Something arrived in the post last Tuesday that made me feel young again (no mean feat). It was this:
Inside: six freshly printed InterRail passes for Christmas. Opening the crisp new covers I find blank lines waiting for details of our journeys to be penned. No clever app to log in departure and destination stations with fancily slick timetable. No, we will have to take biros with us to Spain. And remember how to write by hand. How very old-fashioned.
I last scribbled such info into an InterRail pass a very long time ago. I was 22. My tattered, folded, and refolded ticket had taken me from Germany to Greece and back (with an Eastern European excursion) one April. I won’t cite the year but it was definitely still the 20th century. Seated at the ancient site of Olympia, inspired by the colour of Greece in the Spring, my friend and I had put the world to rights in a marathon of a deep and meaningful. Filled with youthful idealism we left Olympia and took the ferry from the port of Patras to the heel of Italy, then trained it north to Venice, and through the Alps to Munich. The very last scrawl in my InterRail pass: Munich to Regensburg, Bavaria, where I was “studying”.
Back to this century
Our 2015 tickets may not take us on quite such an enlightening journey – who knows? Our first train departs from Madrid Puerta de Atocha railway station, travelling South-West to Seville where we will eat tapas (not turkey) on Christmas Day. Then across to Malaga for a few days of seaside R&R in nearby Nerja, before heading back north to Madrid to eat 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Why InterRail – Sheer Nostalgia?
Nostalgia led to a little light wallowing in some memorable InterRailing moments, sure. But pure practicalities of travelling as a family of six informed our 21st century travel choice…
Car Hire – A pricey NO: Costs always rocket once you exceed 5 seats – at least £730 for 9 days, excluding all the hidden extras. Plus the drive from Madrid to Seville takes around 5+ hours (minimum – we always get lost in city centres, then argue about where to park…happy days). The car hire choice is a road leading only to expense, aggravation and discord.
Trains – we’re getting there: Train links seem to be excellent in Spain, with inter-city connections quick and the trains pleasant. Madrid to Seville takes just 2½ hours with the high-speed AVE trains. BUT they are not necessarily the cheapest option, unless you remember to book well in advance (which of course I did not). If you are the organised type, you might find booking with Renfe (the national train operator) reasonably priced. However, it can be confusing for a non-Spanish speaker, in which case www.loco2.com is easier to use. By my calculations our tickets would have totalled £790 (excluding supplements on the high-speed trains).
InterRail – we’ve arrived. Global (actually European – covering 30 countries) or single country passes are available. For us the pass for Spain works out at £452 (£129 per adult, £97 for each of my two”youths”, 2 x children under 12 free). On top of that: €204 (£147.24) including booking fee of €24 for high-speed train supplements through the reservations portal (only available having purchased InterRail pass). Total cost: £599.24.
What does that give us: 3 days travel within one calendar month. Play around with the website to see how much it would cost for more days’ travel (you can do 3, 4, 6, or 8 days).
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MAN IN SEAT 61?
I thought I was being so clever. Smugly, I wrote the bulk of this blog post, wanting to share my findings. Then I looked again at the go-to website for all things train related run by railway enthusiast, Mark Smith. He gave up his day job to run this amazingly comprehensive site full-time. Every angle of rail travel is raised, considered and addressed here. You want to travel from Europe to Vietnam by train? Stop here first. I’ve used the site a number of times in the past, and it has never disappointed.
So – InterRail is the best, right? Well, the Man in Seat 61 reckons I might have been better off buying a Spain pass through Renfe (the Spanish railway operator). The pass includes all reservations and is easy to buy online.
I’m not sure I want to know how much cheaper Renfe’s Spain pass would have been. But next time I will consult the Man in Seat 61 more carefully because he really does know best.
Clearly sentiment swept me away and superseded sense…as soon as I’d learned that a single country pass with my old friend InterRail existed, it was a done deal.
Back to last Tuesday
A role reversal when the kids returned from school. I beamed at them clutching the funky Interrail ticket covers:
Look at this! It’s so cool – just the same as when I was 22!
Mum: it’s a train ticket. Kind, amused gazes… (Are they patronising me?).
BUT: they hadn’t sat at Olympia surrounded by spring flowers.
They hadn’t been there on a different InterRailing escapade when two friends and I travelled on night trains throughout Europe, sharing a Mars bar per day between us for breakfast when we ran out of money, having survived an authentic beer festival called Gillamoos in the small town of Abensberg, Germany.
I remember a little less fondly that my kids were on the night train to the South of France, when No. 4 was a tiny 6 week old bundle and puking up every breastfeed. A memorable journey also because No. 3 (just 2 years) was so excited about the train, she refused to sleep. She was the terrible travelling toddler you might have witnessed on your own trips. Screaming and kicking the long night away, relentlessly battering the flimsy wall of our compartment, immune to our pleas to please sssshhhhh because we were disturbing our fellow travellers.
Morning took a very long time coming. Finally thin light peeped slowly through our pathetic blind. With an exhausted sigh of defeat, my bleary-eyed husband eventually opened our compartment door, and then the window in the corridor. Fresh air: please help.
The next compartment’s door slid slowly open. A man of around 60 peered out. Looking a little broken, he smiled at my husband:
Quite a night! Your daughter has incredibly strong legs!
My husband dismayed. Speechless.
It’s all right – I have grandchildren.
Relief tinged with helpless guilt.
No photos record the trauma of that train journey. Maybe the lack of photographic evidence helped us to forget (a little), so that we ended up repeating the experience (No. 4 now the terrible toddler) 😉
No. 3 is excited about our Spanish trip. Cute though she was (at times) I’m grateful that she’s no longer a terrifying two year old with powerful legs. As our fellow travellers will be too…
Afterthought and a last reminiscence
My mind was blown the first time I stood at Paris Gare de l’Est railway station (at maybe 17?) and saw Europe opening up on the departure boards in front of me – Moscow, Munich, Prague….
Trains are a wonderful way to see the world, and meet people. Kids love them (even if they get a little over-excited at times).
Just don’t forget about the Man in Seat 61, and read his advice very very carefully.
Here we come España!