Travel by Train and Explore Northern Spain Over a Week
By Barry Sheppard

Which direction should you travel by train in? This is personal choice. Travelling west bound the train stops overnight in Ribadesella, whereas trains travelling east it stops in Llanes, a fishing port. To experience a beautiful sequence of changing scenery the train trip from Leon to Santiago is worth considering for your first train experience.

When is the best time to travel by train? May, June, September and October are better, as it is less humid, the air is clear and the countryside can be viewed at its best. It is better before or after the main holiday season when the area is full of tourists escaping life in the cities.

Pack clothes for all weathers, as it is possible to experience all the seasons in one day.

The Northern coast of Spain is one of the most industrialised and populated regions. This area has the most rainfall in the country over a year as it has the most mountains. It is an area where you can still see some farmers cutting their grass with scythes and using horses and mules for transport. They brew their own cider and when serving it, to aerate it they pour into glasses from a height. This part of Spain also allows you to observe red squirrels foraging for food.

More importantly it is here you will find the most extensive metre gauge railway network in Europe. From Hendaye in France to Ferrol on the Rías Altas of Galicia, and across the mountains from Bilbao to Leon, 1500km of track winds through the countryside. The network is owned by two companies, through the Basque regions the operator (owned by the autonomous government) is EuskoTren, the rest is controlled by the Ministry of Works or Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha ( better known as FEVE).

The 1970's saw FEVE initiate the first luxury touring train in Europe. Four 1929 Pullman cars were converted into bar cars and a luxurious lounge. Other carriages were transformed into sleeping cars. This proved to be a huge success and within a few years of starting profits were being made. Every year, 85 per cent of places on El Transcantábrico were booked in advance. The popularity of this train encouraged FEVE to invest more money (more than £1.3 million). Once again they used carriages that were no longer used and also decided to make all the sleeper compartments en-suite. So at the end of the 1990's, El Transcantábrico 2 joined her sister train. This enabled FEVE to offer weekly simultaneous departures.

The 1,000 km journey on El Transcantábrico is one way only. The trip commences on a Saurday and lasts for seven nights, you leave the train the following Saturday. The journey begins either from the Parador de San Marcos in León or the Parador de los Reyes Católicos in Santiago de Compostela. Once on board the accommodation consists of; en-suite double bed compartment which also has a bar, writing desk, telephone with an exterior line and wardrobes. The showers offer a variety of options, steam bath, turbo-massage or hydrosauna. They also provide hair dryers. You are able to regulate the air conditioning and heating in each compartment. Singles or twin bedded compartments are not available.

If you want exclusive use of a compartment the cost is £2,000 per person, standard rates per person in a shared compartment are £1,340. The price includes a buffet breakfast on board, as well as lunch and dinner (including wine) in restaurants on the route. The exception to this is when dinner is served on the train at a remote station in Sotoscueva. The season operates between April and October. Outside the season it is possible to charter the train for a special tailor made journey for fifty people.

The Schedule for Leon to Santiago

Saturday:

Begin with a reception at Parador de San Marcos in León, this is followed by lunch. You are then treated to a short guided tour of the city ( the cathedral, with its magnificent stained glass windows, the Romanesque facade of San Isidro with storks nesting above it.) Once on the train you travel up the Torio Valley to Mattallana, at the base of the mountains. The train then travels east along the shoulders of the uplands that run south from the mountains, through Boñar to Cistierna which is a former coal mining town. Here you have your evening meal and the first overnight stop.

Sunday

As the train continues the journey, whilst you eat breakfast, from Cistierna meandering towards another coal mining village, called Guardo. On arrival you transfer to a coach to visit the well preserved remains of the Roman villa at Olmeda and the Romanesque architecture of Carrión de los Condes. Lunch is served in the town of Villalcázar de Sirga. After lunch you visit the grand flight of locks on the disused Canal de Castilla in the town of Frómista. The countryside is beautiful, you travel beneath wide skies and during the spring the roadside is covered with flowers. You rejoin the train at Mataporquera and travel through uplands covered in heather to the south
bank of the Esbro reservoir. The final part of the journey on this day is down into the deep valleys and the town of Sotoscueva. Thr train stops overnight in this idyllic spot which is just below the Ojo Guareña show cave. You can try regional drinks at the local bar a short walk from the station.

Monday

The day starts with the train clinging to the mountain side at the bottom of a limestone precipice. If you are sitting on the left hand side of the carriage, eating breakfast, you will see the floor of the Cadagua valley disappear. In the days of steam this was a terrifying descent and is known as El Cabrio. The journey continues through Balmaseda, with its gate house bridge over the river. The scenery becomes more industrialised as the train heads towards Bilbao. Once here lunch is served and there is a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

During the afternoon the train heads towards Santander. It has been described as one of the most scenic rail journeys in Europe. During Spring, primroses cover the embankments, through October purple crocuses can be seen. At all times, birds of prey can be seen sitting on telegraph poles watching the world go by. The pasture aromas of the Cantabrian will stimulate your appetite for dinner. The overnight stop is in Santander where you have dinner.

Tuesday

The train heads westwards through the Cantabria pastures towards the industrial town of Torrelavega. Here the air is full of fumes from the SNIACE cellulose works. Here you board a coach to visit Santillana del Mar, this is a world famous medieval town, where you will have lunch. Then on to Altamira to view replica cave paintings.

Back on board the train to travel through the Saja and Escudo valleys when you begin to climb and reach the cliff tops between Unquera and Llanes. A short break here allows time to discover this example of an Asturian lively fishing port. It runs along the base of the Sierra de Cuera to Ribadesella mountains. Dinner is here as well as an overnight stop.

Wednesday

Today, during breakfast, the train winds up the gorges of the Sella to Arriondas. After breakfast you board a coach to visit the lakes of Enol and Ercina, which are high in the Cornión massif of the towering Picos de Europa. Journey back down to Covadonga, the scene of Pelayo's victory over the Moors in 722. Lunch is taken in a nearby restaurant, then the trip continues to the town of Cangas de Cangas de Onís, this is famous for its Roman bridge that spans the Sella.

After lunch the train continues up the Piloña valley. Here you see hazlenut copses, cider apple orchards and watch Asturcón horses horses grazing in fields. You reach the railway town of El Berrón where the train reverses. The 'El Transcantábrico' heads north towards the coast at Gijón. Dinner is served here as well as an overnight stop.

Thursday

This morning time is spent exploring Oviedo, see the cathedral and the market courtyard of El Fontán, all these have been restored. After lunch the train winds down the Nalón valley. You will see villages that seem not to belong in this century, orchards of kiwis and cherries before arriving in the fishing village of Cudillero. Once here, take time to thread your way along the narrow footpaths of this urban maze. See if you can discover the subterranean route. This route follows a stream and links the harbour and the upper end of the village. You continue the journey on an incredible part of the track which weaves between the coast and the mountains whilst spending over half of its time underground. The approach to the overnight stop is breathtaking as you cross the viaduct into the fishing town of Luarca.

Friday

The train leaves the mountains behind as it heads west across the coastal plateau. Firstly to the drowned valleys (rias) of Eo, this forms the border between the regions of Asturias and Galicia. The fishing port of Ribadeo offers lunch and where from the Paradour you can overlook the estuary.

The next part of the journey is the only section that can be classed as a coastal line. It travels below cliffs and is a stones throw away from the sea, it travels through the fishing ports and resorts of Foz and Burela. On reaching San Cibrao, the train heads inland and climbs into the hills, cloaked in eucalyptus, before reaching the inlets of the Rías Altas and the fishing port of Viveiro. On arrival, the passengers on the 'El Transcantábrico' are given a short cruise along the ria. The last night of the journey is spent here.

Saturday

The final journey winds past more rias and then turns inland south of Ortigueira to begin the climb over the uplands to Ría de Ferrol. The views are exhilarating as you begin the descent into Xuvia from Cerido. After a walk through Ferrol to explore its old quarter before the final journey, which takes an hour by coach, to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. Here you are given a brief walking tour which is followed by a farewell lunch. The trip is now complete.