Travel: Five go off the rails in Europe: 'To stay in one place for long was cheating': The pounds 180 InterRail card is a passport to young adventure, a training for life. Our travellers give us the benefit of their hindsight

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Travelled in 1974

IT'S weird. Now I'm grown up and married, I do it practically every evening, and sometimes with colleagues at lunchtime too, without thinking it is anything more than very pleasant. But not once did I manage it when I was doing InterRail, though I must have tried: after all, we managed everything else. But never, not once, did we drink red wine.

In Barcelona there was a delicious nutty white wine from kegs at the station buffet. Drinking pleasant wine in a station buffet was so surreal an experience that after two glasses I got straight back onto the next train for France, and forgot almost instantly that I had ever been to Spain.

The French trains were far more like what travel was supposed to be: smelly, uncomfortable, and exposing you to people you might never otherwise have met - though in my sister's case, the exposure was the other way round. Wherever she went in France the natives waved their generative organs enthusiastically at her, until her account of her travels resembled a language course that had gone terribly wrong: each chapter heading 'In the Metro'; 'Outside the Louvre'; 'Going through customs' led to exactly the same story. She now goes whale-watching for relaxation, on small boats off Alaska. But for most of us, InterRail was less traumatic.

In Vienna, the wine was white, chilled and bubbly, which makes it sound like champagne. In fact it was heurige which had sent the Turkish armies reeling back into the Bosporus in 1682, and has been annually renewed ever since. In Vienna the natives were all at least 60 years old, and had formed their view of foreigners while being liberated by the Russian army in 1945. So anyone who spoke to you there was a foreigner, too. Since the whole point of InterRailing was to meet other foreigners, this made Vienna the perfect destination.

I spent months there, playing chess with Canadians who wanted to win the Nobel Prize for literature, learning German with Poles who told incomprehensible anti- Russian jokes, and falling in love with a girl from Louisiana and a blonde Hungarian refugee who liked gin and the Velvet Underground. We drank many sorts of white wine. The Austrians must all have been in London at the time.

But to stay in one place for so long was cheating. Far more in keeping with the spirit of youth tourism was finding myself in a completely strange city where I had, in fact, lived for several years before climbing on a train. This was Stockholm, in Sweden, where nobody had drunk anything since the railways came. And, as a second-class tourist, I couldn't really afford to eat. It was none the less an extraordinary experience to wander around a city I had known quite well, only a few years before, and fail to recognise anything. The secret of InterRail was that it removed you from all countries, not just your own.

Comments