M y search for the most romantic overnight train trip—I’m thinking of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, flirting their way up the Hudson River at dusk just minutes after pulling out of Grand Central—usually comes up dry. For starters, you can forget about finding comfortable sleepers in the United States. They’ve been gone since the 20th Century Limited stopped running in 1967. How about those classic wagons-lits that crisscross Europe, the compartments with the forward-facing couches that fold down into beds? Well, they’re okay if you don’t mind staring at the wall all day and making do with a solitary wash basin. I wanted to love the old Palatino—the very name evokes romance—but speeding from Paris to Rome on a steamy summer night without air-conditioning felt more like a subway commute in July than an overnight on a glamorous European train.
Today, if Hitchcock were making movies and if Agatha Christie needed a vehicle for murder but couldn’t rustle up an Orient Express, they’d surely set their scenes on City Night Line, a consortium of European railroads that operate overnight trains, mostly in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and northern Italy. The company has rekindled everything we love about rail travel from the past while adding wonderfully modern updates like showers and toilets in every first-class compartment, spacious bunk beds, and plenty of room for a table and chairs next to big picture windows.
Though City Night Line is about 10 years old, it’s still somewhat of a starlet waiting to be discovered. The first time I rode CNL, from Hamburg to Zurich, it had just been put into service, and I marveled as the double-decker train rolled into the station. Back then, the train was all midnight blue with a big smiling moon painted on the side of some cars. On my second trip, from Zurich to Berlin, I dined under twinkle lights in a car with a lounge at one end that bounced to life after dinner like a cool club in downtown New York.
First-class, where compartments are up a jaunty little flight of steps, is expensive ($200-$300 per passenger per night), but CNL carries a full range of accommodations, from second-class sleepers to coaches with chairs that recline like business-class seats on an airplane. The whole point, though, is to sample the best of the best, so go first-class and think of your compartment as a hotel room, one that magically transports you across the Alps while you sleep. And understand that CNL is not a concocted rail journey—not a Royal Scotsman, Australia’s Indian-Pacific, or the hyper-deluxe Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, all made up of refitted cars from the golden age of railroading and operated as overland cruises. CNL is not about nostalgia. It’s serious Point A to Point B transportation. Just ripe for romance.