The Origin of the Orient Express and a Guy Named Nagelmackers

Quick! Name the world’s most famous train.

For most of you, the Orient Express undoubtedly popped into your mind. But why? Sure, it was the star of Agatha Christie’s most famous murder mystery, but what, exactly is the Orient Express and why is it so famous?

A recent article in the Smithsonian has answered the question. It traces the history of this legendary train so firmly lodged in our travel conscious back to the oddly named Georges Nagelmackers who, in the late 1800s, dreamed of a train route that would “span a continent” while pampering its passengers in the finest luxuries.

The very first journey left Paris in 1883 and 80 hours later arrived it what was then called Constantinople (Istanbul). The fascinating Smithsonian article by David Zax delves into the historical figures–kings and other royalty–who rode the train, as well as its important role in espionage and World War I.

Today, as Zax points out, the train has lost much of its famous luster. Although luxurious journeys can still be had, Zax laments how they “have largely fallen into self-parody.” Passengers, for example, are “encouraged…to dress in 1920s garb” making it more of a tourist dive than something affluent travelers pine for. Agatha Christie would be so disappointed.