Book review – Slow trains around Spain by Tom Chesshyre

Front cover of Tom Chesshyre's book Slow trains around Spain

A must for train and Spain lovers – and escapists.

Have you ever waited on a crowded platform with other grumpy commuters and longed to jump on a long-distance train to escape? I’ve had that fantasy hundreds of times. If you have too, then Tom Chesshyre’s Slow trains around Spain will speak to you.

“This is like no other kind of escape: no itinerary, no tickets booked, no commitments… no limits – other than where the tracks are laid, that is. Let the random enjoyments of lazy days take over for a while. Let the trains lead the way, wherever they may go. That’s what I’m after right now.”

Yessssss!

The great escape

From the moment Tom heads to his local bus-stop in South West London on a rain-soaked afternoon, you’ll follow him and empathise with his every emotion, nuance and irritable encounter on the way to St Pancras International.

Front gate of St Pancras railway and tube station in London

Platform 9 and three quarters might be over the road in Kings Cross, but St Pancras International is THE place to start any European trip – full of history, romance and the promise of adventure, as Tom so aptly describes.

Like all Great Escapes, Tom’s starts with a tunnel. As he speeds under the English Channel and through France, you can almost feel the weight loosening from his shoulders. Even the weather improves, as 3 weeks of freedom beckon. He has a rough plan to travel in an ‘S’ shape from the Catalan coast to Zaragoza, north to Cantabria, west to Galicia, south east through Madrid towards Valencia, then following the costas to the south and south west, finishing in Seville.

Beyond that rough plan, he makes whatever stops and detours take his fancy, revelling in his freedom to do so. He has a way of observing and appreciating this liberty in a way that makes the reader long to be there, experiencing it with him. He is happy to let the trains lead the way, managing the unexpected – and the inevitable setbacks – with charming resilience. Wherever possible he travels on slow branch lines rather than modern high-speed services. He wants to be “one step removed from the fast lane.”

“The feeling of other-wordliness and escape… is soul-lifting and seductive.”

It sure is!

I decided that the best approach for this post was to pick out some themes from this very entertaining and informative book.

Stained glass window at Bilbao Abando railway station
Bilbao Abando station

trains

Let’s take the most obvious theme first. Being a railway fan, Tom inevitably shares a certain amount of detail about gauges, train types, timetables and mileage – but not enough to bore the non-enthusiast. When he occasionally dips into technical aspects, he does so almost apologetically and very briefly, usually for a wider purpose of explaining why something is a certain way. And you do learn some interesting facts along the tracks.

For instance: Spain was somewhat late in establishing its railways compared with other European nations, largely due to its mountainous territory and perceived threats from France. The first line, between Barcelona and Mataró, opened in 1848. Fortunately, things have changed. Today, Spain’s rail services are as good as any others in Europe – and better than some.

Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain
Theatre-Museum in Salvador Dalí’s birth town of Figueres – Tom’s first stop in Spain

Tom’s fascination for trains goes deep, and for anyone like me who shares this passion, you’ll enjoy his descriptions of the rail museums he visits in Catalonia, Madrid and Aguilas. You’ll long to be gazing at the incredible architecture of stations like Bilbao Abando, Madrid Atocha, Aranjuez and Valencia. You’ll also get a really useful list of the best station cafes in Spain!

Tom’s highlights include the Montserrat rack railway – “as train journeys go, this is about as heavenly as they come” – and a ride on a fascinating old train that used to service a mercury mine in Almadén. He also spots the ultra posh, vintage Transcantábrico clásico train in Ferrol station. Although Tom doesn’t get to ride in these luxurious carriages, I enjoyed learning more about the train through his conversations with train staff.

I’ve made a few train journeys around Spain in my time, but I now feel I know a lot more about the RENFE* network – and that I could tell my AVE from my Media Distancia and my Avant.

Spanish railways - RENFE - train by a platform in a station

As you progress through the book, you soon realise that Tom has passions and interests other than trains. I’ve picked out a few of these, as follows.

literature and travel writing

Being a journalist, it’s not surprising to learn that Tom is a great reader, particularly of the classic travel writers associated with Spain – Laurie Lee and Ernest Hemingway among them. He is a particular devotee of George Orwell, who – like Lee – fought in the Spanish civil war. Tom makes a special journey to visit the trenches in which Orwell nearly lost his life, near Zaragoza. It’s one of several poignant and reflective moments in the narrative.

Surprisingly, for the reader and also for Tom, he discovers that he is not alone in his literary admiration. He happens upon guards, ticket inspectors, tourist guides and hostal owners who are equally passionate about the same authors. This proves to be an unexpectedly useful source of suggestions and wayfinding for him.

Tom’s go-to literary work for his journey is Spain by Jan Morris, first written in 1964 and widely praised. Confession: I studied Spanish at university, spent time in the country as a student and have visited many times – yet I have never heard of Jan Morris. Which is why I didn’t mention her in my post 4 classic British travel books on Spain. Definitely one for the reading list, therefore.

Windmills of La Mancha, Spain
Windmills of La Mancha

Tom does pay tribute to one Spanish author, alongside all these Anglophones. He visits the sun-baked province of La Mancha, and makes sure to spot the famous windmills that feature in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. A visit to the eponymous museum in Ciudad Real reveals more about the amazing life of Cervantes, and goes some way to explaining his extraordinary imagination.

Politics

In all honesty I’m not sure whether politics is a passion of Tom’s – I suspect not. But he finds it impossible to avoid. He hears, or reads, voices for and against a multitude of causes – separatism, nationalism, environmental concerns, poverty, overtourism, immigration, refugees, branch line closures, homophobia. He even finds himself encouraged to join one or two street protests.

I find it interesting to note the regional differences. Separatist sentiments in the wealthier provinces of Catalonia and the Basque country contrast with socialist attitudes in poorer Extremadura, for example. Despite the relative recency of the civil war and its painful memories, there are signs of right wing ideologies re-emerging. The far right Vox party is steadily gaining support.

Centro Botin, Santander, Spain
The Centro Botín in Santander – one of Spain’s wealthier cities

I think back to my own student days in Spain, when my landlady shocked me by declaring that she preferred the Franco era. “I could leave my door unlocked then. Not now.” What would Laurie Lee and George Orwell – who fought for the Republicans – have said to that?

Reading Tom’s account, however, it’s clear that Spain’s democracy has not delivered benefits to everyone. Economic inequality is leading to increasingly polarised opinions – as is happening in so many other developed nations, including both of my own. No wonder the radicals are seizing their opportunity, finding willing listeners among the disaffected and the fearful. Something for us all to be concerned about.

History

Like politics, history is a constant theme of the book – and of course the two subjects are very much intertwined.

Much of Spain’s history has involved bloody conflict and lots of fighting, which is reflected in many of the artworks Tom admires in museums and galleries. I suppose it’s not surprising when your country has been invaded by so many – Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Moors, French, British – and then of course there was the civil war.

Tom observes that memories of the civil war are still fresh, and have left Spain a divided country. Even today, discoveries of mass graves from that time are still being uncovered. Interestingly, when Tom visits Ferrol – the birthplace of Franco – he finds a city keen to disassociate from its historical links with the General, with statues being removed and names being changed. Not everyone approves, however – particularly members of the Vox party.

Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain
Montserrat, Catalonia

I learn some interesting historical facts and figures that I was previously unaware of, such as that 500,000 Gallegos emigrated to Buenos Aires between 1836-1960, and that many Catalans went off to Cuba, returning with considerable wealth. Whilst I was well aware of the Spanish diaspora, I find these regional anecdotes fascinating.

Religion and spirituality

Just like politics, religion is a major influence in Spain. The power of the Catholic Church has shaped the nation in so many ways, as has the Moorish occupation which took place from 711 until 1689. The former is illustrated by the many magnificent ecclesiastical monuments visited by Tom, and the enduring popularity of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela.

Despite attempts to replace mosques with Christian structures, Moorish influence persists in so many buildings and decorative styles – such as Mudéjar – that we consider to be typically Spanish today. It’s hard not to feel spiritually uplifted when following Tom around the Alhambra, where every feature is designed to transport the observer into a heavenly state of mind, in readiness for an audience with God.

Generalife gardens, Alhambra, Granada, Spain
The Generalife gardens at the Alhambra

Tom states that he is not religious himself. However, it’s clear that he has respect for the faith of others – and appreciates the magnificent buildings and works of art dedicated to it. On occasions when he notices little ironies or unexpected conduct, he observes these with wry humour rather than judgment.

I very much enjoyed some of these observations. Examples include the gin-drinking nuns and monks of Montserrat, and the Camino de Santiago pilgrims who prefer to let the train take the strain rather than purify their souls on the long, arduous walk. Then there’s the unrepentant commercialism surrounding holy places or the illustrious former residents of a town.

Art and achitecture

Travelling through a country full of amazing art and architecture, it’s hardly surprising that Tom is dazzled by both. At his first stop in Spain – Figueres – he encounters the weird creativity of Salvador Dalí, who was born there. In Santander he delights in discovering the wonderful Centro Botín, a futuristic art centre designed by Renzo Piano. A much more modest gallery, in the ‘hanging houses’ of Cuenca, captivates him. In Málaga, he contemplates the genius of one of the city’s famous sons – Picasso.

The hanging gardens or casas calgados in Cuenca, Spain
The ‘hanging houses’ of Cuenca

At Zaragoza, Tom visits a museum dedicated to local hero Francisco de Goya. After marvelling at the evocative paintings and engravings, he declares them “the work of a master who, for my money, knocks Dalí for six”. Controversial!

I love the sound of the ‘glass houses’ – galería – at Ferrol and La Coruña. Apparently this distinctive architectural style was developed in Ferrol, a navy city, when shipyard workers experimented with glass galleries to help seamen achieve better visibility in bad weather. So successful were they, that the style was adopted for balconies on residential houses. Tom describes the “ornate glass facades with high arched windows” that overhang the streets, “leaning across to whisper to one another”. Doesn’t that just make you long to see them?

A typical glass house or Galeria in the city of Ferrol, Spain
A typical galería in Ferrol

Just about every town or city featured in the book has an incredible cathedral, church, castle, alcázar or all of the above. I’d forgotten how easy it is to take these magnificent structures for granted when you live in Europe. Here in New Zealand, our oldest surviving building dates from 1822! Reading about Roman amphitheatres and aqueducts, like those at Segovia and Mérida, makes me want to return to the old world very soon.

Culture

For anyone who loves Spanish culture, as I do, there’s lots to delight you. Inevitably there are various fiestas in preparation during Tom’s travels, including the running of the bulls at Pamplona – described in vivid detail by a couple of young bull-runners he encounters in a bar. He has mixed feelings about the Celtic culture he encounters in Galicia, particularly the dodgy bagpipe players!

A plate of snails served at restaurant La Huerta, Lleida, Spain
Snails served at La Huerta, Lleida

Inevitably, food and drink feature heavily. Descriptions of delicious tapas and pintxos will leave you feeling hungry, as you might expect. But there are surprises too. I didn’t know that Oviedo was known for its cider, nor that Lleida is famous for its snails and hosts a major annual festival to celebrate the fact. Fancy that.

I rather like the way that Tom passes by the well-known tourist sites such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but makes time for small local museums and attractions in off-the-guide-book locations. That said, he does take time out to visit the mass tourism centres of Benidorm and Torremolinos, more out of curiosity than anything else. I like the fact that he is willing to acknowledge the good as well as the bad.

Woman walking on a deserted beach, Fuengirola, Spain in winter
Me enjoying winter in Fuengirola. Like Tom, I find that mass tourist resorts can surprise you.

People

As is so often the case with travel writing, it’s the people who really make this book so enjoyable. Many different characters bring the narrative to life with their stories, opinions, quirks and anecdotes: train guards, information office guides, nuns, priests, hostal owners, cafe and bar staff, local residents and fellow travellers. Tom finds kindred spirits in the most unlikely of places, be they fellow literature or train buffs.

RENFE guard Nuria, for instance, loves trains because all her special moments in life have happened on them. “On trains there is a feeling of always moving: that is what it is. That feeling of moving on.” This sentiment definitely resonates with me.

Spanish flamenco dancer holding a red fan
Tom enjoyed a flamenco display

When it comes to the Spanish people in general, Tom observes that they like to talk a lot, have strong opinions, are football-mad, can be eccentric and are disarmingly kind-hearted at times. He admires their ‘enjoyment of absurdity’. He has an interesting theory that their energy and passion for life is fuelled by their regular siestas and naps, not something I’ve considered before but which makes sense.

Final thoughts

I loved this book, not only because of the nostalgia it aroused about my own past times in Spain. It manages to strike the perfect balance between realism and positivity, travel guide and personal memoir. It doesn’t duck the less palatable side of travel – delays, cancellations, bus replacements, breakdowns, rude unreasonable people, bad weather or just those fed-up moments. It shows how to deal with these, recover and move on.

Tom writes beautiful, evocative descriptions of landscapes that help the reader feel the heat and smell the flowers. He has an eye for detail and a gentle humour that is non-judgmental. He comes across as the kind of guy you’d love to have as a friend, or bump into in a bar and have a chat with. I’m now dead keen to read his other train books.

Valencia Nord railway station - a good stop on your tour of slow trains around Spain
Valencia Nord station

The not-been-to-yet place I most want to visit after reading the book? Valencia. Line I most want to ride? San Sebastián to Santiago de Compostela.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my review of 4 classic British travel books on Spain. These include 2 authors mentioned by Tom: Laurie Lee and Gerald Brenan.

*RENFE – Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles – Spanish Railways.

© Coconut Lands. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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One Comment

  1. You did a great job summarizing “Slow Trains Around Spain”. It sounds like a book that I would enjoy reading, especially because the author shares unique ways to experience Spain. If I had the time and opportunity to visit Spain for an extended period of time, this would be the way I would want to experience the country.

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