InterRail – a journey into the past

What were you doing forty years ago this summer? (I will accept the answer ‘not being born yet grandad’).

As it happens, I know exactly what I was doing on 11 August 1980 – waiting at Mürren station in the Swiss Alps for the mountain railway and funicular ride down to Interlaken. Memories of that day? Absolutely none. But I know I made the trip because of the first handwritten entry in that rite-of-passage travel pass known as the InterRail card, which I unearthed in a recent house spring-clean.

It’s right there. 11.8.80 – Mürren to Interlaken Ost via Lauterbrunnen, written clearly in my surprisingly childish hand and over-stamped in purple by a guard on the Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen–Mürren (BLM) railway. The same day, I took another train from Interlaken to Bern, an hour away, and then travelled on to Luzern (Lucerne), having very definitely got my money’s worth in a full day’s free InterRail travel on Switzerland’s ruinously expensive railways.

I was two weeks shy of my 18th birthday and had just finished a three-week stint at an international youth workcamp high in the Alps, where twenty of us from a dozen different countries stayed in a creaking wooden chalet straight out of ‘The Sound of Music’. By day we dug footpaths between precariously sited mountain villages; by night we cooked communal meals, played wholesome parlour games and learned random words in many and varied languages. For some unaccountable reason I can still say ‘can you pass me the soapdish’ in Dutch.

Dynamite days in the Swiss Alps

The work was hard and repetitive – hacking out rocks with pick and shovel, building steps and hauling gravel – but every now and again the team leader let someone push the button that set off the dynamite under obstructive rocks. Actual dynamite, in the hands of teenagers. I wouldn’t trust my own teenagers to look after a hamster, yet we were allowed – encouraged – to blow up bits of Switzerland. There’s alpine landscape out there that I personally fashioned; they should probably make me a citizen.

I remember lots about that summer, and remember it fondly, but forty years on, the month-long InterRail trip itself is a puzzle on many levels. I still have the evidence of the route in the little hand-filled booklet in front of me, which I subsequently plotted on a map of Europe, and it’s eccentric to say the least.

10 August to 9 September 1980

Mürren (Switzerland) to Hamburg (Germany) via:

  • Liechtenstein
  • Austria
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • Belgium
  • Netherlands
  • Denmark
  • Sweden

For a start, even though I travelled over 5,000 kilometres through ten countries in four weeks, there are only a few of the big-hitter destinations you might expect. Overnight to Venice, sure, a few days in Vienna, and visits to Brussels, Amsterdam and Copenhagen – these all seem reasonable places for a teenager to go, and I have vague memories of standing in St Mark’s Square, walking along the Dutch canals and an obligatory trip to the Carlsberg factory.

But look at where the route doesn’t go. Nothing in southern Europe, the Mediterranean and Adriatic – Venice was the furthest south I went – and consequently no beaches, resorts or cheap vino. No days of adventure in the far-flung corners of (what was then) Yugoslavia, Greece or Morocco. No city nights for a small-town boy in Paris, Rome, Berlin or Barcelona.

What kind of itinerary is this?

Instead, I had a month with a free train ticket to anywhere in Europe and its wilder fringes and I dutifully caught trains to Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Salzburg, Tübingen, Trier and Bruges. What kind of not-quite-18-year-old was I? It’s basically the itinerary of a 40-year-old with an interest in Gothic architecture, landlocked principalities and central European university towns. And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t me. I played in a band. I liked The Clash. I’d just blown up a mountain for chrissake.

On the face of it, there are also some completely bizarre choices of destination – not so much OBT (off-the-beaten-track) as WTF. Why did I change at Graz for the eastern Austrian town of Gleisdorf (population, 10,000), where I spent three nights; or pass through Rotterdam for the chance to stay two nights in the Dutch town of Zaltbommel (notable resident, Marigje Arriens, 16th-century Dutch witch)? On reflection, there are straightforward explanations – I was accepting invitations to go and visit people I’d met on the workcamp, and if travel is about anything it’s about flexible adaptation and serendipitous cultural encounters. So while the decades have dulled the names and faces of my erstwhile dynamite buddies, I salute you Gleisdorf and Zaltbommel – places I have still visited more times than India, Mexico and Russia.

There are other clues hidden in my bizarre InterRail itinerary. There was only one type of InterRail pass available in 1980, a month-long card that allowed unlimited second-class travel right across Europe for £92 in that year. The Bank of England inflation calculator says that that’s equivalent to £397 in today’s money – and the current InterRail Global Pass for under 26s is £443, so InterRail prices have held up pretty well over the years.

Budget traveller – on £5 a day

The point is that InterRail was, and is still, a very cheap way of seeing Europe, and like most teenagers I had little money and was on a tight budget. Railpass cost aside, I had allowed for £5 a day for my summer in Europe – about £22 a day in today’s money – and my itinerary tells me several things at a glance.

First, places such as Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands were not prohibitively expensive back in 1980. They were a bit pricier than the UK, certainly, but you could easily backpack around them if that’s what you wanted to do, even on a fiver a day. Today, I’d never choose those countries for a first InterRail trip.

But five quid a day meant always staying in youth hostels, when hostels meant dorm beds, chores and self-catering and not boutique rooms, mini-golf and rooftop bars. And Germany and Austria in particular had an extensive network of hostels, especially in small towns and rural areas, so trains to – and overnight stops in – Feldkirch, Innsbruck, Tübingen and Trier suddenly begin to make more sense.

Overnight to Venice and back

Taking an overnight train from Graz in Austria to Venice can be explained in the same way. I doubt at 18 I had any great desire to see the artistic glories of Venice – and I certainly didn’t then go on anywhere else in Italy – but you could hunker down in your high-backed train seat in a six-person compartment overnight and save the cost of a night’s hostel stay. So I clattered my way 450km southwest from Austria to Italy on the night of 18 August 1980 and then – because I could – spent just one day mooching around Venice before getting on the night train on 19 August and trundling the 600km back to Vienna.

(What I know now – thanks to the indispensable Seat 61 website – but didn’t know then is that the Venice to Vienna route incorporates the spectacular scenery of the UNESCO World Heritage-accredited Semmerling Railway through the mountains. Which I slept through entirely back in 1980.)

I can also start to see the traveller I would become in that eccentric rail itinerary around Europe. I love trains and train travel, and as a jobbing travel writer got used to moving on every night, and all those facets of my later life are recorded there in blue biro on the flimsy pages of a forty-year-old train pass. Side trips to odd little countries, enclaves and principalities like Lichtenstein and Luxembourg are very much me too, and in fact I repeated my one-day flying visit to Lichtenstein only last year on another round-Europe route with an equally idiosyncratic flavour. And the final train ride up the Danish peninsula from Copenhagen to Helsingør? I don’t recall now, but it can only have been to take the short ferry ride across to Helsingborg in Sweden and thus knock off another country – very definitely Classic Jules.

How far would you go to post a postcard?

Not having much money and me being – well – me also shine a light on one of the most outwardly baffling of all journeys recorded on the InterRail card, namely the 24 August day trip from Munich to Kufstein and back, around an hour’s trip each way. According to Wikipedia, Kufstein has a medieval fortress, a local history museum and a huge, open-air Heroes Organ, and while I’d usually pay good money to see a huge Heroes Organ – who wouldn’t? – I can tell you that wasn’t the reason I decided to give the bierkellers of Munich a miss for the day. It was more to do with the fact that before Munich I had been in Salzburg and Vienna where I had bought Austrian postcards and Austrian stamps, which I had then forgotten to post. Kufstein might only be an hour from Munich but it’s also in Austria and not Germany. And I only had five quid a day to cover everything, a free railpass and the idiocy of youth, so I went back to Austria to post my postcards.

To be honest, I’d still do that today if I had to. Son the father of the man and all that.

And finally – a thing I only now just notice, as I turn the yellowed pages and pore over the date stamps – is that the day before the Kufstein trip was my 18th birthday (23 August 1980), which I spent on the train from Salzburg to Munich. Strangely enough, I have no recollection of that milestone day at all, which seems as good a place as any to draw this partly remembered journey into the past to a close – face pressed to a train window, lost in thought in a second-class seat, dreaming of the future, clanking through a Europe that was to become my back yard, my canvas, my career in the decades that stretched ahead of me.


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10 thoughts on “InterRail – a journey into the past

      1. Little Miss Traveller

        My first European adventure was a school trip by coach and ferry to the Black Forest at 13. At 16 I then followed this up with three weeks in Norway visiting my penfriend who then returned on the same flight as me for three weeks exploring England. How I used to get so excited anticipating those letters dropping into the door mat. There’s not the same anticipation with today’s emails is there? No stamps, bookmarks, tickets etc. to discover in the envelope!

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  1. Catherine

    Goodness me, reading this it’s almost as if I had been right there with you, every step of the way … oh, wait a minute, that’s because I was!

    Yours, air-brushed from history, Catherine

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    1. Jules Told Me

      Ah yes, the perils of trying to tell a good first-person story without complicating it. I can only apologise and refer you to Hemingway – “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened”.

      It’s true reader, Catherine came too.

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  2. John

    Ah, Jules and Catherine! That takes me back. I have a postcard from Turkey from one or both of you. Same trip or something else?

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