This year, I’m lucky enough to be one of 15,000 European 18-year-olds given free rail passes to visit Europe in a new EU initiative.
Each person who gained a pass was able to choose between a point-to-point ticket which was valid for specific trains and planned the whole journey, or a flex ticket that let them book their own trains.
As you’d expect from a new scheme, there were a few flaws to iron out, with many people confused by the process. If you’re considering applying, it’s important to know that reservations are essential on many trains, and if you go for the flex option, you will need to pay the fees for these yourself (at least this time around). In my case, this was £231.40 in total. You will also need to be able to cover your own accommodation, which in my case has been around £275 for a total of 8 nights.
Overall, though, it’s allowing many people to go abroad who may not have been able to before, myself included.
Having studied Spanish for about 12 years, actually going to Spain is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. We studied some of the monuments I visited in art class when I was 10, and since then I’ve really wanted to go. However, as I’ve mentioned before, I have a severe nut allergy, and so cannot fly. This meant that going by train was pretty much my only option. Without my free pass, this would have been near impossible.
Not to seem super uncool, but I’m aware of some of the awful ramifications that can occur as a woman travelling on their own. None of my friends could come, and so I asked my grandparents to go with me. They both bought Interrail passes, too, and we synced our itineraries, allowing me to book the trains for the three of us.
A lot of what you’re about to read is probably a cautionary tale about how not to travel Spain. However, I hope that the overriding message is that if you get the opportunity to travel by rail, you should definitely take it. While chaotic at times, it has been one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, which is all thanks to this EU scheme. I’ll resist the urge to have a Brexit rant here, but my commiserations to those who won’t get to participate in things like this post-apocalypse.
Day one: Gloucester to Toulouse
Given that I started my trip with pretty much two solid days of trains, I was expecting Sunday to be spent running for transport, but everything seems to have gone according to plan.
We started the journey at Gloucester, taking a train from there to Swindon where we changed to carry on to London. However, for some reason the train was overcrowded, and we had to stand up for the whole journey. Especially with backpacks, this was a squash.
Once we got to Paddington Station, it was just a short tube journey (with time to pick up a McDonald’s from Euston road) before we headed for our early check in to the Eurostar. The last time I did this was six years ago, and suffice to say that they’ve improved things somewhat since then.
Due to a lack of standard seats, we took the Eurostar in first class. Usually, I roll my eyes at the people paying extra, but I can see why you would if you could. The seats were way comfier than usual (especially given that we stood on the last train), with a little fold out table. There were also only about five other people in our section of the carriage.
Once we got to Paris, we went directly to the metro. The ticket machines are the most confusing things I’ve come across, which I can’t blame on my French skills as they had an English option. Eventually, though, we managed to use the little rolling cursor thing to purchase tickets and then make our way to Montparnasse. This is where we were able to do our first sightseeing, as we had a spare half hour to look around. In this time, we came across a woman with a cat in her backpack, an anti-meat protest in anonymous masks and a man who told us “don’t brexit!”, all around the base of the Tour Montparnasse.
The next train that we got on was nothing like what we have in England; a double decker train with 16 carriages, all heading at nearly 300km/h to Toulouse. Despite being far superior in speed, it was the most uncomfortable of all our journeys. Without enough space elsewhere for our bags, we had to have them by our feet, and given the darkness outside, we couldn’t even look at the views. By the time we arrived in Toulouse, we were definitely ready for the hotel we had booked.
Day two: Toulouse to Granada
As someone who is definitely not a morning person, getting up at 6:30 (5:30 in the time zone that I was still used to) wasn’t easy. By some miracle, though, I managed it, and we managed to squeeze in half an hour of walking around before catching our train. If you imagine a stereotypical French town, that’s what Toulouse is like, full of old buildings. It’s a shame we couldn’t stay longer, but before long we were speeding off towards Barcelona. I managed to sleep across the border, so having been in the loo when we came out of the Channel tunnel, I was setting a good track record for noticing these things.
When I woke up, though, it was very clear how far I was from home. What school didn’t prepare me for was the miles and miles of seemingly uninhabited land in Spain. Even the fields full of crops appear dry, and it’s an entirely different colour palette to the greens of England.
We must have made our English-ness very apparent when we eventually arrived. The train that we were meant to be catching next was literally across the platform from us, so we walked right towards it, before realising that nobody else was doing the same. A few confused conversations with attendants later, we were taken up in a lift and shown that, in Spain, you have to actually show your ticket before even being allowed on the platform.
Again, we were off, not due to see Barcelona properly for another four days. This was our first Spanish train, which seemed like luxury compared to the French ones, with actual leg room, comfier seats and even movies on board, which they handed out free headphones for. This must have lulled us into a false sense of security, which again lead to panic at the next station. Honestly, I don’t know how we didn’t miss any trains.
Madrid Puerta de Atocha station is probably very easy to navigate if you know what you’re doing, but we definitely did not. Once leaving the platform, there was a really long walk (more than two travelators long) to get to the arrivals lounge, which we mistakenly thought was where we should be. Having stayed there for too long, when a platform did eventually come up next to our train, we were miles from where we should have been. Once into the main station, we were faced with two choices: a departures lounge, or escalators going down to what looked like platforms. We headed for the latter. Long story short, we found ourselves heading back up the escalator five minutes later after a fight with a ticket machine.
Of course, our first encounter with station security had to be when we were running late. Almost all the Spanish stations we visited made us put our bags through x-ray machines, which is great for security, but not so good for being on time.
Moral of the story: If you think you’re where you’re meant to be in Madrid station, keep walking.
Luckily, we got through on time to (finally) enter a room with escalators leading down to all the platforms. We left Madrid for the first time having seen nothing but the inside of the station, as we would do two more times before the end of the holiday.
We didn’t notice until the map on the screen told us that we were going through Antequera, but the itinerary that interrail had given us included travelling on a no stop train from Madrid to Malaga, and then getting on a train back to Madrid an hour later which dropped us off in Antequera on the way back. The main bonus of this was that we got half an hour of looking around Malaga.
After a 20 minute journey back to Antequera, we got off the train in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
You can imagine our horror when we were told that the “train” we were looking for wasn’t a train… But there was a bus. Thanks to work on a high-speed rail network, all services were completed by bus, which actually gave us quite a nice view of the countryside.
By the time we had got a taxi from the station to our apartment, it was nearly 11.
Day three: The Alhambra
We made the rookie mistake of deciding to look around Granada at about 11 the next morning. While the heat itself wasn’t unpleasant, any kind of movement in it was. The beauty of Granada more than made up for this, but nevertheless we returned home for lunch before long.
This turned out to be the best thing we could have done. The hill up to the Alhambra was difficult to say the least. At 3pm, even the shade was sweltering. There appeared to be two options up the hill, one with steps and one without, and again we were naive enough to choose the steps.
Once at the top, we wandered around for a while before we could find the entrance, which was up yet more hill on a different path.
It was sold out for the day, but fortunately a friend had advised me to book well in advance. Only one of us was allowed to go into the ticket office, taking all our documents to get our pre booked tickets.
Pretty much the second you pass the gates, the views are incredible.
We deliberately left a few hours before our given entry time to the Nasrid palaces, which gave us time to look round the Generalife palace and gardens. The whole experience was absolutely stunning, and better expressed by these photos, which still don’t do it justice. The Nasrid palaces, which you pay an extra fee for and have a specific entry time, were by far the most incredible part; room after room of marble, plasterwork and fountains.
It was a lot of walking, but definitely worth my red heels.
On the way back down the hill, we walked through a street of shops selling various souvenirs at much better prices than the one in the actual Alhambra.
It turned out that very few microwave meals were available in the supermarket nearby, so my choice of dinner was very limited. My grandparents were able to go out for tapas, but I ended up with microwave meatballs, which were nice enough. To be honest, I knew I wasn’t there for the food in the same way for people without allergies are, and so settled for enjoying the sights instead.
Day four: Granada to Valencia
After an awful (and bizarre) night in which I was kept awake by a man vomiting outside for hours, it was difficult to say the least to get up and walk to the bus station. We managed it, however, and made it onto the bus without event. The same went for our arrival in Antequera, and almost our second trip to Madrid station, if not for the fact that we somehow managed to be on the wrong floor for our train. Again, we made it on time, and we were rewarded with the fact that they showed The Shape of Water, a film that I had regrettably missed in the cinema, on the train.
We reached Valencia with enough time for the hour’s walk to the apartment. While Valencia is probably very pretty, it was a slog with our huge backpacks in the heat. Google maps also decided to throw a wildcard at us and give us all the street names in Valencian, when the majority of them are written in Spanish.
Given my lack of interest in football, I found it quite funny that we were staying in a road just off the station. Luckily, this meant that we were quite near a supermarket. This was very convenient, especially when I discovered some great nut free brownies.
By this point, the fatigue of travelling was starting to set in, and so I headed to bed early.
Day five: L’Oceanogràfic
The next morning, we got up just before lunch to walk to the aquarium. The majority of the walk was through a large park, which ran underneath street level on what used to be a riverbed. This then lead into the city of arts and sciences, an area that speaks for itself. The nature-inspired architecture, combined with the insanely blue water, created a surreally futuristic road compared to what we’d seen of the rest of the city.
The largest aquarium in Europe, L’Oceanogràfic is largely underground, a fact that we were grateful for, given the 33 degree heat outside. Divided into continent based sections, the aquarium took us on a worldwide trip of marine life. By far the highlights were the seals, one of the outdoor animals, and the arctic dome, which contained walruses and beluga whales.
It was both helpful and saddening how much of everything was in English. I wanted to practice my clunky classroom Spanish, but most people I came into contact with didn’t have time to indulge me, and switched to English. My first hint at the frustration I was surprised not to see was at the Oceanographic. During the dolphin show, the presenter spoke in Spanish to introduce the show, which I just about kept up with. He eventually lead (in Spanish) into “there are some people here who will have no idea what I just said, so I’ll now speak in English” and then said in English “hello and welcome. You’ll have to excuse my English.” before switching back to Spanish and saying “Yeah, sorry that I spoke English. I won’t, now.”, which the Spanish crowd found hilarious. I think it’s the first time that I’ve been insulted and thought “actually, that’s fair enough”.
In itself that show was quite surprising. Instead of just dolphins doing tricks, as I was expecting, there was an introduction about keeping plastic out of the oceans, followed by a dance contest (???) for the children to decide who got to play with the dolphins, and not one but two Mexican waves. I was worried that I’d walked into the wrong place.
Once the entertainment was left to the dolphins, though, I was glad to have sat through the other bits. Having never been to a dolphin show before, I was really impressed by how smart they are.
Once finished at the aquarium, we thought we’d head to the port, having seen something about it in a guidebook. As our first real improvisation since the weeks of planning beforehand, it didn’t go too well. When we did eventually make it to the port, it turned out to be a largely industrial area. A quick Google search told us that there was a nicer bit a half hour walk away, but by that point we were so tired that we just got a bus back to the apartment. Given that it started to rain almost as soon as the bus started to move, this was the right decision.
Day six: Valencia to Barcelona
I don’t want to be the kind of idiot who spends a week somewhere and claims to understand the culture, but there were definitely things that I had definitely noticed by day six. When we studied Spain, we were told few things about the actual culture. Firstly, that there’s an economic crisis, secondly that the main meal occurs much later than in England, and thirdly that they’re always late. Coming from the middle of nowhere, I’m always shocked by the number of people living on the street in cities, but this seemed even more prominent in Spain. Unlike what I’ve seen in England, almost every single one seemed to have a cardboard sign asking for money.
It wasn’t just the meals that seemed to happen later in the day – the shops were still open and full a few hours later than they would have been in England. As for the being late, I didn’t notice much difference. If anything, the trains were much more reliable.
One thing that I wasn’t prepared for was that when walking down the street, your choices appear to be either get out the way or get walked into. I’m used to moving out the way for people in the street, but the difference is that people do not seem to care whether you have time to get out of the way or not. The personal space bubble seems smaller, if not non-existent.
Traffic lights also seem to work differently, although that might just be a city thing. Many of the traffic lights, instead of the usual red-amber-green system that I’m used to, alternated between no light or a flashing light, which coincided with the green pedestrian light. This appeared to mean that pedestrians could cross, but so could cars, assuming that they didn’t think that they would run you over. As you can imagine, this gave us quite a panic on several occasions, especially at about 6am as we walked a mile and a half back to the station in Valencia. Suffice to say that I slept for most of the train journey to Barcelona, where we arrived at about 1pm.
Having learned from our trek across Valencia, we got a taxi to our apartment, which was on a road off the Sagrada Familia. After a quick nap, we headed out to look at the outside of it before our visit the next day.
Day seven: Sagrada Familia and Park Güell
Having been so stunned by the exterior of the Sagrada Familia the night before, we were really excited about getting to see inside it. They were stricter about entering only on our given time than we were expecting, but given the hoards of people wanting to go inside, I could see why – tickets were sold out for the day.
Once we got inside, though, it’s so big that we barely noticed the amount of people. As Gaudi intended, there’s so much light from the stained glass windows alone, and it casts colours across the pale walls. Every single piece seems so exquisite and so detailed that it’s hard to believe that it’s man-made.
We also booked to go up the Nativity towers, which gave us a view over Barcelona (as seen at the top of this post). Thankfully, instead of stairs like we expected, they took us up to the top in a lift and then we only had to walk down. I got so dizzy on the way down that I don’t think I’d have managed to walk up, too. This was definitely worth the extra, though, as we were able to see parts of the exterior that would otherwise have been too far away to truly appreciate, such as the fruit on the top.
Thanks to a documentary that I saw in primary school, one of the bits that I was most keen to see was the place where Gaudi is buried. It wasn’t hard to find – despite being in the crypt, his architecture meant that light is let in there by a raised ceiling with windows that allows you to see inside.
While I’m not usually a fan of text-heavy museums, the museum on the way out is definitely worth a peek. It talks through the process of Gaudi being chosen to take on the project, and the different phases his design went through to get to the building still being built.
After spending a few hours there, we went back to the apartment to rest before setting off for Park Güell, which we had decided to book the night before, just to be safe. Having researched it, I knew that it was up a steep hill, and so we took a bus that dropped us off right outside one of the gates.
We had a few hours to walk around before our entry time to the monumental core, and were surprised once again by the detail of Gaudi’s work, not to mention the way that he worked with the landscape rather than against it. As a testament to this, we saw many birds living in parts of his structures, including a parroquet.
The monumental core almost seems like an entirely different park to the rest. Unfortunately, renovations were going on in part of it, which disrupted our visit slightly, but nonetheless, it was another weird and wonderful work.
The park gave us yet more views across Barcelona (we could even see the Sagrada
Familia), combined with an insane amount of mosaic tiling. The only downside was that in such a small area, with parts of it closed for work, the amount of people in there seemed way too cramped. Despite this, we Stayed there until it was dark, thankfully catching the bus back.
By that time, I already wanted to move to Barcelona.
Day eight: Casa Batlló, Casa Milà and La Rambla
We had originally planned to go inside the Casas Batlló and Milà, but having seen the prices, we decided to see them from the outside instead. We took the metro for the first time, finding the machines much easier to operate than those in Paris.
Again, we were amazed by Gaudi’s work, but ultimately glad that we didn’t go in, as it gave us time to look around more, something we didn’t have time for in any of the other cities.
In Barcelona, the obvious route to take was La Rambla, which stretches through the gothic quarter. Thankfully, it wasn’t as packed as the guidebook head lead us to believe. Either side of the pavement is lined with stalls selling various souvenirs and restaurant seating.
We’d already noticed many signs up about Catalonian independence, but around La Rambla, there seemed to be even more. Interestingly, everything seemed pro-independence, in a consensus that I’ve never seen about any political issue over here. Despite dying down in the news over here, there was still a very visible movement for independence, and even a stall selling items such as flags and badges that promoted it.
We took a detour to try and find the cathedral, and even thought we might have found it, but the building we did manage to find was so small that we weren’t convinced.
At the end of the road, we got as far as the port and then turned around, determined to find the real cathedral. After a short trip to George Orwell Square (which we were later disappointed to find out had no connection to Orwell himself), we managed to find the cathedral. It was oddly normal compared to the Gaudi architecture we’d spent two days looking at, but no less impressive for it.
Right by the cathedral, there was a shop selling artisanal souvenirs, including working melted clocks, like those in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, which became one of the only souvenirs that I took home, given that everything had to fit into my backpack.
After that, we headed back to the apartment to prepare for 16 hours of travelling the next day. They passed without much event, but thankfully everything arrived home safely, including the Dali clock.
None of those nine days would have been possible without the Discover EU scheme, and I’m insanely grateful to have been able to be a part of it. There were only 15,000 passes available this time, but I really hope that this year’s success gains them the funding needed to continue it in later years, for more 18 year-olds.
As I said before, if you get the chance, at least apply for the scheme. Be aware that it won’t remove all costs, but I know for many people, it lightens the load enough to make it possible.
Everywhere we went is marked on this map. A key can be found by clicking on the “larger map” button, along with my accommodation and a (very) rough outline of the journey. If you’re on the app, click here to see the map.
For the record, nothing that you see above is sponsored by anyone. As part of the scheme, I was asked to be an ambassador for the project and post about my experiences, but everything above is my honest opinion and not endorsed by them. Also, all images used are my own, taken on my phone.