Saturday 18 November 2017

Northern Spain: 'Cruise with rails' the perfect way to travel

The El Transcantabrico trains are a great way to taste the variety of delights in Northern Spain, says Eleanor Goggin

REIGN IN SPAIN: There are fantastic sights all over northern Spain, from the natural, such as
the Picos de Europa
REIGN IN SPAIN: There are fantastic sights all over northern Spain, from the natural, such as the Picos de Europa

Elanor Goggin

MY experience of train travel to date has pretty much been the journey from Cork to Dublin, with screaming kids and screaming mobile phone users. What a change it was to be travelling through the lush countryside of northern Spain reclining on my bed in my wood-panelled room, complete with sauna shower, book in hand, watching the world go by.

Northern Spain has always been one of my favourite places for many reasons, not least its landscape, medieval cities and its people. We were travelling on El Transcantabrico, 'a cruise on rails' and our journey was taking us from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia to San Sebastian in the Basque country. It was great to have a hotel on wheels. Unpack once, hang up the clothes and that's it. A brilliant way to cover a vast area without the hassle of moving from hotel to hotel.

Of course, in my case, nothing could be that easy. I unpacked and went on to the platform with one of my male travelling companions to feed my nicotine addiction and just as I lit up the train pulled out. Running after trains is not my forte, but I like to think I boarded with a certain amount of panache, somewhat reminiscent of a scene from a James Bond movie. I racked my brains to think of a James Bond girl to compare myself with, and before I could say Pussy Galore, another travelling companion suggested Miss Moneypenny. He is not on my Christmas card list.

There are currently two El Transcantabrico trains covering northern Spain but from this year the second train will be even more luxurious and have 'Privilege Suites' with a lounge area, separate bedroom area and bathroom. The staff, under manager Emillo, couldn't do enough for us and joined us for a Champagne party on the last night.

Our journey took us along the Costa Verde and we started in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia and one of the three main places of pilgrimage in the world. The square around the cathedral was swarming with pilgrims all hoping to have their sins absolved. Some were crying with emotion and exhaustion -- a humbling experience. The city itself is pedestrianised and compact enough to stroll through its cobbled streets and pick up a souvenir or two or stop at one of the basement bars in Rua do Franco. The beauty of this area is that you are never far from the sea and beaches. There are 735 beaches in the area and many of the small medieval towns we visited, such as Viviero and Ribadeo, were old fishing ports. There's a big Celtic influence here and bagpipes are the traditional musical instrument.

Our moving hotel took us from Galicia into the nearby region of Asturias. Woody Allen says that if he were to 'hide' anywhere it would be Asturias, and its capital, the beautiful university city of Oviedo, pays homage to him with a bronze statue in one of its main streets. Asturias is renowned for its cider-making and Oviedo has a whole boulevard dedicated to cider bars. The tradition is that everyone drinks from the same glass and leaves a little in the end to rinse the rim for the next person. A total waste of good drink, to my mind.

From there we took a bus trip up the Cantabrian mountain range to the Covadonga lakes in the Picos de Europa. While my travelling companions took a walk to a higher lake, I decided to sit on a rock and soak up the atmosphere. The scenery changed every five minutes: one moment the lake was shrouded in mist and five minutes later it was clear and sunny again, each vista a delight.

Then it was back to our cosy train and the route to Cantabria, and Santander its capital, taking in the towns and villages of Ribadesella and Cabezon de la Sal and the unspoilt little village of Santillana del Mar. Santander boasts the largest bay in northern Spain and is surrounded by sandy beaches. Its wealth is evident from the huge private houses in many areas. After a trip to the palace, now a university, a short stroll down the hill brought us up close and personal with tiny penguins and seals in a natural maritime zoo.

Our next port of call was San Sebastian in the Basque country. My last trip here was to see my heroes Munster beaten by Biarritz in the Heineken Cup, but despite our humiliation, my memory of Donastia, as the Basques call it, was second to none. And I wasn't disappointed second time around. It's a fabulous city with its beaches, cobbled streets in the old town and tapas bars. The Basques love the Irish so there's always a special welcome on the mat. Bilbao is another city with a lovely old town and quirky 19th-Century arcaded Plaza Nueva in the centre, full of bars and individual little shops. And to get away form the bars and the general hedonism, a cultural morning was well spent in the famous Guggenheim Museum.

The whole of northern Spain is beautiful, authentic and friendly, but the main memory I will take away is the food. Given that I had joined Unislim before I went, I suppose I wasn't in the best place, but you only live once, as Pussy Galore or someone said, so I let rip and gorged for the week.

Galicia is proud of its seafood and lunch at the Sport Restaurant, renowned for its hake pie and goose-necked barnacles, was not a disappointment. Dinner at the waterfront Annua Restaurant in Cabezon de la Sal, consisting of foie gras, grilled scallops in almond soup and Iberian pork shoulder with plum, apple and nut snow was surely slimming. And the vast range of absolutely scrumptious 'pinchos' or tapas in Casa Lita in Santander was definitely within Unislim guidelines!

Asturias is well known for its Fabada Asturiana, a stew with white beans, pork, black sausage and chorizo, and the big bowl I had at Gil Blas Parador in Santillana del Mar was divine. But the piece de resistance was in Martin Berasategui's restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, consisting of an 11-course tasting menu. Mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions and green apple, and roasted pigeon with a fresh pasta mushrooms, spring onions and light touches of truffle cream to name but two. He has three Michelin stars and I now have three Michelin tyres around my stomach. I'll be back when I'm slim.


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