The 1975 Interrail trip
I was brought up in Mastrick, an Aberdeen council housing estate, in the early 60s with my mum Elizabeth a nurse, my dad Angus a bricklayer and my older brother, Kenneth. In primary and secondary school, I always enjoyed geography: in primary it was the map of the world, flags and capital cities, and at secondary it was looking at cultures, rivers, mountains, deserts and natural disasters. Like many others at that time, my interest in countries, cultures and famous attractions were common, perhaps because they were not accessible, and it was another world away.
One major influence came when I picked up the National Geographic when I was in the waiting room for an appointment. This publication opened the world to me. What I read was magical; the photography was literally out of this world. In the 1960s, all these well-known European countries and cities were a dream away, like so to many of my school friends and neighbours. There was not a lot of money around and thoughts of foreign travel were impossible. There was, in those days, a lack of opportunity for youngsters from working-class backgrounds. It was felt that there were certain limits you could not reach and European travel was reserved for the better-off.
Things made a massive turn around in 1974. Moving from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, for university, seemed like I was travelling a massive distance- only a hundred and twenty miles! During Fresher’s week I made friends with Ronnie who was to become a lifelong friend and a couple of his school mates, Alan and Stuart, and we quickly all became very good friends. Ronnie and I had the same passion for European rail travel and a great interest in other countries and cultures. I remember clearly that late winter us all discussing an Inter-rail journey for September 1975. What me? Going to Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia now Croatia, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and France (in fact you could include Belgium as we travelled from Ostend to Copenhagen on the overnight train). I love train travel so inter-rail was perfect.
So, in 1975 … In the Beehive pub in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in late winter the four of us met to discuss our inter-rail trip. We went about planning our route and itinerary; we had a few things that were to be on our list, as we wanted to enjoy the culture and attractions of the countries and experience more rural areas rather than just the large cities. The tools available were limited to library books on European travel; the Thomas Cook Continental rail timetable, advice from friends who had done European travel and literature from the Youth Hostel Association. I remember well our planning meetings, they were mainly held in the pub. We had this massive map spread out over the table and our very excited chat as the night wore into the late evening. Our original plan was a follows: Denmark- Sweden- Austria – Greece – a day in Yugoslavia (Zagreb)- Greece- Italy (by ferry) – Switzerland – France – UK.
The purchase of the inter-rail 21 passes (for those under 21) was a trip down to Waverley station and purchased over the counter paying the £55 in cash. In 1975 youth hostels were a cheap and safe way of accommodating travellers in Europe. It was also an excellent way of meeting likeminded people from all over the world.
Booking hostels, however, was time-consuming and cumbersome. You would contact the hostel in writing by using an international reply coupon with travel details and post it to the hostel, for them to return it with a confirmation of booking or unavailability. This system took a long time to get hostel bookings complete and held up final decisions. On our trip we only made a few bookings which did cause a problem or two.
During the summer of 1975 June to August, there were numerous phone calls and a couple of weekend visits to finalise plans and catch up. As we got nearer to our departure date, I needed to think about what I was going to take with me. Since we were on a shoestring it did not involve any big purchases, but did have to consider the needs for various temperatures; It was popular during this period to purchase ex-army kit. It was cheap and also very hard-wearing, so I bought a desert hat, water bottle with cover, money belt and an ex-second world war gas mask bag. I still laugh at this but, boy, they all fitted the bill. A passport, important! Technology which was nothing more than a portable radio with spare batteries. Paper and envelopes to write home and Kodak instamatic with a 36 exposure spool. A sheet sleeping bag that your feet got tangled up in .as sheets were not issued. Some English pounds and travellers’ cheques to prove we were arriving with funds (£134 for twenty-six days travel). And a small saltire we all attached to our rucksacks to show our Scottish identity.
So, the departure date arrived, I can still remember the buzz and excitement and some nervousness about what myself and my friends were about to embark on. Travelling around Europe for almost a month. Travelling to nine different countries that spoke seven different languages. Also, the fact that we would be travelling thousands of miles in fact we covered 4540 miles translated into 7300 kilometres. Sleeping on trains, youth hostels and a ship. Each country would be strange to me on my first time away from Scotland since school. I remember my mum and dad at first being unsure about me going on such a journey and my mum putting on a brave face when I left. I still have a big smile on my face remembering an elderly neighbour giving me some advice before leaving: “Now, don’t you be talking to any strangers when you’re away”.
It’s the 29th of August. With the rucksack packed and money belt secured under my jeans, we took the train to London King’s Cross, and I remember how we must have been, four very annoying Scotsmen wearing our tartan bonnets and Stuart and Alan their kilts. We all had our rucksacks on our backs barging our way on and off the tube. On to Victoria stations we got our train to Dover with an overnight stay. I remember the fantastic fish and chips and few pints of English ale which we had that evening; of course, the English ale was not as good as the Scottish tartan special, hmmm. The next day we headed to the port of Dover and sailed to Ostend- a Belgium port and rail link to Europe. After some time in and around the station we caught Nord Express; overnight train to Copenhagen. During that first continental train journey we passed through Bruges, Brussels, Hamburg and other big German cities. This did involve a change of train and a crossing between Puttgarden and Rodby, a journey we would repeat on our way to Germany in a few days. The journey overnight was exciting, and we got some sort of sleep on the train as it made its way to our first mainland European destination.
We arrived at Copenhagen main station early the next morning not bright and breezy after sleeping badly. What would you expect from four lads in a small compartment. This was our first experience of sleeping overnight on a train, it would not be our last. That evening was spent in the hostel getting to know some of our fellow travellers. No problem sleeping that night even with my feet getting tangled in the sheet sleeping bag. This trip, as you would expect, was to be a big learning curve at the age of twenty. An example of this was the next morning when I left my money belt with absolutely everything in it on the bathroom sink ledge. I’ve never run so fast, and you will never know the relief when I found the money belt was still there and fully intact in the place where I left it. Early lesson learned. I got away with one there. If it had been stolen, I was going home before my inter-rail adventure had even really started.
In Copenhagen we visited many sights including the Tivoli Gardens and the Tuborg brewery, enjoying tasting as many beers as possible. Stuart stunned some Japanese visitors in the sampling hall by opening bottles of beer with what looked like his hands, but it was his belt buckle, a party trick that he would perform throughout our trip. The next day we took a day trip to Landskrona in Sweden; just a ferry journey away. A nice and clean city with a wonderful lunch in a park which was going to be a similar pattern through the trip. The lads went out that night for a walk; I slept. Just to say, I’m not anti-social, but the lads did agree I required lots of beauty sleep. On the day of the match they enjoyed the pre-match in the main square and walked to the stadium. The mixing of Danish and Scotland fans was very enjoyable with not one bit of trouble apart from us been pelted with popcorn from the stand above; just good banter. It was a very enjoyable match with Scotland coming out as 1-0 victors.
The following day we headed for Würzburg in Bavaria. This was our first train journey by day from Copenhagen to Rodby and what a journey; with the land being very flat you could see for miles. In Rodby, the train got onto the ferry and sailed the 19 kilometres to Puttgarden in Germany. It was a great crossing and another beautiful day. We travelled through northern Germany and changed trains in Frankfurt. The scenery was fantastic and we passed through German cities we had heard of such as Hamburg, Hannover and Frankfurt! Of course, these cities were all looking very modern having been rebuilt after the war. We certainly knew we were in continental Europe. I’m not sure whose idea it was to go to Würzburg but what a good choice. Our trip continued to Hallein and a day in Salzburg. One evening we went to this big Brau house pub where there was traditional Austrian entertainment. We did a lot of thigh-slapping and ended up getting a lot of attention as the locals don’t see many Shottlanders at their pub, what a great night!
We then embarked into the real unknown. We travelled from Salzburg to Zagreb. Travelling southeast through Yugoslavia on route to Zagreb which we were going to use as a journey breaker. Unknown to us, and I just discovered recently, we were on the Tauern express which runs part of the original Orient express. We travelled onto Greece and Athens from there. So, we got our second night train. This Yugoslavian piece of rolling stock came as a bit of a shock. It was ancient and not in great condition there was also a railway engineer was going along the platform with a long-handled hammer tapping the train wheels we were not sure what that meant The one thing in its favour was the seat opposite could be pulled together with your own so you could stretch out to sleep. I got very familiar with Ronnie’s feet as he did with mine.
What was to come next during the night journey was really the first frightening experience of our inter-railing. After some banging on the compartment door, there in front of us were border guards with machine guns looking bloody scary. We had arrived at the Yugoslavian border, “passaporty! Passaporty!” they shouted. We all got the same treatment. They checked out our luggage and moved on to the next compartment. As the dawn broke, we were travelling through very rural areas. We were shocked to see people travelling in horse and carts and evidence of a lot of poverty. The housing looked grim. When the train stopped to pick up locals, we drew some very strange looks as if we had come from another planet not another European country. This was a real eye opener and really, to be honest this is what we wanted to experience, discovering different countries, cultures, people and places.
When we arrived at Zagreb station it was chaotic like a bazaar. We all felt uncomfortable and unsafe, I was glad my money belt had returned to under my jeans. The town was run down and looked poor; like if we had gone back forty years in time. I have since returned and what a beautiful city Zagreb is . The next day we stocked up with bread, water, etc., for the next overnight train journey to Athens; we knew this was going to be our longest journey and the slowest. The journey was a gruelling thirty three hours and after our experience of the last night train we were not looking forward to it. It turned out we were right to be pessimistic. It was overcrowded, there was a metal plate which seemed to produce big gaps when the train went around a bend and in the toilets had no water, a foot operated flap to discharge its contents onto the track, and the smell.. Ok, enough of that!
After a marathon journey on a train that we were melting in, we eventually got to a very hot Athens exhausted, hungry and very much in need of a shower. We got to the hostel to early so we left our rucksacks and journeyed out in the blistering hot Athens day for some lunch from Greek street food stalls. We were saddened by hearing this American guy pleading over the hostel tannoy for whoever had stolen his money belt to please return it. No questions asked. Our hearts went out to him no more than me. I had a big shiver down my back. That could have been me. We had two good days in Athens taking in the Acropolis and the Parthenon and other sites; so one of my childhood dreams was fulfilled. We had a very interesting visit to the flea market in Omonia Square, where I bought a pair of leather sandals- very cheap and fashionable at the time. We had crammed a lot into our last fourteen days, and we’re all looking forward to some rest. So, we took the slow train from Athens to Nafplion via Corinthos and Argos. The train journey was memorable as it crossed the spectacular Corinthian canal. We had three days of beach time. It was so good stopping for a moment and getting sleep.
We set off on a train journey to Patras, a major port in the west of Greece that would take us to a major port in the east of Italy Brindisi. Patras is a very busy port mainly with traffic going to Corfu, Italy and sailings up the Adriatic Italian coast and the Yugoslavian coast to Split and Dubrovnik. We got our discounted ferry ticket for our overnight sailing. Talking of discounts we found that our inter-rail card was great at getting discounts. We showed it whether we knew would get a reduction or not. On the ferry, which was big and in good condition, we slept on pull-out chairs and I remember having a sound sleep. The showers on the ferry were also good, clean with lots of hot water. We enjoyed the sunrise early the next morning as we docked in Corfu to drop off and pick up passengers. In the late afternoon when we arrived in Brindisi, as foot passengers we managed to disembark the ferry quickly. This is where Alan and Stuart started their journey home through Italy, taking them close to three days to complete. We said our farewells and arranged to all meet the first Friday after Ronnie and I got back to Edinburgh. That was still ten days away.
The following morning, after a night in Brindisi, Ronnie and I boarded the Rome train our next city on our itinerary. Rome Termini is a massive station. We, like many other travellers, were swarmed over when we left the station. We got out of there quickly. We headed for the youth hostel, some 10 km from the station on a local train. The following day and the majority of the next, we managed to take in several well-known sites the ones I’d seen in my National Geographics: the Colosseum, the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, St Peters Basilica the Vatican. I remember that since Greece we had nothing but wall to wall sun and Rome was no different. Shorts and T-shirt weather; we were building a nice tan. Ronnie and I made friends with a young Australian couple who were travelling around Italy on honeymoon. We had a very enjoyable evening with them exchanging travel and culture stories. It has been mentioned many times that inter-rail is about all the different people that you meet on your travels. Bizarrely we met in the hostel a group of Dutch backpackers we’d met in Copenhagen; they travelled a different route from us to get to Rome. Once again a small world!
The next day we went all the way up through Italy to Bern with yet another overnight journey. Perhaps with doing so many night trains I slept much better on this one getting used to the movement or perhaps I was just very tired. I was a bit disappointed that we did not break up the journey to take in more of Italy, as it was the country I had most interest in, but time was against us. Ron and I had a light meal while enjoying the rail journey through Italy’s Tuscan coast and the Alps. It was dark by the time we got to the Alps but had a beautiful sunrise as we travelled on to Bern. A nice, spotless and safe city. After some sightseeing we enjoyed the evening at the hostel with some fellow interrailers who were doing some busking; they were good, playing many favourites from that time.
We continued our journey to Paris, our final destination. We had planned to do it justice and since it was one of our childhood destinations. We were to stay two and a half memorial days there. During the next two days we discovered so many of the famous attractions; the Eiffel tower, the Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame, Place de Concorde, a walk along the River Seine and typical French food. On the final night in Paris, Ronnie and myself decided to sample the French beer, well rather a lot of it in fact, which made our return journey a bit painful. So, hung-over, the next day we travelled from Gard de Nord in Paris to Calais then the ferry to Dover. After crossing to Dover, we had an evening stay at the same hostel, by this time we were skint so no pub, not that we were feeling like it. But I remember a highlight there when unpacking then repacking my top-loader rucksack I found a clean pair of pants. Something to be said for having a clear out of your rucksack when travelling. This journey was definitely a learning experience.
The next day with mixed feelings we made the journey home. We always knew we had to return home to Scotland, but the experience had been really unbelievable, I can’t remember much about the journey home. It seemed dull in comparison, going north in our own country rather than travelling through Europe as four twenty-year-olds having never been anywhere really. Travelling through nine countries, eight different languages and ten different currencies. On this journey home Ronnie got off the train at Edinburgh and I continued onto Aberdeen to return a few days later to return to Napier and for our get-together on the first Friday on our return.
Reflecting on this first Inter-rail while writing this, as novice travellers I think we crammed too much in and we seemed to be travelling all the time. Also, even though night trains were fun, and it saved us a hostel bed night fee, it did leave us tired the next day and we missed the scenery and sights on these routes, but what that inter-rail gave me/us was many things. Confidence, hunger to do more travel, developed empathy, tolerance and understanding of other cultures, people from other countries and traditions, making friends and mistakes. It also laid the roots for many more inter-rails in the future. Apart from all the experiences of travel and of course there were plenty of them, it was most memorably the people that we met on trains, youth hostels, beaches and bars. Also I had never met a Russian but inter-rail had achieved that for me. That was a major experience and perhaps it may have been a brief encounter but I would like to think they learned something from us as we certainly learned from them.
Duncan Simpson volunteer historian and archivist for the YHA and author of the history of the YHA.
Dixe Wills travel writer and author for the Guardian newspaper and many travel books.
Andrew Martin author of Night trains and many other train travel books..
Ronnie Robertson friend and fellow inter-rail traveller.
Alan Robertson friend, author and proof reader of this article.
National Library of Scotland.
The University of Edinburgh Library.
Mastrick Library Aberdeen
Aberdeen Central Library
Aberdeen journals Ltd DC Thomson
Nanja for her sensitive editing
Judith my wife for putting up with me during the writing of this article.
Note: the article has been shortened to make it easy to read for everyone. However, I do have the full versions available, so if you are interested → see attachment
Curious about the comparison of this trip and the one in 2019? Continue reading here ⬇
📍 I'd love to hear what you think of the article and hear your stories, so please share in the comments below 👇🏻 For a chat, you can send me a private message.
Oh wow - I absolutely love this post and I cant wait to read part two! I too traveled all over Europe by rail on my first trip to continental Europe in 1999. I was about the same age as you were when you took your trip, and my boyfriend (now husband!) was the only person who would go with me. We traveled for a month and it was life-changing, in a way that only someone who has experienced it can truly understand. Reading your story - while a bit different than mine - brought back so many wonderful memories. I loved hearing about your trip and how different travel was back then (it was different in 1999 too - paper train schedules, not much internet available, and certainly no cell phones), but yet how much the beauty of travel has stayed the same - meeting people, experiencing different people, food, and cultures, visiting beautiful architectural and historical sites, and as you so perfectly said, developing “empathy, tolerance and understanding of other cultures.” This is the exact reason why have continued to travel each year ever since our trip in 1999, even when our children were very small. Thank you again for this wonderful read - I really enjoyed it and it brightened my day!
Thank you so much for your lovely lovely reply it means a lot to me . It is so nice, that other like minded people are showen an interest in the articles. The link above is 2019 . Of course a completely different tour .Thank you again and I love the fact you had a very similar experience and taking a quote from my article is total class. Len