Trains in Spain: Narrow but nice
The metre-gauge trains that run along the green coast of Northern Spain may be small, but they are perfectly formed. Simon Calder rides with the locals, while Ben Ross travels in style on board the luxurious 'El Transcantábrico'
Saturday 12 April 2008
Simon Calder with the locals:
Put that DVD player down, I wanted to urge my fellow passenger on the deliciously lingering journey between Bilbao and Santander. Enjoy some of Europe's finest scenery unravelling in wide-screen glory: look out of the window.
Once you have mastered the ticket machines, the rest is easy. The remarkable thing about Feve, the enterprise that runs a lacy network of metre-gauge railways around the north of the Iberian peninsula, is that it concentrates on being an industrious provider of good-value public transport across a vast swathe of "Green Spain". With one very large exception (in the shape of El "mobile indulgence" Transcantábrico), this is a line primarily provided for local people. Each neat station, usually washed in an apricot hue that splashes prettily on the townscape or countryside, has an impressively large and shiny machine. It will sell you a ticket the length of the line - so long as you can figure out the complex sequence of zones.
Luckily, there always seems to be a helpful fellow traveller or member of staff on hand to ease your befuddlement. And once you have been relieved of a modest amount of cash (€7.25/£5.60 for this three-hour ride), you have no more challenging duty than to climb on board a clean, punctual train and look out of the window while the train works extremely hard.
Here's the issue: railway engineers in mountainous areas like to stick to river valleys. In northern Spain, these tend to run north-south. But the line sets itself the challenge of running east-west to link some of the biggest cities (plus countless tiny villages) in northern Spain. You are reminded of this with the occasional squeal of steel on steel as the train performs twists and turns that would be implausible even on a child's train set.
The treats begin as soon as the train hauls itself out of the tunnels from La Concordia station. Leaving Bilbao you should sit on the right with your back to the direction of travel, to get a marvellous view of the retreating city with the serrated mountains behind.
The line soon turns inland. One moment you are in suburban Bilbao, the next you burst into crumpled countryside - where the scenery explains, in a lilting fashion, the economy. Here a few optimistic vines, there some cattle and sheep looking content; now and again a decrepit factory on the far side of forlorn, often with its own, engagingly apricot, station. Some halts are so small that they do not even appear on the timetable - they are discrecional, which means you have to wave at the driver to persuade him to stop, or tell the conductor if you're aboard.
Things may come and things may go, but the Feve train rumbles on forever. You lose all sense of time - carving an improbable course through impossible terrain, pausing at anonymous stations that you will may never visit again; here's Traslaviña, in a glade amid gentle evergreens, with precious few signs of the community it serves.
People get on, people get off, you have a chat, you teeter on the brink of sleep. No stress: muy tranquilo.
Shortly after the halfway station, Marrón, a bird perched on a rock in a river signals the start of the reedy reacquaintance with the ocean. The line speeds across an estuary, heading straight for the A8 motorway but diving beneath it at the last moment; the track pays little heed to other communication arteries, ploughing a lonely but very beautiful furrow of its own.
Suddenly, though, you are racing the cars on the autopista and doing pretty well, then the arms of towering cranes rise up; Santander's port infiltrates this far inland.
It takes a long time to curl around the warehouses and touch down at various inappropriately named stations (Nueva Montaña has no perceptible altitude). No traffic impedes a brisk approach to Santander, where the station sits smartly on the edge of the historic centre - just as it is in Bilbao.
"Final de trayecto," the electronic voice assured me. Another go, perhaps: now where's that ticket machine?
See www.feve.es for times and fares (in English). The segment between Bilbao and Santander is served by three trains a day, each way, and takes three hours for €7.25 (£5.60).
Ben Ross on board the luxurious 'El Transcantábrico'
This is certainly an exclusive way to travel. Only 50 or so people can join El Transcantábrico as it potters gently along Spain's north coast; there simply isn't room for any more. But if the narrow gauge of these rails dictates that the train must be small - well, the clientele demands that it should nevertheless be perfectly formed. The carriages have been styled in a manner that recalls the leather-bound glory days of rail travel, yet El Transcantábrico's passengers also enjoy plentiful modern conveniences: comfy cabins, "massage showers", a compact bar at which to sip one's thimbleful of madeira.
Breakfast in the lounge of your train, with lunch and a formal dinner taken at the best restaurants en route - is there a better way to spend a week? El Transcantábrico was inaugurated in 1983 and uses the same line as that once used by La Robla Railway, which took coal from Leó*to Biscay. But, crucially, this is one train journey where you aren't a slave to the tracks. Instead, passengers are derailed for daily excursions.
For example, take the bus - sorry, did I say bus? I meant El Transcantábrico's own luxury coach, which shadows the train throughout the journey - to Covadonga, in the mighty Picos de Europa. That's picos as in "peaks": sheer, sharp teeth that look as if they could cleave the sky in two. After gulping in awe, you arrive at Covadonga itself, a striking basilica and shrine set on a plateau. In the 8th century King Pelayo of Asturias did battle with the Moors in the near vicinity; now visitors pay their respects at the Santa Cueva, a cave with its own chapel carved into the cliff-face.
There might be less drama, but there's arguably more style on offer during El Transcantábrico's stop-off in Santander, one of the north coast's most accessible towns. The beaches here are a surprise: scoops of pristine sand that offer a soft, welcoming contrast to the gorges and ravines that lie beyond. But even if you don't fancy going for a paddle, you can promenade past Los Raqueros, a series of caught-mid-leap statues of boys diving to collect coins, or gamble your own coins away afterwards in the town's grand casino.
Cider is big in Asturias, and from experience a great place to sample it is Luarca, the "white town on the green coast", where El Transcantábrico makes one of its stops for dinner. Take a seat at one of the scattered sidrerías that run along the harbourside and watch the sun go down. Drink in the view, then drink up the bright green brew (for authenticity it should be poured from a height, to give it fizz).
Back on board, as evening draws in, there are four lounges to choose from and a mini-bar to drain - if you haven't had enough green fizz already - as your train rests quietly in its siding each night. During waking hours, there's a tiny library and club car to visit, or you can daydream from your window seat (don't worry, every seat is a window seat on El Transcantábrico) as you ponder your next activity: the boat trip on the Vivero Ría, perhaps, or supper in Gijón, on the shores of the Bay of Biscay. Maybe you're looking forward to gawping at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, or strolling around the medieval splendour of Santillana del Mar. Daydreaming is as strenuous as your planning needs to get: there are no tickets machines to negotiate, no dining tables to book, no complex timetables to negotiate. El Transcantábrico does it all for you.
There are two options: travel from Santiago de Compostela to Leon via Bilbao, or undertake the same journey in reverse. Either way, your journey will begin and end in a striking cathedral city. However, if you opt for the latter route, you'll be heading in the same direction as thousands of devotees throughout the ages, as they passed along the pilgrims' trail - the Camino de Santiago. Fortunately, rather than wearing out your shoe leather on rough and winding roads, you'll be encountering a beautiful part of Spain while feeling relaxed and well-fed - and as pilgrimages go, that really can't be bad.
El Transcantábrico departs every Saturday from Leó*and from Santiago de Compostela until the end of September, and runs fortnightly during October. A double suite costs €2,500 (£1,920) per person; single occupancy is €3,500 (£2,690) per cabin, including all meals and excursions. For more information, see www.eltranscantabrico.com; www.infoasturias.com; english.turismodecantabria.com; www.turgalicia.es; www.turismocastillayleon.com; www.basquecountry-tourism.com
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