Over the years I’d hate to quantify the time and tempers used up getting lost in the labyrinthine city centres of Andalucia, all thanks to their Moorish lay-out built for heat and donkeys. Last week I found a much easier approach – a train. Above all, a luxury train with en-suite compartment, gourmet meals, top wines and all sense of personal responsibility lobotomised. Specifically, take Al-Andalus, a 1920s look-alike, full of nostalgia though ramped up with all mod-cons. After 8 years rusting away on a siding, it’s now back on track in refurbished splendour. So, how did it go? (click on title for more)
As I lounged on my double-bed watching some of Andalucia’s 40 odd million (yes) olive-trees flow past, I at last had time to think about the region’s complex past, as opposed to manically searching for directions, dodging traffic or reversing out of a one-way street. Nights were spent in station-ery (sic) calm, generally parked in stations which switched from the unexpected modernity of Cadiz and Cordoba to the ornate azulejos tiles of Jerez.
Then there was open-air Granada station, with the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada looming behind while daytime temperatures soared into the mid- 30°s (and this was May— luckily they don’t run the trip in summer). Generally the train moved during breakfast (when heated cultural battles took place over platters of fresh fruit or jamon ibérico – a Battle of Trafalgar on wheels) and sometimes during lunch or late afternoon, while most evenings saw us indulging at a local restaurant . So it was varied, as well as leaving time to retreat to our compartments to contemplate the landscape – or adopt siesta mode.
In between we were bussed around the highlights of Andalucia. In the Alhambra, I shan’t forget the passionate explanations of Bert, a Dutch landscape gardener who dons a tour-guide’s straw trilby in high season. Hydraulics took on a life of their own as he dragged us uphill to inspect a 14th century reservoir. Channels, fountains, aqueducts and Arab baths suddenly became far more important than the incredible artistry of the Nazrid palace, which was what I’d always focused on in the past.
And nor shall I forget the spectacular lunch we indulged in afterwards at the sought-after Alhambra parador, converted from a monastery (it’s hard to grab a room here for love, money or even booking a year ahead). After that I abandoned the group to slip out onto the terrace where, with a magical view of the Generalife, I nodded off over a bottle of fizzy water. It was hot, we had walked for three hours and my succulent main course of stewed goat sat emphatically on my stomach. But what bliss: roses, jasmine, orange blossom et al were in full bloom, the swifts swooped and screeched and the dappled shade was quite delicious, altogether enveloping me in giddy sensory fulfilment. Down below in the new town, the Al-Andalus train awaited but I had hours to kill.
Hours later, the refreshed and revived group of 45 passsengers was frogmarched through the narrow, dilapidated streets of the Albaicin to dine at Restaurante San Nicolas, perhaps the ultimate restaurant with a view to die for, as below. A shame it was spoiled by being dragged off afterwards to a dire, commercialised flamenco show nearby.
One of my favourite places in Spain where I don’t go often enough is Cadiz. It has an indefinable end-of-the-world feel, totally different from the vast sherry bodegas and olé olé of Jerez and Seville up the road. Cadiz has a huge working port, a densely built-up promontory, town beaches and amazing seafood, as well as that sense of being out on a limb that is shared by Lisbon; both are extreme points overlooking the Atlantic, with their backs turned to Europe. Cadiz was also where the Phoenicians first landed on the Iberian peninsula and where the constitution was drawn up 200 years ago, so its history is impressive. And Morocco is just across the strait.
Here, yet again, we were spoiled, this time at El Faro, a classic magnet for the city’s gastronomes. Old-fashioned, with incredibly professional waiters in suits and ties, lobsters idly awaiting their fate in tanks – and amazing culinary inventions such as shrimp fritters: I can only recommend it.
Next day, we arrived in Sanlucar which, coincidentally was holding its annual feria, so we were launched into hordes of ladies in flamenco flounces while men propped up the bars. Here we lunched at a similar establishment to El Faro, Casa Bigote – the sign is a million times more descriptive than their website by the way. What a treat! Grilled prawns fresh from the muddy Guadalquivir river were outstanding. None better. My plate below spells it out.
So, applause to Al-Andalus for featuring these restaurants, as well as Cordoba’s exceptional El Churrasco, a 17-18th century mansion of quirky antiques, Murano chandeliers and vividly painted private dining-rooms, and Ubeda’s parador, where I sank beneath an onslaught of a hefty ox-tail stew. All totally Andaluz, and zero thinking required.
To sum up the train experience, if you’re with a group of friends, family or even on your own, with no lust for independent exploration, just a desire to see the highlights, eat well and sleep in the same bed for five nights, well then this might not be a bad bet. Just beware of fellow passengers at the breakfast buffet!