Category Archives: Europe by Train

Three men on a train – England to Germany

Who were they, these three unwashed young Englishmen, curled up asleep on the floor of a train as it rumbled across 1980s Europe?

It was our first taste of independent travel, and for me it was the trigger for a lifetime of flitting from place to place, never quite settled, always moving on. This is the tale of that first trip, when, wide-eyed and naive and wet behind the ears, we set out with empty wallets, ridiculously heavy backpacks, and a wide-eyed wonder at the world beyond our borders.

 

The Grand Tour

There used to be a tradition among a certain class of English gentlemen that when the firstborn son came of age, he set off on a “Grand Tour” around the cities of Europe. Ostensibly this was to educate him in the classics of art and architecture, but it was also his first and only chance to spread his wings and do some growing up on his own. On his return, he was expected to rejoin Society as a fully formed and well-adjusted individual who had had his fun (and, possibly, sown some wild oats) far from the critical eyes of Polite Society, before taking up the serious business of marriage, children and the family estate.

That era is of course long gone, and I certainly didn’t belong to the titled or monied class, but as an eighteen-year old who had just left home to start out at university, the idea had a rather splendid appeal. I got together with David and Andrew, my closest friends from school, and bought an ‘Interrail’ ticket, available to anyone under the age of 26 and valid for 30 days on any train in the whole of Europe.

 

Free train to Loch Ness (Scotland)

Interrail were doing a deal whereby if we purchased the ticket early enough, we received a ‘free ticket to anywhere’. Having never travelled together before, or indeed done any long distance train travel, we decided to do a trial run on the longest train journey available to us over the Easter weekend. After careful perusal of the timetables, we figured out that we just had time to take the train from London in South East England to Inverness in North East Scotland, hike to the famous Loch Ness, camp overnight on its shores, and then turn back around and go home again.

We had a fine old time, and took the opportunity to shakedown our hiking and camping gear, and work out what we would take with us when we left for Europe a few months later.

Europe by Train: Loch Ness

David and Andrew at Loch Ness

 

London to Dover (England)

September soon arrived. Since our Interrail ticket was not valid in the country of purchase, David and I chose the cheap option of a bus to Dover to catch our ferry to France, where we could start our rail journey with an overnight train to Paris. For reasons that remain obscure, Andrew chose not to travel with us, but instead took a train. David and I arrived at the port without any problems, but the ferry to Calais began to board with no sign of Andrew. We already had tickets so we got on the boat anyway. After a look around the decks, we tried to page him on the intercom, but with no result so we had to assume that he was not on board.

Europe by Train - White Cliffs of Dover

A misty morning over the White Cliffs of Dover

Calais (France)

Arriving in Calais with an hour to kill before the next ferry arrived – hopefully with Andrew aboard – we went for a wander. We established that there seemed to be two “cathedrals”, but one was derelict and the other was the town hall, which I later described in my diary as “a technicolor version of Big Ben”

Europe by Train - Hotel de Ville in Calais

Calais’ Hotel de Ville, our first foreign tourist attraction

We were particularly enamoured by the local treatment of railway crossings. If the barriers were down across the road, it simply meant that the drivers needed to slalom around them without slowing. Pedestrians just ambled across whether the barriers were up or down. On one occasion, there was actually a train parked across the road, presumably waiting for a signal, but the first pedestrian to reach it simply opened a door, stepped into the carriage and out of the door on the other side, the rest of us trooping after.

Andrew wasn’t on the second ferry either.

Remember that this was 1983, well before the invention of mobile phones. We had previously arranged for a relative to act as a message depot if we ever got separated while travelling, so after spending some time trying to understand the labyrinthine French public telephone system, we finally received a message that Andrew was going to be on the second ferry after ours. Apparently he had got on a London bus to the railway station, but the bus had crashed, resulting in him catching the wrong train which went to the wrong side of Dover. When he finally arrived at the ferry port, out of breath from running across the town, they told him that his ticket wasn’t valid until the third ferry.

The problem with this was that he would arrive after the last train had left Calais for the night. We had booked no accommodation because we had intended to sleep on the train to Paris, but the next departure after the ferry was due to arrive didn’t leave until 05:30 the following morning. In fact, once his ferry docked at 20:00 there weren’t any trains leaving for anywhere.

We suddenly recognised Andrew standing at the ferry port. His boat had come in early, and so we all sprinted with our 35lb backpacks to the station and boarded the only remaining train. Apparently it was going to Italy via Switzerland.

Europe by Train - Three men on a train

Three men on a train. Finally.

 

Basel (Switzerland)

Andrew and David curled up on their seats, and I chose to stretch out on the floor, which was comfortable enough albeit a little bone-shaking over the points. We had come up with a new itinerary, intending to sleep until our early morning arrival in Basel, and then change for Munich, ultimately bound for the fabled fairy-tale castles of Fűssen. David and I were up and ready and hopped off when the train stopped, but Andrew had found a hot-water basin in a carriage further up and decided that he just had time to have a quick shave.

There were no open borders back in 1983. David and I headed for Customs, where our shiny blue-and-silver passports got us waved through without any attention. From behind the barrier, we noticed that Andrew’s carriage had been disconnected and was being shunted out of the station. Some distance from the platform, he suddenly appeared at a doorway, leaped out and headed back for the station, waving his passport in the air as he ran.

We repaired to the station buffet and broke our fast with coffee and a sausage roll, congratulating ourselves on having finally arrived somewhere more or less as planned and more or less together. As we lingered over coffee and made smug notes in our diaries, our Munich train rolled out of the station.

According to the timetable, it was theoretically possible to catch another Munich train from Basel’s other station, a tram ride away. “Streetcar Number 2” said a helpful uniformed gentleman, but that tram left without us while we were still trying to understand the ticket machine. Eventually Andrew managed to organise the correct change, and we purchased 60 minutes of travel time. A Number 6 passed, then another Number 6, but no Number 2. Suddenly we realised that the Number 6 also went to Badischer Bahnhof, climbed aboard the third one, leaped out at the station and sprinted across a busy street and onto the deserted platform. We’d missed the Munich train by three minutes.

It was still before 09:00 on our first day in Europe. A close perusal of the timetable revealed that, with a couple of changes, we could get to Munich by 17:00. The first train didn’t leave for a while, so we headed to the station bathroom for a wash and, for Andrew, for the second half of his shave.

After a snack of chocolate bars and iced tea, we climbed aboard the 08:36 to Singen. We’d already noticed that some trains were made up of a mixture of rolling stock from different countries, and this was our first Deutsche Bahn carriage, with compartments which boasted seats that converted into couchettes. We resolved to look out for more of these carriages in future.

 

Lindau (Germany)

We arrived in Singen with 6 minutes to transfer to the Lindau train, and made it with time to spare. We even managed to score another DB carriage, although when David pulled the seat out to form a couchette, the whole thing fell off the wall. As we were trying to quietly put it back together again, we congratulated one another on having, nevertheless, executed a flawless train connection for the first time. Then the ticket inspector arrived and told us that we were in the wrong carriage, and that the train was being split in two and we were at the wrong end of it. We sprinted up the corridor and just managed to jump the gap before our carriage moved off.

Finally, for the first time on this trip, we had a chance to sit quietly and look at the scenery. The train was zig-zagging back and forth between Germany and Switzerland, allowing us to admire the picturesque Swiss villages, partially obscured by low-lying clouds.

In Lindau, we wound our way between groups of souvenir-buying tourists and found a cafe with views across Bodensee (Lake Constance). The lake was very attractive, and although it was warm and sunny, there were thunderous cloud formations rising above the Swiss Alps.

Europe by Train - Bodensee

Lindau harbour on Bodensee (Lake Constance)

The cafe prices were rather high for our shallow pockets, but as we sipped our coffee we discovered that they were happy to sell us individual slices of bread, which we could then load up with sliced German sausage that we had purchased earlier from a butcher.

Europe by Train - Cafe in Lindau

Andrew and David write up their diaries and picnic in a cafe in Lindau

Europe by Train - Tres Amigos in Lindau

Die drei Freunde in Lindau

Europe By Train - Lindau mural

A typical mural on a house in Lindau

Having bought some more supplies, we boarded the correct train at the correct time, and even got a DB carriage. There was nobody else in our six-seater compartment, so we converted all the seats to give ourselves a big flat space to lounge around in, and then – for the first time since leaving England – we dared to take off our boots.

 

Fűssen / Neuschwanstein (Germany)

Several changes later, including one missed connection and the wrong end of another splitting train, we arrived in the town of Fűssen. I ruefully tallied our record of correctly executed train connections in my diary: a grand total of One. Obviously there was more to this Interrail business than met the eye, but at least we could only improve.

We’d bumped into another pair of Interrailers on the train who already knew the lie of the land, so they took us on a night-time hike to a viewpoint where we could catch a glimpse of the famous castles. There are two of them, one white and one yellow, and we stared up at them spotlit against the pitch-black mountainsides, hanging up there in the stars. This was new, this was different, this was the sort of thing that we wanted to experience. We resolved to climb up to at least one of them in the morning.

While our guides returned to their hostel, we found a flat piece of grass and pitched our tent in pitch darkness, cooking tinned chicken and rice before falling into a deep and satisfied sleep.

We woke and struck camp early; necessarily so, because we had pitched our tent in the grounds of a local hotel, within view of the breakfast room, and we thought it politic to be gone before anybody noticed. We washed up and performed our ablutions down the road in the surprisingly warm waters of the Alpensee, which stands at the very foot of the Alps in a glaciated basin, and began the long climb up to the fairy-tale white castle above.

The path lead through dark and dripping pine forests, hewn out of the mud and edged with railway sleepers, with each step an awkward one-and-a-half strides. Humping metal-framed 16kg rucksacks was a bit of a chore, but finally we reached the top.

Schloss Neuschwanstein (then called Neu Hohenschwangau) was built and inhabited by “Mad King Ludwig” in the late 19th Century. He had spent the happiest days of his youth in his father’s refurbished castle, the gothic yellow Hohenschwangau that we had seen at a distance the night before. Although still rich and powerful, Ludwig’s sovereignty of the kingdom of Bavaria had been removed during a deal with Prussia, so he had it in his mind to create a small private “kingdom” which was more true to his vision of romantic Bavarian tradition. As his power dwindled, he began tinkering with the plans, focussing on the legends of the Knights Templar of the Holy Grail as his model.

Europe by Train - Neuschwanstein

Schloss Neuschwanstein from the Marienbrucke

The result is a candied confection of Gothic splendour mixed with the very latest in 1860s convenience and technology. The walls are painted with spectacular friezes from German legends, separated by buttresses painted in a crazy clash of red, blue, green and yellow. The Gothic carvings in the master bedroom are superb (apparently taking 14 master carvers 4 years to complete), and the chandeliers throughout are modelled on Byzantine crowns in gilt brass with coloured glass gems. The kitchens are massive, and filled with labour-saving devices such as rotisseries driven by smoke turbines.

The difficult but picturesque building site was originally chosen because it could be viewed dramatically from a suspended foot-bridge, the Marienbrűcke, that Ludwig’s father Maximillian had had built as a birthday present for his mountain-climbing consort, Marie. It was a hard climb up to the bridge, but worth it for the views.

Rain had begun to fall as we began our descent, this time running with our backpacks crashing around us at that wretched step-and-a-half, step-and-a-half cadence, but regardless of our efforts, we were soaked to the skin by the time we reached Fűssen. We were out of cash, but one of us had a credit card, so we treated ourselves to a decent Bavarian meal in the touristy Restaurant am Park.

 

Munich (Germany)

On the way to Munich, we met a girl from Chicago who recommended the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl for its “ethnic atmosphere”, so we dropped in to see if we could get a spot of dinner.

The enormous underground cavern was awash with music and song, packed with beer-mug thumping locals in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats. We fought our way through to an opening on a long trestle table, and tried to attract the eye of one of the impatient serving girls. Even though I spoke reasonable schoolboy German and was theoretically able to communicate effectively, everything had to be shouted over the deafening music and laughter, and the serving system proved incomprehensible. The waitresses, bulging enticingly in our teenage eyes from their traditional dirndls, seemed overwhelmed and somewhat grumpy. Some girls seemed to serve only food, and others only litres of beer, but it was never clear which we were going to get. We did, however, end up with three steins of amber nectar and a single meal of sausage and sauerkraut and sweet pastries, which we shared. Then a nearby party moved away, leaving unfinished beers, so we commandeered them, at which point the waitresses got the idea and kept bringing steins to us, whether we had specifically ordered them or not.

Europe By Train - Munich

Somewhat blurrily, David and Andrew with litre steins at the Hofbrauhaus

When we eventually staggered out into a riotous evening of street entertainers performing in the Gothic shadows of central Munich, we were perhaps a little tipsy, and somehow managed to lose Andrew on the way back to the station. Luckily we had arranged a meeting point at Platform 15, where we decanted ourselves aboard the night train to Vienna.

Three men on a train – Vienna and The Orient Express

There was only one carriage on the train that was going to Vienna, and it was jam-packed with people. We rushed on early and all three of us managed to squeeze into a compartment but there wasn’t  room for all our rucksacks, so I padlocked mine to the window outside in the corridor, between the less lucky latecomers who were squashed together out there on the floor.

We spent a fairly wretched night sat bolt upright in our cramped and stuffy compartment, although at Salzburg the corridor emptied enough to become navigable and I spent some time sitting on my rucksack in the breeze from the window. Then as we entered the final three hours of the journey, the passenger on the seat opposite to mine left the compartment , and I wasted no time reclaiming my seat and putting my feet up on his, dropping instantly into a deep and comfortable slumber.

 

Vienna (Austria)

All too soon, we found ourselves decamping somewhat dishevelled and bleary-eyed onto the platform in Vienna. An attempt to spruce ourselves up found us scalped in the station toilets and in the cafeteria; we hadn’t realised just how expensive Austria could be. We spent even more attempting to use the telephone to find a hotel, and then once again when we checked our backpacks into the left-luggage office. We hadn’t even left the station, and we had already blown a fifth of our daily budget.

We did however now have a destination in mind, a “student annexe” to a proper hotel in the centre of the city. Glad to have left our backpacks behind us, we sprinted across five-lane intersections without any understanding of how the traffic worked, found the hotel, and reserved our rooms with a handful of notes. It was so early in the morning that no rooms were yet available, but the concierge amiably agreed to let us use some showers around the corner.

Suitably refreshed, Andrew volunteered to guide us on a whistle-stop tour of the attractions of Vienna. He did a great job and we enjoyed a whirlwind of largely Gothic splendour, a pot-pourri of cathedrals, palaces and government buildings.

Europe By Train - Vienna

The stunning shiny roof of St Stephens Cathedral

Europe By Train - Vienna

Andrew and I pose outside the Hofburg Theatre

Europe By Train - Vienna

The three of us by the Pallas Athene fountain outside Parliament

The city was photogenically beautiful, and everything was conveniently situated close to the central Cathedral. The prices, however, wore us down. A combination of entrance fees and our lunch in a tourist cafe wiped us out, and we began to consider our escape to less expensive climes. The Thomas Cook International Rail Timetable, arguably one of the most amazing books ever published, showed that if we ran we could still catch a train to Hungary, which was importantly and famously inexpensive.

We made a hasty (and expensive) phone call to the hotel to cancel our reservation and, thankful that we had left our packs at the station and not at the hotel, ran for the train.

 

The Orient Express

Almost everybody has heard of the famous Orient Express, with its art-deco rolling stock and white-tablecloth service, subject of books and films throughout the twentieth century. However, none of those trains (for there have been a number of them) were in fact “The Orient Express”, although they did use those words as part of their name. The “true” Orient Express was from 1883 to 2009 the more prosaic everyday train that ran between Paris and Vienna, with sections going on to Budapest and Bucharest. The version that we caught in 1983 lacked in every way the glamour and history of the drama phenomenon.

Europe by Train: The Orient Express

All aboard the Orient Express

We managed to secure a compartment to ourselves by the now standard practice of hanging up our washing and dirty socks to make it seem less palatable to other travellers, and stretched out to enjoy the ride.

As the designated accountant for the trip, I spent some of the time totting up our IOUs and calculated that we had spent an average of £5 per person per day which, Vienna notwithstanding, meant that we were still £1 per day under budget, and we were now heading for some cheaper nations.

At the time of our visit, Hungary was still solidly behind the iron curtain. This meant that we had five separate visits from green-uniformed officials who checked for stowaways under our seats, guarded the exits at every station, and re-counted the passengers after every stop.

 

Budapest (Hungary)

As soon as we disembarked at Budapest Central, we were accosted on the platform by a man in a suit and umbrella who offered us all a room to sleep in for £9 per night. Andrew bartered him down to £6, slightly below the suggested rate in Katie Woods’ wonderful Europe By Train, which we had been using as our bible.

Our new friend Leslie led us to a money exchange where we got hold of some florints, waited while we scoffed down a welcome schnitzel and chips at the station cafe, and then took us home on the tram.

We crowded into the tiny lift of his apartment block, arrived creakily at the seventh floor, and were led into the living room of his flat. The room was packed with furniture and mats, the walls a mosaic of insulating carpet tiles, and dominating it all were a 26″ television (tuned to a single channel) and an old bakelite radiogram. Leslie gave us a soft drink, some milk, and a bowl of slightly battered pears, and we settled down to sleep wherever we could find some space.

We woke up after a good night’s sleep, and asked for some hot water to make coffee. Apparently coffee is a scarce resource here, because Leslie was very shocked when we offered to make him one, and even more shocked when Andrew left some dregs in the bottom of his cup.

Suitably refreshed, we tackled the first order of the day, which was to register our new address with the Alien Control Centre. We got back on the tram, which cost only pennies per ride, and gawked out of the windows as we traversed the ugly concrete streets, alongside tiny scurrying Lada and Skoda cars, to get to the central police station.

Europe by Train: Pigeons in Budapest

Chasing pigeons around the Ladas

Leslie handled the registration process, which involved a lot of arm-waving and discussion, while the three of us perspired freely while hemmed in and hustled about by machine-gun toting henchmen. It seemed to end well, though, because we left with papers that entitled us to stay for three days as long as we did not leave the capital city.

Three men on a Train – Budapest

We were in the Hungarian capital of Budapest with a place to stay and with permits to move about (in a limited fashion). We had cash in our pockets, and food in our bellies. A tram ticket to anywhere cost only pennies. We were wide-eyed nineteen-year-olds in an Eastern bloc communist country and it was time to go out and see what the city had to offer.

Actually no. Andrew and David were keen to buy souvenirs, so we spent a goodly amount of the day wandering around the tourist shops until their lust for t-shirts and whips had been sated. I amused myself by looking at the architecture, which had been described as “the most picturesque of the eastern cities”, but which thus far had been largely brutalist and monolithic, immense sooty-walled five-story blocks sat upon street-level shops. I hoped that things would improve when we left the shopping district.

 

Citadella on Gellért Hill, Budapest

As usual, I wanted to climb to the highest point in the city, which in the case of Budapest is Gellért Hill on the Western banks of the Danube. We set off across the dirty waters of the river by means of a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. We marvelled at the way it bounced with the passage of each successive vehicle, and turned to watch the effect of a passing truck. As it passed us, one of the steel sheets that it was carrying fell off and skittered past, narrowly missing us on the pavement. We hurried on, and then began the long climb up the extensive and picturesque stairway to the Citadella.

This fortress was built by the Hapsburgs when they gained control of the country, and was supposed to be destroyed when there was later reconciliation with Austria, but somehow that  never happened and it is now a tourist attraction on the basis of its views over Budapest, and the sculptures and monuments that have since been placed there.

Europe by Train: Budapest

The Danube and old city, from the Citadella. Historically, the city of Buda is on the left, and Pesth on the right.

Europe by Train: Budapest

A slightly different angle, showing the more modern city centre in Pesth

The fortress was reasonably interesting and the views were nice enough, improving greatly once night fell. We had a beautiful purple sunset, and then the buildings in the old town came alive with light, especially the castle and parliament building which stare at each other across the water, so we headed down towards the old town to have a look.

Europe by Train: Hungarian Parliament

The Hungarian Parliament at night

On our way, we got distracted by the sound of dance music and, by following our ears, ended up at a bar with a large open-air dance floor. The dances were complex in their footwork but were performed by linking arms to form a scattered ring formation. We watched from a terrace, and Andrew and David practised the foot movements on the table before going down to join the fray. I elected to look after our cameras and bags, and anyway I was quite happy to sit quietly with my beer.

From my elevated position, I could just make out the fact that two of the bodies were moving contrary to the general flow, although occasionally I must admit that they did seem to be doing the right thing at the right time.

After leaving the dance venue, we scoured the streets for a restaurant, and eventually caught one that was just opening. There were white table cloths, chandeliers, a live band, and a dance floor, and we felt a little out of place in our t-shirts, shorts and hiking boots. However, the waiter welcomed us in and suggested the three-course speciality with wine. Since it was easily within our budget, we gratefully tucked in to stacks of meat and vegetables, washed down with Bulls Blood wine.

After a really enjoyable meal, we found a tram heading in the right direction and climbed aboard. We already had tickets, which was necessary because you couldn’t buy them from the driver, you had to get wads of them in advance from old men who lurked in the subways under the streets. On the tram, we stamped our ticket with the hole-punch provided, which allowed us to stay aboard for as long as we liked.

We were heading for the tram interchange at Keleti Station, and in that we were successful. However, the last connecting tram home to Rákospatak Park had long since gone, so we hailed a taxi. We were low on local currency, but the driver cheerfully accepted Sterling, so we were treated to an exhilarating high-speed ride in a little Russian car over twenty minutes of cobblestones and tram lines; it should have been quicker, but he got lost.

 

Dining on the Danube

We slept in fairly late, and then I went in search of a cafe that sold Hungarian Goulash (gulyás). It was more watery than I was expecting, but with a pleasant slightly spicy taste. A passing wasp touched my plate momentarily, and instantly died. Shortly after leaving the cafe, my stomach started to rumble alarmingly and I had to find a discreet place to squat.

During a day of wandering, I realised that the beauty of the city lies not in its architecture (although Buda has its nice touches), but in the atmosphere. We were already beginning to feel right at home, and the fact that the exchange rate made us relatively wealthy did not harm our view at all. Local goods were all marvellously cheap, although imported items were likely to command vastly inflated prices. All in all we did not see many overt signs of the police state, and found young Hungarians to be helpful and friendly, older people wary at first but thawing quickly, although curiously all seemed to regard England as the epitome of freedom.

In the late afternoon, we purchased tickets for a dinner cruise along the Danube. We got aboard and ordered the first course, and then stopped to consider the scene: Three penniless students on a bread-line European tour, cruising down the Danube over the beginning of a three-course meal, washed down with creamy mocha coffee and fiercely rough Bulls Blood wine. It was so silly that we got somebody to take a photograph.

Europe by Train: Danube

Three men on a boat

Europe by Train: Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Europe by Train: Chain bridge

Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Having ordered our hors d’oeuvre (a Hungarian omelette in a spicy sauce), we ordered an inter-course second coffee, only to find that we had taken too long to order the second course because the kitchen was closing. Not to be dismayed, we decided to board the next cruise and finish the meal, if only to see the reaction of the rather pretty but confused Hungarian waitress.

Unfortunately the next sailing was already fully booked, so we decided to continue our meal in a restaurant ashore. We found one complete with a local band and wandering violin soloist, and did our best to continue our interrupted meal. Shortly after beginning my main course, the waiter smashed a glass next to my plate, covering both myself and my food in glass splinters. By the time I had removed all the shards from my bleeding knuckles, he had escaped and seemed unlikely to return to replace my meal, so I strode through the now quite crowded restaurant with my plate and buttonholed him at another table.

He eventually snatched it out of my hands and scuttled away, returning with a replacement and a nasty sneer. Thenceforth his behaviour degenerated to the downright rude, culminating in an overcharged bill, so we left with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths.

 

Three Men in a Sauna

It was our last day in Budapest, so we said goodbye to our landlord and shouldered our packs for the first time in three days. We were intending to leave from the impressive Nyugati station, and we’d heard that there was a sauna nearby. None of us had ever been to a sauna, and the thought of a relaxing bath was very attractive after a week on the road, so we bought some food for the evening and went to rent a station left-luggage locker.

Europe by Train: Backpacks

Metal-framed backpacks were state-of-the art in 1983

Unfortunately all the lockers were in use, so we re-shouldered both the packs and the shopping, and headed for the sauna. The sauna was closed.

According to our Interrail Bible, there was another one at the Hotel Gellért, back up the highest hill again. Our route took us through the Budapest Forest, a fairly attractive space in the middle of town, but to our mind nowhere near as nice as the well-planted Margit (Margaret) Island which is reached by means of a pair of curious T-shaped bridges.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was already half past three, but we bought tickets anyway for a sauna and massage. We were handed three small squares of cloth and were directed to the luggage store and changing rooms.

Once stripped down, we carefully examined the handkerchief-sized cloths, each of which had long tapes at two of the corners. After some puzzled discussion, we eventually decided that the best use was to tie it around the waist so that the tiny square hung down in front. Thus equipped, we boldly entered the sauna.

Once through the showers, a doorway led through a foot bath and into a large vault supported by stone columns and containing a shallow pool, a little over a metre deep, which was signposted as 36℃ at one end, and 38℃ at the other. A hurried glance at a couple of lounging gentlemen revealed that our handkerchiefs were being correctly worn, so after a brief swim we moved on through to the sauna proper.

The first room said 35-50℃ and held four wooden chairs. The second room said 50-60℃ and the smell of ammonia was more noticeable than the heat. I walked into the third and last room (60-70℃) and plonked myself down on a seat. It was only a little later that I noticed that other guests were tiptoeing around as if the tiles were hot coals, scrabbling for rubber foot mats, and perching gingerly on the arms and backs of the chairs. Actually it was pleasantly comfortable, and I sat back and relaxed. After a while I realised that there were two gentlemen seated at the back of the room, apparently reading newspapers. Closer investigation revealed that all the newsprint had run illegibly down the page, but I gave them ten out of ten for style.

We had been given numbered tickets for our massage, and every fifteen minutes or so the burly bald gentleman by the slab in the corner shouted out a number, and a customer made their way over. The only problem was that we didn’t  understand Hungarian, so every time he called out, we had to check to see if anybody else was moving. Eventually there was a lull where he repeated a number several times, so figuring that it was probably our turn, we made our way over.

After a gentle, relaxing, soapy massage which took all the ache out of back-pack weary shoulders, we discovered the cold pool and the steam room. The cold pool was more of a circular well, and I dove straight in before realising just how cold it was. Frozen in shock, I forgot all about coming out of the dive until I hit the bottom hard enough to graze my knuckles. Lying on the bottom of the pool, I turned slowly onto my back and peered up at the faraway circle of light, before eventually getting enough sense together to start stroking for the surface.

After that, it was a case of alternating the steam room and sauna with the cold well and bath-temperature pool until we sadly had to drag ourselves away. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, and I have been a confirmed lover of sauna ever since.

 

Back on the Rails

We’d run out of tram tickets, so we had to run for the station, where we discovered that the train timetabled for Greece was only going as far as Jugoslavia, a communist country that we knew to be completely closed to us. Never mind, we clambered aboard, and by using our usual tactics managed to commandeer a compartment to ourselves. To mark our departure from slightly wealthy to more normal Interrail living, we dined on bread and sausage, albeit washed down with a little locally-brewed cherry brandy.

We had heard rumours about the trip ahead of us, and needed to be prepared.

Three men on a train – Yugoslavia

Our Hungarian visas were expiring, and we were not keen to have another encounter with Alien Control officials, so we hoisted our backpacks and boarded the train for Athens. The route passed through communist Yugoslavia, which in 1983 was in crisis after president-for-life Tito’s death and well on its way to civil war, and it was not permitted to disembark although foreigners were allowed to travel straight through. On the other hand, we already knew that this particular train was  going to terminate early in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, where we hoped that we could get a connection through to Athens without officially crossing the border into Yugoslavia, but the immediate problem was to get out of Budapest. Concerning our route further South, all we knew for sure was that the Belgrade-Athens run was infamous for being the worst train journey in Europe.

From Hungary to Yugoslavia on the Pushkin-Athens “Express”

The Belgrade train pulled out of Budapest, and we dropped into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by the ticket inspector wanting to see our reservations. In the early hours of the morning,  it was the turn of a suspicious Hungarian Passport Control officer who compared and re-compared our faces with our photographs, before grudgingly returning our passports and leaving, but not before a final check under our seats for stowaways.

Shortly after that we were awoken once again, this time by a Yugoslav ticket collector, who merely glanced at our tickets and said “ock”, which we inferred to be a phonetic rendering of “OK”, and thus marked our passing from one communist country to the next.

Our next visitor, a laconic uniformed official of some kind, woke us up for no readily apparent reason and then moved on to the next compartment. We were just drifting back into dreamland when the Yugoslav Passport Control officer arrived. For reasons known only to himself, he stamped my currency control page and David’s US visa before continuing on his way.

We were jolted out of our slumber once again when the train made an apparently unscheduled stop to let what sounded like four hundred excited locals aboard. Fortunately the tide of humanity flowed past our little compartment to another part of the train, leaving only a thick fug of cigarette smoke.

When we finally awoke naturally, it was cold and foggy outside and we had no idea where we were, except that the train was clearly running several hours late. The carriage was bucking violently from side to side, and we inferred that at least some of the delay was down to badly laid tracks. Be that as it may, we did eventually rumble haltingly into Belgrade Central Station.

 

From Yugoslavia to Greece on the Belgrade-Athens “Express”

The Athens Express should have left an hour before we arrived, but it was still standing at the platform so we jumped aboard. It was comprised of two parts, the forward carriages going all the way to Athens and the rear carriages stopping short in Thessaloniki. The Athens end was crowded and the Thessaloniki end was not, so bearing in mind that we would be on this train for the next 24 hours and didn’t fancy sitting in the already packed Athens-bound corridor, we joined some other Interrailers in a relatively empty compartment to the rear.

The scenery passing our window was picturesque and somewhat bucolic. The train was passing through small farms, apparently worked by couples, who got around in WWII trucks, bicycles, horse-traps and ox-carts. I tried to take some pictures but the light was bad and the train was shaking around a lot.

Europe by Train: Yugoslavia

Farmers resting in Yugoslavia

Yugoslavian soldiers were patrolling the corridors, and one saw my camera and came into the compartment and indicated that taking photos was forbidden. He then stood on guard to make sure that I didn’t do it again. Presumably these were secret cabbages, unsuitable for decadent capitalist eyes.

At lunch, we discovered that the litre bottle of apple juice that we had bought in Budapest was in fact apple wine. Since it had a crown top, once it was opened we had to drink the whole thing there and then, which took our mind off our silent guard who was still carefully watching our every move.

The day wore on. The scenery became more hilly and scrubby. So far, despite a certain amount of tedium, and the fact that all the toilets were blocked and there was no tap water, the train  thankfully seemed not to be living up to its bad reputation, and our journey was reasonably pleasant. Perhaps the ticket inspectors hadn’t bothered us because our travelling companions were genuinely stopping in Thessaloniki, but at any rate they did not ask us to move from the compartment. We did take it in turns to wander down toward the Athens end, just to see what was going on, but it was difficult to get into even the first carriage as it was stuffy and crowded.

At some time in the late evening we crossed the border into Greece, and the Yugoslavian soldiers were replaced by Greek Customs officials, who gave us some forms and stamped us in. Just before midnight, Andrew found three seats available in one of the Athens carriages, so we hurried down there and installed ourselves before anybody else discovered them. It was a relief to know that we were now at the right end of the train, and, blocked toilets notwithstanding, conditions didn’t seem as bad as we had expected.

A few minutes later we stopped at a station. The ticket inspector shook his head and ejected us onto the platform, because this part of the train wasn’t going to Athens after all. We had a few moments before the train left the station, so we ran up and down until we located a genuine Athens carriage, and climbed aboard.

It was at this point that we realised just how lucky we had been. The floors and seats of the compartments were completely packed with travellers and their luggage, and we only just managed to squeeze our way into the corridor, where every inch of floor space was already taken up by bodies and sleeping bags. The toilets here were not just blocked, they had backed up and effluent was slopping out of the doorway and down the corridor. The odour competed with the thick fug of Russian tobacco, and at least one person was quietly throwing up.

We wrapped towels around our heads and curled up into the tiny space left to us, and thanked our lucky stars that we hadn’t been stuck on this carriage for the whole of the previous day.

We had dropped off into an uneasy sleep, when at some time in the small wee hours, the train jolted and stopped. There were some muffled bangs – presumably the disconnecting Thessaloniki carriages – and the train started to move again. We started to drift off again, but were disturbed by some guards who came trampling through our prone bodies, demanding that we all stand up and follow them. We did, and like rats following the pied piper, trooped through the rattling carriages, collecting ever more suffering souls along the way.

At the end of the train, as if by magic, there was a fresh new empty coach with working toilets. We all piled in, got comfortable, and finally fell into a proper sleep. The train was by now running two hours late, but nobody cared.

Three men on a train – Athens

Ancient Athens

After somehow escaping the worst horrors of the infamous Belgrade Express, we finally emerged onto Greek soil and stood blinking in the hot sun of Athens.

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Mount Lycabettus rising above the city of Athens

As had become customary on this trip, Andrew and David wanted to buy souvenirs, so we took a subway to the Flea Market, where I hung around on a street corner with our packs while the others went shopping. The market was a deafening mixture of large motorcycles and shouting men selling just about any possible item that you could imagine. The hot sun was wonderful, although by the time others came back, the sweat was pouring out from beneath my hat and down my back.

Shopping duties done, we visited the Acropolis, the ancient citadel high above the city. Perhaps the most famous building there is the Parthenon, an ancient temple which was being rebuilt when we arrived (I noted in my diary that it would be impressive when the work was complete, but when I returned 15 years later, the scaffolding was still up).

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The Parthenon at the Acropolis, artfully photographed to avoid the building works

Europe by Train - Athens Acropolis

Andrew and I and some other skinny people at the Acropolis

From the Acropolis is was a hot hike in the midday sun to the Agora, once the civic centre of ancient Athens. Now it is a wide area of ruins with an interesting museum of salvaged statues and columns at one end, and the almost complete Temple of Hephaestus at the other. We caught the temple just as the sun was setting, and prevailed upon a friendly tourist to take a picture of us.

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A byzantine church that we passed on the way to the Agora, photographed over a chain-link fence

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Temple of Hephaestus, at the Agora

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Three men at the Temple of Hephaestus

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Those three men again

Patras, Kyllini and beyond

We realised that we had given ourselves far too little time to explore Athens, but it was getting late and we needed somewhere cheap – or preferably, free – to sleep, so we caught a train to Patras. We arrived after midnight, and the whole platform was lined with the sleeping forms of other interrailers, all waiting for the morning train. We set up our sleeping bags and set about preparing our dinner. Although Greece wasn’t as expensive as northern Europe, it was still much more expensive than the Eastern bloc, so rather than try to dine locally we laid out the last of our Hungarian provisions. Our knowledge of written Hungarian was shaky at best, so we weren’t entirely sure what was in the cans that we had brought from Budapest. In the event, we feasted on sardine sandwiches and chicken-flavoured baby food. Well, it could have been worse.

We had a pleasant sleep on the platform and then I was grateful for a wash in the station bathroom. From my diary, I see that this was also my first encounter with squat toilets, which I found simple enough to deal with, especially when wearing a backpack because I could rest it against the wall behind me to take the weight off my calves.

Although we were up and about at first light, some of the other interrailers were still asleep when the station opened. These unfortunates were unceremoniously and vigorously woken by the station master, who was clearly used to finding comatose bodies when he came to work, but who didn’t want his station to look like a doss-house when the first train arrived.

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Interrailers waiting for the train at Patras station

While waiting for our train to Kyllini where we intended to catch a ferry to Zakynthos, we were accosted by one of those travelling Americans that you bump into from time to time. His story was that he had retired at 40 and made his living buying and selling yachts, and had spent most of his time since travelling from country to country and (if he was to be believed) picking up girls. Before he left, he introduced us to a group of three girls travelling together, which caused much embarrassed eye-rolling among the six of us.

The Kyllini train was wonderful. The tracks ran straight down to the sea and just sort of petered out into the sand, at which point we climbed down directly onto the beach. The sun was high in a perfect blue sky over golden sand, and we felt that we had truly arrived in the Greece of picture postcards.

It was lunch time, we had skipped breakfast, and there was a restaurant close at hand. Of course we spoke no Greek, but Andrew and David hatched a plan to use some of the phonetic translations in the Interrail Bible. They proudly pronounced their syllables, and were escorted into the kitchen where they were invited to select the raw ingredients for our meal. When they returned to our table, they still had no idea what they had ordered, but when it arrived it was a very tasty dish of grilled purple squid with a tomato salad. Unfortunately it was also extremely expensive, blowing our budget for the day.

Later that afternoon, we secured tickets on the MV Martha (costing a mere third of the price of our lunch), and climbed onto the rooftop deck as she set sail for the Ionian island of Zakynthos.

Three men on a train – Zakynthos

Welcome to Zakynthos

The island of Zakynthos loomed out of the sea mist ahead, surrounded on all sides by seas of the most incredible shade of blue. As our ferry drew closer, we could make out the harbour of Zakynthos town, crouching down against the water front, nestled under the vertical craggy inland terrain.

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Approaching Zakynthos town harbour

We had no idea what to expect. As this was the half-way point of our Grand Tour, we had decided to rest for a week on one of the half-dozen Ionian islands, and had more or less randomly picked this one according to the timetables of the trains and ferries available to us.

We knew that the island was about ten miles across, and we had a vague plan of hiking over the centre to the other side, to see what adventures awaited us. We were footloose and fancy-free, and the world was our oyster.

Within seconds of disembarking, we were approached by a man who wanted to rent us a moped. A few yards later, somebody else asked us the same question. Behind him, several more salesmen were queueing up. Shaking our heads – we had barely set off on our hike, and none of us had ever ridden a motorcycle anyway – we made our way past the clamouring touts, our backpacks weighing heavily as the sun beat down on our heads. About a hundred yards further on, we gave in and rented three mopeds for the rest of the week.

The search for the perfect beach

The concept of twist-and-go was simple enough, but the little 50cc machines weren’t really designed to handle a strapping teenager with an enormous backpack. We’d only travelled a short distance up the road before I discovered that pushing mine to 28mph resulted in a loud “bang” and the ejection of a fair bit of oil. I stopped to have a look but couldn’t see any obvious damage and anyway it was still running, so I decided to ignore it. However, while we paused to examine it, Andrew’s moped stalled and wouldn’t start again.

A friendly man came out of his house and pointed knowledgeably at Andrew’s carburettor, then went indoors to phone our hire shop. While we sat on the road and waited to be rescued, the his whole family emerged and sat down with us. We couldn’t understand a word they said, and vice-versa, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

After a while, the rental man showed up with a replacement machine, and we said goodbye to our new friends and putt-putted away to find a beach to sleep on. The first one wasn’t really what we were looking for, and then we got lost in the enjoyment of buzzing along deserted, winding country lanes, learning how to ride the little machines and occasionally “racing” the locals.

Europe by Train - Moped Zakynthos

One man on a moped

By now it was fully dark, and we found that the pitiful light from the tiny glow-worm lamps completely failed to allow us to distinguish between the sandy road surface and the sandy verges. While we paused to sort out a minor crash where Andrew had thought that the road went one way, and I had thought that it went another, an English couple showed up and gave us directions to a good camping beach. Straightening out our handlebars, we set off along a tortuously winding road resembling a quarry track bent into the shape of a stack of paper-clips.

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Two men on mopeds

Higher and higher we climbed, wondering why we were going up when surely a beach should be down, until the road degenerated into a pile of rocks on a hill crest. It seemed that it was indeed a quarry after all.

We turned around, and tried a different direction. The evening wore on, and we were getting saddle-sore and tired. Eventually, in a village called Orthonies, Andrew met some children who said that we could camp in the grounds of their school. Since it was all concrete, we couldn’t pitch a tent, so we simply lay down on the ground.

In the interests of saving weight, we had all three of us made some personal compromises when we packed for the trip. David, for instance, had left his boots at home and wore only trainers, something that he had regretted when tramping around Vienna. My concession had been to leave my big heavy sleeping bag at home, instead opting for an orange plastic survival bag. This was all very well on the floor of a train, but desperately cold on plain concrete, and I woke next morning frozen and soaked with condensation.

I lay in quiet dampness, thinking about nice warming Hungarian Cherry Brandy, until the local church started broadcasting its service over a loudspeaker, which woke the others and we had a second try at finding the perfect beach. To cut a long story short, we did eventually discover a perfect little cove near Askos, and went for a welcome cleansing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean.

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Andrew enjoys our first water since Hungary

 

The kindness of strangers

The scenery on the island was beautiful and varied, ranging from terrace-farmed olives groves clambering up the sides of the blue-tinted mountains, to wide flat vineyards, ever-changing vistas against the backdrop of an azure sea.

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Almost every twist and turn on Zakynthos seems to reveal a new and beautiful vista

But it wasn’t the physical beauty that impressed us most. Everywhere we went on this fabulous island, we were welcomed with friendliness, humour, and unthinking generosity. At one small shop, we put our meagre drachmas together and bought mackerel, biscuits, and fizzy drinks. An elderly customer came into the shop, saw our haul, and handed each of us a thick crust of sweet bread. Thanking her, and not wanting it to go stale, we decided to sit down outside the shop and eat our lunch there and then. We settled down in the road and realised that we needed some fruit, so popped back into the shop to get some grapes. The shopkeeper quietly and without fuss popped an extra loaf of bread into my bag.

We returned a few days later to get the deposit on our fizzy drink bottles and to stock up on biscuits, chocolates, and more drinks. The kindly shopkeeper once again donated a fresh loaf of bread to the cause, refusing any payment.

On another occasion, David had run out of fuel, so I headed off to Askos to get some. There was no fuel station in the usual sense, but by pointing at things I was directed to a private house where they gravely mixed oil and petrol in my empty orange-juice container and then waved their hands around excitedly when I tried to pay.

I returned to the others, we redistributed the available fuel, and then once all the bikes were running, we went back to the same house to fill our tanks. David – who speaks Italian – heard somebody conversing in that language and asked if there was somewhere that we could change English money into drachmas. It turned out that we’d have to go back to Zakynthos Town for that kind of service, but we were invited in for a coke and our Italian-speaking friend sketched out a deal where he gave us the bank exchange rate for our tenner, less a pound for his expenses, which made everybody happy.

And then there was the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a kebab, and somehow ended up with pork, salad, chips and wine. When we had paid our bill, and got our map out to plan our nightly search for a beach to sleep on, the kindly owner insisted that we camp for the night inside the restaurant.

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These lovely people insisted that we sleep in their well-stocked bar, next to the till

 

Fire on the mountain

After an enjoyable day hacking around in the mountains and swimming in the sea, we found ourselves running low on petrol high up on a pass. Partly to conserve fuel, and partly just for the fun of it, we freewheeled down the mountain with the engines off for about six miles. Half way down, we noticed that a bush fire had started and was blazing fiercely along the hillside, so we made a note to report it if we ever saw anyone, because this was in the deserted southern end of the island and we hadn’t seen another soul all day.  We rolled to a stop outside a small dark cafe, and I went inside to see if I could sound the alert. There were a number of men drinking in the dark cave of the interior, and none of them understood what I was trying to tell them. Eventually I dragged the owner outside and pointed up at the thickening pall of smoke and the flicker of red flame that was advancing closer with every passing minute.

Europe by Train - FIre on the mountain

Fire on the mountain

Now he got excited and rapped on the open door of the cafe, shouting at his customers, who came tumbling out blinking in the evening sun. After a swift discussion they tumbled back in, and then emerged once more carrying tables, chairs, table cloths, glasses, and finally a large carafe of retsina, and we all sat and drank and watched as the sun set behind the flames.

It was here that I drank my very first ouzo. I instantly became a fan, which the proprietors found entertaining. One thing led to another, and it seemed but an eye-blink before it was full dark and we started preparing to set up our tent on the nearby village green. Our new friends the cafe owners pointed out that they already had a tent pitched permanently there, and offered to lend it to us for the night. Thanking them profusely, we moved in and found that it was a trailer with double beds; complete luxury!

 

David’s nemesis

David has a thing about insects, and a particular hatred of wasps, against which no reasoned logic will prevail. While exploring the southern end of the island, we stopped at a waterfront cafe in Ormos Korioy where, sitting at an outside table, we ordered three large pork chops with trimmings.

It wasn’t long before a curious wasp appeared. It buzzed in a desultory fashion around our plates and was about to continue on its way to look for more waspy fare, when David started shouting and swatting at it. This made it more curious about what he was defending, and it became more insistent. By the time Andrew and I had finished our meals in unmolested comfort – apart from choking with laughter – David’s plate was surrounded by fifteen excited insects, with the man himself cursing loudly and bashing away at them with napkins and cutlery. In the end, he had to abandon his lunch to a sea of yellow bodies.

When it became time to pay, Andrew suddenly realised that he had left his money belt at our last swimming beach, so he and I rode off to retrieve it while David held the fort at the restaurant. Luckily the belt was still jammed into a rock crevice where he had left it. Andrew decided to celebrate with another swim, so I returned to a rather hungry David, who had calmed down somewhat now that his crawling plate had been cleared away by the bemused staff.

We ordered fizzy pop to pass the time until Andrew returned. As soon as David opened his bottle, a wasp arrived at full speed and with incredible precision dived straight down the neck. Giggling as David cursed, I managed to extricate it from the bottle with a straw. It walked around looking stunned, then shook off the sugary nectar and launched itself straight at David, who took off at a run. When Andrew arrived, I was speechless with laughter and David and his pursuer were starting their third circumnavigation of the restaurant.

 

Lumps, bumps, and pointy things

All of the bikes were by now looking a bit worse for wear. Mine had a soggy chain-tensioner and a tendency to rattle and spit oil. Andrew’s was difficult to start and so he tended to leave it running all day. David’s sucked fuel at an alarming rate, so that on three separate occasions he ran out and one of us had to go in search of supplies. Each of the machines also showed signs of being dropped, from bent controls to scratches to a smashed headlamp.

The damage was not just restricted to the machines. We were all new to motorcycling, and we were wearing oversized backpacks and riding underpowered mopeds in shorts and T-shirts on gravel roads. It’s not surprising that we endured a number of minor bumps and scrapes, and between us we sported a good selection of minor gravel rash on hands, arms and legs.

Having thoroughly explored the northern and southern corners of this triangular island, we proceeded eastward to the more populated areas near to Zakynthos Town. It was on a blind hairpin near Port Zorro that Andrew performed his most spectacular dismount, propelled face-first through the gravel by the full weight of his backpack.

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Simultaneously safe and stylish

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Gravel rash

Some friendly locals brought a bowl of water so that we could clean up his rather ugly gravel rash, but Andrew was not seriously injured and it was all a bit of a joke and a lucky escape until we found that he had forgotten to get inoculated for tetanus. We got directions to the nearest hospital, but when we got there we were told that we should have brought the serum with us, as they didn’t keep stocks on site. We could buy them at a chemist, but of course the chemists were now closed, so we headed up the mountain for the night.

In the morning we returned to Zakynthos Town, and Andrew popped into a chemist for some antibiotics and his tetanus jab. He came out carrying a small package and looking a bit perturbed, and it transpired that the assistant had given him a loaded syringe and mimed that he had to find somewhere quiet and stick it in his backside. Perhaps wisely declining all offers of help, Andrew disappeared behind some bushes and emerged a little later, slightly pale and shaky but with the job done.

 

A bit of spit and polish

It was just as well that we had returned to Zakynthos Town for Andrew’s medication, because my bike was now running very rough indeed and wouldn’t go faster than 12mph, and I reckoned there was very little life left in it. We parked as quietly as possible around the corner from the hire place, and strolled innocently past to sneak a look at the gleaming machines lined up outside the shop. Then we returned to our battered, dust-coated wrecks, with their fractured headlamps and bent pedals, leaking oil and petrol, and gave up wondering if anybody would notice the difference.

Andrew and David started hammering out some of their bent metal with rocks, while I went round wiping off the encrusted dirt and fluids with a pack of paper hankies that David had found in his backpack. Once we’d got the poor things looking as clean and straight as possible, Andrew – whose machine had fared the worst – gave his an extra shine with sun-tan oil, and we putt-putted gently around the corner to the rental shop.

The guy barely batted and eyelid, merely charging Andrew an extra fiver for his busted headlamp and bent pedal. We counted this as a favourable result, and went off to celebrate in town before the ferry office opened.

Three men on a train – Pompeii and Vesuvius

Slightly tanned and completely relaxed from our idyllic week on the Greek island of Zakynthos, we caught the leisurely ferry across to Italy. The boat decanted us onto the dock, from which it was a straightforward walk up the main street to the train station. Unfortunately, this is the only possible route and the locals are fully aware of it; the road was a frantic, seething and expensive tourist trap. We paid the exorbitant price for bottled water, because we were hot and needed the fluid, but reckoned that we had enough left-over solid food in our backpacks to see us through to a less money-grabbing town.

It was much quieter inside the station, where we sat on a deserted platform and put together a meal of sorts from the remnants that we had left over from our ferry trip.  We were sitting quietly, sipping our luxury water, when a train pulled in.

Everything went crazy. From nowhere, the platform suddenly filled with Italians, all running around shouting at each other, at staff, at passengers, and at random passers-by. Nobody got on or off the train apart from a handful of bewildered Interrailers who fought their way through the crowds to the exit. The train departed, everybody vanished, and suddenly it was all quiet again. The platform was deserted, apart from three baffled young Englishmen, chewing slowly on two-day old bread rolls.

Our own train wasn’t due for some hours, so I took a deep breath and popped out to see what the town was like at night. I stepped out into a street packed with yelling, screaming, snogging locals, their bodies packed across the entire width of the road, driving their motorcycles down the pavement and generally having a wild time. I’d just spent several days bimbling around in the wilderness and swimming in deserted seas, so it was all rather a shock. I forced myself to conform to the snails-pace push-and-shove just long enough to buy an extortionate can of lemonade and some chocolate, and then meekly retraced my steps to the station.

On my return, I found Andrew and David chatting to Mike and Jez, a couple of Interrailers heading in the same direction, who had found that beer from a supermarket was far cheaper than my soft drink, and indeed any soft drink, including water.

Five men in Pompeii

After a good sleep on the overnighter to Naples, we caught the local underground train to the ruins of Pompeii, only to find that we had arrived several hours too early. Mike and Jez were still with us, so we hung about and drank beer in the sun until the site finally opened.

After baulking a little at the entrance price, we all found ourselves delighted. Even though much of the area originally excavated in the 1960s is now closed to the public for conservation reasons, the remaining area to explore is still enormous.

Three men on a train - Pompeii sign

Walk carefully!

Despite (or because of) having been inundated by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the town is marvellously well-preserved. We stared in wonder at the original paintings, frescoes and shop signs, as well as the occasional shadow of a body, preserved by injecting plaster into the person-shaped hole left in the volcanic ash after the original had rotted away (although most of these had been spirited away to other museums).

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Pompeii must have been a colourful town in its day

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The amphitheatre at Pompeii (a decade earlier, the site of the recording of the eponymous Pink Floyd album)

There was plenty of room to wander. Most of the buildings had been truncated at just over head-height, giving the feeling of a Romanesque tiled maze, punctuated by ponds, fountains, baths and weirs. Every now and then I would turn a corner and find myself walking down an avenue of stone columns dotted with vibrant palm trees.

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Wandering around in the Pompeii maze

I completely fell in love with the civil engineering. The stone roadways are rutted by the passage of cart wheels, and at the end of each street there are holes drilled through the kerb stones where you can hitch your animals. It had never occurred to me before how messy a horse-based economy must be, but the roads run 18″ below the pavement to give space for the ordure. Pedestrian crossings are achieved by the placement of large stepping stones to keep feet out of the mire, with the stones separated by gaps to allow the passage of cart wheels. I am sure that on warm days, you could cut the air with a knife.

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Downtown Pompeii, with end-of-street markers in the foreground, and poo stepping stones in the background

The sun was getting pretty fierce, and the site began to quiet down for siesta time. We decided that we needed to go and see the volcano that had caused the whole disaster, so we climbed back down into the cool dark of the underground train system.

 

Three men up a Volcano

The train dropped us deep in the slums of Naples, with no obvious sign posts or even street markings. We didn’t need directions, though, because the volcano rose impressively out of the smog in front of us, and so we hid our cameras and money-belts and set off confidently toward it.

The city seemed to consist entirely of decaying buildings and rotting garbage. In the violent midday heat, we clambered up through layers of foetid odours, trying our best to avoid the indescribable streams that ran down the cobbled streets. I had pondered earlier on the possible smells of Pompeii in its heyday, and I suspect that these modern streets came close.

Finally we emerged from the indescribably foul city and onto the flanks of the volcano itself. Sweat pouring off our bodies in streams, we managed to hitch a ride up to the base of the chairlift.

The chair was very expensive, even more so than entry to Pompeii, but we were so hot and sweaty that we couldn’t face humping our backpacks any further.

The chairlift was magical. Apart from the slight hum of the tower wheels and the distant click of cameras, the journey to the summit was silent and very peaceful, revealing a breathtaking panorama. As we rose higher, the whole of Naples came into view, the squalor masked by distance, against a back-drop of mountain-tops poking up ethereally through the cloud.

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Naples looks considerably better from a distance

At the top, we were met by a guide who apparently came with our chairlift ticket. His English was almost incomprehensibly accented, but he did rather amusingly demonstrate the echo across the crater. We were able to wander around the caldera a bit, but there had been some recent rumbles and a lot of the path was fragmented and inaccessible. That said, to our eighteen-year old eyes there was disappointingly little overt activity, just a few small fumaroles, but the size of the volcano was impressive and the views more than compensated.

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Standing right on the edge of the caldera

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David, not quite so close to the edge.

We were enjoying ourselves so much that we rather lost track of the time. Suddenly we realised that we only had three and a half hours to make the four-hour journey back to Naples Central station, so we set off down the volcano at a run. The road had recently been distorted by  recent volcanic activity, and now the first part of the journey down was actually uphill. Eventually we crested the rise and began swiftly to descend.

Following the success of our previous hitch up to the base of the chairlift, we decided to see if we could get a lift from one of the occasional passing cars. We didn’t having too much joy, because after all, who has room for three large men with backpacks?

A bus rumbled past. David optimistically stuck his thumb out. “Don’t be stupid,” I said, “you can’t hitch a ride on a bus”. There was a whistle of air-brakes and it came to a stop, the doors opening invitingly. David shouted something in Italian, and we climbed aboard.

It was quite a swanky bus, but all the seats were full so we stood in the central aisle, reeking of sweat and banging people with our backpacks. At least some of the paying passengers appeared to share my opinion about the logic of hitching on buses, and a voluble argument broke out. The driver shrugged, closed the doors, and took off like a bat out of hell.

We were assailed from all sides by the stony glares of the tourists, but soon all we cared about was hanging on to the ceiling straps as we tore down the small, winding road only inches from the precipitous drop. Perhaps in direct response to his passengers’ complaints, the driver took an unscheduled detour to drop us at the only train station for which we had valid tickets.

David still reckons that we owe him for that one.

 

Three men on a train – Venice

In an effort to conserve money on accommodation, we had spent most of our nights thus far under canvas. Venice and Rome were next on our itinerary, and were unlikely to offer either camp sites or inexpensive hotels. Examining our Thomas Cook timetables, we noticed that the two cities were separated by an overnight train, so we hatched a plan to spend a total of two days in each city, but alternating each night in order to get a free sleep on the train as we travelled back and forth.

We were going to begin right away by taking a day train from Naples to Rome, and then immediately boarding the night train to Venice. That meant that we needed to stock up on provisions, so we popped into a local supermarket to get some bread and meat.

Much of our short experience of Italian life had been bewildering, and the meat counter was no less so. All the prices were marked in lire per pound of meat. We asked for a quarter of a pound, but were given quarter of a kilo, which was substantially larger and thus more expensive. Luckily David spoke enough Italian to sort that one out, but apparently it was no mistake, that was simply the way things were done. Meat is priced by the pound, but sold by the kilo.

Once in Rome, we hung around on the platform waiting for the overnight to Venice. To our surprise, we bumped into Keith and Lee, friends from our school days, who were also heading to Venice but they were travelling in style and had stumped up for a couchette on a sleeper train.

We waited for our own regular train, but it never showed up. Seeing that the sleeper train hadn’t departed, we ambled over for a chat with Keith and Lee, who kindly offered to share their reserved compartment with us. The train was cramped and crowded, and sleep came with difficulty, but we were on the way to Venice.

 

Venice

We could not fail to be impressed by Venice. The back streets and back waters were fantastically peaceful and quiet, with not a car engine to be heard. Highly polished wooden taxi-boats skimmed beneath the stone-arched bridges, or dodged around gleaming black gondolas.

Europe by train - Gondola

A gondola waits on a quiet backwater

The winding cobbled ‘roads’, only ten feet across, were lined with colourful shops selling the fine local glassware and beautiful pastries. We were surprised to find that the prices were the cheapest that we had encountered in Italy, and we lounged on the banks of the Grand Canal eating luxuriously soft crusty rolls, cheese and salami, watching the life of the city pass by on the water.

Europe by train - Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The city had a strangely magical air. Squinting my eyes and looking carefully at each building in isolation, I could clearly see that they were rotting and crumbling away, but as soon as I stepped back and viewed them in the context of the wider city, they were magically transformed into beautiful avenues.

Europe by train - Venice

Ambling around in Venice

We queued briefly to get in to the Basilica on St Marks Square, which was very impressive indeed. Every inch of its structure seemed to be painted with gold leaf. The nearby Doge’s Palace was also marvellous, I joked that it was a bit like the Basilica converted to living quarters.

Europe by train - Doge

A typical gilded ceiling in the Doge’s Palace

The Palace was not all about the gilded ceilings; the dungeons were particularly atmospheric, with a feeling of hopelessness and despair that could not even be dispelled by noisy American tourists.

During our travels, we had become slowly accustomed to the strange European practice of paying to go to the toilet. In Venice, though, they had taken the concept to a whole new level. At the station, instead of a cleaner sitting by a saucer of coins, I encountered a man with a cash register. There was a menu of price options according to the intended nature of the visit, and after paying I received a paper receipt. Once inside, my receipt was taken by a girl who led me to a freshly cleaned cubicle. When I had done my business, she led me to an exit door which opened out onto a softly furnished waiting area, complete with daily newspapers, where my friends were waiting.

With several days to explore, we tended to split up and go wandering. Venice is made for that kind of exploratory ambling, and there was a kind of natural gravitation to the steps of the main station, where those travellers who cannot afford to do the tourist thing in St Marks Square sit and smoke or picnic.

Europe by train - St Marks

Dining al fresco in St Marks Square