Four autonomous communities in the north of Spain are washed by the Bay of Biscay. They all share the same climate, spectacular landscapes dominated by fields of green and the caress of the ocean breeze. They are the Basque Country, Cantabria, the Principality of Asturias and Galicia. Though they are neighbors, they couldn’t be more different in terms of language, history and culture. To really feel their essence, it’s fundamental to explore each place.
When the time came to plan my trip through the four communities, it became apparent that the best option was to take the Transcantábrico Clásico train from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela over a period of six days. It was a short trip, considering the territory it covered, but I thought it would at least give me a general idea and next time, during another trip, I could focus on the things that were most interesting to me. To start with, a major advantage the Transcantábrico offers is that you’re able to settle into your stateroom as you would during an ocean cruise. It’s wonderful not to have to change hotels in each city, with all the packing and unpacking, loading and unloading.
"One of the greatest advantages of spending so much time together in a small space with a group like this is that it’s easy to make friends, especially when everyone is willing to share and have a good time"
The Transcantábrico train, as it’s commonly known, is a luxury train run by the National Railways of Spain (or RENFE, its initials in Spanish). It’s only in operation from spring to fall, and it runs on narrow tracks, so the train cars are also quite narrow. Nevertheless, the space is so cleverly used that there’s never a feeling of confinement. The suites have a double bed, with the option of a bunk bed. There’s storage space for luggage, a minibar, a safety box, a closet, a desk and a telephone with an outside line. It also includes a private bathroom with hydro-sauna, turbo massage and steam bath. The train cars are all originals that have been restored and modernized. They preserve the glamour and romanticism from the old days — but with Wi-Fi. There are four cars for socializing: one with a bar and a lounge area with a computer, two with eating areas and another that serves as a bar-disco. At full occupancy, there are no more that 56 passengers on board, which makes it an intimate and manageable group. One of the greatest advantages of spending so much time together in a small space with a group like this is that it’s easy to make friends, especially when everyone is willing to share and have a good time. On our trip, there were married couples, friends and individual travelers from Austria, Australia, Mexico, Japan, Venezuela, the United States, Spain and other countries; it was something like the United Nations on the rails. Another standout for me was that the tour had a bus from the same company at its disposal. It paralleled the train’s route on the road, and when we arrived at each station, it was waiting there, ready to take us anywhere. It was all very well coordinated.
The personnel were very attentive and professional at all times. Four lovely and efficient ladies saw to our every need, from serving the table to cleaning our rooms. Traveling with us was the leader of expeditions, a tour guide, security personnel and the railway’s technical operators.
Spain is synonymous with good food and drink, and the northern regions offer a rich variety of dishes to satisfy all appetites and delight even the most demanding palate. During our journey, the Transcantábrico made sure that we didn’t return hungry to our homelands, so whether it was with the good cuisine on board the train or excellent restaurants along the way, including several Paradores Nacionales (ancient castles now converted into hotels), there was always sufficient quality and quantity. The restaurants along the Paradores Nacionales are known for serving the typical dishes of the region they’re in. In the bars in Bilbao, we enjoyed the pintxos (PIN-chos), which is Basque for hors d’oeuvres. Among other delectable fare are the Asturian fabada (Asturian bean stew), the caldo Gallego (Galician soup), chacolí (Basque wine), Albariño (Galician white wine), Ribeiro de Galicia and the famous Asturian cider. Since the regions we visited were all coastal, there was plenty of scrumptious seafood. Breakfast was always served buffet-style on the train.
"I’ve yet to figure out how many times I would need to go back to deepen my experience with each of the interesting things I found. Perhaps it would be easier to move to Spain"
At 8 o'clock on the dot, a member of the staff would make his way through the passenger cars, ringing a bell reminiscent of the trains of old.
In the Basque Country, we visited Bilbao, a city that has received worldwide recognition ever since the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997. The zone where it’s located underwent an enormous urban transformation, creating exceptional sprawling areas. In Cantabria, we visited Santander, a city that exudes elegance and class, since it used to be a favorite vacation place for kings, nobles and the European upper class; the noble Santillana del Mar, where there isn’t a single modern building to be found; and the Neo-caves of Altamira. These are an exact reproduction of the original caves, which had to be closed to the public due to the deterioration they were suffering from the thousands of visitors. Great care was taken to accurately reproduce the prehistoric paintings on the walls.
In Galicia, we began in Ribadeo and the fantastic Playa de las Catedrales (Beach of the Cathedrals), where the ocean has sculpted amazing rock formations. We were in Viveiro, then passed through Ferrol, and, finally, Santiago de Compostela, a monumental city that could fill an entire chapter on its own, considering all its interesting attractions. The city is the final destination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James), and it was our final stop on our Transcantábrico journey as well.
I’ve yet to figure out how many times I would need to go back to deepen my experience with each of the interesting things I found. Perhaps it would be easier to move to Spain. The experience on the Transcantábrico was excellent, very romantic and relaxed. I can also say that there were a couple of things I gained on this trip: new friends and a few extra pounds.