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Take the slow train

Tom Chesshyre on the joy and rattle of Spain’s local lines

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It seems a lifetime ago. Crossing the border into Spain on the train from Toulouse to Figueres, Salvador Dali’s old town, in July 2019, four guards wearing bulletproof vests and holsters with revolvers entered our carriage. The snowy peaks of the Pyrenees rose ahead above a valley of vines; a handful of passengers enjoying the view from the top deck of the combined Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF) and Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Espanoles (RENFE) service.

The guards passed along, casually requesting documents. Yet on reaching my table, where I sat alone, the female officer took one look at my guidebook and backpack, made a mental calculation, smiled, said a friendly “Buenos días” and moved on. No passport required: I was in, my Rough Guide to Spain apparently sufficient “paperwork”.

Back then, when no one had even heard of Covid-19, different matters preoccupied Europe’s border officials

Now, of course, it is another matter with shifting requirements for Covid tests and passenger locator forms for quarantines — changing so often you need to have your wits about you to visit Spain or anywhere. Not to mention the current illegality of British travel abroad at all until 17 May (and France banning tourists, too).

Yet to enter Spain by train so easily back in that pre-Covid summer felt liberating. The Iberian peninsula awaited at the end of a mountain tunnel as well as — for me — a 3,000-mile journey on what turned out to be 52 clattering rides across the intriguing, extremely hot country for a travel book, Slow Trains Around Spain.

Europe was in the midst of a “Saharan bubble” heatwave that saw temperatures in the European nation closest to Africa, nine miles across the Strait of Gibraltar, touch 43°C.

At Figueres Station, however, passage into Spain from France, for one passenger at least, was not such a simple affair. On the platform, a black man had been cornered by the guards, who were grilling him. He looked terrified, shakily holding forth flimsy pieces of paper along with his passport. Back then, when no one had even heard of Covid-19, different matters preoccupied Europe’s border officials.

Spain was late to trains. The first “Spanish” line was in Cuba, then part of its empire, in 1837. It was only in 1848 that the inaugural home track, of about 20 miles, was laid along its east coast between Mataro and Barcelona; by then Britain and other parts of Europe, especially France, Belgium and Germany, were well advanced.

Why the delay? Well, one of the reasons, put simply, was fear of invasion. With Napoleon’s exploits fresh in minds, the wisdom of laying tracks that might allow an outsider to roll merrily to Madrid was questioned.

So when the first lines were laid, a tactical decision was made to employ a wider gauge of rail track (five feet, six and five-eighth inches) than the “standard” gauge of most of the rest of Europe (four feet, eight and a half inches). The unfortunate knock-on effect of this incompatibility was a loss of potential trade via France and a slow start for Spanish trains that continued well into Franco years. At the time of the dictator’s death in 1975, some steam trains still chugged — admittedly rather prettily — across the plains.

The best way to see the country is by its regional services that rattle between the 17 autonomous communities

Skip forwards to 1992, however, when a Madrid-Seville high-speed line opened (in time for Expo ’92), with a subsequent burgeoning of bullet services across Spain on standard gauge tracks into France (no longer deemed adanger), and the country now has one of the finest rail networks anywhere.

You do not have to stick to fast trains though, the speediest of which go by the appropriate name of Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE); ave means bird in Spanish, and they certainly do fly along. The best way to see the country is by its regional services that rattle between the 17 autonomous communities, often taking twice as long as the sleek, purringly quick AVEs.

This is what I did that sweltering summer, starting in Figueres, after visiting the brilliant Dali Theatre-Museum, dropping down along Spain’s original line beyond Barcelona, cutting through Catalonia (via a diversion to the excellent Catalonia Rail Museum in Vilanova i la Geltru and the steep cog-railway to the Monserrat monastery) onto Aragon and San Sebastián. From there, little narrow-gauge trains rolled along the north coast towards Santiago de Compostela. Then I span south to Madrid, west to Extremadura, east to Valencia, south to Benidorm, and west again via Granada to Seville.

The result? A big wobbly “S” of a journey and indelible memories aplenty. Soaring viaducts, parched plains, plunging ravines, remote stations, sleepy towns — and, best of all, the splendid freedom of the tracks. Viva España! And Viva going again un día pronto (one day soon).

Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-mile Adventure on 52 Rides by Tom Chesshyre is published by Summersdale (£16.99)

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