Author Christopher Howse reveals five easy ways to make the most of Spain's vastly underrated – and underused – railway system
Author Christopher Howse has been travelling around Spain for 25 years and has just completed a 3,000 circumnavigation of the country by train – from the Pyrenees to the ancient hilltop city of Cuenca and beyond. Below he lists his tips for making your train trip in Spain as cost-effective and memorable as possible.
Spanish people, it is fair to say, love bureaucracy and computers. Selling train tickets enables them to exercise both loves. From the smallest wayside station it is possible to reserve a seat on any train that stops. But the computer has a compulsion to seat everyone together in a friendly crowd. This is sometimes a good way to improve your Spanish.
If you prefer elbow-room, walk down the train a little and it is often easy to find an empty carriage or half-carriage for yourself. The guard, when he turns up, doesn't mind. He just jots down your seat number on his pad.
Slow trains can be as quick and are a much better way to see the country. Thus, nature has decreed that it takes two hours to get from Madrid to Segovia. But the new super-fast route claims to get there in half an hour. One problem is that 17 miles of the route is through a tunnel with nothing to see but your reflection in the window. When the train's not in a tunnel it goes too fast to see the vultures over the mountains.
On arrival at the Ave (fast line) station for Segovia you discover there is nothing there but a field full of storks and a bus-stop. It is raining. If you are lucky, once a bus comes you will be in the town centre in another half an hour.
On the slow train you can board at a little station in the middle of Madrid (at Recoletos, perhaps, near the Prado) and continue without changing all the way to Segovia, ending up at a station within walking distance of the Plaza Mayor. You can stare out of the window on the journey and watch the wildlife. There is more choice in seating. The route goes through pretty settlements. And it's much cheaper.
This is not in order to catch the train, though that may be an advantage. It is a way of becoming part of Spanish society.
Far from exercising the spirit of mañana, the Spanish usually turn up at stations ages before the train. Almost all stations have a cafetería, which is at least a bar and often serves hot meals, and substantial lengths of baguette with ham or tortilla, which they will wrap up for you in aluminium foil for the journey.
The surprising thing is that even when the last train of the day has gone, and this might well be in the early afternoon, the station bar is still full of people, chatting and having a little glass of beer and sauntering and ignoring the television. Some even take their paseo, the evening walk, along the platform.
Spanish railway termini use a cruel method of queuing, but there is a way to beat it. Say you want to go to Salamanca from Chamartin station in Madrid. The system is that at the booking office, the traveller takes a ticket or 'turno' from a dispenser – either to buy a ticket for travel that day or one in advance for a later occasion. It says, perhaps, 'No 743'. The traveller has half an hour spare before the train leaves and takes a look at the indicator.
According to the dot-matrix display, the person now being served is No 712. Ten minutes later, things are looking good. No 725 is being served. Then one of the clerks serving goes off for a meal break. Then the display shows that a suspicious succession of numbers for tickets in advance are being called, on their own system, which is up to No 128, not that you care. With seven minutes to go, there are another eight people before you, and all seems lost, when suddenly another clerk calls out: "Tickets for the Salamanca train." The remaining hopefuls rush to this guichet and all are served in time. Then the train is delayed by 25 minutes, so no one need have worried.
To avoid this, use the friendly Renfe bilingual website at home and print out a ticket for a specific train. I was astonished that it works, but it does.
Some stations, such as El Escorial, the stop for the magnificent Renaissance palace-monastery and the quiet little town next to it, have a bus waiting at the station that chugs up the hill to the old centre. Most have nothing.
Zafra is a charming old town in Extremadura at the end of a 5hr 41min train ride from Madrid (on which there are at least four astonishing towns that tempt the traveller to stay overnight: Oropesa, Plasencia, Cáceres and Mérida – so it might take five days instead of five hours). There are taxis in Zafra, but I have never seen one at the station. It is 25 minutes' walk in the sun from the station to the town. That's fine.
If you travelled to Aljucén, population 248, you'd find the village was 15 miles from the station. Not only is there no taxi at the station, there is no bar, no telephone, no houses, and no one else who has got off the train. You'd be better off staying on the train another 11 minutes and getting a cab from Mérida. Or just staying in Mérida, a splendid place with extraordinary Roman remains, and forgetting about Aljucén.
Christopher's book about his incredible rail journey around Spain, The Train in Spain, is published by Bloomsbury and available on Amazon now.