This train in Spain stays mainly on the plain of España Verde (Green Spain) and “My Fair Lady”, Eliza Doolittle, would have felt right at home. The film, set in 1912 London could have easily taken place aboard the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo that has four original Pullman cars, from the 1920s (dining car pictured here on the left) plus numerous newer cars “that exude the feeling of a bygone, elegant era, and of a more relaxed way to travel” as the brochure says. We’ve just returned from a week on the train that took us from Santiago de Compostela to San Sebastian with daily stops to tour historic towns, take in beautiful landscapes, visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and relax in a thermal spa that’s been operating for hundreds of years.
Bill and I have talked for years about taking the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express on its classic journey from Paris to Venice. What could be better than the advertised “Romance, glamor, adventure and the mystery of the past?” Well, to experience all that for more than one night would be great as would a bathroom in your cabin, but those are at the end of your car; and a shower, but that doesn’t exist except inside the Grand Suite. That’s why we jumped at the chance to spend a week crossing the top of Spain on a train built around the same time and in a similar style to its more famous cousin but with en suite bathrooms that have steam showers. Here are views from both ends of our cabin:
Our adventure started where lots of others normally end their journey: Santiago de Compostela, the final stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago route with branches across Europe including one that passes through Carcassonne. Because we would be traveling on narrow gauge tracks we were transported to the beginning of the line at Ferrol where the train, a sparkling glass of champagne, and a delicious dinner awaited.
The next morning after breakfast we were off to see Las Catedrales Beach, so named for the cathedral-like arched rock formations carved out by millions of years of waves. We were next in the fishing village of Luarca nicknamed the White Town because of the whitewash on so many buildings and interestingly the town is bisected by the Black River.
The daily, unhurried rhythm aboard the train followed that of the first day: cooked to order and buffet breakfast, sightseeing and city tours near where the train had stopped overnight, lunch in a local restaurant with a featured specialty from that area, afternoon sightseeing with some free time to explore on your own, dinner in the elegant dining car while traversing more beautiful landscapes, concluding with live music some evenings in the Entertainment Saloon. Quieter time could be spent in the Tea Saloon, the Panorama Coach, or even in your own cabin suite with its separate lounge and bedroom.
This part of Spain was completely new to us yet there were familiar elements throughout including the contrasts of prehistoric cave art in Altamira and the Guggenheim Museum of modern and contemporary art in Bilbao; the glacial lake in the Picos de Europa National Park; La Hermida Spa with a 200-year history of thermal baths; the historic quarter of Santillana del Mar that seems untouched since Medieval times. And we may see Santander again since we can take the ferry from there to Cork, Ireland for a trip later this year.
Travel note: Twin-bedded rooms, that avoid having to climb out over your still-sleeping partner in a double bed, sell out quickly. Although we used a travel agency that specializes in luxury train travel to book El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, it is owned, operated, and directly reservable by the national railway of Spain, Renfe: https://www.renfe.com/es/es/experiencias/viajes-de-lujo/transcantabrico-gran-lujo/el-tren
In the gallery below you can see a handful of the 600 photos that Bill took on this vacation. The file name below each photo should tell you its location. There’s a bonus photo of Bill proudly wearing his sash and the train-logo cap he won for being voted Mr. Congeniality by the passengers! For the truly curious I’ll attach some scanned files of the daily schedules of activities plus the meals both onboard and in local restaurants. If you are planning on taking this wonderful train journey, there will also be a file of tips that we learned from our experience onboard that could make your trip even better.