Spain was a late bloomer when it came to rail transport. The country only finished its main-line rail network in the late 1800s – a good 25 years behind Britain.
The delay was due to poor economic growth, tricky mountainous terrain, and a rookie error in track gauge. Spanish authorities feared a rail-based invasion from its neighbour France, and so opted for a wider gauge to stop any French trains from co-opting the Spanish lines. But this was a move that backfired when the importance of international trade and rail transport replaced the threat war.
These days, you’ll find very few signs of this sluggish start to rail travel in Spain, particularly if you travel between major cities. Spotless bullet trains gun at more than 300 kilometres per hour along high-speed lines. These lines link most tourist hot spots via a seamless web of tracks that filter out from the capital. And where the high-speed tracks aren’t viable, there’s a reasonably comprehensive network of regional lines. There is no more enjoyable, convenient, and cost-effective way to travel Spain than armed with a fist full of tickets, or an ever-convenient rail pass.
Here’s how you can cover at least eight Spanish cities by train, in anything from 10 days to one month:
1. San Sebastian
Start in the north. Basque country is beautiful and fascinating. If the mountains don’t get you, then the local pride and culture will. Many Basques are still fiercely independent. They’re also invariably warm and welcoming. San Sebastian seems to be the most popular of the Basque cities these days, and for good reason.
Aside from its two spotless urban beaches, an immaculate rambling promenade, and a handful of hikeable peaks that offer rewarding aerial perspectives of the city below, San Sebastian also has a fascinating history, vibrant nightlife, and a foodie culture to behold.
There’s a charm and energy to San Sebastian that you’ll have to experience to understand. And when you do, you’ll find it hard to leave. If you choose this as your starting point for a Spanish rail adventure, you’ll not only treat yourself to impressive scenery on the way out, but you’ll also have an important appreciation for Spain’s complex and divided political past and present.
Your rail options from San Sebastian are plentiful. You could chug out west along the northern coastline of Spain, venture north into France (Bordeaux is about 3 hours away), or head to the capital Madrid. Or you can succumb to the allure of the Med, and make your way to Barcelona.
But first, consider Pamplona. The city that earned a large part of its fame thanks to Ernest Hemingway, and the tradition of putting a hapless crew of white-clad men before a herd of raging bulls, is still worth a visit. The running of the bulls only happens in July, but there’s still plenty to see at other times of the year. And instead of the crowds during the San Fermín festival, you may actually find decent accommodation and escape with your life, and wallet, intact if you visit Pamplona outside of July.
Pamplona is on a hill in a basin in the middle of the Navarre region of Spain. It’s surrounded by impressive mountain ranges on all sides, and there’s a strange sense of power that comes from this elevation above the surrounding plains. Narrow alleyways, unique architecture, and tranquil green spaces make this a great stop en route to Barcelona. Arriving outside of the main festivals feels a bit like pitching up for your New Year’s Eve party a day late, but there’s an intriguing tension and beauty that characterises the city throughout the year.
For many people, Barcelona is Spain. And like many of Europe’s big cities, there’s a certain infectious energy that flows down its historic streets and into its restaurants, bars, and clubs. And when that all gets a bit much, because it will, you can gather your strength on her iconic beaches, find an overpriced flat white at an Australian-run hipster coffee shop, get your fix of Gaudi’s impressive architecture, or simply lose yourself in the labyrinth of the Gothic Quarter.
Barcelona is still well priced, even for Euro-weary tourists. And if you’re prepared to stay a few neighbourhoods away from the overwhelming Las Ramblas, you can get a little peace and quiet, find beer and tapas for a single Euro, rest your head in well-priced accommodation, and still just be a short metro or bus ride away from all the action.
It’s a comfortable four-hour train ride from Pamplona, and if you’re a fan of not having to retrace your steps, head here before moving inland to Madrid.
Barcelona was the birthplace of rail in Spain, and if you want to retrace these early routes you’ll have to venture north towards the coastal city of Mataró. But it’s the track south, towards the city of Valencia, that holds all the views.
Blue Flag beaches litter this stretch of coastline. From the left side of the train you’ll get sweeping panoramic views of the Mediterranean as you sail through small coastal towns.
The logical stop on this route is Valencia, but for many the temptation of the sparkling blue waters and quaint coastal towns proves too much. There’s a certain indefinable mystery to Valencia that makes the city worth visiting. This could be thanks to the river that surrounds it. When the Turia flooded in 1957 it caused untold damage, and so the city decided to spite the river in the harshest way possible – to reroute it and run it dry. Today, this old river bed is one of the largest green spaces in Spain, complete with a huge plastic giant in Gulliver Park, plenty of paved walkways for running and cycling, a lake brimming with swan-shaped boats, and, at its end, a smattering of intriguing (but truthfully pretty garish) museums.
Valencia knows architecture, though, and from the moment you step out of the beautiful train station, right in the heart of the city, your focus will involuntarily shift upwards. The Central Market, which is packed with more than 400 merchants, is one of the oldest active fresh produce markets Europe, and it’s the perfect place to stock up for the short train ride to Madrid.
If Barcelona is the soul of Spain, then Madrid is its heart. As the country’s capital, it is also the central hub for all major rail routes, and so even if you actively try to avoid it, chances are you’ll still pass through it at some point or another. There’s a certain stately presence to Madrid that begins at the Royal Palace, and continues in its world-famous museums, pristine parks, and iconic plazas. And the gentrifying hipster neighbourhood of Malasaña has a healthy supply of coffee shops, bakeries, independent book shops, barbers, and quaint gift stores that keeps Madrid well-balanced.
The Madrid train station, the country’s largest, is also one of the greenest in Europe – quite literally. Atocha Station is essentially a 4000 square metre indoor tropical garden, with a bit of a train station on the side. There are 22 species of fish and turtles milling between 7000 plants, and in the summertime a fine mist descends from the concourse ceiling to complete the jungle experience.
Many travellers, and indeed locals, squabble over which is the better city – Madrid or Barcelona – but there’s no reason why you can’t embrace both, particularly when you’re travelling by train.
6. Granada, Ronda, and Seville
There’s a high-speed line out of Madrid that connects you to the south of Spain. Take it. The route travels through parched farmland, open plains, and vast olive plantations. At times, it skirts grand mountain ranges and offers distant views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
If you’re after bigger cities, aim for Granada or Seville. If it’s small and quaint you’re looking for, head to Ronda. Or consider all three, if time allows. The rail network gets a bit sparse around these parts, and you may have to venture onto the slower lines or retrace your steps to reach the smaller cities. At times you’ll find yourself connecting at isolated stations in the middle of eerie plantations. But, really, that’s half the fun.
Seville is the most convenient city to reach by train in the south, but, perhaps as a result of this, it may well be the least exciting. There’s a nice river, park, and a youthful energy that has materialised into secret bars, expensive coffee shops, and trendy eateries that make it an enjoyable stop for a couple of nights.
There is also a direct, albeit somewhat slow, train from Madrid to Ronda twice daily. The small city of Ronda is home to Spain’s oldest bullfighting ring, and is worth a visit for its dramatic bridge alone. Puente Nuevo, or New Bridge in Spanish (despite being more than 300 years old), spans a 120-metre-deep chasm that used to divide the city. Today, it unites tourists in their awe for this photogenic engineering masterpiece.
And Granada – the home of the Alhambra – is just two and a half hours east. Here you’ll find a heady mix of glistening tourist traps and a bustling city surrounding one of the best examples of Muslim art and architecture in all Europe, perched high on a hill in its middle.
From here, you’ll have to find your own way out. Your flight back to reality probably leaves from Madrid or Barcelona, so you could retrace your steps along the tracks, or research a low-cost flight from one of the many carriers servicing the smaller cities in the region. Or you could just keep going. A rail pass from Eurail will allow you to travel more spontaneously between cities – they offer a global or country-specific pass depending on your needs, and it’s a great way to explore more options around the country or its neighbours. And by this stage you’re just a short bus ride away from the south of Portugal – the perfect starting point for another European rail adventure.
All photographs taken on the Fuji X-T10.