Spain On the Slow Train – El Expreso

August 25th, 2010

The most famous luxury train in Spain is El Transcantábrico. It has been chugging through the Cantabrian Mountains and following the Galician coast for more than 20 years. With itineraries of eight days and cabins with double beds, it costs nearly £2,500 a person. Now, if you fancy a similar experience but don’t have the time or budget, a sister train, the new El Expreso de la Robla, will take you on a shorter journey for a fraction of the price, following a section of the same route, albeit in less comfort.

Having unpacked my bags and organised belongings in my two-berth cabin (just under 6ft square) with tiny ensuite bathroom, I proceed to one of the three lounge cars and settle in a leather dining chair bearing the train’s art nouveau-style insignia.

Vanessa Pacella, our multilingual tour guide, introduces the four smiling, smartly dressed crew and enthuses about our “a four-day journey that will take us 600km, visiting historic and scenic attractions”.

To the sound of the train’s whistle, we leave Bilbao’s FEVE station and move through the city’s outskirts. By now, most of the other 48 passengers (maximum capacity is 54 in 27 cabins, in three sleeping cars), all Iberian, are seated in the lounge cars, sipping drinks from the bar. Before long, the scenery changes to the lush meadows and terracotta-tiled farmhouses typical of the Basque country.

I join a man sitting alone, poring over a map. Luis, from Madrid, is a train buff in his fifties. “This is the longest stretch of narrow gauge railway in Europe,” he tells me in Spanish, between jumping up to take photos of cargo wagons we pass at small stations. “FEVE stands for Ferrocarriles de Via Estrecha [narrow gauge railways],” he says. “Although we have a joke in Spain that it means Ferrocarriles de Velocidad Extraordinario.”

On the 3ft 3in wide track, we never reach more than 40mph and go even slower when we start to twist and climb up into the Cordillera – the 200-mile sinuous railway reaches an altitude of more than 3,000ft.

It was built in the 1890s to transport coal from La Robla – north of León – and other mines on the route. In the late 1800s, one third of industrial Bilbao’s annual requirement of coal – some 200,000 tons – arrived by ship from England because it was difficult to get coal from rural Spain. An entrepreneurial Spanish engineer calculated that a railway from the mines inland of Bilbao would soon pay for itself, especially if it was narrow gauge. (The track cost 70,000 pesetas per kilometre to build, compared with 250,000 had it been standard gauge).

Now that the coal industry has declined, La Robla is bypassed and the route links the two cities of León and Bilbao, carrying passenger and cargo trains, day-trip trains, El Transcantábrico and, since March this year, El Expreso de La Robla.

Although the train doesn’t go to La Robla, this railway line has always been known as the “Ferrocarril de La Robla,” explains Joaquin Crespo, El Expreso de La Robla’s tour director. “And in Spain, a train that is ‘expreso’ is one on which you sleep as it travels overnight,” he adds. “It doesn’t mean it goes fast.” It doesn’t travel by night, though. Instead, we sleep on board as the train stands stationary at a platform.

Typically, a night’s rest is followed by a simple buffet breakfast on board while we chug along for an hour or so, followed by coach excursions to nearby attractions. Next comes a late, long lunch at a restaurant with local specialities – such as black pudding, chorizo and rioja – before rejoining the train.

Early evening there may be another sightseeing trip followed by a late restaurant dinner – perhaps cured beef, lamb casserole, more rioja and creamy puddings. It needn’t be so artery clogging. I found time for morning jogs and twice skipped lunch to swim in mountain reservoirs.

The scenery from the train – limestone peaks, lakes and flowery meadows on a mountain plateau – is a delight and the excursions are quirky and esoteric. They include a historic beret-making factory, a small town famed for its lettuce, a private collection of 45 Rolls-Royces (including two that belonged to the Queen Mother) and a museum about Spain’s early attempts at an Industrial Revolution in Sabero.

The heavy machinery, imported from England, had to be hauled over the mountains in ox carts. Although used to make railway tracks, there was no railway nearby so the industry failed. The coal mines, however, survived until 1991.

Other attractions have more mainstream appeal. Bilbao has its curvaceous, titanium-clad Guggenheim museum and in the small city of León, the cathedral has more stained glass than anywhere else in Spain:

2,000 sq ft of vivid blues and reds. The sunlight streams in, dappling the interior in a kaleidoscope of colours.

The caves of Valporquero, 4,000ft up in the mountains, by contrast, are a dimly lit subterranean world of vast, pink-tinged chambers and narrow hallways.

Walking through the caves, I feel like a microscopic nano-surgeon from the film Fantastic Voyage, coursing through heavily calcified arteries – perhaps those of a passenger on El Expreso de La Robla?

Great Rail Journeys (www.greatrail.com) offers trips on El Expreso de La Robla for travel in 2011 or book direct at www.elexpresodelarobla.com, where there are details of an introductory offer of €595 (£487) for four days and three nights, including all meals and tours. As well as inland itineraries in Castile and León, there is a coastal itinerary in Galicia.

Story from Telegraph

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