Back in the summer of 1998, my partner and I fell in love on the Greek island of Corfu. Eighteen years on and with a two-year old son in tow, Corfu seemed the obvious choice of destination for our very first family holiday. A little less obvious perhaps was the mode of transport we opted for: several trains and a ferry.
Like many people, our concern over climate change and awareness of the detrimental impact our lifestyle choices can have on the natural world have led us to be mindful of the ways we live, eat, shop and travel. For us, the burden flying places on an individual’s total carbon footprint makes it a prime candidate when considering how best to tread more lightly. But while it was certainly our main motivation, the decision to forgo the convenience of flying wasn’t solely based on environmental considerations. Being keen travellers, we had a strong desire to inject into our holiday some of the adventure and wonderlust we had enjoyed pre-parenthood. And now that our son was a little older, it felt more possible to be a bit bolder with our travel choices. That is how, one Wednesday in May, we found ourselves sitting back in the tidy, wide seats of the 13.31 Eurostar from London to Paris: the first leg of our audacious journey to north-west Corfu.
The two-and-a-half-hours by Eurostar were easy-as-pie – two-year old Zephyr even slept for most of it. So we were in good spirits as we boarded the 19.11 overnight sleeper train to Milan, quietly hoping to have a six bed couchette to ourselves. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Upon clambering into our designated couchette, weighed down as we were with a suitcase, two rucksacks, a guitar, a pushchair and assorted toddler toys, we saw that there were four people already occupying the space, eyes fixated on us. No doubt they’d been hoping for the same thing: a bit of space. Not a family of three with an unsettled two-year old and an unfathomable volume of luggage.
Luck was clearly not on our side. It quickly became apparent that the aircon was not functioning – at all. On a hot mid-May evening with humidity through the roof, this did not make for a good night’s sleep. We made the best of it of course. But even after a bottle of fine French wine, this particular sleeper train turned out to be pretty sleepless. Eventually, we arrived in Milan. We were greeted by the sights and sounds of a city stirring from its slumber: birdsong whispering through the dim light of dawn, the first commuters commencing their march to work and café baristas turning on the coffee machines.
East Coast vistas
The next leg of the journey – a ten-hour daytime stopping service down the east coast of Italy from Milan to Bari – was an absolute delight. With the Trenitalia Intercity service hugging the coast for much of the journey, we lucked out with a 6-seat car all to ourselves. The seats pulled out into a handy kingsize double bed kind of arrangement and the aircon worked just fine, thank you very much. We whiled away the day in turns napping, snacking, laughing, joking, writing, drawing, playing choo-choo trains with Thomas the tank engine and wandering up and down the carriages.
The journey itself was a perpetual motion picture of effortlessly stunning scenery: lush Italian countryside, tumbledown farmhouses and glorious coastal vistas – the perfect antidote to the previous night’s troubles. It was a good job as on arrival at the check-in desk at the port of Bari, we were informed that the ferry to Igoumenitsa on mainland Greece doesn’t stop at Corfu in May. It never has. We would have to take a connecting ferry from Igoumenitsa to Corfu; not ideal but by this stage we were used to our expectations being challenged and were so close to our final destination that it hardly mattered.
“The journey itself was a perpetual motion picture of effortlessly stunning scenery”
Cruising to Corfu
After a rudimentary security check, we were onboard the bustling overnight ferry to Greece. We sat on the deck watching a strangely mesmerising game of oversized Tetris as truck drivers park their enormous lorries into the ferry’s interior. We then retired to the back rows of the darkened cinema/sleep room where we stretched out over four seats each, Zephyr and I curled up under our blanket and Nathan under his.
By 5am we were awake and sleepily preparing to disembark. As the darkness of night subsided and the ferry chugged along on its final approach, the mountains of Greece came into view for the first time. It was breathtaking.
We disembarked and followed the other foot passengers across the tarmac and into the terminal building, dodging departing HGVs as we went. On route we met another young family travelling to Corfu. We boarded the next boat together and got to sit back whilst the children watched waves and passing seagulls during the easy hour-long crossing to Corfu Town. There we were met by our pre-booked taxi and whisked across the island to our beachside apartment.
So it was that 3 trains, 2 ferries, 3 taxi journeys and 45 hours later, we arrived at our final destination. With the hard work out the way, it was time for rest and relaxation on the beach. We had certainly earned it!
Sensibly, following our two weeks of family fun, delicious food and beaches galore on Corfu, we’d opted to break up the return journey by spending a week in southern Italy. To keep things varied, we’d also decided to take the overnight back to Milan and the fast train on to Paris. This meant our trip home should have been relatively straightforward: an overnight sleeper from Lecce in southern Italy back up to Milan, the TGV from Milan to Paris and the Eurostar on to London.
What we hadn’t counted on, however, was the nationwide French strike taking place on the day we were travelling through France! In practice, the only real difference it made was that we had to take two trains instead of one from Milan to Paris. What made it all a whole lot more challenging though was that no one had seen fit to inform of us the change to our itinerary. It was only the eagle-eyed efforts of my retired dad as he monitored our progress from the comfort of his living room that brought the matter to light. If it weren’t for him, we would’ve been blissfully unaware of the need to run as quickly as our legs would carry us to platform 3 at Milano Centrale. It was from here that the only train capable of getting us in to Paris in time for connection to our pre-booked Eurostar was departing - three minutes after our Lecce train got in! We made it literally by the skin of our teeth.
Taking it slow
OK, so parts of our elongated adventure were a little hairy and things didn’t go quite to my well-researched plan. But the truth is, low impact travel forces us to let go and to take things more slowly, and the rewards are great. Watching the scenery transform as one country became another, feeling the change in climate and the ever-brighter sun as we travelled further south was a joy we would otherwise have missed out on. Not to mention meeting all the different kinds of people along the way and experiencing things we’d never have witnessed from the confines of a plane. Lastly, feeling the excitement build as the beach grew closer… and appreciating it all the more when we did, finally, get there.
It may not have been the easy, seven-hour one-way trip our fellow holidaymakers had taken, but it was a beautiful, eventful and memorable journey, and an adventure we’ll remember for years to come.
Top tips for low impact travel with a young family
- Do your research - There’s no two ways about it: embarking on a low-impact trip means taking more responsibility for your travel plans than you would on a straightforward package holiday. Thankfully, there’s plenty of information out there: www.seat61.com is the go-to place for information about train travel across Europe; www.loco2.com is the site to use to book your entire train journey from start to finish.
- It’s not as expensive as you think - Don’t assume that flying is the cheapest way to travel within Europe. Once you add the cost of transfers to and from airports, luggage charges and other hidden extras, there might not be much in it. Plus, it’s a little known fact that for those of us with a child (or children) between the ages of 2 and 4, the cost of travelling by train is comparable to travelling by plane. This is because although airlines start charging full whack for children once they turn 2, train companies wait until they’re aged 4 – and even then they pay a much reduced fare.
- Be open to change - It sounds obvious but the more parts there are to your journey, the higher the likelihood of experiencing some kind of unexpected change to your itinerary. With this in mind, being open to the possibility of change and managing expectations are essential features of long-distance train and ferry travel. Breaking up the journey wherever possible can provide a valuable buffer and monitoring your journeys using online train tracker services will help insure any surprises don’t derail you entirely!
- Bring your own entertainment - We found that travelling with a small child can be easy and enjoyable – as long as entertainment is at hand. As well as a few books, we carried a small box full of Zephyr’s favourite little toys, a pack of cards, paper and pens and a hairbrush! Our saviour though was a portable CD player with accompanying Julia Donaldson CDs – they kept him occupied for hours on end!
- Enjoy the journey - By far the most important thing to remember about low impact travel: it’s all about the journey. Whilst environmental considerations are an excellent motivator (did you know: a one-way flight to Corfu emits 13 times as much CO2 than making the journey by train and ferry?), a desire to really experience the voyage is what will carry you through a 45-hour travel extravaganza.
Kat Barton is writer, trainer and facilitator working with groups taking action for social change. She is also the founder of parenting and ethical issues blog guidingzephyr.com where you can find further tips and information about travelling by train and ferry in Europe.