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Paris can wait: how we dodged the summer crowds by Interrailing to Europe’s smaller towns | Europe holidays

Paris can wait: how we dodged the summer crowds by Interrailing to Europe’s smaller towns | Europe holidays

We were sitting enjoying a quiet beer at a bar in Ghent when I realised we’d made the right decision. Ghent was humming but not heaving, cheerful but not chaotic. It was the first night of our three-week Interrail trip with our 18- and 16-year-old sons. Now, after a long train journey, the calm ambience of the medieval Belgian city left us feeling relaxed rather than exhausted.

An Interrail ticket opens up 33 European countries by rail and many people seize the opportunity to visit capital cities on their bucket list. A typical itinerary takes in big hitters like Paris, Prague, Rome and Madrid. We decided to do things a little differently.

Our ultimate destination was Budapest, but our route there and back took in smaller, less frenetic towns and cities. We opted for Delft and Utrecht rather than Amsterdam, Baden-Baden in Germany’s Black Forest instead of Berlin, Salzburg over Vienna and Lausanne, not Zurich.

We arrived in Brussels by Eurostar. The station was busy and confusing, and the train out hot and crammed. Ghent, when we emerged an hour later, was positively serene by comparison. That first night, we ambled to the beautiful quayside, crammed with cafes and bars. There was no problem finding a table. It was July and still light as we wandered back to our hotel at 10pm, the streets quiet despite it being Saturday night.

The writer and her family in Salzburg

We’d chosen Ghent as a base for our first three nights, partly because it was handy for exploring other places. Our 22-day continuous rail pass meant no extra travel costs and we were determined to make the most of it.

Bruges, our first day trip, was all cobbled streets, canals, horse-drawn carriages and chocolate shops. A half-day guided tour of Ypres the next day took in battlefields, cemeteries and memorials (perhaps not the most obvious thing to do with teenagers, but it brought to life what they’d studied in history).

Our final day in Belgium was spent in Brussels, partly because we had to catch a 6.23am train to Munich (via Frankfurt) the following day and we sprinted around the main sites.

I’d reserved seats in advance – while Interrailing gives you free access to most trains, some have compulsory seat reservations and others you’d be wise to book to avoid sitting on the floor for several hours.

Salzburg’s Mirabell Gardens and historic fortress in the background

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