(DailyExpertNews) — French railway enthusiast Arthur Mettetal was watching a video on YouTube when a pair of parked train cars in the corner of the frame caught his eye.
The carriages were given a striking midnight blue hue once associated with the Orient Express, the famous inter-European long-haul passenger train synonymous with the glamor of 20th-century travel.
Not only was Mettetal a railroad fan, he was working on a PhD on the history of the Orient Express. His research involved trying to determine how many original Orient Express train carriages still exist, where they were located, who owned them and what condition they were in.
He knew there were vintage carriages in service — such as those on the Belmond Orient Express route — and others on display in museums. But he thought many of the cars were scattered all over the world, forgotten.
Mettetal spent most of 2015 hunting these abandoned carriages, flipping through archives, talking to railroad fans on bulletin boards, and browsing online videos. Every once in a while he saw a clue that looked promising, like the blue carriages in the YouTube video.
Mettetal pressed pause on the video and took a closer look at the frame. The video was uploaded anonymously and there wasn’t much accompanying information. But it was just possible to make out the name of a station in the screenshot: Małaszewicze.
Through Google, Mettetal discovered that there were several places in Poland called Małaszewicze. He looked up every spot on Google Maps, switched to 3D view and zoomed in, looking for the distinctive blue carriages 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 at a station in Małaszewicze on the border between Poland and Belarus.
“Thirteen cars at once!” he exclaims. “It’s like discovering a treasure.”
Track down the train
Arthur Mettetal first saw the vintage train cars of the Orient Express while researching online.
While it was “an unbelievable feeling” to see the train on Google, Mettetal tried to control his expectations, unsure why the carriages were there, what condition they were in, and whether they had moved since the satellite image was taken.
So he traveled to Małaszewicze to see 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, the landscape was shrouded in snow. But the two men could still make out the blue carriages. On their side was written “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 looked at the object of our research, the train that we had seen through Google’s 3D renderings,” Mettetal recalls.
Because they were in a border area, Mettetal and the photographer were soon told by the police to leave. The two returned at dawn the next day, accompanied by a translator and Guillaume de Saint Lager, the vice president of Accor’s Orient Express branch, who was also interested in inspecting the train.
Mettetal says it was very exciting to get into the train cars.
As the sun rose, the group circled the carriages. Mettetal estimated that they dated from the 1920s and 1930s and had been dormant there for at least a decade.
Mettetal says peering into the carriages was another “great moment for a historian.”
“All the decorations were intact and it was as if time had stood still,” he says, adding that there was “almost no damage, just the wear and tear of time.”
Of the 13 carriages, nine were luxury sleeping cars.
“We then spent two full days documenting the entire interior and exterior of the cars, while continuing our research into their history and the reasons they were parked there,” Mettetal says.
Renovation and Restoration
The train interior is now being renovated by the French architect Maxime d’Angeac.
Over the next two years, Accor’s Orient Express team tracked down the owner of the Małaszewicze carriages. They also found four additional carriages parked in other countries, including Germany and Switzerland. Accor has signed a purchase agreement for a total of 17 cars, including 12 sleeping cars, a restaurant, three lounges and a van. The carriages were then transported by police convoy through Europe to France.
Fast forward to today and Accor’s Orient Express group has big plans for the rediscovered carriages. The aim is that from 2024 the cars will run on a route from Paris to Istanbul, a renewed version of the Nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express.
The carriages are currently being renovated by Parisian architect Maxime d’Angeac, who tells DailyExpertNews Travel that the “once in a lifetime” project was the kind that “you can’t refuse.”
The carriages will carry passengers again in 2024.
The interiors of the rediscovered carriages include Art Deco marquetry panels by English decorators Morrison and Nelson, as well as glass panels by French craftsman René Lalique. The first time d’Angeac saw the existing interiors, he said he felt “real emotion.”
D’Angeac recognizes that the original Orient Express was known in its day as the pinnacle of luxury, comfort and design. He wants the refurbished carriages to live up to that reputation.
“Accor’s ambition is to restore and rebuild the same kind of myth and legend, and to have an exceptional train,” he says.
Renovating century-old carriages is not easy, adds d’Angeac, the interior is smaller than what the modern traveler would expect. Historic assets must be preserved, but modern comfort and security must also be integrated.
New technology and methods will be used where necessary, 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 finished his PhD, but he remains fascinated by the Orient Express, especially the carriages he tracked down on YouTube. He is now also Accor’s heritage and culture director at the Orient Express.
“These cars have a rich history, from their construction in the 1920s to their rediscovery,” says Mettetal. “It would be very interesting to follow their entire journey, crossed countries and cities over all those years.”
Top photo credit: Xavier Antoinet
Top photo credit: Xavier Antoinet