Around 1900, the European elite wintered on the French Riviera. Discovered in the 19th century by the English aristocracy, the sunny Côte d'Azur attracted fashionable tourists from all over Europe. Too hot in summer, it was considered the ideal place to escape the rainy and chilly English or northern European winters.
A network of luxury trains — exclusively composed of first-class teak Wagons-Lits sleeping and dining cars — took wealthy travelers directly to the Riviera during the winter season. Not only from London and Paris, but also from Amsterdam, Berlin and even St. Petersburg.
by Arjan den Boer
In 1883 the first luxury Wagons-Lits train departed: the Orient Express. At the end of that year the second one followed as the Calais-Nice-Rome Express. It ran through Paris and Lyon to Marseille, and then along the French and Italian Riviera. It wasn't long before the Rome train was separated from the one to Nice and this way the Méditerranée Express was born in 1886.
The main target group were well-to-do Englishmen who arrived at Calais from the connecting channel ferries. In 28 hours they were transferred from London to Nice. Parisians were brought from the cold to the sun, while sleeping or dining, in only 18 hours.
The Méditerranée Express mainly ran on the PLM (Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée) railway. This is why the PLM company produced many posters about the luxury train, mostly created by its regular illustrator Rafael de Ochoa y Madrazo (1858-1935).
Wagons-Lits was advertising in Britain with the slgan 'Southwards in Search of the Sun'.
The Viennese elite and the nobility of the Habsburg Empire also liked to visit the Riviera. Wagons-Lits accommodated this in 1895 with the Wien-Nizza-Cannes Express, running daily in the winter.
Like today, the Riviera was also popular among wealthy Russians. For this reason the luxury train was extended in 1897 from Vienna to Warsaw as the St. Petersburg-Wien-Nizza-Cannes Express. The new name was a marketing trick: Russia used broad gauge, so passengers had to change trains at Warsaw.
Because of the frequent use by Russian grand dukes and Habsburg archdukes, the Nizza Express was known as the Train des Grand-Ducs.
At first the Vienna-Nice-Cannes Express had to detour via the Austrian State Railways, later on the faster Semmeringbahn was used.
Companies where picking up on the fame of the Petersburg-Cannes Express. An Agnesi olive oil ad pictured its dining car with lobster and olive oil on the tables.
Prussia initially blocked the 'hostile' Franco-Belgian Wagons-Lits. From 1896 onwards the company was allowed to call at Berlin. After the Nord Express to Brussels, Calais and Paris the Nord Süd Brenner Express was introduced. It ran via the Brennerbahn to Verona with through-coaches for Cannes.
From 1900 onwards the Riviera Express departed daily from Berlin in the winter season. In 28 hours this luxury train took passengers trough Frankfurt, Strasbourg, Lyon and Marseille to the French Riviera. On a PLM poster for the Riviera Express, dark Berlin was set against a sunny Monte Carlo.
In 1911 the Riviera Express was merged with the Lloyd Express to Genoa, where ships of the Norddeutscher Lloyd left for America, Egypt and Australia. The poster for the combined LLoyd and Riviera Express was remarkably modern compared to the ones by Rafael de Ochoa y Madrazo.
Apart from Germany, Riviera Express carriages left twice a week from The Hague and Amsterdam. People could also get on at Gouda, Utrecht and Arnhem for a direct trip to the Riviera. The German and Dutch coaches were combined at Frankfurt. Like the Germans it took the Dutch one day and night to the Mediterranean.
In the Netherlands, the carriages ran on the State Railways (SS). On a poster from this company, along with teak Wagons-Lits carriages, a Dutch SS No. 406 locomotive was depicted driving through southern French scenery. A curious scene, as locomotives were changed at every border!
Since autumn 1913 there was yet another option to travel from Holland to the Côte d'Azur without interruption. SS competitor HYSM had a sleeping car leaving from Amsterdam Central Station and The Hague. It ran through Belgium instead of Germany and was linked to the Mediterranée Express in Paris.
After only one winter season, World War I put an early end to the HYSM service, but it had yielded one of the most elegant Dutch railway posters ever, created by Willy Sluiter (1873-1949).
Around 1870 the Promenade de la Croisette was constructed, modeled on the Boulevard at Nice. Originally a palm-lined promenade, luxury palace hotels were built along the avenue in the first decade of the 20th century, including the Carlton.
Originally Cannes was just a simple fishing village. In 1834 British Baron and politician Henry Brougham was stranded here on his way to Italy. The location and climate pleased him well, and he decided to build a villa at Cannes. Other aristocrats followed and soon Cannes had a British enclave.
In 1863 Cannes was connected to Marseille by rail. In the following decade the PLM railway was extended to Nice, Monaco and Menton; an important boost for tourism. Around 1900 the Cannes railway station was the terminus of luxury trains coming from Italy and beyond, such as the St. Petersburg-Wien-Nizza-Cannes Express.
On Cap d'Antibes aristocrats from all over Europe erected luxury villas, including Dutch nobleman Hugh Hope Loudon, former governor of the Dutch East Indies. In 1867 he had Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opéra, built his villa 'Eilenroc' — an anagram of his wife's name Cornelie. The next owner turned the garden into a public park.
Antibes was known for its fortifications, built since the Middle Ages as protection against Moorish pirates. The fortress was perfected by Vauban in the 17th century. During urban expansions shortly before 1900 the strongholds were demolished; only some parts were saved. While a 1895 PLM poster still put the fortifications central, 15 years later a poster pointed out the many possibilities for walking.
Close to Antibes, the seaside resort of Juan-les-Pins arose in 1882. It used to be an idyllic pine forest with sandy beaches until it was 'discovered' by the British Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany. In 1883 Juan-les-Pins was given its own railway station.
Being the capital of the French Riviera, Nice was the principal destination of the various luxury trains. When the railway reached the city in 1864 Nice had just become French; until 1860 Nizza was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia (merged into Italy). Because the station was built across the Paillon river a new district emerged around it.
Nice had a great appeal to European royalty. Queen Victoria, the Belgian King Leopold II and the Russian Tsars Nicholas II and Alexander II stayed there regularly. The latter even founded a Russian Orthodox church at Nice.
In 1890, 22,000 guests were spending the winter in Nice. By 1910 their number had grown to 150,000.
In 1892 the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hôtels — a subsidiary of Wagons-Lits — built the grand Palace Hotel Riviera at Nice-Cimiez. In 1897 the nearby Excelsior Regina Palace Hotel opened, where Queen Victoria stayed. The smaller Mont Boron hotel was known for its views, as depicted on a PLM poster.
In the 19th century Monaco remained an independent principality, but it sold part of its territory to France, including Menton. Prince Charles III also wanted to take advantage of the emerging tourism by establishing a casino, which were banned in France. Together with a French businessman he managed to attract the European beau monde. The prince renamed the area around the casino after himself: Monte Carlo.
In 1897 PLM issued a Monaco poster created by Alfons Mucha, an Austrian artist working in Paris. His sumptuous Art Nouveau posters in fresh colors became so popular that they were stolen from the streets.
Since 1868 tourists from Nice, previously arriving by ship or coach, could travel to the Monte Carlo casino by train. Monaco and France signed a treaty about the railway, which was owned by the French PLM. Even today the station and the tracks belong to the French Railways.
Menton is the last town on the French Riviera before the Italian border. A 1861 publication by an English doctor made Menton into a popular health resort for tuberculosis sufferers. Wealthy English and Russian tourists came in their wake, for whom palaces, villas and hotels were erected.
Menton has a unique microclimate due to its wind-sheltered position behind the Alpes Maritimes. It is the only place in France where lemons grow. A 1898 PLM poster by Hugo d'Alesi shows a woman with a lemon basket on her head. On a later poster by Morel Tangry a similar woman is presented in a smaller size.
The railway from Marseille and Monaco reached Menton in 1869. A few years later it was extended to the Italian border, completing the Côte d'Azur railway. Its construction along the indented coastline had not been easy, requiring many tunnels and bridges.
Just across the Italian border lies Ventimiglia, a city dating back to Roman times. In 1872 the railway lines from Marseille and Genoa met here, not only making the city itself but also the French Riviera accessible from two directions. Ventimiglia thus became an important railway junction.
The Méditerranée and Riviera Expresses usually had their terminus here, while luxury trains coming from Austria and Italy entered France here. But only after an exchange of the locomotive, from Italian Strade Ferrate del Mediterraneo — merged into the Ferrovie dello Stato in 1905 — to the French PLM.
In 1882, ten years after its first station, Ventimiglia received a new terminal with a more international appeal. A steel and glass canopy was erected over the tracks. Given the climate, this was perhaps an aesthetic rather than a practical addition, just as at Cannes.
In 1914 World War I put an abrupt end to the belle époque. All luxury trains came to a standstill.
The Méditerrannée Express resumed service in 1920, having a completely new look from 1922 onwards. The teak carriages were replaced by steel ones, painted dark blue with gold lines. The train was soon called Train Bleu and new Art Deco-style posters were created.
The Wien-Nizza-Cannes Express was back in service from 1921 to 1939. The Riviera Express from Berlin and Amsterdam only returned in 1931 as the Riviera-Napoli-Express, with a new branch to Naples.
After World War II affordable tourist trains were introduced to a wide audience, such as the Sun Express from the Netherlands.
Nowadays it takes TGV trains only 5 hours from Paris to Nice on the LGV Méditerranée.
Posters and postcards of the Méditerranée and Riviera Express before 1914
Jean des Cars et Jean-Paul Caracalla, Le Train Bleu et les grands express de la Riviera, Paris 1988
Jürgen Klein und Albert Mühl, Reisen in Luxuszügen. Die Internationale Schlafwagen-Gesellschaft, Freiburg 2006
Jürgen Klein, Die Grandhotels der Internationale Schlafwagengesellschaft, Mönchengladbach 2012
Photorail, La Vie du Rail
Gallica, La bibliothèque numérique
Spoorwegmuseum/Geheugen van Nederland, Spoorwegen in beeld