In today’s world generally when people think of long distance travel airlines are usually the answer. In fact in most cases air travel is the simplest and quickest way of getting from Point A to Point B. However there are countless other reasons to travel beyond simply getting there. We are trying to make our travels slower and a little unusual whenever we can. So for our most recent trip we had to get from London to Lisbon and we chose to do the entire journey by rail. Great choice!
It would have been both cheaper and faster by air but we have always wanted to do an extended rail trip so this seemed like an opportune time. Once we started researching we realized that the most common route included an overnight train which would be the fastest. In the end we chose to do it only by day trains. We got our inspiration from a suggested itinerary on the excellent Man in Seat 61 website. If you are thinking of rail travel definitely check it out. We made all of our arrangements and booked our tickets through the English booking site Loco2.
We actually started our journey in Swindon where we were house sitting for three weeks. It is a short 1 hour ride into Paddington Station from Swindon with Great Western Railway ($18 CAD each). As we were leaving the next morning on the Eurostar, we took the Tube to St. Pancras and got a hotel room nearby. There are many within a 5- 10 walk of the station. Beware as they are generally very small rooms, but ours was clean and did the job for an overnight stay. There was also a great little pub around the corner and a very good Chinese restaurant nearby.
We found boarding for the Eurostar to be efficient and easy. There are airport style security measures but not nearly as onerous and complex. You will have to go through passport control prior to entering the departures lounge which is spacious and well organized. We were surprised by the amount of people boarding and like much of London, it was a great spot for people watching and speculating on where everyone’s lives were taking them.
The train we were on had 16 coaches and they all seemed to be at least half full. We had a wonderful table for two in a quiet car, and other than the free hot meal included with a 1st Class ticket it couldn’t have been any more comfortable, so in our opinion not worth spending extra money on. We had booked well in advance and got our tickets for $90 CAD each. Rolling into the countryside after London was relaxing and the train was fast, quiet and smooth. Free wifi is available as well. It wasn’t long before we entered the Channel Tunnel and emerged into France for our first time.
As throughout the trip the next day, we were very surprised at the vast open spaces, agricultural activity and the amount of wind turbines along the route. Coming from North America we typically think of Europe as more densely populated and compact. Passing by occasional towns and villages however we could see that we were in France by the style and age of the buildings.
It seemed like no time at all and we arrived in Paris at the Gare du Nord. We had purchased Metro tickets at the bar on the Eurostar and we easily found our way to the Metro station and took the M4 line to Gare Montparnasse which was where we were departing from the next morning.
After a little bit of searching we found our hotel, the Hotel Concorde Montparnasse which surpassed our expectations. We were pleased with the price we got though Expedia which included an excellent buffet breakfast. It was on a quiet section of street just 5 minutes walk from the station.
We only had one afternoon in Paris so we opted to take the Metro to the Eiffel Tower and were overawed when we first glimpsed it through the trees. Paris has been in near drought conditions this summer so the Champ de Mar was very dry and quite dirty, but overflowing with people on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon.
Filled with an undeniable sense of excitement we took our time and strolled across the Seine on the Pont d’lena and just let the moment take us along. Drinks and a nice supper at a cafe across the street from our hotel completed an amazing day.
The next morning our train didn’t leave until noon so we ate our fill at the hotel’s buffet breakfast. We armed ourselves with snacks and wine for the train and set out on the next leg. We took the TGV Atlantique to Irun, Spain ($51 CAD each) which is just across the border from Hedayne, France.
This leg was 6 hours and again we had wonderful seating. The scenery was pretty similar for the first several hours across vast agricultural landscapes with the odd towns and larger cities.
One of the features that surprised us as we neared the western coast were the vast pine forests that were obviously planted many years ago. Very soon afterwards we started to see vineyards as we entered the famous Bordeaux region. Around 6:00 pm we arrived in Irun and set off luggage in tow to find our pension (guest house). After a few questions in our rudimentary Spanish we found our way and were pleased with the small but clean and comfortable room ($61 CAD).
We had time for drinks at a street cafe and then some kebabs for supper. The feel of the street in Irun seemed to us very Spanish, with many people of all ages out strolling in the cool evening air. This was our first ever taste of Spain and we liked it.
The next morning we boarded the Renfe Intercity train for our longest leg of 12 hours ($89.50 CAD each). As we pulled out of the station we soon entered some very spectacular mountain scenery. The hills became higher, more wooded and the limestone outcroppings were stunning. For a time we might have thought we were passing through Alpine villages. As the morning passed we entered into vast steppes which we traveled through for many hours.
On a side note this area is along the route of the famous Camino de Santiago and we saw many pilgrims and other walkers getting on and off the train at various stops. Their walking sticks, backpacks and the famous scallop shells were dead giveaways. For a couple of hours we shared our table with a wonderful Canadian couple who were walking the trail. We had a wonderful time exchanging stories with them and they have pretty much convinced us that we can do at least a portion of this famous trail. Something else for our bucket list.
Our last overnight stop was in Vigo, Spain. There was a light ran but we decided to try and find our way on foot in the dark to our hotel. In about 15 minutes we arrived at the NH Collection, Vigo which was exceptional. The staff were welcoming and the room surpassed what we are generally used to. At $70 CAD this was great value. We were only in Vigo for a short overnight stop but immediately felt comfortable and liked what we saw and felt. Another spot to visit in the future.
Our last day of train travel was spent on the Portuguese trains ($50 CAD each). We had a short stop in Porto where we changed trains for the last leg. Our quick views of Porto were stunning as we looked down on the river and house along the banks. Definitely another place to spend some time.
We arrived in Lisbon on time at 2:30, again in some light rain but with blue sky starting to appear. We couldn’t believe that we had made it. After 4 days and 2794 kms we were right on time and had no difficulties at all. The train journey was long but so well worth it. It was tiring stopping each night but we were rewarded with having had the experience of being able to see the wonderful landscapes, catching quick glimpses of local life and meeting fellow travelers along the way.
A few tips for anyone looking to do a similar trip. Book your tickets ahead of time to save money. Double-check your station connections as there are often more than one in a city. The trains are very punctual and it is easy to get used to the boarding signs. Take along snacks, food and wine for your trip as the snack / bar cars can be expensive and have limited choice and certainly minimal gluten free options. This can be challenging if you have an early departure as very few shops in the towns open before 8:30.
Our first impression of Lisbon, and the view from our apartment took our breath away but we’ll tell you all about that in upcoming posts.