Reliving my love for European hotel trains at Gardens by the Bay’s Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express.
Do you like European trains? Particularly, overnight European trains?
Well, I do. In fact, I love them so much, I take at least one overnight train trip during any Eurotrip. If not several.
In 1998, during my very first visit to the Old World, I took three overnight journeys (One of which was in a six-person booth, truly uncomfortable but unforgettable) During my two-week 2012 spring visit, I did it four times.
Much of this love is, of course, because of the Orient Express, which I first read about in lower secondary. Now, I’m sure you’d assume the book responsible for this was Agatha Christie’s legendary whodunnit. But nope, it wasn’t. The book responsible was instead, Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love.
Intense as Bond’s encounters on the legendary train were, somehow, they planted a lifelong love for European trains in me. Till today, I still regard them as synonymous with romance and adventure.
Long story short, I was truly thrilled when I read about Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express coming to Gardens by the Bay. The whole idea of being able to step into an actual carriage of the service excited me for weeks, to say the least. Goodness, I was so excited, I even re-read parts of Fleming’s classic thriller to prepare for the visit!
Visiting the Exhibition on a Rainy Afternoon
Sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? But hmm, I don’t know. The wet weather vaguely reminded me of my autumn rail journeys in Europe. There was also a vague ambience of mystery.
By the way, if you’re visiting, note that this pop-up event is outside the main grounds of Gardens by the Bay. The tickets are also separately sold by Sistic, i.e., not by Gardens’ ticketing system.
All Aboard The Orient Express!
Wouldn’t go into the details of the temperature checks and briefing here. I’d just say, the staff was prompt and polite. As long as you’re there at your ticketed time slot, you’d be on board in no time.
(Do note too, what’s on show are actual Orient Express carriages. The steps at the entrances are steep. And narrow)
The History of the Orient Express, Luxury Train Travel, and Trans-Continental Tourism
To go into a bit of history, the Orient Express is not a train but a train service. One that underwent many transformations, and lasted from 1883 to 2009.
Without going into too many details, because I strongly encourage you to visit the exhibition to learn about it, the historically and culturally significant facts about this service are:
- CIWL, and its founder Georges Nagelmackers, created the sleeper service in the 1870s. Nagelmackers was inspired by the American Pullman sleeper carriages and after Pullman declined collaboration, Georges decided to “do his own thing.”
- The service was amended and extended several times in the following decades. These changes reflected engineering accomplishments in Europe. They ran alongside socio-political developments too.
- Over time, the service became synonymous with luxury train travel, adventure, and intrigue.
- Because the service and its extensions took passengers to destinations like Istanbul, Cairo, and so on, it significantly contributed to the development of trans-continental tourism.
- Stories written by famed authors such as Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and Ian Fleming, which used the Orient Express as backdrop, further cemented the association of the service with adventure and mystery.
Yup, that’s the gist of it. Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express, in turn,devotes two large halls to introducing these histories, with a large collection of relevant artefacts/collectibles on display.
As you appreciate the historical carriage from the outside, you also get to understand the service’s permanent place in history.
Orient Express Café
Now, if you’ve been keeping tabs on this pop-up event, you’d know it includes a swanky restaurant. One that features meals prepared by a Michelin chef and with prices to match.
As I’m … decidedly of the coach class populace, I didn’t go for that. Instead, I ended my visit with a light meal at the themed café.
It’s a simple affair. The café is spacious and decorated using the signature blue of the Orient Express. The light meals served are also very European and mid-range in price.
Actually, I kinda remembered a lunch I had at the café of Paris’ Les Invalides while munching on a Turkish sandwich. If that’s the ambience intended, this café is a winner.
Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express is ongoing till June 13, 2021.