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Expreso de la Robla: A luxury train from Bilbao to León

A travel narrative: In romantic Belle Époque style through three of Northern Spain's greenest regions.


Personal Account of a Truly Special Journey with Expreso de la Robla. Your Experience Could Be Next...

Train Journey with Expreso de la Robla

In a luxury train styled in the romantic Belle Époque fashion with hotel service, a pub, internet, breakfast buffet, and 28 double rooms with private baths, the beautiful Expreso de la Robla train takes guests on a three-day cruise through three of Northern Spain's most historic and least-visited regions. From Bilbao to León or vice versa.

Traveling at 60 kilometers per hour, it glides through Northern Spain at the same pace as the Orient Express did in the last century.

As courteous as British butlers, the suited train attendants serve cognac with coffee and Rioja wine to the passengers, who meanwhile enjoy the mountainous and green Northern Spain from rustic leather-upholstered armchairs.

The cognac sways in the glasses as a deer scratches its back with its antlers outside the train's wood-framed panoramic windows. 15 kilometers later, a 130-year-old church tower emerges from Lake Ebro. The church was built at the same time as the train tracks in 1890. When the lake overflowed its banks 60 years later and flooded the church, it earned the nickname 'Cathedral of the Fish.'

Schoolchildren and farmers in txapelas wave to the red, green, and black luxury train. These colors represent Bilbao's historical and now defunct blast furnaces, coal from the mines of León, and the grassy Northern Spanish mountains that the train passes through.

Historical Stops Along the Way

During the journey, the train stops at small picturesque stations, from which passengers are taken by buses to historical sites. Guided excursions take them through coal mining villages where residents extracted coal 20 meters below ground. To the mining museum in Sabero, Castilla y León. To the blood-red ceiling frescoes of Jesus in Spain's largest underground rock cave. To the holy water in the enchanting stalactite cave, medieval monasteries, and churches in Castilla y León.

Hunting dogs sink their teeth into deer throats and devour bleeding boars in the murals of the family-run restaurant El Venado, 'The Deer,' where passengers have lunch on the second day of the journey.

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With happy smiles under black mustaches and bellies bulging from white shirts, father and son shuttle back and forth between the kitchen and the guests.

"You're going to try it all, sister," says the son, Sergio, cheekily as he places the first regional dish on the table. After wild boar blood sausage comes mushroom soup, deer pâté, fried bull's tails, and venison fillet, all washed down with Rioja wines.

In the afternoon, the train quietly arrives at the station in the regional capital, León.

Visits to the city's enormous Gothic cathedral, which is 800 years old, are followed by a five-course menu and more Rioja wine deep inside a labyrinthine rock cave outside León.

Satisfied, the travelers are brought back to the train's sleeping cars in a bus—or to the nightlife in Barrio Húmedo (the Wet District), which fully lives up to its name.

León is smaller than Madrid and is notorious for never sleeping. But the party atmosphere in the wet quarter's jazz and rock'n'roll bars, clubs, and occupied houses is just as vibrant as in the capital.

The train arrives at the ruins of a castle, traditional Spanish village culture, and a new gastronomic experience in Espinosa de los Monteros on the evening after.

Coins and playing cards skate across the tables among older men, while a busty bartender serves cañas (Spanish draft beer) and olives over the counter to high-spirited villagers, who toss ducados cigarette butts on the floor.

Garlands of chorizo

The Boinas La Encartada museum factory is one of the last experiences of the journey.

"Can you get down from there!" A dark-haired woman shouts at me with wide-open angry eyes.

I jump down from the whitewashed windowsill with my dirty shoes. I managed to take a picture of the shining loom from 1892 from above. It looks particularly good in the museum factory here in southern Biscay, which houses the world's largest collection of intact machines from the Industrial Revolution.

From 1892 to 1992, the factory was a major supplier of one of Biscay's strongest symbols, the Basque beret. La boina in Spanish. La txapela in Basque. Since the early 19th century, Basque men have warmed themselves under their txapelas. And the rolling oval wool patches with an upward-pointing strap in the puddle are still a mobile part of the Basque landscape. Just as Basque as the mysterious euskera words and the Basque flag, which, apart from a green cross behind the cross, is identical to the Danish flag and flies everywhere in the region.

Maria José González, the dark-haired woman's name, is grateful that the factory was preserved as a museum. For 18 years, she and 159 other factory workers, mostly women, drew the last threads of the loom. Today, she supervises as her colleagues with waving Spanish storytelling arms guide visitors through the production halls, where women in four generations turned sheep's wool into txapelas on the looms.

"That's why I got mad at you," María says later at the foot of the grassy Basque mountains and the babbling river outside the museum.

She thinks I showed no respect for the place that shaped her history.

From coal transport to cruise

Hunger and unemployment drove María's family to Biscay, where the industry boomed in the early 20th century. From all over the country, hopeful Spaniards traveled in primitive train cars for work in the Spanish industrial Klondike. Until the late 1960s, María's father worked on the train that transported coal from the mines in León to Spain's industrial stronghold, Bilbao. On April 1, 2010, traffic on the 360-kilometer tracks connecting León to Bilbao was revived. But not by emigrants or demand for coal.

Just like the other visits, this one ends with a gastronomic experience that connects the taste buds with local history.

Today, lunch is all about 'olla ferroviaria,' the train journey pot. The stew that coal train workers filled up on during the 12 hours it took to transport coal from the mines in Sabero to Bilbao.

Steam rises from garland-long chorizo sausages, vegetables, and beans in the pots in the square between the museum and the babbling river.

Beads of sweat spring from the forehead of an apron-clad woman as she lifts one pot and shakes the sausages back and forth in circular motions. She's been doing that every five minutes for the past four hours.

"It has the same effect as the train's rumbling through the mountains," the woman explains, laughing and puffing. Today, the stew simmers under the heat from small fireplaces. In the last century, it was the steam from the train that heated the sausages.

Note: The program is subject to change. The above account is from a special tour that both started and ended in Bilbao, but the experiences will be similar, albeit in a different order.