Meander round Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium: part 1

Hi from Jennie, Ian and the 196Destinations team. Helen is writing about her great train travel adventure this summer. We thank you for reading, and hope it inspires your own travels.

Over to Helen for this great story.

During 7 weeks of summer 2022 I travelled overground to: 

London- Paris- Milan- Berici Hills in Italy- Milan- Genoa- Marseille- Barcelona- Torralba de Ribota – Zaragoza – Pamplona – Bordeaux – Paris – Lille – Utrecht – The Hague – Brussels – London.

A bit of background: my husband, Tom, and I had just got back to the UK after 10 years living in Malawi, Southern Africa. During that time we came back to the UK for wonderful-but-hectic whistle stop tours round family and friends, but hadn’t been to continental Europe for a decade. I’d just handed over my also wonderful-but-hectic job as director of a small arts for social change NGO and was feeling ready for a proper break before figuring out next life steps. 

An amazing invitation from a friend to visit her family’s house in the Berici Hills south of Vicenza in Italy was too perfect to turn down, and from there we winged it.

 Living in Malawi, where most people are subsistence farmers with a tiny carbon footprint but incredibly vulnerable to climate change, had made us increasingly climate conscious, so we thought we’d avoid flying.

London to Italy

First up – crossing the channel. We were booking this way too late to find cheap-ish Eurostar tickets, but a quick Google Maps search showed that Flixbus coaches go there. I’ve never been a big fan of coaches as I get travel sick if I read on them, but after looking at a random sample of routes within Europe I realised they are often MUCH cheaper than trains. I’d got a little into podcasts, and been toying with the idea of listening to audiobooks. I remembered having been put off reading Barack Obama’s autobiography by how long it was and thought this would be a great way to extract maximum value from an Audible free trial. This turned out to be a great call as he reads it himself so it feels like he’s actually telling you about his life as you stare out the coach window.

A poor memory for ferry routes got me excited that the coach would stop and take us by ferry, so I was a bit disappointed to arrive at Folkestone and realise we’d actually be going through the Eurotunnel. However, it wasn’t that bad listening to Obama telling me about his early life as we went through the tunnel, and it didn’t feel that long to get to Paris. Plus there was a lot of craziness going on at UK airports at the time, so we felt pretty smug avoiding all that.

The evening was spent wandering round the 17th Arrondissement and eating delicious Lebanese food, and the morning walking a bit of the Promenade Plantée and along the Seine. We saw awesome sculptures and a few Paris classics like Notre Dame (well, the little you can see that isn’t ensconced in scaffolding) and the Arc de Triomphe, and distant views of the Eiffel Tower. Obviously there’s loads more to see in Paris, but by the time we got to the station for the train to Milan, it felt like we’d had a bit of holiday rather than just a stopover.

The Paris to Milan train was the best transport bargain I found for the trip – just £25 a ticket on a TGV booked on the Trainline about a week in advance, which I snapped up immediately. The train stocked some delicious beer, which we sipped while looking at alpine views. A tree on the line set us back a little so we got to Milan a bit late, but managed to navigate the Milan metro and got to our cut price conference-y out of town hotel in one piece.

The friends we were visiting in the Berichi hills had told us rural Italy would be really tricky to get around without hiring a car, so despite it distinctly not chiming with our low-carbon travel ethos, we guiltily did. Luckily (?) a series of arguments between the car hire guy and customers meant we spent hours waiting to get the car, and navigating toll gates while driving on the right etc. was stressful enough to make us start missing the train pretty quickly.

Italy was wonderful in many of the clichéd ways. Delicious food! Gorgeous countryside! Unbelievably old Roman ruins! It also marked the start of the ‘holy c**p, the climate’ theme of our holiday. There was a lot of talk about the drought:  the great Po river was running nearly dry, and usually magnificent city fountains were off to conserve water. Due to the heatwave we didn’t spend much time hiking in the Dolomites, but the idea we could have done made it feel particularly scary when a glacier fell off a mountain crushing 16 hikers.

Italy to Spain

Catching the odd word of Italian where it’s close to Spanish gave me the urge to travel to Spain. I knew we’d get more language practice if we were doing something, and through Workaway found a festival in rural Aragon that was looking for volunteers. Turns out Aragon is pretty far from the Colli Berici so we plotted out route options using a mix of Google Maps and Trainline. A short train ride took us from Milan to Genoa – a city I’d never thought of visiting but really loved. Stunning old town, fab art and really cute old-fashioned lifts to amazing viewpoints were a few of the highlights.

Looking at the huge ships in the port, it dawned on me that we could probably have got a ferry to Barcelona and a quick search revealed that we totally could have and it wouldn’t have been all that expensive. Doh!

We decided to break the long coach journey and spent a night in Marseille – another pleasant surprise, particularly as Tom had found an incredible arts centre which happened to have open studios and we had arrived on the opening night of a festival with an awesome circus act. The coach was also generally alright, and gave us fabulous views of the Italian Riviera countryside. Listening to TED talks and podcasts in Spanish started to get my very rusty Spanish brain a tiny bit in gear and even more excited for the next stage of the adventure.

Thank you for reading. 196Destinations exists to promote train travel. Part 2 of Helen and Tom’s adventure is coming very soon along with many other stories. Please subscribe to find out about them first.

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