Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

InterRail is far more than just a train ticket. Cast back to the nineteen seventies, and the rail pass was feted by a generation of young Europeans as the ultimate 'ticket to ride'. InterRail appealed to the wanderlust of travellers who took weeks to explore the boundaries of both Europe and themselves. Co-editor of hidden europe Nicky Gardner reflects on the early days of InterRail and notes how the scheme now appeals to Europeans of all ages.

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A young face looked up from under a blanket as I edged past. Its owner then slowly propped herself up against an enormous rucksack, rubbed her eyes, and apologised for having appropriated the corridor of the train as her bed. “All the compartments were full. Not a seat to be found,” she said with a smile. “Do you know when we will reach Lausanne?”

I was picking a route between rucksack straps, trying not to dislodge a precariously balanced guitar. But I took a moment to reflect on the Lausanne question. “No, but we’ll shortly be in Italy,” I ventured. “I guess that for Lausanne you should have changed trains during the night,” I added, a little hesitantly.

Coriander, for that it transpired was the name of she who had just awoken, was not at all perturbed by the intelligence that she was on the wrong train. She introduced me to Camilla, her travel companion. The two girls were in their late teens and had identical hairstyles. They had, Camilla explained, boarded the train the previous afternoon, and had evidently slept their way through Germany by day and the Alps by night.

Camilla and Coriander were part of a generation that used Europe as a way to discover themselves and shape their own identities. Free from school, free of worries, they didn’t mind that Switzerland had somehow eluded them by night. “No worries,” said Camilla. “We’ll hit Milan instead.”

Both Londoners, the two women had in the space of a week taken in Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen. A chance encounter with a young Swiss traveller at a hostel in Amsterdam had sown the seed of an idea, the appealing prospect of a day or two chilling on the north shore of Lake Geneva.

Coriander and Camilla had, it turned out, refined relaxation to a high art. They clearly both had an enviable capacity to sleep anywhere. They had shared meals, shared clothes and shared laughs on a fast romp through Europe’s hip cities of the late-1980s. This extraordinary mode of unplanned travel was made possible by InterRail, a promotion that allows young Europeans to roam at will across an entire continent.

Camilla and Coriander travelled as an inseparable twosome. Hundreds of thousands of young people in the 1970s and 1980s bought an InterRail pass and set off alone. I was one of them. It was the perfect opportunity to explore Europe in a way that combined the benefits of solo travel with sociable interludes. So crowded with InterRailers were the principal main-line trains, that along the way one met new friends and fellow travellers with consummate ease.

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the InterRail programme, which started as an initiative to celebrate in 1972 the fiftieth birthday of the Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer (UIC). Coriander and Camilla had surely never heard of UIC and nor had I when I purchased my first InterRail pass in 1974.

Venturing north

I set my sights on Narvik, not because I knew anything about Narvik beyond the mere rumour that the rail route to Narvik, well up beyond the Arctic Circle, broke records for how far north it went. It was not until many years later that I realised that devotees of northernness can ride trains on routes that are closer to the North Pole in European Russia. The line to Narvik breaks no records, beyond being the northernmost extremity of Europe that could then be reached with an InterRail pass. And that’s still true today.

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Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine. Nicky also writes regularly for other media. She is co-author (with Susanne Kries) of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published 2022.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. She gives thanks for that daily. Nicky writes about culture and communities, about memorable landscapes and also about journeys. Over the years she's picked up a thing or two about product life cycles, the book trade and publishing, ticketing APIs, how libraries work and the high theology of grant giving.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. Nicky has since 2007 been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.eu.

This article was published in hidden europe 37.