Guest post by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries from hiddeneurope.co.uk
Nicky and Susanne are responsible for the book Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers, published each spring by Thomas Cook Publishing.
By train through Spain
The trains in Spain are like no other in Europe. And seasoned travellers, well used to travelling by train in Britain and other European countries, are often surprised by the very different arrangements for train travellers that prevail on main routes in Spain.
Europe’s most advanced railway
Spain has Europe’s most comprehensive network of purpose-built high-speed rail lines. The pioneering route from Madrid to Sevilla, which slices through the Sierra Morena to link the capital with Andalucía was opened way back in 1992. Since then a dense web of high-speed lines has been constructed, fanning out from Madrid and increasingly offering directly links between provincial centres. For example, sleek modern AVE trains now speed direct from Barcelona to Málaga in just 5hrs 30mins – not bad for a journey of 740 miles. Those AVE units are the premium trains of rail operator RENFE. The trains are easily recognised by their oddly drooping slender beaks.
Reserve in advance
On a long journey this spring through Spain, we visited several major cities, roaming from the French border to Cádiz and back, stopping off here and there. Ports of call included Valencia, Córdoba, Málaga, Sevilla and Madrid. As it happens, we included not a single AVE train on our itinerary, but even slower trains and regional services still need seat reservations in Spain.Think again if you are accustomed to the hop-on, hop-off culture that is the norm in Britain. At many stations in Spain, access to platforms is restricted to passengers with seats booked on the upcoming departure. Train travel in Spain thus demands advance planning. Even for a half-hour hop on a Media Distancia train you need a seat reservation (the cost of which is included in the fare if you buy a regular ticket, but a pricey €4 a shot if you have a rail pass). And higher grade trains such as Avant, Alaris, Altaria and the top-of-the-range AVE services all have progressively higher reservation charges for pass holders.
Are rail passes worthwhile?
The reservation culture begs the question: “Is it still worth getting a rail pass?” If you are planning several long journeys, especially on high-speed routes, then the answer is often yes. Shift to a more limited itinerary and you may well be better off opting for point-to-point tickets. Rail Europe UK can always advise what’s best for your proposed journey.
We found Spanish trains absolutely first rate. They were immaculately clean and on over two dozen journeys we experienced just one train that did not arrive bang on time or even early. That was on a seven-hour ride on the García Lorca train from Valencia to Sevilla, when our evening arrival in Sevilla was some 20 minutes behind schedule. And we worried not a jot about that, for the journey traversed some fabulous scenery as we followed the classic Despeñaperros Pass railway line from La Mancha to Andalucía.We saw much superb station architecture from the handsome tiling at Valencia Nord to showpiece modern architecture at Sevilla Santa Justa. Spanish stations are places to linger, be it merely to enjoy the covered tropical garden at Madrid Atocha or the uncluttered concourse at Málaga’s modern terminus.
The time came eventually when we had to leave Spain. We postponed the moment of departure as long as we could, opting for the Francisco de Goya overnight train from Madrid to Paris. The Trenhotel service is operated by Elipsos (which also operates overnight services from Barcelona to France, Switzerland and Italy).Grand Class tickets on the Francisco de Goya are not the cheapest, but it is most certainly a superb way to travel. Dinner is served on board as the train weaves north from Madrid through stunning mountain scenery. Then to bed to crisp linen sheets and we awoke next morning in France to find we were already trundling alongside the River Loire. It is a sensible route out of Spain not just for Paris-bound travellers but also for those bound for Britain. An early evening departure from Madrid will have you in London in time for lunch next day. Rail Europe UK can sell tickets for the entire journey.
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