I have dreamed of a trip onboard the famed, yet uber-expensive, Orient Express for decades. So when I learned about El Transcantábrico Clásico, a luxury train that runs along the coastline of Spain, I thought this would be my Spanish version of a glamorous, old-fashioned train journey through Europe.
The El Transcantábrico Clásico is a weeklong train ride through the region known as “Green Spain,” a 1,242-mile stretch of shoreline on the northern Iberian peninsula that encompasses four regions—Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Basque Country—that hug the northern Cantabrian coast. Traveling from León to Santiago de Compostela (or vice versa), the 38-passenger train features a highly attentive staff who have arranged every single detail of the group itinerary. All excursions, meals and transportation are enjoyed by your intimate group all at the same time.
If you’ve been to Barcelona or Madrid or Spain’s Mediterranean coast, there is simply no comparison between those highly popular Spanish destinations and the often-overlooked Spanish cities further north. What you’ll find along the El Transcantábrico Clásico’s route are rugged hills, apple orchards, Celtic heritage, and many other Spanish surprises.
I hopped onboard in Bilbao, doing one of the 5- or 6-night itineraries that join the train after it has already begun its weeklong journey. Bilbao is a vibrant city worthy of a stay all its own, especially as home to the Guggenheim Museum, so I was happy to have spent a little extra time beforehand there before jumping on the train.
On the morning of embarking, I stood on an empty train platform in Bilbao, watching the stately blue and white El Transcantábrico Clásico enter the station. No other trains were around, so there were no other passengers around. The train slowly came to a stop along the platform and then everything was suddenly quiet, with just a large locomotive expectantly waiting for a handful of new passengers. The manager of the El Transcantábrico Clásico, a dapper gentleman who was always scurrying around finalizing details, stepped off the train and offered to show me to my room.
I had never been on a luxury train before—not even an Amtrak sleeper coach, for that matter. I’ve traveled on the high-speed TGV and inter-city European trains, but never on a train where you’re meant to stay a while and travel in the comfort of your own stateroom. So I was amazed at the compactness of train living.
My Junior Luxury Suite had a double bed facing the windows, as well as a closet, minibar and safe. Couples planning on sleeping in the bed together might want to measure the amount of room they require beforehand. The beds are 47″ wide by 73″ long. Sleeping by myself was no problem, but adding another person—especially a tall person—would have been an extremely tight fit. The bathroom had a shower that looked like it needed an instruction manual to operate, with all of the wonderful massaging and steaming options available, as well as a tiny toilet and sink with plenty of storage space for toiletries.
There was no time to worry about unpacking, though, as the group was getting ready to head out for sightseeing. Each day, group excursions are arranged, with the assistance of El Transcantábrico’s dedicated motor coach. The schedule is pretty rigid every day, and skipping the group itinerary entirely is not possible. The train often travels while the passengers are exploring, with the motor coach driving on to the next destination to join up with the train.
In Bilbao, a walking tour of the city started the day, before we headed back to the train mid-afternoon for lunch. Our tour guide Ana never failed to have a smile or a friendly word, even while doing the tours in two languages. Both Spanish and English are spoken on the El Transcantábrico Clásico. Tours often started with a Spanish explanation of whatever sight we were seeing, with an English translation afterward.
During the walking tour, historic and ancient buildings were pointed out, along with the dramatic modern building that is the Guggenheim. On the day of our train’s tour, the Guggenheim was closed, so everyone just took pictures outside. If a visit inside the popular museum is on your to-do list, make sure you check the itinerary before signing up to see if your day in Bilbao is the same as the museum’s scheduled day off.
Tip: If a visit inside the popular museum is on your to-do list, make sure you check the itinerary before signing up to see if your day in Bilbao is the same as the museum’s scheduled day off.
Lunch onboard was just the beginning of a culinary feast that would last the entire week. Breakfast was always served onboard, and about half of the lunches were served on the train. Dinners were always at a nice restaurant in town, with at least three courses—if not more—and plenty of wine! All meals and alcohol served with the meals are included.
On the train, tables for two are arranged beneath the windows of the two separate dining cars. Fancy china and glassware with linen tablecloths set the stage for a meal to be savored. Almost every single meal in this region near the sea is heavy on seafood. Local delicacies are showcased on the day that you travel through each destination. If you like a certain torte, pastry or main dish, you better eat up, as you won’t find it again in another meal.
Dining is a big draw of the entire El Transcantábrico itinerary. Hours are devoted to set menus of fine meals, but there are plenty of other highlights on the itinerary that don’t involve the local cuisine.
A visit to the Altamira Museum offers visitors a fascinating look into the discovery of the cave paintings found in Santillana del Mar. Walk through a recreation of the historic paintings and learn more than you ever thought possible about the intrigue and backstabbing central to the discovery of this artwork on rock.
Another great visit is the one we offered to Picos de Europa National Park. Mountaintop views and wildflowers surrounding calm lakes are a surprise to many who think of Spain as only flamenco dancers and palm tree-lined beaches. Cowbells echoed through the mountains as our group took a short hike in grassy fields where huge bovines grazed.
The architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, the cider houses of Gijon, the old streets of Oviedo, towering rock formations of Cathedral Beach, and the tiny fishing villages of Asturias round out an impressive list of sights to be seen throughout the weeklong romp through Spain.
At night, once the last glasses of wine had been consumed and the umpteenth course of a seafood extravaganza had been put away, our motorcoach would drive everyone back to the train station. The train does not travel through the night. Rather, you sleep onboard in a train station. A lounge car with a bar is where most passengers unwind before bed, as well as in the library car that features a computer and internet service.
All too soon, our journey came to a close in Santiago de Compostela. We packed up our belongings and the crew loaded them onto the motorcoach, and then we were driven to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the early morning. Unloading in the historic courtyard outside of the cathedral, where weary pilgrims were finishing their miles-long spiritual walk and dropping to the ground out of sheer exhaustion, we were allowed a firsthand account of how revered this section of Spain is to so many travelers.
The destinations along the El Transcantábrico Clásico route might not include the big names found in the guidebooks. But a journey through Green Spain will connect you with authentic Spanish culture and extremely welcoming locals without the crowds of mass tourism—and no matter what form of transport you use, that’s a great reason to visit this region.