Aside from the good food, balmy climate and layers of centuries-old history, Spain is also home to a vastly underrated – and underused – railway system. The network reaches nearly all corners of the country, making it possible to explore Spain solely by public transportation and much of that at high speed. In the last week of October, when the temperature was in the last throes of a typical long Mediterranean summer, Scott from our team embarked on a whirlwind tour of Spain exploring four cities by train in exactly four days…
Tarragona – a tale of two cities
After a short flight from the UK and then driving to Tarragona this was our first stop on our Spanish train adventure was, a little known fortified port city in Northeastern Spain’s Catalonia region located not too far Barcelona. Sited on a rocky hill, sheer above the sea, Tarrgona has a formidable ancient past and was once used as the based Roman conquest of the peninsula.
I have to admit I didn’t really know what to expect from Tarrgona but on first impressions I was very pleasantly surprised by the city’s beauty and distinguished history that was still obvious in the form of the many temples, monuments and Roman ruins dotted around the city, in particular, the very impressive amphitheatre which overlooks the sea, once held up to 14,000 spectators and doubles as an imposing focal point of the ancient part of the city.
The city is split into two, very distinct parts – the new and the old city, with the old city being set inside approximately 1100 metres of ancient wall. I loved that this was a walled city (and a very handsome one at that) and although it cannot boast the accolade of being an actual Game of Thrones film set, it certainly had that feel to it. After spending time in the upper town I was treated to fine coastal views, Roman remains and a few excellent museums.
It’s also home to an attractive medieval section, too, while the rocky coastline below conceals a couple of pretty fine beaches to boot – fabulous history and relaxation in one city, not bad at all!
Other stand-out highlights included the revamped central market for local foodie delights and the main thoroughfare ‘La Rambla Nova’ which is lined with a mix of flowers stalls, regular markets, designer shops and restaurant, the Mediterranean balcony which offers arguably the best view on the Mediterranean sea (above) and the Tarragona cathedral where you can hire a tour guide and head up to the top of the cathedral for sunset and listen to the – very loud – bells being rung.
Before arriving in Tarragona I was honestly just looking forward to exploring somewhere new and under-the-radar but I left seriously won over, it’s definitely a city that deserves a lot more attention!
Zaragoza – all about art
The next stop just an hour away by high-speed train and that was the cosmopolitan city of Zaragoza. Another fairly under-the-radar destination but it’s actually the capital of north-eastern Spain’s Aragon region and Spain’s fifth biggest city.
This was another fine city where I was captivated by its charms and is a place filled with impressive architecture, gorgeous boutique stores and wonderful renaissance buildings every which way you turn. Overlooking the Ebro River in the city centre is baroque Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica, a famous pilgrimage site with a shrine to the Virgin Mary and multiple domes where Goya (a romantic painter considered to be the most important Spanish artist of late 18th and early 19th centuries) painted the ‘Adoration of the Name of God’ on the ceiling of the cupola.
It’s a great city for anyone who has a passion for art, in particular for any Goya lovers as he’s viewed as a local hero (the Goya Museum is a standout place to visit). There’s also street art galore – the city is flooded with both national and international artists busy transforming public spaces into colourful open-air masterpieces.
Just a short walk from the train station you have the fantastic ‘Bridge Pavilion’ which was designed by the late and extremely talented Zaha Hadid for Expo 2008 and a truly fantastic example of just how magnificent Spanish modern architecture can be.
Juxtaposed to the modern delights are its superb examples of ancient architecture. A visit to Aljaferia to see the medieval Islamic palace that was built during the second half of the 11th century is a must see as it allows you to get a feel for what Zaragoza used to be like. Whilst in the Basilica also make sure you take the lift to the top of one of the towers where you’ll be rewarded with views of Zaragoza’s picturesque mosaic tiled rooftops. Overall it was a cosmopolitan and intriguing city which I very sad to leave!
Madrid – a tour with a twist
Our third stop was Madrid a place where I last visited in 2002 when I spent 40 days travelling around Europe and whilst I fairly fond of the Spanish capital I have to admit back then I wasn’t blown away. This time my opinion changed completely and after spending 36 hours on a to visit the Spanish capital where we were treated to a tour of the city in the back of a Seat 600, as well as a feast of art and culture, I completely fell for the bustling city.
In those 36 hours we managed to squeeze in Madrid’s famously delicious tapas (Plaza Mayor is the place where you should try them if you get the chance), beautiful green gardens, gorgeous architecture (I was blown away by the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande) and art galleries galore. Madrid boasts some seriously impressive art galleries – the most important is Museo Nacional Del Prado. We also explored the impressive Thyssen-Bornemiszma Museum which has a variety of art which is owned by the family and has an excellent audio guide to help you around the museum and went for lunch at the Taberna del Alabardero. In the past, they have welcomed not one but two Popes. If that’s not an endorsement I don’t know what is!
Possibly my favourite part of the day was going on a tour of the city in a Seat 600 – whilst driving around we were greeted by friendly waving locals on every street corner. The iconic Seat 600s were many a family’s first car and for me they brought back happy childhood memories. As part of the tour, we stopped at Templo de Debod at sunset which was both atmospheric and beautiful, despite being very busy!
Seville – an architect’s dream
Seville was our grand finale on our whirlwind train tour, and what a finale it was. Romantic, intoxicating and a place which seduces every sense, Seville is one of those places that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It’s famous for its Moorish influence, Mudéjar palaces, baroque churches, winding medieval lanes and its huge passion for flamenco dancing.
We arrived in the evening when it was dark but as we walked along the river we were able to get a feel for the city and immediately fell in love with the seductive Moorish architecture. Our first place we visited was the truly wonderful ‘Real Alcázar’, which is Seville’s Royal Palace and was originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings. In 1987, it was registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and if that’s not enough, it was also used as a location for Game of Thrones in the fifth season.
Seville’s cathedral is another masterpiece that should be added to any Seville itinerary, so is the relaxing, peaceful and awe-inspiring Plaza de Espana (which was once used as a location for a Star Wars film) and another is the mighty modern sculpture, Metropol Parasol. Affectionately known as ‘The Mushroom’ and is the largest wooden structure in Europe and quite a sight to behold! If there’s a queue don’t worry too much as it moves very quickly – it only costs three euro to get in and you also get a free drink at the top in the café (beer is included)! Similar to other areas of Spain, Seville is famous for tapas and due to their heady mix of Moorish history and the North African influence it’s a very exciting place to try some!
For those craving a varied multi-centre short break crammed with culture, food, unrivalled history and architecture then a tour of Spain by (high-speed) train offers the perfect antidote!
Travelling Spain by Train
Travelling around Spain by train is surprisingly very easy and efficient. High-speed AVE trains (Alta Velocidad Española) link major cities at up to 186mph, and if you book in advance online you can find some great deals on fares at the official Spanish rail website, www.renfe.com. This page will give you all the information you need on how to travel cheaply around Spain by train and do the same kind of tour we did!
This post was brought to you as a result of the #SpainbyTrain blog trip in partnership with Renfe and the Spanish Tourist Board. Global Grasshopper maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.