Having recently purchased a pair of Brompton folding bicycles, we thought that we’d take them to Bordeaux, so we fairly randomly booked in to a guesthouse, 123 Chemin du Bord de l’Eau in Macau, just down the road from St Emilion and Margaux. The owners were away when we arrived, although their gardener let us in and made us comfortable, so we set off in the evening to find something to eat. It is the off season, so every business in Macau is closed, apart from the pizza shop.
Stephan the pastry chef had a good laugh when we told him about my wheat allergy, because he only cooks pizza and bread. However, he worked out a neat compromise by baking a pizza with a cream sauce instead of tomato. That way I could pick off the correctly cooked toppings without getting them contaminated with the bread crust. Brilliant! And naturally, we washed it down with a nice bottle of Bordeaux.
The next morning we cycled out to nearby Margaux in search of an open vineyard.
Most vineyards were closed for the off season, but we did come across Chateau Dauzac, where the wonderfully welcoming staff were dumbfounded to see tourists so far out of season, but gave us a great tour and wine tasting.
On our return, the owner was back, the incomparable Serge: Ex-restaurateur, ex-wine maker, now hotelier, chef and artist. We all got on well and Serge announced that he would cook dinner for us, producing awesome quantities of foie gras both au naturel and lightly fried in duck fat, also figs grilled with goat’s cheese, and endless superb rich dishes washed down with lashings of wine. He even invited us to share a bottle of his very own St Emilion wine, which is no longer in production but quite lovely. We had not initially intended to stay another night, but changed our minds and agreed to return after visiting St Emilion.
The town of St Emilion is beautiful. We did bring our bicycles with us, but after one look at the steep cobbled streets, we decided to explore on foot. Previously a fortified town, St Emilion stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking its vineyards. I would imagine that it is probably crammed with tourists in the summer, but on this January weekend it is empty.
The fifth century church is a marvel, with its domed ceilings and extensive gothic extensions.
From a local shop, Bronwyn obtained the key to the clock tower (Closter), to give us unrivalled views of the town.
Before leaving St Emilion, Serge had arranged for us to visit another vineyard, Chateau Figeac, where we and some visiting Italians were given a good-humoured tour by an impressively multilingual guide.
Back at the house, Serge excelled himself, and co-opting Bronwyn as a willing sous-chef, produced a marvellous tuna savichi, followed by langoustines and a stupendous magret du canard. To top it all off, Serge produced his own creation Framboise Tchekhov, a marvellous dish of strawberries in a caramelised sauce.
On the next morning, resisting the temptation to stay for the rest of the year, we packed up the bikes, and – promising to return – headed for the Pyrenees.
A mid-morning start on a beautiful day. We were embarking on what would turn out to be an eleven hour motorcycle ride from Utrecht in Holland to Angers in France, to meet up with the rest of that loose group of bikers, the Lemmings, for a weekend touring the Loire Valley.
Breakfast in Mons
To break up the journey, we stopped in the Belgian town of Mons for lunch in the picturesque central square, where they were setting up a music festival. The sun was shining and the populace were gearing up for a party, and it was tempting to stay, but we forced ourselves to finish our meal and continue on our way.
By the time we hit Paris it was the rush-hour, and the Periphique was a marvel to behold. Above and beyond the normal scalectrix free-for-all, hundreds of motorbikes were hammering conga-fashion between every lane of cars. Loaded with a full pannier system, we were a little bit wider than average, so I kept pulling over into the main traffic streams to let the slimmer bikes behind me past; about half a dozen at a time, and on on occasion at least six police motorcycles. At one time I snuck in behind an ambulance that was doing its own filter between the lanes, sirens blazing, and I was quite stunned when it pulled over into traffic to let me past…
We finally met up with the others at their Angers hotel at 9pm. There was little time to do anything but drink lots of beer and fall asleep.
Sneezing in Angers
On the next morning we rode into Angers itself to have a look around the town. It is situated at one end of a mediaeval stone bridge over the Loire, and mostly sits inside a fortress, packed with tiny cobbled streets arranged around a central castle. Those buildings that were not timber-framed were constructed from tufa, a light-coloured stone that is popular with stone-carvers, and which also accounts for the warm honey-colour of the bridges and chateaux in this region. The castle had a functioning drawbridge over the moat with an Audi parked on it, draped with a wedding couple and orbited by a photographer who was trying to fit pictures in between the tourists streaming through the gateway.
I couldn’t even get close to the castle – or more particularly to its gardens – because there was something in the air that day and my nose was streaming. I couldn’t even approach the entrance portcullis without collapsing into paroxysms of sneezing, so we gave it a miss and headed upriver to nearby Saumur.
Mushrooms in Saumur
Saumur is dominated by a chateau that looks down on the town and its bridge, but we were headed for the outskirts and a mushroom museum. This was part of an underground mushroom farm situated in a tufa-rock mine, and was not only fascinating but also blessedly cool. For the benefit of tourists, they were growing mushrooms in the traditional heaps as well as the more modern beds and bags, and the workers delayed picking until the evening so that the maximum number of fruiting bodies were showing during the day.
The whole thing was fascinating, and topped off by a beautifully presented museum that must have contained samples of every mushroom in Europe, each preserved in a perspex block and mounted in a niche hollowed from the tufa wall.
On to Orleans
It was well past lunchtime and we had a hundred miles to go to the next hotel, so we made a start by cruising up the river toward Tours. The road was superb, built on top of a levee with broad sweeping bends that followed the sinuous path of the beautiful green-shrouded Loire, offering views across the rivers many islands and out across the surrounding vineyards. By the time we got to Tours it was well past five, so we hammered down to motorway to our destination just south of Orleans and a well-earned meal.
Another sunny day dawned. As well as wine, this region is also famed as the home of the French perfume industry, so our first call was a perfume museum on the outskirts of Orleans. This was set in the Chateau Chamerolles, and arranged sequentially through a series of rooms each decorated in the style of a particular century, with the history of perfume interwoven with the history of France. It was very well done, and terminated in a darkened room containing examples of many kinds of glass perfume bottle, each set upon a tiny black uplighter so that it appeared to hang suspended and glowing from within in the darkness.
In Orleans itself, the centre of town had been cordoned off and laid out as a karting track. Other stalls had been set up in the locality, and I got hoisted up at the end of a crane to look down on the cathedral and the city, before wandering through the old quarter and down to paddle our feet in the river by the inevitable mediaeval bridge. The river was immensely wide here, but still flowed very fiercely indeed.
The old quarter came alive at night, and all the restaurants and bars spilled out onto the pavement. The food came and the alcohol flowed, and then before we knew it, it was morning and we were back on the bike for the eleven hours of riding back to Utrecht.
Luckily the beautiful weather held, and we stopped here and there to eat, drink and rest. Just over the Belgian border we happened to turn off into the town of Dour, which managed to live up perfectly to its name, completely failed to provide us with any food, and whose main attraction, as far as we could see, was the immense queue of people waiting for the bus out of town. However, we knew that Mons was nearby, so we decided to try our luck there again.
Back to Mons
The music festival appeared to be over, but the townspeople of Mons were having yet another party, this one related to dragons. The main square was packed with impromptu bars where they sold wicked-looking Belgian beer in huge flagons, and we ended up back at the same restaurant, as it was the only place that hadn’t foregone food preparation in preference to the sale of rivers of alcohol.
Still, we were looking forward to sitting in the square watching the world bustle by, chased by friendly street-sellers with fistfuls of hats, balloons and dragons. Everyone was having a great time, but we had some more mileage to cover, so regretfully we passed up on the local beer, bought a passing dragon-on-a-stick and pointed the bike toward Holland and home.
The time had come for me to leave my home country of England, and seek my fortune overseas. I secured a work contract in the mediaeval Dutch city of Utrecht, and – having no further ties – swung my leg over my motorcycle and headed for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone.
The Channel Tunnel
The Chunnel train looked very French, big corrugated metal slab-sided carriages with tiny windows. I am the only biker in a queue of cars, and an official in a bright yellow jacket waved me to one side and continued to guide each car into one of two doors set into the side of the train, one leading to an upper deck and one to a lower. Every now and then he made twisting motions with both hands to indicate that a motorist should turn their lights off, but I can’t see why.
Evidently I will be the last vehicle to board. The official grins sympathetically as I put my feet up on the handlebars and lie back, watching the rain dripping off my visor. At the last moment another bike appears, a two-up British Kwak Harley-a-like, all chrome and leather. The official drags an orange trolley out of hiding and places it on the floor of the last carriage. It has widely spread arms that lie flat on either side to stop it from falling over, and two swivel-mounted cups that are meant to hold the tyre. The cruiser noses its front wheel into the first cup, and the official guides the other into place, neatly holding the entire bike upright. Within moments my own bike is similarly secured, and I look at it curiously, wondering how they are going to get it out again.
A pretty French blonde appears, similarly encased in bright yellow, and checks that we have left the bikes in gear. I wander off to find a toilet – the doors between the carriages have electronic locks controlled by illuminated orange buttons which take several seconds to unlock the manually-pushed doors – and before I know it we are moving. A number of public announcements are made in French and English, repeated in both languages on overhead illuminated scrolling signs. I strike up a conversation with the other bikers, who are travelling to Antwerp and thus in my direction. He was originally Flemish but now lives in England; his partner, a tiny dark girl with a big smile and curious marks on each cheek, was originally from South America. They warn me that there is no petrol for 60 miles after you get off the train, but I have ample in the tank. They plan to stop and eat at their usual place just outside Brugge, and I think that it might be worth staying with them for the company on the road.
Now in France, all the connecting doors between the carriages are opened and the vehicles roll out along the body of the train and out the front (where did the engine go?) into the drizzle. Unloading the bikes is very straightforward, as the trolleys just spit us out when they are rolled away. Nice design, top marks.
Riding through Belgium in the rain
Up the familiar coast road, following the Kwak, which puts on a good 130kph pace, about what I would have chosen myself, though it can’t have been much fun for them with their open-face helmets. At the border with Belgium, the rain began in earnest, and I was glad to have plastic gloves on underneath my leather ones. An hour later and my boots started to fill up with water, absorbed through the leather and goretex by the onslaught of the weather.The Brugge services eventually appear, and just as we are about to cut across the four lanes leading to the exit, there is a huge bang from the Kwak and orange flames shoot toward me from their exhaust. They have run out of petrol, and I slow quickly to push if need be, but by weaving from side to side they find some vapour in the pipes and make it into a service station.
We sit and chew steak and talk about this and that, and I muse that it doesn’t really matter which country I’m in, I dont even have to know or care because everybody takes Visa. But then I want to go to the toilet, and sheepishly have to borrow BFr10 because I havent got any change to placate the large dragon lady guarding the entrance.
Outside the windows of the cafe, the rain gets heavier. We fill up with fuel and say our goodbyes, because even though I’ll be following them for another hour to Antwerp, they will be turning off at their journeys end and I’ll still have another hour to go to get to Utrecht.
Riding through Holland in the rain
As I leave Belgium and pass the signs for the Netherlands, the rain eases off a little. I smile to myself, although my shoulders are now stiff and the rain has made its way through my silk scarf and it is chafing my neck. Just out of Utrecht I stop, ostensibly for petrol but in actual fact to consult the map, because I really haven’t a clue where I’m going. Once stopped, though, I realise that I’m really cold, and sit for several minutes just staring at the petrol pumps revelling in the lack of motion and the protection afforded by the canopy overhead. Presumably I am on camera somewhere because a puzzled-looking blond beard appears at the window of the kiosk, but a look of understanding crosses his face when I wave vaguely in a gesture indicating the heavens, the bike, and the general condition of the world in general.
Inside, I forced my crabbed fingers to forge some resemblance to my Visa signature, and the bearded angel asked, “Would you like a coffee?” Would I! A nice steaming freshly brewed black coffee to wrap my hands around while I consult the map. I didn’t have a street map of Utrecht, just a fuzzy aerial view downloaded from the Web and a Michelin map of the local area purchased on the way over. My only clue for orientation is a distinctively shaped spaghetti junction which I hope I can recognise from the ground, in the rain, in the dark.
As usual I find that trusting to luck and not getting worried about the fact that I don’t even have the phone number of the hotel pays off, and before long I’m chugging up Donderstraat to the converted apartment building that is the Hotel Ouwi.
First night in Utrecht
I stand for a while in a scalding shower and then wander into town at 8pm, marvelling at all the canals. The streets are full of young couples, and despite the somewhat labyrinthine nature of the dark alleyways that criss-cross the centre, I feel perfectly safe. The only place that makes me a little uneasy is a big shopping centre called Hoog Catherijne next to the train station, where there seem to be some unsavoury characters hanging out, although nobody bothers me. Eventually I find a cash machine and get some Guilders. On the way back to the hotel I look in through the windows of lots of bars and restaurants, and everybody seems to be having a good time, though I’m starting to feel lonely and don’t feel much like sitting on my own. However, the last one that I pass is a Firkin pub, complete with English-style beer pumps, and I can’t resist it and go in.The staff are friendly and I stay for a couple of pints, just watching people and listening to music (apparently the bitter is brewed in den Haag), until I get up for a final pee.
In the gents I meet a New Zealander called Brett, and one thing leads to another and I find myself wandering from bar to bar with him and his four Dutch friends, finally rolling into bed at about half past one. Breakfast comes with the room and is a nice mixture of continental breads, ham, cheese, a boiled egg and a yoghurt. The toast is curious because it has Good Morning branded into it, presumably by the toaster. After several hours of walking I discover the whereabouts of my new office, a mere 15 minutes walk away along tow-paths and through a little nature reserve. Everybody else is either cycling or jogging; from the looks that I get from passersby and car passengers, walking is a suspicious activity and people who indulge in it are probably up to no good. Note to self: must buy a bicycle.
The Interrail journeys previously enumerated in the blogs “Three Men on a Train” were a resounding success, but I was keenly aware that – due to time constraints – we’d missed out the whole of the Scandinavian peninsula. A few years later, with only slightly better funding, I arranged a second month-long Interrail trip to remedy the situation, accompanied by a different group of friends.
And so it was, that in the Summer of 1989, Dave, Conway and I disembarked the MV “Pride of Dover” in Calais, and met up with Julia and Sammy who had been travelling in Morocco.
The girls looked tanned and healthy, but were short of cash. The boys were pasty and unhealthy, but hadn’t yet spent any of our holiday funds. After swapping tales over a coffee, we boarded the next train out of Calais, which happened to go to Paris. Our first requirement was to get some sleep, and since the Interrail system allowed us to take any train to any destination, we chose the next long-distance train, which happened to go to Amsterdam, and hunkered down in the corridor to sleep.
When the train pulled into Amsterdam Central, we found ourselves with only 35 minutes to explore before our connection to Hamburg. Our main concern was provisions; once we left Amsterdam we would be spending at least the rest of the day traversing Germany, and we had no Deutschmarks. The girls had some Camembert cheese and some horse-meat sausage in their packs, and Conway found a 25-guilder note in his pocket. We sprinted out into the city, got a swift impression of bars and coffee shops, scored coffee and baguettes, and legged it back to the station.
Although our Interrail card was valid for travel the length and breadth of the continent, many of the trains in Northern Europe at that time had extra supplements for this and that; extra for a sleeping compartment, extra for an intercity express, and so on. In order to conserve funds, it was necessary for us to carefully pick our route so as to board only the supplement-free trains.
We got a local connection from the Netherlands into Germany, and then switched to a local train to Hamburg. Once it pulled out of the station, we found that the service had been upgraded to an “Intercity” service, and so we had to find a supplemental fare or be put off the train. Since we didn’t have any Deutschmarks, this presented a problem until we offered the conductor a ten-pound note, and he went away happy. From Hamburg it was but a short step to Fredericia, and our first Scandinavian country of Denmark. We had arrived!
There is a convenient law which applies throughout Scandinavia, which states that you are allowed to camp anywhere you like for up to two nights, anywhere at all, as long as the site is not overlooked by somebody’s window. This is extremely handy for the budget traveller, and because of this we were well equipped with camping gear, in contrast with my previous Interrail trip, where we had tried as much as we could to sleep aboard the trains.
After a close look at a local map, we took a local train to the town of Struer, on the banks of the Veno Bugt fjord to the North West of Denmark. Strolling out of town, we found ourselves a roadside picnic spot with views across the fjord, and even a small toilet block with water, dryers, and a shaver point.
After a long luxurious night’s sleep, we awoke to find a family of cygnets poking around outside the tents, and a horde of picnicking tourists who completely ignored a bunch of hippies emerging blinking into the daylight.
We lounged around drinking coffee and waiting for the dew to dry off the tents, before packing up and heading to the station.
In the local hub of Fredericia on a Monday morning, we discovered that the connection to Copenhagen only runs on Sundays and Thursdays. There were some other, more roundabout routes available; we deliberately skipped the next one in order to save the “Intercity supplement”, then finally boarded the slow train, where the conductor hit us with a “Seat Reservation supplement”.
We were still glad we’d caught it, though, for the experience as the entire train drove onto the ferry at Nyborg, and we were taken across the fjord to Korsør without ever leaving our seats.
One of my teeth was becoming increasingly painful. Julia had a poke around and found a large cavity in the side of a molar, which was full of foreign matter which she managed to clean out with a needle and thread, but which clearly needed medical attention.
In Copenhagen there’s a legendary facility, the Interrailer’s Centre, which provides an information desk, showers and kitchen facilities to anybody with a valid Interrail ticket. The receptionist was incredibly helpful in finding me a list of emergency dentists, and after a fair bit of legwork I found one who would treat me the following evening. I suggested that the others move on to Oslo while I got fixed up, but they were content to wait for me, so after cooking and eating at the Centre, we caught a local train to the nearby town of Næstved. This “local” turned out to be the lovely Ostsee Express to Moscow, every carriage embellished with Russian crests. We only went a couple of stops, though, and set up camp in a clearing in a local park, surrounded by beeches, mountain ash, and wild raspberries. Beautiful.
In Copenhagen the following day, I wasn’t really able to focus on much beyond my toothache, but did manage some minor forays into the city. Perhaps it was the pain, but I found it all a bit dull, despite some interesting architecture and sculptures.
I did note a few things in my diary, such as the handy gutter up the side of all staircases for the wheeling of bicycles, and the fact that cars will always stop for pedestrians or cyclists wherever they may be, and that bicycles stop for nothing and seem to rule the road as long as they remain in their bespoke cycle lane.
That evening, the dentist was superb. She found a piece of steak lodged inside a small cavity, which led to a very large cavity filling most of the tooth almost down to the nerve. After scraping me off the ceiling a few times, she managed a temporary fix by pumping in about a kilo of heavy metals. The tooth is now a thin shell of enamel wrapped around a lump of amalgam, which means I should avoid chewing on that side, and she made me promise to get it fixed as soon as I got home. [Of course I didn’t, and this amazing temporary repair remained in place for over a decade before I split it on a stray olive pit]
There was just time to grab a Danish Pastry before heading to the station. My mouth was completely numb but we couldn’t waste the opportunity. We bought two, each almost a foot long and packed with fruit, surmounted by chocolate.
The train decanted us onto a ferry, where we found some unoccupied reclining seats and settled down to sleep. Tomorrow, we would dock in Norway!
We had chosen to spend the last few days of our month-long European tour in Paris. On the first morning, we disembarked the express train from Switzerland and climbed up the steps of the Sacre Couer for an early breakfast.
Unfortunately, as soon as we sat down, we were plagued by endless streams of apparently healthy and well-dressed tramps, who assured us in English that they were “starving”. Going through our back-packs, we palmed them off with ageing bread and sausage from goodness only knows where, and then settled down round the corner to enjoy our soft cheese sandwiches in peace and quiet.
We had a very pleasant day of more-or-less aimless wandering, popping up underneath the Arc de Triomphe for views down the Champs Elysee (obscured by mist!), and then on down to the Place de la Concorde, where we ran into a great number of rifle-carrying gendarmes, apparently waiting for something. We hung around to see what was happening, but they all packed themselves into armoured vans and went away.
We did have a particularly fine time in the Louvre, where we had to cherry-pick of course, but packed in a good number of famous and fantastic pieces of art. It was great to see some of the standards in the flesh, memorably the Mona Lisa (small!) and the Venus de Milo (beautiful).
After an afternoon of classic art, we hung out at the chemical-factory weirdness of the Pompidou Centre, which famously has all its physical infrastructure, pipes and so on, mounted outside the walls. Outside are some quite weird moving fountains, Heath-Robinson-like contraptions constructed apparently from fire hoses and topped by psychedelic art, and on the Inside were some really interesting photographic exhibitions, with the additional advantage of being completely free.
There was also a great view of sunset over the Eiffel Tower from the roof, but then it was time to move on, because naturally we couldn’t afford to stay in the city. After poring over the timetable, we worked out that we could board the train to Angers, sleep for half the night, disembark, and sleep the other half of the night on the train back.
Overnight to Angers and back
Unfortunately we only had forty minutes to run from the Pompidou Centre to Gare du Nord, get our packs out of storage, negotiate the Metro clear across Paris to Montparnasse, and board our chosen train. We set off at a pedestrian-scattering pace, rucksacks bouncing, heroically sprinting across multi-lane roads, and generally bathing ourselves in sweat, to arrive at the correct platform which was disconcertingly bare of any kind of train. There was a similar-looking train on a neighbouring platform, so we rushed aboard, discovering that all the compartments were packed solid.
There was a bit of space in the corridor, so we hunkered down and dined on baguettes and cheese before lying down to sleep on the floor.
The corridor was nice and warm, and it was a bit of a shock to stumble out in the small wee hours onto the cold of the Angers platform. Our connection back to Paris wasn’t due for several hours, but we were hungry and thirsty and searched for something to eat. We found a chocolate vending machine, which was useful but which made us more thirsty, but there didn’t seem to be any potable water. Eventually, David discovered a workmen’s drinks vending machine on a construction site, but it required coins and we’d used all of ours up in the chocolate machine. Andrew went out on the streets and found a taxi driver who changed a bank note, and then we drank the machine dry.
Back on the Paris train, we scored an empty compartment and stretched out on the seats for a comfortable and warm sleep back to our starting point.
Andrew and I wanted to visit Versailles, and the Paris-Angers train stops there, so by now we had already passed through the town a couple of times when it was closed for the night. On our arrival in Paris, Andrew and I checked the timetable and boarded the Versailles train once again, while David went off to hang out at the Pompidou Centre.
When the conductor came to check our tickets, it emerged that the train – even though we had boarded it at a regular platform – was technically a Metro and thus our Interrail tickets were not valid, but he just waved us on. I guess it must happen all the time.
One disadvantage of it being a Metro was that it had no toilets, so first order of the day in Versailles was to locate a loo, which we found in a nearby cafeteria. We also figured that since it was a Sunday, we should track down something to eat, so grabbed some baguette and Camembert from a local shop. The food in France is so cheap!
Andrew and I couldn’t afford the ticket to get into the Palace itself, but for ten francs we had a lovely relaxing morning wandering through the parks and gardens. They are beautifully planted with well-spaced trees and decorative flower-beds, interspersed with a great many lakes and ponds, each sporting their own sculptures and fountains.
We repeated the overnight sleepover on the train to Angers and back, and arrived back in Paris suitably refreshed for the final day of our trip. Dropping our rucksacks at Left Luggage, we breakfasted on tinned rice and then made our way to the Eiffel Tower. Impressive from afar (especially at sunset!), it was a disappointingly rusted mess close-up, which is probably why the lower levels were shrouded in scaffolding.
Moving on to the cathedral of Notre Dame, we found ourselves in a stunning and heavily gothic interior, whose powerful atmosphere was not even slightly dented by the big yellow fork-lift truck that was rooting around inside.
I was particularly impressed by the carvings and frescoes, which tended to emphasise the macabre and gory parts of Catholic history.
We had a little time to spare before our final train journey, and we needed to confirm the trip because our printed Thomas Cook timetable had just expired. It was just as well that we did, because the direct train to the port of Calais wasn’t running any more, but we discovered a great overnight route to Strasbourg and back which would enable us to get a good night’s sleep before disembarking in Calais in time for the crossing.
For our final hours in Paris, we watched a busker by the Pompidou centre, an American raising the money for his air-fare home. He was an exceptional guitarist, and played mainly acoustic favourites until the gendarmes arrived to move him on. He obviously recognised them, because he asked if he could play just one more; they nodded, and he launched into a beautiful rendition of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
The song over, he swiftly packed up his equipment and disappeared into the surrounding crowds. Taking his cue, we hefted our backpacks for the last time, and made our way to the waiting train.
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.
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.
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 shake down our hiking and camping gear, and work out what we would take with us when we left for Europe a few months later.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.