Spain by Train: Why have one city when you can have three?
Eat, play, love
Why settle for one Spanish city, when you can have three? Olivia Tracey takes the train to Madrid, Valencia and Seville.
It is midday in the hip Chueca district of Madrid. We're going with the flow along cobblestoned streets peppered with bars, cafés and charming squares. It's all somnolent in a Sunday afternoon hush until, just one block over, the volume ratchets up as we turn onto bustling Gran Via. There, people mill to and fro, traffic honks and stores beckon. I'm itching for a quick shopping fix in Mango, but at this point it has to be food, not fashion.
I'm with a group of five friends, and we're on a mission. The Spanish capital is the first in a banquet of cities including Seville and Valencia, which we are visiting on First Class trains. I say banquet, because we're an impulsive bunch - every one of us likes to eat, and none of us are opposed to Sangria. Salud!
Our first meal is a hit at Museo del Jamon (museodeljamon.com), where we patio dine on a tasty spread of ham, melon, cheese, bread and Sangria. So is our second. Le Coco (lecocomadrid.com), on nearby Calle Barbieri, sees us wander in, well siesta'd, near midnight. The cosy interior exhibits an old meets new décor, with antique green windows nestled in deep stone walls, while exposed duct ceiling pipes lend a modern vibe. The dish of the night is definitely Lasagna de Rabo de Toro (bull meat), along with Lolea Sangria in take-home polka dot bottles.
Still hungry? Try any of the outdoor restaurants lining the pedestrianised Calle Carlos, where you can dine in the shadow of Teatro Real to the rear and the stunning Palacio Real to the fore. This is my plum part of the city, but a hop-on hop-off bus tour also allows us to soak up a city where grandiosity and graffiti live side by side. My favourite stops are Retiro Park, Museo National del Prado and the magnificent Plaza de Cibeles, with its regal white mansion presiding over the square.
Fed and happy, we embark on our 2.5-hour train trip to Seville. It's a pleasure from First Class start to finish - cushy reclining seats, charming staff, tasty carmelised cod with piquillo pepper sauce, and giggle-inducing champagne and Rioja. To think I was planning on a coffee!
Seville greets us with sweltering, 37-degree temperatures, so a dip in the Melia Hotel pool helps us to cool off before joining an evening tour. I follow a bunch of tourists into what looks like a church, only to realise that I have entered the famous Plaza de Espana. It's like a mini-Venice - the canal, fountain and tiled bridges all nestled within the curve of the exquisite domed building. A live aria emanates from the perfect acoustics like a film scene.
It's just one of the gems in this enchanting city.
Try a walk or carriage ride through Parque de Maria Luisa, meander riverside along Paseo De Las Delicias or explore the tiny Old Town streets, rich in miniature shops and café-laden squares. We brave the long sweltering queue into the famous cathedral, followed by an amazing tour of the Palacio and its Jardines del Alcazar. Then, a siesta and swim, pre-dinner.
And what a dinner! Seated in the front porch of La Gallina Blanca (lacallinabianca.es), an interior bathed in Hamptonesque blues, greys and whites, we taste meaty Tagliatelle Ragu, colourful seafood pasta and a Salad Romagnola in Parmesan crisp shell. My sea bream, complete with head intact, sits atop olives, capers and baby tomatoes. The panna cotta is worth every calorie, drizzled in chocolate sauce and cream, along with Limoncella on the house. We even get a visit from the chef, Mattia, orchestrated by our server Murial. Beyond excellent!
We toast Seville in the swanky American Bar at the Alfonso Hotel with a Cloudy Bay by the glass, before taking the train onwards towards our third city, Valencia.
Here, we gladly breathe the coastal air from our rooftop apartment in the centre of the Old Town, seconds from Plaza de La Reina. This is the heartbeat of the city, with its famous cathedral, bustling restaurants and manicured green. We are instantly in love. We are also blessed to have a local friend guide us on a walk from the plaza towards City Hall at Plaza Ayuntamiento and the bullring at Plaza de Toros, while to the north we pass Plaza de La Virgen and its Basilica, to Jardines del Turia.
Formerly a river, these gardens circle the city, linking it by bridge to the suburbs on one side, and continuing southeast past the ultra modern and architecturally impressive City of Arts and Sciences en route to the sea.
Meanwhile, we have to eat. Again! This time, it's tapas at trendy Mercado Colon (mercadocolon.es), its colourful Gaudi-esque exterior contrasting with a shopping arcade modernity. Later we satisfy our "real saffron Paella" craving at Bar Almudin, a hidden gem in Old Town. It's like a doll's house inside, with a tiny stairway leading to the equally tiny balcony, and mahogany tables made from old sewing machines.
Another treat is Bodeguilla del Gato (+34 963 918235) next door on Calle Catalans. It serves up the best tapas of the trip, and true hospitality despite the late hour. These Valencians are a warm breed indeed.
Before leaving Valencia, a visit to the cathedral seems fitting - a chalice on display there is said to be the Holy Grail. That's exactly how this holiday feels.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Iberia (iberia.com) fly from Dublin to Madrid. Taxis cost a €30 flat rate from Barajas to the city, while trains depart Atocha Station for Seville and Valencia (raileurope.com).
For more to see and do in Spain and its cities, visit spain.info.
Trains in Spain
A First Class pass on Spain's RENFE (renfe.com) costs €252 approximately for up to four trips in one month, plus reservation costs which vary. Remember to purchase a reservation for each segment of your trip. The system can be confusing, so check raileurope.com for explainers.
Where to stay
Olivia and friends booked an apartment in Madrid with Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO.com; €40pp). A three-bed penthouse in Valencia cost €50pp with valencialuxury.com. In Seville, rooms at the Melia Hotel (melia.com) cost from roughly €80 per night.
Target your trip around the first Wednesday of the month for the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace (Palacio Real). It's a dazzling ceremony of Senors in shining armour on horseback, and takes place at noon, free of charge. The Palace is closed for tours on this day. Guided Tours cost €10.
This south western Spanish city makes an ideal off-season city break from October to April. If you must, however, visit during the scorching summer months, stay cool on the Cruceros Torre Del Oro (€15pp), a one-hour panoramic cruise on the Guadalquivir River. See crucerostorredeloro.com for more.
Breathe in this charming city on a bicycle. The Daily Bike Tour (€25) gives a three-hour first impression of the city, or cycle solo along the Turia Gardens from one end of the city to the other. Bike rental costs €5 per day at Valencia Bikes (valenciabikes.com) with two interchangeable pick-up/drop-off locations.