Scandinavia to Iberia, by Train

A Holiday Inn isn’t typically where I’d choose to stay, but in Helsinki it made perfect sense. It was centrally located, and provided a view like none other; winterscape as far as the eye could see, and trains – lots of them – within earshot. One such train whisked me into Helsinki Central Station from the airport in under 30-minutes, and once there, I could get to practically any part of the city on Helsinki’s excellent tram network, or for the heck of it, take a metro to Mellunmäki, the northernmost metro station in the world. Obviously, I did. Across the streets of Helsinki, Christmas decorations and festive lights persisted well into the New Year, as if to make up for all the gloominess. Of the many buildings I admired along the way, Saarinen’s Helsinki Central Station might have been my favorite. Home, amongst other things, to possibly the most attractive Burger King on the planet. The Oodi Library being a close second.

Daylight was limited and temperatures were frigid – as one might expect for the first half of January – but the Finns, everyone I interacted with in my short time there, were welcoming and friendly. It helped, of course, that most do speak English. The country actually has two official languages (the other being Swedish), a fact I was thoroughly ignorant about till my curiosity into the overwhelming presence of multilingual signs got the better of me. They drink copious amounts of coffee – more than anyone else on the planet, as it turns out – and often, that’s accompanied by an excellent selection of cinnamon rolls; a combination any self-respecting Nordic would subscribe to. And yet, somehow, the country felt culturally closer to Russia.

Silja Line operates nightly departures to Tallinn and Stockholm from Helsinki’s Olympia Terminal, offering reasonable fares and the option to transport your automobile, making for a convenient overnight journey to neighboring Estonia or Sweden. The Scandinavians, in keeping with their brand, certainly prefer it to flying. I would’ve opted for a land connection, of course, but in the absence of one, this was the next best thing. The ships that ply these routes are more akin to cruise liners than ferries, but mine was pleasantly devoid of the very hordes one associates with those monstrosities. There were multiple bars and restaurants to choose from on board – again, all reasonably priced – and a free to attend “Tribute to Queen” show was certainly an added bonus. We sailed out of Helsinki’s frozen harbor in blizzard-like conditions, arriving at Stockholm the following morning in thick fog.

Despite the fog and the frosty conditions, Stockholm was an absolute treat. Gamla Stan, its medieval quarter, turned out to be a true revelation, as did the hundreds of islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago. Djurgården being one of those. Home to a historic amusement park, monuments, and several of the city’s most prominent museums, it also serves as a major recreational space during the city’s very short-lived summer. I came in on the ferry, weaved my way through on foot, and made my way out on a tram. The Abba Museum had to be skipped, sadly. Back in the city center and with dusk prevailing, it was time to explore Stockholm’s Metro; a true work of art and an absolute joy to travel in. For dinner, I made a reservation at an old-school establishment, for that trifecta of a traditional meal – meatballs, mash and lingonberry – one that I was hellbent on sampling outside the world of Ikea.

The charming little hotel I stayed at was walking distance from Stockholm Central Station, allowing me just enough time for the first meal of the day. And just as well. It turned out to be one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve had. Although, as I was to discover an hour or so later, it wasn’t the only one. If national operator SJ‘s chic first class lounge at Stockholm Central was anything to go by, I knew I had made the right choice for what was to be the very first of 11 intercity journeys for me. No sooner had I settled in to my very comfortable seat on their X2 high-speed tilting train, the stewardess showed up with breakfast! And in case full service didn’t cut it for everyone, there was, for good measure, a well-stocked caffeine station at the end of the carriage too. Outside, as we hurried along Sweden’s Södra stambanan or Southern Line, picturesque lakes flashed by, some still partially frozen, others flanked by low hills, and plenty of snow all around. The sun made an appearance as we pulled out of Lund, and before long, we were gliding past the large marshaling yard on approach to Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city. It was about then that I realized the train wasn’t going much further. A quick scamper through Malmö Central to locate a regional train headed south – a totally unplanned connection at that – and within minutes of our departure, we were racing across the mighty impressive Öresund Bridge, over (and then under) its namesake strait. Next stop: Kobenhaven Lufthaven. And just like that, I was in Denmark.

Copenhagen. Plenty to do and not a minute to lose. A city that had long been on my list, and all I had was two hours between trains to at least try and scratch its surface. Bag in the locker and a list in hand, I was on the move. The Tivoli Gardens were closed for the season so that saved me a few. Past City Hall’s imposing clock tower and on to Gammeltorv, where I decided to pass on a hot dog stand calling my name. Across the Frederiksholms Canal and into the grounds of Christiansborg Palace I went, eventually exiting its east side to come face to face with the exquisite former home of the Copenhagen stock exchange. I lost precious minutes across from the Børsen gawking at all the bicyclist’s, wishing all along I could get on a bike and join them. Someday. Metro to Frederik’s Church. Unplanned detour to Amalienborg. Metro back to Copenhagen Central. Bag retrieved from locker. Ten minutes to departure. Game time decision on dinner to go. The kiosk outpost of Lagkagehuset, a local bageri, would do just fine. After all, I was told, in Denmark its all about the bread.

Danish State Railways or Danske Statsbaner (DSB), the largest train operating company in Scandinavia, appeared to be a little late on the upgrade game; their IC3 train bound for Hamburg looking a tad dated. A partitioned carriage made first class seem crammed at first, but the seats turned out to be comfortable, thankfully. On board, there was a self-help tea/coffee station, and vending for food and beverages was courtesy of a rather peculiar joint venture between DSB and 7-Eleven, complete with custom backpack-totting attendant. The suburbs of Copenhagen were crossed in no time and as I was getting through my cinnamon roll (course one of two in my carb-heavy meal), we began traversing the endless expanse of the Great Belt Bridge. The very feat of engineering responsible for eliminating a ferry crossing, and saving a full hour of travel between Denmark and Germany. At Padborg, the DSB crew left us, taking with them all the pots of coffee, and reminding us on their way out, “masks ready please”. Not only was compliance required in Germany but specifically of the FFP2 variety. Everyone dutifully donned theirs, although no one actually came through to check. Padborg looked a lot bigger than was warranted for a crew change, the station probably serving as a border control post back in the day. A Deutsche Bahn (DB) crew boarded at Padborg and we were off again, sans any recourse to caffeine. Even in relative darkness, the loftiness of the Rendsburg High Bridge over the Kiel Canal was easy to appreciate; the ships beneath us appearing like miniatures. T-60 to Hamburg.

Hamburg’s magnificent Hauptbahnhof, or central station, was a sight familiar to me, and yet, awe-inspiring all over again. My hotel lay right across from the station’s eastern entrance, and check in at that hour was painless. In pouring rain, I retraced a route my sister and I had walked in 2013, from Hauptbahnhof to the River Elbe, roughly following the paths of the inner city canals. Sufficiently drenched and feeling the cold, I took the U-Bahn back from Binnenhafen. A nightcap was in order and nothing better than a pint, at the aptly-named Paulaner’s Miraculum, a traditional Bavarian eatery that sat conveniently across from Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, and next door to my lodgings.

Ditsch has been hawking brezels for over a century, so I followed the lead of Hamburg’s commuters, cueing up at the pretzel bar at Hauptbahnhof. The pretzel was filling and the coffee accompanying it was strong. Just as well, since Deutsch Bahn does not offer any freebies on first class. That’s a Scandinavian thing, apparently. The ICE train I was on though was a significant upgrade from my last one. Ride quality was very refined, and even at top speed, the carriages were exceptionally quiet. South of Hannover, as we got up to our max cruising speed, a series of lengthy tunnels and streaks of rain did well to inhibit views of the outside world. But the contours of the land were discernible all the same. The Harz Mountains visible to our distant east, and verdant, wonderfully undulating countryside closer to the rail alignment. The views accompanying us well south of Kassel. All through, mask compliance was laudable despite any evidence of enforcement.

Mannheim was reached on time, and as the ICE train departed towards Zurich, I had an hour to kill till my connecting train to Paris. Outside, there was a tram bonanza that I was least expecting. That kept me thoroughly entertained as I sat and chowed down a döner kebab sandwich; a food as popular as the brezel is in Germany, it might as well be a national dish.

SNCF‘s double deck TGV was similar to the one I had taken in 2018, and I was back on the upper deck in a familiar first class setting. The trains had hardly aged. We crossed the Rhine minutes after departing Mannheim, and were soon making our way through the Palitinate wine-growing region, the second largest in Germany. Past Neustadt, we began climbing in true earnest, crossing at least a dozen tunnels and quickly gaining a few hundred meters in elevation. Our route through the Baden – Rhineland region, and specifically the Palatine forest, turned out to be an unexpectedly scenic one, the entire section up to Saarbrucken peppered with picturesque little mountain towns. A conventionally-laid line, the Mannheim – Saarbrucken railway, with all its twists and turns, and grades of up to 2.5%, was really cramping our style though; the TGV capable of a lot more and eager to unleash its potential. Once across those mountains and into France, we joined the East European High Speed Line or LGV Est just west of Moselle, quickly climbing to a top speed of 320 km/h. It was time to hit the bistro car for some vino. By the time I returned to my seat, the sun was out in force, lighting up the picture-perfect French countryside. Speeds remained consistent, the scenery was uninterrupted, and the wine intake was a little more than I had bargained for. All making for a truly heady mix into Paris.

The grandness of Gare de l’Est, one of six rail termini in Paris, took more time to absorb than I had budgeted for, but I still managed to make my planned detour to a different slice of Canal Saint Martin, with a little light to spare. With my bag dropped off in the left luggage at Gare d’Austerlitz, I took a much longer than anticipated walk along the Seine, stopping off at Île de la Cité to check in on the Notre-Dame (still plenty of work remains), before my weary feet had the final say at the grounds of the Louvre. Paris by night turning out to be as utterly charming as I remember the city to be by day. A quick metro ride deposited me in the general vicinity of the Sorbonne, where I made a beeline for the first visible corner bistrot. French onion soup, pomme frites, and a glass of red were consumed amidst a lot of animated French chatter, in what could only be described as a local watering hole. Then it was time to stumble over to Gare d’Austerlitz, fetch my bag and board my train. Au revoir, Paris.

There are faster ways of getting to Barcelona, and I could have chosen to stay the night in Paris too, but I was determined to ride one of the last remaining overnight services in the country, Intercités de Nuit 3975. It turned out to be one of the most comfortable sleeper journeys I’ve ever done. Despite the many stops and the age of the carriage, the train was smooth as silk, and a very restful night was had. My cabin mates were an amiable bunch, our limited conversation aided in no small measure by the young lady who spoke some anglais. I awoke as we were pulling out of the alpine town of Foix, its namesake castle silhouetted in the pre-dawn light. We were an hour or more south of Toulouse at that point, and twilight would gradually reveal the mighty Pyrenees in all their snow clad glory. The railway from Toulouse to Foix opened in 1862, but the challenging route south of Foix through the Pyrenees only opened in 1929. The Portet-Saint-Simon–Puigcerdà railway, as its known, was meant to be the highlight of my many planned journeys, and it did not disappoint. Through tunnels, cuttings and curved arch viaducts we went, past quaint hamlets and chalet-style stations, climbing all the while. Emerging, eventually, from one of the longest tunnels on to the humble single-platform affair of Porté-Puymorens; at 1,562 m or 5,125 ft above mean sea level, the highest adhesion standard gauge station in Europe. A couple of lads alighted, skis in tow. The train continued on. It was all downhill from there till journey’s end. I returned to the cabin to gather my belongings and every one of my fellow travelers had disembarked already. That should’ve hardly surprised me. After all, my head was practically glued to the rear window of the last carriage since daybreak.

It was a brisk 0C upon arrival at Latour de Carol, the crisp mountain air still very apparent. A frontier town straddling France’s Occitania and Spain’s Cerdanya region, Latour de Carol stood at a respectable altitude of 1,248 m or 4,094 ft above sea level. I was one of a handful of passengers to alight there, our train also significantly reduced in length, having lost a majority of its formation at Toulouse a few hours prior. It was a stunning morning and a majestic setting, the Pyrenees still clearly visible in the distance. Breakfast, and sufficient caffeine, was had at the aptly-named, Le Bistrot de la Gare, as I took in the environs of the unique triple-gauge, triple-voltage border station. Then it was a short walk over to the marginally wider tracks on the Spanish side, to board a regional, no-frills service to Barcelona. The Catalan half of the Pyrenees turning out to be no less spectacular, with an arid, more rugged appearance to them, and dotted with little towns who’s architecture seemed to blend effortlessly into their environment. Eventually, those little towns made way for spiffier exurbs, which gradually merged with the sprawl of Barcelona, as we finally made our way down to sea level.

With patches of dense fog during the last hour or so of our journey, I was a little concerned what the weather would be like in Barcelona. But it turned out to be as good as routinely advertised – bright and sunny. Plaça d’Espanya was a short walk from Barcelona’s utterly sterile Sants Station, and just off the main square I sought out a table in the sun. The chalkboard menu outside the nondescript little cafe had a half dozen items to its credit, so my decision was effortless – just the classics, for a late and thoroughly satisfying lunch. A quick metro ride over to Plaça de Catalunya was followed by a lazy stroll through the Rambla – looking considerably cleaner than I can recall, or maybe it was just off season? Then, a slight detour through my favorite street in the Gothic Quarter, before finally ending at the waterfront, by then desperately in need of caffeine. Back to Barcelona Sants on the Metro, where I picked up my bag and realized I was short on time, not having budgeted any for a security check prior to boarding my train. It was quick, thankfully.

In a lot less time than I had spent galavanting around Barcelona, a sleek double deck high-speed train whisked me from Barca to Madrid in ~2.5 hours. A distance of 621-km or 386-mi. And, we were 5-minutes early! As far as high speed rail goes, Spain is to Europe what China is to Asia – a latecomer to the game, but an undisputed leader today. My first class ticket had cost me just $30, utilizing one of four high-speed rail operators in the country, who, combined, have effectively put airlines out of business on what was once the most heavily-trafficked city pair in the world.

In Madrid, I met up with my good friend, AK, along with his daughter, who happened to be in Europe at the same time. They had made it a point to join me for the last leg of my journey through Iberia. Even before I got there, I knew I had just the one night, and no daylight available to me to explore Madrid for the first time. Challenging as that was, I was prodded on by my freshly-minted travel companions, who were patient enough to revisit some of the very sights they had already covered. All told, we managed a reasonable bit in a fairly short span of time, checking off practically every landmark on my predetermined route, including a couple of Metro rides for good measure. We capped it all off with some vermouth – as the Spanish tend to do – at a perfectly boisterous al fresco bar alongside Plaza de la Independencia. Madrid made quite the impression on me and determined to squeeze in just that little bit more, I didn’t sleep a whole lot that night. Up well before dawn (daybreak was as late as 8 am while I was visiting), I trekked out to the city’s beloved El Retiro park to pay a visit to the marvelous Palacio de Cristal. It was so worth it. As was the banter between the city worker and the black swan that answered her call lakeside. At an old-school cantina closer to my hotel, I wolfed down a delicious breakfast of tortilla española in a mini baguette, and then it was a mad dash through the magnificent train shed of Estación de Madrid Atocha, to catch my onward connection.

The journey from Madrid to Badajoz could only be described as the polar opposite of my high-speed run from the night before. Predominantly rural, single track for most part, some tardiness (which I got compensation for later), and an older-generation Talgo train, which, to the credit of its manufacturers had somehow survived all those decades of wear. A new high-speed line is in the works – small sections of which we traveled over – one which would eventually connect the two Capitals of Iberia. So if anything, this was a journey to savor. Passing through endless farmland, patches of fog, Roman-era aqueducts, and calling on lesser-known towns like Talavera de la Reina, Monfragüe and Cáceres, Renfe‘s train 190 made its way west across Spain. At Mérida, the largest town en route, we reversed direction, with the vast majority of passengers alighting, leaving the first class carriage entirely to AK and me. It was fiesta time. From the adjoining cafe car, I provided a steady supply of cervezas, as AK generously unwrapped some of the best Iberican ham sandwiches I’ve tasted; the few that he had stashed away following a culinary tour in Madrid. Before we knew it, the frontier town of Badajoz was upon us.

There, on a stub end platform stood a lone railcar or railbus. One that was built in the Netherlands in the mid-50s, and lovingly restored and kept in service by Portugal’s national rail operator, CP. Its bright green exterior and even more vibrant interior beckoning us toward it. Barring a switch for me to the last of the timezones for this Europe trip, the Spanish – Portuguese border was crossed without event, or any marking. Elvas station, featuring the country’s distinctive azulejo tile work, announced our official entry into Portugal. Soon, we were making our way through the beautiful Alentejo region of the country, along CPs Linha do leste or Eastern Line, a route that afforded us all the joys of a rural branch line. Frequent stops in the middle of nowhere, a pace that seemed anything but hurried, and bucolic views out of the window. It was the perfect antidote to all the frenzy of travel thus far. Further west, a little past the town of Abrantes, the River Tagus came into view. At Almourol, we crossed over to its north bank and would remain there till Lisbon was reached. But first, we were due yet another change of trains at Entroncamento.

The connection to Lisbon at Entroncamento could have been a lot shorter, but I deliberately chose a later train. In part to soak up some of the atmosphere at a quintessential railway junction; one that boasts a footbridge straddling the width of the rail yard, and a station cafe that provides service late into the evening. But also, just to prolong my overall journey through Europe by rail. It was almost on cue then that the very last of my trains on this trip was the only one of the lot to be notably late. As dusk settled on Lisbon, we finally pulled into Santa Apolonia some 28″ behind schedule. The station wore a new coat of paint from the last time I was there, and housed within it now was a brand spanking new boutique hotel. No prizes for guessing where I stayed that night 🙂

A full set of photos from my travels through Europe can be seen on my Flickr.

One thought on “Scandinavia to Iberia, by Train

  1. Mohan

    Fantastic – all one has to do is to keep this blog on hand and follow in your footsteps. – no prior research required!
    The photography – so stunning and so apt!
    A treasure for the traveller who’s had it with all the goddamn charmless low cost airlines!

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