How I Travelled from The Netherlands to the Costa del Sol without Flying (Jan. 2023) - Pt. 2

Published on 19 December 2023 at 12:02

First published 17-02-2023


Over the last week, I took a trip which combined winter sun with family time, a bit of tourism with my partner Laura, and visiting distilleries for EuroWhisky all without flying. Here's how I did it, split over three parts - there's a lot to show, and a lot to talk about!


Hopefully this gives you some inspiration for your own flight-free travels across Europe. You can find a lot more detail on Train X Europe's social media as well (TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter).


1. Weert -> Eindhoven Central -> Rotterdam Centraal (NS - Dutch trains)

2. Rotterdam Central -> Paris Gare du Nord (Thalys*)

3. Paris Austerlitz -> Latour de Carol (SNCF - French trains)

4. Latour de Carol -> Barcelona Sants (Rodalies de Catalunya)

5. Barcelona Sants -> Malaga Maria Zambrano (AVE)

6. *Trips from Malaga to Granada and El Chorro*

7. Malaga -> Estepona (Avanza)


*Thalys has been fully absorbed into Eurostar in a merger. When I traveled, Thalys was still supposed to be a separate service - but by the time I reached Estepona, it was no more!


4. Latour de Carol -> Barcelona Sants (Rodalies de Catalunya)

I woke up as the train began making it's morning stops, en route from Toulouse to Latour de Carol, in the depth of the Pyrenees. In the dead of winter, the mountains were covered in snow and a mix of bare and evergreen trees. You can see the altitude of each station as you climb higher and higher. 


Me and Laura got ready as the other passengers in our cabin got off at earlier stops like Ax-les-Thermes. Near our destination, the train stops next to Andorra - at l’Hospitalet pres-l’Andorre, where I went to hitchhike into Andorra back in 2016 - before diving into a tunnel. On the other side, it's only a few minutes further to Latour.


Though Latour is little more than the station itself, it's still a hub for this very rural area. You have French trains in one direction, Spanish in the other, and the Train Jaune which serves both tourists and locals.


While the train dropped people off all the way down from Toulouse, at least 20 to 30 people stayed on all the way to Latour like us. I was grateful to get off at a stop with sheltered platforms - not 6 inches deep in snow and ice like some of the smaller stops!


The best thing about Latour is that there’s one place to go for breakfast when you get off the night train, and it knows exactly what you need. The Bistrot de la Gare serves a €4 breakfast deal: coffee, croissant, orange juice. Simple, but cheap and hits the spot if you’re in a hurry. If you want more food and can spare €7-8, the couple running the bistro will make you a sandwich the size of your arm. That is not an exaggeration…

The owners spoke Catalan and Spanish more than French, a reflection of the local area: Laura’s café serré became a café solo. Though technically still in France, Latour is a mere stone’s throw from Catalunya. Also, bring cash to the Bistrot - they are not keen on taking card payments.


After about an hour and a half for breakfast, me and Laura boarded the R3 train to Barcelona. Look at these views! The train is comfortable and has plenty of seats, starting out pretty deserted in Latour and growing busy when it finally nears Barcelona. The only issue is a lack of wifi, so be prepared to entertain yourself through the mountains!


This service is an extension of one of Barcelona’s commuter lines - yes, all the way up to the mountains! If you board from France like this, be aware that Latour station cannot sell Spanish tickets - you have to buy it on the train. This shouldn’t be a problem. I paid with card just fine, and the tickets for our approximately 3.5hr train ride, bought on the spot, were only €12 each.


5. Barcelona Sants -> Malaga Maria Zambrano (AVE)

We got into Barcelona Sants at around 1.30pm. One interesting thing to note - while Sants is Barcelona’s main interchange station, the R3 doesn’t terminate here. If you’re going to/from Barcelona (El Prat) Airport, you can easily connect to this train at the nearby stop L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, where the R3 actually starts/ends.

We had again about an hour and a half for lunch, and there were plenty of choices within the station itself. While Spain does insist on going through what looks like airport security for its high speed trains, the reality is very different. It takes 2 minutes, and they just scan your bags - no taking laptops and liquids out or taking off your shoes. It's not ideal (or necessary), but it's not an inconvenience for more than seconds, really.


Our train was a little delayed - we were at the start of the route, on a train which would split at Cordoba, the other half going to Seville. That meant we did have to wait in this queue for a while, but we knew we’d have a relaxing train journey ahead of us. 6 hours in comfort, from the start of the route to the end. These are long trains, and this one would run on purely high-speed track the whole way. We paid €49.90 each, which is very good for this route. Prices are often more like €60-80, which is still very good for what you’re getting.


The train takes a little while to leave Barcelona, but then it flies across the plains of central Spain, skirting the eastern edge of Madrid without stopping and curving southward towards Andalucia. I took the chance to visit the cafe car and get a drink at 300km/h (approx. 180mph).


In the evening, the sky fully dark given the time of year, we pulled into Maria Zambrano, the recently renovated rail terminus in Malaga. I took this photo of the sign, but should add that the cafe below it, right by the platforms, was great for breakfast when we used this station again on another day (see part 3 for more on that).


That’s everything on how we went from the southernmost corner of France to the coast of southern Spain in a day, as part of a wider flight-free trip from the Netherlands. In the final instalment, I’ll show off Malaga, Granada, and Estepona, which we also explored by train, bus, and tram.


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