In the tracks of the Orient Express

The fabled Paris to Istanbul train resumes service in 2025. But you don’t need to wait that long – or pay the eye-watering price tag – to ride this classic route

Words: Ben Aitken





One of the fruits of getting on a train is that it makes me want to chat. So instead of gazing at Kent as we proceed to Paris from London, I talk to my neighbour. Martha grew up in San Francisco, studied in Oregon, and puts syrup on everything. When we part ways on the concourse of Gare du Nord – she to lunch with a friend from Wisconsin, me to amble around before continuing towards Turkey – she says the best things about the US are Taylor Swift and meatloaf. It’s good to talk. With just two hours to play with, I cold-shoulder the signature attractions and make a beeline for Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Seine, where I once slept next to the poems for three months in my 20s while working on my first book. (The scheme is called Tumble-weeding and offers shelter to writers in exchange for helping out in the shop.) By heading there I’m being hopelessly nostalgic, but in the event the queue to enter the shop is round the block and I don’t make it inside. The search for lost time goes on. Next stop, Stuttgart. The doubledecker TGV towers above the land it cuts through. Lowly fields go by in a flash, and so do Nancy, Strasbourg, Noisy-le-Sec. It’s been eight hours since London, and yet it hardly feels like 10 minutes. Train journeys can be spellbinding like that: clock time seems to melt away. Mind you, it’s no utopia in coach 13. A toddler three rows back has been kicking off since Karlsruhe. Stepping off the train at Stuttgart, the first thing I notice is the lack of a station (it has been levelled in readiness for a new one). The second thing I notice is that the city’s architecture is anything but uniform. Parts suggest Bath, others Milton Keynes, others the Tirolean Alps. The third thing I notice is a lady offering free hugs on the main square. I give her a cuddle and in return she informs me that the red-light district is good for Japanese food. Travelling from Paris to Istanbul by train is an undertaking made famous by the historic Orient Express. In 2025 – nearly four decades since the original stopped serving Istanbul in 1977 – another iteration of the fabled pan-European service will launch, after the