Sometimes travel can be more about the journey than the destination, as Caroline Hennessy and her family discovered when they took a 13-hour overnight journey from San Sebastián to Lisbon to check out the Trenhotel experience
It was Richard Scarry’s fault. While our girls were still babes in arms, I picked up some old books by that well-known American author and illustrator. The anthropomorphic animals that populated his Busytown were a common touchstone both from my Irish childhood and my Kiwi partner’s upbringing; we wanted to share this joint childhood memory with our own children.
We didn’t realise where it would take us.
One of the books, What Do People Do All Day, featured the Pig Family heading off on a train journey to visit their cousins. They travel across a colourful bit of America on an overnight train, staying in their own compartment, where the porter transforms their daytime seats into night time bunks.
The girls adored Scarry’s account of all the different jobs people do on the train, from the friendly ticket collector and careful waiter to the crazy chef tossing pancakes out the window of the dining car. Those were the pages that were pored over for bedtime stories, as I further embellished the tales with stories of my own travels on overnight trains in Eastern Europe, Malaysia and Thailand.
That was a fatal flaw. Little Missy and the Small Girl — their imaginations sparked with the knowledge that this was not just something that people (or animals) in storybooks did — started to ask if we could do a trip like that. “Someday,” I would say, pulling the curtains and turning off lights, “maybe someday. When you’re big.” What I hadn’t counted on was that the stories were having an influence on the Kiwi too.
The summer when the girls were five and eight we planned a holiday which involved meeting friends in North Western Spain, followed by a week in Portugal. There was a gap in the middle of the trip that needed to be connected: the journey from San Sebastián to Lisbon.
We could have flown — there are several airlines that fly between Bilbao and Lisbon — but I hadn’t reckoned on the Kiwi getting inspired by those old books. He did a little research and, primed by Scarry’s stories, he managed to talk me into catching a 13-hour overnight train instead of taking a 95 minute flight.
In the end, it wasn’t just the storybooks that convinced me: in Europe, train travel is often cheaper than flying, it’s a great way to actually see the countryside, environmentally friendly — and none of us wanted to spend more time than necessary in another bland, grey, interchangeable airport.
In theory, train travel is a win-win situation: travel while you sleep, getting rocked to dreamland in one country, waking up in another. In practice, my memories of cash-strapped backpacking in Eastern Europe with friends in the 1990s generally entailed four of us sharing three solidly upright seats in a crowded smoking carriage.
We spent those long, long nights trying to imbibe enough alcohol so that we could get a few hours’ kip while also keeping a close eye on our belongings. Those were the details that I hadn’t shared with the girls during storytime.
Twenty years later and with a few more euros in my pocket, however, things would be different. Hopefully.
The best place to find out about trains and plot a trip is on Seat61.com, a comprehensive website that covers train travel throughout the world, with a special focus on Europe. RENFE, the Spanish national train company, operates a long distance night train service service called Trenhotel. The company’s famous Sud Express traverses three countries, starting at Hendaye, just over the French border, running through Spain and finishing in Lisbon.
Equipped with with sleeping-cars, restaurant and bar, this is old-school travel but — hopefully — not quite as smoky and cramped as I remembered. On-board accommodation ranges from reclining seats (to be avoided at all costs), Tourista — or Tourist — class cabins, which have four beds and a sink and First, Preferente, class for one or two people, also with a sink. There’s also, if you wish to travel in luxury, train-style, the Gran Clase compartments, which sleep one or two and have a shower, basin — and toilet. Perfect if you’re travelling as a couple. Not ideal when you’re a party of four.
We negotiated the booking well in advance using Loco2.com, another website that simplifies European train travel. Official agents for rail operators in five European countries, including Spain, Loco2 accepts international credit cards — not always a given on individual countries’ sites — and enabled us to print off our tickets at home.
A four-bed Cama Turista sleeper from San Sebastián to Lisbon was €225.60 or €56.40 each. That price compared very favourably with any flights we looked at (Tap Air Portugal was about €75 per person to get to Lisbon) and we didn’t need to pay for a night’s accommodation.
Tickets booked, we were able to enjoy the first stage of our holiday with friends at the coast before heading to the beautiful city of San Sebastián to embark on our Great Train Adventure.
With bags safely stashed at left luggage in the main train station, we were free to pack in as much as we could during the day: time on the gloriously sandy La Concha beach, lunch at Cafe Kursaal, where I fell in love with the chilled gazpacho-like soup, salmorejo, and Little Missy ate her body weight in steamed mussels, followed by a visit to one of the many shady playgrounds dotted around the city before a stop at Gelateria Boulevard for giant ice creams. Before heading to back to the station, we fortified ourselves with impeccable flat whites at the Taba café in Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory turned art centre near the station that’s well worth a visit.
While in San Sebastián, we also went food shopping. In the days when the Kiwi and I were travelling on our own, we’d end up sharing a sleeping compartment with two strangers, spend half the night between the restaurant and bar, and tumble into Lisbon with a slight hangover and a desperate need for coffee. With a pair of smallies, however, behaviour had to be modified somewhat, so goodbye eating and drinking on the train and hello making sure that we had enough food for the night — train restaurants tend to start serving food too late for small people.
Fortunately, Spanish shops are well equipped with good things to bring on a train: we picked up a small tortilla, to be sliced up (no problem bringing my Swiss army knife on the train), stuffed into crusty baguettes with ripe tomatoes and eaten with salty crisps. A bag of juicy oranges and a couple of take-away slices of the legendary baked cheesecake from La Viña, a small pintxo bar in the old town, and we had a train picnic to remember.
The girls were gleefully full of anticipation as we waited on the platform for our train to arrive which it did, promptly, at 7.10pm. Our Tourista cabin was cosy, to say the least, with little luggage storage space but, as we put our feet up on the suitcase and watched the buildings of San Sebastián whizz past the window, we didn’t care. We had food and books (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban makes a great reading aloud travelling companion) and were settled into our compartment for the night.
After an exploring trip to the bar to pick up some crisps for supper, mainly so that the girls could experience a walk along the long, swaying carriages, we stayed put, asking the train porter to change our seats into beds early. After a trip to the toilet at the end of the carriage — the signs forbidding flushing while in stations made me think of the old Irish Rail rolling stock — we returned to a transformed cabin. Four comfortable beds had been magiced out of the walls and were made up with heavy white cotton sheets and cosy woolen blankets. After brushing teeth at the corner sink in our cabin, made more entertaining as we leaned into corners on the train track, we snuggled down and watched the night fall outside our window as we sped through the Spanish countryside.
Lulled by the rocking train, the girls slept quickly. With the door locked, so did we, although I woke sporadically as the fun and smoking outside our cabin filtered through the door.
At one stage a lost neighbour — Pierre, according to the friends who were trying to find him — had spent a little too long at the bar and had problems finding his compartment.
We could lie in bed and laugh from the other side of the door: the sense of security that came from having a lock between ourselves and the outside train world a comfort. We passed through timezones and borders while we slept but still woke early enough to watch the morning sun rising through the mist in the Portuguese countryside and spot the beautiful tiles on station walls as we neared Lisbon.
Our first sighting of the Portuguese capital was the elegant steel and glass Oriente station and then, just a few minutes later, at 7.20am, we came to the end of the line at the more everyday, but central, Lisbon Santa Apolonia station. As we readied ourselves to step off the train, after all the reading and thinking and planning, I asked Little Missy if the trip lived up to her expectations. “Better than the book!” was her reply. “Can we go back on the same train?”
Trenhotel tips Plan: Seat61.com is a regularly updated resource that will have you plotting many more train journeys.
Book in advance: Trenhotel tickets are released 60 days before travelling dates so we put that date in our diary and used loco2.com.
Language: when you’re looking at timetables, it’s handy to know that San Sebastián is known as Donostia in Basque.
Time zones: there’s a time difference of an hour between Spain and Portugal so don’t forget to put your watch back an hour.
Bring earplugs: sometimes Pierre and his friends can be a bit loud.
Plugs: there was only a shaver plug socket in our cabin so recharge any necessary devices before getting on the train.
Food: we didn’t get to check out the dining car but it’s always worth packing a picnic. Next time I’d add a few bottles of beer from Basqueland Brewing Project.