Uncovering Europe's best budget hotels since 2001.
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.
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.
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