On October 4, 1883, in the Gare de l’Est train station, Paris was brimming with anticipation. Around two dozen intrepid passengers were preparing to board a luxury train that would expand the frontiers of travel. The train’s destination: Constantinople (now Istanbul). Its name: the Orient Express—an intercontinental rail service that would soon become a global legend. The idea of a railway linking Europe from west to east emerged from a project led by the Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers, and soon came to symbolize the belle epoque—a golden age in Europe spanning the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of the First World War in 1914. It was a period when artistic culture flourished, “globe-trotting tourism” blossomed, and the middle and upper classes enjoyed a newfound prosperity and cosmopolitanism.
By the late 19th century, most European countries were connected by rail, yet train travel was a largely unpleasant experience—rough and dirty, unreliable and sometimes dangerous, with complicated, time-consuming border crossings. Unfortunately, there was scant incentive to improve things: Business was booming, and rail owners viewed innovations with suspicion.
In the 1860s, however, with rail lines vining their way across the Continent, luxury hotels started to take root along the routes. Which is where Nagelmackers—the scion of a prominent Belgian banking family—came in. While on a long holiday in the United States, Nagelmackers fell under the spell of the popular Pullman “sleeper cars”—clean, comfortable, hotel-like passenger cars designed for long trips.