Shaney Hudson discovered her inner tango travelling through Spain.
Whether it’s throwing tomatoes at La Tomatina, running with the bulls in Pamplona, partying hard in San Sebastian or touring the tapas bars of Seville, chances are if you’re going somewhere in Spain, you’re going to travel there by train. It’s common knowledge that train travel in Europe remains one of the most convenient, affordable and comfortable ways to see the continent, and not to mention one of the most enjoyable. But in the last few years, Spain has pulled ahead of its EU counterparts, investing heavily in its rail infrastructure and becoming one of the best-connected countries on the continent.
Fed up with carry-on baggage restrictions and shuffling through security checkpoints in socks, I decided to check out the new fast train network in Spain, testing the connections between Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid and Seville; four distinctive cities each with their own personality.
I started my journey in the Catalan city of Barcelona, a sprawling city that lies between the mountains and the sea and shaped by the architectural and creative genius Antonio Gaudi. Barcelona remains the creative hub of Spain; a favourite with artists and lovers for its vibrant energy and inspiring surrounds. While the works of Gaudi shine best during the day, another kind of city springs up in the night time when the stores cease trade.
The old Gothic quarter transforms into an urban art museum, with the metal security roller doors becoming a steel frame for the talented graffiti and graphic artists who call the city home. Crowded and almost unpleasant during the day, around the Barrio Gothic’s famous Cathedral you might hear a Spanish guitarist use the natural acoustics of the centuries old laneways as their amplifier.
Leaving Barcelona, I learn the hard way it’s important to reserve all your train tickets in advance. While I’d booked all my accommodation, I’d failed to lock in my train tickets to Valencia during the peak period of Las Fallas, a vibrant festival held just before Lent. The trains were booked solid. The one train with seats only had tickets available in first class- severely denting my travel funds, and I had to wait another five hours for it. Lesson learned: book in advance if you plan to use the more popular trains.
However, Valencia and Las Fallas turned out to be worth it. Drummers walk the streets at dawn to wake the neighbourhood, crackers that sound like canons are let off each afternoon, large satirical effigies appear on each street corner and parties spill across the street.
A procession of thousands of men and women in ornate traditional courtesan clothes walk to the town square, a mass of bodices and fans and frills and hooped skirts. The women carry offerings of carnations, which are used to create a giant floral effigy of the Madonna and Child. But it’s most fun to gather around after the processions, when the pious maidens suddenly whip mobile phones and cigarettes from their corseted busts, resecure tongue rings and stand about gossiping in groups while snacking on paper cones of churros.
Getting There: Renfe runs the Spanish train network. You can include Spain in your Eurail pass – talk to YHA Travel for advice on the best one to buy and to get your YHA member discount.
Where to Stay: The YHA in Spain is called REAJ and there are more than 250 hostels to choose from, including ones in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. Start exploring Spain with Hostelling International.