Category Archives: Travel

Posts about our own travels along the Orient Express route.

A New York Family in Venice 1923

In this charming home movie, a family catch a gondola ride in Venice while the the narrator, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, at  the ripe age of 89 years, gazes in wonder at her 3-year old self. In passing she speculates on the likely damp nature of the cellars in Venice. Clearly a native born New Yorker, it would be heresy to imagine a whole city without cellars.

The fashions are wonderful, and Venice has aged gracefully in the intervening decades. San Marco Square and the Rialto bridge look the same as they do today but with fewer tourists thronging the narrow ways.

We found it moving to look at the very canals and alleys where the investigators will run in such terror in our fictional visit to Venice.

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Sacred Spaces, and Why They Scare Us

Once aboard the Horror on the Orient Express the intrepid investigators should seize the chance to explore the many  famous cathedrals en route.  Not only do these cathedrals husband thousands of years of history, but in several cities they hold valuable clues to the mystery at hand.  Besides, climbing the bell towers of Europe is one way to keep fit and allow the fleet of foot to outrace, if not the ravening Cthulhoid monstrosity, then at least their less fleet friends.

Notre Dame Dragon

Dragon carving from Notre Dame, Paris [Europe 2010]

Cathedrals are also vast and spooky spaces. They are deliberately built on an inhuman scale to impress the faithful with their insignificance in the sight of God. If the Cathedral is in any way wealthy it will be packed with tombs, statues, mosaics, alter screens and carvings, gargoyles and effigies,  crypts and relics,  all of which can be used by Keepers to instill a few harmless horrors in their players. It keeps them alert, gets the heart pumping, and does them no end of good.

Interior of Aya Sofia, Istanbul [Source: Europe 2010]

Interior of Aya Sofia, Istanbul [Europe 2010]

The Horror on the Orient Express takes place in winter, a time of early darkness, and general gloom. The shadows clustering in the nave, and thickening amid the vaults of the ceiling far overhead, may indeed be caused by the dwindling daylight, or  perhaps something more sinister.  Do the investigators wish to wait and find out? That flapping sound from the bell tower is probably just a flag blowing in the wind. Does some intrepid soul wish to climb up, and see for themselves?

Notre Dame interior [Source: Europe 2010]

Interior of Notre Dame, Paris [Europe 2010]

The writer par excellence who evoked the horror of the sacred space was M.R. James. A Cambridge don, he wrote a mere thirty ghost stories. He is the writer to read if you seek an imp in a Cathedral close,  a demon guarding an Abbot’s treasure  or a devil-haunted vicarage. The antithesis of Lovecraft, M.R. James wrote in spare, erudite prose. His ghosts are glimpsed only in snatches, generally as his terrified narrator is running for their life and sanity. His haunts are utterly malevolent. Sometimes they hunt a murderer, or avenge a theft. More often their vindictiveness is attracted  by accident. The hapless hero of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You my Lad’ simply blows an old whistle and is hunted by a terrible figure “with an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen”, while the luckless protagonist of ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ draws supernatural ire merely by making a very unfortunate choice in wall-paper.

“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” [Source: Dream Quest magazine, G.W. Thomas]

The stories of M.R. James are very adaptable to Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in England and the Continent, featuring as they do a cast of bookish dons and antiquarian  scholars. The only problem in plotting these stories as scenarios lies in their inscrutable malevolence. There is often simply no way to fend off the haunt. In other words, no way to save the haunted.


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Orient Express, Guangzhou

A menu to remember

This train arrives in the most unexpected destinations.

Christian is one of our playtesters, but he is currently away for a month while travelling in Hong Kong and China. He just emailed us: “While missing the games back in Melb, I’m currently eating in the ‘Orient Express’ in Guangzhou!”

What did he eat? “It’s French cuisine – owner is a French guy. It’s located in the old French concession on Shamian island as Guangzhou used to be quite colonised like Shanghai.”

The Orient Express: wherever you go, there it is.

The dining car

The dining car

Paris via Guangzhou

Paris via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

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Revisiting Venice I – The City

So Mark’s play-testers have survived Venice, and are on to Trieste. As one player astutely observed, the real hero of the scenario was Venice herself.

I’ve re-visited Venice both in metaphor and in reality. I hadn’t been to the city when I wrote the scenario twenty odd-years ago. I had read John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, and I had always vowed to visit before I was thirty. I managed it, just.

Before I left my mother gave me a wonderful gift, picked up in a second hand bookshop, E.V. Lucas’s A Wanderer in Venice. E.V. Lucas wrote his guidebook to Venice in 1914. Aside from the Austrians no longer sunbathing  on the sands of the Lido, his lively tome is still an excellent guide. I could retrace his steps, see what he had seen, and count the winged lions along the canals at his side.

Lucas and Norwich generously gave me their Venice and their views still colour mine today. It was a city born of the printed word and pictured firmly in my imagination before I ever saw it in reality. And unlike most visions born in this way Venice was even more beautiful than I imagined.

Sixteen years later I re-visited Venice, this time with Mark. Venice is slowly sinking into its marsh. It had sunk several more centimetres by then, so at high tide St Mark’s Square was awash and the sea crept into the entry of the basilica.

St Marks at High Tide

St Marks at high tide

The city seemed to be losing the fight against two equally remorseless foes: salt water and tourists (of which I was one). Its beauty was all the more heartbreaking. The atmosphere of this city is unique. At night all is quiet and dark, with only the lights reflecting on the canal water.

Venice canal at night

Venice at night

Mark in Venice at night

Who is that figure lurking in the Venetian darkness? Oh, it is only Mark.

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Sirkeci Station

So you may have been wondering about our header photo. It is Sirkeci station, the grand terminus of the Orient Express. This photo is from a trip that Mark and I took along the train route in 2010 from London to Istanbul to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our writing about the train.

Istanbul's Sirkeci station 2010

Istanbul’s Sirkeci station 2010

Let’s face it, most big city train stations are approached through industrial estates. Sirkeci has to be one of the best situated stations in the world. To my mind its only rival is Venice’s Santa Lucia, where the unsuspecting first-time visitor walks out of the terminal to find the sea lapping at the edge of the station piazza. The sea! Will you look at that? Okay, it’s actually the Grand Canal, but it still smells pretty salty and really cements the impression of Venice as a city built on water. I think Istanbul and Venice are two cities that are best approached by train.

Venice Grand Canal 2010

Venice Grand Canal 2010

The Istanbul train enters the city along the shore of the Sea of Marmosa. The tracks pass Istanbul’s land walls – never breached, ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind a short history lesson – and still mammoth in ruin.

Istanbul Land Walls 2010

Istanbul Land Walls 2010

Then the train passes around the Golden Horn along the Bosporus, passing a jaw-dropping  array of beautiful buildings, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Istanbul’s apartment buildings pile up over the surrounding hills. It is a breath-taking entrance, even when bleary-eyed in the morning after a day and a night on a ramshackle yet lovable old train, including standing in line after midnight for an entry visa at the Turkish border.

Sirkeci station was built in the 1880s and according to the guidebook is one of the most famous examples of the European Orientalism school of architecture. Apparently is also holds a train museum, which Nick and Meghan visited on their research trip but we somehow missed. Instead, we found this oddly pathetic train, stalled out front the station forever, but never investigated further.

This train is not going anywhere

This train is not going anywhere

From Sirkeci station, if you turn right you cross the Galata Bridge to the Pera Palace hotel, beloved of the wealthy Orient Express passengers. If you turn left you’re in the heart of the Sultanahmet district. There you’ll find yourself slapped down in the middle of all that gobsmacking architecture you glimpsed from the train; the Blue Mosque, the Archaeological Museum, the Aya Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. If you keep going, assuming you can walk past the Basilica Cistern (and who’s going to resist going down to peek at an ancient  spooky columned cistern full of dark water and giant carp) you will trip over the Serpent Column and run smack into the last standing wall of the Hippodrome. Seldom has one train station offered entrance to so much.

Sirkeci station is at the heart of all of the scenarios in the new Horror on the Orient Express; the investigators will arrive or depart from the station in the Gaslight, 1920s and modern eras. There are some evocative departure scenes in the classic 1974 and superior 2010 versions of Murder on the Orient Express. Alas, we flew home to Australia from the charmless airport instead.

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