Spain’s high-speed rail network was inaugurated in 1992 with the opening of the Madrid–Seville link. Latterly the network served by super-fast trains (known as Alta Velocidad Española or AVE services) has been extended to include Málaga (in 2007) and Barcelona (in 2008). A new AVE service to Valencia will start in December 2010.
High-speed links from Madrid
AVE trains run on dedicated tracks built to the regular European track gauge rather than the slightly broader Iberian gauge traditionally favored in Spain and Portugal. This growing network of new routes makes it possible to speed between major Spanish cities in just a few hours.
The fastest trains from Madrid to Málaga (321 miles) now take just 2 hours and 28 minutes. Some services link Madrid with Barcelona (388 miles) in just 2 hours and 38 minutes. So with a little planning you can enjoy a Catalan breakfast in Barcelona, stop off for a leisurely lunch in Madrid and still arrive in Málaga in time for an early evening swim in the Mediterranean.
South to Andalucía
Not everyone favors such speed. Take the modern high-speed line south to Andalucía and it slices through the Sierra Morena like soft butter. You’ll hardly notice the hills.
But if you have a few hours to spare why not take the old rail route that runs through the gorge at Despeñaperros. This is truly one of Europe’s finest rail routes, and a creative way of linking Barcelona or Madrid with southern Spain. En route you will run through some incredibly wild terrain as the train traverses Despeñaperros, so swapping the arid red plains of La Mancha for the fiery lushness of Andalucía.
The García Lorca
Not many trains follow the old Despeñaperros route, but you can identify them in the timetable as services that stop at both Alcázar de San Juan and Linares-Baeza. There are half a dozen daily services in each direction.
One in particular is worth highlighting. The García Lorca is Spain’s most interesting train, every bit as eclectic as the poet and dramatist after whom it is named. The train leaves Barcelona around 8 every morning bound for Andalucía carrying through carriages for many of the principal cities of southern Spain: Málaga, Almería, Córdoba, Seville and Granada (Almería and Granada are served only on alternate days). The entire run from Barcelona to Málaga takes over 13 hrs, but it is a magnificent transect through Spain of which Despeñaperros is the highlight. The Despeñaperros route is also served by the twice daily Talgo services from Madrid to Almería and by all through trains from Madrid to Jaén.
Beyond Despeñaperros Gorge
Cast back to before the construction of the railway and Despeñaperros was the haunt of banditti who would waylay innocent travelers as they went south to Andalucía. It is a little tamer nowadays, but still the most exciting rail route to Andalucía.
South of Despeñaperros, you emerge into a land of dense olive groves with huge oleanders on the platforms of railway stations. Suddenly there are lush colors and Moorish architecture, and scenes outside the carriage window that seem taken directly from paintings by Murillo and Velázquez.