Oldies on a Train: My Backpacking Parents (2012)

A special guest post by a special dad. Every summer my parents join Europe’s Inter Rail for a month of backpacking. I won’t say what age my dad is but it rhymes with ‘leventy’. Elderly backpackers. Veteran backpackers. Here are my parent’s travels using the Europe Interrail Pass.

Europe Interrail Pass

It did not occur to me that when we boarded the train from Antwerp to Amsterdam on the first day of our holiday that we were doing anything unusual. We hoped to avoid the usual stress of driving and be environmentally friendly by letting the train take the strain. The young conductress while examining our tickets casually pointed out that she had never before come across passengers of “your age” using these InterRail tickets. A quick glance round the carriage confirmed this. While there were passengers from all parts of the world I could not see anyone over the age of thirty. We had joined the “global backpackers” who were doing Europe in a month.

I wondered why more people of “our age” do not take advantage of this form of transport. It seems to me to be the ideal way to see the maximum of Europe with the minimum of stress. Like many other families we spent many years holidaying in the campsites of Europe particularly in Western and Southern France. While we enjoyed these holidays they were mainly geared to the kids and we tended to spend most of our time on the beach, at swimming pools, theme parks and in the campsite itself . There was little opportunity to experience the local customs, the history and culture.

Indeed in early July the Vendee appeared to be taken over by the Irish from both North and South and this continued until the English schools got out later in the month. It was a very popular way to avoid Drumcree and the Twelfth. I recall one year when at Les Amieux in St. John de Monts we met three more families from Rathmore Primary school. Our boys were delighted to meet their mates and we did enjoy some social events and barbeques together. However casual conversation tended to raise issues such as dog poo on Henderson Drive or the lack of play facilities in the Rathmore area and I was always aware that any indiscretion on my part could easily become the talk of our constituents in Bangor West. (note: Brian and Anne are both politicians and local councillors in Bangor, Northern Ireland)

We saw little of real France during the drive through the villages of Brittany and Normandy as we sped to and from the Ferry.

But now we are free. The boys would no longer consider spending a boring holiday with their boring parents. This would be our first major holiday without having to worry about the kids apart from wondering whether they may be throwing a party similar to that when we last spent a weekend in Donegal. We are liberated free to do our own thing and perhaps enjoy some of the experiences we missed over the previous twenty years.  We were now looking for a new type of holiday. We immediately dismissed any form of package holiday as we did not wish to be organised. As both Anne and I are reluctant drivers we quickly dismissed the car and I will not fly.

Having ruled out flying or travelling by car the obvious answer both from an environmental point of view and to maximize the freedom was to travel by rail. We searched the internet and found the Inter Rail tickets which allowed us unlimited travel by rail in 29 countries throughout Western Europe for 16, 22 or 31 days. My initial response, no doubt shaped by my former role as lecturer in European Studies, was that we should  get the 31 day ticket and travel to the capitals of all the EU member states from Prague and Budapest to Stockholm and Athens. Anne as usual was more realistic and suggested we should try taking it easy at first and concentrating on the areas we knew from our camping holidays of the past decade.

We therefore agreed to purchase a sixteen-day ticket for Zone E which consisted of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg. In hindsight, this was the ideal solution as it allowed us to visit the capitals of the three Benelux countries, seven of the ten largest cities in France and many smaller towns in between. To try to take in more would have significantly increased the pressure and undermined the purpose of the holiday which was to relax and leave behind all the hassle.

We agreed before we set off that there would be no fixed itinerary and we should take one day at a time. Instead of being subject to any timetables or itinerary we would let fate decide. Fate would be determined by the destination of the first train to leave the station after our arrival. For example on arriving at Marseilles St-Charles station our options included Paris, Strasbourg, Nantes, Nice and Perpignan. However, the first train to depart was for Montpellier where we were to spend two very enjoyable days. These two days included the Bastille Day celebrations which climaxed in a massive pyrotechnics display. The fireworks display which must have cost the ratepayers of Montpellier a small fortune was unfortunately a bit of a damp squib. There was no wind and after a few rockets had been released a cloud of smoke formed over the site. This did not disperse but intensified as more fireworks were released and we spent the last twenty minutes staring at a large cloud of grey smoke from which we could hear a succession of crackles, whooshes and bangs.

Without realising it we began to settle into a daily pattern. Leaving the hotel each morning around nine o’clock we would walk to the railway station and board the first train departing. We would then relax, lie back and enjoy the scenery, read a book or when we were able to obtain the morning paper complete the elementary sudoku. By midday we would have arrived in the centre of another city up to two hundred miles away.

We then checked into a hotel in the vicinity of the central railway station. There was usually a wide choice of hotels but we tended to choose from the main chains such as Ibis, Kyriad, Best Western and Campanile which we knew would provide a good standard of room for around £40-£50 per night. The chosen hotel would always be within a five-minute walk from the station and in the centre of town. On only one occasion, in Toulouse, were we unable to book a room within the five-minute distance. We therefore returned to the station and boarded the next train which took us to Tours where we had no problem in getting accommodation.

Booking into the hotel just after midday gave us the whole afternoon and evening to explore the city and we would then enjoy an evening meal, and test the local wine before returning to the hotel ready for the next day’s journey.  When we found the city particularly interesting such as Lyon, Amsterdam, Montpellier and Luxembourg we would take an extra day. Indeed in Montpellier we tried to book a third day only to be told that the Tour de France was arriving the following day and there was not a vacant hotel room within fifty kilometres.

It was exciting to arrive in the station without any idea where we would be spending the evening –perhaps the foothills of the Pyrenees or the Latin Quarter of Paris. This often led us to somewhere we would not otherwise have considered going. These included a visit to Saumur where we took a boat trip to see the château’s of the Loire; to Arcachon to view the wildlife on the Ile aux Oiseaux and to walk in the forest around the lac d’Annecy.

One memorable visit was our return to Nantes. Nantes brings back many memories as it was a city in which we regularly got lost and spent hours in traffic jams as we tried to find campsites in the Vendee. No problem this time as the train station is right in the city centre. However our last visit to Nantes was in 1998 during the World Cup. In recognition of the fact that the city was host to the Brazilian team the city fathers decided to dump three thousand tons of sand in the square behind St Peters Cathedral and rename it the Copacabana Beach. I recall lying on the sand on a scorching hot day with thousands of others from many nationalities watching the Italy versus France match on the big screen. Around us on the acres of sand were many beach volley ball games, samba bands, sand sculptures, and exotic Brazilian supporters preparing for their match with Denmark later that evening. This peaceful scene was suddenly disrupted by the arrival of dozens of buses carrying marauding helmeted Vikings blowing horns and wearing red shirts with Laudrup on the back.

The trains were excellent comfortable, fast and usually departed and arrived within one or two minutes of the stated time whether they were intercity expresses or small local branch services. Unlike NIR they truly lived up to the slogan let the train take the strain. Perhaps I am being unfair to NIR as my experience has been based mainly on many years of commuting on the 8.15 to Belfast prior to the arrival of the new trains.

We did have a problem on the last day as we travelled from Tours to the Ferry in Calais.  The train came to a sudden stop and there were a number of announcements kindly translated for us by our French fellow passengers. It appeared that the electricity supply had failed and we would have to return to Tours. After sitting in Tours for ten minutes a large van arrived and began to unload dozens of boxes. This was ominous as each box contained a three-course lunch which was distributed to all the passengers. It was now quite clear that we would not be moving for some time. In fact the delay lasted for over three hours which I think was longer than any delay I suffered in twenty years commuting on NIR. On the other hand I had never received a free three-course meal from NIR.

Clearly a train-based holiday will not appeal to everyone. If you are interested in shopping or lying in the sun or even touring historic buildings or art galleries this is not the type of holiday for you.  Everything must be crammed into a rucksack so you can forget about fashion or dressing up. While it would be advisable to be reasonably fit each day’s activities could be equated to going to Belfast for a days shopping. On the other hand we had planned to partake in some serious walking and had been training on the coastal path. One walk around the mediaeval fortifications and forests surrounding the Old Town of Luxembourg was particularly memorable with its fascinating and spectacular views. However equally enjoyable was our trip into the Alps where alighting at a small town we spent four hours climbing the slopes before returning to catch the train back to Lyon for our evening meal.

I found the whole idea of an Inter Rail holiday very attractive. No booking; no timetables; no pressure; the ability to relax and go where and when we wanted. Even better from a green point of view it was an environmentally friendly holiday with a minimal carbon footprint. The environmental benefits of the train were highlighted when we emerged from Amsterdam station to see thousands of bicycles parked neatly in rows disappearing into the distance. It is clear that many Dutch commuters recognised the benefits of the train in avoiding their own Tillysburn tailbacks. I find it hard to imagine Bangor station having to be extended to provide additional cycle racks for local commuters.

There was also a degree of nostalgia when in Dijon we came across a campsite where I had pitched a tent more than 30 years ago- long before family responsibilities interfered. This time however I was able to enjoy all the benefits of a hotel room rather than Spartan Youth Hostel or the primitive campsite.

Finally I must refute the conductress’s suggestion that a rail holiday is not for people of “our age”. I found it invigorating and refreshing and at the same time relaxing. Anne even commented that she felt 10 years younger. This year we hope to be a bit more adventurous and extend our trip into Zone G to include Italy and Greece the cradle of European civilisation.

2 thoughts on “Oldies on a Train: My Backpacking Parents (2012)”

  1. Hi, perhaps you should do the Trans Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing. We did a 7 week trip there and back from our local station in France for our 40th wedding anniversary. As it is 5/6 nights on the train you have to slum it a bit but you can go 1st class as we did quite cheaply.

    Happy training.

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