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'First-class family adventure Interrailing around Europe'

The Times

On the newly launched Nightjet sleeper train from Paris to Vienna I give my three young sons hot showers. Then my wife and I snuggle them into our private cabin’s three fold-down bunks.


I press the waiter button for a complimentary Prosecco while filling in my family’s breakfast forms. Tomorrow morning five trays will be delivered to our cabin — salami, bircher muesli, calf's liver pâté — as we gaze at Munich and Salzburg through the quickening dawn. 

It wasn’t like this in my day. Twenty-five years ago my Euro rail adventure meant nights in train stations and a Staropramen-soaked Interrail pass. 

This year Interrail celebrates its 50th anniversary with a magic app that inspires go-anywhere rail access across a record 33 countries. Under 12s go free. Our plan is simple: to sample sleepers, high-speed international trains and rural chuggers, before disembarking on a Croatian beach.


The price? Interrail's first class pass for my entire family of five costs €752 for five days of travel within a 30 day period. We couldn’t fly for that. 

Our rail adventure starts on Eurostar to Paris. First class Interrailers get upgraded to Standard Premier. If aviation was civil, it would be like this. Leather recliners surround a fold-away table. Our six-year-old twins devour the free meal of Suffolk chicken with couscous, while our four-year-old makes an UNO tower while mainlining Perrier. Going to the bathroom 75m under the English Channel offers an illicit thrill. As does stepping directly into the City of Light, having passed passport control in St Pancras. 

Our plan is to undertake one must-try-here activity in each city. In Paris that’s oysters. In the once grotty — and newly buzzy — Gare du Nord quartier we hit hole-in-the-wall seafood shack Pleine Mer. It’s €9.90 for a dozen oysters. They get bombed with a squeeze of a lemon so we order12 more. 

The kids’ eyes pop out during our four hours in Paris. There are vaping duos on electric scooters. Pink cows tongues licking boucherie windows. Graffitied climbing frames rising above Haussmann boulevards where mansards house hot lovers and penniless writers — sadly never to mix. At Marché Saint Quentin food market we purchase our sleeper train dinner: one tajine portion, two ponging cheeses and 18 salmon maki. 

That’s the point of Interrail. It promises a snapshot of a city, an amuse-bouche that leaves you hungry for more. 

At Vienna Hauptbahnhof the following morning we put our ‘child enfranchisement’ plan into action. The twins have to carry their own backpacks, leaving my wife and I with a small wheelie containing a single set of pyjamas and one change of knickers. I’m a man who lives life on the edge.


We also let the children navigate to our hotel using my phone. Five minutes later we’ve checked into Hotel Mooons (; doubles from €102), which opened in late 2021, with a rooftop restaurant and stonking skyline views. 

The Belvedere Palace is on the same street as Hotel Mooons. It was the summer party pad of the Hapsburgs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s divine family, who channelled their fortunes into precision gardening and marble interiors. The palace café is a Viennese whirl: we speed-eat Wiener schnitzel and sachertorte. At a neighbouring table, two naive newlyweds idle with cappuccinos, chased by an order of Aperol Spritz. Those were the days. 

I herd my family into the Belvedere Palace’s outstanding art collection. The Kiss by Gustav Klimt awes like a treasure chest. One of the twins assesses the golden lady portrait then asks: "is she dead?". 

We drag them back to our Hotel Mooons room where giant porthole windows feature curved cushions overlooking Vienna. As sunset our boys watch one of Europe’s great cities sink into a purple cocktail speared with mint cupolas and red spires. “It looks like a video,” says our youngest. Praise indeed. 

Our second day in Vienna is train-mad kiddie heaven. The Vienna Transport Museum is stocked with vintage trams, double decker buses and push-all-the-buttons U-Bahn trains. A timeline shows how steam replaced horse-drawn trams during World War One, while female conductors replaced the men who followed the horses to the Eastern Front. Automation and emancipation by crisis. By 1919 a quarter-million-square-mile empire had become a country an eighth the size. 

Direct trains still run from Vienna to the empire hubs of Prague, Krakow and Bratislava. We take the EuroCity to Budapest (2 hours 30 minutes). We occupy a private cabin with six reclining chairs as oceans of purple wildflowers and green leeks slip by. Only a masochist would fly between the two cities on Austrian Airlines. 

From Budapest’s Keleti station the twins navigate two minutes to the IntercityHotel (; doubles from €76), which also opened in 2021. It’s the city’s first hotel to be powered entirely by renewables and has a vast lobby decorated with upcycled bicycle wheel lamps and real plants. Today’s destination? Gyermekvasút, which Google Maps describes as a "communist-era railway operated by children". Sounds like our kinda place. 

Gyermekvasút is a seven-mile train line that snakes across the Budapest hills. The signalling, ticketing, announcing and conducting is operated entirely by children aged 10-14, who greet trains with a stern salute at the seven station stops. Many go on to become drivers, a well-paid job in modern Hungary.


Our £9 family ticket allows pauses for hikes, picnics, chairlifts and astounding viewpoints. There’s also time for meat’n’potato goulash in an al fresco restaurant. Our kids, half-frozen from their open carriage ride, wolf it down. 

Five days into our Interrail trip, I recall my memories from a quarter-century ago. In short, I’m dead tired with a stomach like a bread bin stuffed with ham sandwiches and Pringles. Yet on our longest ride to Zagreb (six hours) the kids are still loving it. The train’s picture windows offer an urban peepshow of laptop parents and children on screens. Rural views include roe deer and leaping hares. In my youngest son’s words: “this is an action holiday not a relaxing one”. You can say that again. 

Our sole family strife comes as the train hugs Lake Balaton. This inland sea, beloved by Hungarian holidaymakers, is ringed by vineyards, boat rentals and bars on the beach. “Can we get off, Dad?”. Nope. “I’m hot, Dad.” Have a shower in Zagreb. My wife gives me her “you’ve gone too far” look and reminds me that “Interrail is supposed to be hop-on hop-off fun”. Five minutes later we alight at Balatonszemes station for ice creams and a paddle. 

Zagreb’s Esplanade Hotel (; doubles from £172) was built to host rail tourism’s golden age. The Croatian capital’s art deco landmark was constructed in 1925 to cater for counts and debutantes hopping off the Orient Express. We arrive late — although in perfect time to book a babysitter and a table for two tired parents at hotel restaurant Zinfandel’s, which has a Michelin green star for sustainability. 

Charles and Camilla were recent guests at Zinfandel’s. My wife and I destroy snails in chanterelle cream and a devil-may-care mound of steak tartare. The Esplanade Hotel is a Who’s Who of 20th-century glamour: portraits in the downstairs bathroom show Maria Callas, Orson Welles and a very young Cliff Richard. 

Zagreb is walkable and kooky. Our family rides up to the mediaeval centre on the 50p funicular. The service was sited here by a cunning entrepreneur who simply counted which city staircase had the highest footfall. Wacky sights include the Museum of Broken Relationships. Exhibits include an axe once used by a jilted woman as a cathartic remedy to decimate her former lover's furniture. 

We expected the Zagreb 80's Museum — a diorama of a working class Croatian apartment — to be a commie joke. But the joke is clearly on us, as the socialist-era city was wealthy, liberal and wowed Eastern Bloc visitors. It’s a history lesson in formica, where mod-cons include a double tape deck, Amstrad computer and monochrome erotica from 1985.


Back then most Croatian families could afford a coastal summer house and a Yugo car. They had an average of two kids too. Now the Croatian birth rate is under 1.5 per mother, one of Europe’s lowest, making our three kids an attraction in themselves. 

Our final trains rattle through piney mountains to Pula on Croatia's heart-shaped Istria peninsula. The beaches here, like Ciklonska Plaža, are what the children have looked forward to after ten days on rails. The water is crystalline, although our three kids are riveted by the Croatian teen pursuit of tombstoning. “Can you do that, Dad?” Rewind 25 years lads. 

The whistle has nearly blown on our European journey. Did we return home using the Interrail discount on the ferry to Italy? Or did we push on east on the reinstated service from Croatia to Istanbul? Reader, with three kids due back in school we flew home on easyJet into a mephistophelian Luton. The behaviour there was off the rails.

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