A few months before starting TXE, I moved out of my flat in Edinburgh and travelled overland to Porto to attend a conference. I was still finishing a PhD, but I got to visit family members, meet old friends, and extend my trip to Lisbon for a holiday too.
This journey was a key inspiration for starting Train X Europe, as quite a few people asked me how I planned such a trip. While I didn't go from Edinburgh to Portugal as fast as possible, I made the most of each step and did it quite cheaply. Here's how I did it!
1. Edinburgh Waverley -> Shrewsbury (via Crewe)
2. Shrewsbury -> Cardiff Central
3. Cardiff Central -> Bournemouth (via Southampton Central)
4. Bournemouth -> Poole
5. Poole -> Cherbourg
6. Cherbourg -> Paris Austerlitz (via Caen and Paris St Lazare)
7. Paris Austerlitz -> Latour de Carol
8. Latour de Carol to Puigcerda
9. Puigcerdà -> Barcelona Sants
10. Barcelona Sants -> Madrid Puerta de Atocha
11. Madrid Chamartin -> Vigo Urzaiz
12. Vigo Bus Station -> Porto Campanha
13. Porto Campanha -> Lisbon Estação do Oriente
14. Lisbon Estação do Oriente -> Porto Campanha
* Bonus - Day trip Lisbon to Sintra*
According to https://calculator.carbonfootprint.com and https://ferrygogo.com/carbon-footprint , the total carbon associated with my trip from Edinburgh to Porto (including the return leg to Lisbon) was roughly 0.11-0.12 tonnes.
- The 160km coach from Vigo to Porto and 130km ferry from Poole to Cherbourg had such low emissions for a single passenger that they don't even register as 0.01 tonnes
- The rest of the journey involved a little over 4030 km of rail travel. Some diesel trains in the UK were included, but only from Shrewsbury to Poole (approx. 160km or 4% of the total journey)
- The rest of the rail travel was all electric, including especially efficient high-speed rail from Barcelona to Vigo (approx. 1030 km)
- My rail emissions were therefore probably lower than the figure calculated, because these numbers tend to assume a more even mix of diesel and electric rail travel…
For comparison, a flight from Edinburgh to Porto alone, skipping out all the experiences I had en route, emits 0.25 tonnes per passenger: over double the amount .
I started my journey at Edinburgh Waverley with a train to Shrewsbury. Top tip - if you want to pass some enjoyable time waiting for a train out of Edinburgh, don't go to the overpriced and overcrowded Wetherspoons at the station or other bars on Market Street. The Jinglin' Geordie and Halfway House on Fleshmarket close are right next to the station and much preferred by locals!
One change at Crewe gets you to Shrewsbury pretty quickly, and this is a large interchange for railway services in western England and in Wales - we mentioned it on our first blog post about under-rated European rail destinations . From there, the train toward Cardiff takes around two hours and passes through the charming countryside of the Welsh border. In particular, the line from Shrewsbury to Ludlow has some of the most underrated views from a train anywhere in the UK.
I went to Cardiff for a reunion of the Cardiff University Comedy Society , but I also got the chance to take a look around the next day. Having lived in Cardiff for four years, it was great to see it again - the Welsh capital is a fantastic place to visit, especially in the summer. In particular, I had to stop by Bakestones in the central Market , Wallys Deli in the Arcades , and Joe's ice cream in Roath Park .
From there, it was on to Bournemouth. No direct trains from Cardiff, but you can get away with one change at Southampton Central. Nice views passing through Bath and Bradford upon Avon en route, and you also get to cross the New Forest National Park on the final leg to Bournemouth.
Stopping by more family and friends for a day or two in Bournemouth, I got to enjoy the sunny south coast of England. Staying here made a very specific route to France more obvious for me - the Brittany Ferries boat from Poole to Cherbourg. This isn't the fastest way from England to France unless, like me, you're already in the area.
That said, it works great for those who are near Poole. Foot passenger fares are no more than £50, the boat sails from roughly 8am to 1pm, and it passes by the scenic sandbanks and cliffs of the Dorset coast on the way out. A nice bar on board, plenty of space - bring some snacks to save money and enjoy! I even had a Guinness on board .
There's not so much to say about Cherbourg - you could take a bus to the station in 10 minutes or walk there in 20-30. I didn't have enough time to hang around, but I don't think I missed too much - that's ferry towns for you.
While there are a few direct Cherbourg-Paris trains per day, most of these journeys will involve a change or two - I kept it down to one in Caen. This is a leisurely local train ride across Normandy, not an express - expect 3h45 to 4h journeys to Paris St Lazare.
Paris has several rail termini, like many capital cities. I had a few hours in Paris, allowing time to get some food and any delays before my night train out of Gare Austerlitz, located on the SE side of the city center. This is the exact opposite side from St Lazare, but Paris has great metro and RER trains to connect and like I said, I allowed plenty of time for this.
In fact, while Metro line 14 gets you most of the way directly, I took line 3 to République and walked around a beautiful area of Paris, the 3rd arrondissement. This also puts you out at one of the classic designed Metro entrances.
The SNCF night train to Latour de Carol departs late in the evening, and I bought some sandwiches for dinner and snacks for the train. It was summer - if you copy this, hydrate well! The train left on time and I had my couchette in a 6-berth cabin for around €45.
Taking a night train from the start to the end of its route is a great experience - you have all the time to sleep you want, and no worries about missing your stop. Better still, you fly through the plains of central France while asleep and wake up amid the dramatic Pyrenees. Here's a gallery showing you what that looked like from the train window…
Arriving at 9am and having an affordable breakfast at the Bistrot de la Gare , I set out to walk over the frontier into Spain. Of course, this is borderless now but it's always fun to walk over an international border. There's nothing quite like walking from one town - with a firm foot in one country, language, set of signs and rules - and arriving in another where all those are different only by foot. Trains and buses can almost feel like a way to teleport between countries and cultures - planes are even worse for that. On foot, there's nowhere to hide the distance or time - you see every moment of one country shifting into another.
I've also done this on the Spanish-Portuguese border (at Valença/Tui), the Italian/Austrian border (at Nauders), the Netherlands-Belgium border (at Hamont/Budel), and the Swiss/Liechtenstein border (at Buchs /Schaan). It's always been pretty satisfying!
As a bonus, Puigcerdà is a lovely little town with its center on a small hill. Nice cafes, views, chocolatiers - it has a lot to recommend it as a destination in itself! It has lifts and a tiny funicular connecting the station up to the center and mirador, making the town accessible for all - and I recommend lunch at the Granja Cafetería La Llaminera right there by the lift top!
The R3 train onwards to Barcelona is a local train which means you only pay about €12 for the whole journey into the city, the whole way across Catalunya. It gets busier and faster the closer you get, single track line turning into double track and the frequency of local services growing as you go. You can also get off at other stops if visiting Barcelona, but I went to Sants so that I could change to a high speed AVE train for Madrid.
I found this journey a little less enjoyable than the second AVE train (below). Sants is fine, but the high-speed waiting area is a little busy for me. Parts of the journey were also a bit bumpy - nothing drastic, but nowhere near as smooth as more modern lines in Spain either. Madrid to Barcelona is one of the busiest and most successful train routes in Europe, so you have a lot of cheap fares on this leg.
Best of all, you arrive in Puerta de Atocha, a gorgeous terminus where the old station hall is now a kind of indoor garden/greenhouse. A tunnel connecting these high speed tracks onward to the northern AVE terminus at Chamartin is now open, but not many services are through-running yet - hopefully that will change over the next few years.
I was lucky enough to see friends in Madrid and stay there for three nights, enjoying sights from the royal palace and Lago to El Retiro park, seen here in its summer prime. Madrid is often too hot for many tourists to enjoy in the peak of summer, but thankfully for me I was visiting between heatwaves. The Madrid Metro is excellent and made getting around the city very cheap and easy.
The final step in reaching Portugal involved the second AVE train - Madrid Chamartin to Vigo Urzaiz. You need to take the metro to the north of the city for this one, and the station is far less pretty than Atocha. Still, I found this train more enjoyable overall - newer and more comfortable. No wonder when the line as far as Vigo only opened in 2021 .
Vigo is a great city with seaside views and seafood on the doorstep of both Portugal and the rest of Galicia. Ursaiz station (the high-speed terminus, up the hill from old Guixar station) has really come on since I first came here in 2017. A building site then, Ursaiz is now an integrated bus station and shopping center.
The only thing that sucks about this connection - and to be honest, the least comfortable part of this whole Edinburgh-Porto trip - was connecting to the coach at Vigo. The coach station there was old, falling apart, and far out of the center with no public transport left of its own.
Happily, I can confirm that the intermodal part of Urzaiz is now working well. Flixbus still uses the old station, but ALSA (which I used) and BlaBlaCar Bus have both switched to departures from Urzaiz. This makes the journey to/from Portugal without flying SO much better!
I talked about this way into Portugal in another blog post , and you get a good view from the coach on the two to three hour journey down to Porto. And it only costs €7-14. You can take a train too, which is also cheap and the same speed - problem is, those only go twice a day, and that didn't work for my planned trip.
I got into Porto (at Casa da Musica) around 7pm, having left Madrid around 11am. Over the next few days, I attended my conference, gave a talk, and enjoyed all the city had to offer in food and tours of Port warehouses. Porto has a great metro, though this is thankfully being expanded to cover more of the hilly city.
While the original purpose of the trip - attending the conference - was now done, I took advantage of being in Portugal. Some family came out to join me for a quick holiday, and we coupled Porto with a few nights in Lisbon. Taking the train down from Porto Campanha to Lisbon Estação do Oriente was easy and cheap.
If you book far enough in advance , you can get these journeys across the length of Portugal for €9, and that's exactly what I did. When booking, you'll see 'IC' or 'AP' options - InterCity or Alfa Pendular (tilting trains) . The former is slightly slower but cheaper, with the difference being about half an hour over a three hour journey. The prices aren't too far apart, and I notice very little difference between the two. Take your pick - the IC will be fine if you want to save more money!
Lisbon's metro is a very different animal from Porto, and the city itself is of an altogether different scale. However, the public transport there is excellent and who needs me to tell them that Lisbon is gorgeous? We also took a day trip to Sintra by train, the famous town only 35 minutes from Lisbon with several palaces and monuments to visit (we chose the Castelo dos Mouros).