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Interrailing wasn’t all sex and sunshine It was supposed to be romantic and mind-expanding

We spent night after night resisting blandishments and creeping hands. Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

We spent night after night resisting blandishments and creeping hands. Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images


July 25, 2022   6 mins

My school days were plagued by the annual July ritual of the French mistress asking each girl in turn, “Comment vas-tu passer tes vacances?” I grew up in Kent’s gin-and-Jag commuter belt, so Italy, Spain and France were favoured destinations. Sloaning around on the Devon coast was also popular. On and on, in stilted Franglish, went envy-inducing descriptions of snorkelling, discotheques and temples. Then it was my turn, “Moi, je ne partirai pas en vacances, parce que mes parents tiennent un pub.”

Summer was when Mum and Dad worked at full tilt, flogging drinks and Ploughman’s lunches to day-trippers come to gawp at the view over the Kentish Weald. My four siblings and I provided a ready-made taskforce: washing up, mowing lawns, clearing fag ends off the lawn and, once we could pass for 18, serving drinks.

Money, or lack of it, was the main roadblock to my wanderlust. I spent most of my gap year working in Hamleys and then Covent Garden bars, amassing funds for a high summer spree. The most affordable and flexible option was purchasing an Interrail ticket: a Seventies innovation that came of age in the Eighties when some ferry services were added. It was romantic, too: you could book a sleeper train and journey while you slept. Travellers could venture as far as Turkey, or mooch around nearby France, or ride the iron horse through Scandinavia.

So, I set about enlisting travel companions. My big sister Holly, a fashion student at Trent Poly, was a shoo-in. We then enlisted my old schoolfriend Bee, a well-travelled trainee medic who we put in charge of planning and itinerary. She suggested we all carry Dioralyte sachets, Alka-Seltzer and, she pondered thoughtfully (and, as it turned out, optimistically), “condoms”. The fourth member of our quartet was dance student Sas, who possessed the mild ennui of someone used to holidaying and necking cocktails with two older, glamorous sisters.

Halfway through the July of 1987, we four mustered at Sevenoaks station, freighted with backpacks. We divvied up the task of carrying the two-man tents and all wore sensible money belts for our passports and traveller’s cheques. Over 30 years ago you had to find a bank or bureau de change, or even an obliging hotel manager, that would issue local currency in exchange for a traveller’s cheque — the practice that dominated foreign travel from the mid-19th century until the Nineties.

We managed the Dover train and ferry crossing without mishap and headed to Paris and a sleeper train bound for Italy. Just after we crossed the border a couple of wolfish young men in leather jackets entered our couchette wielding a bottle of vodka. They swiftly identified Bee and Sas as the sirens of our quartet and rightfully focused their laser-like attention. My beloved sister and I were late developers. I was plump and plagued by zits, while Holly retained something of the ingénue.

Our lower rankings on the sex-bomb hierarchy would transpire to be a blessing. We were nearing Venice when Sas and Bee realised their money belts had been nicked by the wolves. We spent two nights camping at the Lido, but our days vanished into queuing at the British embassy, obtaining replacement passports and new cheques for our stricken travelling companions.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, the mercury was rocketing as one of the worst heatwaves for decades began to hit. We headed to sweltering Rome, clambering out at Termini station where hordes of pensione touts accosted anyone with a backpack. We divvied up tasks: Holly and I went to cash a cheque, while Bee and Sas went off to find rooms. En route to the exchange, Holl and I noted a sharkish man with pock-marked skin, a grubby string vest and crafty eyes. “He looks like a pimp,” I remarked. Fifteen minutes later, we found Bee and Sas sealing a deal with Mr Brothel to stay in his “very good flat — very big, very central”, which would make us “very happy”. All we needed to do was jump in his “very big” Mercedes and we’d be there in minutes.

Needless to say, the apartment was in a grotty tower block abutting one of Rome’s busiest red-light districts. We had supper in a cafe lit by one flickering lightbulb, where the only other customers were two transexual prostitutes. When we returned to the flat, we found the pimp had bought a pile of beers and invited two male friends round. We barricaded ourselves in the bedroom. By the next morning there were six guys at the kitchen table inviting us to accompany them on a drive to a lake, where we could swim “nudo”. We elected to cut short our stay, do a lightning tour of the Sistine Chapel, then decamp to Florence.

In Firenze, a woman tout secured us two bunkbeds in one shabby room near the centre, where we photographed the spongy, yellow fungus blooming on the wall of the communal shower. Tour maven Bee ensured we ticked the key cultural boxes, but we were wilting from the relentless urban heat, so detoured to rural Tuscany where our guidebook listed a “little-visited” ruined monastery with stunning views. A bus dropped us by some stumpy olive trees, and we four mad-dog English women trudged up a steep incline for four hours in a deadly heatwave carrying huge rucksacks.

By the time we reached the ruins, half-crazed by sun, dehydration and recriminations, we promptly stripped off and posed naked in a line of stone arches as “living statues”. Inevitably, just as we’d taken up our classical poses a middle-aged couple in beige shorts strolled round the corner, before retreating in disbelief while we collapsed laughing. Later we discovered their campervan parked a short distance away. “Look, they’ve got Belgian numberplates,” said Sas. “They’re almost certainly a couple of perverts.”

Either way, it seemed tactful to pitch our tents away from the Belgians, at the edge of a corn field. Holly and I shared one, while Bee and Sas were in the other. We’d been asleep an hour when we were woken by men’s voices just outside the tents. I sat bolt upright and watched aghast as the zip on our tent’s gauze door started to be tugged open. I could hear Bee also crying out in alarm. Holly detached a tent-pole and jabbed at the shape outside the tent, while yelling “Piss off!” The men outside laughed mockingly. We didn’t speak any Italian, but Sas used her schoolgirl French to shout that her friend was “trùs malade!” I discovered moments later that Bee had emptied two packs of Dioralyte into her mouth and was frothing like someone with advanced rabies.

We decided to run for it, in T-shirts, knickers and sandals, with tentpoles brandished like spears, while four burly local males tried to grab our breasts and buttocks. Feeling there would be safety in numbers, we fled downhill to the campervan, hammering on its doors with cries of “Help!” The Belgians kept their doors resolutely closed and didn’t utter a peep in response. Presumably, because they thought the nudo Anglais were the true deviants. I’ve nurtured a slight grudge against Belgians ever since. Plan B wasn’t great, but it seemed to be our only option: we edged our way very quietly into the corn field and curled up like dormice until morning.

On reflection, town life seemed safer than any rural idyll, so we set off for Siena and another giant dose of art — which was an excellent idea, until we couldn’t find any affordable lodgings. Uncertain what to do, we sat outside a cafĂ© in the Piazza del Campo, trying to eke out bowls of pasta and carefully-nursed beers. It took us a while to realise that our caf, which had been almost empty when we sat down, was beginning to teem with young men who seemed to be encircling us. It also began to dawn on us that there were no other unaccompanied female tourists in the square and not a single young woman who looked local. As ever more youths arrived, it felt like we were about to incite a riot.

The waiters, noticing our predicament, started yelling at our suitors and beckoned us inside the cafĂ©, then into the kitchen and out the back — where a young man was waiting with a Fiat Uno. This seemed marginally better than a public mauling, so we hopped in and were driven to a house on the fringes of Siena, where three waiters eventually joined us. We spent a wearisome night resisting blandishments and creeping hands and the ubiquitous compliment, “You have beautiful eyes.” I couldn’t help feeling Italian men would say this to any English women. An American tourist, whose parents hailed from Milan, told us later that Italian men rated British girls as “easy”, second only to Swedes.

Nowhere else we travelled quite equalled the art, drama — or gropey menace — of Eighties Italy. Our original plan had been to head for Istanbul, but “God Help Us” headlines warned of furnace-like heat. The prospect of a two-day journey in a cramped, ill-ventilated train carriage, with reports of buckling rails, suddenly didn’t seem so enticing. Especially once we’d spent the most stifling night of our lives without aircon in Athens, as temperatures soared above 40°C. So, we jumped on an overnight ferry, slept on the deck and set off for Paxos, working our way around five islands in the end. As the month drew to a close, we made our reluctant way home via Genoa and Burgundy. We never told our parents that our 12 days in Italy had been a near-constant struggle to avoid sexual assault.

Still, we were English, and we soldiered on. The unworldly Holly and I were so entranced by the wonder of cobalt blue Greek water and cheap tavernas that nothing could ruin our memories of the trip. In recent years, with undimmed enthusiasm, we’ve taken our children to Greece so they can experience the rapture a little earlier in life than their bumpkin mothers managed.

These days, we wonder what dark misadventures our own offspring are keeping from us as the planet bakes. Then feel relieved we have no idea.


Rowan Pelling is editor of The Amorist and a comment writer for the Daily Telegraph. She edited The Erotic Review magazine for eight years (1996-2004)

RowanPelling

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Well done.
People forget, or don’t wish to know, how sleazy cheap travel was in the 70s and 80s.

Roger Irwin
Roger Irwin
1 year ago

Rail was cheap and easy. These days air travel is dirt cheap…but you can’t use it to go from place to place, or in an ad-hoc manner without booking.

Warren T
Warren T
1 year ago

People, like Greta, also forget that sweltering heat in the summer is normal, not a sign of the climate apocalypse.

Angelique Todesco
Angelique Todesco
1 year ago

I did this too, 3 years later in 1990, it was utterly brilliant. The wall had just come down and we did Berlin and the Eastern bloc (excluding Russia). We did have the odd tricky moment, but not as bad as the author since I was travelling with my University boyfriend, so much less male attention. We found the people in the Eastern countries such as Poland, Czech, Yugoslavia as it was, Hungary etc were unfailingly welcoming and kind, in fact our least favourite place was Vienna, beautiful, but unfriendly to all but the very wealthy. Romania was months out of Ceausescu’s dominance and was strange, foodless and grey, yet I have some great memories of it.
I feel very privileged to have seen those countries at such a time of change and am forever grateful for that experience.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago

Good for you! I don’t think my mate or I would have had the courage to travel any further east than Berlin, and I’m not sure that was available on the Interrail pass. Again that was 1990. We didn’t want the expense of staying in Berlin, so caught the early morning train from Hannover, and spent the day wandering around Berlin, much of it in the east – there were still bullet holes in buildings from WW2! Then the last train back to Hannover.
East Berlin just felt weird – such a contrast to the West. And the East German border guards who checked passports on the train looked intimidating!

Michael Wicksteed
Michael Wicksteed
1 year ago

Gap year travel just inside Europe in the 70’s and 80’s could certainly be quite an adventure, before the whole gap year travel became such an industry in its own right. The cultural differences were so much greater even between England and France. Food was so different, to name but one surface aspect. The Interrail thing was a safer option than hitching but we easily forget how many of us did hitch everywhere and it was still pretty normal in those days, despite the dire warnings of am the authorities. We ignored them then and had a laugh; when did teenagers stet taking the safety concerns of their parents and other authority figures so seriously ?
I found myself smiling at this piece though it definitely ha a whiff of Famous Five high jinx about it; I guess the whole gap year idea was a very middle class thing anyway, wasn’t it ? Like a vstige of the earlier Grand Tour experience fir the wealthy. Nevertheless, light and fun to read, so thanks.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

You’re confusing gap year with interrailing – the former was very middle class and not that common back in the eighties; whereas the latter was only for 2 months or so during university holidays, and a very common rite of passage for a cheap holiday for working class kids in eighties Scotland.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I interrailed Italy and France with my best mate in 1980. Had a physical fight with him in Rimini, but we got over it. Saw the most enormous cockroach hiding unsuccessfully under my heeled (1980 remember) shoes in a cheap hotel in Naples – it stuck out at each end. I hammered the roach very hard and repeatedly with the shoe (my girlfriend at the time was doing a PhD experimenting with roaches and told me they’re really difficult to kill) and then looked on the floor to see it’s remains, only for the congealed mass to slide off the shoe above my head into my face. I screamed for quite a while, but my mate stayed asleep. I hoisted all my stuff up high, and saw a trail of ants had come for the remains of the roach in the morning. We stayed in a hotel the next day.

Met an impressively independent Asian girl from Glasgow interrailing on her own at Venice station – and running away from her family and an arranged marriage. I didn’t realise at the time how courageous she was being with regard to her family. Hope it turned out well for her.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

Interrailing wasn’t all sex and sunshine – sometimes it rained

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Actually hitchhiking in the 50s/60’s was much more fun, and far,far cheaper!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

I had an acquaintance who hitched to India in the 1960s with just ÂŁ5 5s in his pockets.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

He did very well, I only got to Turkey with ÂŁ15!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

My interrail experience wasn’t all s&s either, but I loved it. I was living in Munich at the time and travelled solo through Austria to Slovenia, to Trieste in Italy, Zagreb, Budapest, Krakow & Prague. That was in 2003, the year before many of the countries I visited joined the EU. I was quite fascinated and it was one of the reasons that drove me to go and live in Central Europe after graduating. Am still here!
Accommodation was basic but the only really rubbish place was in Ljubljana where I ended up in a mixed dorm with some incredibly stinky men – there were no lockers so I had to sleep spooning my rucksack and get in the (only available) bathroom befor everyone else in the morning. There was NO way in the world I was going in after those stinky Petes, not even wearing flipflops!
The hostel dorm in Krakow was basically a bunch of camp beds set out in a large room, also without lockers…but my roommates were a bunch of really nice friendly Irish girls so I wasn’t at all worried about safety.
The worst thing that happened was getting stuff stolen off me on the train from Prague to Munich, which in those days was notorious for that kind of thing. Security is much, much better these days in that neck of the woods – but they still had guards standing outside the train when the night train to Warsaw I was on in 2018 stopped in Breclav for a bit, and the Polish conductor was very strict in his instructions to keep our doors locked at all times…so not problem free. But vastly improved on 2003.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Thefts from trains still goes on, maybe not in Poland, but I was in Germany at the beginning of June this year, and on the train home we stopped at Cologne station where there were a number of police; a fellow passenger told us to look to our luggage as Cologne is notorious for thefts from trains, hence the police.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Enjoyable article. Like the author, I too was a stay-at-home teenager. My folks had a farm, and we were needed to help. Of course, in doing so, we were continually outdoors, and I always acquired a sun-tan. Which led to even more embarrassing questions at the start of each new school / college year, as my urban school and college mates assumed I must have been somewhere exotic.

Paul Rodolf
Paul Rodolf
1 year ago

I guess I didn’t know it was called “Interrailing’. Self funded I went solo as a 18-year old male. Picked grapes in the vendange (Champagne no less) then off to Oktoberfest, Scandinavia next then when my two-month Eur-Rail pass expired I hunkered down as a bartender in a family owned pension in Zell-am-See for the ski season. Plenty of great times and much debauchery and somewhere along the way I figured out who I wanted to be when I grew up. I recommend a gap year for anyone slightly uncertain where they want to plop down a couple hundred thousand for an education.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

Gap years weren’t a thing in the 70’s but I did manage to spend a summer holiday hitch hiking and Greyhounding round the US west coast. Greyhounds, and late night Greyhound stations, were a particular revelation to a middle class English boy.

Happy days.

Roger Irwin
Roger Irwin
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I did the Greyhound bus trip in the 80’s; $100 for a one week unlimited travel ticket. I brought three!
The trick was getting on a late night bus that had a long journey ahead so you could get some sleep…

Su Mac
Su Mac
1 year ago

Ahhh, brings back happy memories! 80”s backpacking round the Greek Islands with a girlfriend – yes, we fell out and never spoke again after we got back. Without the internet we had no idea of accommodation budgets and planned based on rumours, which didn’t work out great although borrowing a saggy, fleabitten outdoor daybed or roof space for a few drachma and pitching a tent under trees at the edge of a village – free and easy days – worked out. I lost a stone. Strangely my experience of predatory perverts was 5 years earlier, hitchhiking in lorrys and cars round France with a boyfriend aged 16 – yes, my mother cried as I left! The son of the Brazilian ambassador was very keen to join us into a menage a trois, in our tent in the Bois de Bouloigne or at least listen outside. He indicated his displeasure with us by taking me on a hairy drive to get booze – I distinctly remember watching him actually drink from a whisky bottle while driving round all those lanes on the Arc de Triomphe.

S C
S C
1 year ago

I remember in the 90s endless stories of people being drugged and waking up without a kidney (probably not true), and running into pickpocketing gypsies, and other tourists who recently got scammed and robbed. It was rough out there. I soldiered on, but do remember waking to a panic attack on an overnight sleeper once. Still, with all of that, it was nothing compared to what it was like for women.

James Brown
James Brown
1 year ago

Haha, this article took me right back to the summer of 1981 when my friend, with whom I was supposed to travel the world (well, France anyway) went and broke his leg just before departure. So I set off alone. Overall it was a good trip – plenty of fun and laughter with other young people in youth hostels and the like, much cheap wine, bread and cheese consumed – but it certainly had its longueurs and the occasional fright. The incident that stands out is on a train in France, squatting between the carriages, when a voyou took out a long knife and flamboyantly started cleaning his nails with it. I am sure with hindsight that he meant to intimidate but I was so naive that I just carried on chatting amicably with him. He must have thought I was either fearsomely brave or a bit simple as he put it away again and responded in kind. We ended up getting off at the same stop and having a couple of drinks in the station caff (those were the days !) before he wished me well and went about his business…

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

Very enjoyable article.
I discovered moments later that Bee had emptied two packs of Dioralyte into her mouth and was frothing like someone with advanced rabies.
Had Bee emptied the Dioralyte into her mouth by accident or as a means of deterring the rampant men?

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

I interrailed post school and post first year at university. The first trip was with my best friend and we stayed in France with his very elderly Central European grandparents before heading to Italy and Elba where we camped before going to Rome to stay with another relative but spent the first night getting so drunk I slept on the cobbles under a bench in a famous Piazza. Miraculously I woke in the morning to find I still had my money and passport. We left Rome at midnight for the most crowded and uncomfortable train journey of my life before catching the ferry to Greece and train to Athens staying with a school chum who was au pairing. We then split up as my friend really wanted to head home for his birthday while I got the ferry to Rhodes and Cyprus before cadging a flight home. Although we hadn’t fallen out, when I got back there was a huge gulf between myself and my friend.  
The next year I tried hitching from Paris to Malagar with friend. We got to the south of France in three lifts, but spent a whole day trying to get a lift out of Marseilles before finally being picked up by a very dodgy older character whose intentions were definitely not honourable and who dumped us in the middle of nowhere. We ended up walking many miles in the searing heat before reaching a town and a train station. Fed up with hitching we trained it to the Spanish border before trying again but lifts there were none, so we caught a train to Barcelona and, knowing a bit of the language, hung out with some young anarchists/communists before having to make a swift departure minus some of our gear. Giving up on hitching (and Malaga) we stuck a pin in the map and headed to a nearby resort and slept on the beach before deciding we had had enough of roughing it and wanted to go home. We managed to get a lift all the way to Brussels with another older guy who was also dodgy but much nicer and put us up in his flat before we returned home. After all that, my companion and I somehow managed to lose each other at Reading station. Once home I bought a return train ticket to Athens via the Balkans before getting the ferry for another Mediterranean boat tour on my own. 
I have missed out a lot of the “adventures” we had. Other than visiting new and exotic places I don’t think I learned much (young men can be very reluctant to learn other than the hard way) although I did learn there are dodgy people out there who will not think twice about taking advantage of you. 

jason vance
jason vance
1 year ago

I am gobsmacked and jealous. This was 35 years ago and you write about it like it was yesterday. Memories like yours, which I do not possess, drive me crazy, because it isn’t something I can never achieve. But, good on you for the blessing.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
1 year ago

Condoms?

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

I think we called them (rubber) Johnnies then

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Yes, or Durex. The word “condom” only started being used when the AIDS scare started. “Use a Johnny” didn’t have the same portentous ring to it.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

And if they asked “are you carrying any protection ?”
they normally meant ‘are you carrying a .38 Smith & Wesson.