My husband is an avid train traveller. If he were given modes of transport to choose from, the train wins, hands down. Having said that, given that our kids have just flown the coop, our wanderlust came to surface as we discovered the appeal of having the freedom and time to travel ‘at a drop of a hat’. We decided it was time to resume our nomadic lifestyle while we can, albeit in comfort. So, in the spirit of celebrating our empty nest status, I set about searching for train travels known for luxury and gastronomy. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, great food and wine were essentials and the entire travel experience had to be decadent. This was after all a celebration of some kind, our rationale for having survived parenthood.
Finding a list of famous luxury train travel was relatively easy. My Google search brought me to the International Railway Society’s website which in 2011 was actively promoting FEVE’s recently launched luxury train trip across northern Spain. Ferrocarriles Espaňoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE) or narrow gauge railroads, is a state-owned Spanish railway company that controls most of Spain’s 1,250 km of metre gauge railway. It operates three tourist trains in Spain, one of which is the El Transcantábrico Classico. At the time, it was Spain’s answer to the luxury train trips of the world, providing train travellers an experience that evokes the same nostalgia of the fabled Orient Express, the exotic ambience of the Trans- Siberian rail and the romance of other notable deluxe trains of the world.
Twenty seven years later, FEVE went one step further and in May 2011, launched El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo, an exclusive, grand luxury train designed to satisfy the demands of the most discerning train traveller. “Gran Lujo” is Spanish for Grand Luxury and FEVE conceived of a special train that will live up to its name which it has. In 2012, El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was named the “most luxurious train” in the world along with the Blue Train of South Africa.
Having decided on El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo , we set off for Spain with great anticipation, imagining a Spanish version of train legends like the Orient express. Mind you, I stress the word imagine as we haven’t experienced the renowned Orient express either.
For various reasons, we opted for the west to east route that started from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia all the way to San Sebastian in the Basque region. The journey was to be over a period of seven nights and eight days.
Our tour group was told to assemble at the famed Parador Los Reyes Catolicos, located in the Plaza do Obradoiro in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, right next to its equally celebrated Cathedral of Saint James. We met our fellow train travellers for a group briefing at the lobby of the hotel, the best of Spain’s paradores. Paradors are government-sponsored hotels in buildings of important cultural and historical interest.
After the briefing and a tour of the town centre and its attraction, we were transported by luxury coach from Santiago de Compostela to the train station in Ferrol where El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was on the narrow track ready to take us on our trip of a lifetime. We were greeted by the crew assembled on the platform alongside the train, resplendent in their gold-trimmed uniforms and black bow ties. It was indeed an impressive way to be welcomed and certainly set the tone for our five- star experience!
But nothing prepared us for the experience that was the train itself .To say that El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo is the gem of the FEVE train fleet is an understatement. With only fourteen double suites (two compartments in a carriage, thus one suite occupying half the carriage); this exclusive train can accommodate an intimate group of twenty-eight people. Each large suite is wood panelled, air conditioned, fitted with a queen bed or two twin beds, a living room, large windows, and a private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Each passenger is provided with amenity kits of a full range of high-end toiletry brands and bathroom accessories such as a hair dryer and bathrobes. It also features private PC with Internet access, flat screen TVs with on-demand movies, and games console. Although, I should add that the Internet access seems dependent on where the train is travelling and in most cases, only works when the train pulls in a station.
Here’s a brief rundown of how the days unfolded during the eight-day journey. Passengers started with a full breakfast on board while the train chugged along the track. Soon after, the train stopped at the chosen historic and cultural site where, at the station, the luxury bus that surreptitiously tailed the train overnight met the travellers for a guided tour. This was followed by a multi- course lunch (usually three courses) at the operator’s chosen local restaurant of repute and then back to the train for a little siesta, or a drink or two at the train bar. Soon after, the train stopped again at the next destination where once more, the luxury bus took over to ferry passengers for a tour on the bus and on foot to attractions not accessible by bus. The day culminated with a multi -course dinner, needless to say, at a fabulous local restaurant. Finally, passengers were taken back to the train where entertainment was provided and more drinks at the lounge bar which was also some hybrid club and then, bedtime for most; but the adventurous also were given the choice to savour the town’s nightlife and make the most of the train’s overnight stop. As you can imagine, a full day with so much food to sample could cause digestive discomfort, which could lead to wakefulness, or worse, sleepless nights. Under normal circumstances, getting a good night’s sleep was not a worry at all.When I told a friend we were going to vacation in Northern Spain on a train, she was horrified with the thought of sleepless nights disturbed by the swaying and noise created by a rattling locomotive. With El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, this was not going to be the case. Each night, the train would remain stationary at the railway station to allow passengers a peaceful night’s sleep. I thought that this was paramount.
A word to the wise from me: If you are an obsessive weight watcher, you will find it difficult to resist the tempting cuisine. You’ll either have to miss out on the gastronomic delights or ditch the diet! Dieting is definitely not an option!
Another key point to note is with so much history and culture to take in, a tour guide can make or break an otherwise exceptional tour. With El Transcantábrico’s tour expert who spoke five languages fluently communication was not an issue. The guide’s every utterance about the facts, history and trivia of the places we explored made the tour one that wasn’t only fabulous but highly educational and entertaining.
More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain)