London to Athens by train and ferry

Photo of cliffs above sea with lighthouse on the right
Cape Doukato on Lefkada seen from the ferry at sunset

I recently arrived back in the UK after attending a wedding in Athens. To continue my four-year no-flying streak driven by concern about the environmental impact of air travel, I decided to go on an adventure to Greece and back over the land and sea while working remotely (as the iOS team lead at PSPDFKit).

In this post, I’ll share a few photos and notes about the trip.

Photo of a red ferry called Superfast 2
The return ferry waiting to leave from Patra in Greece.

Photo of a Trenitalia Frecciarossa 1000 train at the platform
I covered a lot of ground on the excellent Italian Frecciarossa trains.

Route and pace

The route I took is described well on Seat 61 (a terrific resource for train travel). I took trains across France and along the Adriatic coast of Italy, followed by a ferry to Greece. Here are the main parts of the route:

Route map
You can’t plan this route with Apple Maps.

The minimum time needed for this route is usually three days, with nights in Milan and on the ferry. However at the time I was booking, a landslide in the French Alps last summer was still blocking the direct route from Paris to Milan. (I understand this is still the situation.) Therefore it seemed best to travel via Switzerland, so I believe the minimum realistic time was four days.

Due to various constraints, I could only spend three weeks for the whole expedition out and back. (One reason was I expected Apple’s WWDC to be in the first week of June rather than the second.) I wanted to have plenty of time in Greece while friends were there around the wedding. Another goal was to make the journey relaxed and so I could see the places I travelled though. This was the balance I decided on:

Since I mostly took the same route out and back, below I’ve combined photos and description from each part.

Trains between London and Bari

I spent the entire first week making my way slowly from London to Bari. I stayed two nights in each each of Paris, Milan, Termoli and Bari — so I had five moderate travel days and four stationary days. This was an excellent pace, as I made steady progress without rushing.

I specifically wanted a day in Paris to visit the Louvre, but my day was a Tuesday, which is when the museum is closed. I suppose I’ll just have to go to Paris again sometime. Instead I went to the Institut du Monde Arabe, which was generally very interesting and in particular had a good mini-exhibition from Ubisoft about the efforts that went into making Assassin's Creed Mirage historically plausible.

Photo of grassy city square with fountain and people sitting around, with grand building in background
Place des Vosges in Paris.

The one train that didn’t run smoothly on the whole trip was the one Swiss train I took. Can’t trust those Swiss trains. I had to take three slower trains instead, so I arrived in Milan later than I hoped. Anyway, I still had fabulous views of lake Geneva and the Swiss alps.

Photo of lake
Speeding past lake Geneva between Lausanne and Geneva

Photo of moutains
The Swiss alps near Sion

Milan has big city vibes. I don’t recommend it as the best place to experience Italian culture. I took the opportunity to drop by the Piazza Liberty Apple store to try the new iPad Pro.

As a side note, you can enter and exit public transport in Milan with any standard contactless payment card. No tickets or separate card needed. This isn’t Apple’s Express Mode, so you still need to authenticate with FaceID or TouchID. The main limitation is that not all the metro access and exit gates have the necessary hardware. In a row of six gates, two might show the contactless payment symbol.

Photo of the front of Milan cathedral Photo from the roof of Milan cathedral
Milan cathedral

The Italian Frecciarossa train service is so good! Buying tickets well in advance from Trainline, business class was the cheapest option, so the trip further south from Milan was luxurious and fast.

Seats in an empty train carriage.
Spacious and comfy seats in business claass on the Frecciarossa train

As the train races down the Adriatic coast of Italy, you can see hundreds of kilometres of sandy beaches.

Photo of the Adriatic sea from a speeding train
The Adriatic sea seen from a speeding train

The high speed train between Milan and Bari calls at various places along the Adriatic that look like wonderful options to stop and explore, including Rimini, Pescara and Termoli. I picked Termoli somewhat arbitrarily, and it was everything I had hoped for. Termoli is a small seaside town with beaches, cafes, ice cream, a tiny old town, and a very chill atmosphere. If you’re looking for anything more than that, head elsewhere. There were lots of tourists, but except for me they seemed to all be Italian tourists. I was very happy to be there.

Photo of beach and old town
Photo of alleyway Photo of wide pedestrianised street
Termoli, a small town on Italy’s Adriatic coast

I also spent two nights in Bari before taking the ferry, which turned out to be a stroke of luck (see below where I talk about the ferry). Bari was decent but felt overcrowded.

Photo of fireworks
Fireworks in Bari

Photo of beach and kitesurfing
The beach in Bari (away from the city centre and old town)

After Greece, my way back from Bari to London was compressed into three days (although theoretically this could be done in two days). All trains ran exactly as planned so there isn’t much to say.

Ferry between Bari and Patra

My second week started calmly with a Monday focused on work in Bari. The ferry I had booked to Patra was supposed to leave at 19:30 on Tuesday. However when I went for online check-in on Tuesday at about 10:00, I found the ferry company had altered the deal on me: My ferry was instead set to leave at 12:00 with Igoumenitsa as the final destination! This raised multiple concerns:

So I rushed off. Getting to the ferry on foot through the port in Bari wasn’t that great an experience. Pedestrians were clearly an afterthought in the design.

Photo of pedestrian crossing with lorries all around including over the crossing
Long walk through the port past lorries

In the end, after speaking to a couple staff members I found a bus would be arranged taking us off the ferry to Patra. Since the ferry tracks the Italian coast, my portable router picked up signal for the first few hours so I was able to book a hotel in Patra with a 24-hour front desk. Phew!

I hadn’t taken a long journey on a ferry before. The experience on the ferry itself was very pleasant, with lots of space, a cafe open the whole time, and a cafeteria at key meal times. I had a cabin, which wasn’t so useful since the ferry out ended up not running overnight, but it was still nice to have. It was a shared three-bed cabin, but nobody else showed up.

Photo of cabin
My cabin in the ferry

Photo of front of boat and sea
View from my cabin

Photo of deck of ferry
Plenty of legroom

Photo of lorries on ferry
Most of the space on the ferries is taken by freight

Since these ferries mostly transport freight and people with cars, there were only six of us to be transferred from Igoumenitsa to Patra so we went on a minibus. It took about three hours, arriving at 2:00. The upside of this trouble was hearing about the inspiring adventures of the other minibus passengers, including the English couple cycling to Crete and the gentleman from Japan kicking off his seventies by exploring Europe with his fold-up bicycle.

It’s inexcusable that Superfast, the ferry company, didn’t notify me about the change to the ferry. I spoke to other passengers in the same situation as me, and they were also not notified. If Superfast had notified me of the change and that a replacement bus would be available, then the experience would have been significantly less stressful.

The return ferry from Greece was thankfully unaltered from my booking. Setting off at 17:30, there were stunning views until sunset. (The only downside was I wasn’t lucky enough to have the cabin to myself a second time.)

Photo of island
Cruising past Oxeia in the Ionian Sea

Photo along side of ferry with sunset behind
View of the sunset from the ferry

Bus and train between Patra and Athens

The last part of the journey was the only section for which I didn’t have tickets booked in advance (because you can’t). This is an integrated bus and train across the Peloponnese, changing in Kiato, and it was extremely smooth and easy. The train track connecting to Patra is being rebuilt, which will at some point make this even simpler. The views from the train were great.

Photo of sea from train Photo of sea from train
The Megaron Gulf seen from the train between Athens and Kiato

Finally I arrived in Athens. Many friends were in town, and we had a marvellous few days. (Everybody else took flights.)

Daytime photo of Athens overlooking the acropolis Night photo of Athens overlooking the acropolis
Looking from Mount Lycabettus towards the Athens acropolis during the day and night

And of course it wouldn’t be Greece without cats:

Photo of a cat on a bench Photo of a black cat Photo of an orange cat looking into a kitchen door
Photo of a tortoise Photo of a white cat looking grumpy Photo of a fluffy cat
The cats of Athens

Really remote work

I didn’t want to take three weeks off work. Being able to work on trains was an essential part of the plan because I don’t think sitting on trains for so long would be a good use of precious time off.

Photo of fields outside train window and iPad Pro in Magic Keyboard
On an Italian Frecciarossa between Lyon and Paris

Staying two nights in each place on the way out was not only more relaxed but made work easier. While I can get a lot of useful work done on a train, the unreliable connectivity limits some activities, especially meetings. We have a pretty good meeting culture at PSPDFKit so being unavailable every other day was no problem.

For the duration of the trip, I took two days off per week, so I was working at 60% capacity. This was a fine balance. Most of the time off was used spending time with friends in Greece and taking the ferry each way.

Would I do this again?

If another particular reason to be in Greece comes up, yes! This adventure was a huge success. If I’d taken flights, the wedding would still have been lovely, but it would otherwise have been an unremarkable trip. It was expensive, but most of the cost went towards short-term accommodation for three weeks rather than the mode of transport.

Of course taking more time would make a journey like this more enjoyable. However if I had the same time constraints, I wouldn’t change much about the planning. If I take exactly this route again, I’d stop in different places along the way for novelty rather than because the places I chose were lacking.

Up next: three weeks in Berlin in July and August for cat sitting and another wedding. London to Berlin is a straightforward one-day train trip that I’ve done several times before.