As a little kid growing up in a little town in central Illinois, a daily highlight for me was the 8:21 AM of the arrival of the sleek and speedy, Chicago-bound CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR at the Kewanee train station. About once a year my mother, grandmother, Aunt Rose and little Phil would board that superliner for a 3-hour ride to the big city to visit Aunt Edie – always occupying a table in the dining car, and I, always ordering pancakes.
To this day I retain my childhood amazement with train travel, especially the pleasure of luxuriating for hours in the dining cars.
So it was that last summer Joanne and I – grandkids in tow – traveled through France and on to Barcelona aboard the glossy TGV trains, cruising along at 300KM/H (190 MPH)…all the while anticipating gracious lunches served by smartly uniformed stewards.
After all, some of our fondest travel experiences were aboard Europe’s grand trains. Back in the day, Joanne and I traveled to Italy regularly on business for the Buca restaurants. We’d always fly Northwest Airlines to its European gateway, Frankfurt, then journey by rail to our final destination. Train dining at that time was serious business, with starched linens, silver service, the sound of clinking glassware, and meals prepared to order over open flames. As we rolled into the Alps, and finally through the Brenner Pass, gaping at the spectacular views, we’d assuage our souls with ample amounts of wine. Life was good.
Life got even better on other trips to visit our daughter who was living and working in Switzerland. After a short stay with Jennifer, Joanne and I would again book a train trip over the Alps – only these times we’d take a less direct route, heading east toward St. Moritz through the hair-raising Bernina Pass, savoring the breathtaking scenery and meticulously prepared dinners in equal measure.
Dining on five-course dinners in a full-scale, softly lit dining car as the Alps flash past your window is certainly a romantic experience. Maybe not quite as sensual as the famous dining car seduction in the film North by Northwest involving Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, but definitely worth booking a private cabin for.
In 1974, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express introduced movie audiences to the glamour and elegance of perhaps the world’s most famous train. Watching Albert Finney confidently assert “I am probably the best detective in the world,” I wondered if it was Hercule Poirot’s self-possession that got Mrs. Hubbard all hot and bothered – or was she in thrall to the silk-swathed luxury of the train? All I knew is that one day I, too, would travel on the Orient Express (with Joanne as my Lauren Bacall).
Some years later while in London, we discovered that we could book a lunch trip on the Orient Express as it embarked from Victoria Station on its three-day journey to Istanbul.
Well, the train (known as the Belmond Orient Express in England) leaves London around 11:30 AM. Champagne in their private boarding lounge at Victoria Station awaits. The train arrives two-and-a-half hours later at Folkestone Harbor on the southern coast of England – giving you just enough time to enjoy a lavish, Champagne-soaked lunch. From Folkestone, Joanne and I took a chartered motor coach back to London. Passengers who are continuing on to Istanbul cross the Chunnel on the Eurotunnel train. And upon arriving in Calais, France, they board the Venice Simplon Orient Express to continue on their adventure.
Having tasted the experience of traveling – not just across England but back in time – on the most storied 5-star vintage train carriages in the world, we decided a few years later (on our anniversary or something) to actually do the Full Monty and book the train’s Asian sister, called The Eastern and Orient Express, for a trip from Bangkok to Singapore through the lush jungles and greenery of Thailand and Malaysia. With heavenly, mouthwatering cuisine, romantic mood lighting and crisp sheets, it gave new meaning to “civilized travel.”
And NO, it didn’t break the budget. You see, we saved on two nights in a hotel and all meals were included as well as transportation for two to Singapore (900 miles).
So how was our more recent experience on the TGV?
First class in every way – EXCEPT IN THE DINING CARS!!
It appears that nationalization has infected train transportation and has set out to diminish the experience of travelers. Today there are no sit-down dining options save for one meal period, during which you’re served airline-style at your seat. The Pullman style full-service dining car has been replaced with what is called a “Buffet Car,” where you line up, order, pay and STAND UP to eat. And eat, you shall: carb after oil-drenched carb. Sugar, sugar and more sugar. Salt, salt and more salt. At least you cover the railroad three basic food groups….GREASE, DOUGH and SUGAR.
I’m reminded of the London Guardian’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, as he commented on a breakfast that he recently endured on a train. “The croissant was so flaccid that no form of culinary Viagra would ever get it to stand up again.”