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Costa Verde Express: A journey through Spain

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17 August 2023 by Rachel Pennycook

Frequently referred to as green Spain, the northern part of the country is often overlooked by tourists in favour of the renowned allure of its Mediterranean beaches. However, having recently been lucky enough to explore this region from Santiago de Compostela to Bilbao on board the glamorous Costa Verde Express, I can thoroughly recommend both the destination and the train journey. The train itself operates similarly to a cruise in that you have a set itinerary where you travel by rail from region to region, disembarking for excursions en route, with all meals taken care of throughout the trip, including local wines. As I was to find out, this lesser visited region of Spain both fascinates and surprises, offering unforgettable cities, experiences and picturesque landscapes all complimented by the charm of travelling on board a very special train.

Day 1 – Arrival in Santiago de Compostela

I flew out the day before the start of my rail journey, staying one night in Santiago de Compostela. If possible, I would highly recommend staying at the beautiful 5 star Parador Santiago de Compostela. The hotel dates back to the 1500s and has a strong claim to be the oldest hotel in Spain, having previously been a resting place and hospital for pilgrims completing the famous Camino de Santiago. Not only is it a great place to stay, but it also serves as the meeting point for those lucky enough to be boarding the Costa Verde Express.

It all began with a tour of the hotel and town, before we sat down and enjoyed a delicious 4-course lunch, the first of many excellent meals on my trip. After lunch, the moment we had all been anticipating finally arrived as we boarded the train to a lavish champagne welcome. We were shown to our stunning en-suite cabins, equipped with air conditioning and lots of clever storage solutions to maximise space. Each cabin has a large window at the foot of the bed, so you can watch the gorgeous scenery roll by as you relax. After we had acquainted ourselves with the surroundings, the train pulled into the town of Viveiro where we embarked on a tour of the town, before enjoying our first dinner on board the train this evening.

Day 2 – Viveiro to Oviedo

Interestingly, the train always remains stationary overnight, so you can always be assured of a peaceful night’s sleep. This morning we were treated to amazing seaside scenery as we tucked into our delicious breakfast. They offer a buffet you can help yourself to, alongside a menu of dishes you can order to arrive fresh at your table. Be sure to pick a table on the side closest to the sea for the best views! Once we arrived we disembarked to visit the stunning Las Catedrales beach and the town of Ribadeo. We were lucky enough to have brilliant weather for this excursion, which cannot always be guaranteed in this region.

The climate here is different to Southern Spain, in fact most of their tourism is Spanish people coming to escape the heat of the South. It is cooler here and it does experience a greater proportion of rainy/foggy days which is understandable – the greenery has to come from somewhere, and it is certainly not something that fazes a Brit too much! We had lunch at a local restaurant before a quick stop at Luarca – known as the White Villa of the Asturian coast due to the white colour of its buildings – before arriving into Oviedo where we enjoyed a delightful pianist performance after another excellent 4-course dinner.

Day 3 – Oveido to Llanes

Today we explored the town of Gijon, starting at the Universiadad Laboral de Gijon which was originally built as a learning centre for orphaned children of miners in the area. It now houses a number of educational institutions. This was followed up by a visit to the town itself for an informative guided tour. The itinerary is designed well, meaning on all tours you are given ample free time to explore at your own pace. Here I would recommend going into the church of San Pedro and walking behind the altar to view some wonderful mosaics.

Following this, we explored the wonderful town of Oveido before having dinner on board. Dinners are always carefully selected to reflect the local produce of the place you are in and have great variety each night. Those of you, like me, with dietary requirements, can be assured that they take care of these with ease. As long as you mention your requirements before travel, you'll be provided alternative meals where necessary. As well as this, even when eating off the train, the staff would take the time to brief the restaurants’ staff at each place, ensuring they serve the correct food to each person, making for a relaxing experience.

Day 4 – Llanes to Cabezon de la Sal

Today we visited the spectacular Picos de Europa National Park, Spain's second largest national park. Unfortunately for us it was a cloudy day, however it did give this beautiful region an altogether more mystical feel. After a couple of visits including to the Sanctuary of Covadonga, we enjoyed lunch at the nearby El Corral del Indianu, a Michelin star restaurant serving extremely creative Asturian cuisine. The food was delicious, but quite surprising at times – I wasn’t sure about the blue cheese and white chocolate combination, though I thoroughly enjoyed everything else.

Later on we visited the quaint sleepy town of Llanes, before we got the chance to see the more modern version of our train, the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo, which was travelling in the opposite direction to us. The El Transcantabrico has much larger cabins which comes with their own seating area as you spend longer on board this route. Dinner on board this evening featured a black truffle ravioli – a personal favourite of mine – followed by some lovely live violin music complimented by rolling seaside scenery.

Day 5 – Cabezon de la Sal to Santander

After another delicious breakfast, we paid a visit to the Caves of Altamira near the historic town of Santillana del Mar; an interesting trip focussed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring prehistoric cave art from the Palaeolithic age. Ordinarily this would not have been my first choice of activity, however we had an excellent guide who kept us all engaged and it was a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting program.

Santillana del Mar was our next stop, and with its cobbled streets and gorgeous medieval architecture, it was definitely my favourite place of the week. Back on the Costa Verde Express, we were treated to some gorgeous scenery as we travelled towards the seaside town of Santander. This evening, for the first time on the trip, dinner was arranged in town, allowing staff to organise a leaving party for us. This was great fun and a lovely way to round off our last night on board.

Day 6  – Santander to Bilbao

Once we arrived into Bilbao, we had a brief stop to visit the famous Guggenheim museum. I would highly recommend to leave your bags on the coach, as you are not allowed these inside the museum. You can also get a bracelet when you leave which means you can re-enter the museum if you are staying later. We enjoyed a final lunch at a very atmospheric restaurant before it was time to say goodbye. I was transferred to the wonderful Gran Hotel Domine where I spent my final evening.

I did have a bit of a mishap with my suitcase when one of the wheels decided to break off, but the staff were so kind, attentive and helpful, directing me to a shop where I could purchase a new one. Despite this detour, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Old Town and a trip on the funicular, which was a pleasant addition.

On my last morning, I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the Guggenheim before my flight home. Overall, the trip was an experience I will never forget and I have completely fallen in love with this region which has such a distinct cultural heritage compared to other areas of Spain. If you love to explore, enjoy good food, wine and beautiful scenery then this is definitely the trip for you. If you are considering a trip either on the Costa Verde Express, the El Transcantabrico or as a self-drive through this region, do not hesitate to get in touch and I will be delighted to help.

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Costa Verde Express

Costa Verde Express: Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela

8-day luxury rail journey from £3,910 pp incl. flights

A scenic rail journey that takes you off the beaten track to some of Spain's hidden gems. From the industrial splendour of Bilbao to the medieval quarters of historic Santillana del Mar, this is a taste of authentic Spain in style.

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