Hubert Burda Media

All Aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

A sweeping ride from Venice to Oxfordshire via the legendary luxury train showcases a rich tapestry of cinematic references.

Manuel vecchina has ushered me to a far corner of Piazza San Marco because he wants to share a secret about Venice. 

There’s a distinct difference in the city, Vecchina whispers, between what’s imagined and what is real, and he then begins to detail a scene from the Silvio Soldini-directed Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani) from 2000, in which the filmmaker latches on to this very notion. 

In this scene, Soldini points his camera at the film’s star Licia Maglietta, but the close-up shot – looking straight into her dark sunglasses – means the audience is actually watching daily life in the square seen through reflections from the shop-front glass into which she is staring. 

“What you are seeing is not real – it is a reflection,” says Vecchina. “I love the fact that the director is telling us this about Venice. People come here to escape reality and for Venetians a place like San Marco is not real, it is more a reflection, in this case of the past.” 

Luckily there’s an aperol spritz close at hand, and a long sip helps – somewhat – to get my head around that notion. But a sense of mystery is also what Venice is all about and why this ancient city has long been a favourite setting for filmmakers as much as it is a destination for travellers. 

Walk the streets, cruise the canals, and cinematic history surrounds you here, too – Venice was, after all, home to the world’s first-ever film festival in 1932 – and Vecchina is sharing some of it with me as he takes me on a private tour. 

Vecchina, a sometime film critic and producer, also lends his talents to guests at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, that deliciously decadent Venetian institution that is itself steeped in stories about film – from the fact, yes, that George Clooney is a frequent stayer and the guest list has over the decades been graced by everyone from Sir Laurence Olivier and Sophia Loren to Johnny Depp and Uma Thurman. 

The beautiful Belmond Hotel Cipriani’s Oro restaurant terrace

The Belmond group has graciously flown me in for a week’s tour of three of their European offerings – from the Cipriani, it’s on to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express before ending in the Oxfordshire countryside at chef Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. A modern-day version of the Grand Tour, if you like, that pastime made popular from the 1600s to the 1800s among a certain class, and one that was supposed to provide both the ultimate in indulgence and in education. 

And, for this film freak, the experience proves exactly that. 

It begins with cocktails at the Cipriani’s Gabbiano Bar, as head barman Walter Bolzonella is asked (many times) to offer some gossip about the George Clooney-Amal

Alamuddin wedding that the hotel helped host in 2014. But discretion is assured here and all that’s offered is praise for the heart-throb – and for his own cocktail-making abilities. Clooney – with Bolzonella’s help – devised a liquid tribute to his mother here, La Nina’s Passion (passion-fruit juice, elderberry-flower liqueur and Franciacorta Brut Cuvée). 

For inside information, Vecchina proves a far more willing source, and one of the beauties of touring the city by foot with a local is that they know instinctively how to skirt the crowds. “We’re like rats,” Vecchina laughs. “Shadows in the day, and we gather in groups at night.” 

We stop to refuel at Pasticceria Tonolo in Dorsoduro district, a favourite haunt for locals that sells the best pastries in Venice, and we talk at length about films shot in Venice, both the great and the not so good. He points out the houses rented by the stars – erstwhile couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and Woody Allen among them – as we wind our way through the alleys. 

A stroll through Belmond Hotel’s garden is a relaxing joy

Nearby sits the Chiesa di San Barnaba, featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), but (again!) messing with reality as the building is portrayed in the film as a biblioteca (library) not a church, and at one stage Harrison Ford emerges from a nearby manhole that in the film leads to a tunnel but, Vecchina scoffs, actually leads straight into the water. Tricks of the trade, says Vecchina. 

The building is also featured in the blissful Summertime (1955) by director David Lean – for many locals the most romantic film ever set here, with Katharine Hepburn as the bored middle-aged tourist who finds love (and the dapper Rossano Brazzi) while on holiday. 

Not too far away in Dorsoduro you’ll find the majestic San Nicolò dei Mendicoli church, one of the city’s most wondrous sites with its famed Luigi Benfatto canvasses and its history as a safe haven for the poor. But this is a building turned utterly sinister by what certainly must be the most chilling depiction of Venice’s darker side in the Nic Roeg-directed thriller Don’t Look Now

And if you stand on the Accademia Bridge you can – for a moment – close your eyes and make believe you’re Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale (2006) and you’re giving the bad guys the runaround. Open your eyes again and from here you can see the Palazzi Barbaro, home at one stage or another to the likes of Claude Monet and Henry James and used for the famed TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in 1981 (still the best TV ever made, to those of a certain generation). Its doors are most often closed to the public but, Vecchina suggests, you can get inside when the city hosts its Biennale this year (from May to November) and its owners rent the whole place out for exhibitions. 

The extravagant dining room of Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

All aboard 

Now, I must admit to having history with the Orient Express. Years ago, having stumbled into Venice out of a horrible overnight cross-Europe train trip in the early hours, I walked straight into a group of well-dressed and delighted travellers readying themselves for the overnight journey back to London on the world’s most famous train. 

And, through crusty, sleepless eyes, I hated every one of them for it. 

Today, I’m sitting in my cabin on the very same train as curious eyes peek in my window and I’m feeling as smug as I ever have before. You’re greeted like royalty – and afforded the same privileges – from the moment you step on the platform at Venice till the moment you walk off in London. 

The experience here is a little over 24 hours of pure indulgence, a retreat back to a time when travel was often taken simply for the pleasure of it all. 

You’re welcomed into your cabin with a glass of prosecco and then, well, you bide your time watching the world go by – from the spectacular Gotthard Pass and into the Alps, and on through the rolling fields of France – as you wait for your turn in the dining car. 

The food (for dinner, veal loin and braised knuckle carpaccio with rosemary Colombo sauce taking the lead across six courses; fresh lobster, collected live during a brief stop in Paris, is served up for lunch the next day) is suitably spectacular. It must be taken dressed, as one might expect, to the nines. But I want mostly to talk about Murder on the Orient Express – which found fame first as a classic Agatha Christie novel and later in the Sidney Lumet-directed film of 1974 that simply further embedded this unique train into the collective conscious. 

Enjoy a delicious dinner on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

For most passengers it is the experience of the Orient Express you had before you actually experience it yourself. It leads me to taking to a stool and talking to bar manager Walter Nisi and being offered the drink he created to pay tribute to Christie’s tale – the Guilty 12. The mystery here is the ingredients, and the test is to try and decipher what they are. No one ever has, says Nisi, and if you do, he might even treat you to a trip on the Orient Express. 

Train travel oftentimes allows you to relax into conversation with complete strangers – add a few cocktails and that’s certainly what you’ll feel like doing (whether those strangers are receptive or not). I eventually retreat back to my cabin, not exactly sure of the time, and am lying there gazing out into the European night when I remember Nisi’s words: “After a few of these Guilty 12s, you may wake up thinking the mystery is working out what happened the night before.” 

Birds of a Feather 

When you arrive at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the Oxfordshire countryside the first question might be how it was that a Frenchman – as pure as one can get – could create such a quintessentially English property. 

That the food here – given Blanc’s Michelin-sparkled history – is a remarkable mix of Gallic and British traditions should be taken as a given. Most guests come to lounge around in the quirkily and individually themed rooms, or sprawl fireside before a dinner that might feature canard rôti, mures, blettes (“roasted Goosnargh duck, blackberries, our garden chard”). 

The rustic, elegant bathroom of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the Oxfordshire countryside

You can take a city tour to work up the appetite, and as we are walking the hallowed grounds of Oxford University we are shown where Daniel Radcliffe also wandered as Harry Potter – and told that sadly, today we could not enter the University Church of St Mary the Virgin because the Transformers franchise was making The Last Knight and much mischief within its walls. 

We’re told also that Tom Cruise was a recent guest at Le Manoir, here shooting The Mummy and emerging mostly only for night shoots set in town and around the district. 

But the highlight of the stay is when Clive Wheatley of Wheatley Birds of Prey raptor centre appears, alongside wife Jayne, wearing a smart tie that features peregrine falcons. Le Manoir’s grounds feature a wondrous and completely English country garden and an ever-expanding apple orchard and Blanc encourages his guest to stroll around and talk to his ground staff about what has been planted and what is being planned. 

Wheatley is here for a bird of prey experience that allows us to pet a barn owl and keep our fingers well away from the falcons. But we get to fly a hawk within the grounds, and it lands on an outreached (and safely gloved) hand and takes the breath away with its grace and power when it does so. 

And we get up close when Wheatley flies his peregrine in a paddock next to the orchard. It immediately brings to mind that most English of films, Ken Loach’s magnificent Kes (1969), and it leaves everyone gaping with a pure sense of awe. 

Mathew Scott flew to Venice courtesy of Qatar Airways’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner and was spoilt rotten inside the Al Mourjan Business Lounge during his stopover in Doha. He wants the world to know Qatar Airways has developed a global network of more than 150 destinations, covering Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific and the Americas with a modern fleet of passenger and cargo aircraft.