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Four writers set out on very different literary pilgrimages in search of the real locations behind their favourite novels

Paper trails

CHAPTER 1 In which our heroine boards a 1930s steam train and gives chase to Hercule Poirot

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is the story of a journey to nowhere. Its hero Hercule Poirot boards at Istanbul and is destined for London, but the train is soon at a standstill, stuck in a snowdrift near Vinkovci, a station then in Yugoslavia. Agatha Christie is indifferent to the scenery along one of the most famous rail routes in the world, and instead looks inwards to the mannered environment of a ’30s first-class sleeper carriage.

Before a fatal stabbing interferes, she describes a place where strangers ‘of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages… are brought together’ by the rhythms of life onboard. Passengers are attended to by a feet of smart, uniformed attendants, happy to fetch a bottle of Perrier or a glass of cognac at a moment’s notice. Meals, served in the dining car, are multi-course affairs of ‘the choicest morsels’. As I devoured the book I wished I could join them for lunch, too, to sample the omelette enjoyed by Monsieur Bouc or taste the delicate cream cheese that finishes one of Poirot’s meals.

To those more familiar with the indignities of modern rail travel, with its packed carriages, overpriced tea and microwave food, this rarefied world feels charmingly remote – but it still exists, and closer than you might think. Regularly standing proudly alongside the commuter services that pour into London Victoria station is the Belmond British Pullman, sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Clouds of steam and the smell of coal-fired engines fill the air as a brass band announces her arrival and the vintage cream and brown carriages fill with passengers. None are as visibly remarkable as the characters who shared Poirot’s fated journey – the ‘toadlike’ Princess Dragomiroff, or the evil millionaire Simon Ratchett, whom Christie compared to a wild animal. Too excited to be considered remotely sinister, several of today’s travellers are in period dress and have something to celebrate.

Passengers are seated in velvet armchairs, where they drink a glass of champagne and drink in the opulent interiors. Though the oldest carriage dates back to 1925, and almost all spent time languishing in railway sidings before being restored, each is a vision of period splendour. Polished brass lamps cast soft light on veneer panels inlaid with Art Deco marquetry, and bags are stowed on original woven luggage racks (though I don’t spy a single hat box, a vital clue in Poirot’s investigation). Even the toilet floors – mosaiced with insignia from swans to Greek gods – are works of art. The illusion of time-travel is broken only by the glimpses of real life that creep in through the windows as the train starts to trundle south. The chimneys of Battersea Power Station and bright swatches of urban graffiti slowly give way to rows of neat townhouses and, eventually, the green fields of the Surrey Hills.

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Find the complete article and many more in this issue of Lonely Planet - August 2015
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