Thursday, 19 January 2017

Interrail 1975 Part Two - Northern Europe

The first instalment of this narrative covered the concept and planning of a round Europe rail trip a student friend and I made, back in the summer of 1975, making use of the Interrail Pass. Having caught the ferry across from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, my companion and I made the short train journey to Amsterdam, which is where the story continues.

Your's truly - 41 years ago!
Amsterdam:  The Dutch capital, at the time, was dominated by Heineken and its subsidiary, Amstel. To a certain extent it still is, although as my recent visit proved, the beer scene has dramatically improved out of all recognition over the past 40 years.

We stayed at the Youth Hostel in central Amsterdam. Unlike similar hostels in Britain, and very unlike the Youth Hostel we stayed at in Hamburg (see below), our stopover in the Dutch capital was a very civilised affair, with the doors not locked until 1am and soft classical music played over the tannoy system in the morning, in order to awaken the residents. My only gripe was the triple-rise bunks in the dormitories, which required the ability to climb like a mountain goat, plus a head for heights; and guess who got lumbered with the top bunk!

Heineken’s city centre brewery was still operational at the time of our visit, so we did the obvious thing and booked a tour – one Dutch Guilder if my memory serves me right. The tour of course, included a number of free beers, which were gratefully received at the time.

We visited several Amsterdam bars during our three day stay in the capital. This was my first introduction to Europe’s “café culture”, and I felt I could really get used to sitting outside one of the traditional Dutch Brown Cafés, enjoying a few beers whilst watching the world go by.  

Two things we found slightly less appealing were the small 33cl glasses and the peculiar Dutch habit of scraping the head off the top of the beer with a wooden spatula.  We didn’t go overboard on the beer front though, as of necessity, we were on a tight budget and had to think about matters such as food. Here, a paper cone full of chips, smothered in mayonnaise, came into its own, acting as a cheap and tasty stomach-filler.

Copenhagen:  The Danish capital was our next stop, and being Denmark we found it rather expensive. It’s worth briefly mentioning that our rail journey to Copenhagen involved our train being shunted onto a ferry, as we journeyed from the mainland of the Jutland Peninsula to the large island where the Danish capital is situated.

Elephant Gate - Carlsberg Brewery
We again based ourselves in a Youth Hostel, where fortunately I managed to grab the bottom bunk this time. Our stay in Copenhagen was limited to a couple of days, but we still managed to see most of the sights (Royal Palace, Little Mermaid and Tivoli Gardens) during that time.  As in Amsterdam, we booked a tour round the city’s main brewery,  Carlsberg; a short ride by public transport out from the city centre. I have to say that the original, and no longer operational, Carlsberg Brewery is an undisputed place of beauty; starting with the ornate “Elephant Gate” which forms the entrance to the brewery, but which  carries on through into the brew-house and the fermentation hall.

There was also a generous sampling of beer after the tour; something which didn’t sit too well on an empty stomach. The unseasonably cold and damp July weather also put a bit of a dampener on things as well, so much so that we abandoned the afternoon’s visit to Tuborg; Copenhagen’s other major brewery. This was probably a wise move at the time, but looking back was something of lost opportunity; especially as the plant is now closed.

Hamburg: There’s nothing to report on the beer front here, and little on any other front. The Youth Hostel is worth mentioning, if only because its strict regime required residents to be back before 10pm, when the doors were locked and used a loud and annoying bell to jolt sleepers out of their slumbers at 6am!  So no chance of a wild evening in St Pauli and the Reeperbahn then!

River Rhine - Cologne
The sprawling north German seaport acted as little more than an overnight staging post for the next stage of our journey, and was also the place where Nick and I parted company for a few days.
The plan was for my companion to head south to Stuttgart, where he would be spending a few days with a former girl-friend, who was living and working in the city, as part of her foreign languages course. I would also be travelling south but only as far as the great Rhineland city of Cologne.  I would be staying there with a school friend who was doing a similar language-based course to Nick’s girlfriend. 

The arrangement was that a few days later I would board a pre-selected Munich-bound train, which passed through Stuttgart, and my travelling companion would be waiting on the platform to board the same train. There was no contingency plan, and no real way of getting in touch with each other should something happen to spoil the arrangement, but fortunately, thanks in no small part to the strict punctuality of Deutsche Bahn, things ran like clockwork, and true to form Nick was waiting on the platform at Stuttgart station, ready to be waved off by his girlfriend.

Cologne's impressive cathedral
Cologne: I don’t know what Nick got up to in Stuttgart, although getting back together with his girlfriend obviously featured highly on the list. For my part, I had a great time in Cologne. My school friend was lodging with a widow in the city suburbs, and this lady had very kindly offered to put me up for a few days. What followed were a couple of very beery days, which came as something of a shock to the system after 10 days or so of very moderate consumption.

I was met off the train at Cologne Hauptbahnhof by my school chum, who quickly whisked me off to his workplace, where a “leaving do” of some description was taking place. The reason for his haste was an attractive and highly polished wooden barrel of beer perched up on a table. What was even better was his boss’s instruction to “Make sure Mick’s friend has plenty to drink, and that his glass remains full!” Consequently, by the time the party was drawing to an end, I was viewing the world from a totally different perspective. I don’t know what the beer was, or whether it may have been the local speciality - Kölsch, but it was very nice. After the party ended, we went on to a restaurant with Mick’s boss, where there was yet more beer, plus some welcome and much needed food. 

Brauerei Päffgen
The following day was spent sight-seeing in Cologne; the highlight of which was a visit to the city’s imposing cathedral. We climbed the stairs to the top of one of the spires, from where we had a spectacular view over central Cologne and across the River Rhine. After that it was time for lunch, and knowing my penchant for a decent pint, Mick took me to one of the city’s oldest brew-pubs. Brauerei Päffgen was a bit of a walk from the city centre, but it was well worth it. My friend explained about Cologne’s famous style of local beer – Kölsch, and told me that at Päffgen, the beer was actually brewed on the premises.

Beer from the wood
Apart from being impressed by the fact that the beer was dispensed from large wooden casks, I don’t remember much about my visit to Päffgen, but three and a half decades later I returned to this famous establishment when I was in Cologne for a trade show. That evening, three colleagues and I made our way to Brauerei Päffgen, and enjoyed an excellent evening sampling the equally excellent beer. The photos shown here are from that 2009 return visit, rather than the one back in 1975.

It’s worth mentioning briefly the rail journey from Cologne down to Stuttgart, as the 185 kilometre stretch south to Mainz, is one of the most scenic routes imaginable. The rail line follows the course of the River Rhine, almost hugging the west bank of the river at times, as it negotiates the narrow Rhine Gorge.  High on the hills, overlooking the gorge, are a number of strategically-placed old castles, now mostly ruined, but coupled with the extensive vineyards covering many of the valley slopes, they give a real romantic feel to the region .

We will leave the narrative here for now, as the next time we stepped off a train, apart from when changing on to another, we had traversed the Alps and were in Croatia. That is definitely southern Europe, so I will continue with this "less beery" part of the continent in the next instalment.


Liam K said...

Another good read. I know you said it would be more beer focused and it certainly did tick off a large area and breweries.

Look forward to put three, regardless of beer or not haha.

And we all know what Nick got up to during his 'down times.

I always find the café culture of Europe interesting however you certainly need good weather particularly around the squares which become wind traps during the cold weather.

I imagine writing and recounting the trip is bringing back some memories. May I ask how far into your trip were you by the end of this stage?

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Liam, yes I obviously knew full well what my friend was up to during his stay in Stuttgart! Later on in the trip, I too met up with a girlfriend who was working in Spain at the time. Like Nick’s liaison, this meeting was also pre-arranged.

In answer to your question about how far into the trip we were by this stage; I would estimate just under half way. I did keep a bit of a diary at the time, and whilst I came across it a few years ago, it has become buried again somewhere.

Not wishing to spoil the narrative too much, but after relaxing on the Dalmatian Coast for several days, we then embarked on a series of marathon train journeys, travelling virtually non-stop all the way from Yugoslavia, across northern Italy, and then right round the Mediterranean coast of France, before finally ending up in Spain.