Long reads


Slow Travel – A Privilege not a Sacrifice

What is slow travel and where can you find out more about the best ways to avoid flying and to travel by land? Last autumn, curator and writer Rob La Frenais travelled from rural France to Saari by land, following the philosophy of slow travel. In this text, La Frenais reflects on the role of artists, curators and residencies in creating change in their own lives and beyond.

In 2019 I crossed Europe several times to visit Finland, including my two-month-long participation in the Saari Residence. The first time I travelled that year, I was funded by the Finnish Institute in London. They offered me a flight to Helsinki and I replied by saying I would like to take the train and ship. This would cost €500 as opposed to €150-160 for a cheap flight. They referred my request to the Director and to my surprise they agreed to pay the much higher price for overland travel. So when I was invited to do the Saari Residence I travelled to Finland this way several times because I had to return to the UK to fulfill previous commitments. I can probably therefore say that I am a recently-annointed expert in the logistics of slow rail and sea travel between in France, the UK and Finland.

Why avoid flying? 

But why travel overland and not fly?  The airline industry has said that they are responsible for only 2% of emissions worldwide.  However, research now indicates that the figure is more like 5%, not least because of the emissions coming directly from aeroplanes into the atmosphere. (see link below). Even some leading figures in the airline industry are publicly saying we should fly short-haul less, such as Mark Anderson of the new Virgin Connect, who has taken over the failed British airline Flybe. KLM President & CEO Pieter Elbers has announced the airline will replace some routes with trains between Amsterdam and Brussels. We had the excellent example of Greta Thunberg, who travelled the Atlantic twice by yacht in order to to get to COP25 (which got moved to Madrid once she arrived in the Americas), so it’s clear that new policies coming into place about this highly mobile community of artists who move around from residency to residency should perhaps start to contain some element of sustainability.

Artists as influencers for slow travelling

It could also be said that artists, curators and writers are ‘influencers’. Their behaviour is not just the behaviour of individuals but their decisions have wider effects than just that in their own lives. A recent study in Nature Magazine showed scientifically that individual examples of people (solar panel users) taking action had a greater effect on the rest of the community than when the example came from institutions. But individuals can also influence institutions in the way that my request to the Finnish Institute in London was successful. It’s great to see Kone Foundation has introduced a new grant for slow travel for successful applicants to Saari and other grant applicants.  So if a large number of artists, writers or curators requested that directors of festivals, biennales, exhibitions and even art fairs, pay for rail travel in Europe as opposed to flying, this would start to have an accumulated effect on the world of the arts. In fact there are now many examples of this happening so there is, I think, something of a considerable shift taking place.

Changing the mindset towards sustainable travelling

But it is still a question of economics and also time. For example, to travel from London or France to Turku, as I have done recently, one has to spend 3 days minimum travelling. One has to eat food and and in some cases stop overnight in a hotel, which increases the price. It is possible to reduce the price by buying InterRail passes – this is something that can be advised in the links I will give below. I suppose that having travelled by rail and ship many times in one year, I’m also beginning to question the need to travel at all. Slow travel doesn’t mean just substituting a train for a plane, it means changing an entire mindset.

It could mean for example planning one’s journey to take much longer to visit cultural centres or stay with colleagues to actually take one week or two weeks as opposed to the three days which it would take if you were to travel from France to Finland non-stop. In a conversation I had with Erich Berger from the Finnish Bioart Society last year, he suggested linking residencies together, so that artists could undertake part of their residency in different locations. In fact there are some artists, who are travelling a long way from home, who have established a ‘network’ of residencies which they could visit. Australian artist Tessa Zettel, who was on the Saari Residence at the same time as me, has said that it has been more like an art project, attempting to live in residencies non-stop.

Virtual Travelling

On the other hand you could also ask why travel at all? By using technology you could conduct a residency entirely by Skype or Zoom. It wouldn’t be as satisfying as being in the place itself and connecting with real people, but could reduce the amount of travelling being done. But while we are still human, face-to-face contact is still how creative work gets done more effectively. The whole point of artist residencies is usually, after all to enter a community of people in an isolated environment, so it’s limiting what you could actually do via virtual technology.

But philosophically it is important to question whether we need to travel at all and in order to address that question, I want to look at the global scale of travel and activity. It’s fine for people in Europe because we have a rail system. But what about those in the global South? People in Africa, India Latin America or Asia literally cannot come north without using air travel because the long-haul passenger shipping industry has been completely abolished. There is a case to be made for the fact that a no-fly policy could be seen as a privileged Western choice.


Can flying be justified in certain cases?

I recently asked a climate change activist and entrepreneur, Gavin Starks, who is trying to persuade the financial industry, other large businesses and people on a governmental level to adopt zero-carbon targets and who was recently part of the World Economic Forum at Davos, whether flying was necessary for him to do what he does. He says: “The outcome of my work will compensate for my emissions by many orders of magnitude more than those I contribute to”. He spends a lot of time in meeting online but does fly to large meetings sometimes.

“I don’t fly ad hoc to random meetings. I’m not running a high-emissions business. I’ve never owned a car. And I live in a Western, developed country. Could there be a lower-emissions version of Davos? Almost certainly — for a start it could be hosted somewhere there is easier train/road access… Do people need to come together in person to meet? Also yes. Are greater forms of benign and invisible emissions created every day through other means in every part of the world through ignorance and neglect? Also, yes”. His response sums up some of the points made by people who are trying to fly less, but feel what they do makes up for their emissions. That said, organisations like ‘NoFlyClimateSci’ and FlightFreeUK, are saying enough is enough, and getting people to publicly pledge they will not fly in 2020.


Rural France to Saari by slow travel

For me, working in the cultural sector, not flying and using slow travel should be seen as a privilege not a sacrifice. How else could you sit having lunch and reading a book on a train that crosses the sea? A typical route for me from my home in rural France to Saari looks a bit like this. Firstly, I drive my ancient Renault to Albi station (there is no bus service, so I can’t be completely car-free). Then I take the local train to Toulouse, where I get the fast TGV to Paris via Bordeaux. Unfortunately, although going north here doesn’t make sense, the centralised nature of the French railway system means all roads lead to Paris. This route has been recently improved and now only takes four and a half hours. In Paris, it’s time to get on to the excellent German railway system, and an ICE train takes me fast from Paris to Frankfurt. Despite the cost I have a personal policy to always sit in the dining car, if there is one, and sample the food, usually the vegetarian options. German trains, unlike the TGV where you have to balance precariously with your meal, offer the full sit-down waiter-service dining experience, which I find very civilised.

After Frankfurt, you head north towards Hamburg, but unless you are prepared to hang around on a station all night, time and trains have run out by 10pm and it is time to find a cheap hotel near the train station (using a hotel booking app on the train, where there is usually a last-minute bargain). I find that stopping off in the smaller German cities on the route offers cheaper prices this way, in my case I chose Hannover. Arriving in Hamburg the following day, it’s time to make my way into Scandinavia. One useful tip – unlike on German trains which are reservation-free, you have to reserve for a small cost the Copenhagen-Stockholm Express with an Interrail pass. I have found that the booking office in Hamburg is very efficient and pleasant for this (the staff all speak English). You have to take a number but the wait is very quick.


Slow travelling into Scandinavia

Between Hamburg and Copenhagen, the first annoyance arises. The connections are really not good. It takes five to six hours to go between these cities, which are really not that far apart. There is also a full passport check between Germany and Denmark, which slows things down. There are a small number of reservation-only three car trains that go on a ship from Kolding, in itself an interesting oddity, being the last train-ferry in Europe. This was to be abolished at the end of 2019 but I checked and as of January 2020 it was still running. But normally you have to take a train towards Aarhus, then change at Fredericia St for Copenhagen. The trains are diesel, slow, and have no catering facilities except for drinks machines. There is a long-overdue plan to build a tunnel and direct link between Germany and Denmark, but this part of the journey really gets you in to the slow (too slow!) travel mentality. Swedish Railways also plan, next year, a direct sleeper route from Malmo to Cologne, which would be excellent for those of us taking this route.


Crossing the sea by train

Finally, upon arriving in Copenhagen, it might be a good idea to stop and connect with artists, see an exhibition or two and visit the historic intentional community Christiana. On a return journey I did this and interviewed an artist who makes DIY boat-bicycles and runs kayak-building workshops. But if one is set on moving on fast, it’s time for the excellent and fast Copenhagen-Stockholm express which runs across the sea on the Øresund Bridge, at 8km the longest bridge in Europe, and past the monumental UFO – like watertower at Hyllie, Malmo designed by Karl Ivar Ståhl.

Beware of platform 25 on Copenhagen station! Because they used to have a special customs hall for going between Denmark and Sweden, the platform is at least a 20 minute walk from the main station. But they only indicate the platform number 20 minutes before the train – so you may need to run. The dining car (self-service) is also good on this train. It’s the only time I have ever seen a vegan spicy noodle soup (which you warm up yourself) on a European train. Swedish Railways run a great train.

Going Viking

Arriving in Stockholm, it’s time to go to sea properly. I choose Viking Line to Turku – it has a sustainability statement and special technologies to save fuel. It also has excellent food and a sauna spa (which I have yet to try). It’s compulsory to have a cabin on this ship – but it’s very cheap. They are tiny but have a shower and you don’t have to share with anyone. You can take the night voyage and sleep, or do an overnight in Stockholm and take a day trip and get an amazing view of the Turku archipelago as you glide in to Turku slowly.

One great innovation I found last year are the electric scooter apps, TIER and VOI, which work both in Stockholm and Turku. It you travel light, as I do, you can balance your carry-on on the scooter and get from Stockholm station to the Viking Terminal on a dedicated bike route (otherwise it’s a bus and about an hour for the transfer). Then, at Turku harbour, there are lots of scooters waiting which can whisk you to the bus station, then the last leg, the 50-minute bus to the crossroads, which all Saari residents know intimately


Another Saari fellow’s slow travel adventure

There are many other routes to and from Saari. Tessa Zettel spoke to me about her movements after Saari: “I spent November at Massia, a residency in an old school deep in the Estonian woods. Getting to Berlin from there is not possible by train, since there isn’t a rail system in the Baltics. I wasn’t up for overnight buses so instead took the slow route via Finland and the Baltic Sea, leaving at sunrise on Thursday morning. Massia has a bus stop right outside its front door, from there I took a long bus to Pärnu, and then another on to Tallin, where I hopped on a 2-hour Silja Line boat to west harbour in Helsinki, and then paused in town for the weekend. The Finland – Germany Finnlines boat leaves in the early evening every day. I took it on a Monday along with maybe one or two other foot passengers. Once aboard, the first thing I did was check the sauna, which is free, hot and weirdly underused. If only it had a real window instead of a fake ocean-inspired porthole! Nevertheless I made full use of this facility that evening and again during my day at sea, which was otherwise spent reading my way.”

“It was blustery and gloomy outside so the café on the upper deck was the best place for this activity, having the added advantage of not-too-outrageously-overpriced snacks. I was pleased to have had the 4-person cabin I booked a berth in all to myself, and managed to arrive in Travemünde fairly rested. It’s late on Tuesday when the boat docks, and gets a little hairy if you aren’t travelling with a vehicle and don’t know what’s what. There’s only one last bus into Lübeck, where I joined a train to Hamburg, arriving around 1am. I spent the night there in a factory-turned-art residency and then took a train the next day to Berlin”. Zettel is planning a longer-haul mushroom-hunting expedition from Finland to Taiwan next year.


Flying less the main objective

Coming from Russia is also a great opportunity to take the direct train from St Petersburg to Helsinki, and the close connection to Estonia and the Baltic states is also a good opportunity for Berger’s idea of connected residencies. A lot has been said about the Swedish terms “flygskam” (“flight shame”) and “tågskryt,” (“train brag”). I see no point in causing shame and pointing the finger at people who have to fly, although setting an individual example to influence others is a good strategy. Flying less is the main objective. As for ‘train brag’, I can indeed say that in 2019, doing the Saari residency, and commuting from France and to the UK, I have been on rather more trains than I would have liked to. But I’m still glad I did it.


Links for travelling:


For background info:


And in French:


See also Rob’s articles on slow travel:


And on the new challenge – crossing the Atlantic:


Rob La Frenais

Rob La Frenais is an independent contemporary art curator and writer, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions. He worked at the Saari Residence during Septmeber and October 2019.