Europe’s Best Rail Journeys

Image courtesy: Justin Foulkes

Choose any one – or all – of these five rail adventures, to be enjoyed from the bubble of a luxury carriage or a seat in a casual commuter train, to experience unforgettable vistas, vast wilderness and vignettes from bygone eras

BILBAO TO FERROL ON THE FEVE, SPAIN
WORDS: JO KEELING

If you’re not in a rush, a trip on Europe’s longest narrow-gauge railway might be just the ticket. The FEVE is a trio of lines that carves an improbable route across the north of Spain from Bilbao (Basque Country) to Ferrol (Galicia), stopping at more than a hundred stations along the way. Bypassing sprawling suburbs and holiday resorts, this determined little train hauls itself through rough-hewn tunnels, chugs up steep ravines and ducks beneath the legs of motorways. Beautifully isolated and content with its own slow progress, it immerses its passengers in an astonishingly green region of untamed mountains, Atlantic shores, hearty regional dishes and warm people.

Riding the rails
Your journey begins in Bilbao, a gritty industrial port with an artistic heart. Before you embark, explore the city’s jigsaw of medieval and avant-garde architecture, as 15th-century Gothic meets the titanium plates of the Guggenheim. Pintxos, the Basque take on tapas, are fundamental to daily life here and the ideal way to soak up a boozy lunch with kuadrilla (Basque for ‘your tribe’).

Railway engineers usually pick the path of least resistance, building tracks along river valleys and natural contours. The determined FEVE, on the other hand – unmarked on most Spanish railway maps, despite being a division of the state-owned Renfe Operadora – takes an altogether more rambling route along the Atlantic coast, stopping at stone platforms in the middle of meadows and fading yellow station buildings with cracked tile maps.

Constructed in 1965, the FEVE is a local train for local people. Passing through cities, you share the carriage with commuters tapping on their phones, but soon you’re joined by villagers going to the butcher’s or taking their dog to the vet. For rural communities, it’s a dip into the culture and facilities of towns, catching up on gossip along the way.

Leaving Bilbao, take a seat on the right, facing backwards, and watch the suburbs retreat as the line meanders inland before towering cranes and a sprawling estuary announce your approach into Santander. With its grand Belle-Époque façades, breezy avenues and tree-shaded plazas, Cantabria’s characterful capital is made for warm, easy days.

An hour along the line, tranquil Cabezón de la Sal takes its name from its salt markets, which date back to Roman times. Narrow streets thread past former casas señoriales (noblemen’s houses), their ancient balconies now draped with drying clothes.

Passing into Asturias, seek out Ribadesella, a down-to-earth seaside town tucked in the sweeping S of the river Sella. Here, expert escanciadores (cider pourers) decant the local tipple, and you can tuck into piles of mussels outside unpretentious promenade cafés. Follow this with a stroll along an avenue of ornate ‘Indiano’ mansions, built by rich Spanish mariners returning from the Americas.

The limestone summits of the Picos de Europa paint a ragged line against the horizon as the FEVE takes an even wilder route. Red-roofed homesteads and hórreos (granaries resting on stone pillars) dot the fields, canoeists navigate rapids on the river below, and locals quaff homemade cider on platforms. It’s about now that you realise you’re falling for the charms of this unassuming little train, which steadfastly resists the acceleration of modern life, completely unperturbed by the autovía (motorways) that have sprung up around it.

Asturias is renowned for its cave-matured cheeses and robust, hearty dishes, such as fabada Asturiana: a stew made with fabes beans, spicy sausage and black pudding. You can stuff your bag with vacuum-packed ingredients from one of Oviedo’s many delicatessens. Heading west after this, the route passes under leggy road bridges, cuts across deep valleys and pulls into tiny platforms in the middle of nowhere. Spindly eucalyptus trees tickle the windows as you approach Galicia’s unspoilt coast, where it’s tempting to jump off at one of the tiny stations. From Loiba, it’s a 1.5-mile (2.5km) walk to the dramatic Praia do Picón, where you can recline on the ‘best bank of the world’ (a cliff-top bench) and watch waves crash into the tilted granite cliffs.

On your approach to Ferrol, the Rías Altas – the eastern half of Galicia’s north coast – teems with tidal fjord-like rivers where few tourists stray. Locals say it’s so peaceful here that even chestnuts fall asleep.

A FEVE Rail Card allows unlimited travel for 30 days, but it can be equally cheap to buy one-way tickets. Allow four to seven days for a leisurely trip. Travel in July and August to enjoy warm, dry days, or March to May and September and October to avoid crowds.

For four more of Europe’s best rail journeys, check out LPMI’s May 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.