Interrailing around Europe is one of the classic overland trips, and it was my first taste of independent backpacker travel. Growing up in the UK, I’d already visited mainland Europe a whole bunch of times on family holidays and school trips. But it was during the summer holiday between my second and third years at university that I first packed a load of clothes, some guide books and novels, a first aid kit etc etc into a backpack and headed overseas with just a travel ticket booked and a list of places in my head that I wanted to see… although in fact, come to think of it, that isn’t quite true – on that first trip none of the four in our group had a guide book, a first aid kit, or anything much more than our clothes and travellers cheques! We didn’t even have a specific list of places we wanted to go, or any real sort of plan whatsoever other than a vague notion of Gibraltar being our ultimate goal as we had a friend there. My camera was a wind-up 35mm compact and for entertainment I had a Sony walkman – the type that played tape cassettes – and Danny had a discman (CDs… fancy!), and that was pretty much it; the real entertainment was the company of one another and of the awesome people we met along the way as we Interrailed our way around ten cities in eight countries in four weeks.
As our passes weren’t valid in the UK, we’d taken a one-hour train from Leeds to Hull and there boarded an overnight ferry to Holland where we checked into a grotty Rotterdam hostel with a lively bar. And as grotty as that hostel was, I’m glad we chose it because it was there that we met three lovely Irish lasses who would be our travel companions for the next two weeks; initially, the four of us and the three of them just made plans to head to Amsterdam together the next day, but it quickly became the seven of us as we travelled across Germany to Köln and Berlin and then on to the Czech Republic. That was where we parted ways (though we all kept in touch and there have been various visits between Ireland and England in the years since), and once again we were four as we travelled on to Hungary, Austria, and Italy.
The whole charm of this kind of travel was the reckless and happy-go-lucky way we went about it. Our rail passes allowed us to just rock up at a train station and board any train heading anywhere across Europe, and that was basically what we did – we took it a city at a time, and sometimes we literally went to the station in the morning and just got on whichever train was going to the most interesting place. We had no guidebooks, no reservations, no real plan, and not a care in the world.
We did have the one potential goal in mind to visit our friend in Gibraltar, so when we boarded the night train from Vienna to Rome we’d decided that after a couple of days in Italy we’d head to Barcelona and then down to Gibraltar. Unfortunately though, while the four of us did make it to Rome only two of our four passports made it with us, and as a result we never made it to Spain or Gibraltar. It’s hard to say exactly what happened to Danny and my passports, other than that they were stolen – the train was busy that night (as usual, I believe), and Danny & I were in one compartment while Ross & Ben slept in another. There was a nice Austrian lady sharing our compartment to start with, but she disembarked somewhere before the border and Danny and I could stretch out and enjoy the extra space.
These compartments don’t have locks so the security isn’t great, but the only things we had worth stealing were our passports and we slept with those tucked away in inner pockets. But when the train was at the border (presumably), our door was flung open, a torch shined in, and a burly bloke shouted “passports” at us before stomping off down the carriage. We got our passports out, but from what I recall no-one came back to check them, and the next thing I knew was when we woke up somewhere near Rome without our passports… was that guy a real border guard? No idea. Had we been gassed? It sounds far-fetched, but the embassy staff informed us that it sometimes happens – it is possible and we did both feel very groggy that morning, but then that could easily also be explained as the simple result of a poor night’s sleep.
In any case, we arrived in Rome sans passports (Ross and Ben had fared better in their compartment, although Ross thinks he did wake up during the night and see someone leaning over him through the door and looking over their stuff, after which he stayed awake and made sure the door stayed shut) and we would spend the next few hours traipsing around to the police to make a statement and then to the embassy to apply for new passports. As they would take four days to be issued, and due to the cost of applying for them, we gave up on Gibraltar… but hey, Rome was a pretty good place to get stuck for a few extra days! We had plenty of time to look around the sights, and we partied with a great bunch of people from our hostel – including Anna & Trevor, an American (Anna) / Canadian (Trevor) couple who came and visited us in the UK a few weeks later on their way back to North America. Once we had our new passports in hand, we headed up to Brussels for a few days before finally returning to the UK on the ferry from Rotterdam.
That was in 2000, and I also used an Interrail pass in 2003 when I returned to the UK overland following a ski season in Austria (travelling via Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France (where I visited my brother who was spending the ski season in Morzine, catching our visiting sister & parents at the same time), Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland). Back then, the rail passes were very simple – your pass basically covered you for all trains in the countries it covered, bar a few night trains and high speed trains which required small supplements. These days, with the spread of high speed rail, there is a long list of trains which require seat bookings and supplements, and the amount charged varies from country to country. While this makes it harder to travel with the kind of complete spontaneity we did, Interrailing is still a great way to see lots of European countries in a short time.
(The pass that you buy depends on where you’re from; if you’re not from Europe you can buy the Eurail pass, which covers train travel in 25 countries. Being from Europe, we had to buy the Interrail pass – the basic principle is the same, but it covers 30 countries while excluding one’s own country, apparently to stop people using them for long-distance commuting)
While it was certainly a shame that we never made it to Spain and Gibraltar on that first trip, I’m actually glad it happened – thanks to the passports being stolen, we befriended Anna and Trevor, and we also met a Canadian solo traveller called Ginny while playing pool at the hostel in Belgium. The following summer, Ross and I went on a road trip around the States with Anna and another of her friends, during which we visited Ginny in Canada; Danny and I stayed with Ginny again when we travelled round Asia and she was living in Thailand; I stayed with Anna again in LA when I flew from New Zealand to Central America a few years after that (following a ski season in Queenstown); and I even ended up being Ginny’s roommate in Vancouver when I lived there for a couple of ski seasons.
And that was really what was so great about Interrailing around Europe – not just the places we visited (as fantastic as they were), but the going with the flow, the spontaneous day-to-day decision-making, and the fantastic people we met as a result and the future travel possibilities those friendships led to.
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