Just the Ticket
One of the cheapest and best ways to travel the northern Spanish coast is by narrow gauge train, stopping off at gorgeous villages along the way. Just fly into Santander and take the train from there.
Snaking between the beautiful towns and villages along Spain's intriguing Costa Verde, the Feve train network is easy on the eye and the wallet. Nick Haslam takes a ride
PHOTO © GETTY
It’s a bright March afternoon by the sea in Santander, as I find myself aboard a two-carriage diesel train that, with a blast from its whistle, slowly chugs out west from the city’s central station. Ahead there is more than a week of meandering travel to the old port city of Ferrol – 500km away near Santiago de Compostela – through small towns and villages, and along verdant coast. A train nut and a Spain nut, I’ve wanted to make this journey ever since I’d heard of Feve (Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha), Europe’s longest narrow gauge train, running along Spain’s Costa Verde, or “Green Coast”.
THE 16.10 FROM SANTANDER TO LLANES It had taken me a while to persuade my other half, Solange – more used to the fast expresses of her native Belgium – of the benefits of slow train travel. As she settles back in her seat with an air of resignation, I know she’s not quite convinced yet.
Rattling along at a leisurely 50km/h, with frequent stops at tiny stations, the train winds through steep valleys and woodlands beneath the snow-covered, jagged peaks of the Cordillera Cantábrica. Neat gabled houses and vivid green pastures make me think of Austria (the sound of cowbells tinkling as we stop at a level crossing only adds to that impression).
As the sun dips over the mountains above, we leave the train at the little fishing village of Llanes and walk to a hotel above the harbour set in the former summerhouse of a 19th-century Spanish aristocrat. Supper that night in a local bar is a rich Asturian bean and chorizo stew, washed down with some of the strong local cider, which the barman pours skilfully from a bottle held high to produce a fine head of froth. Wandering back under a clear, star-filled sky, Solange admits with a touch of surprise that this slow train journey may have some merits after all.
Next morning I am up early and down by the quay, where I find old Llanes fisherman José Faustino repairing his nets.
“This is a great day for gathering percebes,” he says. “The sea’s flat and calm and there’s a big low tide.” The “goose barnacle”, an unappetising-looking shellfish with a rubbery neck and beaked shell, is a prized delicacy in Spain, costing a small fortune in smart Madrid restaurants and now making a name for itself in Europe’s finest establishments.
José, now in his 70s, had been a percebeiro, clambering onto rocks pounded by big Atlantic rollers to harvest the shellfish. “It’s all tightly controlled with quotas today,” he says with a rueful smile, “but in my day you could gather as many as you could. It was dangerous life – some of my friends were drowned.”
As if on cue the church bells above toll for mass, and with a start I realise I have a train to catch. I find Solange at the station, just in time to board the 11.13 to the historic port city of Gijón, more than 100km west.
THE 11.13 FROM LLANES TO GIJÓN
I ask the guard if I can ride in the cab, and the driver, Chema Iglesias, beckons me in with a smile. The line now runs above deserted beaches and, as we pass through tunnels so low I instinctively duck, he tells me that at night drivers have to be especially vigilant. “I have seen wild boar, deer, and once even a bull on the line! And when that happens you’ve got to hit this,” and he points to the polished brass button on the console, “the emergency brake.”
At 14.30 the train pulls into bustling Gijón, one of the biggest ports in northern Spain. We spend the afternoon exploring the Cimadevilla neighbourhood, the oldest part of town set on a rocky peninsula, where narrow cobbled streets open out to the sea.
Two German pilgrims following the Camino del Norte – a famous religious route – to Santiago de Compostela are walking the wide beach that fronts the city, and ask us for directions. They have walked from Santander, and still have a good way to go. “Why not take a ride on the Feve?” I ask Walter Schmidt from Hamburg, though doubting he will be keen to do so. “No, no!” he replies, looking shocked. “To be a real pilgrim you have to walk the whole way!”
Strolling along the beach we watch the surfers do their thing – with its Atlantic swells, Gijón attracts surfers from across Europe. We then head to the heart of Cimadevilla and Casa Zabala (2 C/ Vizconde de Campo Grande, tel: +34 985 341731), a restaurant set inside a former pilgrims’ hospital. Our filling supper consists of fabada (bean stew with meat) and a mug or two of sidra (local cider).
The next day, I too make a pilgrimage, to the Museo del Ferrocarril de Asturias (Asturias Train Museum). Museum director Javier Fernández leads a group of visitors around the vast sheds, where steam locomotives of varying vintage that have pulled trains on the 1m-wide lines over the past century stand side by side.
THE 14.32 FROM GIJÓN TO LUARCA
That afternoon a light rain falls, as our train rattles by steel mills with high chimneys outside Gijón and then through a series of tunnels into wooded valleys running to steep coves. Our next destination is Luarca, the biggest fishing port in Asturias, with countless trawlers moored in the small curving harbour. Now at last we reckon is the moment to eat percebes, at the stylish Restaurante Sport (9 C/ Rivero, tel: +34 985 641078) by the quay. I order a 200g portion, costing €25. Following instructions, we pluck the strange rubbery neck from the shell. Its appearance totally belies the delicious flavour of the tender flesh within, tasting like a distillation of the sea itself. It’s a meal many pilgrims must have had in decades and centuries past along the way to Santiago de Compostela. Years ago they would not have had the opportunity to take the train, as one bedraggled Spanish pilgrim we meet (complete with scallop shell tied to his staff), during a heavy downpour at Luarca station the next day, is about to do. “Not walking?” I ask, thinking back to Walter. “Hombre,” he replies with a smile, “too wet.” He nods skywards. “I don’t suppose that He will mind too much.”
THE 17.03 FROM LUARCA TO FERROL
The rain follows us as we enter Galicia, winding around the beautiful Ría de Ribadeo and then through woods where deer browse and a suicidal shepherd’s dog abandons his flock to run barking at the train. At 17.40 precisely, the train draws into Ferrol, where the station master, stout umbrella in hand, gives us a welcoming salute and directions to our hotel.
In the docks below, one of Spain’s biggest naval ports, a huge warship is being manoeuvred alongside by a bevy of fussing tugs. The streets are crowded with the evening paseo, where people dress up in their best to meet friends for an aperitif in the many cafés. Now firmly addicted to percebes, I order a plate at O Parrulo (401 Avenida Catabois, tel: +34 981 318653), a small, popular seafood restaurant on the edge of town, and am amazed by how much bigger they are compared with their Asturian cousins.
For Solange and I, the narrow gauge journey is over. At the station the next day we take the sleek standard gauge Renfe train to Santiago de Compostela to catch our Ryanair flight home and, looking across the platform, I see with a pang the Feve train leaving for Oviedo. Had it not been for Solange’s restraining hand, I would probably still be on the train today.
Ryanair operates 11 routes to Santander, from Barcelona (El Prat), Brussels (Charleroi), Dublin, Gran Canaria, London (Stansted), Madrid, Malaga, Milan (Bergamo), Paris Beauvais, Rome (Ciampino) and Tenerife South. Ryanair operates nine routes to Santiago de Compostela, from Alicante, Barcelona (El Prat and Reus), Gran Canaria, Madrid, Malaga, Seville, Tenerife South and Valencia. From 27 March you can also fly there from Frankfurt (Hahn), Lanzarote, London (Stansted) and Milan (Bergamo). For more details, visit www.ryanair.com.
On Santander seafront is Vincci Puertochico hotel (www.vinccihoteles.com). In Gijón stay at the Santa Rosa (www.bluehoteles. es/hotelsantarosa) close to the Feve station. In Luarca try the clean and homely Casona el Gurugú (www. casonaelgurugu.com), with great views over the port. Ferrol has the Almirante Hotel (tel: +34 981 333073), modern, comfortable and close to the station.
A month’s unlimited travel on Feve (www.feve.es) costs €75. For more on the Costa Verde, contact the Spanish tourist office (tel: +44 (0)20 7486 8077, www.spain.info).