Interrail: Further down the tracks

A return to interrailing after 20 years proves surprisingly rewarding.

By Daniel Elkan
Published 15 Nov 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 09:37 BST
View of Ljubljana from the river


Photograph by Getty Images

It's an exciting feeling — standing on the platform at St Pancras International station with an Interrail pass in your hand; contemplating the tracks that lead you to France and then fan out across Europe in all directions.

It had been 20 years since I last Interrailed, and now the same pleasant conundrum of where to go presented itself: with Europe as your oyster, the possible can seem infinite. A lot of travellers end up choosing well-trodden routes, ticking off the major capital cities as they go. Instead, I'd opted for smaller places: lakeside, Alpine and coastal towns and villages where the train can sweep you right into the heart of the action — or lack of it.

First stop on my 14-day adventure was Neuchâtel in Switzerland — a seven-hour journey from London, via Paris. For a town of only 34,000 residents, Neuchâtel punches well above its weight in terms of culture and cuisine. After two days spent sailing and paddleboarding on its vast lake, I headed east. The journey through Switzerland into the Austrian Alps is spectacular, skirting Lake Zurich before plunging into the Arlberg Valley — imposing mountains flanking either side. The dining carriages in the trains mean you can have a proper lunch — and even frothy draft beer — while savouring the scenery.

Here, in the heart of Europe, Interrail backpackers started to appear. But on my RailJet train from Zurich, they tended to be bound for Vienna and Budapest, while I alighted at the picturesque resort of St Anton in the heart of the Tirolian Alps. With my hotel only moments from the station, I dropped my bags and joined an e-bike tour. Soon, we were powering up the steep gradient of the Galzig mountain — albeit with some help from the bike batteries.

My attempts to reach the Croatian coast for the Obonjan Island festival, showed me how deceptive rail maps can be. What looked like a relatively short jaunt on paper translated into a 22-hour journey to the tiny station of Sibenik, exacerbated by the fact that Croatia has a limited rail network with precious few trains per day. However, gaps between connecting trains do enable exploration of cities. In Zagreb, we visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, surely one of Europe's quirkiest — and most poignant — exhibitions.

Meeting other travellers proved easy, because it only takes a friendly 'Hello, where have you just come from?' to strike up a conversation — at least with those not ensconced in their smartphones. Rail travel inspires interaction in a way that air or coach travel never does. Interrailers are particularly keen to swap itinerary tip-offs for places to visit. And choosing hostels makes it a more social still, with more opportunities to meet other travellers. The majority of people we met were in their 20s, however, and it seemed a shame not to encounter a wider age range when exploring Europe has such wide appeal.

Part of the allure of Interrail is the flexibility that it gives to change plans. For that reason, I'd left part of the trip unscheduled. Doing this gives the chance to act on tips from other travellers — or simply to stay longer in the same place if it merits more time. I met quite a few Interrailers who'd planned every train and every stopping-off point, and almost all expressed regret at their straightjacket itinerary.

This flexibility gave me the chance to dovetail at short notice with a friend in the beautiful Slovenian city of Ljubljana and travel on together from there; on a tip-off, change plans and go cycling to the Vingtar Gorge and around Lake Bled; and pause in Venice en route to, the enchanting village of Varenna, with it's botanical gardens right on the shores of Lake Como — a suitably calm and magical end to the trip. Then, finally, a long flurry of scenery out the window and I was back in London. Alighting at St Pancras, I took a final look down the platform to where the tracks disappeared out of view into the dusk. The Interrail pass in my hand might have expired, but I'd be back on track soon, exploring Europe again.


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