How a train fan solved a real life Orient Express mystery

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(CNN) – French railway lover Arthur Mattel was watching a video on YouTube when he noticed some parked trains in the corner of the frame.

The cars associated with the Orient Express, a popular long-distance trans-Europe passenger train synonymous with 20th century travel glamor, were painted a distinctive night-blue color.

Mattel was not only a fan of the railways, he was working on a PhD on the history of the Orient Express. His research involves trying to find out how many original Orient Express trains still exist today, where they are located, who owns them, and in what condition they are.

He knew that some vintage trains were in service – such as the one that operates the Belmond Orient Express route – and were on display at other museums. But he thought a lot of cars were scattered around the world, forgotten.

Mattel spent most of 2015 hunting these abandoned trains, scrolling through archives, talking to railway fans on message boards, and combing through online videos. Often, he would look for a key that looked as promising as a blue car in a YouTube video.

Mattel paused at the video and examined the frame closely. The video was uploaded anonymously and did not contain further information. But it was possible to create a station name on the screenshot: Małaszewicze.

Through Google, Mattatel discovered that there are many places in Poland called Malaszeviz. She looked over every spot on Google Maps, switching to 3D view and zooming in, looking for their special blue cars with white roofs.

And then, Bingo, he found what he was looking for: a 13-carriage train that looked suspicious like the Orient Express, parked at the Malazeviz station on the border between Poland and Belarus.

Speaking with CNN Travel Today, Mettatel says this was a “magical” moment.

“Thirteen cars at once!” It booms. “It’s like finding a treasure.”

Tracking down the train

While researching online, Arthur Mattel first saw the cars of the Vintage Orient Express train.

While researching online, Arthur Mattatel first saw the cars of the Vintage Orient Express train.

Xavier Antoinette

While it was an “incredible feeling” to see the train on Google, Mattel tried to manage his expectations, not sure why the trains were there, what condition they would be in and whether they would be moved since the satellite image was taken.

So he went to Malazeviz to check on them face to face.

Mattettel says he will never forget the moment he reached the Polish border, a photographer friend.

“After driving for hours to get there until we felt like we would find a train, we arrived at night at the active border zone,” says Mettatel.

Not only was it dark, the landscape was covered with snow. But the two men could still make blue carriages. Next to them was printed “Nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express”, the name of a 1970s private rail venture that used the original Orient Express car to transport passengers from Paris to Istanbul. Mattel and his friend rejoiced.

“It’s an indescribable feeling. We were looking at the purpose of our research, the train we saw through Google 3D View,” Mattettell recalls.

Because they were in the border zone, Mattatel and the photographer were told to leave as soon as possible by the police. The two returned the next morning, accompanied by Guillaume de Saint-Lager, a translator and Accor’s Orient Express offshoot vice president, who was also interested in inspecting the train.

As the sun rose, the group circled the carriages. Mettatel estimates they date back to the 1920s and 1930s and slept there for at least a decade.

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Mattettel says peeking inside the carriages was “a great moment for the historian.”

“All the decorations were intact and it felt like time was fixed,” he says, “there was almost no damage, just a waste of time.”

Nine of the 13 carriages were luxurious sleeping cars.

“We then continued our research into the history of the car and spent two full days documenting the entire interior and exterior of the car and why it was parked there,” says Mattettel.

Renewal and restoration

The interior of the train is now being renovated by French architect Maxim D'Angex.

The interior of the train is now being renovated by French architect Maxim D’Angex.

Xavier Antoinette

Over the next two years, Accor’s Orient Express team tracked the owner of the Malaszeviz trains. They also found four additional vehicles parked in other countries, including Germany and Switzerland. Accor negotiated purchase deals for a total of 17 cars, including 12 sleeper cars, a restaurant, three lounges and a van. The vehicles were then taken by a police convoy to France across Europe.

Go ahead fast today and there are grand plans for Accor’s Orient Express Group’s redesigned trains. The goal is that the car will operate on the Istanbul route from Paris to 2024, a redesigned version of the nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express.

The cars are currently being renovated by Paris-based architect Maxim D’Angek, who tells CNN Travel that the “once in a lifetime” project was “you can’t refuse.”

The trains are ready to transport passengers again in 2024.

The trains are ready to transport passengers again in 2024.

Xavier Antoinette

The interiors of the redesigned carriages include Art Deco Marquetry panels by English decorators Morrison and Nelson, as well as glass panels by French craftsman Renને Lalique. The first time D’NJK saw the existing interiors, he says he felt a “real feeling”.

D’Angek acknowledges that the original Orient Express was known in its era as the pinnacle of luxury, comfort and design. He wants renovated cars to live up to that reputation.

“Accor’s ambition is to restore and rebuild the same kind of legend, legend and get an exceptional train,” he says.

d’Angeac adds that, renovating centuries-old trains is not easy, the interior is smaller than the modern tourist expects. Historical heritage needs to be preserved, but modern amenities and security also need to be involved.

New technologies and methods will be used where appropriate, but D’Angek hopes tourists will not notice the touch of the 21st century.

“Our intervention should be timeless,” D’Angek puts it.

As for Mettal, he has completed his PhD, but he is fascinated by the Orient Express, especially the trains he tracks on YouTube. He is also now the Director of Orient Express Heritage and Culture at Accor.

“These cars have a rich history, from construction in the 1920s to their rediscovery,” says Mattettel. “It will be very interesting to recall their entire journey, the countries and cities they have crossed over so many years.”

Top Photo Credit: Xavier Antoinette

Top Photo Credit: Xavier Antoinette

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