Seven of Spain’s most beautiful rail journeys, from just £6

Seven of Spain’s most beautiful rail journeys, from just £6

Following in the footsteps of France, Spain has announced a plan to ban domestic flights on routes where there is a rail alternative of less than two-and-a-half hours.

The move, designed to reduce carbon emissions, will not cover “cases of connection with hub airports that link with international routes”, but it will make hopping about the country by plane trickier than it was previously.

France introduced its ban on such short-haul domestic flights in May last year and Spanish authorities hope to encourage locals and visitors alike on to its rail network. But which are the best routes? And how many could cost as little as a flight? Here are seven scenic options to consider.

Extremadura Express

Blurred motion shot from speeding train of Roman aqueduct, Acueducto de Los Milagros, Merida, Extremadura, Spain. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The remnants of a Roman viaduct overlook Merida station (Photo: Getty)

Merida to Almaden

From the pretty city of Merida, capital of the south-western region of Extremadura, it’s almost exactly two-and-a-half hours to Almaden, a sleepy town with a curious museum-cum-underground attraction connected to its old cinnabar (mercury) mine. The remains of a Roman viaduct overlook Merida station from which you head across an awe-inspiring, remote and arid landscape at the beginning of the Sierra Morena mountains – delightfully off the beaten track.

Journey time: 2h 27m
Distance: 135 miles
Book it: £16 (renfe.com)

Charming Costa Brava

Cathedral and colorful houses on the side of river Onyar in the evening, Girona, Catalonia, Spain. (Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Girona’s medieval cathedral can be seen from the railway line to the Costa Brava (Photo: Sergi Reboredo/Getty)

Figueres to Barcelona

Go from the little regional station at Figueres – not the shiny modern “Figueres-Vilafant” station for high-speed trains – and there’s a charming line that rattles along through Girona to the Costa Brava. You get fine views of Girona’s medieval cathedral. A stop here will break up the journey, before taking to the coastline and traversing the seaside resorts of Blanes – home to an excellent botanical garden – and Lloret de Mar. You pass along Spain’s oldest railway after Mataró.

Journey time: 2h 35m
Distance: 97 miles
Book it: £14 (renfe.com)

On a pilgrimage

Cape Vilan Lighthouse, Costa Morte, La Coruna Province, Galicia, Spain
Galicia’s lighthouses are a highlight (Photo: francesco riccardo iacomino/Getty)

Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela

This journey follows the coast of Galicia and then turns inland to Santiago de Compostela, the alleged burial site of St James and home to a cathedral to which so many walkers make long pilgrimages. The train potters across estuaries from the quiet naval port of Ferrol to A Coruna, another port renowned for its Roman lighthouse and buildings fronted by distinctive conservatory-style glass rooms. Then you switch carriages to cross the rugged interior to Santiago.

Journey time: 1h 49m
Distance: 69 miles
Book it: £11 (renfe.com)

Ravines and Viaducts

Overlooking view of the old town of Cuenca from the cliff, Spain.
Cuenca has hilltop galleries and a cathedral (Photo: Getty)

Cuenca to Valencia

Begin at the tucked away artist colony of Cuenca, with its wonderful hill-top galleries and cathedral, before heading from its brightly decorated station across a landscape marked by deep ravines and secretive valleys. On sunny days, it’s fun to watch the silhouette of the train moving along the viaducts in shadows on the countryside far below. In the spring and summer, the rivers of the remote gullies are lined with shrubs with streaks of pink flowers. You arrive in Valencia at one of Spain’s finest Art Nouveau stations.

Journey time: 56m
Distance: 126 miles
Book it: £8 (renfe.com)

Splendid Sierras

A young woman on a trek in the Travertino waterfall and Rambla de Otero in the Tabernas desert one spring afternoon, Almer??a province, Andalusia
Desierto de Tabernas is Europe’s only proper desert (Photo: unai huizi/Getty)

Almeria to Granada

Pulling out of the sprawling, old port-city of Almeria on the Andalusian coast, complete with its imposing Islamic fort (the Alcazaba) and labyrinthine streets filled with tapas bars, you are soon crossing the Desierto de Tabernas. This is Europe’s only proper desert, full of gullies and steppes, where Sergio Leone’s films A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were filmed. The highlight is watching the snow-tipped Sierra Nevada mountains arise to the left, before arriving at the Islamic architectural delights of Granada.

Journey time: 2h 26m
Distance: 100 miles
Book it: £18 (renfe.com)

Across the plains

Aljafer??a Palace, medieval Islamic palace, Zaragoza, Spain.
Aljaferia Palace is among the attractions of Zaragoza (Photo: Asier Villafranca/Getty)

Zaragoza to Huesca

The intriguing city of Zaragoza in Aragon, roughly halfway between Barcelona and Madrid, makes the starting point for this ride. After seeing the brilliant Goya Museum, the Aljaferia Palace and Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, hop on board a line that takes you across farmland and then a gritty, parched plateau with craggy ravines. The railway rises to 488 metres (twice Zaragoza’s altitude). Your destination, Huesca, is a quiet place with restaurants on little squares and a detour on the edge of town to some of the trenches George Orwell served in during the Spanish Civil War.

Journey time: 46m
Distance: 46 miles
Book it: £6 (renfe.com)

Catalan cogs

The Montserrat Rack Railway, which uses a cog system, runs from the foot of the mountain below to the monastery complex at Montserrat in the region of Catalonia.

This short ride rises 550 metres, curling around the contours of the slopes with cliffs shooting up above, making for perhaps Spain’s most dramatic train journey. At the top it’s a short walk to the abbey to see the monastery’s famous figurine of the Virgin Mary.

Journey time: 20m
Distance: three miles
Book it: £7 (turistren.cat)

Tom Chesshyre is author of Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-Mile Adventure on 52 Rides (Summersdale).