Discover Northern Spain By Train

A ritual quickly developed in the dining cart onboard the Costa Verde Express, which is decked out with wooden accents and olive green velvet chairs reminiscent of the golden days of train travel era aboard the Orient Express.

After a three course meal, the luxury train’s trip director appeared nightly to hand out the next day’s itinerary over post-supper drinks like port or schnapps. This overview gets the group of passengers from as far as Brazil, the US, across Europe and myself as the sole Canadian, excited to take in some of the top sights in the region, which is known as Green Spain for its scenery, coastal landscapes and lush vegetation.

From Cangas de Onís’ famous roman bridge with five arches and a Victoria Cross in the middle, to the remarkable Covadonga Sanctuary, which is built into the side of a mountain, the journey promises insights into a side of Spain that’s vastly different from perennial favourites like Barcelona and Madrid.

The coastal route features many notable highlights like Picos de Europa, a stunning mountain range peeking out through the mist with cows roaming freely. The scenery encompasses such sights like vivid blue lakes in a scene reminiscent of Switzerland, or the rock formations of Playa de las Catedrales, where during low tide, you can walk through the arches that line the beach.

There’s also free time built into the schedule at various stops along the route to allow for independent exploration, or like multiple women on the trip opted for, shopping.

As the late Anthony Bourdain once said, “Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary.”

For me, it was during these unscripted free moments that some of my favourite memories were made. This is how I found myself on a beach named Playa de Poo. What originated as a bit of a joke destination based on the name, wound up being a stunning secluded cove beach with gorgeous mountain views, a highly recommended stop during the free time portion in Llanes.

Overall, there is no shortage of beaches to choose from in the city. A quick Google search of the top things to do in Llanes will list various beaches in the top 10 — you can’t go wrong. Another lovely option is Playa del Sablon, with views of the town’s medieval wall.

As for the food, not all meals are served on the train. Several lunches were at Paradores, unique accommodations in castles and monuments around Spain complete with wine or beer for the table, as well as some Michelin-star restaurants. Dinners on board were elaborate affairs with multiple choices per course, including vegetarian options, served with wines from the region. Breakfast offered a buffet spread with made-to-order eggs. Several people in my departure group got off in Bilbao with the goal of carrying on to San Sebastian, a city with renowned beaches and innovative chefs.

Another great way to get a feel for the destination is to try some of the local beverages that originate in the area. When in the Asturias region, travellers won’t have to look hard to find sidra, a hard cider with a twist. In order to spark natural carbonation and release the flavours of the tart beverage, it’s meant to be poured at least three feet (or more) from above into a small drinking glass slightly tilted on the side, a feat that takes some practice to perfect without spilling too much.

While I may not have mastered the art of the pouring technique during my journey along the northern coast of Spain, I was a natural at the tasting. With a freshly poured sidra in hand sitting on a bridge in the parish of Covadonga overlooking a waterfall to my left and a basilica next to a dramatic mountainscape to my right, it struck me just how beautiful this region is.

Costa Verde Express trips depart from either Santiago de Compostela or Bilbao, so travellers can select which end of the line to start from. I began my journey in Santiago de Compostela, where Anu Pitkanen from Santiago Tourism was quick to share that not everyone who visits is a pilgrim. The destination has, however, gained a reputation around the word as the end point for the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela that dates back to Medieval times.

In order to receive an official certificate, participants must walk at least 100 kilometres of the route. However, visitors can look for direction markers all around the city and walk a few humble steps along the route. While The Original Way is thought to be the first pilgrimage route starting off in Oviedo, there are now other popular ways like The French Way (or The Camino Frances), starting in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port; or The Portuguese Way, kicking off in Porto or Lisbon.

Fresh off of walking for over a month along the French Way, one man on my trip was happy for the train to do the heavy lifting for him. About one million people visit Santiago each year, about 300,000 of which are pilgrims. A popular time to visit is during The Holy Hear, also called the Jacobean year, which happens when a holiday called the Feast of St. James, on July 25, falls on a Sunday. This happens every five, six or 11 years. It was extended from 2021 to 2022 because of the pandemic. During this time, the Holy Doors of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela are open so worshipers can go inside to have their sins forgiven.

“Not if you killed someone,” Pitkanen says. “Only small sins.”

There are plenty of nearby patios to enjoy views of the cathedral over snacks and pints. The Old Quarter can easily be explored by foot and features many shops, boutiques and restaurants. Foodies will want to visit Casa Marcelo, a Michelin star-rated restaurant with two set dinner times offering a creative tasting menu. Those who opt to start the trip from Santiago are encouraged to come a few days early to experience all that the city has to offer.





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