Hóla España! Join Lynn and Steve Hill as they show you how easy and incredible it is to see Spain by train as they go on the ultimate train journey through six Spanish cities, starting in the vibrant Basque region in the north and making their way through the heart of the country to Madrid. From there, they continue to the soulful region of Andalucía before heading north again to end the journey in the bustling city of Barcelona.
Aahh Spain! We had yearned to return to España for many years, and finally, after much surfing on the internet and trawling through travel magazines, we had THE PLAN. Not for us the coastal, beachy enclaves that attract mega-tourists from all over the world, but instead visiting the heart and soul of Spain – the ‘real’ Spain, a land steeped in history, culture and passion! We were dreaming of fairytale castles, beautiful plazas, ’live’ flamenco, Spanish guitars, full bodied wines, and tapas. Did somebody mention tapas?
The journey was planned. We would start in the north, in the Basque region, then head straight through the heart of the country, to Madrid, and on to the ‘soul’, Andalucía, before travelling north again to end up in Barcelona.
We thought of hiring a car, as the relatively short distances between cities would be a breeze for us Aussies who think nothing of driving three hours just to visit friends for a barbeque.
However, the more we thought about it, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, navigating through major cities, parking in city centres, getting lost, and arguing about directions could prove pretty stressful. After a little research, we opted instead to go by train.
This turned out to be a very smart decision, as travelling by train in Europe, we found, is the best way to go! We also discovered that Spain is a charming country with a quick and efficient railway system, making train travel one of the best ways to explore its diverse landscapes, from big cities to quaint towns and beautiful beaches – and everything in between! Here’s just some of the highlights …
In the foothills of the Pyrenees, on the French/Spanish border overlooking the Bay of Biscay is San Sebastian, the true home of tapas or pintxos as they are known in this region. The city wears two hats; the thriving modern part with regal hotels that line the sweeping beachfront of La Concha, and the beautiful old town of cobbled, winding streets that are absolutely crammed with tapas bars. The sheer variety of hot and cold ‘pintxos’ is astounding, the bars are busy both day and night, and San Sebastian is now known as the gastronomic capital of Spain, attracting ‘food disciples’ from all over the world.
San Sebastian: COUPLES WILL LOVE – If you can drag yourself away from the ambience of the bars (it’s hard), there are two lovely walks, Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo which reward you with beautiful views over the bay.
The train journey to Madrid took five hours, and we were able to stretch out and relax, as we sped towards the capital.
Looking at a map, it seems that Madrid has been strategically placed right in the heart of the country – and what a heart! With a population of just over six million people Madrid is an exciting eclectic mix of stunning architecture, majestic boulevards and an intoxicating street life that has wooed people like Ernest Hemingway for generations.
We spent hours just strolling along the Paseo del Prado, Madrid’s ‘Champs Élysée’, with it’s bright white buildings, browsing round the Museo del Prado and enjoying the lush El Retiro (Central Park). There are so many fascinating districts in Madrid, such as La Latina, well known for its Sunday markets and the oldest ‘barrio’, Las Austrias, home to the magnificent Plaza Mayor and the impressive Palacio Real.
Madrid never sleeps; the night life is sizzling, and remember that it is quite normal here to have dinner close to midnight.
Madrid: COUPLES WILL LOVE – Eating paella at one of the many restaurants in the Plaza Mayor while watching the street entertainers, or visiting El Botín, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world, and was a favourite of Hemingway.
Just 30 minutes by train from Madrid is the medieval walled city of Toledo; one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. In fact, even the railway station is a masterpiece! A short cab ride from the station through the main city gate reveals a maze of winding streets that look like something out of a children’s story book. Mediaeval bunting flutters above the narrow streets, quaint little bars and cafes are dotted everywhere and there are shops selling everything from colourful pottery to ornate jewellery, and steel swords, for which Toledo is famous.
The imperious Alcázar fortress dominates the city. Toledo is also a city of scholars, and Cervantes wrote his famous book Don Quixote here. The city’s gothic cathedral is outstanding and we were lucky enough to have great views of it from the window of our centrally located hotel, the Carlos V. Most people ‘do’ Toledo as a day trip from Madrid, but we decided to stay for two nights and would recommend it, as Toledo at night is absolutely magical.
Toledo: COUPLES WILL LOVE – People-watching while enjoying a coffee in the Plaza Zocodover, or visiting the El Greco Museum.
The drive from Madrid to Sevilla (known as ‘Seville’ in English) normally takes around six hours, so in comparison, lounging back in first class whilst sipping on champagne, on the high speed AVE train for two and half hours was an absolute breeze! As we drew closer to Sevilla the scenery changed from regimented rows of olive groves to lush orchards of bright oranges
Everything about Sevilla is colourful. Drenched in 3,000 hours of sunlight per year, the city exudes passion and fun. This is the home of flamenco! A strong mixture of gypsy and Andalucían culture, flamenco is a way of life in Sevilla and this is so evident in the many bars and cafés. There is nothing quite as stirring as the sound of rhythmic clapping and stomping heels, the swish of ruffled skirts, and shouts of “Ole!” to make you feel like you are somewhere special in the world.
With its strong Moorish influence there is a smorgasbord of magnificent historical buildings and monuments to visit, such as the Plaza de Espana, the Torre del Oro (Golden Tower) situated on the banks of the River Guadalquivir, the brightly-coloured Plaza de Toros (bullring), the Giralda, and the cathedral, the largest gothic temple in the world which dates back to the 12th century.
The Real Alcázar is a must-visit and to this day is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. For our stay here we opted to live like the locals and loved shopping at the local markets across the river in Triana, the artisan district, and walking back to our Andalucían apartment through the colourful streets of the old Jewish Quarter, Santa Cruz.
Sevilla: COUPLES WILL LOVE – A romantic horse-drawn carriage ride around the streets of Santa Cruz or sipping sherry at one of the many tapas bars in town.
It would be a sin to visit Andalucía and not spend some time in Granada. Situated at the foot of the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, between two hills, Granada and its magnificent vistas are simply stunning. The River Darro runs straight through the centre of the city and the Carrera del Darro is a beautiful scenic walk along the river, the street and its buildings dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
The masterpiece of the city though, is the majestic Alhambra Palace that dominates the skyline. Tourists flock from all over the world to visit the Alhambra and Generalife Complex which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. It is essential though to book tickets in advance for entrance to the Alhambra as it is Spain’s most visited monument, and very well worth it.
Many artists and poets choose to visit Granada and never leave, and it certainly has a sort of hippy, laid-back feel to it, especially the Albaicín district which is the old Arab quarter, and where we chose to stay. The Albaicín is like a different world, a labyrinth of winding cobbled streets with hundreds of white-washed walled houses tucked into the hillside, and it is totally romantic.
Granada: COUPLES WILL LOVE – The atmosphere of the Albaicín’s bars and terraces, and watching a beautiful sunset over the Alhambra while listening to Spanish classical guitar.
The train journey from Granada to Barcelona is overnight, and we wanted to get there as quickly as possible, so we flew instead. The last stop on our tour, we planned five days in Barcelona, a place we knew well but hadn’t visited for a long time. Once again, as in Sevilla we planned to live like the locals and rented an apartment on the edge of the gothic quarter in the trendy El Born District.
Barcelona is a sophisticated city, brimming with things to do and see. It also has some great beaches and since we had done our fair share of museums, cathedrals, castles and palaces, we spent every day on Barceloneta beach which was only a 10-minute walk away. By night we walked the famous Las Ramblas with its fabulous shops, visited the Sagrada Familia and took in the Museo Picasso, and of course dined in the fabulous bars and bistros of the Gothic quarter.
Read more about this incredible city with our Ten Things to Do in Barcelona guide.
Barcelona: COUPLES WILL LOVE – To visit the famous El Xampanyet, located in the El Born district. This bar has been conserved in the true tradition of the old bars of Barcelona, and Catalonians have frequented it since 1929. To this day Spaniards come from far and wide for a glass of the sparkling house wine ‘Xampanyet’, and to enjoy the tapas – Did somebody mention tapas?
Good to know tips when planning your trip to Spain:
Getting there: Air France have direct flights from Australia to Madrid and Barcelona, and also daily direct flights between Spain and France www.airfrance.com. We started our journey in France and flew with Thai Airways –thaiairways.com
Shopping: For unique jewellery and artefacts check out the Antique and Vintage Market located in the Placa Nova, in front of the Cathedral, Barcelona – every Thursday. pamper Try an amazing Arabian Thermal Bath and Aromatherapy Treatment in Sevilla at the Turnos De Banos Arabes airedesevilla.com
Real Gypsy Flamenco: Casa de la Memoria, Barrio de Santa Cruz area. Here you will see flamenco at its purest – however, tickets must be bought in advance as they sell out fast – two shows per night.
Romance: The Solar Montes Claros B & B – in Granada, in the Albaicin district, huge king-sized bed, amazing views to the Alhambra and fabulous hospitality! A gem!
Rail: The biggest PLUS about travelling by train is that all railways stations are located in city centres so a short cab ride or sometimes a short stroll and you are at your accommodation! We purchased a Eurail Pass for one month, three countries and arranged everything through RAIL Europe: www.raileurope.com.au.