WHEN I arrive in Santiago, in the region of Galicia, I am glad to see that it is drizzling. Gabriel García Márquez, whose grandmother was from Galicia, said that seeing this place without rain would be a disappointment, because Galicia is a mythical land "and in mythical lands the sun never comes out."
I am here to roll across northern Spain on El Transcantábrico, a touring train owned by the Spanish national narrow-gauge railway company, FEVE. A meanderer by nature, preferring the gradual approach over the immediate way, I have long dreamed of this trip by rail. Stopping at towns and fishing villages en route, El Transcantábrico takes a week to wind along 600 miles of the coast that borders the area known as Green Spain.
This is not the Spain of bullfights and sunny beaches. Rather than guitars and castanets, one hears bagpipes -- among the many influences of the Celts who settled here until about 100 B.C. The geography is mountainous, with the Picos de Europa forming a misty backdrop much of the way and setting off lush green fields, fishing villages, ocean, and rias, or estuary waters.
Traveling from Santiago to San Sebastián (or the reverse), the train passes through the four autonomous regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. Two or three stops a day include bus and walking tours focused on local architecture and history. Also known as "the gastronomic route," the journey features elegant meals, often incorporating the fresh fish for which northern Spain is famous, in such settings as a small castle designed ; and a renovated stable.
I'm not due to meet the train for a few hours, so I make my way through Santiago de Compostela along one of the many pedestrian streets, cobbled and narrow, that wind among convents and churches. Tapas bars serve empanadas filled with tuna, tiny, almost sweet green peppers fried with oil and sea salt, and crusty fresh bread. The city's distinctive cheese, tetilla, shaped like a breast, is mild and creamy and sits audaciously in pairs in restaurant windows.
The devout believe that the remains of Saint James were found in this city, on the spot where the cathedral was built. Santiago is therefore considered Catholicism's third holiest place, after Rome and Jerusalem, and since the Middle Ages millions have traversed the pilgrims' route to the city.
On a street near the cathedral I pass a man playing an organ; "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" echoes off the stone archway above him. The rain begins again, and water gleams in sunlight.
It rains in Santiago,
my sweet love.
White camellia of the air,
shadowy shines the sun.
So wrote Federico García Lorca of this city. Umbrellas pop up along the street in a synchronized dance. The local people conspire with their climate. If you happen to visit on a sunny day, the people will tell you, "Oh, but you must see Santiago in the rain!"
At the Hotel de los Reyes Católicos, a luxurious parador, I meet the group that will ride El Transcantábrico. Natalia, our guide, directs us where to put our luggage. She is from Asturias and blonde -- not unusual for Spaniards from the north -- and she speaks five languages, though for this group she will need only three. In a patter she will keep up with unflagging energy throughout the week, she begins in Spanish, for the majority (two couples from Madrid, five Catalans, a small Puerto Rican group), followed by English for the Americans, British, and Swedish among us, and then German for the few Swiss and Germans. There are thirty-four of us this week, though the train can accommodate fifty-four.
The first official meal of the trip is lunch at this hotel, once a hospital for the nobility. The food of the north is sumptuous and unpretentious -- fish and meat, wonderful cream and cheese sauces, potatoes in myriad forms. Our meals are served on Spanish time: lunch at two or three, dinner around nine.
Today we eat green salad topped with jamón serrano, a prosciutto-like ham. I look at my nine utensils, and a table companion kindly tells me to begin from the outside and work toward the plate. She is the well-manicured wife of a former U.S. diplomat, so I take her word for it. The salad is followed by coquilles Saint Jacques (a scallop dish that is, of course, named for Saint James) and a fine Ribeiro, a white wine from the region. Next comes prime rib with potatoes, served with a Márques de Cáceres Rioja. Dessert is a cream-filled crepe, folded like a napkin.
This is my first experience with tour-group travel, and I am intrigued by how clannish we are from the outset. The two couples from Madrid, previously strangers, find each other immediately. Likewise the Catalans herd together, as do the Swedish couples. At this first meal I, too, am drawn to travelers from my country -- the security of the familiar. But as the trip progresses, our seating arrangements and activities will become more inclusive. The shy young German traveling with her mother and brother will tentatively break away from them to befriend me. The Madrileños will teach me the Spanish way to drink Asturian hard cider (everyone from the same cup). The humor of the Puerto Ricans, prone to loud bursts of laughter from the back of the tour bus, will soon infect the rest of us.
AFTER lunch we ride a bus from Santiago to this town, where Francisco Franco was born and where El Transcantábrico awaits us. There is a reception in the dining car: velvet cushions, little lamps glowing from each table, waiters offering cava, Spain's sparkling wine. Three more "lounge" cars follow this one -- another dining car, a bar, and a nightclub with a dance floor -- and then come four sleeping cars with shared baths.