London to Istanbul by Train – Best Interrailing Routes
Do you enjoy a train trip? How about a month’s travel across Europe and beyond? Last summer we travelled from London to Istanbul by train and back on an Interrail pass. An exhilarating, action packed adventure with our children across a dozen countries. If you have always yearned for the leisurely romance of the Grand Tour or the luxury of the Orient Express, you won’t find it in this post. If your dream is a crazy, adrenaline fuelled dash across Europe on the other hand, read on. In this Interrail sponsored post, here’s our itinerary for the best of Interrail routes, and a taste of what we go up to in our European exploration…..
A whirlwind of Interrail routes
London to Istanbul by train. Even the words conjure up excitement and romance. At 18 I dreamed of Interrailing Europe, but the opportunity and budget never presented itself. Until, coincidentally, the year my eldest reached 18 and we took off as a family. An Interrail EU trip is easier for young adults today as children turning 18 this year once more get the opportunity to travel free. And as young environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg vows to cut her carbon footprint and travel by train on holiday, they might want to follow her example.
Our European Interrail journey was a whirlwind of tickets, timetables, and carriages. It was also a kaleidoscope of iconic cities, which we explored with the help of five folding bikes. And an Interrail Pass.
A journey from home via London to Istabul by train
Logistics were complicated and schedules were tight, And standing on the platform at Arnside in the dark in the rain on the first morning, we wondered if we’d get to London or Brussels let alone Istanbul. The idea of 22 days of travel on 25 trains, 2 buses and 3 ferries, through 12 countries was daunting as an adult, so I can’t imagine how the kids were feeling. But it turned out to be an incredible experience and something of an education not just in folding bike, multi-modal tourism but in the geography and diversity of Europe, its people and its rail network.
This post is long and involved, but we hope it will provide some inspiration if you are planning your own cross European exploration. We hope it will be particularly useful to anyone planning to Interrail with children. Let’s start with Hannah giving you a quick outline of our interrail route..
London to Brussels
We’ve been up since 5 a.m. We made it to London with more an hour to check in for the 12.58 to Brussels but we haven’t envisaged how difficult it will be to haul five folding bikes up and down long dog legs of queue to present our interrail tickets to the desk. The security team then insist our bikes must be scanned. But the bikes are slightly too big for the grey plastic trays we must put all our belongings into.
“Excuse me these bikes don’t fit,” I say.
“Standing up please,” says a scanner assistant called Joy who does not look like working at the Eurostar terminal fills her with much of it.
“They will fall over.”
“Please stand them up.”
We have named our bikes so we can spot them as they all look the same. It takes two of us to haul ‘Beyonce’ into the grey tray. There’s no way she’s going through the scanner without a fight. Her bag covered backside and wheels are not even touching the tray.
“The bikes are too big for your machine. They will fall over.”
“I will hold them up in the machine,” Joy insists. We are doubtful she will enter the machine but we must do as she asks or quit the queue. And we have a train to catch.
Chaos at check in
The bikes fall over. In the scanner. The scanner stops. Joy disappears. Matthew tries to climb into the scanner to retrieve Beyonce. Bazile is pushing up behind her on the travelator. A bike bag has become trapped in the rails and is now threatening to rip, leaving Beyonce’s bottom exposed. Behind Matthew, Bazile is threatening to topple onto Barbara. Missing this train presents us with problems. At Brussels we need to catch an overnight train to Cologne. We still have to clear passport control and we slide the bikes along more dog-legs holding our documents between our teeth. We hear the last call for the 12.58 to Brussels. Anyone with a ticket is told to jump the queue. But we are not allowed to go under the elastic cords. We must jump the queue by following the dog-legs, carrying our folding bikes, with our passports in our teeth.
“Excuse me. We need to catch the 12.58. Can I get past please? I’m really sorry.” I hate it and would rather eat my passport, but I am already doing that. So we push past. Ahead is the concourse. Behind us is Hannah, standing hopelessly, with her bike plonked in front of her. Stuart scoops up her bike and we run.
“Can we get on here?” we ask the train crew.
Apparently not. We are in car 1. The furthest end of the train. We can see the empty racks of luggage space inside the car 7, right in front of us.But we can’t get to them. So we run down half a train, half the length of an international platform. At coach 1 we haul the luggage on board. The doors close. The train pulls away. The luggage racks are all full. The guard arrives.
“You cannot leave these here.” There’s space in coach 7, surprise, surprise. Now all we have to do is carry the bikes back through the full train. But in a few hours time we’ll be boarding another train and the freedom of the railways will be ours.
Brussels here we come!
Brussels to Vienna
A busker trumpets Havana-na-na-na as the travelator crawls five bikes, two adults and three teens to platform 4 for the next stage of the holiday of all Interrail holidays. We pass through humid Brussels with just a quick coffee stop. The train to Cologne comes 15 minutes early, creating a tiny panic. We balance the folded machines in the corner of the train like circus unicycles. Leather seats lead into wide aisles and German cities unfold through the window in the amber sunlight.
“Quick quick,” rumbles the train on the track, hungry to reach its destination, while a hot air balloon on the pale horizon invites us to slow down.
Coffee at the Dom
At Cologne, disembarkation from ICE19 is a cool 2 minutes, our best time yet. We blend in with cyclists travelling by train with folders, tourers, mountain bikes, kiddy chariots and way more baggage than us. And then we ride out of the station straight into a picture postcard featuring Cologne’s Cathedral, the Dom, glowing in the sunset. We even have time to sip iced lattes at a Starbucks in its shadow. Folding bike interrailing just got civilised.
Cologne to Vienna
The Austrian OBB NightJet sounds an exciting proposition; the romance of departing Cologne at dusk, being rocked to sleep in cozy bunks then waking as you roll into Vienna. NJ421 is a little late arriving. We have five bunks booked in a couchette for six. Top tip; if you don’t want a stranger in your room then you need to reserve the whole carriage. We idle the twenty five minutes wondering who our sixth bunk buddy will be, and whether they’ll be able to fit in once we’ve got all our baggage aboard.
The game begins again
How do you fit five bikes, five rack packs, five rucksacks, five people and a special guest into a tiny 2.5m by 2.5m cell with six bunks and an extra random human? It takes us thirty minutes to solve the 3D puzzle, loading two bikes overhead into storage space above the top bunks, bungeeing two rack packs onto a small metal parcel shelf, stuffing three more under the bottom bunk, securing a tower of three stacked bikes behind the ladder used to reach the top bunks, then using rucksacks as pillows. Luckily our bunk buddy isn’t getting on until Frankfurt. Loading is interrupted by the sleeping car attendant asking what we would like for breakfast? We are caught off guard. I imagine a rerun of the morning’s London to Lancaster route- breakfast on Virgin Trains – bacon, black pudding, grilled tomato, sausage. But the choice is more simple.
“Coffee or hot chocolate?”
The talk of breakfast makes us hungry. We notice a little arrow with a knife and fork pointing down the corridor. A restaurant car? We troop single file down the corridor. Everyone else appears to be confined to quarters. We pass a little office where the sleeping car attendant is processing breakfast orders.
“Where’s the restaurant car?”
“I am the restaurant car.” he says. I’m tempted to ask for a table for five.
Back in the bunk room we climb the ladders, squeeze into our allocated bunks and break open the picnic. With the safety net up passing the crisps becomes challenging. As we leave Cologne and day one of this adventure behind we sit on our bunks, eat sandwiches and wonder what we should do with the baguette crumbs as Vienna beckons.
Our Viennese whirl leaves us giddy; a 15km ride around the city by bike. We eat gelato, meet a friend for coffee and conduct a virtual Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of the Radetzsky March at the Haus Der Musik. The bikes are a real bonus, giving us the freedom to explore, to leave the station without having to navigate the metro, figure out which bus to catch or worry whether we can afford the taxi fare. We stumble across the sights; the State Opera House, the nail tree, the Museum Quarter, the river, the palaces, We ride with the white horses and carriages, with the pedicabs, and with the locals.
By mid afternoon it’s a relief to get out of the heat of Vienna, to board the RailJet service to Budapest. The air conditioned coach is quiet, perfect for a snooze. Soon we will be in Hungary; in time for a shower, a bowl of goulash soup and a proper bed.
Budapest to Bucharest
Budapest envelopes us in park and spa experiences. Then as the overnight train pushes in to Keleti station, we fold up our trusted bikes again and climb aboard. Budapest Keleti Station is a stand-out East European station, a trainspotter’s dream with a main façade that features statues of two great British father’s of the railways – James Watt and George Stephenson. Inside it’s a bit more ordinary with a dozen platforms serving up international trains to Eastern Hungary and the Balkans. So in theory it shouldn’t be hard to find the Ister, the overnight train service to Bucharest.
Techniques for packing and loading
After three days and six trains we feel we’ve learnt a thing or two about folding bike interrailing. Simple but important lessons. Like getting to the station at least an hour in advance. And techniques for packing bikes, bags and rucksacks into small sleeping compartments. As we stand awaiting confirmation we’re about to board the right train we notice a young man making up his bed in one of the sleeping cars. Long haired, wearing a string vest and shorts, he’s struggling to shake a starchy white cover onto a yellowing duvet. Beside each carriage door stands a straight faced official. Behind them it’s four large steps up onto the carriage. Somewhere between Cologne and Budapest trains either got taller or they forgot to build platforms high enough?
The officials don’t seem to like the look of our baggage but somehow we pass their ticket test, haul our oversize load aboard and start to lug it down the narrow corridor to find our bunks.
Squeezing in to the carriage
Stuart introduces himself to the man in the vest, now resting on his freshly made bed.
“Hello I think we’re sharing with you. I’m sorry but we need to fit five bikes in here too.”
“But you already have a lot of luggage in here.” He”s right. I can tell Stuart doesn’t know what to say.
“Don’t worry, we’ve done this before.” he offers.
“It is my first time on a night train,” our fellow bunk buddy replies.
I feel sorry for him. “Oh don’t worry, all this chaos is normal.”
There’s actually more space in the Romanian sleeper than the Austrian one so we get three bikes up overhead leaving only two slightly interfering with our new friend’s sleeping space. Once everything’s in place we retreat to the bistro car to give him a break.
Chill out zone
The bistro car is an air conditioned pleasure palace. A selection of purple velour seats and stools laid out along the length of a carriage and a tiny bar with two catering staff who seem very busy with a stock take and lots of paperwork. The decor is retro, like we’ve stepped into the 1970’s. In the ceiling diamond shaped wooden panels style the fluorescent lighting. On the walls are frosted glass inlays conceal mood lights. On each table sit two glasses each with a paper napkin decoration, one cyan and one orange. Ordering is easy. If you’re patient. Paperwork comes first. Then customers. Customers create more paperwork so are best discouraged. Still we manage to get a round of drinks. Soon our friend appears with his suitcase. He sits near and we try to make conversation, finding out his name is Tos. We ask if we can buy him a beer.
“I don’t drink beer, but maybe a tea?”
The bar only does iced tea.
“I only drink leaf tea.” Tos is not easy to please. The fact he’s a night train virgin soon becomes apparent to the catering team too. He opens his suitcase to reveal a small larder.
“Do you think they will give me a plate and cutlery to make my dinner?”
Tos is soon heading back to the cabin with his larder but without a plate or cutlery.
The rhythm of the night train to Bucharest
There’s a different rhythm to this train. The Ister rattles across Eastern Hungary to the Romanian border at two speeds – slow and stop, with the air conditioning following suit. It’s not a problem with the power car, it’s just that the air-con only comes from the windows. Tos is not near a window and while he looks a bit like Jesus, he smells more like the devil. Tos deals with the problem by removing his shirt. It doesn’t help.
Passport checks start as the heat builds. It’s as authentic as travel can be and how travelling around Europe used to be before Schengen. It’s both good to know travel like this still exists and hard to understand why anyone would want to go back to it. As we head across Romania the landscape and soundscape changes. Trains klaxon, station announcements imitate old ice cream vans, the hum of high speed electric is mixed with the growl of diesel. We wake to sunshine over the Carpathian Mountains. At village stops in the Transylvanian Forest no one seems to want to get on or off apart from villagers wanting to sell fresh fruits of the forest. The buffet car fills up with kids eating berries, men drinking beer, mother’s chasing toddlers and a snoozing guard.
We decide to treat ourselves at the buffet. Luckily the attendant is at the bar waiting to serve, although it takes a whole minute for him to acknowledge I am there too.
“Yes?” he finally says.
“Two coffees please.”
It”s another five minutes until papers are complete and coffee is served. It is strong, bitter and needs a second milk.
“Could I have another milk please?”
Welcome to Romania.
You might expect the heaviest administration building in the world to be made of gold bars. Instead it’s a solid, blocky building with a burst of sun on its shoulder. As we freewheel towards it I explain to Hannah that the Palace of the Parliament even outweighs the Pentagon.
“But who weighed it? And how did they do that?” she asks immediately. Good point. I instruct her to Google it and then let me know.
Park life in Bucharest
Opposite the parliament is a leafy tree-lined avenue beginning with a clock and developing into a row of fountains. But the flag stones are rough, many are missing and there’s an air of dilapidation. It seems clear Nicolae Ceaușescu’s policies of strangling internal investment haven’t quite been reversed in the decades since his death. These suspicions are confirmed by rallies of 50,000 people in the centre of the city, protesting against corruption and low wages. Craving some green, but denied entry into the Botanical Gardens because of the bikes, we head to Tineretului Park a gothic fairytale in search of a plot. We wonder if we’ve stumbled into evening as the light is totally pushed out by dark, heavy trees. The wind gets up but a storm fails to follow. Leaves fall listlessly into heaps in broken passageways. It’s oppressive, and we push around to the circle of heads that seem an obligatory part of park life in former Eastern bloc countries. We cycle past each sculpted stone brain, wondering who they were and how they view today’s selfie generation from their self important pedestals.
We hop to another park, Herăstrău Park, the polar opposite of the first. It’s full of people hanging out, taking boats out in the lake, buying popcorn and sweetcorn and Betty’s ice cream. The vibe is loud and happy and although the ring of rulers is still there, their brains do not block out the light. We head towards the oldest beer cellar in the city. Caru’ cu Bere is a vast art nouveau building holding its own in the hustle of the old town. Of course there’s scaffolding and tape everywhere as it’s subject to a huge renovation project. The sun slides down the city banks and museums now look like gold bars as we cycle back, stopping at a green sounds festivalwith bookshelves, beanbags and a jazz saxophonist. It is as good as anything we’ve seen in London. And I wonder, how do you measure the weight of the past on a former communist city as the red tape slowly lifts? By its parks? By its broken infrastructure or the people that give it life? Even Google may struggle to tell us that.
Bucharest to Istanbul
We’ve heard stories of the night train to Istanbul. None of them were good. Reason enough to give it a go. And so after the Ister we board the Bosfor for Istanbul. With 26 stops over nearly 19 hours it’s definitely not an express. And it doesn’t actually go all the way to Istanbul. Current engineering work means it stops 25km west in a suburb called Halkali. The Bosfor starts in Bucharest but it’s not really Romanian – it’s kind of half Turkish and half Bulgarian, with just two sleeper carriages, one each for Istanbul and Sofia. It is a night train though, although the word is we may not get much sleep.
At Bucharest North station we meet the night train from Keleti again. It arrives in on the platform opposite where we’re boarding. As she rolls in the Ister looks all romantic again, the cosy bunks inviting, our sleepless night forgotten, the smell of Tos forgiven. And the we see the same sleepy guard and the Romanian catering crew, still familiar and still without hint of a smile.
On board the Bosfor night train from Burcharest to Istabul Halkali , the sleeping car boasts air conditioning and large comfortable seats in a cabin for four. But it has less storage space than anything we’ve faced yet and the folding bikes are problematic. Beyoncé is being difficult with her pedals, Blaze just doesn’t want to sit with her and there is nowhere overhead to put Bertie, Barbara or Bazile.
Beware the fake train inspector
“Bikes?” asks an official popping his head around the door as we stash luggage.
“No. Folding, folding.” Hannah mimes a folding dance and he disappears for a moment. We spot some space under the seats and figure we might be able to get Bazile in if he was unfolded, so spring him open.
“Bikes?” the official suddenly reappears.
“No, folding, folding.” I’m panicking now. We must get this train. Our onward itinerary is a house of cards waiting to fall down on one missed connection.
“I am the train inspector.” he announces flashing an identity card at us. Stuart quietly tries to slide Bazile under the seat. The guard shows us several more identity cards strung around his neck.
“No bikes.” he pronounces. There is a brief stand off as Stuart tries to conceal Beyoncé unfolding behind him. “My son has leukaemia.” he continues. As he speaks Stuart rushes to open his wallet, realising a charitable donation is urgently needed. Our initial offering is not well received. Too little. Departure time is close. Beyoncé is now unfolded. We offer a little more. It’s still not enough. But then, just before we pull out of the station, the inspector disappears. As we leave Keleti, the real guard appears, in uniform, with a Turkish smile and piles of soft pillows. He’s a small, round, friendly man with no interest in the bikes. He’s more concerned that we each receive our personal issue of one packet of Gizi biscuits, a carton of apricot juice and a bottle of water. It’s the first official kindness we have experienced in a while.
“These free. Coffee and tea, one euro. Just find me. I am the train inspector.”
We have most definitely been played.
The heat of the Romanian night
The train makes for the Bulgarian border in the heat of the early afternoon. With each station stop the temperature rises. We sit on pillows, eat Gizi biscuits and sweat it out.
“I am sorry,” explains the inspector, “Your air conditioning will arrive when you cross into Bulgaria. Where the electricity is better.”
We judder to a stop at Giurgiu for Romanian passport control, clatter across the Danube on Europe’s longest steel bridge then stop again for more document controls at Ruse. Bulgaria arrives, but without air conditioning. Engineers board and leave. Fans whir then stop. Hammers are drawn. Valves are tapped. The train stops and starts but the temperature remains stable at almost unbearable. Still, this is the night train to Istanbul and we are grateful to be aboard. We set off again, winding through Bulgaria past the old capital of Veliko Tărnovo and on towards Turkey. At Gorna Oryahovitsa we stop for an hour to await a strong, new Bulgarian engine. Maybe she will save us from the heat.
We join a few locals at the platform kiosk to rehydrate on blue Fanta. The station is massive but still, like a once busy, now abandoned junction. Nothing seems to come or go. Dogs and Instagram girls pace old grass covered tracks in search of scraps of goodness. An hour is a long time at Gorna Oryahavitsa. A graffiti covered train arrives but no one gets off. The Bosfor sits empty alongside it, a ghost train in a setting sun. Rail workers fluorescent as the orange sun swing hammers as they await the arrival of our engine. When our hour is up, the engine arrives. Hammers are tapped, air brakes hiss, couplings are made and we are on our way again.
In the black of the onward journey frequent stops interrupt shallow slumber. With the windows wide open to cool the car, the soundtrack of sleep is huff and puff, hiss and tap, clankety clack. At midnight in Dimitrovgrad dreams are shunted back and forth as our carriages join others from Sofia. Next stop Istanbul, we think. But of course it’s not. First we must enter Turkey. But you cannot do that in a bed.
Welcome to the border
There is no snoozing or sleepwalking through Turkish passport control. First you hear the knocks coming down the train. Sharp raps on every cabin door, closer and closer, louder and louder. “Kapikule. Kapikule. Turkish Passport Control. Please leave train. Go to Police Office.”
Outside on the floodlit platform there’s a Duty Free office, open but empty. Not surprising for 3am. The only thing people are buying right now is last minute Turkish Visas. The police office is a small, listless room with a few tiny control windows at one end. Only one window is open with one police officer carefully dealing with a queue of dozens of bleary eyed passengers. Immigration officials patrol the queue quizzing passengers on nationality and visa status. To pass the time Stuart passes around gum and tell the kids the story of Midnight Express.
“British passports?” the immigration official asks as he reaches us.
For a brief moment we are all in Sagmalcilar Prison on a life sentence for chewing gum, but we find the visas and get back on the train. There is one more passport check before formalities are complete and we can leave Kapikule. And one last visitor, from customs.
“Did you buy anything from Duty Free?”
“No. Nothing.” No one mentions we have Beyoncé under the bunk bed. We lie on our bunks, sweating away, and as the sun begins to rise hear the sound of the call to morning prayers. Istanbul is coming closer, and we are ready to reach out and grab it.
Despite a cool wind around the Golden Horn of Istanbul, the air is close as we explore the city. The only thing that truly quenches our thirst is Turkish lemonade. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, with its 61 streets and 4,000 shops, requires at least two lemonade stops. And in an overspill lane outside selling knockoff Transformer toys packaged as Superchange Robots we spot an unusual opportunity for further refreshment. A man dressed in black and gold and wearing a red fez is standing at the crossroads with a crowd in front of him. He carries a silver urn on his back, with a tube leading away from it and dangling by his side. Behind his shoulders there’s a tower of miniature lemons. He holds a bunch of mint like a new boyfriend holds a bouquet. He shouts the same words over and over. Spotting my interest he presses a tiny plastic cup into my hand, pushing the tube in and efficiently filling it with juice. He breaks off a sprig of mint, pops it on the top, and holds out his hand for payment. It is unclear how much payment.
Sure of his position at the crossroads
He moves on to the next person in the crowd. It all takes a second. I bolt the the drink down in less. It is icy cold with exactly the right amount of lemon and although I didn’t know I wanted it, I now know I couldn’t have done without it. And as he shouts and hussles and trades, it occurs to me he’s a bit of everything that makes up this crazy, vibrant city. His spirit could even symbolise Istanbul itself. He straddles two continents; east and west.
He is part of our world and a bridge to the past. He is steadfast. He is unwavering, unembarrassed. Sure of who he is and his position at the crossroads. He is the brashness and the rush and the crush of the bazaar. As he moves around dispensing lemon cool he is the whirl of the Dervish and the sparkle on the scales of the wriggling sardine, hooked three at a time out of the Bosphorous river. Yet something tells me he is the still centre of the Mosque; the moment before prayer. He is unknowable, yet familiar. A cliché that cannot be summed up in clichéd words. He is the same for a lifetime, but tomorrow he may change. He may change with the wind, or the flow of the road, or the colour of a bank note. He is comfortable with crowds. He is loud. He is determined. He embraces all races, feeds them, welcomes them, makes them smile, makes them laugh.
He nurtures and entertains. He dispenses and dismisses. He gives and he gains. He survives. He is alive.
He is very good at making Turkish lemonade.
Istanbul to Sofia
Three days in Istanbul pass in a blur and we find ourselves an hour late as we begin our cycle ride back to Halkali to catch the night train to Sofia. The plan is to reverse a route we took into Istanbul following the quiet seaside trails back out to the suburbs. Except it’s Saturday night and things are not as peaceful as they were on the way in.
On the cycle path we weave around men selling giant pink and yellow branches of candy floss, babies in prams, joggers, dogs, toddlers and toddlers on bikes. Stuart leads the charge furiously ringing his bell to ward off toddlers in electric cars, a guy throwing pillows and duvets to his wife, people picnicking and chopping wood for up barbecues while dodging scooters, cyclists, and unpredictable old people. We have to cover twenty kilometres and it is getting dark. In front of us are people firing air guns at rows of balloons, fishermen casting lines, teens spilling out of a fairground, stones, balls, and stray cats. In the approach to the station there’s darkness, and traffic, a road accident, a police road block, potholes, barbed wire and rail tracks.
At Halkali Station
We arrive at Halkali with just twenty minutes to spare before the train departs. In the days since we last came through the station they’ve laid another whole chunk of it. On the walkway. We push over stones and sleepers in the sweltering dark to the only platform with a train. One of the guards chilling out on a bench, who clearly thought his job was done views us with alarm and starts babbling loudly in Turkish.
“No, not bikes. Folding, folding!” says Hannah, well practised now, imitating with her arms how Bazile will collapse. The guard grabs the interrail passes from my hands and pushes us and the bikes towards the train. We quickly chuck the luggage onto the floor, flipping pedals and releasing the saddle. There’s no way a fully racked Beyoncé is joining me or Stuart in our bunks.
The train starts up immediately. We have made it. By a whisker. And the adrenaline rush that we are now familiar with on interrailing trips has not yet subsided. In contrast the kids are like pale hippos wallowing in the air conditioning and glugging back the complimentary packs of apricot juice. We join them on the bottom bunk with Bazile and Beyoncé tucked beneath us and Barbara and Bertie blocking most of the walking space. A happy family night in. It’s not time for sleep just yet. We still have Turkish and Bulgarian border crossings at 1.30 and 2 a.m.
Sofia to Thessaloniki
We wake up in Sofia and spend the day chasing Pokemon characters in the park and doing a street art tour as dark falls. Next morning we are on our way again, to sample some more of the best interrailing destinations. At Sofia station’s international ticket window a man chiselled like a communist era statue tells us to board the 15.05 on Platform 1 West. Our interrail timetable app shows no service between Sofia and Thessaloniki so we have to trust him. The train on Platform 1 West looks like a 1980s Northern Rail Sprinter pimped up by a collective of Bulgarian graffiti artists. Train graffiti is a big scene in Bulgaria; on some trains you can barely see out the window for tags. The Cyrillic destination board is impossible to decipher so we trust the official’s advice and get on.
Something doesn’t feel right; the people on the train look more like they’re off for a day out than off to Greece.
“Is this the train to Thessaloniki?” I ask the ticket inspector when he arrives.
“Yes, to Kulata. Then bus. To Strimon. Then train. Arrive after ten o’clock.” That’s kind of what we’d heard and it’s reassuring and distressing in equal measure. A bus; we’ve not done that before; not with folding bikes. We cannot find Strimon on Google Maps nor in search. It’s like it doesn’t exist. Stuart wants to see if it’s possible to cycle from Kulata to Strimon, in case the bus won’t take us. But how can you cycle to somewhere that doesn’t exist? We track our progress across Bulgaria live on Google maps. Technology makes some aspects of travel so much easier these days and the lack of of EU data roaming charges means it doesn’t cost us anything either. But it doesn’t mean we can’t get lost.
Searching online we finally find a schedule for the train, detailing stops and timings. At the appointed hour for Kulata, we gather all our things and prepare to disembark to find the bus. The train comes to a stop. We start to unload. Hannah first with all the bags, then Cameron carrying Beyoncé in his arms.
With two kids on the platform the guard is gesticulating and shouting at the other end of the platform. Then I am shouting. At first down the corridor on the train. And then I jump off and scream at the kids on the platform.
“Get back on! This isn’t Kulata. This is General Todorov. Get back on. Get back on. Quick!”
Everyone onto the school bus
Ten minutes later we are on the platform at Kulata. Outside the station a bus sits waiting in the late afternoon heat. All the other passengers reach it first as we struggle to lift bikes across rail tracks. Luckily it’s a bus with a large luggage locker. Unluckily all the other passengers get there first.
“This is very unusual travel style.” says the driver observing as we begin figuring out a way to repack all the other passengers luggage to fit ours in. On board a group of a dozen teenage interrailers swap stories and share a beer while we complete a Chinese puzzle with their rucksacks and cases below. When we join them on board the locals tut, the interrailers drink, the engine starts, the air conditioning finally comes on and everyone gives thanks for the blast of cool air. We slink to the back seat of the school bus in disgrace. We’ve held everyone up for ten minutes. Have we risked the connection to Thessaloniki?
Praying for a train
We pass through Bulgarian and Greek customs and drive for 20 minutes into Greece on new, wide dual carriageways. There’s no other traffic; it would have been a cycle superhighway. Greece has invested millions of euros in big road and rail infrastructure projects but after years of austerity it seems few can afford to use them and many, like the railway, have clearly yet to be connected up. At tiny Strimon station we are greeted by a pack of hungry dogs. Four crumbling low level platforms sit empty growing grass between their legs. In both directions, tracks trail off to a pinch, in a chain of red signals. A small Greek Orthodox shrine sits by the track side. To pray for trains? If it wasn’t for the station master you wouldn’t think a train would ever call here.
“What time’s the next train?”I ask the station master when he appears from nowhere.
“To Thessaloniki?” I am relieved to hear it exists. “Eight o clock. And more.” An hour. And more. A lot more.
The sun begins to set and the interrailers set up camp on the platform, beginning a game of frisbee from one platform to another. Dogs beg for picnic scraps. Shadows grow. The sky turns pink. We do a fashion shoot in an abandoned rail wagon. And then when eight o clock is almost no more, the station master reappears.
“These,” he says pointing at the bikes, “Problem.”
The word ‘problem’ is by now hard wired to generate palpitations. We cannot figure out what the problem is from what he says and wish we had covered the bikes with their bike bags. When in bags, in disguise, Bertie and the gang seem to be less of a problem; simply four, inconvenient, suitcase-sized packages.
“One, two, three,” he says, waving across the tracks.
He mimes a dance, setting off across the tracks and beckons us to follow. We haul bikes and bags across grassy rails to the far end of the third strip of concrete. And then he’s gone. Dusk takes hold. And then, in encroaching darkness,between the red signals, a spot of white approaches. The station master returns and instructs us to turn around and face the other way. A train pulls in and we find a miraculous giant luggage carriage stops right in front of the bikes. The door slides open. The bikes are hauled aboard. The guard comes through the train doing a cycling mime.
“Bikes. Twenty euros.. Collect in Thessaloniki.” he explains. We thrust money into his hands. We are on our way through Greece.
Thessaloniki to Athens and Aegina
We have dreamed of The Island. For thirteen days on thirteen trains. This was always the dreamy part of the plan. To travel beyond Istanbul, to find a way to Greece, to catch a boat to a small Greek island. To swim in the Aegean Sea. We have spent four sweaty nights on sleepers, hallucinating about this moment. The moment we drop our bikes, run to the sea and dip railroad frazzled hair into the salty blue. We land at sunset. It is picture perfect. The sea is a ribbon of gold, wrapped around Aegina. It has all been worth it.
Athens to Naples
We return back to Athens to get a connection for Kaito. To find out how we got on in Athens, read my post on seeing The Acropolis at sunset.
At Kiato we must catch a bus for Patras to catch a boat to Italy. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from two weeks of folding bike inter-railing it’s that politeness is not a great boarding strategy. You need something more bullish, something the poorer states of Europe have been quick to teach; a ticket counts for nothing if you can’t get on the bus. And a reservation is no guarantee of boarding either. At Kiato we are at our worst. We grab bags and bikes five minutes before the train pulls into the station. We block the exit to guarantee we’ll be first off. We exit at speed, pushing aside passengers trying to board. We carry bikes two abreast to control the platform and prevent overtaking. We get to the bus first and climb inside the baggage locker. We load bikes, avoiding eye contact and blocking out the tuts of other travellers.
At Patras we board a Superfast ferry and set sail across the Ionian Sea, towards the Adriatic. The menu says a cappuccino costs over four euros; a 400% increase since Istanbul. When we wake up we are in Bari, and by the afternoon Naples.
Naples to Rome
Naples is not what I expected. Read my post here on the Southern Italian city you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry. To be honest it’s a relief to leave its edginess behind on a Frecciarossa train to Rome. the carriages rattle along in little more than an hour at over 300km/hr.
“When in Rome..Stuart says as we drink coffee and relax.
I wait for him to finish. He doesn’t. “When in Rome what?” I ask.
“Do what the Romans do?”
He gets googling and we learn that the proverb ‘When in Rome’ is attributed to St Ambrose. Back in the day when he advised travellers to Rome he noted that different cities had different traditions that should be respected – by behaving like a local. Like fasting on Saturdays. We dismiss that as we knock back a few biscuits with our coffee.
A chance to do what the tourists do
After the oppression of Naples, Rome feels light, airy, delicious. A delicate lemon sorbet after a large pizza. Mind you, it’s touching 35 degrees as we cycle into town, our hands slipping on sweaty handlebars. We are sure we won’t be able to get near the Colosseum due to the volume of polluting Fiats circling the giant Roman roundabout. Therefore it’s a surprise to discover there are hardly any vehicles at all as the area around the amphitheatre was pedestrianised in 2013. It means we can cycle around it, well at least the outside. The pedestrianization of the Colosseum, the area around the Roman Forum and near St Peter’s Square means we can zip easily between all these sights and enjoy them from a saddle. Who knew Roman cycle sight-seeing was a thing?
We ride into St Peter’s Square in a flash of lightning. We have the road to ourselves and soon the whole of the Square too as a sudden thunderstorm clears the crowds and blows the fountains off centre. Tourists retreat beneath the giant Tuscan colonnade, the arms of Mother Church protecting them from the sharp crack and rumble of the Devil outside. Then the hawkers appear, their snow globes and crucifixes miraculously transformed into ponchos and umbrellas. A few brave visitors swap euros for red, green and blue capes, dance with the devil in the rain and bring a splash of colour back to a grey Piazza. The Devil’s hold is brief and our handlebars are soon sweaty again, our bodies craving more granita. Our time here is short, our tour brief but impressive. This journey of ours, so fast and furious, hopping across countries, from city to city is simultaneously exciting, unsatisfactory and enlightening. There’s not been much time to explore at each stop but the fast cuts between locations has given an unusual sense of contrast.
Before we leave we agree to visit the Trevi Fountain on the way to the station. It’s a fight to get near the fountain with bikes but fights are not uncommon here. A couple of Instagramers caused an eight person hair-pulling brawl arguing over the best place to take a selfie. Today there are plenty of police on hand to maintain order but we still can’t get close to the most popular spots.It’s said around €3,000 is thrown in the Trevi each day, more than €1m a year. Perhaps that’s why there are so many police, to prevent illegal withdrawals. I’m told the coins thrown in are collected by officials and used to subsidise a supermarket for the needy, so throwing a coin is not just a tradition but serves a good cause. As we prepare to throw, a policemen blows his whistle to warn off a couple who look like they’re about to enter the water, something that’s also banned. But judging from the floaty dress they’re less interested in stealing money or dabbling feet and are set on more ambitious, egocentric ambitions – recreating the fountain scene from La Dolce Vita?
As we say ‘Arrivederci Roma’ we raise right hands over left shoulders and collectively forgo the price of one last granita for four wishes.
Rome to Venice
It’s a short hop from Rome to Venice, on a good Italian train. As we move beyond the curl of the gondolier’s blade, and the push and crush of the vaporetti, the sun drenched glow of tourist Venice disappears and we get a flash of what’s underneath her cloak; a glimpse of the face behind the mask. We wander down lanes and hit blind alleys and go back and forth over rickety wooden bridges. Beaked feathered faces and unicorn horned creations show themselves from behind locked doors in darkened window displays as shops shutter down for the night. Perhaps we spent too long in Naples and know the darkness within an Italian city, or maybe there are just more water colours in Venice’s palette than we realised.
We have no time to consider this; as ever we have a train to catch. We increase our pace, stopping only to pick up cartons of pasta from Venice’s version of a fast food takeaway which we eat quickly on a bench in a square.
Venice to Munich and Paris
Munich is still asleep when we arrive at stupid o clock. The dim light brightens as we enjoy the network of cycle paths and a peaceful breakfast in the square in front of the Rathaus. After a quick transfer to Mannheim we board the double decker SNCF train for Paris. It is packed with people and luggage; the stairs do not help with the bike lugging and we have to throw people out of our seats. It is not a great example of how to travel across Europe by train. We arrive hot and bothered, and closer to dinner time than lunch. But the city isn’t getting itself ready for bed anytime soon. In fact it is just coming to life.
Once more we congratulate ourselves on bringing the bikes with us as we take a whistlestop tour of the city, popping into see Mona Lisa on a late night opening in the Louvre before heading to watch the Eiffel Tower become a sparkling steel grotto, and then whizzing past the sails of the Moulin Rouge.
A holiday always speeds up towards the end. Ours is now in fast forward and we freewheel in the lowest gear towards the climax ofour Interrail EU journey. Breakfast. lunch and dinner done. Eurostar, intercity, sprinter still to come. Breakfast in Paris or lunch in London? Sometimes we aren’t sure which meal we are up to or which country we are in. We only know that a train will take us to another tomorrow on our epic three week trip around Europe.
And it does.
Paris to London and home
Paris to London is thankfully uneventful. And we arrive at Arnside much as we began, in the dark. blocking most of the luggage area. Suddenly here we are, back home, mission complete. Without a missed connection, lost ticket or cancellation to speak of in 22 days of travel on 25 trains, 2 buses and 3 ferries, through 12 countries in 18 towns and cities. It has been an education, not just in folding bike, multi-modal tourism but in the geography and diversity of Europe, its people and its rail network. It’s amazing how far you can get without the stress of driving or navigating, without arguing over who sits in the middle on the back seat, without the rigmaroles of flying.
Before we started we had a view that interrailing advetures were for gap years and rail geeks, but of course they are not. Railways don’t discriminate. Interrail holidays are for everyone. They are great for keeping kids busy and engaged and pretty good value if you plan things well and keep costs down by including Interrail destinations like Turkey and Romania. No one has to drive. Everyone gets their own seat. You get time together and, once everyone has their headphones on and is plugged into the onboard Wi-fi (available on selected services!)you get time to yourself too. You don’t have to go somewhere as far or unfamiliar as Istanbul or take folding bikes, but I’d highly recommend both.
Last year, for the first time, the EU gave thousands of young Europeans free interrail passes so they could travel around Europe and learn about the EU; an exercise in experiential European education. As we’ve travelled from West to East, across Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, Stuart wondered out loud what their experience will have taught them. Travelling this way it’s hard to not be slapped in the face by the vastness, diversity and complexity of Europe. We’ve hopped and biked across a patchwork quilt of cities, landscapes, histories and cultures. Some squares have been familiar, golden threads revealing recognisable patterns. Others more threadbare, worn, with unaccustomed iconography. My husband decides Europe is not a soft, warm quilt to cuddle up under but a lumpy, bumpy one with a variable tog rating.
The idea of a European Union does seem at times quite preposterous, a fantasy of collaboration and certainly not amongst equals in terms of infrastructure and prosperity. No wonder then there is sometimes a bit of push and shove, irritation and frustration, frayed tempers and belligerence when it comes to rubbing along together. Yet somehow it also seems like a good idea for countries to try to work together to build links, connections and bridges, to promote peace, cooperation, education, trade and security through negotiation and shared ambition. To achieve together by working together, however difficult that might be and however much differences might get in the way. Perhaps that is what is civilised, even when it appears kind of ugly. ‘In Varietate Concordia” or ‘United in Diversity’ as the EU motto puts it.
There are many ways to get across Europe by train. And too many options to list them here. Thankfully The Man in Seat 61 provides comprehensive help with planning. I used his site religiously.In the months up to our journey I also made good friends with the helpful people at DB Deutsche Bahn.. They can book tickets for you on the phone and post them to you. You can also use Interrail’s own booking service online.
Try and book a year in advance if you can as many sleepers and long distance routes sell out. And to avoid an encounter with a stranger in your bunk then book out the whole carriage for your family.
Be aware your Interrail ticket is not the whole cost. You will need to pay for seat reservations in some countries and sleeping compartments on all trains.This adds up to quite a lot extra if you are doing multiple journeys.
Interrail provided five passes for us to travel across the European rail network. We funded all seat reservation fees, couchettes, accommodation and attractions ourselves. The running for trains, panicking about timetables and getting sweaty on Turkish bunks, as well as words and images, are all our own.
Read about our winter weekend family interrail trip of Germany.