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THE TRAIN IN SPAIN STAYS MAINLY IN THE PLAIN : If a Plush, Hassle-Free Trip Through Andalusian Countryside Sounds Like Just the Ticket, We Think We've Got It!

August 16, 1992|JUDI DASH | Dash is a New Jersey-based free-lance writer

ABOARD THE ANDALUSIAN EXPRESS, Spain — Mile after mile, the sunflowers whirred by, field upon field of them blanketing the countryside, their huge yellow heads insistently cheerful, like millions of happy faces with petals.

From our window seats, the flowers' brightness and abundance were so mesmerizing it was hard to concentrate on the business at hand--a dining table that looked like a buffet for 10 instead of lunch for two. Set amid sparkling white fanned napkins--and what seemed like an entire bridal registry of silverware--were bowls of cool gazpacho, a mammoth paella of chicken, rice and seafood, tiny squid in onion sauce, baked eggplant salad, chicken thighs in sherry, roast lamb, fresh crusty rolls and six glasses of wine, including hearty reds from Spain's revered Rioja region and whites from around Barcelona. And all of this would be followed by dessert: pastries, cheeses, yogurt and fresh fruit and, finally, sweet liquors and rich brandies.

Let others navigate the mountain and valley roads of southern Spain's Andalusia region in rental cars, pulling into little towns for sustenance, battling the crowds at the big tourist sights and praying that each night's hotel reservation is safe and sound.

We chose instead to see this ancient Moorish heartland the old-fashioned way--aboard the vintage 1920s cars of Spain's swank touring train, the Andalusian Express--Al Andalus. Carefree and cushy, with each day's bed and board assured, the four-day trip took us across rolling hills dotted with olive trees, dark green pine forests and fields of bright-red poppies and those impossibly perky sunflowers.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 23, 1992 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 5 Travel Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Spanish train--Due to an editing error, a caption accompanying a story on the Andalusian Express in last week's section incorrectly stated that the Alhambra is located in Cordoba. It is in Granada.

We passed whitewashed farmhouses, stone churches and an occasional castle as we made our way between the three sightseeing centers of the region: Seville, the site of the Expo '92 world's fair; Cordoba, once Spain's cultural capital and home to a magnificent mosque that was second only to Baghdad's in religious importance and architectural splendor, and Granada, the country's last Moorish stronghold and site of the world's most famous fortified palace, the magnificent 14th-Century Alhambra.

Boarding fashionably late in Seville, after having met our hostesses at the Santa Justa train station, we arrived just in time for drinks. I quickly changed from my sensible tourist jeans to a frilly cocktail dress from my grand-tour wardrobe.

"So pleased to meet you . . . Como esta? . . . Bonjour," we greeted the 40 other guests--a multinational mix of train aficionados who were gingerly sipping amber sherry from delicately fluted crystal goblets.

Had it not been for the train, we probably would have avoided Spain this summer. With Expo '92 drawing crowds to Seville, Madrid feting itself as the European Community's 1992 cultural capital of Europe, and the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, which ended last week, the country is bulging with tourists who face inflated hotel and restaurant prices, and extra-long lines at the traditionally crowded sights. At the Alhambra, for example, we were told the lines were sometimes so long that visitors had to queue up for tickets one day to tour the place the next.

Not us. In each city our train of 13 carriages (including 2 restaurant cars, a lounge car, a bar car, five sleeping carriages and two shower cars) stopped, a professional guide escorted us by bus or on foot to the key sights, with any tickets we needed already in hand. And since our accommodations and most meals were on the train, we never had to make reservations or argue over hotel bills.

Certainly there were trade-offs. Our one-day-per-city itinerary did not allow us time to get to know any place well, and these cities in particular abounded with tantalizing possibilities. Andalusia, after all, gave birth to flamenco, the bullfight and sherry, and inspired literature's Don Juan and opera's Barber of Seville and Carmen, as well as being the heart and soul of Moorish Spain.

I wish I had had time to take a Horse-and-buggy ride through Seville's lushly landscaped parks and bougainvillea-laced fountain plazas, or to paddle-boat along its winding Guadalquivir River. I needed at least a few more hours to stroll the narrow maze of Cordoba's old Jewish Quarter where the great philosopher Maimonides once held forth. And the four hours allotted to the Alhambra just whet my appetite for more of its gracious archways, pretty reflecting pools.

But there were compensations.

Though from the outside, the Andalusian Express' dark and dingy paint job made it look like a castoff from an Alfred Hitchcock film, inside all was sumptuously upbeat: mahogany paneling, etched glass windows and partitions, Lalique crystal lamp shades and velvety upholstered banquettes. Even the public toilets were snazzy, with fish-shaped brass sink fixtures and carved wooden mirror frames.

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