Rattling along a remote track towards Valencia, a blood-orange sunrise bathed the carriage as we crossed a towering viaduct above a ravine.
Down below, the shadow of the carriages flickered across an olive grove and a deer darted by a winding river. A cheery conductor checked our tickets – just a handful of us on board – as we passed a speed limit sign: 20 kilometres an hour maximum (or 12 miles an hour) across the viaduct.
Welcome to Spain, slow trains-style.
Spain may be our favourite destination for holidays, with 18 million of us heading there each year – when a pandemic doesn’t stand in our way, at least. But what do we know of the country beyond its Costas, islands and main cities?
One enjoyable way to find out, once we’re able to travel properly again, is to take to its branch lines – shunning the country’s sleek new bullet trains – and settle in for a slow rail adventure.
That is what I did back in the summer of 2019, before any of us had even heard of Covid, spending a month travelling 3,000 miles on 52 rides, while getting a little lost, quite happily, from time to time, researching my new travel book Slow Trains Around Spain.
Starting in Figueres, Salvador Dali’s hometown in the northeast, the tracks led south beyond Barcelona, cut across Catalonia to Aragon and the north coast, before continuing on charming narrow-gauge trains towards Santiago de Compostela.
From there, the lines span south to Madrid, west to Extremadura, east to Valencia and south again via Granada to Seville – in what became a big wobbly ‘S’ of a route.
Across parched plains, along rugged coastlines, into and out of sleepy towns, and between soaring mountains the trains went, revealing a side of Spain far removed from its tourist hotspots.
All was easy to arrange. Simply log on to the app of Renfe (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Espanoles), which runs Spain’s railways, or buy tickets at stations. Booking places to stay on the internet was a doddle, too.
Here are some of my favourite stop-offs.
Just southwest of Barcelona, Vilanova i la Geltru is a peaceful seaside town with a pleasant beach, ancient labyrinthine lanes, a fine cathedral and the excellent Catalonia Railway Museum. This is the place to go loco (crazy) over some of Spain’s oldest locomotives, with Spanish train history explained. Visit vilanovaturisme.cat; museudelferrocarril.org.
In the province of Aragon, Huesca is a little city (population 52,000) overlooked by a hillside with Spanish Civil War trenches reached via hiking trails. Writer George Orwell served for the Republicans here in 1937 and survived a gunshot wound. After paying homage, make sure you climb the cathedral tower for splendid countryside views. Visit huescaturismo.com.
Ferrol is a naval base renowned for its striking buildings with prominent conservatory-style windows. These are called galleria and were first created by shipbuilders, so seamen had better vision during storms. Ferrol is a quiet place with café-lined squares and is famous for being Francisco Franco’s hometown. Visit visitferrol.com.
Close to Portugal in the province of Extremadura, Badajoz is another peaceful spot with a Moorish fortress facing the River Guadiana and its wonderful 15th-century Puente de Palmas bridge. The temperature soars in summer, regularly touching 40C. Don’t miss the great little municipal art gallery. Visit turismoextremadura.com.
Matadors and mines
The twin attractions of Almaden, a tiny town (population 5,000) in Castile-La Mancha, are its old bullring and ancient aluminum mine. The latter is 2,000 years old and closed in 2003. Now it is a United Nations-recognised historical site and underground tours include mine trains rides. Visit parqueminerodealmaden.es; turismocastillalamancha.es.
Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-Mile Adventure On 52 Rides by Tom Chesshyre is published by Summersdale.