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The Train in Spain Stays Mainly on the Plain

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My decision to experience the 13-hour train journey from Santiago de Compostela to Barcelona was made by Paul Theroux. Maybe not directly, but The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express and his other railway epics have always drawn me to lengthy train journeys.

I craved the sound of metal on metal, the accelerated change in scenery, the chatter of friendly pilgrims on their return home.

I wanted to be on that train with Theroux, I wanted to meet his travel companions and make his experiences mine. Why else would I spend a day on the rails rather than speed through the skies to my destination in just over an hour?

Train in Spain - station at Santiago de Compostela

Departure. 0840.

8:40 am: I almost miss the train in Santiago because I’ve got my back to it. In their wisdom the Spanish RENFE, which runs trains in Spain, scheduled simultaneous two trains on adjacent platforms, going in opposite directions. A friendly pilgrim turns me towards the correct train.

And I call myself a veteran traveler.

8:42 am: The train pulls out on a heavy, foggy day, the first time the sun is hiding since I arrived nearly a week ago. Pilgrims returning from the Camino crowd the narrow aisles with their backpacks, prying off their shoes and discussing feet, callouses, blisters and bandages.

Damn. Where did I put those motion sickness pills?

9:20 am: We reach Ourense, the Galician for Orense, as the city was known when I was growing up in Spain. We’re in the heart of Spain’s westernmost province, with hills and trees and so much green that a drought here is hard to imagine – but it hasn’t rained for weeks. The fog lifts slightly and the clouds are lined up in stripes, as though painted by an Impressionist.

That’s a vapor trail from an aircraft. I could have been in Barcelona by now. I think I packed the pills at the bottom of my big pack. I’ll never find them. Where’s the coffee car?

10:11 am: The few remaining seats have been taken by passengers from Ourense and the dense green countryside probably teems with wild boar and deer, like my own Jura Mountains back in France. We ramble towards Monforte de Lemos, whose crumbling fort I can see in the distance. The sun is fighting to break through the clouds, but it lacks conviction. The forest slowly gives way to smallholdings, each a spot of land cut up by successive generations.

train coffee carSomeone just sat next to me. Potential conversation? But what is this guy wearing? Aftershave of Death?

10:38 am: The landscape suddenly opens to reveal a breathtaking body of water, certainly man-made. A canoe could slice across it like a knife through ripe avocado. Not a ripple in sight, just miles of smooth water ringed by a rugged shore and the lengthy shadow of a few trees as the sun tries, again, to poke through. The stillness is deceptive: this is hydropower, harnessed through a long stretch of dams and reservoirs. The waters are smooth because the dams are still closed.

Wait a minute. The train is now moving backwards?? Noooo! Until León, you say? Need those pills. 

11:13 am: The complimentary video screens switch on and we are subjected to that most sublime of tortures, Spanish audio dubbing. If your eyes are elsewhere and the sound is on, the voiceovers are so deadpan you might not know whether you’re watching a comedy or a horror movie. Outside, the trees have evolved from green to autumnal auburn and we’re on the way to Ponferrada, where we unfortunately won’t be able to see the Templar castle from the train.

What is that sound? A video?? Agh please, no Spanish dubbing, make it a silent movie, or Russian, or owl hoots, anything but dubbing. Wait, that little round purple thing in the seat pocket – the top twists off – EARBUDS! Music channels. Interesting… I’d call it gypsy Asturian rap. Or pigs being slaughtered with rhythm. Video sound is up so I have stereo – cartoons in one ear and music channel in the other. Headache pills.

12:51 pm: We’ve passed Astorga, a high point on the Camino and site of an episcopal palace designed by Gaudí, the Catalan architect. Apparently the palace wasn’t episcopal enough and the then Bishop refused to move into the too-whimsical structure.

Oh God, thank you for making the train go forward again and I promise I’ll be nice to the next person who sits beside me. Mr Aftershave is replaced by Red Turtleneck who smells like a cigarette dipped in wine and in search of deodorant. He snores. The seats are numbered and the train is full. I’m stuck. Whatever happened to the curious, friendly, interesting passengers I was going to while away the time with?


1:16 pm: We’re pulling into León, one of the original kingdoms of Castile, and the sun has made a breakthrough. These are the plains I remember as a child – flattish, arid, unrelenting. León is also home to (in addition to some imposing Gothic and Renaissance architecture) another Gaudí creation, the Casa de Botines. Everything he built is worth seeing, I begin to believe.

2:12 pm: Palencia. When I was young this was considered an even greater backwater than my own town, Valladolid, which by the way is no longer a backwater, with its autoroute and airport. We are en route to Burgos, the proper capital of Castilla and another Camino way station. We’re soon leaving the arid flatlands behind and heading northwards, where windmills reign and trees make a timid reappearance.

Red Turtleneck stepped off and maybe I’ll be able to breathe now. He’s replaced by Gameboy Wizard, the swearing teenager. Each time he wins he rams his elbows upward and into me. Clearly no sense of personal space. 

3:58 pm: The hills are growing into young, pointy mountains again as we speed north and soon we’re in modern Vitoria, the Basque capital. As a little girl I once tagged along with my father on a business trip and I have faint memories of a cozy steak house with a gruff chef called Julian who eyed you up and down and decided what and how much you would eat. I ended up with a large steak and delicious asparagus sauteed with ham. He knew!

If he continues ramming my foot with his I’m going to stomp him. Yikes – another movie! And the soundtrack is out of synch with the pictures. Let me think: do I listen to dissonant video, or dissonant video AND screeching music with headphones? Wait – Judy Dench in Spanish? Oh puhleeese. Time to go for another coffee, my fifth. Or sixth. A lady in the coffee car asks me to take her picture: human interaction at last! But she only speaks Bulgarian.

Hemingway and wife in Pamplona for the bulls

Hemingway with wife Hadley in a Pamplona cafe in July 1925, awaiting the running of the bulls for the Fiesta de San Fermin (from the John F. Kennedy Library)

5:12 pm: It’s early but the combination of smoked glass and cloudy sky – we’ve lost the sun again – makes it seem like nighttime. We lumber towards Pamplona, whose bullrunning was made famous by not one but two Ernest Hemingway novels. I can’t say running for my life ahead of angry bulls down a narrow street for four minutes would make my day but indeed, thousands do it each year between 7-14 July, just to show they have it in them. I certainly don’t.

Back to my seat. The movie is over but the end is caught in a loop – 3 bars of electric piano over and over and over. Am I the only one bothered by this? Are you all deaf?? The conductor is probably hiding, or hypnotized into numbness by the music music music. 

5:43 pm: I’ve never heard of Tafalla but according to legend it was founded by Noah’s grandson. If so, he must have been quite a traveler. The landscape has shifted to vineyards and the Rioja, Spain’s famous wine-producing region, is all around us. We race past long greenhouses, fertile plains and grain-production facilities: this is rich land, not the impoverished and tatty villages found further South. The agribusiness isn’t as widespread as in Andalusia but small farms have been wiped out and big business rules.

Now what’s that sound? Glorious silence! The music loop has stopped. Because… a new movie is going to begin. Maybe I’ll  grab that little red emergency hammer and hammer my way out of here. Movie title: “Carnage.” Sounds promising.

The vineyards of the Rioja

The vineyards of the Rioja

7:23 pm: We’ve left Zaragoza behind. It was once the midpoint in the ten-hour drive between Madrid and Barcelona, before high-speed trains and new roads were built. We’re leaving agribusiness behind and heading into denser territory, warrens of tiny farms stuck on to tiny villages. There should be mountains in the distance but I can’t see them because this time, night has fallen for real. Dozens of pilgrims are still on the train, quietly recovering from their weeks or months of walking.

Gameboy Wizard just got off. I don’t think anyone will replace him because we’re almost there. Can’t believe I haven’t spoken to a single passenger since I got on (unless nodding to a Bulgarian lady counts). I should know a dozen people by now. Numbered seats are for planes. Trains should be free seating, with cozy compartments so six or eight of us can get to know one another over the hours.

9:12 pm: We roll into Barcelona-Sants. Time for dinner. The train has stopped and I’m standing on the ground but I still feel like I’m swaying. I’m glad I did this and saw a slice of northern Spain. But I wouldn’t do it again.

I want to kiss the ground – it’s over, right? I’ll remember this as the Musical Mystery Lurching Stomach Tour. Not quite the Paul Theroux train journey I had in mind. And now – you’re mine, Barcelona!

One of Gaudi’s many Barcelona masterpieces


  1. Ele on October 22, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Thank you for a good post to end my day 🙂 I generally love train travel but yes neighbours can spoil the fun. But I’m glad you finally made it.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 22, 2012 at 8:16 pm

      Thanks Ele! I love train travel, and although my neighbors were rather… unexpected, there’s something about the constant forward movement and the destinations passing by that fascinates me. I tried to get off at each stop to take a photo of the station but the stops were so short I kept getting caught by the closing door!

  2. Jennifer on October 23, 2012 at 1:49 am

    Thank you for the laughs, Leyla! Did you ever end up stomping Gameboy Wizard? 😉

    I’ve done just a few long distance trains and every time I do, I think “why didn’t I just fly?!” But I do like our road trips because we have the freedom to just stop when we find a place that looks interesting.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 23, 2012 at 7:47 am

      I didn’t but I came uncomfortably close! When I got off the train I thought, never again. But now, a month later, I’m actually thinking of… the Trans-Siberian, possibly in a year or so. Gameboy Wizard did not succeed in keeping me off trains… 🙂 Next time though, I’d like to get off at a station once in a while!

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