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Transcantabrico Gran Lujo: Luxury life runs on rails in Spain
A travel account from the Transcantábrico Gran Lujo train journey across Northern Spain
A journey on the Transcantábrico train across Northern Spain is a treat with a view. Add to that excursions away from the train tracks to museums, dramatic mountains, and cathedral-like cliffs, and the path is set for great experiences.
The staff stands in line in their blue, gold-trimmed uniforms and white gloves to welcome us as we pass through the pristine Art Nouveau entrance of Concordia Station in Bilbao. Here, we meet the staff and the luxury train for the first time, which will be our home for the coming week.
This splendor is known as the Transcántabrico Gran Lujo, which will take us along Spain's green northern coast. As soon as we step inside the train, a glass of sparkling cava awaits us before the keys to our suite are handed over. There are two suites in each sleeping car, and the train consists of a total of seven sleeping cars, which have been renovated several times, most recently in 2011. All overnight stays take place on the stationary train.
Each suite includes a sleeping area with a double bed, a living room with a sofa, table, and desk, as well as a bathroom. Everything is decorated in an old-fashioned style, but the charm of the past is combined with modern comforts such as a flat-screen TV, a computer, Wi-Fi, and a hydro-massage shower.
Although we boarded in Bilbao, the train began its journey in the city of San Sebastián, near the French border. We were transported to Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country, on the train's accompanying bus, which allows the train's passengers to go on excursions away from the established tracks during the train journey.
Bilbao was a congested industrial city that has undergone a transformation after a visionary local administration decided to make culture one of the new engines of the economy. The flagship is the gleaming titanium-designed Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry, which now stands where shipyards used to be.
"Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful city," says one of the Americans in the group, surprised and also delighted by the new, wide promenade along the Nervión River.
Later on the train journey, we see other modern art museums attempting to achieve the same Guggenheim effect as in Bilbao. There is the hovering Centro Botín on the bay in Santander, designed by Renzo Piano and funded by the family behind Banco Santander, and Centro Niemeyer built in a dried dock in Avilés, whose white, curved design is a gift from Oscar Niemeyer.
Life on the Train
Every morning begins with a gentle wake-up call, known as "Campanilla" in the daily program. A train steward walks through the carriages and rings a bell gently to signal that it's time for breakfast. Breakfast is served in the dining cars, and the same goes for about half of the lunch and dinner meals on the journey.
Our head chef is the young and vibrant Victoria, and she tries to introduce us to local specialties that correspond to the region outside the train's windows.
The two dining cars are beautifully restored train carriages from 1927, manufactured by The Leeds Forge Company. This also applies to the bar carriage, where colorful bottles invite you to have a drink or two, and the lounge carriage with wide panoramic windows.
The interiors of the dining cars are adorned in golden hues and feature plush, velour-covered chairs with armrests and tall backs, soft lighting on tables and walls, lampshades resembling flower petals, and classic fabric curtains.
There is space for two bench-seated passengers in each "booth," and a pattern quickly emerges where people occupy the same spots. Therefore, it is during excursions and "off-train" meals at some of the route's many fine dining establishments, including two Michelin-starred restaurants and a number of "Paradores," elegant Spanish state-owned hotels, that there is an opportunity to exchange experiences and impressions with others in the group.
There is the couple from New York who developed a taste for train travel during a trip from Zambia to South Africa last year. There is the Argentine couple, where the husband – and it sounds like a cliché – loves a big, juicy steak above all else. There is a Colombian family spanning three generations, embarking on an annual family vacation around the world. And then there are two Danish couples who want to experience different sides of Spain beyond the southern coast, the Canary Islands, Barcelona, and Mallorca. And they are doing just that!
From the Basque Country, the train travels through the regions of Cantabria and Asturias, and it quickly becomes evident to the participants that the northern Spanish coast is very lush. Where there is forest, it is dense. Where there are hills and meadows, there is ample vegetation.
"It's incredibly green here," one of the Danes remarks, comparing it to their vacation home on the Costa del Sol. The annual rainfall here can be up to one and a half times more than in a typical year in Denmark.
Asturias is often called Spain's Switzerland, and we leave the train and exchange tracks for the wheels of the accompanying bus to get closer to the beautiful landscape.
The bus travels along a narrow road with almost endless hairpin turns and gradients of up to 13% up to the Covadonga Lakes, which are located at approximately 1100 meters above sea level. This ascent is often considered the most challenging mountain stage in the Tour of Spain cycling race. The lakes are part of the Picos de Europa mountain range, which, as a national park, has just celebrated its 100th anniversary and contains some of the most dramatic natural landscapes in Spain.
In a rustic bar/restaurant built of fieldstones and wood, we are treated to tastings of cheeses, including the local blue cheese Cabrales, spicy sausages, and apple cider, which the hostess pours in a long, thin stream.
Afterward, the bus winds its way back down to sea level from the mist into the Covadonga Sanctuary, marking a battle in 722 that, according to tradition, marked the beginning of the long Christian reconquest of Spain from Muslim invasions from North Africa.
Back on the tracks, Spain's green northern coast undergoes a transformation, from gentle slopes to rugged cliffs, as we approach Galicia, a distinctive region. Here, there's no flamenco and bullfighting, but instead, a lot of Celtic culture and bagpipe music.
"Other places in Spain are all about 'olé, olé' and flamenco, but not here," says the guide, María.
At Ribadeo, we descend to Playa de las Catedrales, one of the most magnificent beaches in Spain due to its naturally formed rock arches and caves, mighty as cathedrals, accessible only at low tide.
So far on the journey, we have regularly enjoyed fish and seafood, in addition to the traditional bean stew, and that doesn't stop now on the last day of the trip. Galicia is, after all, the main supplier to the entire country of all the good things from the sea.
We are treated even more on the last dinner of the train journey, which concludes in the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela. The main course is very fittingly mariscada, a seafood platter that includes, among other things, razor clams, these delicate and expensive, tube-shaped creatures that cling to cliffs near the water's surface and require great courage to collect in the violent surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
After dinner on this last day of our journey, the Spanish newspaper El País publishes a travel article about ten adventurous train journeys in the world. Guessed right! One of them is the Transcantábrico.
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