What comes to mind when you hear the words “luxury rail travel”?
Me, I think of the Orient Express.
And the image that I have of the Orient Express is the one that’s featured in “Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express” – the pop-up attraction that’s currently showing at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.
Singapore is the exhibition’s first-ever stop outside of France, and thanks to the Arab World Institute (IMA) and Visionairs in Art, visitors will get a chance to see recreations of the elegant designs, experiences and journeys of the Orient Express from its heyday in the 1880s to 1930s, when the historic locomotive travelled through destinations like London, Paris, Venice, Istanbul, Baghdad, Cairo and more.
The good news? The exhibition is supposed to end in June, but it’s just been extended to 12 September 2021. 👏
A massive undertaking
When you hear from Lydie Blandeau, the CEO and founder of Visionairs in Art – the production company and museum consultancy behind “Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express” – you’ll appreciate the time, care and effort it took for the team to get this project off the ground and off to Singapore.
“What’s mind-blowing is the fact that we transported 100 tonnes of France’s national treasure, the original engine machine and Orient Express train carriages, to Singapore all the way from France during the COVID-19 period,” she says.
Not only that, but they’ve also brought in interactive displays, artefacts and other priceless objects too.
“Often when we go to museums or exhibitions, we are only able to see artefacts from a distance,” Lydie observes.
“At ‘Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express’, it is a privilege to walk inside the original train carriages that are over 100 years old. I was truly impressed by how the atmosphere, even the smell, made it feel like I had time-travelled. This is a very impressive element unique to all other museums or exhibitions.”
It is larger than life
So I guess I’m not the only one whose imagination runs wild whenever I think of how it must have been like as a passenger back then? 😊
I wonder what I would’ve done, and how I would’ve enjoyed the trip.
Well, Lydie has an idea. “On my journey, I would enjoy a dark chocolate bar and revel in the change of scenery, the luxurious ambience, and appreciate the unique mode of travel,” she admits.
“Since the Orient Express stops in many locations, it would be fascinating to speak to many people from other places, to hear the stories of their individual journeys on the train.”
It would be fascinating to taste the dishes too. 😉
“In addition to the exhibition, there is a unique luxury restaurant and café with a beautiful terrace in view of the grand 158-year-old locomotive,” she adds.
“Both have been curated by Yannick Alléno, a Michelin-starred French chef. The food is well-prepared day to day by Sebastien Lefort, Yannick’s right hand, with fresh premium ingredients that are flown in from France. This is also a challenge during the COVID-19 period.”
What’s more, “Our restaurant is a magical replica of a dining carriage, where you will experience the ambience and bespoke menus befitting the Orient Express era. I recommend dining in to further enhance your exhibition experience.”
Piece by piece
But who were the Orient Express’s passengers, anyway? And its makers?
The best way to find out is to either explore their memories or look at their things – and the exhibition has them in spades. Lydie shares her favourites:
#1 It’s personal
“As you walk through the train’s interior, you will find information on the different people who travelled on the Orient Express many years ago. This element of the exhibition helps give visitors a glimpse into history, and further emphasise the significance of the Orient Express as a mode of travel long ago.”
#2 It’s in the past
“The history of Georges Nagelmackers shows us the true beginning of the Orient Express and the amount of work and effort it took to make the idea a reality,” Lydie maintains. (A Belgian businessman and engineer, Georges is the founder of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the company that developed the Orient Express.)
“I personally enjoy this because it reminds me of the work and effort it took to make this exhibition a reality.”
#3 It’s branded
“In the exhibition, along with many artefacts, we uniquely feature vintage Louis Vuitton trunks that have been preserved from 1922 to 1923. For myself as a luxury brand lover, it is very intriguing to see the difference between modern and contemporary luxury design compared to vintage items.”
#4 Plus it’s kid-friendly
“If you are visiting the exhibition with kids, there is an adventurous activity book that will enhance their experience by promoting more interaction with the exhibition content,” she suggests.
“The questions in the activity book will prompt children to find the answers within the exhibition. Sometimes it can be hard for children to absorb lots of information when visiting museums or exhibitions. This is why the pedagogy book was created – to promote a more interactive, fun experience, which the parents will be happy to share.”
So which "destinations" or areas in the exhibition will you stop at? 😊
It all seems so long ago
And so far away in people’s memories. But having an exhibition like “Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express” still leaves us with lessons and insights that we can use in our own lives, and in the way we do things.
“Napoleon said, ‘Impossible is not French.’ Anything is possible if you are resilient and determined to make it happen,” Lydie stresses.
“Many people did not believe that we would be able to transport the Orient Express trains across the world and make this exhibition a reality in Singapore.” But they did, and the success of the exhibition (it is being extended till September) is proof.
On the bright side, though, it might make us feel hopeful and wistful about travel again. And treasure our own travel memories. (And maybe inspire us to organise our own travel mementos on our walls?) And not take it for granted.
“Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express” makes me look back at my journeys by train, and wish that I could relive them. But I can’t for now, so I’ll just contentedly settle for the Orient Express’s photos and interesting stories. 🛤