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That the train known for decades as the Orient Express still operates today often comes as a surprise to people who might have assumed that, like old-school luxury cruises and leisurely dirigible flights across the Atlantic, this vestige of a vastly different time must have vanished years ago. But the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as it is officially known, continues to run along many of the same routes that made it so famous so many decades ago, visiting places as far-flung as London, Paris, Venice, Rome, Budapest, Dresden, Prague, Innsbruck and (of course) Istanbul.
Here, LIFE recalls the Orient Express of the last century through photographs made by Jack Birns in 1950 — wonderfully evocative, atmospheric pictures from a time when phrases like “the Iron Curtain” and “communist Bulgaria” were not only encountered in history books, but in newspaper headlines and in daily conversation.
A September 1950 issue of LIFE, in which some of the photos in this gallery first appeared, described the Orient Express of the middle part of the last century thus: