WordCamps have always been one of my favourite parts of the WordPress community. In fact, that’s how I originally met Tom and Vineeta back in 2017 – at the first WordCamp Bristol. However, thanks to a little something called the pandemic it’s been several years since I attended a WordCamp. All this meant that when I saw that WordCamp Europe 2023 would be an in-person event, I got very excited.
There was one little snag: WordCamp Europe 2023 would be hosted in Athens. With Athens so far from sunny Brighton, my automatic thought was to fly there, as many other attendees from around the globe would need to. Unfortunately travelling by plane would mean flying in the face of Wholegrain Digital’s no-flight policy (see what I did there?), so a trip to Athens via the “normal” route was starting to look problematic. I was determined to make it work while staying as sustainable as I could though so I started looking at alternative options…
All roads lead to
With a bit of research and some pointers from a few of the Wholegrain team, I found seat61.com – a travel website dedicated to avoiding flights and instead travelling by train or ferry. Not only that but it even has a clear and simple guide showing how to get from London to Athens. Problem solved.
According to the suggested itinerary, once I’d travelled from Brighton to London St. Pancras (by train, of course), the route would take me from London to Paris on the Eurostar then onto a speedy Frecciarossa train from Paris to Milan. An overnight stay in Milan would be followed by another Frecciarossa train all the way down to Bari (on the “ankle” of Italy), connecting me to an overnight ferry from Bari to Patras. From Patras, I’d be grabbing a bus or train across Greece to Athens and, finally, relying on the Athens public transport system to get me to my hotel. All-in-all a brisk 3ish-day journey.
The prospect of navigating across (almost) half of Europe while trying my very best to use three languages I couldn’t speak was a little daunting. Especially for a conference that would last about the same amount of time as the journey itself. However, looking at it another way, it would be a great opportunity to slow down and take in the sights along the way. Often, travelling abroad means a lot of wasted time at airports, tolerating the most boring kind of déjà vu before you can start actually enjoying yourself. This way I’d be seeing the Alps, several more cities, and I’d have a fun story to tell afterwards (not to mention a blog post to write).
Let’s get this show on the road
Once it was all booked in, I had to do the actual leg work of travelling. So what was the experience really like?
The journey started off pretty straight forward with an early, coffee-fueled train journey to London and then straight onto the Eurostar to Paris. That was where it started to get interesting. I quickly passed through Paris focussed on trying and mostly failing to find some vegetarian food for lunch. As a last ditch effort I treated myself to some McDonalds fries (they’re French, right?) before hopping on the train to Milan.
The next part of the journey was scenic and relaxing, covering most of the length of France before winding through the Alps over the border into Italy. The train was spacious and comfortable with plenty of room to stretch my legs. Although the on-board food was a bit expensive, the comfort was much better than being crammed into a plane seat. Arriving in Milan, I took a short underground train to my hotel and had the slightly strange experience of hearing some other passengers speaking in incredibly strong northern accents. Unexpected but oddly comforting.
Getting into my hotel room, I promptly passed out – all that travel takes it out of you. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to properly explore the city the next morning but the main station has some glorious architecture and casually strolling across the city to my next connection on an early summer’s morning was delightful.
From there I set off down the spine of Italy on another high speed train, watching the countryside whizz by at nearly 300 kph (aka very fast) on my way to Bari in the south. Bari is a lovely city in June and I took the opportunity to stop and enjoy some delicious Gelato on the way from the train station to the ferry port. I was so distracted I nearly missed the boat as I misread the tickets and didn’t have as much time as I thought. Luckily I just about made it with a few minutes to spare… Check your tickets folks – long ferry journeys apparently have very early boarding.
The 17 hour ferry journey to Greece was a whole different experience. While I wouldn’t say it was the most exciting part of the trip, watching the sunset and sunrise at sea was wonderfully calming and walking about on deck at night felt very bizarre. There was a complete lack of light beyond the ship’s bright deck lights which was very strange:
Once the sun went down, the ship became almost deserted as most passengers went to their cabins to sleep. The cheaper reclining chair option I’d gone for was not as comfortable as I would have liked so I would definitely recommend paying the extra for a cabin if you follow this route.
On arrival in Patras I had a slight panic as the bus that I was expecting to take from the port to the city centre had been cancelled(!) However, I was able to split a short taxi journey with several other lost souls who also needed to get to the central bus station. From there I boarded a 3-hour coach and finally breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction as I stepped down onto the streets of Athens. I’d made it!
But how much carbon did I really save?
Of course, when they hear about my journey, the main question people ask is “how much carbon did you save?”. The more self-confident sustainability sceptics change this approach slightly to a more flat “Yeah, but I doubt you saved any carbon”.
As it turns out, slow travelling like this does actually save a large chunk of the equivalent journey by plane, even if you account for the extra carbon generated from additional food (3 day’s worth of meals, rather than a single bland in-flight snack) as well as the extra accommodation along the way.
When I was somewhere in the Adriatic sea near the end of my second day’s travel, I decided to do some napkin calculations to reassure my conscience that I’d made the right travel tradeoff. Using some ballpark statistics I discovered that the total carbon of my longer route was less than a quarter of the equivalent journey by plane.
Brighton to Athens: slow travel carbon
|Journey||Distance||Mode of transport||CO2e/km||Total CO2e|
|Brighton to London St. Pancras||77 km||National Rail||35 g||2.695 kg|
|London to Paris||342 km||Eurostar||4 g||2.052 kg|
|Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de Lyons||6 km||London Underground||28 g||0.168 kg|
|Paris to Milan||397 km||National Rail (Frecciarossa Train)||35 g||13.895 kg|
|Milan to Hotel||2 km||28 g||0.056 kg|
|Milan to Bari||786 km||National Rail (Frecciarossa Train)||35 g||27.510 kg|
|Bari to Patras||525 km||Ferry||19 g||9.975 kg|
|Patras Port to Patras Bus Station||3.6 km||Petrol Car||170 g||0.680 kg|
|Patras to Athens||212 km||Coach||27 g||5.724 kg|
This gives us a (sub)total of 62.755 kg CO2e. I’ll add in the additional carbon from extras like food and accommodation:
That gives us a grand total of 88.185 kg CO2e (or ~90kg, rounding up generously).
Brighton to Athens: flight carbon
Let’s look at that compared to the much “shorter” journey from Brighton to Athens via plane
|Journey||Mode of transport||Distance||CO2e/km||Total CO2e|
|Brighton to London Gatwick||National Rail||36 km||35 g||1.260 kg|
|London Gatwick to Athens International Airport||Short Haul Flight||2390 km||154 g||368.060 kg|
Now we have a grand total of 369.32 kg CO2e (or ~370 kg, slightly less generously rounded up). Interestingly the extra food and accommodation from my actual journey is about 40% of the total, so the actual travel really is much much more carbon efficient.
The end of the line
It’s clear that the environmental impact of travelling by train and boat was significantly less than plane, but it did cost more in other ways. The price of the tickets for the journey was roughly double that of travelling by plane and it took six times as long. There were also some food challenges along the way. I struggled to find all my dietary requirements a few times as I’m vegetarian (and we have a vegetarian food policy at Wholegrain Digital), and I had to buy water frequently on the long train journeys.
Having said that, even though the travel time was longer it was much more comfortable, if you don’t count the ferry sleeping arrangements. I also got to enjoy the sights and sounds of five different cities along the way, which I preferred to the slightly cramped views you get while flying. Overall, I think the experience of slow travelling was much more enjoyable than taking a flight so I’d definitely recommend it – I’d do it all over again if I had to make the choice again.