Time Travel on The Transcantábrico Train

By Abi King | Inspire Me

May 17

Asturian Cross hanging beneath bridge


Asturias, Spain

Everything’s still, save for a breeze so slight it’s invisible until it reaches the window and makes the curtains sigh. I hear railway sounds from another century, a whistle and muted metal clanging, before the landscape of northern Spain picks itself up and learns to glide by.

Transcantabrico train in stained glassI’m not used to seeing hedgerows at right angles and beaches with vertical shorelines. This is what comes from looking at the world from the luxury of my bed, a caramel affair drawn straight from the past.

The Transcantabrico train chugs through Asturias, rather pleased with itself. It’s received a makeover this year, introducing showers with more jet sprays than I know what to do with, plush burgundy corridors and last, but by no means least, a disco carriage complete with a sparkly spinning ball.

It’s the last thing I’d expect on a high class adventure that serves up fine gourmet dining at a sedate 31 mph. Yet that seems to be Asturias: old-fashioned charm, with fresh funk when you least expect it.

Aviles at night - arches, lights, square

Avilés: The View From the Past

Avilés, Asturias

Take Avilés, for example. Right now, the striking Oscar Niemeyer complex grabs the headlines. But as any local will tell you (and in this world of social media they do), that’s not all Avilés has to offer. Historic buildings flank paved open squares, sawdust mingles with cider in bars, while flags unfurl over balconies and stony coats of arms.

Picos de Europa, Asturias: lake & mountains

Picos de Europa

Away from the cities, cars zip through the rugged Picos de Europa, while hikers stride past in Gore-Tex and bloggers update their Facebook accounts like there’s no tomorrow.

Enrique, portrait of a shepherd in Picos de Europa

Enrique, A Shepherd in Asturias

Yet Enrique Remi Fernandes, a 56 year old shepherd, strives to maintain a dying tradition.

“I do it for my son,” he explains, when I talk to him about his work. Between April and June, Enrique lives on these exposed peaks, following a way of life that included 80 families when he was a child, but that has since dwindled down to, well, just one. Him.

He rises at six, milks his sheep and tends to his cheese. He has no days off,” not even on Sundays,” and turns to the radio, rather than anything else, for entertainment.

Traditional Cheese in Picos de Europa

Traditional Cheese – Asturias

Yet elsewhere in Asturias, old customs enjoy something of a revival.

Asturian Bagpipes

Playing bagpipes in Asturias, Spain

Bagpipes. Not just for Scotland

Carmen, Nacho and Mario treat my ears to a bagpipe display (I know, I thought bagpipes were Scottish, too.) It turns out that bagpipes and Asturias go hand in non-tartan hand. Unlike, say, Morris Dancing in the UK, playing the bagpipes in this part of Spain has captured the hearts –  and lungs –  of the next generation.

The sound’s reminiscent of its Celtic counterparts, though, at least to my uneducated ears. A hint of music, a serving of rhythm, plus that strange and ethereal impression of a cat being murdered at dawn. It all combines to create an unforgettable cultural experience.

Time Travel: The Transcantábrico Train

Back on the train, the Celtic crosses, cliffs and coastline drift by. I’m here for such a short time, that I cannot pretend to get beneath the skin of life in Asturias.

Yet already, I sense that it’s a place in love with its past, with a heady taste for the future.

Asturias Clock

On board the Transcantabrico train in Asturias

Time travel with the Transcantabrico…

Time travel by train - the outside of the Transcantabrico

Disclosure: I visited Asturias as a guest of the Tourist Board of Asturias. Yet, I’m deliriously happy to say that all opinions are mine ;)  That’s the joy of blogging…


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com

Jeremy Branham May 18, 2011

What a beautiful area! I’ve spent some time in Spain but never been to Aviles nor have I spent much time in the Asturias region. I had mixed feelings on Spain but definitely will try and spend time here the next time I visit!

    Abi King May 24, 2011

    Spain surprises me, too. The regions are very, very different. I’d love to know more about your mixed feelings – what did you like? What didn’t you like?

Gene Bowker May 18, 2011

Looks like a wonderful ride.

I’ve seen it advertised before, but your pictures and descriptions brought it to life.

    Abi King May 24, 2011

    Thanks. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip but, personally, I found the experience even better than I’d imagined.

Jenna May 25, 2011

This sounds like a very memorable train ride, from the fancy train to the farmer and his cheese! I traveled in Spain just once and am really looking forward to going back. I didn’t know anything about Asturias until now, but it seems like a lovely region to explore, especially by this beautiful train!

    Abi King June 29, 2011

    Asturias seems largely forgotten by international visitors – which makes it all the more interesting to visit!

lara dunston July 17, 2011

Absolutely beautiful! Been to Spain so many times yet haven’t had a chance to go to Asturias yet – and my Spanish teacher (who I once beat in a gaspacho-making contest!) was from there. Always wanted to go. And I had no idea this existed! Definitely putting this on the list!

    Abi King October 13, 2012

    My head is now filled with images of you at a gazpacho making contest! Now that does sound like fun.

Sonja August 10, 2012

You’ve touched my heart – I love European trains. Just returned from southern Spain and Portugal too, and it was fabulous. Slept overnight on the Lusitania train from Lisbon to Madrid. The Transcantabrico train sounds just dreamy.

    Abi King October 13, 2012

    Hm, I may take a look at that. I’m planning another European rail journey myself right now…

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