They call it air-baptism in Italy, your first flight.
Mine, aged 11, was a short flight circling the skies above Naples. It's a beautiful city from above, sure, but I just felt uncomfortable and scared.
There were no cheap flights then, so during my youth I happily travelled the length of Italy by train. When I started to go abroad on holidays, I did so by train or boat, going to France several times, and taking the ferry to Greece. Later, when I lived in Zurich, I would travel home in luxury on the sleeper. I even went to the Netherlands by train once. Those were good times!
"During my youth I happily travelled the length of Italy by train."
In the last few years with the advent of cheap flights, and me moving to Sweden and now England, it has become normal for me to book a flight back to Italy or to other holiday destinations.
At the same time I have grown uneasy with flying. Climate change is real and I want to do my part. I have cut down on car usage as I cycle everywhere or take public transport. Last year I even took my bike to Switzerland on a journey by train, ferry and bus for my favourite holiday activity: cycle touring.
”I have grown uneasy with flying. Climate change is real and I want to do my part.”
During the pandemic I was not able to go home to Italy as much as I used to, and while it has been hard not being able to see my family, it has been a relief not to have to fly anywhere.
So when I was finally able to visit my mother in Naples, I decided that I would travel back to the UK by train.
I find travelling by train very relaxing. When I take the train, the holiday starts the moment I leave home: I have books I want to read, crosswords I want to do, podcasts to listen to and thoughts to think. I look forward to the landscapes we will be crossing on the way, and also to the gentle rocking that will put me to sleep at some point. It is quality time with myself.
You will agree that this is not the same experience one has during a short European flight.
"When I take the train, it is quality time with myself – not the same experience as a flight."
Naples is in the southern part of Italy, so travelling all the way back to Manchester would take more than a day. I used it as an opportunity to meet a friend in Milan, where I had booked a hotel. After going for a walk and doing some last-minute shopping in my favourite bookshop, I met up with my friend. We hadn't seen each other for a few years, and had a lovely dinner and talked until late in the evening. It was one of the best evenings of my holiday!
Having always travelled from Italy to France overnight I had missed the scenery around the Alps, so I was looking forward to travelling to Paris by day. This time I was wide awake.
First we saw the Alps from the Italian side, around Turin, and then from the French side around Modane. The day was a little misty but gradually the mountains emerged in all their magnificence. The landscape brought me back to my winter holidays as a child and I started wondering which of these mountains we used to sledge down in the snow. There… I found it, Oulx! The train even stopped there. It was tempting to get off and have a look around, but maybe this is a plan for another trip.
In Paris I would be taking the Eurostar for the first time. It seemed amazing to me that the trip would take only about two and a half hours – it’s exciting to know that you can get to Paris in such a short time, and that there are even more trains every day connecting the two capital cities.
The Eurostar was comfortable and almost full. When I visited the café, I was pleased to notice that most of the people were either reading a book, playing a board game or drawing (mostly children), sprawling on their tables as if they were at home. Remarkably few people were using their phones or computers. It seemed like a lovely, homely, wholesome way to travel.
Crossing under the Channel was a little… underwhelming. There was, of course, nothing to see! Even so, I liked re-emerging in England and noticing the changed landscape.
We arrived at London St Pancras in perfect time, which gave me a little time for dinner before taking the train to my final destination, Manchester. I was at home well before midnight.
There are four flights a week between Naples and Manchester, and it takes only 2.5 hours. It would be much cheaper and quicker than the journey I took. But that's not the point. I saved 275kg CO2 travelling in this way – all those trains added up to just around 20kg of CO2, as opposed to almost 300kg by plane. It is unfair that flying is so cheap given the enormous environmental damage it inflicts on our planet.
“It would be much cheaper and quicker to fly. But that's not the point. It‘s unfair that flying is so cheap given the enormous environmental damage it inflicts on our planet.“
I wish governments and train companies did more to encourage people to travel by train. This is a sustainable and more humane way of travelling. It requires a change of mindset: the journey is part of the fun and not a chore to get over with. Something is slowly changing with new low-cost train companies in the UK, and more sleeper train journeys starting across Europe.