In 1992 I went interrailing with my friend Paul. We’d spent most of our money on the tickets so planned to save what little cash we had left by sleeping on overnight trains whenever we could. We soon developed a routine of arriving at a station in the evening, looking at the departures board and picking where we fancied waking up the next day. Poland? Bavaria? The south of France? It felt as if all of Europe was laid out in front of us. Probably because it was. And what a time to travel through Europe as new nations were born and strong bonds developed between old foes.
It took us a few neck-ricking nights upright to realise that the seats in the six-seat compartments pulled out and met in the middle, allowing us to stretch out lengthways and ensuring our slumber would be disturbed only by the slide of the compartment door for the countless passport and ticket checks that punctured our nocturnal rest.
The downside to this was that it didn’t take long before we, quite frankly, stank. Other than the odd splash in the bathroom of a branch of McDonald’s (always very clean right across Europe) we spent a total of four nights in hostels in the space of a month. That meant four showers. In a month. And don’t even start about our clothes.
On the final leg of the trip, a train from Rome to Paris, a woman joined us in our compartment and after a few moments stood up smiling politely and saying something in Italian about Roma.
“Ah yes,” we replied, beaming eagerly and unleashing a flurry of thumbs-ups, “Roma, we’ve just come from Roma”.
Still smiling, she slipped out of the compartment and didn’t come back. It was only later we realised she’d been saying, “aroma”, politely letting us know that our stench had become so unbearable that she had to go and sit in another compartment, nay, another carriage, possibly even another train.
Fast forward to May 2016 and I am on a train, having a shower. A hot shower. A luxurious hot shower, on a train, a moving train, somewhere in eastern Germany. This is the best thing ever: I have a proper sleeper compartment with en suite facilities, I am clean and this time accompanied by my better half Jude rather than a whiffy politics student from Sheffield in a British Knights shellsuit.
We’d left Budapest’s magnificent Keleti station the previous evening, with its statues of rail pioneers James Watt and George Stephenson on the fascia and the faded glory of its cavernous red velvet-lined restaurant, bought some cheap wine and sweets from the night steward – who bore an uncanny resemblance to Dr Caligari – handed him our tickets, retired to the cabin and chased the sunset across Hungary.
Station names – Vác, Stúrovo, Nové Zámky – flashed past in the evening sun, as did the bright white buttocks of a man who’d nipped behind a trackside tree for what he’d thought would be a surreptitious, unobserved widdle.
Darkness fell, we climbed between the crisp sheets of our bunks and drifted off to the rhythmic sway of the train as it snaked through the central European night, the slow, heavy clank of wheels moving across points and the occasional gentle shunt of dead-of-night uncouplings seeping gently into our dreams.

The next morning we sat at the little fold-out table by the window, drank the coffee and ate the croissants just delivered by the steward and looked out at the sun-warmed morning towns somewhere north of Dresden, refreshed and prepared to ease our way into a new Berlin day.
There is no better way to travel in continental Europe than by rail. For me it’s not just the destinations or the scenery, it’s the places in between: the towns that flash by with their squares and steeples, factories and football stadiums, with the usually fruitless head-jerking attempt to read their names as the train zips through their stations; all of them with their own histories, traditions and routines making up a tiny node in the mesh of human stories that is Europe.
One publication that stands out for me because it’s the only one writing about these in-between places is Hidden Europe magazine, which contains some of the best travel writing around because it’s travel writing for travel writing’s sake. No gimmicks, no trying to sell holiday advertising, just good stories beautifully written.
When I came back from my European rail odyssey I learned that the editors of Hidden Europe, Berlin-based Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, had published a new edition of their Europe By Rail: The Definitive Guide For Independent Travellers. This could have been bad timing, having just returned from a rail trip around the centre of the continent, but in fact the timing was perfect because I’d crashed through the flat door already resolved to see much more of Europe through the windows of a train carriage.
Europe By Rail suggests fifty rail journeys spread across the entire continent. They’re given mouthwatering titles – Slow Train To Bosnia, Across The Bernina Pass, From The Alps To Catalonia – and the itineraries unbutton the imagination in just a few place names: Hannover-Goslar-Wernigerode-Quedlinberg-Magdeburg, Zurich-Zernez-St. Moritz-Tirano-Milan, Nice-Monaco-Sanremo-Genoa-Cinque Terre-Pisa.

Europe By Rail
could have been a dry, practical guide and still been an invaluable book, but where the writers really score is in evoking such a strong sense of place. Each route is carefully described with tightly-written guides to and descriptions of the destinations involved that make the fifty route chapters eminently readable as pieces of travel writing in themselves. Add in the sections concerning the different kinds of trains, tickets and passes as well as the boxes containing standalone context pieces (they even make something as outwardly unpromising as the story of the Neisse Viaduct between Dresden and Wroclaw absolutely absorbing) and this is the perfect way to plan a European rail adventure or just sit at home dreaming of one.
You won’t find anything in writing that comes closer to evoking the feeling of stepping from a train onto the platform of a European city in the cool station air of a sunny morning, a tessellation of vaulted roof beam shadows falling across you as the next tantalising slice of Europe lies in wait beyond the ticket barriers.
We may only have a couple of years of guaranteed visa-free European travel left so we need to make the most of them. Europe By Rail will definitely help with that, even if it can’t help with the personal hygiene of a couple of vagrant students stinking their way around a continent caught in a thrilling state of post-communist flux.
You can buy Europe By Rail here. And, if my opinion is worth anything, you probably should.