The mantelpiece won’t look the same this Christmas. The only head of state with whom I exchanged cards died last week. You remember the Waldheims – he was Sec-Gen of the UN, then president of Austria. Like Richard Nixon, he absentmindedly lost a piece of his life, but whereas Trickie Dickie lost only 18 minutes, Kurt lost 18 months. When his memoirs claimed that he was in Vienna studying for his law doctorate, he was in Croatia helping the Fascists to line them all up. He wasn’t tried for war crimes, but then the prosecuting authority was the UN. No wonder he wasn’t there to meet us in Vienna.
For a train freak, it’s the ultimate self-indulgence – or the penultimate if you dream of taking the Trans-Siberian Express. As Noel, our dinner companion, said, it’s something you have to do once in your life. Not wanting to leave it too late - and fast approaching the age when More Than, my travel insurance company, will drop me for a younger model after happily accepting my premium for 50 years, we decided that this was that moment. Our flimsy justification was that it was both our wedding anniversary and our joint birthday gift to each other (I actually owed her two).
Instead of the two-hour trip out, the ride home took 28 – lunch in Austria, dinner in Germany, breakfast in France and brunch in England. The train is a French-polisher’s nightmare, its vintage coaches dripping with royal blue and brass. Liveried flunkies in light blue and gold anticipate your every wish, for – as the receptionist at the Vienna Hauptbahnhof put it - ‘From here on we do not schlep’.
It’s priced accordingly: when I selected the cheapest item on the wine list – a Sancerre at £44 – the Maitre d’ suggested ‘a much superior wine that is only slightly more expensive’ – at £79. The Sancerre was delicious.
The train itself is gobsmacking. Our coach was built in 1922: on the corridor walls are polished brass light fittings – to hold the gas lamps – and beside the beds are brass hooks so that the gentlemen can hang their fob watch and chain within easy reach (a little fur-lined pad below it prevents scratching of the woodwork). The Orient Express can take you almost anywhere in Europe - Vienna, Milan, Rome, Bucharest, Venice – and never stops anywhere for more than a couple of hours, so the crew don’t get home much during its travel season. Steve, our steward, lives in the Dolomites and is a ski instructor during the winter.
The train doesn’t go to London. At Folkstone a Dixieland band plays you aboard the Pullman for the last lap, a lap of luxury. Our coach, says the plaque, is used regularly by the Queen and was a favourite of the previous one. General de Gaulle left no comment.
Suddenly it’s all over. It’s raining as we schlep our luggage out of Victoria station, pondering the thought of take-away Chinese for the next month.
It’s good having visitors – instead of chasing around to new places, you get to see your own country. It’s like never seeing French people up the Eiffel Tower. Our guest from New York this week wanted to see Stonehenge. (Des. Res., Grade I listed, construct. approx. 4,000BC, full air cond. lintels needing attention.) Missed the solstice by a couple of days, but it’s easier to see when it’s less crowded. She also introduced us to Windsor Castle. Next time she comes she’s going to show us London.