Anywhere but Here.

Inedit on the Orient-Express

Cocktails on the Orient-Express

When the nineteen cars of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express pull into Verona’s Porta Nuova Station, heads turn. The gold trim glistens on the beautifully restored sixty year-old navy blue carriages. Improbably, the cars look as if they have been freshly washed en route to the station. Stewards leap from the cars to help us aboard. Unencumbered by luggage (our preposterously over packed bags have been collected at our hotel), we saunter stylishly to our cabin, just like in the movies.

Few things as fabled, and as hyped, as the Orient Express are able to live up to one’s inflated expectations. But if you can live without a murder, the experience is much as fans of Agatha Christie might hope. We settle into our cabin, its rich paneling inlaid with a tiger-lily design, as the train leaves Verona.

The train races through the Dolomite mountains, past vineyards ablaze with the deep reds and golds of late fall. Philip, our steward, cheerfully wrestles our bulging luggage into overhead racks as we watch apologetically. We are given a card with our table assignment for luncheon, seating at 2:00, allowing us an hour to explore the train. While each car is subtly different, owing to different manufacturers in Belgium, England and France, all were built in the 1920’s for the Orient Express or first class trains plying other European routes. Our car, No. 3555 was built in France in 1929, and in-between stints as a luxury carriage, was used as a hotel in Lyon during World War II. After years of neglect, the cars were rescued from various ignoble fates for this lates incarnation of the Legendary Orient-Express, begun in 1982 by James B. Sherwood, Chairman of Orient-Express hotels.

We make our way to the elegant bar car where a baby grand piano and saxophone serenade the train’s well-coifed and well-heeled passengers, who seem to be a mix of elderly Americans and moneyed Japanese tourists. We sip our Campari-sodas as the rushing scenery becomes increasingly alpine. Those brilliantly hued vineyards climb straight up the mountainsides as we plunge in and out of dark tunnels.

Conductor

Attired in fashionable suits and ties we never have occasion to wear in Los Angeles (“You can never be overdressed on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express,” the English-language information booklet issued to us prior to our trip advises, emphasizing “please do not wear jeans.”), it is possible to believe that it is 1930. In travel today, speed and economy have replaced service and luxury, and the actual transit portion of any trip is now mostly something to be endured for as little time as possible. But traveling like this erases all desire for journey’s end, even when the final destination is Paris.

Luncheon is three courses, complemented by appropriately brilliant wines, and set with sterling silver fish knives and dessert spoons. The late afternoon vistas continue to dazzle as our meal finally ends in a glass of Courvoisier XO Imperial; the crystal snifter engraved, like nearly everything else aboard, with the cursive initials of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express. The cognac is wonderful.

****

We are not in the habit of drinking Cognac after luncheon, but it is after all, the cognac that has brought us here. Not an alcohol-induced delusion, but something close; an invitation from Courvoisier to participate in the launch of Inédit, a special limited edition cognac in a bottle designed by the late Art Deco master Erté. We have been chosen as liaisons to the gay community—whether it is the well-known gay enthusiasm for cocktails, for Erté’s work, or both, we can only guess. Accompanying us on this trip are a suitably mystery novel-like set of international characters, which include dashing French cognac executives, international liquor distributors, and journalists from all over the world who write for publications with names like Decanter. We meet over cocktails, the night before at the Hotel Due Torri, in Verona.

Glass

Finishing our post-lunch cognac as we whisk through Austrian mountain passes, we realize that it is nearly 4 o’clock—and we must hurry back to our cabin to await the arrival of afternoon tea at 4:30. Returning to our cabin, we hear it rumored that our hosts have a special surprise in store for us as part of the unveiling of the new cognac—but no one has any idea what it might be.

The schedule given us by Courvoisier is quite rigorous—even if it does consist almost entirely of eating and drinking. It does set aside 90 minutes for dressing for dinner after tea, a suggestion we ignore in favor of lying about our cabin resting our stuffed and besotted stomachs. This we regret when we find to our embarrassment that two people cannot get into black tie, dressing out of suitcases, in a tiny room (no matter how lovingly detailed), on a moving train in anything less than an hour!

As a final complication we seem able to get only one of our two bow ties knotted in a presentable fashion. In desperation, but also secretly eager to leave no service untested, we ring our steward for help.

“Do you have any luck tying these?” we query we he appears. Unfazed and grinning, Philip responds, “I’m afraid not. My mother always ties mine.” But all is not lost. As a testament to his preparedness, he produces a selection pre-tied clip-around bow-ties. Moments later we’re decked out and rushing down the narrow corridors to the conference car for our pre-dinner special presentation.

As we join the other guests in the leather paneled conference car that’s been added to the end of the train for this occasion, we realize that the train has stopped. Our host informs us that in order to power the generator to run the VCR for our presentation, they’ve had to stop the whole train! The video begins, and we learn more about Courvoisier, Erté, and the aging and blending of cognac. We view the previous limited-edition bottles Erté has created for Courvoisier—sleek, teardrop shaped decanters like giant perfume bottles, with Erté’s trademark deco illustrations depicting the cognac making process. But it isn’t yet time for the official unveiling of his ultimate creation. We adjourn our meeting and are treated to a pre-supper cocktail party where the champagne pours most generously. We’re all too dashing —the men handsome in their tuxedos, and the women looking like Bond girls in their sleek cocktail dresses.

Next comes dinner, served in the restaurant car (built in 1927, with black lacquer panels depicting scenes of sporting animals). Place cards reveal our dinner companions to be Roger and Diana Capstick-Dale (hyphenated—we are delighted with the perfect Britishness of it), a charming couple from London. He moves in art circles and was an associate of Erté’s; she is a theatrical set designer.

Our appetizer consists of rolled fillet of sole and scampi with spicy cuttle-fish ink. It’s gorgeous and Mrs. Capstick-Dale insists we take a photo of its brilliant orange and black swirled sauce for our magazine article. We don’t tell her that we’re shooting in black and white and it will end up looking like a biology dissection.

By the time coffee is served it’s well after midnight and there’s only one thing left—the very reason we’re here—the unveiling (and imbibing!) of the new cognac, Courvoisier Inédit.

Courvoisier’s Master Blender stands and tells a little about the cognac were are about to experience. Among the vintages of cognac combined to create this particular product, one dates back to 1892, the year Erté was born. As he speaks, we begin to notice the train’s staff, including the chefs, gather in the hallway outside the restaurant car door. Evidently our surprise is near at hand, and they too don’t want to miss the event.

The Master Blender passes the cordless microphone he’s been speaking into to Courvoisier’s director of PR, who thanks us all for coming, then gives a signal, which suddenly throws the entire room into darkness. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “Courvoisier presents Inédit!” With that music begins swelling through the car, and after a second we realize it’s the Dionne Warwick recording of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” The lights come up a bit, and into the car strides a tall, lithe woman with cascading blonde hair, carrying a bottle of cognac—and completely nude. Nude, that is, except for a few strategically placed gold-leafed grapes over her more personal parts. She is the “living embodiment” of Inédit, a living, breathing version of the Erté gal on the front of the bottle. The gay waiters exchange incredulous looks. The model brings the bottle around to each table, stopping for photographs, allowing us to examine her and the cognac. There’s something just so deliriously fabulous about this all, so surreal and so European. Soon there are legions of waiters carting out more bottles of Inédit, filling our snifters.

This bottle, featuring the nude woman, was actually Erté’s first ever design for Courvoisier. Unbelievably, this restrained drawing was deemed obscene by U.S. regulators under the Reagan administration and, denied access to the American market, Courvoisier canceled production. Following Erté’s death, the company decided to revive his original, unreleased (Inedít is French for unpublished) design—and the less censorious Clinton administration cleared its importation to America. We savor several glasses of the rare and expensive blend. Only 4000 bottles of this cognac will be made; most of those will be collected, like expensive marbles, and never consumed.

We retire to the club car—it’s now about 2:00 a.m.—to find a few of our fellow travelers still eager for more festivities, and, inconceivably, for more cocktails. Leading this charge is the Inédit model, who, after being closed up in a train compartment all day (so as not to spoil our surprise), is ready to rhumba. She insists the pianist and the saxophonist (who seemingly never sleep) to play something danceable, and soon we find ourselves gyrating to “Rock Around the Clock”. This proves to be our undoing, and finally, exhausted, we retire to our cabin.

We slip into pajamas, and into our perfectly turned down berths. Giddy with exhaustion and fullness, we settle down to the rollicking motion of the train. A glance at my watch tells me it’s now almost 3 a.m. We’ve been eating and drinking for approximately 14 hours.

We sleep four hours and awaken heading into Paris—a very agreeable way to begin any day. Our 20 hours aboard the Orient Express have come to an end—save one last treat. Philip raps lightly on our door and enters briskly. “Breakfast, sirs,” he grins.

Article by John Polly and Clay Doyle. Photographs by Clay Doyle.
My First Travel Article!
{Published in Genre magazine, 1995}

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