Sunday, 12 February 2017

Interrail 1975. Part Four - Spain, France & Home

White Horses of the Camargue
The previous section of the narrative saw my travelling companion, Nick and I boarding a west-bound train at Marseille station. This would have been mid-morning. We had a lengthy journey ahead of us which would involve several changes of train before reaching our planned halt at the resort town of Benidorm, on Spain’s Costa Blanca.

Our train hugged the Mediterranean coast for some distance, before veering off inland slightly, as we passed through the area known as the Camargue. This area lies between the two arms of the River Rhône, and is Western Europe's largest river delta. It comprises large salt-water lagoons, which are cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes. It is home to the famous breed of White Camargue Horses, and as we travelled through this region, the hazy sunshine peering through the mists, reminded me of the children’s TV programme, White Horses. My sister, being three years younger than me, was a fan of this series, but all I remember today about the programme was its theme song, performed by a singer called Jacky (real name Jackie Lee).

 Border at Cerbère -
As the morning turned into afternoon and then became early evening, we reached the French-Spanish border at the town of Cerbère.  A change of train was essential here, as the Spanish Railways operate over tracks with a wider-gauge to the rest of Europe. I don’t know whether this was a result of Spain’s isolation from the rest of Western Europe because of its quasi-fascist regime, or whether it was a simple matter of economics, but due to the incompatibility of the rail networks, there were no cross-border trains. 

The change of train gave us a chance to stretch our legs, before boarding a local service bound for the next stop on our itinerary, the city of Barcelona; capital of the Catalan region of Spain; not that this area enjoyed the same degree of autonomy it has today. Generalissimo Franco, had put paid to that when his Nationalist armies had crushed Spain’s democratically elected Republican government in 1938, at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s Spain was very different to the country visited today, by thousands of British tourists; although as events were to prove, the Spanish dictator had only a year or so to live. We, of course, were oblivious to this and I have to confess I knew very little at the time of Spain’s troubled past.

I mentioned that we had boarded a local train, and it was just that – very local and stopping at every small village and hamlet along the way. It was also staggeringly uncomfortable, with hard seats with no head support. Along the way we caught glimpses of Spain’s northern Mediterranean coast, but by the time we arrived at Barcelona’s Estacio de França station, it was dark.

Estacio de França - Barcelona
I revisited the station, during my stay in the city, last March, and wrote about it here. At the time it was Barcelona’s main station, but during the intervening 40 years, a new station has been constructed on the other side of the city, allowing through trains to cross the town, by means of tunnels below the streets. As mentioned in my article, we had trouble boarding what was a very over-crowded train, and only managed to jump on board at the last minute. I don’t remember too much of our journey, apart from having to sit in the corridor for part of the duration.

Sometime the following day, we arrived in Valencia, after travelling through the night. This involved a further change of train, but not before we had ventured into the city to stock up on provisions (bread, water, cheese and tomatoes). Our next train took us high up into the mountains behind the city, as we travelled towards Alicante; our next destination.

It was early evening by the time we arrived and we were supposed to be taking a train on the narrow-gauge railway (FGV) which runs back along the coast to Benidorm. This railway was privately-owned, so was not covered by our Interrail ticket, so after unsuccessfully trying to locate the station, we decided to take a bus instead. Either way we would have needed to pay, and as it turned out the bus was by far the better option.

Benidorm - a lot more built upthan it was in 1975
It was dark when we arrived in Benidorm, and after hunting around, unsuccessfully as it happened, for a campsite, we headed for the beach. A group of pedalos tied up close to the waterline seemed a good place to lay out our sleeping bags and get some shut-eye, especially as my friend pointed out that with a rise and fall in the tide, of no more than four feet, in the Mediterranean, the risk of us getting washed away was pretty minimal. 

Before bedding down for the night we got chatting to a group of revellers who were walking along the beach. It was just as well we did, because shortly after a couple of Guardia Civil officers came strolling in the opposite direction and told us to “clear off”. Had we been curled up in our sleeping bags, I have no doubt we’d have received not just a rude awakening, but probably a night in the cells as well for vagrancy!

We managed to get our heads down, for a short while, on a hillside overlooking the sea, on the edge of town, and then come daylight, found a suitable campsite. I mentioned in the previous post that I had a girlfriend who was working in Benidorm. Like my companion Nick’s girlfriend, she was taking a degree in modern languages at the same university as us, and was spending six months in Spain as part of the course. She had landed a position as receptionist in a German-owned hotel.

From memory I believe we stayed for three nights in the town. I spent as much time as I could with my lady friend, when she wasn’t working and she kindly treated Nick and I to the odd meal, after taking pity on our slightly emancipated state caused by the paucity of our diet. Apart from my brief stop in Cologne, I probably consumed more beer there on any other portion of the trip. My girlfriend had to work one night, so I accompanied Nick to one of Benidorm’s many clubs – there were people handing out free tickets all along the seafront, and once inside the beer was free as well. We met a couple of rather attractive Dutch girls that evening, and whilst I don’t remember their names, I do remember us ending up on the beach. I will leave the rest to your imagination.

It was a sad goodbye when we departed the resort, as I was still rather “loved up”. I must have also been rather tired as I slept for much of the rail journey back through Spain to the French border. Once in France, we caught a fast train to Paris. Time was now close to running out on our month-long Interrail passes, but there was still sufficient left for us to enjoy a few days in the French capital.
We took advantage of a large camping site in the Bois de Boulogne. The sun shone and we spent three wonderful days in Paris, for who could not fail to enjoy this lovely city? We did all the sights, including a marathon visit to the Louvre. I’m also fairly certain we enjoyed some French beer as well. By this time money had well and truly run out. There were no such things as cash cards, or ATM’s back then, and after cashing my last remaining traveller’s cheque I had just about enough cash to see me to the Channel Ports and the ferry back to England.

After checking the ferry times, I sent a telegram (remember them?), to my parents, informing them of my planned arrival in Folkestone the following day. I said farewell to Nick, who was catching a later sailing, in order to squeeze in some last minute sight-seeing, and made my way to the Gare du Nord. I then took the train to Boulogne, and boarded the ferry. When I disembarked at Folkestone, my mother was waiting to meet me, along with a friend she had persuaded to drive her there in order to collect me. I think that after a month’s absence, with only the occasional post card home, she actually seemed rather relieved to see me!

Some background information:

My friend and I used the Interrail ticket to make our roughly circular journey around the continent, by train. The “ticket” came in the form of a small booklet, which was really more of a “pass”. There were various boxes to fill in and have validated. The idea was you entered both your departure and arrival destinations in the appropriate boxes, and then presented your “pass” at the ticket office, for it to be officially stamped, or “validated”.

In order to allow flexibility, it was preferable to complete each stage, one step at a time, and then to get the ticket validated at major railway stations; rather than at small, isolated rural locations. This was common sense really, and we had no problems whatsoever. When a ticket collector appeared on the train, you just showed him or her pass and all was ok. Back in those pre-Schengen Agreement days, there were of course border checks, where passports had to be shown as well; but again these presented no problems.

Today an Interrail ticket allows rail travel in up to 30 European countries, and offers far greater flexibility than it did 40 years ago. For example, you can limit your travel to 7, 15 or 22 days within the month, or you can travel every day during that period. Tickets are priced accordingly. You can also purchase a ticket for a single European country, which allows up to 8 days travel within a month; thereby offering an excellent way of journeying around a specific country, with the opportunity of spending several days in a number of different locations. You can discover more here.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that back in 1975, there was an upper age limit restriction of 26 years old, on Interrail availability. This was later raised to 29, and has now been abolished altogether. With this in mind, and with retirement looming in four to five years time, I might just buy another Interrail ticket and head off on another journey of discovery!



Liam K said...

As if I haven't said enough already, really liked this series of blogs. And to hear you might be tempted to undertake interrail again, very interesting. Would you be tempted to retrace your routes or explore the now expanded east Europe area.

I myself had looked at interrail about a decade ago but opted not to do it as people were telling me some eastern European countries have different rules to west
ended up flying to eastern Europe on a budget airline and undertaking the trans Mongolian rail through Russian, Mongolia and China. Beer less exciting but amazing nontheless.

Personally I've not done much of western Europe and would certainly like to do a trip for 2 weeks or so covering more the Med area

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Liam, thanks for your kind comments and glad you enjoyed the series. I really like the sound of your marathon rail journey through Russia, Mongolia and China. How long did that trip take?

I am looking at a trans-continental rail journey through the United States; either later this year, or more likely in 2018. Amtrak have some good deals if you pre-book and, if you’re so inclined, you can do the whole journey in four days (3 nights). A better plan would be to stop off and spend a few days at several different locations on route.

As for retracing my original Interrail route; I think I would vary it somewhat, next time around, and include a trip up into Scandinavia. I’m not sure about Eastern Europe. I’ve done a fair bit of rail travel in the Czech Republic and whilst interesting, their ordinary inter-city trains are on the slow side. Bus or coach travel is a far better option. There have been several new and much faster cross-border services which have started in recent years; and these would certainly be worth looking at.

Going back to 1975, as well as describing some of the route and the obvious attractions along the way, I wanted to convey something of just how different things were 40 years ago. Most of all I wanted to demonstrate that even without devices such as mobile phones, laptops and the Internet, as well as ATM’s, credit cards etc, it was still perfectly feasible to plan a trip of this length and magnitude. I also wanted to show that with careful planning, two travelling companions could to go their separate ways, half-way through the trip, and then successfully meet up again afterwards without being in constant contact. These days, people can’t even meet up with one another in the supermarket without making contact on their mobile phones!

I should also add that my son and I will be travelling to Düsseldorf and back, by train, later in the year. Eurostar to Brussels, ICE train to Cologne and then a local DB service to Düsseldorf.

Liam K said...

The Russia-Mongolia trip started in Tallin actually. Then Helsinki. We spent a few days in St Petersburg including an amazing sunrise tour after a heavy night drinking with some American exchange students, and seen a good deal of the city.

In Moscow we caught the trans Mongolian and by chance happened to be in the same carriage as a large group of russians heading to an away game of football (3 days travel). They have two trolleys of alcohol which they shared with us.

We didn't take train all way through and instead broke up and got off at yeketaringberg, irkustch and ullan baatar. Drank lots all.the baltakars beers including with a UN soldier on the monglian border whilst everyone else had to lookave the train all because we were listening to Metallica. He joined us for a beer as well haha

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