Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Get Around Galicia by Train

Last year when I lived down south in Úbeda I mostly took the bus around from village to village or even on long-haul trips to bigger cities. It helped that Úbeda was a sort of regional bus hub, and while the nearby Linares-Baeza train station had decent connections with the rest of the country, it was always a hassle to catch an infrequent bus just to get to the station.

But this year, I’ve taken full advantage of the fact that Santiago de Compostela has a full-fledged, bustling train station, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to take the bus. Because of this, I’ve gotten to know the Galician rail network fairly well.

galicia train
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The region of Galicia in northwestern Spain sometimes seems a world unto its own—a different language, abundant seafood and baked goods, a foggy, mystery-laden landscape—but you can go from one major population center to another via train just as easily as anywhere else in the country. The Spanish national rail company Renfe operates short-distance services that cross the region as well as long-distance journeys that connect Galicia with the rest of Spain. It’s important to keep in mind the major stations and routes in the region if you ever plan on spending time here; I hope this post makes things clear!

The network

galicia train

You can think of the Galician rail network as two parallel lines going north to south that are complemented by intersecting railways from Barcelona and Madrid:

* You’ve got the Eje Atlántico or “Atlantic Axis” that stretches from A Coruña in the north down to Vigo in the south, passing through Santiago de Compostela and Pontevedra on the way.

* From Ferrol (northeast of A Coruña) a train line heads south via Lugo to Monforte de Lemos

* Coming from the east, a line goes through Monforte de Lemos over to Vigo by means of Ourense

* Coming from the southeast, a train line passes through Ourense before ending in Santiago de Compostela

Because of this, the two major hubs of Galicia are Monforte de Lemos (where eastern-bound trains head out toward León, Burgos, Zaragoza, and Barcelona) and Ourense (where southeastern-heading trains exit Galicia for Zamora and Madrid). At these two hubs, major long-distance trains from Barcelona and Madrid often split into two bits destined for A Coruña or Ferrol to the north and Vigo to the south.

galicia train
(Source: JT Curses)
There’s also a line that heads south from Vigo into Portugal via the border town of Tui, where the tracks cross the Miño River and continue on toward Porto.

Galicia is currently an island of high-speed trains as it waits for the AVE to arrive from Madrid in 2018. Right now you can ride from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela in half an hour, and from there to Ourense in 40 minutes. Hopefully by the end of the year the high speed tracks between Santiago and Vigo will be finished.

The services

Media Distancia
The most common and cheapest way of getting around the region via train is the Media Distancia service, for “Medium Distance” trips. It’s super easy to hop around from one provincial capital to another or even neighboring regions. For example, from Monforte de Lemos you can head out to Ponferrada in next-door León province, and from Ourense it’s a short jaunt down to Puebla de Sanabria in northern Zamora province. Keep in mind that the Avant Ourense - Santiago - A Coruña service only makes those three stops and runs on high-speed electrified rail; most other MD trains run on diesel and stop at every town along the way.

* A Coruña - Santiago - Vigo
* A Coruña - Lugo - Monforte
* A Coruña - Ferrol
* Avant Ourense - Santiago - A Coruña
* Monforte - Ponferrada
* Santiago - Ourense - Puebla de Sanabria
* Vigo - Ourense - Monforte

galicia train
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Alvia
Spain’s Alvia trains are unique in that they can run on the country’s new high-speed tracks for a stretch until they end, where the train cars pass through an echoey gauge-changing warehouse and hop onto the traditional Iberian-gauge train tracks for the rest of the journey. Because of this, long-distance treks from Madrid, for example, are much shorter than they were before the arrival of high-speed rail to Valladolid in north-central Spain. Even though the AVE hasn’t come to Galicia yet, the Alvia will run on the high-speed tracks as far as Medina del Campo (outside Valladolid), where it transfers on to the regular tracks and continues on north.

Alvia trains are super helpful in simply getting out of the region, whether you’re going to Madrid or Barcelona or one of the many big cities along the way. For example, the leg to Madrid passes through Zamora, Medina del Campo (near Valladolid), and Segovia, while the cross-country tracks to Barcelona stop in León, Palencia, Burgos, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Pamplona, Zaragoza, Lleida, and Tarragona. Galicia may be a remote corner of Spain, but it’s hardly isolated.

Arco
In Spanish, arco means “arch” or “bow,” and that is exactly what this train makes on its journey from Galicia out east to the Basque Country. Generally following the route of the Camino de Santiago (only in reverse), the Arco train goes through León, Palencia, and Burgos before curving north to the Basque Country. Here the train breaks off into one half that ends in Bilbao and another that continues to Irún on the French border (via San Sebastían).

Trenhotel
Surprisingly enough, three of Spain’s six night trains have Galicia as a major terminal: the two trenhoteles from Madrid and the one from Barcelona. They generally follow the same path as the Alvia trains stated above, but unfortunately they don’t switch on and off high-speed rail; this means it takes two hours to get from Santiago down to Ourense, for example, and the trenhotel heads north from Madrid via Ávila, not Segovia. The trenhotel service is a great way to cover a long distance without the stir-craziness you sometimes get on an all-day trip.

galicia train
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Feve
A unique and rarely-mentioned offering by Renfe is the Feve or narrow-gauge rail network that traces the mountainous northern coast of the country. Most of the tracks cover Asturias and Cantabria, but one of the lines connects Ferrol on the northern coast of Galicia with Gijón in Asturias to the east.

Deals and discounts

Traveling around Galicia by train doesn’t have to be expensive. If you’re living in Spain (or Europe), make sure you’ve applied for a European Youth Card so you can get the Carné Joven 20% off discounts. (They’re called Carné Xove in Galician.) This card works for all train journeys, be they short- or long-distance.

You can often find amazing deals on long-distance trains like the Alvia and the Trenhotel by looking weeks or months in advance online on Renfe’s website. The standard ticket price for a 12-hour Galicia-to-Catalunya trip is pretty steep, but I’ve gotten tickets for a mere 20€ by getting the Promo tickets a month or so beforehand. They’re not refundable or changeable, but they’re an amazing deal if you have set dates you know you’ll be traveling on.

Finally, in the summer the Renfe rail company usually has a Galicia Rail Pass offer going on, in which you pay 49€ for unlimited train travel within Galicia for ten days. Not a bad deal, and there’s even a 20% discount for pilgrims who present their compostela upon purchase.

Have you ever gotten around Galicia by train before? Tell me your stories in the comments below!
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