A speedboat cut across my vision and pivoted when the owner caught sight of me sitting on the rocky shore. It was the mid 1980s, in Savonlinna, Finland, and Scandinavia was sweltering under a midsummer heatwave. The boat pulled up and I kept my eyes on the man’s face, trying not to look down at his turquoise Y-fronts as he talked and shrugged and made suggestions. Yes, I was Interrailing. No, I didn’t want to join him on his boat. No, I really wasn’t tempted to stay another day and join him at ‘a country house’
These memories surfaced recently as I read an article in the Guardian about the resurgence of Interrailing. Like the author, I’ve also kept the diaries from my trips across Europe. Little grey spiral notebooks purchased from Boots, with detailed itineraries and page after page of vocabulary and pronunciation notes for Portuguese, Greek, Norwegian, Finnish and Czech.
Cash-strapped and naïve, my main aim had been to get the most value out of the month-long Interrail pass, right up until the age of 26. Each year I set a ridiculous itinerary between two distant locations: Austria and Greece; Norway and Hungary; Portugal and Czechoslovakia. Like many others, I slept on the trains and hired a bike to get around, scribbling inadequate observations of towns and cities in the notebooks. Koln was very lively, with a police shooting! Alesund was disappointingly shabby, while there are lots of winos in Helsinki!
Now, as I read through the diaries, I see that it was less about the places and much more about the people. Page after page lists the names and addresses of fellow travellers I met in that pre-digital age. I can still visualise the final-year Azorean students who’d received funding to come and “find out about Europe”, and their shock at the price of coffee in Vienna. I set about finding us a cheap café where they could just about afford a cup at the equivalent of 60p. How I wish I’d looked them up when I visited the Azores years later. Would they have still been living there, or would I have encountered just memories of long-departed emigrants?
One group that I did meet again were three Swedish students who took me out of the hostel for a beer that cost me a day’s budget. Ole and his mates showed great excitement when they found out I’d shortly be passing through their home town – Kiruna, the most northern town in Swedish Lapland. “Stop off for a few hours, and we’ll show you around!”
As the train pulled into Kiruna, there they stood on the platform, beaming and eager to walk me to the record shop, the pizzeria and Kiruna’s highest hill. The landscape, still snowy in May, was bleak, although I perked up when I saw a Sámi man in traditional clothing. He agreed to have his photo taken and then pulled out a notebook for me to add my name and address. “Don’t worry,” said Ole, “He won’t turn up in England; he just wants to show off an English address to his friends.”
The notebooks are full of the camaraderie of the hostels and their exotic mix of travellers, and one of the most famous hostels is the former fisherman’s rorbu at Stamsund on the Lofoten Islands. These mountainous isles lie within the Arctic Circle and are renowned as a stopping point on the Hurtigruten fjord cruises, but the ships also provide a passenger ferry service for independent travellers. The wooden slats of an old cruiser made an uncomfortable bed for the night crossing, but who cared, it was midsummer.
The hostel appears to have maintained its reputation for travellers who turn up and stay for weeks or months, although I only managed two nights, with a diet of the usual sardines. The warden, Roar, is, I believe, still in residence, as are the gingham curtains that open out out onto towering peaks.
Roar rented out mopeds, and at 11pm I was persuaded to join an American hosteller to drive to the open coast, for an unimpeded view of the sun bouncing off the horizon at midnight. Roar handed me a red helmet but made a fuss about my inadequate clothing and insisted that I borrow his ‘dress’, which turned out to be a fur-lined boiler suit.
A novice, I wobbled the moped all the way to the viewpoint, startling the sheep and terrified that I’d run it into a ditch. The other guy stopped to frown at my speed (“Can you try and make it up to 30 km/h, or we’ll miss the midnight sun?”) so I let him go ahead and then dawdled back to the hostel at 3am, passing a man mowing his lawn in full daylight at 2am.
Back then the rivers and vineyards of northern Portugal had a network of tiny wooden trains with rattling windows, where the passengers are a strange mix of rural folk, gawping youths and trendy schoolgirls. At Mondim de Basto I stepped from the station into someone’s garden, where a family all stopped in their tracks to stare at me, incredulous. The station was some way from the town but I was guided by an old man who walked 50 yards behind me and helpfully yelled and gesticulated whenever I made a wrong turn.
The hotel in Mondim was closed but a random stranger led me off the street into a lodging house full of female teachers, all rather dissatisfied at having to work and live in this beautiful back of beyond. They seemed excited to have a foreigner in their midst and took me out to a cafe, where they introduced me to the musician Julio Pereira who was beaming out from the wall television.
Moving deeper into the backwoods of northern Portugal, the diaries note the strangely shifting landscapes between Regua and Chaves, so different on the way down from what I’d seen on the way up. Was that granite section, where the houses were hewn into the rocks, a hallucination? – because it was nowhere to be seen the following day. And why hadn’t I noticed the dizzying drop down to the Corgo river yesterday? Perhaps I’d been distracted by the old man who came to shake hands with me as he left the train, or the teenage boy who left his seat to welcome me to Tras os Montes: “Enjoy the region and take your time.” And José, sitting opposite; together we managed to converse in a mangled mix of German, English and Portuguese, mostly about how he wanted to come to London. Another address for the notebook.
I was sad when I heard that the rustic trains of northern Portugal had recently closed down, leaving routes such as the former Corgo line to be trodden by foot, as a ‘rail ramble’.
Back in England a few months later, the postman handed me a letter with a Portuguese postmark. I opened it and there was that familiar mangling of languages. José. I struggled to decipher it, although the gist was clear. Perhaps I would be interested in marrying him?
Reader, I didn’t.