May 31, 1984: Love at first sight. I’m on the steps outside Santa Lucia station. The streets are full of water.

EXACTLY 30 years ago — in the late evening of May 30 — I was on a train rumbling south from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, bound for Venice.

I was 23 and had barely travelled — I’d been to Scotland and that was about it. I was no Alan Whicker. I’d left the UK for the first time four days earlier, seeing London for the first time as I passed through at the end of the first leg of this journey. Carlisle to London Euston. Then onwards to Charing Cross, bound for the Sealink ferry from Folkestone Docks.

We were Inter-Railing. You bought a ticket, a booklet really, which gave access to rail travel across Europe. You wrote in it where you wanted to go – then you got on a train (or a Sealink ferry, because British Railways ran those too) and went. I’m looking at it now, a record of 23 journeys. Only British Rail ever stamped it. I don’t imagine it’s as easy these days.

Four trains and a ferry got us to a youth hostel in Suresnes in the west of Paris — all of those in central Paris being full at such an hour — and a late supper involving a first encounter with real live Americans, who were friendly, but terrifyingly self-confident, and cous cous, which I didn’t try again for years, possibly decades.


Ticket to ride: write in where you want to go, and it happens

There was no plan, other than Paris, then Italy. We had a chunky red paperback — the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. That, a passport, an Inter-Rail ticket and an ability to sleep sitting up, were all you needed.

Venice became the first Italian destination by default. We needed to sleep, and spend no money on accommodation. Anywhere else was too close. But the train to Venice (and beyond) arrived there at about 7am. So it had to be the one.

And so to Gare de Lyon, the biggest, most confusing, busiest station we’d ever seen. But we found the platform early and walked the length of the outside of the train before boarding, sometime after 8pm.

The further you were travelling, the closer to the front of the train your carriage was. I’d swear now that the one directly behind the loco was Greek and there may have been one from Albania. I could be romanticising. Someone may be able to put me right.

Behind that came carriages from Yugoslavia (remember that?). Our seats were in those belonging to the Italian railway — Ferrovie dello Statto. Behind were French SNCF coaches to be dropped off along the way.

I was more accustomed to the rattler along the Tyne Valley line — for me, exotic didn’t begin to describe this train.

We were heading towards Lyon, then on to Milan. Somewhere in the night there was a desultory passport check, long before the Schengen treaty opened the borders. Then maybe it was Verona and Padua, by which time the sun was up. Anyone who wasn’t awake by then was jolted into the day by some shunting at Venice Mestre.

And then, with the sun burning off the morning lagoon mist, we rolled across the Ponte della Libertà. And got our first sight of Venice with its campanile and domed churches.

Not long later, we were off the train in the morning cool of the unmistakeably Italian Santa Lucia station.

Soon after that, we stepped outside into the heat, and the glare, and I saw the Grand Canal for the first time.

And — I don’t care that it’s a cliche — I fell in love with a city.