A few months ago, I woke up one morning and decided to make a bucket list. At my age, 61, it’s only natural to start about thinking about places I’d like to visit and things I’d like to do before it’s too late and the proverbial bucket is well and truly kicked.
Some long-held ambitions have already passed me by.
I’m unlikely to be elected to Parliament, and my chances of being a Wimbledon ball girl are zero.
I’d done some of the ‘40 Things Brits Want to Do Before they Die’ I read online.
I’ve floated in the Dead Sea, been up the Empire State Building, and visited a Las Vegas casino. I have no desire to climb a mountain, skydive, or stay in an ice hotel. And I have definitely never wanted to ‘own a Mulberry handbag’. My last one came from Primark.
There was one though – backpack around Europe by train – that I’ve always yearned to try, even if it’s usually the province of ageing hippies and students.
And I didn’t fancy doing my back in hefting luggage almost my size on and off trains.
But if I tweaked it a bit, switching to a small case with wheels and the most basic wardrobe, it was definitely doable.
I had two provisos: I wouldn’t stay in hostels, and I’d buy a first-class train pass.
I also decided to stick with northern Europe and visit places I’d never been before.
If you’re the type of person who plans well in advance – and I’m not – you can save money by booking seats early.
But with individual train tickets you can’t be spontaneous. The closer you get to your travel date, the more expensive the tickets become. Same-day fares can double the cost of those booked ahead.
With a train pass I’d have a lot more freedom. If I decided to stay an extra day in one place, or leave another early, the only additional charge would be a small seat reservation fee.
I took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre, thinking – incorrectly – that I’d save money on a room In fact, purchasing a cabin is compulsory for overnight ferry passengers. I ended up spending more that night – £100 – than for anywhere else I stayed in my four weeks riding the rails.
I knew finding affordable accommodation would be a challenge. I’m past being happy with sleeping in dormitories or sharing rooms with total strangers. At this age, I demand and deserve comfort.
But hotels would be prohibitively expensive, especially as I was travelling alone, all my stop-offs were in large cities, and at least half the trip was to notoriously expensive Scandinavia.
My godsend was airbnb.com, which connects travellers with people willing to host them in their own homes. You can rent anything from a shared room to an entire house. You can stay in a castle, a tree house or a ‘repurposed aeroplane’. With airbnb, if it exists, you can sleep in it.
I visited nine cities on my trip – Antwerp, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Bergen, Oslo, Stockholm, Prague, Berlin and Liege – and used airbnb exclusively.
I stayed in everything from a quirkily-decorated caravan parked in an Antwerp dance studio, and a boat moored in Liege harbour, to a large bedsit in Hamburg called The Old Bordello, complete with mirrored ceilings and a sunken Jacuzzi.
In Berlin, I could have rented a one-square metre ‘apartment’ for £7, or a Mongolian yurt for £21.
Unfortunately the yurt was only available for one night and I was there for four.
I ended up in accommodation described on airbnb.com rather generously as a ‘East German-style Garden House’.
‘Glorified shed’ would have been more accurate. With the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom in three separate buildings, getting up in the middle of the night – did I mention I’m 61? – meant stumbling outside and into a second shed where bugs scurried across the floor when I put on the light.
Ironically, at £58 a night, it was the most expensive airbnb of my entire trip.
Its saving grace were the two Lidls within walking distance, far more important to seniors than how late local bars and clubs stay open.
The two cheapest airbnbs I stayed in were also the most charming.
In Antwerp, my host, Eftje, was a former ballerina who had retired due to injury.
Now a Cirque du Soleil-type aerial performer, she gives tango lessons in her studio, although not to me.
Her three ‘rooms’ for rent are actually small caravans, each decorated in a unique, eclectic style, with a fourth, fake ivy-covered ‘breakfast’ caravan where guests can dine on the fresh bread, cheese, eggs, and cereal included in the £26 a night price.
My lovely modern flat in a leafy district of Stockholm, with washing machine and cable TV, was a two-minute walk from the metro station. It cost £41 a night.
Stockholm was just as I’d imagined it would be at that time of year: light, expansive and expensive.
I spent more than four hours at ABBA: The Museum, a fun-packed, interactive shrine to Sweden’s greatest export. I ‘performed’ onstage with a hologram of my favourite group, sang on a demo of Waterloo, and stuck my head through a ‘your face ere’ hole on a life-size cutout of all four members. I chose Frida.
It took 30 seconds to walk from my ‘bordello’ in Hamburg to the Hauptbahnhof central station and a van selling the best chips with cheese sauce I’ve ever tasted.
I took the Beatles Tour around the Hamburg clubs where the band played in the early 1960s, performing for four hours a night. At each stop, our guide, Stefanie Hempel, a young musician, drew a crowd as she sang Beatles songs, accompanying herself on a guitar.
In Copenhagen, my comfy one-bedroom flat in a trendy neighbourhood cost £40.
Everyone rides bikes in Copenhagen because cars are taxed at an eye-watering 180 per cent.
There are so many cyclists, it reminded me of Portsmouth Dockyard years ago, when waves of men on bikes streamed through the gates at knocking off time.
I paid £43 in Oslo to share my bunk bed – my choice – with Grizzly, a friendly golden retriever belonging to my host, Janne.
We were just minutes away from Norway’s most popular attraction, the picturesque Vigeland Park. With 212 statues, it’s the largest sculpture park in the world created by a single artist. And very handy for dog-walking.
Visiting so many places in four weeks brings its own challenges. I could have happily spent two weeks in Prague alone. But wanting to get my money’s worth for the Interrail pass, I decided to limit my maximum stay in one city to four days.
I took hop-on, hop-off bus tours, a good way to get a feel of each city and find areas I wanted explore further.
It was on the bus around Copenhagen that I discovered Freetown Christiania, a sprawling self-governing commune founded by squatters in 1971.
A leftover from the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s, it’s crammed with an array of brightly-painted, graffiti-covered buildings, very different from the site’s former incarnation as a drab, abandoned army barracks.
Christiana is known for its cannabis trade. Denmark’s current centre-right government wants to shut it down but has failed so far. Despite occasional police raids, hash is still sold openly 24/7 from stalls on Pusher Street, the main drag.
In Bergen, my private room with shared bathroom facilities – not ideal – cost £39. But the house was perched high in the hills with spectacular views of this beautiful ‘city of Seven Mountains’ more than made up for the lack of amenities.
Rather than trudge up and down the steep gradient, I walked to a nearby funicular railway and took the scenic route back and forth.
I spent my last night in a little wooden cabin on the Quintus Quartier, a creaky but comfortable old boat moored in Liege harbour (£21), where I watched Coronation Street and the last episode of Game of Thrones on my indispensable iPad.
As for food: my favourite meal was at Groed, a porridge-only cafe in Copenhagen’s Torvellehagen indoor market. But what porridge! Oats with rhubarb compote, toasted almonds and plain yoghurt. Yum. And there are savoury options too.
The pastries and platter-size meringues in Prague’s Bakeshop made me swoon, as did the white asparagus, poached egg and wild garlic with hollandaise sauce in Copenhagen’s delightful Tivoli Gardens, Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland.
And then were those chips with cheese sauce outside the Hamburg station.
The only age-related problem I encountered was with mobility, not surprisingly. I walked miles every day and tried to avoid steps but it’s impossible when you’re visiting old churches and castles.
Was it worth forking out an extra £200 to travel first-class?
Well, the seats were roomier, there was more luggage space, sockets to recharge phones and mobile devices, and free coffee and snacks on some trains.
But promised ‘free wi-fi’ worked intermittently at best. I got so frustrated on the Belgian Thalys train, I wrote an email complaint, but couldn’t send it because the signal kept dropping.
After a month on the road, I was exhausted from all the walking and noticeably fatter from eating too much. I was happy to get home.
Would I do it again? In a minute. And next time, I’m going to India.