We were going on an overnight train from Venice to Paris. We got on the train about 40 minutes before departure. I got the four daughters on their train car in the 4 person couchette. I made they each had their passports, and reservations. I told them I would see them in the dining car after departure. I then went to the train car where my wife and I had a two person couchette. Meanwhile, two daughters decide to get off the train and go get some ice cream. They get the ice cream and come back and board the wrong train. It leaves. They realize right away the mistake they made and start screaming to the conductors. They get off at the first stop and sit there crying together. They have no passports, few Euros, etc. Later, our train leave Venice -- and believe it or not it stops where they got off and they get right back on the train. My wife and I had no idea what was happening until the two kids got back on the right train. Amazing!!!!!!
Luxury? It’s nice. Travel? Also nice. Combination of the two? O.K. Let’s get clear on this. To fly in luxury is expensive. Really, really expensive. My first class round trip to Frankfurt on Lufthansa? Ah, that was, unquestionably, a singular experience. A world away from domestic first class flights and the return trip taught me that United does not hold a candle to Lufthansa in the first class amenities department. Like most people, I really appreciate good service, comfort and fine dining when given the chance. So, I’m not going to talk about the pricy luxury that is affordable to the rich and famous. Nope. I’d like to let you know about something that is actually attainable. Attainable opulence? Take the train. City Night Line in Europe. Take the night train, the first class ‘cabin w/ shower,’ from Zurich to Amsterdam. Private. Ah, the sweet comfort and rhythm of the train tracks at night from within the comforts of the womb. It’s a private and very comfortable place. It offers repose after the stress and the over exposure to all of humanity which often comes with travel. Step away from the escalators, the sweating and harried masses, the multi-language announcements, the bells, buzzers and horns. Exit the anxiety of needing to make that next connection…. Curl up in the lap of luxury. Once you are aboard, the journey is effortless and plush. Smooth sailing? Yes. This is as good as it gets.
It’s just past nine p.m. and I’m picking up some train snacks at Zurich HBF Main Station. Like many stations in Europe it’s a spacious place with incredibly high ceilings. There’s public art. A giant post modern stature flies above, a colorful mix of shapes and pastels. There’s huge neon art and a continual flow of humanity. Train tracks ahead and the usual restaurants, bistros and shops selling supplies for those about to partake in what can be a very long trip. I need a few things for my night train. A chocolate bar? I’m in Switzerland and this last minute purchase always makes me smile. Watches and chocolates… Mountains and clean, orderly efficiency. Zurich is beautiful and perhaps in many ways the polar opposite of Amsterdam. Granted both places are beautiful and prosperous cities. Still, there’s many ways they are night and day… The cartoonist perspective? Angels in Switzerland with white robes and halos. Red devils drinking Dutch beer and eating French fries doused in mayonnaise in Amsterdam with horns and pronged pitch forks… In Amsterdam there is that rosy glow of the red light district at night and the spicy smell of hashish and tobacco wafting through the crisp night skies… I digress. So, I buy some chocolate and a box of hard candies. Watermelon flavored. Beer? Water? Post cards? Nope. It is the night train and I plan on sleeping for the bulk of this thirteen hour journey. I need to find my ticket and see where the train is. I walk along Zurich HBF. Look up to the train schedule. There’s the moment of intensity as the giant old school sign boards flip with a flashing frenzy like a huge stock market ticker…. Milano, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris… International destinations by train? Ah, such a treat. We are all familiar with the discomfort of plane travel. From the security checks where we are now required to remove our shoes, our wallets, our belts. We now need to remove the laptop from the bag…. Line up. Random ‘secondary screenings.’ I understand the need, but as I am not a terrorist I do find it a bit annoying at times. Standing in line to check in. Standing in line to be searched. Standing in line again to board the plane. Standing in line to disembark. Narrow passages and people struggling with bags that are far too big… Line up for immigration. Don’t even get me started on the horror of waiting for baggage that has been checked into the bowels of hell…. Lost luggage blues… Line up to go through customs. Now, where are you? Far from the city center unless you flew into Hong Kong back in the seventies… So? Line up for a taxi? Will the horror ever end? Not until you are at your hotel. While we fly the “friendly skies” we are forced to sit in narrow chairs and then must strap in. Seats in the “upright position, tray tables up, foot rest stowed…” The list goes on and on… there are too many rules, too much waiting, too much discomfort. Oh, some turbulence? Well then, “please return to your seats.” Need to go to the restroom? “Sorry, the seat belt sign is on, please return to your seats. “ Drinks? Food? Only when the rolling cart is passing by. OK, granted the service is better in first class. It also costs on average about ten to fifteen times more that a coach seat. Still, you must obey. Even in first class… You do not stand up during take off or landing. You must not use the restroom when the turbulence situation arises… When you are on a plane you are, in fact, under house arrest. Yes, they can be nice about it (in first class) but generally speaking you must do as they say. You will eat and drink only when you are served and you will be packed into a seat and any semblance of personal space will be removed and not returned to you until you have left the plane and the airport long behind you. There is very little dignity in the airlines these days.
Train travel? This is where the romance of travel still lives on….You board the train anytime before it takes off. You do not suffer the inhumanity of security screenings. If you arrange to buy your tickets in advance from your travel agent you need never wait in a single line. Too good to be true? Perhaps. It seems so civilized. It’s effortless. I get on the train a meet with the conductor. She looks at my ticket and smiles. They seldom smile on the airlines these days especially since United took away the bulk of their pensions in an effort to escape bankruptcy... OK, sometimes they do smile… I’m on a train and in a first class cabin with shower. Neat. I’ve been on this train before and been in first class, but not in a ‘cabin with shower.’ My travel agent tells me this is in a class “above the first class cabin.” Not sure what to expect, but feeling very jazzed as I located my cabin literally above the others on the second tier. Second level up the carpeted stairs. I walk in and begin to giggle. There is a bed. There is a sitting room with a desk and two chairs. There is a bathroom. A full bathroom with a shower. This kills me. This is hilarious.
I have a seat at the desk by the window and, yes, effortlessly the train begins to pull out of the station. Silent. Smooth. I do not have to put my seat in the ‘upright position, stow my tray table or fasten my seatbelt.’ I’m sitting at a desk, notebook in hand. There’s a bottle of water and a bottle of orange juice on the desk. A knock at the door. The conductor is back. She smiles and asks if I’ve traveled with them before. She begins to walk me through the compartment. I’m shown the heater, the beds, the separate heater in the bathroom, the curtains… a laundry list of modern comforts that are still not available even in the very best of first class accommodations on an airplane. Before she leaves she explains. ‘In this class of service we offer a free drink…’ I smile. This is so cute. I make a gesture towards the water and juice. Again a smile.. ‘No, no.. an alcoholic drink. You can have beer, wine or champagne.” Well, there’s nothing which more perfectly portrays luxury to me than a crisp flute of champagne. Within minutes she’s back and uncorking a chilled half bottle of sparkling Italian wine… I take a moment and a sip of effervescence. Ah, beautiful. The night is now just right. I’ve been on this train before, but it’s never been quite like this.
At 8:30am there is a knock at the door. Breakfast will be served. A warm smile from my conductor. “Did you sleep well? Would you like coffee or tea with breakfast?” I opt for coffee and a tray of breakfast items is delivered. Croissant, hard rolls, ham and cheese. There’s muesli and milk along with fresh fruit and yogurt. This is nice. I open the curtains and watch the glorious fall countryside flashing past. Am I in Germany or Holland? We slice past a train station. I read the name of the station and it sounds more Dutch than it does German. We are getting close to Amsterdam. The conductor announces our final destination. “Ladies and Gentlemen, our next station stop will be Amsterdam Centraal…” We will arrive in under an hour. Excellent, just enough time for a shower…
I love this train. This is perfect. If only… Yes, if only I could take this train home from Amsterdam to San Francisco… Ah, yes. If only the comforts of the train ride could be extended just a bit longer… Luxury? Champagne in my private rolling apartment… It does not get better. Take the train. Go first class and, if at all possible, be sure to book a night of bliss on the City Night Line from Zurich to Amsterdam in the first class cabin with shower.