That the train known for decades as the Orient Express still operates today often comes as a surprise to people who might have assumed that, like old-school luxury cruises and leisurely dirigible flights across the Atlantic, this vestige of a vastly different time must have vanished years ago. But the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as it is officially known, continues to run along many of the same routes that made it so famous so many decades ago, visiting places as far-flung as London, Paris, Venice, Rome, Budapest, Dresden, Prague, Innsbruck and (of course) Istanbul.
Here, LIFE recalls the Orient Express of the last century through photographs made by Jack Birns in 1950 — wonderfully evocative, atmospheric pictures from a time when phrases like “the Iron Curtain” and “communist Bulgaria” were not only encountered in history books, but in newspaper headlines and in daily conversation.
A September 1950 issue of LIFE, in which some of the photos in this gallery first appeared, described the Orient Express of the middle part of the last century thus:
To mystery lovers there is no more romantic train in the world than the Orient Express, which runs between Paris and Eastern Europe. The white-haired lady spy of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes rode the Orient Express, and the crime of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Calais Coach took place on it. Legend has built the train into a vehicle for skullduggery. But there is, in fact, good basis for its reputation. Only last February, on the Orient Express near Salzburg, Austria, Eugene Karpe, the U.S. naval attaché friend of [prominent American businessman later jailed for espionage in Hungary] Robert Vogeler, fell or was pushed to his death under mysterious circumstances.
The Istanbul train is called the Simplon-Orient because it uses the Simplon Tunnel to pass through the Alps. Americans cannot go all the way as they cannot get visas for Communist Bulgaria, and luxury accommodations are now more limited than in the 1930s. But . . . the trip is still a fascinating ride through a secretive world of diplomats and refugees. It also provides a look at fringes of the Iron Curtain which can be had no other way.