We could so easily have opted for the plane, taking a direct flight from Berlin to Málaga and then traveling onward to Cádiz by bus. And it would have taken 12 hours door-to-door.
That would have been too simple. Why pass on a chance to catch a glimpse of parts of Europe that we had been aching to see for ages? So we went, of course, by train.
The scenic option
Even by train it would be perfectly possible to reach Cádiz from Berlin with just two en route changes. We chose instead the scenic option. A journey spread comfortably over five days, with four overnight breaks along the way.
First stop was Strasbourg in Alsace, a city with a happy small-town feel. Then on to Collioure in southwest France, where the Pyrenees tumble down to the Mediterranean, and finally two stops in Spain, respectively at Valencia (on the Levante coast) and at Sevilla (in Andalucía).
This was not by any means demanding travel. We had no need to rush and wanted to enjoy the changing landscapes, a sense of winter being eclipsed by spring as we traveled south. So we pored over maps and found the specific rail routes we wanted to travel, and then chose trains that went along those particular lines.
Our hit list included a few classic wine areas (and in our book rail travel and wine make perfect partners). So we had glimpses of celebrated Alsace wine villages like Ribeauvillé, savored a serendipitous halt at a signal at Nuits-Saint-Georges, and later enjoyed a leisurely rail cruise through the heart of the Côte Vermeille (where Banyuls produces a superb dessert wine).
Wetlands and gorges
Like many travelers, we are drawn to particular landscapes. From the outset, it was clear that the route south through Spain must include the traditional line through Despeñaperros Pass to Andalucía.
And we were keen to see some of Europe’s most celebrated wetlands (some of which are better traversed by train than by road). So we relished the chance to take a local train that wove its way around the coastal lagoons (locally called étangs) of southwest France. Later in the journey we saw the Ebro Delta and traveled the length of the Guadalquivir Valley.
It was huge fun. Certainly one of the most relaxed and memorable train journeys across Europe. The secret of success with such long journeys is, we think, fivefold:
1. Check train details in advance (both time and the routes followed by particular services).
2. Take along a good map or two to track progress on your journey.
3. Book overnight hotels that are very close indeed to the railway station where you break your journey. Our Valencia choice was literally a one-minute walk from the railway platform.
4. Don’t spend too much time on trains. One or two eight-hour days are feasible, but ideally limit travel to just six or seven hours each day. Our Berlin to Cádiz journey required 32 hours of rail travel, spread over five days.
5. Don’t be tempted to try and see everything. We passed through some cities where we were tempted to jump off and just spend a few hours sightseeing. They included such top-notch places as Montpellier, Barcelona and Córdoba.
Slow is better
Our overnight stops were sufficiently long to have some hours sightseeing at each stopover. Indeed we were (with the exception of Seville) at each hotel by 6 p.m., and on two occasions we did not leave the next day till late morning. So we had time to paddle in the Mediterranean at Collioure (just as Matisse did) and to mingle with last week’s festival crowds in Valencia.
It was travel as it used to be. It was travel as it should be.
And being dedicated slow travellers, we hopped off the final train at El Puerto de Santa María. From there we took the boat across the Bay of Cádiz. We may be old-fashioned romantics, but we really thought that, as one of Europe’s great historic ports, Cádiz deserves an arrival by boat.