Spain by train: a three city mini-break to Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid | Travel


Now that travel restrictions are easing, the European city break is back on. But since it’s been so long for so many of us, why stop at just one destination? Step forward the multi-city break: put three cities together, link them with easy-to-book train or bus journeys and you’ve got a full-on adventure.

I decide on Spain for my first post-Covid trip, plotting a route from Bilbao to Barcelona and then on to Madrid. Together, the trio of cities promises an unbeatable combination of food, art and beaches, and an insight into three different regions. Instead of wrangling with complicated foreign rail websites, I book tickets through an app, Omio, which pulls up timetables, reserves my seats and deposits tickets on my phone.

Spider sculpture ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois outside Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.T0EDNJ Spider sculpture ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois outside Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Let it shine: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and Louise Bourgeois’s spider. Photograph: Alamy

After being grounded for so long, arriving in Bilbao is almost overwhelming. The city has undergone a renaissance in the past two decades, and the banks of the Nervión river are dotted with elegant fin-de-siècle buildings and flanked with wide boulevards. I dip into the city’s charming old town, and bag a table on the buzzy Plaza Nueva – a square edged with cafés. The city is famous for its pinxtos: tapas-like snacks on a slice of baguette. I pick three – mushroom, stuffed with blue cheese and Serrano ham, soft-shell crab and roasted peppers with tuna. All are lipsmackingly good.

Bilbao unarguably ticks the first of my holiday wishes – amazing Mediterranean food – but it also delivers world-class art, thanks to the city’s iconic Guggenheim Museum. Frank Gehry’s extraordinary building – a sinuous, metallic wrap – is home to works by Mark Rothko, Jenny Holzer and Anselm Kiefer, among others. The artworks extend outside: Jeff Koons’s 12m tall, flower-clad Puppy (currently under scaffolding for a refit) guards the front entrance, while Maman – Louise Bourgeois’s huge spider – looms over the riverside walkway behind. Between the art and all the eating I don’t make it down to Bilbao’s coastline, content in the knowledge that Barcelona’s sun-kissed beaches are my next stop. It takes almost seven hours to reach the Catalan capital, but although I’ve bought plenty of books, I spend most of the time watching the spectacular Spanish landscape. The further we travel inland, the more the landscapes open up: vast, rust-hued plains that feel like something out of the Arizona desert.

Soak it up: Placa Reial in the Barri Gotic district of Barcelona.
Soak it up: Placa Reial in the Barri Gotic district of Barcelona. Photograph: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

After Bilbao, Barcelona feels almost like another country. The sky is an unbroken blue, La Rambla seethes with tourists and when I reach the beach, the sea is dotted with swimmers. A vast cruise ship glides past and as I settle into a bar and order a plate of paella and a cold beer, it feels almost as if the pandemic never happened. The chilled-out, beachy vibe is the perfect tonic after two years of blustery walks beside English seas.

Having been starved of travel for so long, it feels as if I have a free pass to be as much of a tourist as possible. I jump on the sightseeing bus, stopping off at the Fundació Joan Miró for the chance to revisit paintings by one of my all-time favourite artists. Afterwards, I visit the Parc de Montjuïc and take a ride on the cable car, which gives extraordinary views over the city’s skyline to the towering spindles of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família.

Sunset hues: the Almudena Cathedral overlooking the rooftop’s of Madrid.
Sunset hues: the Almudena Cathedral overlooking the rooftop’s of Madrid. Photograph: fotoVoyager/Getty Images/iStockphoto

After the long trek from Bilbao, the two-hour journey to Madrid passes with lightning speed. A quick hop on the tube and I’m at my hotel in the heart of the historic Habsburg district. Madrid is best explored on foot; I stroll past the sprawling frontage of the pristine Royal Palace and pause on the steps of the Almudena cathedral to hear a busker playing Spanish guitar, before tipping up at the Mercado de San Miguel, a cast-iron and glass temple to all things foodie, dating back to 1916, where I settle in the sun and eat crispy empanada, a mozzarella pintxo and a cone of crispy fried squid.

The following day I satisfy all my art cravings with a visit to the extraordinary Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. Rather like a greatest hits of the art world, the walls are filled with world-famous works by everyone from Picasso to O’Keeffe. After a happy afternoon exploring Retiro Park and through the tangled, bustling streets of Sol, I end my trip up on the roof terrace of my hotel watching the sun slowly drift and fade behind the city rooftops.

Madrid’s frenetic buzz feels so different to Barcelona’s laid-back, seasidey vibe and Bilbao’s bustling port that it feels as if I’ve had not one holiday but three: the perfect antidote to months of Covid curbs.

Annabelle Thorpe travelled with Melia Hotels (melia.com), the Bilbao Tourist board (bilbao turismo.net) and omio.com. Doubles at the Melia Barcelona Sky cost from £81, and Palacio de los Duques, Madrid, from £214

Tales of three cities

Three more European multi-city breaks by rail

Brussels-Ghent-Antwerp An easy triangle, with short journeys (half an hour from Brussels to Ghent, an hour from Ghent to Antwerp), this is a great way to feast on Belgian’s wonderful food, rich history and quirky artistic culture. Begin by feasting on moules frites on the opulent Grand Place in Brussels, before exploring Ghent’s perfectly preserved medieval town, complete with guildhalls, merchants’ houses and historic squares. Finish up in arty Antwerp, with a visit to the Rubens House and a stroll through the glittering Diamond District.
More info: belgiantrain.be

Rome-Venice-Florence See Italy’s three big hitters in one extraordinary trip. Venice is just over four hours from Rome, with Florence almost equidistant between the two. For a snapshot of Italy’s incredibly rich art heritage, visit the Villa Borghese in Rome, the Guggenheim in Venice and the Uffizi in Florence. Get away from the crowds with lunch in the Trastavere area of Rome, hop on a boat to Murano or Burano in Venice, and take a picnic to the Cascine, Floraence’s green lunchgoasis, on the banks of the Arno.
More info: italia.it

Lucerne-Zermatt-St Moritz SeeAdmire the best of Switzerland’s breathtaking lakes and mountains, along with on a journey onaboard the Glacier Express, which boasts some of the most spectacular views of any train ride in the world. Stroll by the lake in Lucerne before travelling to Zermatt (around 3hr 15 mins), which offers almost as much to do in summer as winter, with walking, mountain-biking, paragliding, fishing and adventure parks on offer. From here, ride the Glacier Express to St Moritz, one of Switzerland’s glitziest resorts – it’s a four-hour journey back to Lucerne.
More info: switzerland travelcentre.com

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