Frseeeeeeeeefrong. I was on the 9.38 from Trieste to Milan, half listening out for that famous onomatopoeic train sound from Ulysses while thinking about the previous evening, which had begun with a trip to the former city’s little James Joyce museum, followed by an aperol spritz at the Caffè San Marco, a glass each of refosco and malvasia, a long chat with a Greek publisher, a short one with the former Italian ambassador to Bulgaria, then a swift Martini, dinner with an Italian journalist, then a brandy…
Out of the window, I watched as the steeples of Venice, the foothills of the Alps and lakes Garda and Iseo, slipped by. We entered a spring shower and then, just as soon, left it behind. I was feeling drowsy when a smiling man appeared with a trolley.
“Café, signor? White, black?”
“Capo in b, per favore,” I said. I’d been in Trieste, capital of coffee and picked up a bit of the lingo. A few days earlier, I might have asked for kava, or a melange, or kaffee.
When I’d told friends I wanted to go on an InterRail, they’d doubted the pass still existed. Even some travel editors weren’t sure. Then they queried my age: 49 years and 11 months and two weeks, they said, was not the time for InterRailing. I agreed – I did one 30 years ago, while at university – and then politely disagreed. Because I love trains, like slow travel and am tall (ergo hate plane seats) and, anyway, all the kids are in Malaysia and Chile now, or on Ryanair, so someone has to tour Europe by rail.
Which is how I found myself setting out from Totnes on the slow Waterloo line, there to Tube it to St Pancras for the Eurostar service to Brussels – the day after the March bombings – to connect toAmsterdam. That first trip probably sounds like hell, but it was merely a warm-up. I had chosen Amsterdam because I’d ended my teenage InterRail trip there. It hadn’t changed that much and was still a lively, slightly shabby city, full of people who looked like dropouts or at least opt-outs.
In time-honoured InterRail fashion, I only stayed a day and a half, limiting my tourism to a sprint around the zoo and the Micropia museum of micro-organisms and a look at the Van Gogh collection: the main exhibition was rammed, but a sideshow, on the art of prostitutes, was empty and educative.
On a blue, drizzly dawn the following day, I set off for Copenhagen, taking a series of five trains over 11 hours. There used to be a night train, but it had recently died. A bad day’s travel, a good day’s? I’m not sure. I arrived dizzy with visions of boggy fields, dun skies, cold platforms and rolling-stock interiors.
Post-Noma, Copenhagen claims to be a foodie capital. I joined a Danish Delicacies tour, tucking into hot dog, pork crackling, porridge, chocolate and beer. Not so delicate, but definitely delicious, though I can’t help feeling foodie revolutions are what rich cities do when they don’t have the energy for real ones.
I had to retrace my route through fields of stubble and South Jutland’s fine drizzle to get to Hamburg. Europe’s northern powerhouse had its Warehouse quarter and Kontorhaus (office) district listed together as a Unesco World Heritage site in July 2015. With guide Tomas, I cycled for three hours around the windy city, admiring the red-brick expressionism, and ogling the new philharmonic hall, new live-work spaces, new housing blocks for musicians (where everyone can make a racket together) and a new coffee shop-cum-deli-cum-lifestyle temple. By the end of the ride I’d overdosed on newness.
City-hopping compels the traveller to make a quick reading of a place, the InterRail being a modern, proletarian, time-poor equivalent of the old grand tour. Where aristocrats once travelled to Florence and Rome to admire antiquities and study painting, we now go in search of gastronomy, shopping and culture, this last all mixed up with consumerism. No one city has it all.
But a theme did begin to emerge as I travelled south. In Berlin I did another bike ride around what’s left of the Wall, explored the new Spy Museum and an excellent new free exhibition called Alltag in der DDR (Everyday Life in the GDR), and did a walking tour of the defunct Tempelhof airport. I was born in Burtonwood, Cheshire, from whose USAF base the C-47s and C-54s took off for Berlin during the 1948-49 airlift. The airport is a masterpiece of Nazi monumentalism but contains a basketball court used by bored American servicemen and a brown Seventies bar where I could imagine equally brown diplomats smoking and drinking. The airfield is now a public park, the apron empty but for one old airlift plane and a couple of refugee camps. History still unfolds here.
For young travellers, Berlin is best known as a party capital, but tour guide Sascha said history and hedonism were connected. “The city was a sort of Wild West after the Wall came down. People from East Berlin, especially, took some time to change. Their part of the city, half empty and collapsing, flooded with people seeking an ‘alternative’ lifestyle.”
I took the 18:14 Euronight from Berlin to Vienna, the only sleeper train that fitted neatly into my three-week-plus itinerary. Paying a €90 (£75) supplement got me a single cabin as posh as some on private trains I’ve taken, with WC and shower. When I closed my door I had a glorious feeling of being in a projection room, watching the dank fields of central Germany steaming with rain.
Jan, the Czech attendant, served me a goulash for supper and then I lay down to sleep. But this was an old train, on standard lines, and the service stopped frequently – often in stations noisy with freight trains – and when it got going again, it did so at a moderate speed, joltingly. I entered a sort of semi-slumbering narcosis familiar to me from other night-train journeys, eventually finding sleep only after hours of gazing out over a meandering river in Bohemia.
I waltzed around Vienna, admiring the Habsburg palaces and the extraordinary paintings of Schiele, Kokoschka and Klimt at the Leopold Museum, and drinking in some of the less mobbed vintage cafés. This was the first properly grand city on my grand tour, but from the opulent hotels on the Ring to that evening’s performance of La Clemenza di Tito at the Staatoper, it was a grandeur I couldn’t access.
A dramatic high-level Alpine line took me in to Slovenia, my one “new” country on this trip. Formerly Laibach, a minor trading post of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Ljubljana had for 2016 been awarded the title of Green Capital of Europe. It certainly looked verdant as I wandered around its parks and kayaked along its main river. I also visited Velika Planina, a beautiful mountaintop pasture north of the city, dotted with herders’ cabins.
Long train journeys deserve a good book. On and off, I’d been reading Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, an extended meditation on ageing as well as history. Slovenia, as Trieste’s back garden, featured prominently. My journey followed the book’s narrative, into the karst and on to Villa Opicina, from where I took a tram down to a port city far livelier and more likeable than Morris had led me to expect.
I was staying, for a full three days, at the Savoia Excelsior Palace. For Morris the hotel had been just another comfortable bolt-hole. But after two weeks of mainly hostels, I wanted to stand on my balcony and watch the sun set on a hazy Adriatic. I rebooted myself into InterRail mode and set off to shadow Joyce’s ghost and to visit the busy, beguiling Castello di Miramare, the calmer Castello di Duino and the Illy factory. I decided, after several neros and a few capos, that Trieste is the true coffee capital of Europe. No gimmicks, no hipster baristas, no loitering in chains, just moody old caffs and strong shots of rich beanjuice.
I only made brief stops at my last few cities. I studied the fashionistas in Milan station but was more impressed by Milano Centrale. Stations matter on InterRails. Vienna’s new central station is a big, airy glass multi-storey affair, much like Berlin Hbf. Copenhagen’s is ecclesiastical. Hamburg Hbf was a city in miniature, with a multicultural foodcourt where I opted to dine one night. The chicken kebab was excellent and afterwards I wandered over to a small bar to quaff a bock while watching handball on the telly. What could be more “authentic” an experience? I wasn’t even travelling that evening.
The Cote d’Azur was turquoise and tempting, but cut off by the grubby glass of my SNCF double-decker. At Marseille I searched in vain for Camus and North African cuisine – I was getting lazy – but I saw a good cartographic exhibition at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. Next, I took a hard left to Barcelona, for tapas and Miró. Another memorable dinner. Another revolutionary painter. Like the words for coffee, schools of art and cuisines were all beginning to merge. One final European train for a journey – at 180km/h, the world a greenish blur – to Paris, the junction for home.
But I was concluding my most enjoyable trip in years. A few years ago I fell out of love with London and began to wonder if I was going off cities. The whistle-stop train tour revived my enjoyment of these concentrated spaces of cultural. An InterRail is like a series of intensely enjoyable weekend breaks.
Wherever I stopped, locals asked me: what’s your favourite city? But any answer would have been invidious because this rejuvenating trip (I celebrated my 50th at an old tango ballroom in Berlin) reminded me how much I enjoyed the simple pleasure of movement. Many European trains are still quite slow, and even “Intercity” services tend to stop frequently.
For me, the best bits were between stations, like on that Trieste-Milan leg, when, served with my pick-me-up, the sun streaming in, I got back to thinking – about how magical Mitteleuropa is, how Trieste was now one of my favourite cities, and about cities in general, and about trains, and how they’ve always been and still are the loveliest, cleanest, most thoughtful and most efficient way to explore the finest expressions of European civilisation.
How to do it
There are several types of InterRail, from three-day one-country passes that start at €56 (£47) to “five travelling days within 15 days” for all 30 countries for €264 to a month-long pass for €626. Under-25s and over-60s pay less. See interrail.eu/interrail-passes. You’ll need to buy a Eurostar ticket (eurostar.com) but the UK trips between home and St Pancras are covered by the pass.
Fast trains, extra fuss
You have to book seats on TGV, AVE, Thalys and most other high-speed services as well as night trains, incurring an extra charge. You must do this before leaving home as you have to get the seats seven days before travelling so that the ticket can be posted to you. Book passes and seats at Voyages SNCF (uk.voyages-sncf.com/en/pass/interrail-passes)
Where to stay
Several hotel and hostel chains have properties in many European cities. The Generator hostels (generatorhostels.com) I used vary in character, but all are warm, clean and basic. Breakfast was cereals and a bread roll and coffee, but there was usually a lively bar. A room in a dorm can start as low as €8 and private rooms at €13.50. The newAmsterdam Generator is particularly smart and some rooms overlook Oosterpark – read our review. Hostelworld (hostelworld.com) can also assist with budget lodgings.
In Marseille, I used Airbnb (airbnb.co.uk), and stayed in a cool bohemian apartment in a good location. Room rates start at £65.
For mid-price rooms, the Barceló chain (barcelo.com) is good value and has plenty of hotels in Spain; a double at the cool space-themed Barcelona Sants hotel starts at £107 on .
Starhotels (starhotels.com) is excellent for Italy, where it owns stylish contemporary design hotels like the E.c.ho in Milan (doubles from €150) and grand dames like the Savoia Excelsior Palace in Trieste (doubles from €380).
I used the Andersen Boutique hotel in Copenhagen, which is five minutes from the main station, has small, stylish rooms and a good breakfast spread and treats guests to a genuine happy hour – free wine – from 5-6pm. Doubles from £168. Read our hotel review
Zeitgeist (zeitgeist-vienna.com) in Vienna was also cool and a short walk from the station – which is three stops on the U1 underground line from the centre; the breakfast was excellent. Doubles from €55.
As a treat and a finale, I stayed at L’Hôtel in Paris, a small but luxurious Left Bank landmark where Borges wrote, Wilde died and dining is Michelin-standard. Doubles start at £258. Read our hotel review
All cities now have pass schemes that allow unlimited use of public transport for two or more days and usually attract discounts at museums, theatres and some shops. As examples, a Vienna Card for 48 hours costs €18.90, while a Berlin Welcome Card for 48 hours starts at €19.50. Check the zones covered and remember to validate before using.
Micropia in Amsterdam (micropia.nl, €14); in Copenhagen, the Danish Delicacy food tour (foodsofcopenhagen.com, €110); Hamburg’s Arts and Crafts museum (mkg-hamburg.de, €12); the Berlin on Bike tour of the Wall (berlinonbike.de, €21, 3.5 hrs) plus the tango and old-school food at Clärchens Ballhaus (ballhaus.de); in Vienna, the Leopold Museum (leopoldmuseum.org, €13) and Hawelka café, (hawelka.at); in Trieste, the osmiza “pop up” restaurant (see osmize.com); in Marseille, the walk up to Notre-Dame de la Garde; in Barcelona, the Miró Foundation (fmirobcn.org, €12) and tapas tour with Sandra Benzal (aguideinbarcelona.com).