Traveling by Ferry in Europe: Down to the seas again

Posted in: Ferries


P&O Ship
Cruise ship luxury with P&O. Photo © hidden europe

There’s a wonderful poem by John Masefield — called “Cargoes” — which captures the appeal of travel by boat. It recalls quinqueremes from Nineveh, stately Spanish galleons and dirty British coasters. The chances are that your European itinerary does not involve travel by quinqueremes, galleons or coasters. But do make time for a boat journey or two.

Time to think

We are not talking posh cruises here, but thinking rather of the regular ferries that ply the seas and inshore waters of Europe. Boats are a chance to take time out and think. We love boat trips.

It may be a simple hop on a ferry from Calais in France to Dover in England – where shipping stalwarts P&O bring cruise ship luxury to a 90-minute journey which in good weather is a sheer delight. Those famous white cliffs at Dover are quite something. (Read our previous post about P&O’s ferry service from England to France.)

Or it may be the long haul, such as the weekly voyage with the Smyril Line vessel Norröna from Denmark to Iceland. Depending on the time of year, the voyage to Iceland takes two or three days.

Shipping links

Europe is a continent that has been shaped by its maritime heritage and shipping links. Ferries are still a major component of the continent’s transport network, taking heavy freight off crowded highways and allowing discerning travelers a chance to swap the rush of modern life for a few quiet hours on board a comfortable ship.

For many island communities, of course, ferries provide lifeline links to the wider world. And, at this time of year, the weather is quick to remind us of the fragility of those links. This week, for example, shipping services from the Scottish mainland to Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides have all been heavily disrupted by storms.

Ferry schedules

Sadly, there is no comprehensive guide to Europe’s passenger shipping and ferry routes, but the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (ERT) does cover more than just trains. Each monthly edition of this wonderful book includes details of several hundred ferry routes in European waters.

For the majority of these routes, the ERT gives the full schedules but for a few routes it is no more than a tantalizing hint of a connection. The vessels of Bumerang Shipping, the ERT advises, sail irregularly from Yalta (in the Crimea) to Novorossisk (in Russia). The timetable tracks the twice weekly sailings of Siremar to Stromboli, and it waves the flag for the Virtu catamaran to Valletta.

Back in the more familiar waters of western Europe, the ERT gives the schedules for most major ferry routes. But still there are gaps. There is simply no space to include small routes of real character. Kintyre Express runs a year-round passenger link between Campbeltown in Scotland (on the Mull of Kintyre) and Ballycastle (in Northern Ireland). This is a route to clear the head. Life jackets are compulsory as the 11-metre RIB speeds over the North Channel on its two-hour run. Not for everyone, perhaps, but it’s certainly an antidote to the deadening boredom of air travel.

A taste of the sea

On longer journeys around Europe, an overnight hop on a ferry makes perfect sense. Here is our pick of a handful of long routes that run all year round. These are all routes run by leading shipping operators with vessels that offer every possible creature comfort.

Each of these five routes feature in this month’s ERT. But they are just five of a vast range of maritime connections that help keep Europe on the move:

Oslo (Norway) to Kiel (Germany):
Every night — 20 hrs — Color Line — ERT Table 2372

Hirtshals (Denmark) to Bergen (Norway):
Thrice-weekly overnight service — 19 hrs — Fjord Line — ERT Table 2237

Rotterdam (Holland) to Hull (England):
Every night— 12 hrs — P&O — ERT Table 2245

Stockholm (Sweden) to Tallinn (Estonia):
Every night — 16 hrs — Tallink Silja — ERT Table 2475

Civitavecchia (Italy) to Barcelona (Spain):
Nightly ex Sundays — 20 hrs — Grimaldi Lines — ERT Table 2520

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

2 thoughts on “Traveling by Ferry in Europe: Down to the seas again”

  1. Hello Libbie

    Thanks for your comment above. That’s a good thought, but one important point should be borne in mind. Ferry routes are famously volatile, and change so very frequently. The fixed pattern of railway tracks across the landscape means that a train cannot suddenly change to serve another city, but ferries are by definition much more flexible. Routes change, often by the season. Operators come and go.

    Your comment prompted us to dig out the 2004 ferry timetables for your hypothetical route from Nice to Malta. Although the patterns of service and operators have changed little on the short hop from Nice to Corsica, the other routes have altered dramatically. That is precisely why ferry journeys need to be planned using a bang up-to-date timetable. For some areas, there are decent guidebooks which are updated annually – and that’s sufficient in regions whey there is some stability in service patterns. One example is Frewin Poffley’s excellent book Greek Island Hopping, which has run to over 20 editions over two decades. And it works bcause the book has an excellent website to accompany it. It is at

    We have a copy of Gorvett’s 2004 book and think the idea was a great one, but to be of real use it would have needed to be updated twice each year since.

    Hope these thoughts help. So good to hear from someone who shares our enthusiasm for long-distance ferry travel, Libbie.

    Nicky and Susanne

  2. It’s true that there’s no single good guide to ferry service — even the web lets us down there — but I’ve found one excellent older book that has great ferry information. It is “Mediterranean Handbook” by Jon Gorvett, published by Trailblazer Publications in 2004. I found a used copy on Amazon. This is a concise but very detailed guide with many maps to all the islands and countries in and around the Med. My current favorite trip-of-the-future involves ferrying from Nice to Corsica, then on to Sardinia, Sicily and Malta.


Follow Us