September 2017: Rail travel in Northern Spain

The Euskotren Trena/FEVE narrow-gauge lines meander along the coast of the Bay of Biscay and inland along the numerous valleys of the Cordillera Cantabrica, the mountain range stretching the full width east-west of northern Spain. It’s a very slow ride and changing trains is essential to complete the full journey — it’ll take the best part of a week to allow for the various stops and starts. 

Rail lines in Northern Spain

The Green line denotes Euskotren Trena, the Red line shows FEVE lines, Yellow is Cercernias Asturias lines and the Grey indicates RENFE and SNCF routes.Around 350 miles in total East to West.

Note that in Donostia/San Sebastian and Bilbao the Euskotren Trena and FEVE regional lines terminate at different stations to the national RENFE lines.

The main Euskotren Trena line is electrified and runs west from Hendaye [just over the border in France] to Donostia/San Sebastian Amara station and onward to Bilbao Atxuri station. Just across the River Nervion, Bilbao Concordia is the terminus for FEVE trains to Santander where trains towards Oviedo commence. 

Oviedo is a regional hub for rail lines in Asturia: a change to go north at Le Berron junction [an unusual + crossing with L shaped station] allows onward travel to Gijon on the Cercianas Asturias line. From Oviedo the FEVE line returns to the coast to head into Galicia terminating at the Atlantic port of Ferrol. There is also one train per day each way on the cross-country FEVE line between Bilbao and Leon.

Alternatively, for several thousand euros, the ‘Transcantábrico’ summer-only luxury train covers the entire coastal narrow-gauge route over a week with bedrooms, lounges and restaurants on board. 

In addition to trains journeying to the national rail hub of Madrid, these northern cities have some intriguing routes across Spain on the RENFE system without a change of trains:

• The El Camino de Santiago’ train goes every day from Irun on the French border to Santiago de Compostela via San Sebastián, Burgos and Ourense and onward to terminate in Vigo.

• From both Gijon via Oviedo and Leon and Santander a daily train south east goes all the way to Alicante on the Mediterranean Costa Blanca via Palencia, Valladolid, Madrid x 2, Cuenca and Albacete.

 • From Bilbao to Barcelona via Logrono, Zaragoza and Tarragona.

• The ‘Trenhotel Surex’ sleeper train runs from Irun to Lisbon in Portugal via Vitoria Gastiez, Burgos, Valladlid, Salamanca and Coimbra.

For onward journeys throughout Europe, French SNCF trains run from Hendaye to many locations in France and beyond including the double-decker TGV to Paris.

All Spanish train fares are reasonably priced with lower cost 30 day and 7 day advance bookings and special fares released in tranches throughout the year and for groups of journeys undertaken within a month. Travellers over 55 can apply for a 'Tarjeta Dorada' for 'pensionistas' although the special fares are sometimes cheaper than this discount. Loco2.com is a recommended ticket agent.

Accomodation throughout the north of Spain is different to the south and Mediterranean coasts. There is not the endless concentrations of tower block hotels, as cities comprise of apartments old and new with a sprinkling of business hotels, but with some boutique ventures too. There are the government owned 'Paradores' right across the region, on the coast and inland, in some wonderful historical and contemporary buildings; however experiences vary accoring to Tripadviser reviews. 'Agritourism' has also been promoted for farm-stays and there are manor houses and 'casa indianos' that have been decorated to reflect the style of the time or are intriguing contemporary interventions in old buildings. The Alistair Sawday collections have some great examples.

RENFE [Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles] run the trains in Spain and ADIF [Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias] is responsible for infrastructure. Narrow gauge lines are run by the FEVE [Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha] division of RENFE and  by Euskotren [Eusko Trenbideak – Ferrocarriles Vascos] run by the Basque government.