By rail: The green way to get to a wedding in Greece

Travelling by rail can be more cost-effective than flying, you can stop along the way, and it's greener too, discovers Laura Craig Gray en route to a wedding in Greece
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The Independent Travel

When my brother and his fiancée announced that their wedding was to take place in Monemvasia, a tiny island off the south-east tip of Greece, I resolved to get there by train. I try to minimise flying these days as it seems to be the single most effective way to reduce my personal contribution to climate change. Sticking reflective panels behind my radiators and scrupulously unplugging my mobile phone charger are all very well, but unless I drastically cut my flights too, I reckon I am behaving about as intelligently as those apocryphal slimmers who order Diet Cokes with their Big Mac Super-meals. The website www.carbonfootprint.com suggested a three-and-a-half hour flight from my home in London to Athens would produce more greenhouse gases than all the appliances in my flat over three months.

I have to confess that the first thing I discovered when planning the trip was that I was a little hazy about the actual location of Greece - or rather, my familiarity with the countries and cities en route was sketchy. Air travel rarely involves more than the most rudimentary grasp of geography but I would have struggled to get to the wedding by train without The Thomas Cook Rail Map of Europe. Just looking at it is enough to whet the appetite. The most direct route from London seemed to involve travelling through France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia.

I had to speak to three different assistants from Rail Europe before I found one who accepted that I did not want an Inter-Rail pass. Although those tickets are useful if you have a lot of time to explore Europe by train, they are pricey if you simply aim to get from A to B by a certain date. Particularly if, like me, you need to travel through more than one of the zones into which the Inter-Rail people divide the continent. The Rail Europe assistant did not think her computer would have the details for a journey from London to Athens but she typed in my request anyway. To her evident surprise, we were immediately presented with a whole series of train times and prices. One catch: although Rail Europe was able to give me the train times for the entire journey, the company could sell me tickets and make reservations only as far as Belgrade.

In total, I would be spending nearly 50 hours on various trains. It would have been exhausting and a terrible waste to attempt the trip in one go, so I allowed myself a week and arranged to have a day in Paris and then two nights each in Munich, Vienna and Belgrade en route. Bitter experience when travelling alone in the UK has taught me to give a wide berth to all those eccentric enough to attempt anything more than a brief, bland exchange of pleasantries. But on this trip, I found myself engaged in conversation virtually the whole way across Europe. With the exception of an encounter with a rather lecherous Bavarian between Paris and Munich, my conversations en route made the journey every bit as rich as the destinations I stopped off at.

An extraordinarily self-assured (and curiously luggage-less) young software engineer from Beijing held court in our compartment between Munich and Vienna. She was devoting a week to her passion - that region's fairy-tale castles - and she wanted to tell us about every last turret. Between Budapest and Belgrade, I spent nearly six hours talking to two elderly Serbian doctors and a Lithuanian. There was an honesty and intensity to our conversation - perhaps a result of the fact that this was, inevitably, a transitory encounter.

The countryside slowly passing outside the windows was totally flat. Fields of maize stretched for miles on either side. I had been mistakenly counting on a buffet car and, when my fellow travellers discovered that I had nothing more than half a packet of a Serbian variant of Jaffa Cakes, they shared their food with me.

We drew into Belgrade late in the evening. I stepped off the train and right into the heart of the city. Although unmistakably European, it felt exhilaratingly exotic too. Taxi drivers jostled one another for custom, scribbling down prices with lots of digits. The city is dramatically positioned on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, but suffers from the influence of overly ambitious 1970s town planners - and cruise missiles that hit the capital during Nato raids on Serbia.

It is still too dangerous to travel through Kosovo, so the train from Belgrade to Thessaloniki took a circuitous route down the eastern side of Serbia before entering Macedonia. We stopped at tiny stations without platforms, but with pens designed to hold goats and chickens, where headscarf-wearing women waited with parcels wrapped in newspaper. A young Kosovan man shared his yoghurt with me and tried in vain to engage me in a discussion about the playing styles of various English footballers. Apparently, many Kosovans support England because they feel grateful for the position that Britain adopted when negotiating the Treaty of London in 1913.

At Thessaloniki, I took a packed overnight train to Athens. I had not heard a British voice since leaving Vienna but sitting beside me was a young beautician from Bradford with a pink loo roll sticking out of her rucksack. She turned out to share my concerns about climate change, and was on the final stretch of an exhausting four-day trip from Yorkshire to Corfu by bus, ferry and train.

Once I reached Athens, I was joined by friends and family who had taken the easy but unrewarding route to the Greek capital, and we made our way by coach to Monemvasia. Several of the other British wedding guests told me that they, too, would have spurned the plane, had it not been for the time and money involved. But I believe that travelling to far-flung parts of Europe by train can actually be considered more cost- and time-effective than plane travel. It all comes down to how we organise our leisure time. I do not consider my trip simply to have been a journey from London to Athens: it was a holiday in its own right. Over the course of the week, I got to know four cities en route and saw a great deal else besides.

Although it is always exciting to experience an abrupt transformation in environment by stepping on to a plane and then off again a few hours later, I am now firmly convinced that there is something rather magical, too, about reaching one's ultimate destination gradually.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

An extremely useful online source is www.seat61.com, which was set up by a rail enthusiast, Mark Smith, and is the place to start when planning a train journey in Europe.

Probably the best official route for European railway information is the German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB) website, www.bahn.de. The UK representative of DB (0870 243 5363; www.bahn.co.uk) sells a wide range of tickets, as does Rail Europe (0870 837 2372, www.raileurope.co.uk) and Trainseurope (0871 700 7722; www.trainseurope.co.uk).

The costs and journey times for the writer's standard class, one-way rail tickets were as follows:

London to Paris: £79; 2hrs 50 mins. Paris to Munich: £52; 10 hrs 15 mins overnight. Munich to Vienna: £53; 4 hrs 20 mins. Vienna to Belgrade: £48; 10 hrs 20 mins. Belgrade to Athens (changing at Thessalonika): £40; 21 hrs 20 mins. That made a total of £272 and 49 hrs 5 mins, compared with the four-hour flight and lowest one-way fares on British Airways from Heathrow to Athens of £68.50 with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or £27 from Gatwick to Athens with easyJet (0905 821 0905, www.easyjet.co.uk).

Getting around: The Thomas Cook Rail Map of Europe costs £7.95 and is available from Stanfords (12-14 Long Acre, London WC2; www.stanfords.co.uk; 020-7836 1321).

STAYING THERE

Laura stayed in single rooms with breakfast at the Gästehause Pfeilgasse in Vienna (00 43 1 40 89 660) €25 (£18); Hotel Majestic in Belgrade (00 38 1 11 32 85 777, www.majestic.co.yu) €65 (£46) and at the Pan Hotel in Athens (00 30 2 10 32 37 816; www.panhotel.gr) €60 (£43). All prices per night.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL COST

Precise comparisons of CO2 emissions for a given journey by plane and train are tricky because you have to make assumptions about the size and type of planes and trains used, their occupancy rates and the distances covered (trains usually take less direct routes than planes; short-haul flights emit proportionately more CO2 than long-haul flights). The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution estimates: "For rail travel, CO2 emissions... per passenger-kilometre are typically at least an order of magnitude lower [than air travel]."

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