Belmond Rail Adventure in Europe
I have always been enchanted with the idea of traveling on the Belmond/Orient Express train on an overnight journey across Europe. My chance came in May, when I was invited to participate in a trip from Brussels to Venice on the VSOP, Venice Simplon Orient Express.
I took my daughter, who loves to travel almost as much as I do.
The Amigo Hotel was our home in Brussels. Perfectly located in the heart of the shopping area, one block from the Grand Place, the Amigo has spacious, contemporary rooms in a historic building. 5 star service.
We walked the cobblestone streets around the city center and sampled Belgian chocolate, beer, and fries. The weather was gorgeous – warm and sunny, and long days which stayed light until 10pm.
The next day we took a local train to the charming town of Bruges, an hour away and full of historic buildings and its famous canals. Bruges is definitely worth a visit. We headed back to Brussels in the afternoon, arriving in time to catch the end of the Gay Pride Parade – lots of fun with music and costumes everywhere.
On our last day in Brussels we explored the city further, visiting the Magritte Museum, a must see. It was then time to make our way to the train.
The Orient Express train is beautiful – inlaid wood panels with different designs in each car, rich upholstery, lace curtains and tablecloths. Our cabin was made up with a couch during the day which converted to an upper and lower berth at night. There was a cupboard which hid a sink and mirrors. The toilet was at the end of the car and was shared. There was no shower.
Our steward served us champagne in crystal glasses, which we sipped as the train pulled out of the station – and we were on our way! We dressed in black tie for dinner and moved to the bar car, where the pianist set the mood on his grand piano. Dinner was an elegantly formal affair, with lovely service and excellent food. After many courses, we moved back to the bar car for a nightcap. This is where the action was on the train at night. The piano, the cocktails, the setting, all added up to a feeling of stepping back in time.
After finally returning to our cabin, the rocking of the train lulled us to sleep. At about 5AM, there was loud knocking on our door – I was startled into consciousness and immediately thought of “Murder on the Orient Express!” It turned out to be one of the guests who was locked out of her cabin. She was knocking on her own door, but managed to wake up everyone in the car!
We woke in the morning and saw the Swiss Alps out our window, with breathtaking scenery around every bend. Breakfast was served in our cabin so we were able to relax and enjoy the magnificent mountains. Our cabin was re-converted to a sitting room in about two minutes by our steward.
After a late lunch in the dining car, we finally arrived in Venice, Italy. We were escorted from the train to taxi boats which took us through the canals of Venice and across the lagoon to the Belmond Cipriani Hotel.
The Cipriani is one of the iconic hotels of Venice, situated on an island facing St Marks Square. The gardens were filled with flowers and the trees were in bloom. The huge swimming pool was so inviting, the gardens beckoned, our suite was perfect – but we had little time as a party was scheduled. We joined the group outside on a perfect night – full moon over Venice, jazz combo playing, great cocktails. Our dinner was in the fine dining restaurant at Cipriani – one of the most amazing Italian meals ever.
During the next day, we took the ten-minute boat ride over to St Marks, walked and shopped as much as we could before heading back for lunch at the hotel. Our afternoon was spent on a boat taking us out to the island of Merano and Burano. Murano has the glassblowers; we visited a studio and watched an artist create some amazing pieces. We sailed on to Burano, the island of lace makers; this island looks like Venice must have looked in the past. Colorful houses, charming atmosphere, and we saw some beautiful examples of fabric and lace.
Back in Venice, we were taken to see a very special school filled with paintings of Titian. From there we walked through the streets of Venice to the Rialto area, which had been converted to an outdoor banquet space in a medieval style. We were greeted by costumed players, musicians, dancers and entertainers who put on a show for us. We played the part of the guests of a king and queen, who paraded with the actors. It was great fun!
Our last morning in Venice we had a private tour of San Giorgio Island. We saw the cathedral and the library which was originally a convent. The highlight was going up to the top of the bell tower from which we could see the islands of Venice – a stunning sight.
Lunch was served on a classic old wooden sailboat owned by the Missoni family – on which we then sailed in style back to the hotel.
Back at the Cipriani, we watched the sun set over St Mark’s out on the patio near Cip’s, the hotel’s outdoor restaurant perched over the water with the best view in town.
As much as we hated to stay goodbye, we had a few more days of our own adventure…