Costa Verde Express? When I told my friends that I was embarking on a luxury train journey in Europe, many were not aware that such an offering was available in Spain. During the journey itself, I was posting snippets of my trip and many were intrigued. They asked me if I was perhaps on one of those trains that served as the setting of a famous Agatha Christie novel, to which I had to repeatedly correct them.
For years, the Spanish rail company RENFE has been running the El Transcantabrico, a 9-day affair which brings one between San Sebastian and Santiago de Compostela by rail. Just last year, the train company launched a slightly condensed version of this offering at almost half the price while still retaining the luxurious elements of the trip.
The Costa Verde Express is a 6-day/5-night journey between Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela. Passengers can choose to start from either of the two cities. It can be thought of as an all-inclusive trip as the train journey includes 3 meals per day, lodging with housekeeping done twice daily, excursions, guides and even entertainment.
When the Spanish Tourism Board wrote to me to invite me to try the Costa Verde Express, I was immediately “onboard.” I love the idea of rail travel, especially on vintage trains and Northern Spain happened to be in my travel bucket list so I thought it was hitting two birds with one stone.
The Costa Verde Express carriages come from the El Transcantabrico trains, a service which began in 1983. The coaches themselves date back from as far as 1927 and were originally manufactured by the British company The Leeds Forges and commissioned by the Compania de los Ferrocarriles Vascongados, a company whose main route was Bilbao to San Sebastian.
As the original purpose of the carriages were for shorter commutes, successive transformations have turned the original cars into sleeping cabins while retaining the vintage feel and wooden finishings.
There are a few carriages where guests can lounge or mingle. The front most carriage open to guests is the bar carriage. This is mainly used for the nightly entertainment as well as for the farewell party on our last evening. There are no tables here and the seats are laid out facing each other.
The bar carriage is then followed by around 3 dining carriages. Depending on the number of passengers for a given trip, 2 or 3 of these carriages may be in use. During my trip, there were only 18 of us so only 2 dining carriages were used. One of the dining carriages also contains a bar as well as a small library of books. There is also a PC with printer on standby.
The Costa Verde Express contains 24 sleeping cabins, all having the same room category. The only difference is that some cabins have windows facing the left side of the train, others to the right. For the Bilbao to Santiago route, I found the sleeping cabins with windows facing the right side of the train to have better views overall. The left side of the tracks often have barriers, although there is a short stretch when the train passes through Picos de Europa when the left offers superior views.
The room itself is cozy. It just has enough space for a bed, with a narrow walking space as well as a small cabinet and dressing table. There is no chair inside the cabin so the only place passengers can sit on while inside their cabins is the bed. Underneath the dressing table is a small fridge with bottled water which is replenished daily as well as soft drinks which are chargeable.
That said, there are plenty of storage spaces, from the luggage rack right under the bed to the small holders above. There are a few controls for lighting as well as air conditioning for easy access.
At the start of my trip, I was given a toiletries bag consisting of shaving kit, dental kit, shampoo, conditioner and shower gel which was left on top of the bed. There’s also a bathrobe – though I requested for it to be removed on the second day to save space. Disposal slippers were also provided.
Each sleeping cabin at the Costa Verde Express comes with an ensuite bathroom. The bathroom itself was nicely done, with elegant wooden touches even on the toilet bowl as well as vanity mirror.
What surprised me in particular, was the excellent shower. Although the shower space is just a little more than enough for a twirl, I was pleased to find excellent water pressure which I certainly did not expect on a train, plus the hot water that came on immediately when selected.
Housekeeping is done twice a day, including a turndown service when the staff would leave chocolate candy by the bed. I was always so impressed by how neat the bed was done up each time, with not a single wrinkle to be found on the sheets.
Three meals were provided for each day of the trip with the exception of the first day which excludes breakfast and the last day which excludes dinner. The train has a culinary team onboard and there is a dedicated coach just for the kitchen / meal preparation area.
All morning meals were provided on the train. Breakfast was served two ways. First is via a buffet consisting of staples such as cold cuts, fruits, pastries and cookies. I loved how crispy the croissants were each morning. Depending on where we stopped for the day, a staff member would also go to that town’s bakeries to scout for local specialties to serve onboard.
Aside from the buffet, breakfast also had an ala carte component. This usually consisted of a “delicia del dia” (delicacy of the day), toast as well as omelet. Freshly-brewed coffee, tea and fresh juices were free-flow.
Apart from breakfast, there is also one other meal per day that is served on the train. Depending on the day’s itinerary, it may be lunch or it may be dinner. Each meal is a 4-course affair consisting of an appetizer, entree, main and dessert. Wines are free-flow and we would often be served dishes and drinks that are typical of the region that we were in for the day. Dishes were often exquisitely presented and the table setting was always detailed. There would also be a brandy or sweet liquor at the end of the meal.
The other meal of the day is served in a local restaurant. As most of our stops were in small towns, most of these restaurants were at the local parador of the area. A parador is often a historic building that has been converted into a 4-star or 5-star hotel and are state-owned. The meals at the local restaurants often mimic the onboard meals in terms of format and pacing. After going through the entire trip however, I would say that I have a slightly greater preference for the onboard meals. The exception would be our last meal at the parador in Santiago de Compostela which was fantastic!
Overall, the meals were quite premium. But I wish there was more variation. For instance, I recall having steak for 3 meals in a row. While each steak was cooked in a different way each time, it would have been good to space the meats out a bit.
I went for the standard version of the Costa Verde Express which ran from Bilbao up to Santiago de Compostela. I was told that there are also shorter variations of the trip which may run until Oviedo and last only 3 or 4 days.
Initially, I was not so sure about how to make of a 6 day train trip with my concerns centered around getting bored about such a long ride. The actual down time during the trip however, was vastly shorter than what I expected.
Each day, the train will stop somewhere, allowing for excursions. There was a bus that trailed us throughout the trip and we would use it for areas that were not accessible by train, or for trips within towns and cities. For instance, there was a day when we ventured to Picos de Europa National Park and the train would stop at a station near the highway. The bus would then pick us up and bring us to the park.
As one can’t expect a hop-on/hop-off train journey to go very much in depth at all the attractions in Northern Spain, I was pleased to find that the highlights were covered, with the entrance fees included as well. This encompassed the admission for the Guggenheim Museum, Oviedo Cathedral as well as the Altamira Museum.
As this review focuses more on the technical aspects of the trip, I have another article coming up with a more detailed look at the route that we took. Stay tuned for that!
As a luxury train trip with full inclusions, the Costa Verde Express does not come cheap. It’s EUR 8,000 for a single occupancy room and EUR 9,000 for double occupancy.
Inclusions: Daily accommodation on the train, 3 meals per day, mineral water, drinks during meals (i.e. wines, soft drinks, coffee), daily excursions with guides, entrance fees, toiletries, ground transport as well as free regular Renfe train tickets to the starting point of the trip and back from the end point of the trip.
I have heard from some of the other passengers that were able to get a slight discount from their travel agents for the trip but it’s something I could not independently verify.
I started the trip in Bilbao. As I was coming from Asia, I flew with Turkish Airlines to Barcelona and flew domestic to Bilbao. Turkish Airlines also flies to Bilbao directly from Istanbul during certain days of the week.
If you have always been fascinated by the idea of rail travel, especially that of vintage travel, the Costa Verde Express is definitely worth considering. The prices are actually in line, or even cheaper than what other luxury train rides offer. Just for comparison, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express charges the same as Costa Verde Express for a 1 night journey. In Asia, the Eastern-Oriental Express charges about EUR 3,000 for a 2 nights / 3 days journey.
Northern Spain is best traveled by rail anyway so the Costa Verde Express just fits the bill. During the journey, I got to see just how green this part of Spain was. It’s like a different country from Andalucia!
You can find out more and book directly for the Costa Verde Express here