EUROPE FOR ZERO

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The Independent Travel
How would today's young and adventurous traveller make the journey to Heidelberg? Probably by air, since it would take the average wage-earner barely a day's labour to buy a plane ticket from London to Frankfurt, the nearest airport to Heidelberg. You can easily hitch-hike from here, since the terminals are conveniently located adjacent to the autobahn - but a train would whisk you to Heidelberg in under two hours, with the total journey costing around pounds 100.

If you insist on travelling on a shoestring, here's how. Forget the bicycle. Instead, start hitching at the Elephant and Castle in London, a half-hour walk from Parliament Square, the West End or the City. Stand opposite the Coronet cinema at the start of the New Kent Road and hop down to Kent on the A20, not the A2.

You need to end up at Folkestone, not Dover, because Le Shuttle car-carrying trains through the Channel Tunnel charge per vehicle rather than per person. Hence drivers are not financially disinclined to pick up hitchers.

Stay with your benefactor as deep as he or she goes into France, to avoid the hitchers' graveyard that is Calais. The pickings-up are much easier in Belgium and Germany.

The advantage that you have over the traveller of the 1950s is that Continental Europe is sans frontieres, so you are unlikely to find yourself dropped off just short of border crossings by motorists who fear you could be carrying contraband. So you should reach Aachen, by way of Belgium or even Holland, with few problems. The Vaals border post where Elizabeth Candlish bedded down is these days just a couple of unstaffed offices.

From here it is an easy haul along the Rhine to Bonn and beyond; dodge Frankfurt by taking the route via Mannheim. The going gets stickier (and prettier), once you start striking east through the hills towards the former DDR. The chances are you will arrive in the fine city of Heidelberg in a croaky old Volkswagen Polo driven by a student returning to Germany's classiest university.

Total spent: zero. Result: happiness. When I made the journey, I somehow contrived to make a profit: the driver who dropped me on the "wrong" side of Brussels hurled a Bfr100 note after me, saying, correctly, that I probably wouldn't have change for the Metro - fare Bfr50. Thankfully, travelling in Europe is still blessed with the small, human kindnesses that Elizabeth and Margaret experience.

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