. I case all the well-dressed elegant passengers, filing their faces away for later. Being me, I’m also cognizant of James Bond’s famous fight with Red Grant on the Orient-Express in ‘From Russia With Love’. I check my Swaine Adeney Brigg attache case – yes, I DO have the flat throwing knives and the gold coins. Bring it. The romance of train travel is a rarely-realised phenomenon today. However, here it is in all its brass plated and perfect walnut veneered glory.
Nothing prepares you for the sense of anticipation and wonder that being up close to these moving museum pieces gives. Even boarding the best first class cabin on an A380 won’t give you that sense of excitement and refinement that waiting on the steps of Schlafwagen 3543 provides. The stewards bustle about in bright blue and gold caps and coats. There’s a lot of great uniform action going on. The movie of your life goes up a notch at this point. Even though they don’t play the waltzing movement from Richard Rodney Bennett’s still beautifully evocative Murder on the Orient-Express suite at the platform, one can feel it rising in one’s head. In fact, they really should play it on the platform.
Pierre Noel, cap removed, is our amazingly attentive steward and will look after everyone in 3543 for the next 27 hours. He will turn our beds for the night and will light the coal fire that heats our water, as well as bring us tea and breakfast. Charm, poise and efficiency in equal measure. Settled in with champagne (more for me again) the train pulls out and heads gently towards Verona. The Venice-Simplon doesn’t go to Simplon, of course.
The train stopped as a passenger service in December 2009 when the actual Orient-Express service as operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits ceased – a victim of high-speed rail and budget air travel. This iteration is run just for the joy of it. The route misses Simplon for one very important reason: Simplon is a bit dull from a visual point of view, since the train never went through the historic pass, but took a 64,600 foot tunnel. So today after Verona, we swing a big right and head north through the verdant Italian Dolomites towards the Alpine majesty of Innsbruck.
There’s a constantly battle waging in your head. Do I take in the exterior view of rolling green pastures and Northern Italian skies or the exquisite interiors of these carriages from the 20s and early 30s. The fittings and fixtures themselves are worthy of any design museum. Suave maître d Alexandre Ciarla pops in to ask us which sitting we’d like for lunch and we take the early shift. We’re led through the opulent bar carriage, complete with grand piano towards Dining Car 4141, the ‘Côte d’Azur.’ Built in 1929 as a first class Pullman and decorated by René Lalique, this stunning mini palace on wheels is a symphony of grey upholstery, pink lamps, black lacquered wood and Lalique’s opaque glass shows various classical figures holding grapes, with a matching frieze of smaller panels. One delicious three course lunch later, we’re back in our cabin, taking in the gentle rolling rhythm and evocative smell of Alpine grass and cows – no joke. A genuine sense memory never to be forgotten.
The air begins to chill as we head north, winding round never-ending arcs through ascending passes and gaps in mountains. I find the time to do some work and at one point Pierre informs us that the adjoining cabin is unoccupied and offers to open it up, so we can enjoy a full suite. Our eyes open and our mouths drop. Now we’re cooking. The cabin was bijou and lovely before. Now it’s almost lounge-like. Our toilette is an ingenious full-length vanity unit, filled with lovely toiletries, but our clothes were beginning to hang in full view.
Now we can decant our wardrobe away from view. The sky turns pastel as we receive tea in our cabin. I could get used to this. A brief stop at Innsbruck for air and leg stretches refires the appetite.
Dinner is delightfully formal, as it should be. Dressing for dinner in these period cabins is a treat in itself. We swoon into the Etoile du Nord carriage and it’s perhaps the most beautiful of all. Made, like most of them, in Birmingham of all places, the marquetry is stunning and the upholstery a deep jade green. Makes you weep for what we in Britain used to be capable of. However, it’s the continental service which is exemplary today. Upon viewing the set menu we are most happy. Then we’re informed that we got the wrong menu. The new one doesn’t sound as appealing, and, being cheeky, we ask for the old one. And we get it. No problem. This in a kitchen the size of a refreshment booth. Truly wondrous. As is the food – French chefs working at the top of their game within these limitations. The entire waiting staff then sing happy birthday to my companion, with added harmonies from the 20 Japanese ladies at our sitting.
A few drinks in the bar, a couple of elegant jazz standards from the pianist and we’re back, happy and replete, in our cabin which has been expertly turned from a lounge into a low lit cosy boutique bedroom. Pierre tells us that when he started it took him 24 minutes to turn each cabin. Now he’s got the muscle memory to do it in 12. Watching him put it all back together, the next day, I don’t envy him. This old, hand-made heavy plant. Our night’s sleep is deeply restful. While the beds are deep and soft, it’s the mystery and wonder of the moon lit countryside moving outside at 72kph that sends us off and we wake as a misty rural Rhone zips past. Breakfast is in Paris. Brunch (yes, you eat a lot on the Orient-Express) of restaurant quality lobster tails and scrambled eggs with salmon and petit fours and more champagne. A brief snooze then we’re in Calais. The carriages can’t go into the Chunnel – those coal-fired boilers are considered a hazard in an enclosed space. Pah.
Waving the train (and Pierre and Alexandre and Sylvie et al) goodbye, we board a high-end coach and are in the Eurotunnel within the hour. At Folkestone, the British Pullman is waiting for us. No schlafwagens, just dining cars – more exquisite upholstery, more 1920’s craftsmanship and more champagne and more cake and more tea and more champagne. Our charming waiter, Tom is from my neck of the woods in north London and apparently his dad has worked the route for years. His brother Richard is now part of the team, too. No joke – Tom, Dick and Harry. We pull into Victoria station and I genuinely don’t want to disembark. Very few travel options allow for such a major hit of ‘civilised’ in its concentrated form. For just over a day, I’ve been in a world that once was the very pinnacle of the human sensory experience. Until people inevitably got jaded and longed for speed and convenience and now and jet-engined. Sadly, we do that.
Thankfully, some things are beyond our inurement and exist just to remind us what pleasures our mortal carriages are capable of experiencing. Remember – it’s not the destination, it’s the manner of the journey that counts. Plus, it’s the cake and champagne and lobster and cake you eat along the way.
A double garden view room with balcony at the Hotel Cipriani starts from approximately £511 per room per night based on two people sharing and includes breakfast. To book or for more information visit www.vsoe.com and www.
The legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers a travel experience like no other. Prices in 2014 start from £1,990 per person for the overnight journey from London to Venice. Price is based on two people sharing a double cabin and includes all table d’hôte meals.