Touring on Spain's Friendship Train

Hoffman is a Washington, D.C., free-lance writer.

Passengers filtered into the train's club car after dinner, settling into rust-colored, plush banquettes.

Husbands and wives and groups of friends making the trip together talked quietly as the organist started to play.

Suddenly a dark-haired man from Madrid wearing a bright-red V-neck sweater jumped up and began to croon an intense, emotional rendition of " En Mi Manera " ("My Way") into the microphone.

The audience applauded and grinned with surprise and pleasure when he finished.

"Samba!" someone shouted.

The organist flipped a button and the swishing beat filled the club car. A short, jolly woman with curly graying hair leaped from her chair into the narrow aisle and began to jiggle--shoulders, wrists, hips, perky blue-and-white dress bobbing and swaying in time to the music.

The ice had broken.

Knots Coming Loose

About 24 hours after boarding the Transcantabrico excursion train--Spain's answer to the Orient Express--the knots of couples and old friends and companions were loosening up. Conversation spilled over the barriers of politeness that divide people who have just met.

Pharmacists from Madrid, Cuban-American school mates of 20 years ago, a retired Welsh education professor, an electrician from Barcelona and a retired American violinist were some of the travelers in the melting pot on the first trip of the Transcantabrico's 1985 season.

If you've never done it, the prospect of living on a train for a week can give pause. The three basic components to such a trip are the logistics and facilities of everyday life, the itinerary and one's fellow passengers.

An uncomfortable bed, too much walking or too little to eat, unfriendly or abrasive traveling companions--any of these annoyances can turn an excursion on the Transcantabrico into one of the longest weeks of your life. But on all counts, the Transcantabrico journey met the test.

Platform Greetings

Javier Canto, 32, our guide, greeted us on the platform of the Leon FEVE (Ferrocarrile de Via Estrecha) station.

He checked off each passenger's name on a list and handed each one a copy of the weeklong itinerary through the Picos of Europe mountains and fishing villages of Asturias and Galicia on Spain's northern coast, punctuated with stopovers in the cities of Oviedo and Santander.

When the whistle tooted and the train chugged away from the station, the 30 voyagers congregated in the bar to sip a glass of sherry and nibble on salted almonds and potato chips.

Fields carpeted with yellow flowers, white houses with red-tile roofs, a rushing river, then terraced foothills and a faraway vista of rugged gray mountains came into view.

The idea behind the Transcantabrico was to create an excursion train "adapted to modern times but without losing the character of olden times," Canto explained.

Up to 58 Passengers

Depending on the number of passengers, it is three or four sleeping cars and three or four salon cars, accommodating a maximum of 58 persons.

The sleeping cars were converted from normal sit-up passenger use. The salon cars, vintage 1920s, are paneled in dark wood reminiscent of the original mahogany; furniture consists of plush chairs or banquettes and tables for writing, playing cards, etc.

Fresh flowers and the distribution of brightly wrapped candies contribute to a festive atmosphere as the train puffs along the tracks. A TV set (complete with VCR for movies), organ, library and stock of games are available to help passengers while away the riding time (rarely more than two hours at a stretch).

"I don't expect on any trip to have my home facilities," commented Cuban-American banker Jorge Joya of Miami, Fla. Skeptical when he saw the diminutive sleeping compartment he'd be sharing with a traveling companion, Joya and even some passengers who were six feet tall quickly adjusted to the space.

Slightly more than six feet long and four feet wide, each compartment contains bunk beds, a few tiny drawers, a medicine cabinet and three clothes hooks. Each compartment also has a small closet in the hall.

Each sleeping car has two showers and two bathrooms. With up to 18 persons sharing these facilities in each car, there could have been a crush, but none of the passengers interviewed reported any trouble with access to either shower or toilet.

Tranquil Nights

Except for one night in the Santander station, the train pulls up to pass the night at a station in a small, inevitably tranquil town. A continental breakfast is served on the train.

Midday and evening meals are eaten in restaurants which, in northern Spain, are often known as mesones. The fare includes fresh mountain trout, seafood in Galicia and one day a mid-morning snack of blue Cabrales cheese served with cider in shops in the mountain town where it is made.

During its June 7 to Oct. 4 season in 1986, the train's trajectory begins in Leon, veers northeast to the resort city of Santander, then west along the Cantabrian coast almost to the northwest corner of Spain, where it stops in El Ferrol. In alternate weeks, the train starts at El Ferrol and returns to Leon.

The narrow-gauge rails make it possible for the Transcantabrico to creep into isolated nooks of the Spanish landscape. A bus travels along with the train to take passengers on excursions.

Evening on the Town

Highlights of the route include visits to the mountaintop glacial lakes of Enol and Ercina and to the shrine of Covadonga in the Picos of Europe mountains; a Roman villa with extensive mosaics in the town of Saldana, and a free evening to explore the fisherman's quarter, casino and other attractions in Santander.

"I saw things I'd never have seen otherwise," said Martha Jones of Santa Fe, N.M. "I'd never have known they were there."

One of the days most popular with Transcantabrico voyagers included a stroll through a medieval town; watching a performance of red- and black-clad whirling dancers demonstrating Cantabrian steps; lunch in a tiny restaurant in a mountain hamlet with weathered wooden houses and no paved roads; a visit to a sidreria or cider bar in a fisherman's village, and socializing and music in the train's salon car after dinner.

No Typical Passenger

"There is no typical passenger on the Transcantabrico," observed Canto, who began working on the train at the end of the 1983 season and made all of the 1984 trips. "Some are train buffs. Some have traveled all over the world and are seeking something new and different."

Voyagers hail from such far-flung places as Austria, Argentina, Mexico and the United States, as well as from most European countries. However, about 90% are Spanish.

Common Thread

"One thing most people have in common on the Transcantabrico trip is the desire to get out of the city, to enjoy nature and do something different," says Angela Mojica Soto, manager of the train.

Perhaps it is this thread that holds the group together, even though (at least for English-speaking passengers) a language barrier does exist. Daily life is conducted in Spanish, although Canto speaks English and translates when asked to do so.

Camaraderie was the rule of the journey. One morning some travelers took advantage of a side trip to visit a cookie factory. They returned to the bus laden with sacks of cookies they shared with the entire assemblage.

By the end of the week, travelers who started out as strangers were arranging to share cars and taxis to return from the train to home or to their next destination, and address books presented as a farewell token were being filled with names and addresses.

Even for those who normally disliked group travel, a chemistry catalyzed by the sharing of sunsets and cider, sambas and sherry, converted a diverse group of strangers into amiable traveling companions and, in some cases, long-term friends.

To book for 1986, contact Marsans International Travel, 205 East 42nd St., New York 10017, phone (212) 661-6565, or ask your travel agent.

The fare for the package--train, excursions and all except a couple of meals--is just under $720 per person in high season (July, August and September), about $90 less in low season (June and October). For a supplement of about $100 in high season and $90 in low season, you can get a sleeping compartment (normally for two) for one.

Try to pack lightly because storage space is limited. Be sure to include rain gear (in all months) and good walking shoes.

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