How a train fan solved a real Orient Express puzzle

(CNN) — French train enthusiast Arthur Mettetal was watching a video on YouTube when he noticed some parked carriages in the corner of the picture.

The carriages were painted a distinctive midnight blue hue once associated with the Orient Express, the famous long-distance trans-European passenger train synonymous with 20th-century travel glamour.

Mettetal wasn’t just a railroad fan, he did his doctorate on the history of the Orient Express. His research involved finding out how many original Orient Express carriages still exist today, where they were located, who owned them, and what condition they were in.

He knew that some old carriages were in service – like those that serve the Belmond Orient Express route – and others were on display in museums. But he assumed many of the cars were scattered and forgotten across the globe.

Mettetal spent most of 2015 chasing those abandoned train cars, scrolling through archives, talking to railroad fans on message boards, and browsing online videos. Every now and then he spotted a clue that looked promising, like the blue carriages in the YouTube video.

Mettetal paused the video and examined the image more closely. The video had been uploaded anonymously and there wasn’t much accompanying information. The screenshot only showed the name of one station: Małaszewicze.

Through Google, Mettetal discovered that there are several places in Poland called Małaszewicze. He looked at each location on Google Maps, switched to 3D view, and zoomed in to look for the distinctive blue, white-roofed carriages.

And then, bingo, he found what he was looking for: a 13-car train that looked suspiciously like the Orient Express was parked at a station in Małaszewicze on the Poland-Belarus border.

Mettetal told CNN Travel today it was a “magical” moment.

“Thirteen cars in one fell swoop!” he exclaims. “It’s like discovering treasure.”

Track the train

Arthur Mettetal first discovered the old Orient Express carriages while researching online.

Arthur Mettetal first discovered the old Orient Express carriages while researching online.

Xavier Antoinet

While it was “an incredible feeling” to discover the train on Google, Mettetal tried to manage his expectations, unsure why the carriages were there, what condition they might be in and if they had been moved, since the satellite image was taken.

So he traveled to Małaszewicze to check them out personally.

Mettetal says he will never forget the moment he arrived at the Polish border with a photographer friend in tow.

“After driving for hours to reach the place where we thought we would find the train, we arrived in an active border area at night,” says Mettetal.

Not only was it dark, the landscape was blanketed in snow. But the two men could still see the blue carriages. Printed on its side was “Nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express,” the name of a private railway company from the 1970s that used original Orient Express carriages 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, which we saw through Google’s 3D views,” Mettetal recalls.

Being in a border area, Mettetal and the photographer were soon ordered by the police to leave the premises. 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 subsidiary, who was also interested in inspecting the train.

Mettetal says it was very exciting to get into the wagons.

Mettetal says it was very exciting to get into the wagons.

Xavier Antoinet

As the sun rose, the group circled the carriages. Mettetal estimated they were from the 1920s and ’30s and rested there for at least a decade.

Mettetal says looking inside the carriages is 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, 9 were luxury sleepers.

“We then spent two full days documenting the entire interior and exterior of the cars while continuing our research into their history and why they were parked there,” says Mettetal.

Renovation and restoration

The train interiors are now being renovated by French architect Maxime d'Angeac.

The train interiors are now being renovated by French architect Maxime d’Angeac.

Xavier Antoinet

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

Fast forward to today, and Accor’s Orient Express group has big plans for the rediscovered carriages. The aim is for the cars to run on a Paris to Istanbul route from 2024, a redesigned version of the nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express.

The carriages are currently being renovated by Parisian architect Maxime d’Angeac, who tells CNN Travel that the “one off” project was the kind of thing “you can’t refuse”.

From 2024, the wagons are to carry passengers again.

From 2024, the wagons are to carry passengers again.

Xavier Antoinet

The interiors of the rediscovered carriages include Art Deco inlays by English decorators Morrison and Nelson and glass panels by French craftsman René Lalique. When d’Angeac first saw the existing interiors, he said he felt “real emotion”.

D’Angeac acknowledges that the original Orient Express was known in its era as the epitome of luxury, comfort and design. The converted wagons should live up to this reputation.

“Accor’s goal is to recreate and rebuild the same kind of myth, legend and have an exceptional train,” he says.

Renovating centuries-old carriages isn’t easy, adds d’Angeac, and interiors are smaller than what the modern traveler would expect. Historical values ​​must be preserved, but modern comfort and security must also be integrated.

New technologies and methods will be employed where appropriate, but d’Angeac hopes travelers won’t notice the 21st-century touch.

“Our intervention should be timeless,” says d’Angeac.

As for Mettetal, he’s finished his PhD, but he remains fascinated by the Orient Express, particularly the carriages he tracked down on YouTube. He is also now director of heritage and culture for the Orient Express at Accor.

“These cars have a rich history, from their construction in the 1920s to their rediscovery,” says Mettetal. “It would be very interesting to retrace their entire journey, countries and cities they have passed through over the years.”

Top image rights: Xavier Antoinet

Top image rights: Xavier Antoinet