Travel throughout the heart of historic Andalucía on board a restored Royal Train, discovering UNESCO treasures, whilst eating like a King
With rolling countryside of olive groves; rugged mountain ranges; renaissance cities; and ancient capitals, there is no doubt that there is a great deal to experience in the heart of Andalucía. Yet is it possible to enjoy much of it in just a week? The answer is a resounding yes, if you let the train take the strain.
For many, the thought of taking the train for pleasure, rather than just as a means to reaching a destination is alien. Anyone who has struggled on crowded commuter trains in the UK, or missed a connection due to the ‘wrong type of snow’ or ‘leaves on the line’ might well not feel a great deal of nostalgia for trains.
Yet here in Spain train travel is much more of a pleasure; super fast AVE bullet trains whisk travellers intercity without a hitch, whilst local services are modern and punctual. What’s more, Spain also boasts some of the finest luxury, vintage train services in Europe, including a new service re-launched this year, using a former train of the British Royal Family from the 1920s.
Lovingly restored and significantly enhanced with luxurious suites, saloons, dining cars and even WiFi, ‘Tren Al Andalus’ seems to live up to its moniker as a Palace on Wheels.
With weeklong itineraries encompassing much of the best that inland Andalucía has to offer Feve, the owners of this luxury holiday service, are hoping to redefine organised travel in Southern Spain.
Waiting to welcome its privileged guests, this Pullman train sitting at the platform in Seville’s modernist Santa Justa station certainly looks an anachronism. The classic lines and understated livery of the Al Andalus train are from a bygone age, and stand out in the striking station, built for the 1992 Expo to welcome Spain’s first High Speed Express AVE service from Madrid.
Once on-board the magic begins; the lounge cars dating from 1928 and 1930 are said to be amongst the most spacious in the world, and are furnished with posh sofas and sumptuous armchairs, making it hard to believe we are about to depart on a railway journey. Although this 15 carriage train maybe almost a century old, the public interiors and the 32 compartments are certainly up to scratch after a multi million euro refit for this inauguration 2012 season.
With a slight jolt she starts her journey, an intense and seductive week-long tour of Andalusia’s UNESCO city treasures. Looking out from the comfort of the dining car, lounge car or the privacy of your suite, one is quickly captivated by the moving tapestry of Andalucía as it passes by.
We start in Seville; move onto Cordoba with her Roman and Arab architecture; and then discover the renaissance splendour of Ubeda and Baeza, near Jaen. Granada is a highlight, with its stunning Alhambra and mediaeval Albaicin district; whilst the mountain charm of Ronda takes everyone’s breath away. Finally before returning to Seville there is Cadiz, and Jerez for succulent seafood, fabulous finos and of course those dancing Stallions. This is more than just a celebration of Andalucía’s geography and sights, but also a journey into her history too.
The tour commences with lunch in one of the dining cars; a refined experience which is balanced by the natural, friendly team headed by Marcelino Cortes Martinez, ‘Jefe de Expedicion’. The on-board chef is also a strategic member of the crew, as these Spanish destinations are brought to life with food. On this journey of discovery, gastronomy plays an important role. Each city destination is welcomed and bidded farewell by sumptuous meals and fine wines, so there is no excuse not to walk off some calories when you leave the train each day for the organised tours.
In addition to dining on board, local restaurants are chosen for their typical dishes. So one might enjoy Rabo de Toro in Cordoba, or discover white prawns in Sanlucar de Barrameda near Jerez, or indulge in Arabic-style cakes in Granada; it’s all part of understanding the identity and essence of these fascinating cities.
Returning late at night to the station, after a full day exploring, one is ushered to the train by security, like a valued VIP with an ‘access-all-areas’ pass. The guests usually congregate in the bar car for a nightcap. Often there is live music, either unobtrusive piano, a cocktail singer, or an all embracing Flamenco show.
Thankfully, getting a good night’s sleep shouldn’t be considered a luxury – in fact it is pretty much assured, as not only does the service stop overnight in secure station sidings for peace, but the 5 star suites feature double beds with fine linens and en suite bathrooms. Lying in bed in the luxurious ‘Belle Epoque’ style compartment carriage, you won’t be rocked to sleep by the clattering train, but you can at least think back to when the British Sovereign would use these very carriages from Calais to reach the Cote d’Azur for holidays.
Although there is a morning bell rung to welcome each day, usually the gentle movement of the train as it leaves the station to go to the next destination is enough to persuade you to get up, take a shower and head to the dining car for breakfast. As Andalucía’s alluring scenery of vast olive groves and pine clad mountains passes by, a new city awaits discovery. On this train cruise there is no need to pack and unpack, just brush off the toast crumbs from your lap as you leave the breakfast table and head out.
Luxury train travel in Spain can be quite addictive. Once you’ve conquered Andalucía, there is always the TransCantabrico luxury train in Northern Spain. This sister service will share the delights of Galicia and Asturias whilst you sit and sip a cocktail.
Here is a later article I wrote for the Luxury Magazine – TOUT – World of Luxury. The article was also translated into Russian.