There was light at the end of the tunnel. We had been swinging and lurching around mountain bend after mountain bend for four hours. Only one more to go.
Sitting is the only skill required for the noble art of inter-railing. but this car-journey would have strained even the most well-padded behind. I was squeezed. in something smaller than a mini. between two enormous wrinkled Spanish mamas. My legs and shoulders were playing host to their four baskets and six chickens. Through toothless gums. the mamas maintained a non-stop stream of chatter and halitosis across me.
The five-hour taxi trip from Andorra to Barcelona had been somewhat accidental. We had assumed that trains would exist. Too late we looked at our train-maps. No cheering red lines. The taxi it had to be.
The fare quoted was a miraculous £7 each. But the perks of the taxi-driver‘s job became clear at the border. Flagged down for a search. the driver chewed hard at his cigar (they come cheap in Andorra). Then he opened the car-boot. The guard's eye-brows rose to impossible heights at the sight ofcnough drink to sink an army and enough tobacco to stock a shop. In Catalan. the driver explained that the duty-free goodies belonged to the four passengers. lt merely used up their allowance (‘heavy drinkers‘ he muttered as he tipped a wink at the guard. ‘foreigners‘ . ) This was all news to us. ()ur bottle ofcognac and four hundred cigarettes were tucked inside our rucksacks. which. at the sight ofso much swag. were of little interest to the customs officers. Luckily for the driver (or for us?)
Halfan hour later. the driver pulled up in a small back-street in a dry. dusty village. After several shifty looks. he started unloading boxes and bottles. The mamas chattered on. quite unperturbed.
Another two hours‘ travail and a breakfast-and-water stop was announced. The mamas heaved themselves through the car doors. leaving a crumpled wreck behind them. I untangled my limbs and went into the cafe’ bar. Twenty swarthy sozzled men stared. Spit and sawdust have got nothing on what grew on that floor.
A few smart nips. then the driver indicated our departure. He was
ready to hit the road again. which he did more often than he missed it. My travelling companion (seated
JUST THE TICKET
Kristina Woolnough reports on the hazards and delights of inter-railing round Eumpe.
comfortany in the front) and l were beginning to fall out (we‘d already had several false starts. but this time it was for real).
So Barcelona. capital of ( ‘atalonia. was a welcome relief. An [English- speaking Catalan helpfully suggested. as we explained our intention to head for Madrid. that we should not bother. To (‘atalans anything south of Madrid is Africa- heathen. hostile territory.
The taxi ride was just one possible nightmare (or adventure if you're perverse) which may spring upon hapless inter-railers. We had opted to shunt round Europe in January. with a view to avoiding the summer crush. There were indeed compensations — we had no trouble with booked-tip youth hostels or over-crowded trains. But the disadvantages were quite spectacular too
Andorra was as difficult to get into asitwas to getoutof Afteran all-nighter on a garlicky French train
Paris to the End of the Line. we were in no mood for jokes. The short bus ride we had been promised turned into a hair-tearing three-hour trip up countless thousands of Pyrennean feet in a blizzard at dawn.
After Andorra. we sought out the sun in Alicante. We lay hopefully on the beach in a sand-storm. no doubt brought on by the loud guffaws ofthe locals. In Madrid we chewed on sardine heads and tossed the remains on to the floor in accordance with local custom (‘the rats in Madrid love this place' said our guide). Then we went to Madrid‘s Sunday market where you can buy anything from football cards to dope.
The weather from the train window as we travelled across the south west of France had potential. The South of France augurcd well. But we sat up all night to the sounds of a plaintive guitar — not. as may be thought. on a bender. but because we couldn't sleep. And we couldn‘t sleep because the South of France
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storms for thirty years. Shutters and windows blew open. The building swayed. Pools ofstorm lay on the dormitory ﬂoors. Heating was not something the hostel had heard of. We planned a quick getaway. but trees were across lines and trains were off. l tried to phone an SOS to Scotland. but the phone box began to move. The next day it was gone.
Places where winter is par for the course set us on the right track again. Switzerland (though pricey) was marvellous. Snowy peaks. cow bells tinkling and chocolate. The hostel was warm and clean. We took trips to the Eiger(from whence (‘lint [Eastwood dangled) and watched the incredibly rich ski-ing and being seen. Germany held further delights. The interminable train journeys slipped down with swigs of(}erman beer. Such carriage cosiness did not last. Twelve-hour plod-abouts are a little hard to take in minus 12“(‘ — but youth hostels often insist that you leave them in peace all day. To make this point clearer. they lock their doors. No cathedral or monument is that fascinating.
Heading back to London we ate pizzas in Amsterdam. The porn which oozes from every pore of the city prompted a grumble of indigestion. By the next morning. bleary-eyed and smelly. we were aboard a ferry. peering through the mizzle at the cliffs of Dover. Back to the daily grind and British Rail sandwiches.
Useful Information: The ImerRai‘l (an! is available from principal BR stations and appointed travel agents for £139. It is valid for one month on trains in 21 countries. You must be under 26. You get 50"} off fares in Britain and Northern Ireland and 30"? off most Sealink shipping services. as well as reductions on other specified crossings.
To join the Youth Hostel Association. call in at 1-1 Southampton Street. London WCZ or by post (Scotland only) from 7 Glebe Crescent. Stirling.
Books: British Rail do a European timetable. and Thomas (‘ook does a more detailed one for £4.65 (from Thomas (‘ook Travel shops).
Let's Go: The Budge! Guide to Europe is the best all-round source of information. See Search For the Sun' for publisher.
Europe By Train does a similar job for £4.50 and is available from bookshops or Transalpino offices. See Student Travel section.
50 The List 18— 31 March 1988