Our flight-free adventure across Europe.

Aug 1, 2019 · 12 min read

Opting for a more eco-friendly holiday, my girlfriend Nat and I ditched the plane and set off round Europe predominantly by train. Here’s a brief look at the route we took and how it all went.

Day 1: Manchester to Rotterdam.

A seamless journey from Stockport > Euston to then catch the direct Eurostar from St. Pancras to Rotterdam. Security and passport check along the way were quick and relaxed, a far cry from previous airport security check-in experiences.

Arriving in the centre of Rotterdam (bonus of the train: no airport connection needed) we were amazed at just how quiet the city is. This is mostly down to the world class focus on cycle infrastructure and the addition of lovely green space like this, straight out of the central station:

Scenic city centre view of Rotterdam
Scenic city centre view of Rotterdam
The centre of Rotterdam is just wonderful!

The cycling infrastructure is so good in fact, that we hired a couple of bikes and managed a ~50km round trip to see the Kinderdijk Windmills, 99% of which was done on cycle lanes separated from a main road. You know a place has great cycle infrastructure when everyone is using it, young and old alike!

Care free cycling in Rotterdam

Day 3. Rotterdam to Cologne

The next leg of the journey was to catch a train to Cologne where we had an afternoon to spend before catching our first sleeper train of the trip to Vienna.

Not knowing what to expect from Cologne, or what we could do in the short time we had there, we were both pleasantly surprised by the whole afternoon. We had plenty of time to explore the sights, the Cathedral was a particular highlight, have some food, and watch the sun go down across the city from the banks of the Rhine. (We also had a lot of fun zipping up and down the river on the electric scooters that seem to have taken Europe by storm.)

Day 3 -> 4. Cologne to Vienna via sleeper train.

Opting for the sleeper allowed us to combine long distance travel with accommodation costs — falling asleep in one country, and waking up in another!

Having booked two beds in a 4-berth cabin we had no idea who we’d be sharing with, turns out it was nobody! We had the entire cabin to ourselves for the duration of the trip. Win.

Sleeper cabin from Cologne to Vienna

It’s fair to say I was particularly excited when we were on the train, I just loved the style and feel of it all, it felt like being in an old film where trains traditionally had the cabin/corridor setup. Part of me expected either Bond or Poirot to come knocking but thankfully neither did.

I managed to sleep pretty soundly but Nat struggled slightly, our window wasn’t closed properly and at one point crashed open in the middle of the night. I was blissfully unaware that any of that happened as it was that night we discovered that I’m actually a really heavy sleeper!

If you’re planning on taking a sleeper: an eye mask and earplugs will be your friend.

I’d love to see a more modern take on the sleeper train, with a few modern touches I think the whole experience could be bumped up a notch — who knows if more people choose the train life then this may soon become a reality! All in all though, the sleeper was a wonderful experience and really added to the adventure of the whole trip.

Day 4 -> 5. Vienna to Budapest

We only had 24 hours in Vienna, and although we were both pretty overwhelmed at the sheer amount of traffic and noise in the city, we did end up really enjoying our brief time there— especially the Schönbrunn Palace.

It’s worth noting at this point that throughout our trip there were several occasions where we had our heavy bags with us after checkout and before our next train — luckily every train station we visited had luggage storage facilities in one form or another, for a few euros you can stash your bags for the day if needs be.

Remembering where we’d put our luggage

Catching our next train from Vienna to Budapest was perhaps our most eventful journey…

It started in a very old school train cabin, there was aircon but thanks to the door of our cabin being opened a lot it didn’t kick in. Luckily the conductor said we could move to the next carriage which turned out to be a completely modern train complete with fully functioning air-con! A far cry from our carriage.

Man sitting on the step of a train looking out of the window
Man sitting on the step of a train looking out of the window
The best seat in the house

Unfortunately, after about an hour or so our train pulled into an unknown station and remained there for about half an hour — we’d broken down. After a while we were told that another train to Budapest was coming through the same station and that we could all jump on it if we needed to. It meant we didn’t have a seat reserved but we managed to make the best of the situation and found ourselves a window seat in the stairwell by the door (still better than most UK trains). Although content in our new found seat, we then discovered the train had a dining car!! Two drinks and a delicious evening meal meant we had seats for the remainder of the trip, arriving in Budapest an hour late yet relaxed considering the events of the day.

The buffet car of a train
The buffet car of a train
Relaxing in the buffet car

Day 8 -> 9. Budapest to Split via sleeper train

After a wonderful few days spent relaxing in Budapest it was on to our next destination: Croatia! This time via our second and final sleeper train of the journey.

Our old school sleeper train cabin

This particular sleeper train was perhaps the oldest train of our entire trip and it’s definitely in need of some modernisation. The lack of air conditioning meant we had to keep the window open throughout the night which is obviously not ideal when you’re trying to sleep, it also meant that when the train came to a stop the lights attracted the mosquitoes and other flies to the train, again less than ideal.

Having said all that though, the journey was relatively OK, our train manager was so attentive and helpful, he really did boost our experience. The train did have some small mod cons too, like USB ports to charge our devices on too, another thing missing from even the high speed trains in the UK.

Perhaps the best part of this particular trip was the view from the train — seeing the sun go down over the Austrian landscape and waking up to see the sun rising over the Croatian countryside was just beautiful.

View of the sun setting over Austria
View of the Croatian countryside when we woke up

Day 13. Split -> Ancona via overnight Ferry

We loved our time in Croatia, spending a couple of nights in Bol on the island of Brac was the absolute highlight, definitely recommend catching the catamaran over if you find yourself in this part of the world.

We opted for the Ferry for the next leg of the journey because the travel times through Croatia and Italy by train or bus just a bit to prohibitive. Plus, by choosing the overnight ferry we were able to once again combine travel time and accommodation costs!

Two people with a ferry in the background
Two people with a ferry in the background
Waiting to board the ferry from Split to Ancona

We couldn’t have asked for a smoother crossing, especially since there’d been thunderstorms in the days prior to our departure.

Although the whole ferry had a very retro feel to it (I read somewhere it’s an old Stenna ferry and it looks like nothing has changed decor wise inside!) our cabin was lovely and spacious, complete with toilet and window. Both of us slept really well on the journey and woke up refreshed in Italy! Plus we got a real treat with the morning view across the ocean:

View when we woke up just outside Ancona

Day 14. Ancona > Florence by bus

We had the option to take the train here yet when we looked at the route the train would’ve taken us up to Bologna then back on ourselves over to Florence. Instead, we chose to add a bus to the mix direct from Ancona to Florence, the journey time was close to the train and the route taken meant that we got to enjoy the wonderful scenery of Tuscany along the way

View of Tuscany from the bus

Day 17. Florence > Varenna (Lake Como)

Florence was the highlight of the whole trip for both of us — the history, the architecture, the food, the whole feel of the place was just wondrous. Florence also gets bonus points for being the most Coeliac friendly place on the trip (including a 100% gluten-free bakery round the corner from where we stayed!). Special mention has to go to the magnificent sunset we experienced on day 2:

Sad to be leaving we caught an early high speed (183mph!) train to Milan where we changed to a more scenic train to Varenna. Everyone had told us we’d be impressed by the trains in Italy and they were certainly right! Even the scenic train heading up to Lake Como was spacious, modern, and comfortable.

Our time in Varenna was idyllic, definitely recommend visiting here if you’re planning a visit to Lake Como, the view alone from the steep hillside town is just incredible.

Paradise without the plane. The view from our apartment over Lake Como from Varenna

Day 20. Varenna > Tirano > Chur > Zurich via the Bernina Express.

This leg of the journey was a real, real treat. In plotting the route for the journey I’d found the Bernina Express — a panoramic train that runs from Tirano in Italy to Chur, Switzerland through the Alps and alongside a glacier!

The views from the train were just stunning, the photos below really don’t do it justice, it’s definitely a journey to be experienced.

Seeing a glacier for the first time, just the sheer majesty of it alone was impressive but the realisation that it should be so much bigger was honestly pretty overwhelming.

Tiny Natalie or Gigantic Panoramic Window?
The view from the Bernina Express as it snaked up the mountain
A view of the Glacier at the top, the photo doesn’t do it justice at all.
Glacial lake at the top of the Bernina Pass
Glacial lake at the top of the Bernina Pass
View of the glacial lake at the top

Throughout the Bernina Express journey, Nat had their app to follow along with stories and facts about the railway and surrounding scenery. One fact we liked in particular was that we were right by the source of the Rhine — a river we’d seen throughout the journey and one which we’d pretty much follow back home.

Arriving in Chur we had to catch our next train almost immediately to Zurich, although not a panoramic train this still had some wonderful views of the valley and surrounding mountains.

Day 21. Zurich > Cologne > Brussels

Catching an early morning train in Zurich meant we had no time at all to explore the city, if we were to repeat the trip this return leg would ideally be slightly different, perhaps allocating a couple of extra days to make our way back. Nevertheless we caught an early morning train from Zurich to Cologne changing at Stuttgart along the way.

Another scenic view from the train to Stuttgart

Has to be said that none of the trains we caught in Switzerland were on time, they weren’t lengthy delays and perhaps we’d expected too much after hearing about Swiss punctuality, it just meant we needed a quick run across the platforms at Stuttgart — luckily in Europe, well Germany in particular, seems to be really good at holding trains if they know there’s a connecting train coming in that’s delayed. As a result we caught our connection and could sit back and relax all the way back to Cologne.

It was great coming back to Cologne, it was a completely different feeling to when we first arrived earlier on in the trip, we had some idea of what to expect and where to go. Leaving our bags in the automated luggage storage units in Cologne station we ventured to a nearby park to chill for the afternoon before our train to Brussels that evening.

Selfie with electric scooters and Cologne in the background
Selfie with electric scooters and Cologne in the background
Zipping about Cologne on the electric scooters

Again the electric scooters were a great way to get around, I know some don’t like their presence but when used safely on cycle lanes and pedestrianised areas they made getting around the city fast and easy, definitely preferable to a taxi anyway.

After another great afternoon in Cologne it was time to catch our train to Brussels, another high speed train meant we were there in no time at all, barely enough time for one game of scrabble!

Day 22. Brussels > London > Manchester

Brussels is really rather lovely

The last day of the holiday and our last two trains. As we’d opted for the afternoon Eurostar back to London it meant we had time in the morning to explore Brussels — neither of us knew anything about Brussels beyond the EU parliament and the Atomium so our whistle stop tour really impressed us, there’s some incredibly lovely sights to be had along the way.

The Eurostar back to London was one of their “Vintage” trains which meant no plug sockets or wifi to be had, even so the journey was completely painless and we were back in London in no time at all.

In planning this trip I’d managed to book every single train and connection without fault… until the very last one: London to Manchester. I’d accidentally booked a train that gave us just 5 minutes changeover time from Pancras to Euston so unfortunately we had to book another ticket. Luckily we’d realised this while sat in Cologne so we had the tickets ready to go — just serves as a reminder to triple check times before booking tickets!

Throughout the whole journey we used an app called PolarSteps which tracked our movement and allowed us to create steps along the way to record our progress.

According to the app we travelled just shy of 5,800km across 10 countries, and yes, while this still comes with its own carbon footprint, it is significantly lower than if we’d done the same journey by plane. What’s more, the technology available to us right now means that every train we caught could be run on 100% renewable energy, something which just isn’t possible with air travel just yet.

Although this journey was born out of a desire to travel in a more eco-friendly and sustainable manner, I would first and foremost recommend giving it a go because it’s just a brilliant adventure in itself. The train journeys become part of the whole travel experience, so much so that although we’d initially planned to occupy our time with books and films, we didn’t feel the need to do so anywhere near as much as we thought.

It was also pretty enlightening to travel such a distance on the ground, it gives you a greater appreciation of just how far or close places actually are. I’d also say you don’t have to go as far as we did either, just pick a destination and make the journey there part of the adventure.

It was genuinely refreshing to travel that little more slowly in a world hell bent on going a million miles an hour.

Special thanks to the invaluable resource of http://seat61.com — it’s the Wikipedia/holy grail of navigating Europe by train and ferry.

If you’re interested in booking a train trip, you may also want to use our referral link for Omio which will give us both 10 Euros towards a journey (over 40 Euros): https://www.omio.com/travel-bonus?ic=thomad6t0o1v we only found this later in our trip but it saved us a couple of pounds along the way.

The journey we took across Europe and back

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