You Are Never Too Old
Before the era of low-cost flights, the cheapest way of getting to Greece was by train. A month’s Inter-Rail ticket only costs £33, and you had to be under 26 to buy one. Fortunately for us, there’s now no age limit, and youth hostels make no stipulation about “youth”. So we decided, in the spirit of ’73, that we’d stay in hostels where possible, although most of the ones we’d been to before had closed down. We also decided that while our quest was to reach Ios, we wouldn’t stick to the same route as last time, through West Germany and Yugoslavia. (After all, they no longer exist.)
When we arrived at Calais, I asked the woman at the information desk if she could suggest an itinerary to Austria. She started tapping at her computer asking me where abouts we wished to go,’ Vienna' I replied (as I speak French ... but obviously not that well). As we set off, clutching our printed timetable, we realised we’d been directed to Vienne in France, not Vienna. But we thought we might as well go there anyway. Vienne, near Lyons, turned out to be wonderful. There happened to be a rock concert that night, so we had a musical accompaniment as we wandered about.
The next day, we set off again for Vienna. We got as far as Lausanne when a woman suggested we stop off at Montreaux. There was a youth hostel there, so we thought we’d try it out. It turned out to be right on the shores of Lake Geneva, and within minutes Jane and I were swimming in the lake, hardly believing our luck. It felt a bit strange sharing a dormitory with four young Swiss girls, but they were friendly enough. In the morning, we started out for Vienna yet again. When we reached the station, however, we found there was a train about to leave for Milan. We jumped on, enjoying the random nature of our journey. We never did get to Vienna.
We had made a conscious decision to travel without guidebooks or train timetables, and to rely instead on personal recommendations and where the mood took us. When we arrived at stations, we’d gaze up at the departures board. If the train we had intended to take didn’t leave for hours, we simply caught another one that took our fancy. So, in a haphazard fashion, we worked our way southeast.
We took the ferry from Italy to Greece — it was rather classy, with escalators and a swimming pool — and another from Piraeus to Ios, which certainly wasn’t. Hordes of us raced on board to stake our claim to the benches, and the deck was heaving with people and their trolley suitcases. Hardly anyone was travelling with rucksacks. I found it impossible to sleep. I’d moved so far out of my comfort zone.
Just after dawn, we arrived. Last time, we’d ignored the people holding signs saying “Rooms to let”. Now we were only too grateful for them, and struck lucky. Our hotel was exceptional, and cost us each only £14 a night.
As part of our teenage pilgrimage, we took a bus up through the village towards Mylopotas beach. In 1973, there were no cars on Ios. Donkey was the main form of transport. According to the journal nowadays nobody is allowed to camp on the beach, so we had a quick swim, then went for a beer.
Ios is now known as a party island, and we expected it to be completely spoilt. But in spite of signs entreating you to “Eat, Drink and Be Naughty”, or to drink 100 shots in 100 minutes, it’s still beautiful. It has more buildings, but they’re still in the traditional whitewashed cube style, draped with bougainvillea. If you walk past the port, you can leave behind the noise of cars and hear goats with bells round their necks and the views are spectacular. As we climbed up the old donkey track to the main village for supper, the streets were filling up. Everyone looked under 25, and we felt as if we’d gate crashed a student party. But we couldn’t believe how friendly our fellow drinkers were, inviting us to nightclubs and pouring out their life stories.
Here, with so many young people around, we stood out. Relying on personal recommendation, we found a tiny beach called Valmas, which became our favourite haunt. It was often deserted because of a strong sea breeze and we were able to skinny-dip off the rocks — something we wouldn’t have dared do when we were 18. There was just one bar-restaurant, perched above the water, and we spent hours there, reading, writing and, in Jane’s case, sketching. One evening we returned to the Ios Club, where, in 1974, we used to watch the sunset. They still played classical music. Last time, we’d sat on the rocks outside, as we couldn’t afford to buy drinks. This time we ordered Greek beer and sat on the terrace, feeling like millionaires.
A text arrived from home. “Are you arriving back tomorrow?” Guiltily, I remembered telling my husband I’d be away for just two weeks. Time to head for home. No rush, though. We’d become railway enthusiasts, marvelling at the scenery. Some trains were crowded and dirty, but most were excellent. It was liberating to eat when necessary, rather than at mealtimes, and I now knew that, just like my 18-year-old self, I could sleep in my clothes. At the start of our journey, I’d had trouble putting my suitcase in the luggage rack. Now I was swinging it recklessly over my head.
The last night of our trip was in Paris. We had dinner in a karaoke bar, and I still can’t believe Jane persuaded me to sing You’ve Got a Friend with her. One man put his head in his hands and said: “You should have warned me.” But instead of being thrown out, we were bought red wine, champagne and roses. By the early hours, we’d befriended enough people to join us for a group version of Help. We were 18 again, if only in the mind.
Retrace their steps. The modern Inter-Rail network is a lot bigger than in the 1970s. It now covers 30 European countries, as well as Turkey and Morocco. The principle is the same, though: one ticket, thousands of trains.
Inter-Rail passes come in three versions. Anyone planning an extended should buy the month-long all-zone pass. It’s valid in every participating country and costs £405, or £285 if you’re under 26. The two other tickets cover smaller areas and shorter times. A one-zone pass lasts for 16 days and costs £215 (under-26s £145); a two-zone pass lasts for 22 days and costs £295 (£205). For a zone map, visit www.interrailnet.com. Note that sleepers and express services often cost extra; and a few privately owned lines don’t accept the passes. Ferries from Italy to Greece are included in some tickets, but ferries in Greece are not — book them at www.greekferries.gr. UK companies selling Inter-Rail tickets include Rail Europe (0870 584 8848, www.raileurope.co.uk), Rail Choice (0870 165 7300, www.railchoice.co.uk ) and International Rail (0870 084 1414Find Article, www.international-rail.com).
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