European slow and active travel


In the time that I have been working in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice I have had the opportunity to go to Rome, Glasgow, Utrecht, Loyola and Madrid – nearly all of which I did (just one way in the case of Madrid) by slow travel.

In a previous blog I outlined my rationale for aiming to reduce my travel carbon footprint and the barriers I have found which prevent this being a more viable option. Reducing the need to travel as well as the distance that we need to transverse will usually be the most ecological option – ferries and trains do not run on fresh air – but in those instances where seeing a face in three dimensions is necessary, travelling slow has a significantly lower footprint then flying.

The good news is that this mode of travelling is becoming more popular – which is exemplified by the introductions of better services such as the foot passenger option from Ireland to Spain and the new sail and rail option between Ireland and France. The increasing number of accounts on social media which share slow travel experiences are also indicative of small, but perceivable shift away from simply flying. Even in my own office I am merely following in the footsteps, and on the recommendations, of my colleague whose mode of international transport has been, for years, of the slow type.

While there are more people willing to take the time and effort to travel slow this mode of transport remains a relative novelty with much curiosity surrounding the logistics and practicalities of moving against the tide.

Rome… via Paris

Travelling to Rome in October 2019 was my first experience of slow travel across continental Europe. It was without a doubt more stressful to organise than booking a flight. It was relatively last minute – trying to keep prices to a minimum while ensuring stop over times were adequate for navigating between different train stations and platforms were my chief concerns. The final route was Dublin, London, Paris, Milan and an overnight train to Rome purchased using a combination of an interrail ticket and regular tickets for the fast trains.

While this sounds like a terrible nuisance, I can honestly say that it was one of my nicest travelling experiences. The route through the mountains was specular, the trains were fast and very comfortable, the food at the train stations was great and the overnight train allowed me to arrive rested on the morning of the event. I experienced the patchy wifi across most of the modes of transport, a common theme across most of the slow journeys I have made, which made work slightly more difficult but not impossible.

On both legs of the journey I also got to meet and talk to other people, who were both working within the environmental sector and outside, and who were also aiming to reduce their carbon footprint by travelling slowly. The wonders of Zoom and online collaborative blackboards were extolled – long before Covid made us universally familiar with them – as essential tools for reducing the need for transport. Alongside selecting customers who are only reachable within two days travel via ferry and train, their commitment to avoiding flights both in work and in their person life, showed me – a relative newbie – that it was possible.

Train to COP26 in Glasgow

Travelling from Ireland to Scotland with my colleague Martina for COP26 in November 2021 was a simpler affair. The sail and rail ticket to the UK means that getting the ferry is very competitive with flying. While the UK has a much better connected rail network than we have here, the delays which we experienced on the way up meant making the connections was a little tricky. However, the availability of pubs which served food within walking distance of the train station lessened the pain somewhat. If willing to take your time, then travelling anywhere in the UK via sail and rail is not only possible but also affordable. It is important to remember that while you may not be able to work as effectively as at your desk at home it is possible to achieve a decent amount of work while seated on the train, factoring this in could help tilt the balance when travelling for work.

Ferry, Train and Bus to Loyola

For a conference in Loyola, Spain in March of 2022, myself and my colleague decided to bypass London and get the ferry directly to France. The train to Paris from Cherbourg and continuing on to Bordeaux on the incredible, high speed, double decker TGV. This was an eye opening experience of how these trains are a genuine replacement of internal flights. Covering incredible distances in such a short space of time and delivering you directly into the middle of the city you are travelling to makes for a much better experience than the usually stressful air transport alternative. Arriving in San Sebastian just over the Spanish border via bus from Bordeaux, the local buses connecting the smaller towns and villages were frequent and easy to manoeuvre. The scenery as we travelled through the valley a lovely taster of the beautiful Basque region in Spain. The return leg of getting the train directly from Hendaye to Paris showcased again the wonder of travelling in excess of 200km an hour arriving in Paris mere hours after leaving Spain.

Utrecht… via London

In June 2022 I travelling to Utrecht for a cycle study tour, experiencing world class cycling infrastructure as well as the incredible public transport which the Netherlands offers. The combination of these different modal types is a powerful alternative for driving personal cars. Bicycle and active transport infrastructure have huge potential to remove us from our cars, but for longer distances other complementary solutions are required. This was exemplified by the three story bike parking facility located in the same building as the main train station allowing thousands of people to cycle to the station for the short leg of their journey before hopping on a train to their destination.

For this trip I also decided to take a few extra days and spend the weekend in London which is an added perk of travelling through various cities enroute to the final destination. Arranging transport between these cities was a piece of cake with my new friend the Trainline app making life much simpler. Once you know your start and end destination the app gives you all the different ways you can get there and a simple way of buying the ticket with no additional cost. If this was available when I was booking my travel to Rome the stressful experience would have been completely transformed.

Madrid by Boat

The most recent trip was a short venture to Madrid. This time the ferry from Rosslare to Bilbao was an option for foot passengers. This two-night, one-day journey on a new ferry is an amazing addition for those who want to travel slower on foot. The cabin, while adding a little to the cost was worth the expense for the advantage of having a good night’s sleep before arriving in the beautiful port of Bilbao. The four-hour bus journey to Madrid was a great way of seeing how geography and scenery shifts as we travelled inland from lush mountainous vegetation in the coastal region to the more arid climate and associated vegetation which emerged once the bus moved inland of the mountains.

The Privilege Paradox

I am aware that it takes an incredible amount of flexibility and time, as well as a bigger budget, to travel slower rather than opting to fly. For some with familial or work responsibilities this may not always be a possibility. For me the privilege of travelling slowly sits very uncomfortably with the privilege of using so much energy to travel across our borders. Societal and employment changes will be needed to make this form of transport more accessible but for now I hope that sharing my experiences helps to change people’s perception of slow travel, which is the first step to making it the preferred mode of transport.