How a Train Fan Solved a True Orient Express Mystery

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(CNN) — French railway enthusiast Arthur Mettetal was watching a video on YouTube when train carriages parked in the corner of the frame caught his eye.

The carriages have been painted a distinctive midnight blue hue once associated with the Orient Express, the famous long-distance trans-European passenger train synonymous with 20th century travel glamour.

Mettetal was not only a railroad enthusiast, he was preparing a doctorate on the history of the Orient Express. His research involved trying to determine how many of the original Orient Express carriages still exist today, where they were, who they belonged to, and what condition they were in.

He knew that some vintage cars were in service – such as those that operate the Belmond Orient Express route – and others were on display in museums. But he thought that many cars were scattered around the world, forgotten.

Mettetal spent most of 2015 hunting down these abandoned railroad cars, browsing archives, talking to railroad fans on message boards, and browsing online videos. Every now and then he would notice a clue that looked promising, like the blue cars in the YouTube video.

Mettetal paused the video and took a closer look at the frame. The video had been uploaded anonymously and there wasn’t much accompanying information. But it was only possible to make out the name of a station on the screenshot: Małaszewicze.

Using Google, Mettetal discovered that there were several places in Poland named Małaszewicze. He looked at each location on Google Maps, switching to 3D view and zooming in, looking for the distinctive blue cars with their white roofs.

And then, bingo, he found what he was looking for: a 13-car train that looked suspiciously like the Orient Express, parked in a station in Małaszewicze on the border between Poland and Belarus.

Speaking to CNN Travel today, Mettetal said it was a “magical” moment.

“Thirteen cars at once!” he exclaims. “It’s like discovering a treasure.”

Track the train

Arthur Mettetal first spotted the Orient Express vintage train carriages while searching online.

Xavier Antoinet

While locating the train on Google was “an incredible feeling”, Mettetal tried to manage his expectations, not knowing why the carriages were there, what condition they might be in and if they had been moved since the capture. satellite picture.

So he went to Małaszewicze to check them in person.

Mettetal says he will never forget the moment he arrived at the Polish border, a photographer friend in tow.

“After driving for hours to reach the place where we thought we would find the train, we arrived at night in an active border area,” says Mettetal.

Not only was it dark, but the landscape was blanketed in snow. But the two men could still make out the blue cars. Printed on their side was “Nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express”, the name of a private railway company from the 1970s that used original Orient Express cars to transport travelers from Paris to Istanbul. Mettetal and his friend were overjoyed.

“It’s an indescribable feeling. We were looking at the object of our search, the train that we had seen through Google’s 3D views,” Mettetal recalls.

Because they were in a border area, Mettetal and the photographer were quickly ordered to leave by the police. The two men returned the following day at dawn, accompanied by a translator and Guillaume de Saint Lager, the vice-president of the Orient Express subsidiary of Accor, also interested in inspecting the train.

Mettetal says getting into the wagons was very exciting.

Mettetal says getting into the wagons was very exciting.

Xavier Antoinet

At sunrise, the group circled the cars. Mettetal estimated that they dated back to the 1920s and 30s and had lain there, dormant, for at least a decade.

Mettetal says looking inside the cars was another “highlight for a historian.”

“All the decorations were intact and it looked like time had stood still,” he says, adding that there was “almost no damage, just the wear and tear of time.”

Of the 13 cars, nine were luxury sleeping cars.

“We then spent two full days documenting the entire interior and exterior of the cars while continuing to research their history and why they were parked there,” says Mettetal.

Renovation and restoration

The interior of the train is being renovated by French architect Maxime d'Angeac.

The interior of the train is being renovated by French architect Maxime d’Angeac.

Xavier Antoinet

Over the next two years, Accor’s Orient Express team tracked down the owner of the Małaszewicze cars. They also found four additional cars parked in other countries, including Germany and Switzerland. Accor negotiated a purchase agreement for a total of 17 cars, including 12 sleeping cars, a restaurant, three lounges and a van. The cars were then transported by police convoy across Europe to France.

Fast forward to today and Accor’s Orient Express group has big plans for the rediscovered cars. The aim is for the cars to operate on a Paris-Istanbul route from 2024, a reinvented version of the Nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express.

The cars are currently being refurbished by Parisian architect Maxime d’Angeac, who told CNN Travel that the “once in a lifetime” project is one that “can’t be turned down.”

Cars are expected to carry passengers again in 2024.

Cars are expected to carry passengers again in 2024.

Xavier Antoinet

The interiors of the rediscovered cars include Art Deco marquetry panels by English decorators Morrison and Nelson, as well as glass panels by French craftsman René Lalique. When d’Angeac first saw the existing interiors, he says he felt a “real emotion”.

D’Angeac acknowledges that the original Orient Express was known in its time as the pinnacle of luxury, comfort and design. He wants the refurbished cars to live up to that reputation.

“Accor’s ambition is to restore and rebuild the same kind of myth, legend, and have an exceptional train,” he says.

Renovating century-old cars isn’t easy, d’Angeac adds, the interiors are smaller than the modern traveler might expect. Historic assets should be preserved, but modern conveniences and security should also be incorporated.

New technologies and methods will be used where appropriate, but d’Angeac hopes travelers won’t notice the 21st century touch.

“Our intervention must be timeless,” says d’Angeac.

As for Mettetal, he has completed his doctorate, but he remains fascinated by the Orient Express, especially the cars he spotted on YouTube. He is also now Director of Heritage and Culture for Orient Express at Accor.

“These cars have a rich history, from their construction in the 1920s to their rediscovery,” says Mettetal. “It would be very interesting to retrace their entire journey, countries and cities crossed during all these years.”

Top photo credit: Xavier Antoinet

Top photo credit: Xavier Antoinet

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