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The best way to travel around Europe this summer – and how to do it for cheap

Simon Calder’s Travel

It all began on a park bench in London’s Soho Square. We had both just turned 50. We had known each other for years (since college). We had family responsibilities, but we wanted to get away for a while – and had the green light to do so from those close to us.

We both enjoyed Europe. We both enjoyed travelling by trains. We were seeking what the writer Jerome K Jerome so pithily put at the beginning of Three Men In A Boat, his 1880s comic masterpiece about a journey down the River Thames: “Rest and a complete change… the overstrain upon our brains has produced a general depression throughout the system. Change of scene, absence of the necessity for thought, will restore the mental equilibrium.”

Within an hour or so of mulling this over in the sunshine (accompanied by Red Stripe lagers), my old friend Danny and I had hatched a simple plan: we would go on a long rail journey to Istanbul, following the classic route of the Orient Express. Two men on a (load of) trains heading for Turkey, rather than three men in a boat on the Thames.

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Catching a night train in Europe
Catching a night train in Europe (Tom Chesshyre/PA)

A few clicks on the Interrail website and, hey presto, a couple of weeks later we were at St Pancras International, hopping on a Eurostar.

Many people believe Interrail journeys are just for gap-year students hoping to “find themselves” and explore Europe, and this was indeed their original purpose. Back in 1972, the International Union of Railways created Interrail passes specifically for the under-21s, who had been cut off from travelling around the Continent by high ticket prices.

In those days, passes had cost £27.50 for unlimited journeys over a month. And they were such a hit in their first year, with almost 90,000 sold, they were continued and marketed more widely. By 1998, all ages were permitted to book, with prices higher for those over 27, but discounts for over-60s.

These days, the railways of 33 European countries participate, up from 21 in the 1970s. You download the Eurail app – Eurail is a Dutch-based company running Interrail – and a simple system allows you to book tickets.

And so, for us, the tracks led to Paris, in the midst of protests against President Macron’s plans to increase the French retirement age by two years to 64. The joy of arriving in the French capital and thinking, “Where…

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