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A Train in Spain
Across northern Spain by rail, from Galicia to the Basque Country

by Lucy McCauley


Train in spain
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

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.
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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 by Antonio Gaudí; and a renovated stable.

Train in spain 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!"

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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.

Sketches

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.

EL FERROL

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.

Walking through the train involves zigzagging through narrow aisles. A luxury passenger train since 1983, El Transcantábrico runs on a narrow-gauge track, a mere one meter across, designed for lugging coal along mountain curves and coastline.

Fond of small spaces, I hope for a little burrow of a room. I am not disappointed. In my five-by-six-foot cabin are two single bunks, a covered sink, a chest of drawers, a mirrored cabinet, and several hooks with hangers.

The door shuts behind me, and the train jerks forward, the whistle blows, the track slaps beneath my feet. I sink into my bed and rock with the train, watching the landscape. White farmhouses stand stark against green fields. Two boys on a high wall toss rocks onto the train roof. A woman sits in a second-floor window, watching us go by. I wonder if she always knows when the train will come -- if she waits for it.

In our eight days of travel we will make close to thirty stops, including overnights in stations. Here are a few highlights.

LUARCA

A TINKLING bell in the hall announces breakfast. In the dining cars tables are set with flutes of fresh orange juice, and breakfast is a buffet of croissants, cheeses, jamón serrano, eggs, melon. The train begins to move, and I watch a landscape that sharply contrasts with yesterday's. Green fields, where sheep graze and horses gallop, have changed to craggy coastline.

We have crossed from Galicia into Asturias. The sun streams through the ever-present mist as we pull into the fishing village of Luarca. A chapel glows white against the sky on a hill above town, a cemetery of marble overlooks the ocean, waves sift over sand with the sound of grain through a sieve. Down the hill from the cemetery is a granite table, a bench encircling it. On a wall above, painted tiles depict Luarca fishermen sitting at that same table, where until a century ago they would meet and place pieces of slate into a small model ship, voting whether to go to sea.

While Natalia tells us about Luarca's shellfishing industry, five white-haired women file in behind her to sit on a low wall overlooking the bay. How many of their ancestors sat at that granite table and weighed in with their pieces of slate? In widows' black cardigans they sit staunchly on the wall, their knees apart like men's, some leaning on canes. Soon their laughing voices rise above Natalia's, reclaiming this space from the tourists. I wonder if we are the show, or if they meet daily at this hour to share stories before going home to cook the evening meal.

LLANES

THIS is the most popular summer tourist spot in Asturias, with thirty or more crowded beaches tucked into coves. But now, in early fall, windswept, with seagulls crying overhead, it feels like the simple fishing town it is. Until a hundred years ago men hunted whales here; a restaurant now perches on a cliff where, according to local legend, a watchman would light a bonfire each time he sighted a whale.

On a lush hilltop promenade enormous yucca plants burst like green fingers from the ground. Century plants tower twelve feet in the air, with spiked, pineapple-like trunks and tufted pompon branches. Regarded from this promenade, the old city wall stands outlined against the gray sky, the blue Picos de Europa looming in the distance.

Back in town I enter a shop where ceramic witches in pointed hats stand on a shelf. I've seen these miniatures in other shops around northern Spain. When I ask the shopkeeper about them, her face goes blank. "They're decoration," she says flatly.

But I've heard the stories: brujería -- witchcraft -- is as much a constant in northern Spain as fishing is. When the fishing is poor for a long time, people whisper about hexes. Special herbs can be had from certain people who know how to cure. Odd things appear on people's doorsteps: a magpie's head, a black squirrel's tail. Sometimes they're good omens, sometimes not.

SANTANDER

Boat SANTANDER, the capital of Cantabria and one of the most modern cities in northern Spain, has a population of almost 200,000. The people look European-chic: the men have sleek black hair and dress in double-breasted jackets, and the women wear stacked-heel leather boots.

I walk among people out for the paseo -- the evening stroll -- along a garden blooming near the sea. A main port of Spain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Santander retains much of its period architecture, despite several fires in this century that forced extensive rebuilding.

Darkness falls, and buildings glow under floodlights. I stop in a bar open to the sea. A white-haired man, his mouth full of olives, is talking to the bartender. They both listen patiently as I explain that I've forgotten the name of the restaurant where I'm to meet my group for dinner. I have an X marked on my map, but I can't figure out where I am. They examine the map and say they know the place with the X -- it's the tourist-information office. Obviously I misunderstood Natalia's instructions.

"Let us feed you," says the man with olives in his mouth.

"Yes, a nice tapa de tortilla," the bartender says.

I'm hungry and tired from walking. I decide to sit down, and the bartender puts a plate of olives in front of me. This would feel different in the States: a lone woman at a bar. But Spanish tapas bars, the center of social life, feel embracing rather than alienating. Soon a tortilla -- a potato omelet -- and a beer arrive, and I am warmed by the food and the soft murmur of conversations around me, the feeling of being a part of this moment in this bar in Santander.

GUERNICA

IT'S another overcast morning, and as we pull into Guernica, in the Basque Country, I feel a chill. It seems wrong to arrive on a tour bus at this place with so many ghosts. During the Spanish Civil War more than 1,600 people died here, on April 26, 1937, killed by bombs dropped from German planes on Franco's orders.

Picasso, hearing of the bombing while in France, began the famous painting that bears the name of this town. He wouldn't allow Guernica to be exhibited in his native Spain while Franco ruled; today it hangs in Madrid's Reina Sofía Arts Center.

On our walk through Guernica, Natalia's voice, which has been consistently upbeat throughout the trip, suppresses emotion as she describes what happened here, a place that for centuries was the seat of Basque government. Here we see the stump of the 300-year-old oak tree that is the city's symbol; from the Renaissance until the Napoleonic wars, in the early 1800s, Basque leaders gathered under the tree. It is now enshrined in a rotunda on the lawn, and Basque leaders meet in the nearby parliament building.

SAN SEBASTIÁN

Boat THIS is the end of the line: a city on a bay shaped like a perfect ring, a small break where the sea rushes in. On the promenade above the beach people step to the dance of the paseo. In a modern variation on this centuries-old tradition of the evening stroll, teenagers wearing Day-glo jackets Rollerblade by. The rain comes suddenly, in sheets. The sea mutes to deep gray, and umbrellas open along the promenade.

Rain has felt as much a part of this trip as the green fields, the looming Picos de Europa, the turquoise estuaries. García Márquez was right about Galicia and the rain, but maybe he should have included the whole coast in his declaration. These northern regions where the sun doesn't come out, where the eye falls upon miles of vibrant green grasses shrouded in white mist, have all seemed like a mythical land.
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The week-long train journey, including all meals and multilingual tours, costs $1,500 per person, double occupancy; suites are an extra $300. The train season runs from June through the end of September. Reservations may be made with most travel agents, or more information may be obtained from the Tourist Office of Spain, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10103; phone 212-265-8822; fax 212-265-8864.

Illustrations by Mary Woodin
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; A Train in Spain; Volume 280, No. 1; pages 40-43.

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