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'Land Cruising in Style

Across Northern Spain

May 16, 1999|ARTHUR UNGER | Arthur Unger is a New York City-based freelance writer and former TV critic and travel writer for the Christian Science Monitor

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — Un Crucero en Tren is the way the Spanish Narrow-Gauge Railway, FEVE (Ferrocarriles de Via Estrecha), billed its weeklong, 700-mile journey through the green wonderland of northern Spain. And it proved to be just that--a cruise on a train--complete with interesting regional (sometimes gourmet) food at every meal and sightseeing in a special FEVE air-conditioned bus that met the train at every stop and zoomed us off to the next sight--beach, cathedral or restaurant.

The train is called El Transcantabrico after the Cantabrian coast along which it runs. Spaniards also call northern Spain the Green Coast, because, well, it is very green. And it gets so because there is a lot of moisture . . . fog, mist, drizzle, downpour.

But the rain in Spain didn't dampen the spirits of adventure of the 49 tourists--including me and my friend, photographer and Argentine architect Raul Ruben Nunez--who had chosen to sign on last July for six nights and seven days on this Iberian Peninsula version of the Orient Express. I learned of the train through a mention in a small magazine for frequent travelers, and reserved our land passage through Marketing Ahead, a New York agency that I knew of because of its parador bookings.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 23, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Spain train--Due to an editing error, photographs accompanying "Across Northern Spain" (May 16, 1999) were incorrectly credited. The photographs credited to Arthur Unger were taken by Raul Ruben Nunez.

Our route began in the seaside resort of San Sebastian and ended in the historic pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela (the opposite direction is also available). It meandered through the Spanish regions of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, loosely approximating the path from France to Santiago de Compostela that Christian pilgrims made on foot in the Middle Ages. Iberianophiles can expect to see a panorama of green landscapes--the tracks running through seeming virgin forests as well as cultivated fields, grazing livestock and clusters of tamarind trees (the ubiquitous tree of northern Spain).

How much space can a Toonerville-trolley-size train allot to each passenger? Well, there were four sleeping cars, each with eight compartments and two bathrooms. Each cabin held two bunk beds and a washbasin. For the most part, roommates in the standard compartments, $2,700 for two, were forced to dress at separate times since too many outstretched arms might have resulted in blackened eyes. However, for $600 more for two, FEVE recently added a car of suites that holds four deluxe compartments, each with its own bathroom and just about double the overall space of the standard compartments--relatively speaking, a very good deal. (The trip is so popular that its May-through-September season is sold out this year, but reservations are being taken for summer 2000. See Guidebook, this page, for details.)

We occupied one of the new suites and were fascinated by the state-of-the-art shower, a glass tube with its own electronic controls. When you closed the door, it said "Buenos dias" and proceeded to explain--in Spanish--how to turn on the hot water, the sauna, the massage feature, etc. Also inside were a radio, a telephone and a speaker that allowed the shower occupant to communicate with the outside world. Each compartment--suite and standard--had a picture window and controllable air-conditioning.

There were also three dining cars and a lounge/bar car with nightly dancing and entertainment by a talented singing guitarist. The drinks there are on you, one of the few expenditures most of us had to make. All meals, on and off the train, and all sightseeing expenses are included in the tour price. The train traveled by day and remained at a station siding each night so sleeping passengers wouldn't miss anything. Eleven service personnel kept the compartments spotless, changing linens every day.

Then, of course, there was the diesel-powered engine car.

But what powered El Transcantabrico most effectively was our well-informed guide, Natalia, who spoke English, Spanish, German, French and Italian--and, on this trip, learned some words in Japanese--all of which came in handy since our fellow passengers included four Australians, two Germans, two Swedes, two Mexicans, three Japanese, five Americans and the rest--31--travelers from all over Spain.

The "voyage" got off to a fine start: We met in the lobby of San Sebastian's most exclusive hotel, the Maria Cristina, where Natalia introduced herself and called the roll.

We sat down to a lunch in the hotel dining room that proved to be a harbinger of calories to come. As happened before every meal, we were presented with a special printed menu: rollotos de salmon con mantequilla de anchoas (smoked salmon roll with anchovy butter), brick de hongos y foie (mushroom and foie gras timbale), entrecote de buey a la Perigourdine (beefsteak with Perigord sauce), savarin de fruta del bosque (forest fruit salad), vinos and aguas minerales, coffee and liqueurs.

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