I woke up early in the morning, when the sun was just peeking through the industrial blue curtains framing the small window at my head. It took me a moment to place myself, since it’s not often I awake to that gentle, reassuring sway that makes traveling by train such a pleasure for me. I was on the top bunk–drawn by straws–somewhere between Granada and Barcelona. I imagined we couldn’t be far from our destination judging from the angle and the warmth of the sun hitting my face. We were due into the main station at 11am. I rolled over carefully, and my breath caught as I looked out and saw nothing below me but water. The view was surreal, as though we were cutting a smooth path across the glassy sea. And yet, the rhythmic clacking of train wheels against a metal rail reassured me that fact we were not.
The most breathtaking part of the trip on this north-south route is the section of rail just south of Barcelona, the part that hugs the coastline around the town of Garraf, and winds alongside tiny villages and untrodden beaches pressed up against the water’s edge. It feels as though you’re on the edge of the earth, and indeed, for a moment you are. It’s as seductive as it sounds, and well worth the 11-hour overnight journey, although it’s not the only way to the see this strip of the Catalan coastline. Many local trains make the same journey, and you can spirit yourself south of the city for just a few euros and change for a day trip or longer, if you choose. On this particular day, a colleague and I were ferrying a group of American high school students between two destination points on a 10-day journey around the country, and I was happy to be along for the ride, literally, which was put together by my colleague and the travel company who organized the trip. (Flickr photo by JulienDft_Photo)
When I first arrived in Spain, I was happy to live in a place where jumping on a train to anywhere was in the European spirit, and I wanted to take advantage of that like a local. I had grand visions of traveling the country by train, and seeing the major cities and all of the little places in between by my favorite mode of transport. Of course, travel is always a romanticized notion, and the actual experience of it often contradicts what we imagine it to be, as I shared a few weeks ago! Knowing this all too well, I was hardly surprised when several years later, recently transplanted to the country, I arrived at the train station in Barcelona with two work colleagues for a trip up the coast and everything went haywire. We were headed to Figueres, a little town an hour or so by train north of the city and home to the Dali Museum and one of the artists’ several homes. Between the metro, the commuter rail (dubbed the FGC here), the short-distance and long-distance trains, I was faced with a collection of transportation options I had no idea even existed. All I know was someone told me, “To get to Figueres, you have to get the train that leaves from Passeig de Gracia.” If nothing else, I follow orders well, and I soon found myself attempting a journey I was woefully underprepared for. It took us almost two hours and a good deal of pantomiming to find the right station, the right ticket machine, and the right train (after getting on the wrong train), all before we were even on our way.
To save you time and undue stress, I’ve prepared a short list of tips here to help you get on your way with little delay and to make your trip along the rails much more pleasant.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the language of the rain systems. Here in Spain, we distinguish between the metro (within the city and its environs), the commuter rail (here called the Ferrocarrils or the FGC), the short-distance (media distancia), and the long-distance (larga distancia) trains which run under the national train system here known as Renfe, the latter which include the inter-country rail lines. You can make it quite a ways outside of the city itself (to the cleaner, nicer beaches just up the coast from the city center, for example) on the metro, which covers five different sizeable zones.
In addition, Spain has the luxury of several high speed routes (often called the AVE, although that’s just one of several trains which run those routes) which connect several of its major cities, such as Barcelona, Malaga, Sevilla, and Madrid, among others. The route that connects Barcelona and Madrid reduces the travel time, which is normally 6 hours to only 3 hours, making for a fast and pleasant journey. (Flickr photo by Renfe)
Before leaving the house, make sure you find out which station is the best starting point for your trip, so that you don’t end up commuting to a far away station if you don’t have to. In a city as big as Barcelona (and it’s not really all that big), there are several stations that may serve as starting points for a journey. Some trains will cross through each of them, and you can elect whichever is most convenient, and others leave from only one and head straight out of the city, bypassing other city stations. Generally speaking, the major station in town (Atocha in Madrid and Sants in Barcelona) carry the bulk of the long-distance service.
Not every station has a ticket booth. The main stations, such as Atocha in Madrid or Estacio Franca in Barcelona, do, but some rely on the electronic ticket booths. Many of these are different colors and have different names, depending on whether they are for metro, short-distance or long-distance trains. If you’re in doubt, it’s best to find the ticket windows and buy it directly from an agent, most of whom speak English. The tickets you purchase will vary in price depending on the hour of the day, the first and last hours being the cheapest, and the class of ticket you buy.
There are four classes of tickets, from first class (Preferente and Club) to economy (Turista and Turista Plus). For Catavino clients, we suggest Preferente, as it offers more space, comfort, and amenities like better seats and VIP lounge access. You might also choose to select a silent car, which I often do, and which can be a blessing on longer rides given the Spaniards predilection for loud conversation, but they do not have drink cart service. (Flickr photo by Viviendo Madrid)
It’s very important that you pay attention to whether or not you want a one-way (ida) or a round-trip (ida y vuelta) ticket. Also, you should be careful which level of ticket you choose: Promo is a non-refundable, unchangeable ticket, and you won’t be able to change your seats. Promo+ allows for changes but not refunds, and Flexible is the highest price but allows for changes or guarantees your money back (with a 5% surcharge). I wish I had paid more attention to this when I had purchased my tickets to Madrid.
The last consideration is when to buy your tickets, something that many visitors often ask me about. In general, the prices to do not fluctuate like airline prices do, but there is always a chance they might sell out, and often do on the major routes at peak hours. Because you can buy your tickets 4-7 months in advance with some Renfe trains – AVE is typically 2 months, while Cercania cannot be purchased beforehand – you should consider booking online (www.renfe.com) a couple of weeks in advance at least. It might be worth paying the 20% higher price for a flexible ticket, however, just in case you decide to change your plans at the last minute. You never know where traveling will take you!
So, grab a glass of vino and get planning! I hope this short guide helps you get started on your journey by rail through my favorite country in the world.