What could possibly make a 24-hour voyage on the legendary Paris to Venice sleeper service, the ultra-luxe Venice Simplon-Orient-Express even better? Since every journey features menus by chef Jean Imbert, the best staff in the business, the iconic Bar Car 3674 stacked to the gills and inspirational interiors including original Lalique panelling, it can only be one thing: filling the train with fabulous queer folk and throwing the mother of all parties in the aforementioned bar car. Rebecca Cox joins the train in Paris for the annual Travel With Pride celebrations in support of Not A Phase.
THE VENICE SIMPLON-ORIENT-EXPRESS
I am woken around 8am by the gentle clickety-clack of the train against the rails, and noticing that the rain has stopped, I pull open the blind and wind the window down a little to let some air in and drift back off to sleep as the carriage rocks back and forth. Fast forward an hour and I wake again as we pull into Fidenza station and come to a stop. The opposite platform is busy with Italian commuters, all watching the recognisable coaches pulling in, many with phones out, recording its arrival. ‘How odd it must be to see the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express pulling up when you’re on your way to work!’ I think merrily, sitting up in my bunk. Then I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window, hair wild, rainbow glitter peeling down my left cheek. I swiftly pull down the blind, so as not to ruin the romantic vision of the train for onlookers.
Because last night wasn’t just any night on the luxury Belmond train. It was the second annual Pride celebration onboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, where the traditional programming was replaced with a fabulous line-up of post-dinner entertainment including Benedict Cork, Sophie and the Giants, Purple Disco Machine and Horse Meat Disco, in support of Trans+ rights charity Not A Phase.
TRAVEL WITH PRIDE
The crowd for the Travel With Pride event is, as you would expect, a little younger, hipper, and more flamboyantly-attired than the usual VSOE clientele. At the 9pm station stop, the sequined guests disembark for a pre-or-post-dinner smoke or to stretch their legs, and the immaculately uniformed guards file off the train neatly some 10 minutes later. But by the midnight stop, we all tumble off together, a mass of glitter and capes, gold piping and steward’s hats, bursts of rapid-fire Italian, French and English and plenty of laughter drifting into the night sky along with the clouds of smoke.
Back in the Bar Car, Italian drag artist Stephanie Glitter is dancing on the piano, champagne is being sipped directly from the bottle and Horse Meat Disco’s set is providing banger after banger, and forcing bedtime back further and further toward sunrise. I am treading carefully in my stilettos as the train rocks, occasionally throwing us all off-balance, so as to avoid both a murder on the (Venice Simplon-)Orient Express, and the dance-floor.
The Travel With Pride voyage isn’t all chaos and carnage, however. The day starts as any Paris to Venice VSOE journey does, with an early afternoon boarding at Paris, greetings from the famous porters and champagne and canapes as the train pulls away along the Seine. After drinks, I am shown to my original 1920s art deco cabin, a neat and cosy room featuring a large, plush sofa that will later be transformed into a cosy and surprisingly comfortable bed (or bunks if there are two of you), a small table with a lamp and a mini bassinet vanity closet with mirrors that can be folded away behind curved doors. The whole cabin is clad with the iconic warm cherry wooden panelling and light pours in from the window that takes up almost an entire wall.
After several outfit changes, it’s time for a pre-dinner drink, and I opt for one of the Pride special cocktails, a delicious sweet-take on a mezcal margarita called a ‘Sugar Daddy’ (ironic, since that’s the only way I could realistically afford to repeat this experience). Then, it’s on to the stunning Lalique Pullman 4141 Dining Car for dinner, a minimalist space with original panels by René Lalique and pristine white table cloths set against plush navy velvet seats. Dinner tonight is pan-fried scallops with walnuts, celery and yellow wine sabayon (divine), followed by a lobster main (heaven), a French cheese course (dangerously good) and a ‘hazelnut and chocolate hot and cold’ pudding (game over). Wine is free-flowing and excellent, though the after-dinner cocktails are, frankly, a mistake on my part. Still, I couldn’t have made it up from the table after all that cheese without the help of the espresso martini, let alone out onto the dance floor.
Fast forward to this morning, rainbow glitter successfully removed, much coffee consumed, and I’m writing this in my cabin while eating pastries as we divert through northern Italy due to flooding. That has been the only disappointment of an otherwise superlative voyage: the scenery has been underwhelming, with the highlights provided by Paris disappearing behind at one end and Venice materialising from the water at the other; much of the in-between is industrial or farmland, the Alps swallowed by the night sky and the other potential impressive landscapes made inaccessible by storms. Still, after a year of train strikes in Britain, it’s nice to make it from A to B without delay. And with so much fun to be had, there’s little time for window-gazing.
Since many of my fellow passengers partied for several hours after I called it a night (/morning), I am expecting lunch to be a subdued affair. But there’s no such thing on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and I arrive in the bar car to an impromptu Italian singalong around the piano, the guards and several guests singing with gusto and using cocktail shakers as make-shift percussion instruments. Lunch is sole served on celeriac with a rich cream sauce following a soft-boiled egg starter and bread with lashings of seaweed-laced butter.
One last over-indulgence: pudding is a delectable pear crumble with ice cream, too good to pass up, though I can barely breathe out. As Venice appears out of the water in the golden, late-afternoon sunshine, there’s just time for one more glass of champagne (did I say just one more over-indulgence? Two then), before checking out of my cabin and disembarking, making a few fond farewells as I ready myself to return to the real world.
THE FINAL WORD
The voyage on the ultimate love train was fun, loud, indulgent, opulent, exhausting and still somehow reviving; an uplifting celebration of love and queer culture in the most stunning setting. It’s a bold and fabulous addition to Pullman’s annual programming, and with the LGBTQ+ community needing support more than ever, it shows that the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is very much invested in the train’s future, and not just rooted in its (admittedly very glamorous) past. A ‘once in a lifetime’ experience? I hope not.
For more information about upcoming events and journeys or to enquire about booking, visit belmond.com.
See more from the party here:
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