Travel: An oldie hits the tracks: Bearing backpack and notebook, Humphrey Carpenter joined the Inter-Rail trail at the age of 47

I should have done it at 18. Now, at 47, I felt ridiculous. I seemed to be the only person in the P&O ticket queue at Dover who was over 25. All my fellow middle-aged travellers were lining up to get on to the boat in their cars. Here was I with a backpack, trying to blend into the crowd of teenagers filling the months between school and university by freewheeling around Europe by rail. I wished I had a hat to hide my greying hair.

And yet friends of my own age had virtually salivated when I told them I'd bought an Inter-Rail 26-plus ticket, which gave me two weeks' unlimited travel on European trains. In fact, I could spare only a week, while my family were away. Could I get good value out of that ticket between Sunday and Saturday lunchtimes?

Remembering occasions when I had stood on the platform of some European station and gazed longingly at train departure boards announcing exotic destinations, my first inclination was to set off without a plan - to cross to Calais, and then see what French railways could offer. But a glance at the wonderful Thomas Cook European Timetable showed me that Calais was not such a good starting-place as Ostend. From there I could speed off in almost any direction I wanted. And, inevitably, I began to make plans.

An obvious idea was to go east, as far east as possible. My ticket's validity would run out at the old Soviet border, but at least I could get there, and watch them change the train's gauge from narrow to broad, to fit the wider Russian lines (a footnote in the Cook timetable promised this intriguing technical feat). Having previously visited a little of the old East Germany, and Prague, I could now get into Poland, maybe, and Hungary. But going east meant, at some stage, turning round and coming west again, and time was very short. The day before I left, I came up with a solution: a circular trip, mostly on familiar territory, revisiting places where we had spent family holidays. I began to think about (for example) Vienna. For the first time, my wife looked as if she wished she were coming, too.

The two o'clock Sunday afternoon boat from Dover reached Ostend in time for an early supper - a disappointing bouillabaisse in an Edwardian-looking hotel opposite the station. I munched fishbones and reread Graham Greene's Stamboul Train. Would I, too, find melodrama in the wagon-lit?

In fact, I had already opted for a humbler couchette, and had taken the precaution of booking it via my local Thomas Cook. When the 9.34 for Brussels and Berlin rumbled out of platform four, I was unfolding my sparse allowance of blankets, and stowing my backpack in berth 60C. A bottle of plonk bought on the ship soon induced adequate sleep, and I woke in time for a thorough wash- down in one of the cramped loos as we crawled through Potsdam, stopped at Berlin Zoo, crossed the old line of the Wall, and came to rest in Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the biggest station in the old Eastern sector of the city.

Our Berlin family holiday was in the summer of 1991, when euphoria at the collapse of the Wall hadn't yet evaporated, the Trabants were giving way to gleaming Mercedes, and crowds swarmed around Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate, buying bits of 'real Wall' from the Turkish street-hawkers.

Two years on, weaving my way back into the city from the Hauptbahnhof, I found that most of the hawkers and almost all the crowds have gone. Checkpoint Charlie is a building site for something called Das Business Centre. Traffic drives through the Brandenburg Gate as if it were any old archway, not the point at which East and West reunited so dramatically. A rich crank has erected a full-scale replica (scaffolding and painted plastic sheets) of the old Prussian royal palace, halfway up Unter der Linden, but the Bonn government's promise of moving to Berlin and remaking it a sparkling capital is now not expected to be kept in this decade. The shopping streets off the Kurfurstendamm, west Berlin's Oxford Street, display the same arrogant chic as in Cold War days, but the east Berlin suburbs are as drab as ever. In many respects, the Wall still seems to be there.

I was not sorry to move on that night. The couchette conductor was trying to turf an elderly Indian couple off the train because they lacked visas for the Czech Republic, through which we would be passing in the small hours. I reassured him that I had been to Prague last year without a visa. I was allowed to stay on board. The Indians were not. Eastern Europe has not yet let down all its barriers.

It was Tuesday morning, and it was raining in Vienna. Five minutes' walk from the Sudbahnhof, where the train had deposited me, brought me to Klimt's loving couple, kissing inside their golden cloak in the Belvedere picture gallery. I had seen them on our family trip to the city 10 years ago. But we had never visited the composers' graves, so I took a tram to the curiously named Central Cemetery - curious because it's a four-mile ride out of the city - where Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms contemplate a monument to Mozart, in the midst of a true necropolis, a vast city of the distinguished dead.

I had left behind the groups of teenagers who had made me so self-conscious at Dover. They seemed to spend their days sitting in the stations, hunched together for protection, looking anxious. Maybe an oldie with a credit card had an advantage over them after all. I had no one to talk to, but after years of family holidays in which four people had to come to an agreement before doing anything, it was a refreshing change.

But what was a middle-aged writer doing on a trip round Europe by himself? Obviously, he should be writing. I started devising a thriller based on my experiences, and jotted in a notebook, the way writers are expected to.

I was still jotting in the notebook when the next night train deposited me in Venice. That was the week's real shock, to be whisked suddenly into what W H Auden called the bread and wine culture. Mind you, it was raining on the Grand Canal when I took the vaporetto from the station, a stupendous downpour. My notebook got wet. I contemplated the smudged plot-outline and decided that I didn't need a literary task after all. I could simply permit myself to have fun.

My enthusiasm for the thriller resurfaced during the afternoon as I took a boat across the lagoon to Torcello, with its cathedral so ancient that it seems almost pre-Christian. What a chase you could have around those uninhabited islets, with their curious ruins. Yes, I would begin to write that evening. But when evening came, I sat at an open-air trattoria in the Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio, quite unable to pen a word, stunned into a deep passive contentment by the evening sun, the church bells and the sound of someone sweeping leaves.

The French Riviera looked drab by comparison next morning. But I had my first conversation of the week, with a young Australian who, by coincidence, was teaching at Berkhamsted School, where Graham Greene was brought up; he was living in the Greenes' old house. He had spent six weeks on the move, thanks to Inter- Rail, and had had fun but was almost starving for lack of money.

I thought of that guiltily as I ate the plat du jour in the restaurant car of the Cevennol, a few hours later. The Cevennol leaves Marseilles at 12.26 daily and climbs up, via giddy viaducts and tunnels, to the top of the Cevennes, before crawling through the Massif Central towards Paris. I got off at a remote junction straight out of Simenon; but my notebook was packed away now, and I was just drinking in the scenery. A cross-country line took me to Le Puy en Velay, the world capital of lentil cookery, and my first hotel bed of the week. Next morning it was already Friday. Another country train landed me in Lyons, and the TGV high-speed line had bulleted me to Paris by lunchtime.

That night, I made friends. Two Armenians were listening gloomily to zither music in a restaurant on the hill behind the Sorbonne. Several carafes of vodka later, we had pledged undying comradeship. It would have made a good comic scene in the thriller. I had a memorable hangover when I got off the ferry next morning. But I had stopped worrying about my grey hair.

The author is a biographer (his 'Benjamin Britten' was published last year by Faber), children's author and broadcaster, and will be the programme director of the 1994 Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

Frank Barrett writes: Humphrey Carpenter travelled on an Inter-Rail 26-plus ticket (price pounds 209 for 15 days' unlimited travel) assuming it covered all of Europe. In fact, it excludes Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. BR International in London says Mr Carpenter was 'very lucky. The guards are normally hot on checking tickets on the Continent. If you are caught without a valid ticket, you must pay the full single fare, and you could be fined. I don't advise anybody to follow his example.' The Inter-Rail 26-plus tickets can be bought from British Rail, Thomas Cook and other agents. Couchettes, which can be booked in advance or at the place of departure, cost about pounds 12 per night.

(Photographs omitted)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn