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Italian train restoration experts bring the legendary luxury railroad back up to standards to feed nostalgic travel buffs

Orient Express (D McG)

SANTHIÀ - The biting chill of Magliola di Santhià"s open-air workshop masks the warm and romantic interior. Here, encircled by the rice fields in this small northern town near Vercelli, the Orient Express — the famed train immortalized by Agatha Christie, with its signature dark blue cars and velvet seats —has rolled into Santhià to begin its return to former glory.

This slice of history – and nostalgia -- comes with several layers. In 1982, the Venice Simplon Orient Express gave new life to the legend of the Orient Express, which had carried the rich and powerful, princes and 007s across Europe in style since the 1880s. Having acquired and restored actual vintage cars from the heyday of the Paris-Istanbul line, the company offered the chance for taste the experience of bygone luxury train travel.

But now the fancy old cars are in serious need of new polish, and the London-based company has entrusted the restoration of the entire convoy to this small-town company. Magliola's team of local train technicians and furniture artisans will be working through February on 14 train cars with their white roofs and tobacco scented interiors. This is part of a larger restoration which will last from March to October of 2011 before the convoy returns to serving passengers seeking the nostalgia tours.

For the next three months, this firm specialized in the restoration of locomotives, will transform itself into a kind of beauty farm for the grand princess of luxury trains. "There is a lot of work to be done and it is going to require a skilled work force," says Giorgio Cabrio, who is overseeing the work for Magliola. "These are luxury cars that need to be treated with the utmost detail by highly trained technicians."

Beyond the trained mechanical engineers, the job requires experienced furniture restorers, who must bring the right sheen to the interiors of red and green tea colored velvet, silver finish and carriage embroidery. Around one dozen workers will be dedicated solely to working on the Orient. Magliola is set to replace all the pipes, adjust the furnishings, clean all the velvet and the carpets, refurbish the bathrooms with marble counter tops, wash the exterior coaches, polish all the badges and license plates that are gold and silver.

Specific mechanical work will be dedicated to the motors and the wheels. The motors will be removed and tuned up, while all the wheels and the rolling mechanisms of each car will undergo a complete check-up. "The train favors one side over the other, so we have to rebalance everything," says Cabrio.

The passion for restoring the past can be traced to James B. Sherwood, founder and chairman of Orient Express Hotels Ltd, who three decades ago tracked down the original 17 authentic cars for restoration. The usual itinerary these days is London-Venice, though once a year travelers can make the six-day trip to experience the original route: Paris-Budapest-Bucharest-Istanbul. The next departure is slated for Sep. 2, 2011, with a ticket going for 3,460 euros.

But for many it's worth it. This vintage train that was the setting for Agatha Christie's most famous mystery novel now carries a unique mix of history and charm, luxury, power and technology. Within each of the 50-ton cars, every minor detail counts: the carpet that climbs up the steps or the glint of light reflecting off the silver fixtures on the walls. There are the halls, the single bunks and the suites, the restaurants with renowned chefs but also room for tea and, of course, a good old-fashioned chat. What is currently covered by a wisp of dust is in reality counter of the shop where travelers can buy jewelry and luxury watches during the trip, to share a smile with your wife or girlfriend, or perhaps a glance at fleeting love.

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