Life lessons I learnt from my first interrailing trip (a decade ago)
“Yes, we could have flown instead of taking the train between locations, but we would have missed out on so much! Sharing sandwiches with farmers who didn’t speak any English in northern Romania; meeting Vladimir and Nikolai, two nuclear scientists on the overnight train between Moscow and St Petersburg; and learning the very specific skillset required to sleep on a narrow couchette aboard a moving train…”
It’s now over a decade since me and my friend Bex sat on the floor of a student house in Bangor, North Wales, with a map of Europe spread out in front of us. The wine had flowed freely that evening and we drew a looping circle from Prague to St Petersburg via Vienna and back again through Poland. We couldn’t wait to explore Europe!
While it was a simple plan, it was also an ambitious one, which would lead to an incredible five-week interrailing adventure. More than ten years later, the pictures look a little dated – no Instagram filters in the summer of 2007 – but I still remember the life lessons I learnt while Interrailing through no fewer than nine countries!
Travelling overland offers a huge sense of achievement
When we arrived back in Prague at the end of our trip and headed to the airport to fly home, it was impossible not to notice many of the destinations we’d visited plainly displayed in yellow characters on the departure board.
Yes, we could have flown instead of taking the train between locations, but we would have missed out on so much! Travelling by train was definitely the best way to travel Europe. Sharing sandwiches with farmers who didn’t speak any English in northern Romania; meeting Vladimir and Nikolai, two nuclear scientists on the overnight train between Moscow and St Petersburg; and learning the very specific skill set required to sleep on a narrow couchette aboard a moving train…
Standing in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square felt like a huge achievement. We’d navigated train timetables, deciphered signs written only in Cyrillic, survived food poisoning and early mornings being woken up by an enthusiastic cockerel.
The Kaiser Chiefs’ classic anthem Oh My God was at the height of its popularity during our trip. Every time the lyrics “Oh my God I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this so far away from home…” came on the radio, it was a reminder of how far we had come.
When travelling with a friend, it’s good to take some time apart
My travelling companion from that trip 11 years ago is still one of my best friends to this day. While I’m sure that it is partly down to the travelling we did together that we are still so close, I’m also convinced that the few times we went off and did our own thing also helped to preserve our friendship.
When undertaking a trip of this kind it can be reassuring to know you have someone dependable by your side. It’s also totally natural to want to have a bit of time on your own and it’s that which will keep you sane. These days, it’s a policy I stick to when travelling with other people, but back in 2007 I was new to the game and it was among the things I needed to figure out.
Some of the best experiences come from changing your plans
By the time Bex and I rocked up in Bucharest, we’d already visited a whole load of cities – Prague, Vienna, Budapest – and the Romanian capital didn’t quite match up to our romantic expectations. It was time to escape to the country and we swiftly made plans to visit a farm in the small community of Vadu Izei in the district of Maramures.
It turned out to be one of the best experiences of our trip, being fed massive meals by our host, exploring the local countryside and visiting the Happy Cemetery in Sapanta. Interrailing offers one of the most flexible ways to travel and failing to take advantage of this is a shame. To this day, I use the Bucharest example as a reminder that if a place isn’t right for you at a specific time, then move on; other adventures await.
It’s easy to get lost in translation…
As we neared Budapest, there were lots of questions from fellow interrailers about whether we were going to Sziget Festival. We didn’t know anything about it, but the more it became apparent that everyone going the same way as us was heading to the festival, it seemed like a good idea to take a day out of our schedule and join in. After all, who wouldn’t want to see the Chemical Brothers on an island in the Danube for a tenner?!
From our accommodation, we looked at a map and saw the word Sziget, so set off by foot, bus and train to the location. When we arrived on the island, there were people playing tennis and absolutely no sign of a music festival… It transpired that the word sziget simply means island… the bands were playing on the next island along…
Finally… Always accept the offer of mosquito protection!
When we missed our train leaving St Petersburg by going to the wrong station – there are several in the city, as we now know – and returned to the hostel we had been staying at, the receptionist failed to ask if we required the plug-in mosquito repellent we had used on previous nights.
Thinking this probably wouldn’t be a big deal, we spent the night in a city built on a former swamp protecting our faces with towels and hearing the familiar buzzzzzz of the tiny insects every time we closed our eyes. Somehow, the paranoia was worse than the inevitable bites the next day…
The life lessons you learn from travelling stick with you forever – we’d vouch for that! There’s nothing like the freedom of exploring on your own terms, whether that’s with mates or on your own. Interested in planning your own interrail adventure? Why not have a look at our set packages, or create your own route using our custom trip builder!
Words by Emma Dodd, a travel writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Emma has fond memories of interrailing and the experience has shaped her other travels. Fancy checking out some more of her writing? Emma blogs at http://wanderingtheworldbarefoot.blogspot.com/