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Green Coast Express
During dinner the sun sets over the sea. © Manuel Meyer/dpa-tmn

Renfe’s Royal Trains are the Spanish answer to the Orient Express. Our author traveled from Santiago de Compostela to Bilbao on the Costa Verde Express. A slow-paced trip with a gourmet factor.

Santiago de Compostela – A gentle shake wakes the guests who were still sleeping from their dreams. The Costa Verde Express departs on foot from the small Viveiro train station. Morning mist falls over the coastal town in the far north-west of Spain.

Galician Albariño sparkling white wine, served with scampi and octopus arms at dinner in the dining car, puts most people to sleep. The appearance of the rhythmic rattle of the train doesn’t make getting up any easier. But in the corridor, the train crew is already ringing a bell – breakfast.

The aroma of hot croissants, freshly brewed coffee, Iberico ham and scrambled eggs fills the air in the dining car. A stewardess in a white uniform invites you to an empty table with cloth napkins, fresh flowers and a lamp with a yellow mottled glass shade. Time after time the passing coastal scenery tempts you to look out the window.

Long sandy beaches alternate with steep cliffs. In between, the journey goes through dense forests, past old fishing villages. At a leisurely speed of 50 kilometers per hour, the Costa Verde Express travels along old narrow-gauge tracks, sometimes just a few meters beyond the Cantabrian Sea. The route also runs partly parallel to the Camino de Santiago on the north coast, the Camino del Norte.

Train slower than express

As pilgrims have to scramble on foot along the Costa Verde, the “Costa Verde,” Julio Cesar Pallucchini and his wife Liliana sit in the wood-panelled, carpeted lounge of the Costa Verde Express and enjoy the scenery in a way to feel good with a latte.

“Thank God the train lives up to its name only in part,” says Julio. The Costa Verde is a truly impressive green. On the other hand, says Julio, he is happy that it is not an express train, but a tourist train. So you can observe the landscape in peace.

I was looking for exactly this kind of slow down ride. “And of course the good food,” she says and laughs.

The train journey takes you through the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia: Spain’s gastronomic strongholds par excellence, as Laura López says. She is Executive Chef aboard the Costa Verde Express. Food also plays a special role on this train journey.

While dining in restaurants on the daily excursions, Laura and her colleague Daniela prepare delicacies from the region where the train stops for the night. Scallops and octopus in Galicia, wild salmon, fabada and Cabrales cheese in Asturias, mountain stew in Cantabria, cod in the Basque Country.

Green Coast Express
The food on board is regional: Galicia, for example, is known for its seafood and there are scampi when the train stops here. © Manuel Meyer/dpa-tmn

The Spanish response to the Orient Express

The Costa Verde Express is one of the so-called historical royal trains of the state railway company Renfe. They are somewhat like the Spanish versions of the Orient Express, reminiscent of train travel from a century ago.

The nostalgic Belle Époque-style train needs six days for the approximately 600 kilometers between Bilbao in the Basque Country and the Galician pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela. Depending on the date, it goes in one direction or another.

This time the train adventure began at the tomb of Santiago Apóstol in Santiago de Compostela. Above the sepulcher stands the cathedral, the destination of the Camino de Santiago.

The first pilgrim and a Sistine chapel

The train also makes a stop in Oviedo on its way. The first Camino de Santiago starts from the city’s cathedral. It is said that the King of Asturias Alfonso II rode from Oviedo as the first pilgrim to Galicia after the discovery of the apostle’s tomb in 812.

In Cabezón de la Sal in Cantabria, the train stops at the station like every afternoon so that travelers can sleep. Fresh country air flows in through the sliding window, crickets chirp.

The next morning it is clear to everyone why the north of Spain is so green: it is raining heavily. On the platform, the train staff hand out umbrellas for the excursion. The bus takes half an hour to reach the Altamira cave, often known as the Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age.

Prehistoric cave paintings of bison, deer, and horses are over 14,000 years old. Today, only a small number of lucky draws are allowed to visit the original cave, wearing protective suits and breathing masks. But the difference with the replica in the cave next door is barely noticeable.

Futuristic temples of art in double pack

Lunch is available two kilometers further in Santillana del Mar. The stone houses are adorned with coats of arms and wooden balconies decorated with flowers. The Convent of the Poor Clares Collegiate Church of Santa Juliana is one of the most important sacred Romanesque buildings in Cantabria.

The elegant capital of Cantabria, Santander, with its magnificent Art Nouveau buildings, seems downright young by comparison. A few years ago the Silver Scale Botín Center was inaugurated here. Built directly on the river promenade, the magnificent building of the Botín banking family, owners of Banco Santander, offers the most modern avant-garde art.

But the Botín Center can’t compete with the world-famous Guggenheim Museum in the Basque coastal metropolis of Bilbao. Formed with titanium silver plates, the Nervión building looks like a gigantic napkin and can be seen from afar from the Costa Verde Express. The view heralds the end of the journey. Because Bilbao is the destination station of the train. dpa

Botin Center in Santander
Magnificent temple of art: the Botín Center in Santander. © Manuel Meyer/dpa-tmn

Green Coast Express

  • Get there: Depending on where the train leaves, you have to fly to Bilbao or Santiago de Compostela.
  • train ride: The classic trip on the Costa Verde Express between Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela lasts six days (five nights). There is also a shorter option of four days (three nights) that goes from Santiago de Compostela to Oviedo or vice versa.
  • Travel time and costs: The season runs from mid-May to the end of October, the six-day trip costs 4,000 euros per person. Short trips cost 1800 euros per person.
  • Information: Information and reservations of luxury tourist trains in Renfe (tel.: 0034 912 555 912; email: trensturisticosdelujo@renfe.es)

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