Touring Europe’s capitals by rail
In the summer of 1984 I did an Inter Rail Holiday with a university friend.
The Inter Rail ticket was valid for a month and entitled the holder to free travel on all the railway systems of Western Europe and on some of the systems of Eastern Europe (then behind the iron curtain) too.
The tickets were available to anyone under 26. A similar ticket, Eurail, was made available to young Americans too. (In 2017 -the tickets are still available and their conditions have been widened considerably)
One of the most popular things to do with an Inter Rail ticket was to use it to travel from the UK down to Greece and then spend a couple of weeks at a beach hotel before heading home again.
My friend and I considered this when planning our own trip, but we decided we wanted to see a little more of Europe. We had a problem though; we had scare resources.
Neither of us had much money to spare. We could just about afford the ticket but there was very little cash left for food let alone much accommodation. So we hatched out a cunning plan.
We would see the sights of one capital city by day and then travel overnight to the next city. This would save time travelling during the day and it would skip accommodation costs at night.
The sleeping would not be done not on expensive (supplement payable) sleeper carriages, but on the ordinary long distance trains that ran overnight and had seating compartments that were included in the price of our ticket.
This plan made some sense but we neglected to factor in the amount of cumulative fatigue we would expose ourselves to. It was, in the end, akin to embarking on a massive sleep deprivation exercise with trains and cathedrals thrown in.
The schedule took a bit of putting together and that was mostly left to me. It was a labour of love and was the result of many hours spent with the “Thomas Cook European Timetable”. The goal was always to link city pairs that would give long stretches and the best chance to sleep.
The schedule worked perfectly. All the trains, apart from the Portuguese and Italian ones, were on time and we accomplished the whole plan.
Looking back it was kind of fun and we managed to see a lot and get a taste for 17 different countries in almost as many days.
By the end of it we had dipped our toes in the Med, journeyed up the Rhine and crossed the Alps (more than once). We had seen the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, the Big Wheel in Vienna and the Gondolas in Venice. We had tasted goulash in Budapest, eaten mussels in Belgium and had drunk pilsner in Munich. It was certainly quite an achievement especially given the limited resources we had had.
But it was not all good. After a while one city almost blended into another and we endured a bit of what we called “Cathedral Boredom”. Given the amount of sleep that we were getting it was inevitable that we would become irritable and there were plenty of arguments too. In some ways it was perhaps more surprising that we managed to remain friends for the length of the trip and afterwards.
For it was sleep that was the problem. The overnight trains were usually made up of corridor carriages divided into about 10 compartments of 6 seats. On some nights we managed to get a whole compartment to ourselves and could sleep pretty thoroughly laying across 3 seats on either side. On others there would be other people in the compartment and we would find it difficult to get anything else but short bouts of rest.
We washed in the train and station toilets with the soap and shampoo we had brought from home. We rationed ourselves to a certain limited food budget each day and dined mostly on fast food.
What we ate exactly depended on the living standard of the country we were in at the time. In expensive Norway we made do with bread and chocolate bars, but in cheap Hungary we had a full meal of goulash, potatoes, bread and beer for less than £1.
Germany was great for its station kiosks selling cheap bread coated with melted cheese and bacon and Italy was fantastic for its wonderful slices of cheap pizza.
With the exception of Paris I was seeing all the cities for the first time. I kept no diary so I cannot remember now with exact precision what my first impression of each place was. I have been back to all the places since and this fact clouds my memory a bit too.
They were all fascinating in some way or other. I remember Lisbon was quite a culture shock as it was the poorest place I had been to at the time. I remember too that I particularly enjoyed visiting Italy and I still enjoy it today.
But it was the Eastern Bloc countries that were the most interesting. First, we went across the West German border and through the transport corridor that crossed East Germany to reach West Berlin. Then we went over the Austrian border into communist Hungary and back again.
If seeing the Berlin Wall was not evidence enough, the East German guards, with their rigorous searches of the train and meticulous checking of passport photographs, seemed to confirm that nobody was supposed to leave East Germany easily.
Budapest, which seemed to have a more laid back feeling, presented a little milder form of communism. Nevertheless with the different car types, poorer dressed people and general lack of advertising it was very clear that life was a lot different behind the iron curtain.
The European rail network was fascinating to me too. The system, whilst maintaining country variations, was quite interlinked. Although many trains confined themselves to purely domestic runs, the number of international trains was also impressive. These trains would cross several borders on their way from terminus to terminus.
Each border crossing meant an on-board immigration and customs check on exiting one country and then after another similar entry check soon after to enter the next. Sometimes this all happened in the middle of the night.
The trains were a mixed bag too. Most of the time we were in compartments trying to sleep, but we managed a few day journeys on Italian expresses and on the comfortable German Inter City trains. We also had journeys on a few local trains too. The S-Bahn in Berlin with its old pre-war carriages was particularly interesting.
However, what should have been the star of the schedule, the then brand new French TGV, was in fact the biggest disappointment. On the last full day of the trip we boarded the sleek orange TGV super express at Marseille and took it to Paris.
It was impressively fast of course, but I found the seats uncomfortable and quite claustrophobic. I ended up spending most of the journey standing in the vestibule talking to an Algerian lad who had just landed at Marseille and was heading for Paris to start a new life. I have never really warmed to the TGV or its Eurostar derivative since either.
During the trip my latent railway enthusiasm began to surface and I took my first real photographs of trains for two and half years. But, more than a passion for trains, the trip had awakened my sense of wanting to travel more. I wanted to get off at more stations and I wanted to linger longer in places. Most of all I wanted to actually sleep in a bed overnight.
I also wanted to go even farther afield and, with no disrespect to my travelling partner who was for the most part really terrific company, I knew that I really wanted to travel on my own.