For their last stop in Greece aboard the Orient Express, James Bond, Tatiana Romanova and Darko Kerim stop in the historic city of Thessaloniki.
They finished their dinner as the train pulled into the hideous modern junction of Thessaloniki.
Ian Fleming wrote From Russia With Love in 1956. At that time, the train would still have pulled into the “old” station at Thessaloniki. However, the “new” railway station had been under construction since the 1930’s, though it didn’t go into service until 1961.
Fleming likely saw the building in a state similar to this and was not pleased with the future.
From Thessaloniki, the Orient Express crossed the border into Yugoslavia, where tragedy hits.
As James Bond, Darko Kerim and Tatiana Romanova continue their passage aboard the Orient Express in From Russia With Love, they pass through these two stations.
The names of both stations are spelled differently than how Fleming wrote them. Pythion station marks the border between Turkey and Greece and is the only rail connection between the two countries. The station sits in Greece. Alexandroupolis (or Alexandroupoli) station is about 70 miles south (109km) south, following the Greek/Turkish border fairly closely.
Chapter 23 opens with
Hot coffee from the meagre little buffet at Pithion, (there would be no restaurant car until midday), a painless visit from the Greek customs and passport control, and then the berths were folded away as the train hurried south towards the Gulf of Enez at the head of the Aegean.
The station is similar in appearance to the Uzunköprü station and to the Alexandroupolis station (further below).
The Alexandroupolis station is described thusly:
They were still arguing when the train ground to a halt in the sun-baked, fly-swarming station of Alexandropolis. Bond opened the door into the corridor and the sun poured in across a pale mirrored sea that married, almost without horizon into a sky the colour of the Greek flag.
The threesome has lunch in the restaurant car and see the enemy agent, out on the platform, buying sandwiches and beer from a buffet on wheels.
It’s fun to see so many places described by Ian Fleming in his novels still standing today and looking very much like when he (and James Bond) saw them.
After departing Sirkeci the night before, James Bond, Darko Kerim and Tatiana Romanova arrive at the last station in Turkey before entering Greece. Fleming writes that the train stops with a “sigh of hydraulic brakes” at Uzunköprü station. This was one of his few factual errors as he wrote in a letter that “I have also been severely reprimanded for having provided, in my last book, the Orient Express with hydraulic brakes instead of vacuum ones.”
As James Bond looks out at the station, this is what he sees.
It was a typical Balkan wayside station – a facade of dour buildings in over-pointed stone, a dusty expanse of platform, not raised, but level with the ground so that there was a long step down from the train, some chickens pecking about and a few drab officials standing idly, unshaven, not even trying to look important.
You can see how accurate Fleming’s description was in the picture above. At this station, two M.G.B. men are tossed off the train, the first one, unnamed after having his ticket swiped by Kerim, and the second, a Kurt Goldfarb is taken off after attempting to bribe the conductor after his ticket and passport could not be located. They are taken across the platform into the station through the door marked “Polis.”
James Bond and Tatiana Romanova agree to meet for the 9:00pm departure of the Orient Express, They would’ve met at Sirkeci station. Ian Fleming had been there, and clearly was not impressed.
The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul’s main station. The trains on the other lines were engineless and unattended – waiting for tomorrow. Only Track No. 3 and its platform throbbed with the tragic poetry of departure.
Sirkeci station was in fact, a point of pride for all of Turkey. It had been designed by August Jachmund, a German trained Prussian architect who was heavily influenced by Ottoman architecture. He wanted to create a fusion of East and West, with Constantinople (Istanbul) being the gateway to the Orient. It was were the West ended and the East began. Sirkeci station also was the last stop on the route of the Orient Express.
Here are some further shots of the station, as it would’ve appeared to James Bond.
High above the guichet, near the ceiling of the station, the minute hand of the big illuminated clock jumped forward an inch and said ‘Nine’.
(A guichet is the pickup window.)
Fleming’s reference to the “cheaply architectured burrow” may have only referred to the platform, as the main terminal is impressive, inside and out.
The station still stands and there is a restaurant and a museum inside the old terminal.
For a fantastic look at the route of the Orient Express through Turkey in 1950, check this feature on the work by LIFE photographer Jack Birns. (including the previous two photos above)
Note: We will examine various aspects of the route of the Orient Express, stations, cars, tunnels, etc in future posts.
The Dénouement of From Russia With Love takes place aboard the famous Orient Express train. James Bond and Tatiana Romanova board this train in Istanbul, and take it all the way to Dijon. There were several actual trains operating on the route.
The historic and famous Orient Express was not a brand of train, but rather a route that stretched from Istanbul to Paris. It was famous for the great luxury put into many of the carriages in a time when railway travel was the most common method of covering great distances.
Even by the time of the events of From Russia With Love, rail travel was dying out, as Fleming even noted in the opening of the chapter. He says though that “three times a week” the Orient Express was still offering the service from Istanbul to Paris.
Through Bond’s eyes, Fleming gives us some detail of the train as the waits for Tatiania.
The heavy bronze cipher on the side of the dark blue coach said, COMPAGNIE INTERNATIONALE DES WAGON-LITS ET DES GRANDS EXPRESS EUROPEENS.
Translated, that is the International Sleeping-Car Company or literally, The International Company sleepers (and European Grands Express) This was the company with produced the sleeping cars used on many of the most luxurious trains around the world. Fleming notes another detail of the exterior of the train car.
Another details on the side of the car is the destination sign:
Above the cipher, fitted into metal slots, was a flat iron sign that announced, in black capitals on white, ORIENT EXPRESS, and underneath, in three lines:
James Bond gazed vaguely at one of the most romantic signs in the world.
I couldn’t find a match for the sign that Fleming describes ( you can see above that this sign says “Milano” not Milan.) but you get the idea of the format of the sign here.
For some more helpful information and photos, you can look at these links. We’ll have much more on the Orient Express in the coming weeks.
In describing the wine as a “burgundy” Fleming is referring to its color, a deep rich red, likely from either the Öküzgözü (“ox eye”) grape or the Boğazkere (translates to “throat burner”) grape. The latter produces a strong bodied red wine with very rich and strong aromas of dried red fruits, and spices, and is said to pair very well with red meat kebabs.
When James Bond first meets Darko Kerim in From Russia With Love, the Head of Station T gets him settled.
He pushed over a flat white box of cigarettes and Bond sat down and took a cigarette and lit it. It was the most wonderful cigarette he had ever tasted – the mildest and sweetest of Turkish tobacco in a slim long oval tube with an elegant gold crescent.
From Bond, who as we know, is very particular about his cigarettes, this is the highest possible praise.
What else? Cigarettes? Smoke only these. I will have a few hundred sent up to your hotel. They’re the best. Diplomates. They’re not easy to get. Most of them go to the Ministries and the Embassies.
There have been several brands of cigarettes (and cigars) called Diplomate or Diplomat, Fleming doesn’t say which one is being referenced here, though the Romanian/Bulgarian brand seems the most likely.
When James Bond first visits the office of Darko Kerim in From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming gives us a look around. Behind Kerim’s chair hangs an Oriental tapestry, and then on the walls on either side are framed images.
In the centre of the right-hand wall hung a gold-framed reproduction of Annigoni’s portrait of the Queen.
Pietro Annigoni was an Italian portrait painter, who was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers to paint the portrait above. The Queen is shown wearing the dark cloak of the Order of the Garter.
Opposite, also imposingly framed, was Cecil Beaton’s war-time photograph of Winston Churchill looking up from his desk in the Cabinet Offices like a contemptuous bulldog.
This photo was taken just as the Battle of Britain had subsided, but with The Blitz well underway. Beaton was very familiar to Fleming, as a frequent guest of Noel Coward’s in Jamaica. Fleming again managed to work one of his friends into the plot of his book.
When James Bond is being driven through Istanbul from his hotel, the Krystal Palas to meet with Darko Kerim for the first time, he looks at the scenery around him, which he feels is marred somewhat.
It should have been the Arabian Nights, but to Bond, seeing it first above the tops of trams and above the great scars of modern advertising along the river frontage, it seemed a once beautiful theatre-set that modern Turkey had thrown aside in favour of the steel and concrete flat-iron of the Istanbul-Hilton hotel, blankly glittering behind him on the heights of Pera.
At the time of Ian Fleming’s writing, the Hilton Istanbul was new, having opened in 1955. Fleming had stayed there in that opening year, when he traveled to Istanbul as part of a delegation for an Interpol conference. It was a stay in which Fleming witnessed mob violence first hand.
When Bond meets Kerim, the latter asks him how he likes his hotel, noting he was surprised that Bond chose the Palas, as it is “little better than a disorderly house.” Bond replies that he just didn’t “didn’t want to stay at the Istanbul-Hilton or one of the other smart places.”