If you're on a mission to save the planet from greenhouse emissions and wave goodbye to your dirty fossil-fuelled travel habits, prepare to splurge in the name of environmental kindness. Last year, I took an oath to steer clear of short-haul flights in Europe, opting instead for the road less travelled. My goal? To reduce the environmental footprint that comes with jetting off a few times a year to visit friends and family. Post-pandemic, I embarked on a quest to embrace slow travel by land and sea, leaving the skies behind. Let me share the tale of my maiden voyage.
My itinerary was as uncomplicated as it was audacious: Manchester to Plymouth, Plymouth to Santander, Santander to Vigo, Vigo to Porto, and Porto to Lisbon— traveling through three countries scenic routes and reaching my destination in three days max, using two modes of transport: trains and ferries.
The trial run, however, didn't quite go according to plan. It turned into a whirlwind of 'expect the unexpected' moments. There were highs and lows aplenty. First and foremost, the financial hit was substantial. To appease the eco-conscious traveller within, be ready to dig deep into your pockets. Traveling from the UK to Southern Europe via land and sea set me back a whopping 88% more than hopping on a plane. And that's without factoring in the extra expenses incurred due to unpredictable weather. The environmental benefits were also a bit murky, but more on that later.
My journey began with a train ride from Manchester to Plymouth. The advanced booking for a round-trip ticket cost me £200, the price tag of the return airfare that would otherwise have whooshed me from Manchester to Lisbon in 2.5 hours. To ensure I wouldn't miss the Santander ferry, I arrived in Plymouth a day early, as the window for potential delays was narrow. Even with a flexi-ticket, missing your initial booking and giving less than 2 hours' notice would cost you dearly. So, a B&B booking became a necessity.
The ferry voyage spanned 24 hours, with a cosy cabin for a good night's sleep. Calling this mode of transport a "ferry" is an understatement—it's more accurately a ferry-cruise. The Pont-Aven ship was nothing short of impressive, boasting 360-degree glass lifts, multi-level outdoor decks, restaurants, a multi-storey bar, shops, a spa, an indoor swimming pool, free exercise classes, and entertaining spaces. First-time passengers, including myself, were left in awe of this floating paradise.
This part of the journey was the most comfortable and relaxing. Both crossings were blessed with calm seas, allowing for the best sleep in ages. Inexpensive Michelin-star-worthy meals were the icing on the cake, and I had the pleasure of meeting fascinating people from all walks of life. The ship's biologists and naturalists held talks and deck gatherings for orcas and dolphins watching. Incredible crossings, at a fair price.
Despite strategically traveling in early July to avoid extreme temperatures—typically rare in north-western Spain—I was in for a shock. As we disembarked in Santander, the mercury soared to a scorching 44 degrees Celsius. The heatwave marked the onset of a rather stressful leg of the journey. First, last-minute accommodation became essential, as trains were halted due to safety concerns. Then, I had to switch gears and take a coach, as few trains were running, and there was no guarantee of securing a ticket. The Santander-to-Vigo journey stretched to a gruelling 11 hours! Thankfully, the coaches were modern, reasonably priced, and equipped with air conditioning. However, they ran on diesel, sending the environmental cost of the trip skyrocketing.
Once I arrived in Vigo, the predicament continued. There was only one daily train linking Vigo to Porto, an early morning departure. Trains couldn't run during the sweltering heat, as metal tracks slackened in the scorching sun. As a result, rail networks ceased operations from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, leaving passengers stranded for the day. The same scenario played out when I reached Porto—the connecting fast trains to Lisbon were at a standstill. The 11 am train was cancelled and I lucked into one of the last tickets for the evening train.
On the bright side, fast trains connecting Portuguese cities are both affordable and comfortable, so missing the morning train due to the heatwave wasn't a financial catastrophe. A first-class ticket from Porto to Lisbon on the Alfa pendular 'Intercidades,' a 2-hour 40-minutes journey, set me back £35.
All in all, it took me just over four days to travel from Manchester in northern England to Lisbon in Portugal, relying solely on public transport networks. I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I reached my destination, and the blissful ferry-cruise crossing felt like a distant memory. The heatwave persisted, making daily outdoor activities unbearable, but I was home away from home, and at last seating down for a meal with the family.
To be continued - part 2 is here