Style: Suited for Adventure
Posted on Sep 14, 2011 09:00pm

by Jim Colucci, Photography by Cliff Lipson, Styling by Angelique O'Neil
How I met your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris boarded the Orient Express for a journey around Europe and took Watch! along for the ride.

It's after 7 p.m., and an orange sun illuminates the snow-capped peaks somewhere outside of Innsbruck, Austria. Suddenly, the scenery goes black as the fabled Venice Simplon Orient-Express slips into an Alpine tunnel. With an impish twirl of his imaginary moustache-in tribute to mystery author Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot, who once laid out his solution to a fiendish crime in this very bar car-the tuxedo-clad How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris lets out the exclamation he has been practicing ever since boarding the lovingly restored 1920s-era train.

"Zere has been a MUR-dair!"

"Sacre bleu!" responds David Burtka, a 34-year- old actor and culinary student whom Harris describes as his "better half." Harris laughs. "Enjoying each other's sense of humor is paramount to me in a relationship," he explains. "And from getting up in the morning to going to bed, David and I amuse each other and laugh."

Even so, this exciting Venice-to-Paris passage has brought out the most extroverted and even boyish side of the 36-year-old Albuquerque native, whose first career break came in the late '80s as the child star of the film Clara's Heart and the beloved TV drama Doogie Howser, M.D. One by one, Harris asks his fellow travelers for their "guiltiest look" for a photo collage the self-confessed mystery fanatic intends to compile.

None of the looks turns out to seem quite as sinister as those on the faces of the person(s) who killed Richard Widmark's Mr. Ratchett in the 1974 film adaptation of Christie's classic Murder on the Orient Express. But then again, as far as we viewers could see, Ingrid Bergman, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, never seemed to get the chance Harris now has-to chow down on the sumptuous menu the Orient-Express' 30-plus-year veteran chef Christian Bodiguel and his staff manage to turn out for their 135 passengers from the train's tiny, supply-stacked kitchen. By 9:30 p.m., at a formal dinner seating, aspiring chef Burtka is observing the action as waiters deftly enter the gently rocking, red silk-draped Oriental dining car, keeping the fine wines flowing while toting such delicacies as Tournedos Rossini, a dish of filet mignon topped with foie gras, truffle and Madeira, and desserts like charlotte aux marrons glacés, a cakelet with candied chestnut.

Now slowly stuffed - much like that poor French goose who gave up his liver for dinner–Harris and company head back to their sleeping cars, where ultra-efficient porter Rupert has nimbly transformed the cabins' upholstered benches into cozy full-length beds, complete with crisp white sheets and VSOE logo-emblazoned blankets to guard against the in-rushing, cool Swiss air. From the marquetry paneling of its cabins to the tinkling of the grand piano in its bar, every texture, every sound, every taste on this train bears witness to a bygone era of travel. And yet, the sensual setting is perfectly befitting for the modern man who plays How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson, perhaps the most hedonistic-at least when it comes to women and haberdashery-character currently on TV.

And Barney's not the only one having fun on the ratings-surging sitcom, about to enter its fifth season. "It almost feels like a lark," Harris says of reporting to Fox Studios' Stage 22 each day. "The buoyancy of the show is what I love. We're all essentially just making each other laugh. And [series creators] Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas] and the writing gang come up with these random, hilarious things for us to do"-like Barney's seducing his best friend's law professor or obsessing over former The Price Is Right host Bob Barker as the supposed dad he never knew. "And in the process,' he notes, "they brilliantly end up creating a whole vernacular and a whole world for this show."

But this trip is not about work. "It has been the trip of food," Harris says, laughing. "When we get home, we're going to be sweating foie gras at the gym." Before the passage on the Orient-Express, Harris' journey started in Italy, where over lunch at the ultraluxe Rome Cavalieri hotel, he dug into a softball-sized hunk of mozzarella di bufala, surrounded by ribbons of thinly shaved prosciutto ham. And then there was the tuna tartare with avocado. "Everything is made with such super-fresh ingredients," Harris enthuses about Italian cuisine. "There's such a purity to it. The foods are not only locally grown and produced, but are generational. And so you can seek out places where seven generations have cooked the same puttanesca sauce."

A Waldorf-Astoria Collection Hotel in this city bursting with antiquity, the Cavalieri has filled its lobby, its hallways and its lounges with fine furnishings and artworks like an American hotel would do with end tables from Pottery Barn. The hotel's pièce de résistance paintings are a trio of Tiepolos located just off the bar, but its private collection, of which Harris took an iPod-guided tour, contains dozens of important works. "I've been to lots of places that have and boast fancy art. But they certainly don't usually make it this accessible," Harris notes.

But what really wowed him about the Cavalieri's campus of pools and greenery atop a hill in the city's northwest were its views of the Vatican that can only be called legen-(wait for it)-dary. The panorama "was outrageous, and it just got better and better," Harris remembers. "When we first arrived, you could see the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, but it was sort of overcast and misty. And then at other times, like at sunset, you could see the orange glow of the entire landscape."

Stepping off a four-hour train ride, Harris next arrived in Venice on the evening of a spectacularly blue-skied, 70-degree day. There are no cars within this canal city-for one thing, there are no roads-and so Harris recorded his first impressions of the Hotel Cipriani from the deck of a water taxi speeding up to its private dock. "It was absolutely stunning," he says of his first sighting of this quietly opulent villa and its manicured grounds on the island of Giudecca. "I felt like I was in a movie filmed in the '20s or '30s. The air smelled of wisteria. And I loved the big saltwater pool," he adds, where he would lounge the next day and take in sweeping views of the Piazza San Marco across the bay.

Dinner that night at the outdoor spot Cip's Club, he remembers-with a starter of pasta with fresh peas grown in the hotel's gardens-"was perfectly quiet. All you would see were the fishermen walking by to go see their catch for the night. It was absolutely idyllic, and free of tourists."

In fact, searching out such a peaceful spot in this city teeming with travelers can be quite a challenge. But one way to find some cherished serenity, Harris discovered, is by gondola. "At first, there were schoolkids and tourists everywhere," Harris remembers. "And then we turned between two buildings. And suddenly, silence. And the water lapping. And hearing our gondolier softly humming to himself. And then it was, 'Ahhh, Venice!' Then, when you get off, it's the madness again. But I would highly recommend a gondola ride, even at its high cost. Because those are the things you remember."

In fact, searching out such a peaceful spot in this city teeming with travelers can be quite a challenge. But one way to find some cherished serenity, Harris discovered, is by gondola. "At first, there were schoolkids and tourists everywhere," Harris remembers. "And then we turned between two buildings. And suddenly, silence. And the water lapping. And hearing our gondolier softly humming to himself. And then it was, 'Ahhh, Venice!' Then, when you get off, it's the madness again. But I would highly recommend a gondola ride, even at its high cost. Because those are the things you remember."
Now, after a trip on the Orient-Express, Harris knows that Paris will have a hard act to follow. And yet, he is still impressed with Fouquet's Barrière, a 3-year-old hotel built around the historic, 100-plus-year-old Fouquet's brasserie on the city's fabled avenue Champs-Elysées. Over lunch of an admittedly missed hamburger avec frites in the hotel's restaurant Le Diane, the actor gazes admiringly at the building through its courtyard windows, noting how well this high-tech structure has been designed with a Second Empire façade that fits seamlessly into its 19th-century surroundings. Earlier, Harris had reported for a massage, where he got a look at the hotel's indoor pool and spa, a modern, teak and arm wood-paneled homage to the ancient baths of Rome. "The place is beautiful," the actor says enthusiastically. "It's a fantastic location. But it's only a few years old, so it has all the modern amenities that you could possibly want."

Later, Harris ends the evening at the nearby Hotel Plaza Athénée, where at hot spot Le Bar, renowned mixologist Thierry Hernandez has come up with creative cocktails like frozen appletini popsicles, gelatin shots and piña-colada-flavored sushi. Patrick Jouin's classic yet chic décor for the space combines a long, illuminated bar of sculpted and sandblasted glass, resembling an iceberg, with more traditional soft leather club chairs. It is in one of these cozy groups of seats where, at nearly midnight, Harris will sample Hernandez's signature "Alcohol Mist," a unique recipe combining chewy bits of meringue wafer with a deliciously intoxicating atomized spray, mixing an individual mouthful of mojito on the tip of the tongue.

But right now, before heading out for the evening, Harris and Burtka relax in the sleek Fouquet's Barrière lobby, on a reimagined classic couch with gilding worthy of a modern-day Marie Antoinette. As plaques built into the forecourt sidewalk just outside attest, this foyer has already in its short life hosted its share of celebrities, such as Jude Law, Hilary Swank and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who held his election victory party at the hotel. Now, two teenage girls cross the room en route to the exit, all the while clearly staring at the man who is Barney. The last thing Harris hears, as the semicircular front doors envelop her, is one saying Gallically to the other, "'Ow I Met Your MOTH-air!"

In Rome, too, there had been plenty of Looky Lous-including one couple who paced the Rome Cavalieri lobby behind Harris' seat in the bar, pushing a stroller and pausing to peek each time they passed. On their fifth maneuver, it became visible: The stroller was empty. And during a tour of the Colosseum, fans-equally of Barney, of Doogie, of Harris' hilarious and ribald cameo in the 2004 film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle-emerged with their cameras. "I'm not at all put off by it, because relevance is good. It's nice to gauge what people are responding to," the actor explains. For one thing, he still relates to being in their shoes, nervous while meeting his own favorite stars. "It just depends upon the way people approach me. When it's respectful and specific, I adore it."

On the other hand, Harris says that he most enjoys vacations where, like an actor disappearing into a role, he can take several weeks and lose himself in a foreign culture. The last time he was in each of these cities, he stayed in smaller-and more modest-boutique hotels or even apartments, in areas farther from the fray. A few years back, in Rome, he wandered from his home base in the Campo dei Fiori neighborhood and found a pizzeria, frequented by locals, among the musicians and jugglers performing in Trastevere; he and Burtka returned on this trip. This time, in Venice, the celeb-accustomed Cipriani concierge steered Harris toward a trattoria, now a new favorite. Self-proclaimed "foodies," Harris and Burtka have a method: first, compile a detailed itinerary, with Internet print-outs of restaurants in any neighborhood they might find themselves in at mealtime. And when all else fails, "we hang out with people in a bar and get to know them, or we'll ask a waiter: Where do you go to dinner?"

As much as he differs from his alter ego Barney, Harris can appreciate suiting up, and there were opportunities in droves on this adventure. The actor fell in love with the wardrobe provided by Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian fashion house whose suits, ties and casual wear he modeled throughout the trip.

"It was all really sharp and amazing clothes that I felt very comfortable in," the actor says of the slim silhouetted suits, the skinny ties, and even the ascot he donned that day on a railway platform in Venice. "They're hip, and yet the styles can also be considered a throwback to the high-fashion days of the train. Wearing those suits, standing on Track 2 in front of the actual Orient-Express, I felt like I could commit to the whole scene, like I was a character out of an Agatha Christie novel."

As they stand to leave the restaurant, Harris recalls a previous trip to Europe, where frustration between him and Burtka in getting lost on car trips had been tempered only by their mutual bemusement at their situation. With that, Harris turns to his partner with a sly smile. "I've found a good fit," he says with a wink. "I think I'll keep these shoes." And it's clear he's not just talking about Zegna anymore..