When it came to the trains themselves, the author's focus is on night trains -- especially sleeping cars. He writes:
"An article on the Lonely Planet website once described Paris as ‘the omphalos’ of sleeper trains, which was just the right word I thought (once I’d looked it up), and part of the attraction of the sleepers for me is that they start from my favourite city." (p. 26).Somehow I did know that omphalos means belly button. And I learned as well that it referred specifically to "the navel of the world," a particular stone at the Temple of Delphi in Ancient Greece. But that's a digression, though it does fit with today as Wordy Wednesday.
Paris is always the center of something, isn't it!
Martin is especially interested in a particular train company, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et du Tourisme, which owned a number of particularly famous and often luxurious sleeping cars. Wagons-Lits were in use by French and other Continental railroad lines on many renowned train lines including the Orient Express. They dominated the sleeping car business from the late 19th century until around the 1980s.
These iconic trains were featured in many cultural works. "The first novel to exploit the racy reputation of the Orient Express was The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, published in 1925." (p. 152). Much more lastingly famous novels and films followed, with authors like Graham Greene, Georges Simenon, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie, and even a ballet titled "Le Train Bleu" in 1924, "performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with music by Darius Milhaud, story by Jean Cocteau, costumes by Coco Chanel and curtain by Pablo Picasso." (p. 38). In the chapter on the Orient Express, Martin points out that the Gare de l’Est “is the setting, for example, of both Murder on the Orient Express and From Russia with Love.” (p. 133).
Paintings of railroad-related subjects in Paris is another of Martin's interests. I found the descriptions of some of the paintings especially intriguing, so I looked them up. Here are some of the works along with Martin's comments:
|Manet, The Railroad.|
|Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe.|
|Claude Monet, The Gare St-Lazare|
Besides discussing trains in film, literature and art, Martin describes quite a few of his own railroad experiences. In 2015-2016 he tried to travel on the few sleeper cars that still remained in service, especially a memorable night where the voyage was cancelled and he ended up sleeping on the train while it was parked in the station in Paris. I had never thought much about the Paris railroad stations, other than the re-purposed Gare D'Orsay, now a splendid museum, and the Gare de Lyon where my purse was once snatched. As he begins each over-night journey, Martin describes the current state and the history of these stations: "The Parisian stations were polished and set like so many jewels by Baron Haussmann, architect-protégé of that great rail enthusiast, Napoleon III. (p. 193).
|Illustration from Night Trains: "A Wagons-Lits dining car, as burnished|
to perfection for the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Note the lamp shades,
interestingly suggestive of French knickers." (p. 248).
"The head of the restaurant car was the maître d’hôtel, and crammed inside the kitchen was a brigade de cuisine, with a chef de cuisine in charge (a man often destined, in the first half of the twentieth century, to be headhunted by one of the better European hotels). He supervised an under-chef, a saucier and a plongeur, or washer-up. There would also be a couple of serveurs, or waiters." (pp. 15-16).
"Dinner on the original journey was served an hour and a half after departure – at 8pm. The restaurant car incorporated a gentlemen’s smoking salon with all the European newspapers, and there was further expensive marquetry, with scrollwork, cornices and gilded metal flowers protruding, and ‘rather garish’... paintings. The lighting was by gigantic –yet mellow –gas chandeliers. The meal involved nine courses: soup, lobster, oysters, caviar, fish, game, cakes, sorbets and cheeses." (p. 142).Sleeping cars on trains starting in Paris went out of service for many reasons. The Orient Express lines became unworkable after World War II when the Iron Curtain, specifically in Bulgaria, cut off some of the routes. After that, air travel made long international overnight train voyages unappealing. Finally, the very fast trains that enable travel from Paris to French cities in only a few hours left almost nobody wanting to take any overnight trains. The end!
I wanted to share these Paris train stories with "Paris in July," a blogging event going on this month.
Note: images of artworks are from Wikipedia and the website of the British Museum.