Travel by Train: France and Spain

WIN! A pair of 10-day rail passes in our European Rail Pass Competition

France and Spain are both popular destinations on the European rail trail so we thought it best to dedicate part 4/4 of our train itinerary to these two inspiring countries. Our guide goes under the surface of all the usual attractions and picks out the untouristy gems; where to shop, eat, drink and dance along the way.

With a European Rail Pass, Europe feels like your oyster so look beyond the big cities of Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. The smaller and intriguing towns of Montpellier and Cordoba are all en route and deserve at least an overnight stay. Book hostels in France and Spain and you’ll save money for croissants, tapas and flamenco.

Paris

Everybody wants to visit Paris. Cinema, photography, fashion and art has had us all clambering to experience the Parisian cityscape. But the Seine, Notre Dame, the Sacré-Coeur and Moulin Rouge are all well covered in the guide books so instead, try a few of these top cheap things to do in Paris.

Once you have traipsed in line for the Centre Pompidou, Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, why not try something a bit different. The Musée National Gustave-Moreau (14 rue de La Rochefoucauld) is the family home and atelier turned gallery of this 19th century symbolist painter. Aside from the 4,800 drawings, 450 watercolours and oil paintings, the house itself is a fine spectacle complete with spiralling staircase.

Alternatively, visit the Musée de la Mode et du Textile (107 rue de Rivoli) for a display of over 6000 costumes and 35,000 fashion accessories that trace a history of fashion from the regency period through to the present day. You might be lucky enough to catch a prestigious exhibition by top fashion houses of Dior, Chanel and Sonyia Rykiel.

A carnival spirit is on offer all year round at the part tropical restaurant, part clothing store, part design collective and part bar and club of Favela Chic (18 rue du Faubourg Du Temple). Nights are infused with caipirinha and a fashion conscious crowd. Read more on budget bars in Paris here.

The weird and wonderful Deyrolle (46 rue du Bac) may be a taxidermy shop but its supporters include the likes of Damien Hirst, Hermés, Sophie Calle and Gérard Depardieu who, after a fire in 2007, helped restore the curiousity shop. The A.P.C Surplus store (20 rue Andre del Sarte) leaves both male and female shopoholics swooning with delight but the price tags are unjustifiable for most. Here you can get 50% off last season’s stock. Woo hoo! 

Tip: Fancy an (almost) free city tour? The City Free Tour company offers delightful anecdotal walking tours around Montmartre, Marais Bastille, Latin Quarter, Elegant Paris and Pere Lachais. Just email your interest to info@cityfreetour.com. Donations are welcome.

Read more cheap things to do in Paris.

Hostels in Paris: Just a few blocks from the Pantheon and the river Seine, Young and Happy Hostel is located in the lively Latin Quarter. Private and dorm rooms from €25pppn.

Depart Paris (Lyon): Frequent trains daily
Arrive Montpellier (Saint-Roch)
Duration: 3 hours 30 minutes

Montpellier

As a lively university town Montpellier is a popular weekend break destination in the heart of the Languedoc region. It’s an idyllic spot to experience France outside of its capital. There are plenty of maze-like streets to explore filled with charming boutiques. The heaving culture huddles around L’Oeuf – Place de la Comedie which is flanked by the impressive 19th century Opéra theatre and perfect for people-watching while students tend to congregate in Place Jean Jaurès. You can absorb Raphael, Courbet and Delacrois in the Musée Fabre or if you fancy heading to the beach, try Sète which lies 28km southeast. To get there, you can catch a train from Montpellier.

You won’t find many hostels in Montpellier but you can get budget accommodation at Hôtel Kalliste which is a short stroll from Place de la Comedie. It’s also useful for getting to and from the train station. Private rooms from €25pppn

Depart Montpellier (Saint-Roch): 07:27 / 15:09
Arrive Barcelona (Sants): 11:48 / 20:44
Duration: 4 hours 20 minutes or 5 hours 35 minutes

Barcelona

This city is the perfect blend of beach holiday twinned with all the culture of a modern metropolis. The historic centre is ideal for taking wrong turns and discovering cool boutiques and bars. But when it comes to authenticity, tourists struggle to avoid the traps.

La Alcoba Azul (14 San Domenec del Call) may look like all the others in the Gothic Quarter, but step across the threshold to discover sweet jazz, good house wine and lovingly created tapas dishes.

Set atop Montjuic mountain, the ornate Palau Nacional houses the primary collection of Catalan art but at night the fountains erupt as part of a spectacular light show every evening. This city is made for night owls. Locals dine at around 10pm (just as the tourists are leaving) and they won’t head to clubs until the early hours.

Madame Jasmine (22 Rambla del Raval), totally unremarkable from the outside is however cosy and bustling inside. Sip well-stirred cocktails and nibble a few bocadillos (sandwiches) before a night on the town. When socialites have had their fill of lounge loving jazz, Barroc (67 Calle Rec ) in the Born district turns the music up to inspire a lively dancing atmosphere.

Read more cheap things to do in Barcelona.

Youth hostel Barcelona: Just a few stops on the metro from Sants station, Mambo Tango Hostel offers a free breakfast and a friendly atmosphere. Staff are more than happy to help plan your days and nights in Barcelona. They even offer a few events such as movie nights, walks or trips to exhibitions which you can join. Dorm rooms from €21pppn.

If you prefer private accommodation, try the Barcelona Rooms which is housed in a colourful and modernist building and costs from €28pppn.

Barcelona (Sants): Frequent trains daily
Arrive Madrid (Puerta de Atocha)
Duration: 3 hours

Madrid

Geographically, the city doesn’t compare to Barcelona’s coastal location but Madrid is cheaper. There are also a number of excellent day trips you should work into your stay in Madrid such as the beautiful town of Toledo.

Madrid is another city that only really livens up later into the night so take the opportunity to have a siesta like the locals. Shops are open later as well.

The Rastro flea market is great for a rummage into things both old and new but its rather packed by noon.

You’ll find branches of the Museo del Jamón all over the city. They are in fact vast delis selling all kinds of ham strung up on hooks. Try El Rastro, the cities oldest and dating back 5 centuries.

Paella is top of most people’s list when they visit Spain and our choice for the tastiest dish is at Champagnería Gala Huertas (22 Calle Moratín) all for a bargain price when washed down with delicious cava.

Sip sherry surrounded by dusty vats of the stuff in cosy La Venencia (7 Echegaray).

Feed your shoe addiction at the Antigua Casa Crespo (29 Calle Divino Pastor), a lovely old-fashioned shop stuffed full of espadrilles in all shapes and colours.

Tip: If you want to visit the wonderful Prado Museum, avoid paying the €8 admission by visiting for free Tuesday-Sunday 6pm-8pm. You’re in Spain so concentrate on works by Goya, Velazques and El Greco first, the audio guides are handy too.

Hostels Madrid: Located in the neighbourhood of Tirso de Molina the Way Hostel is just 200m from the traditional El Rastro market and some of Madrid’s best nightlife is close by. Private and dorm rooms from €17pppn.

Madrid (Puerta de Atocha): Frequent trains daily
Arrive Cordoba (central)
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes

Córdoba

Since you have visited some of the great cities of today (Paris, Barcelona and Madrid) why not visit one of the great capitals of the past. Declared a world heritage site in 1984 the city is the birthplace of some of Spain’s greatest flamenco stars.

Houses are whitewashed and many of the cobbled alleyways are too narrow for cars. Córdoba is also home to one of the greatest mosques ever built; the Mezquita. The city was a great intersection of religions and cultures, evident in the architecture of ruined churches, Moorish bath houses and a 14th century synagogue. Be sure to try salmorejo, a creamy type of gazpacho. Nightlife is more low-key but La Fragua (2 Calleja del Arco), a stone-vaulted bar next to the Alcazar, is perfect for a nightcap and sometimes outbursts of flamenco

Hostels Córdoba: The beautiful Hostel Lineros 38 feels more like a Moroccan riad than a typical hostel with each room careful reflecting Mudejar design. The rooms open onto a peaceful courtyard and you are right in the heart of Córdoba in the historic Jewish quarter. Private rooms for €21pppn.

Alternatively Hostal La Fuente has a wonderful roof terrace. Private rooms from €20pppn

Depart Córdoba (central): 11:10 / 19:09
Arrive Granada: 13:30 / 21:30
Duration:
2 hours 20 minutes

Granada

The city’s big pull is the stunning Alhambra Palace sitting atop the red hill of Sabika but there are plenty of other Moorish secrets to discover in Granada. The Carmen de la Victoria (9 Cuesta del Chapiz) is a beautiful Islamic garden planted with flowers and bushes typical of Nasrid times. Many tea houses in Granada get away with serving poor quality and bitter cups for €20. For a genuine experience, head to the Albaicín quarter to As Sirat (Placeta de la Charca) friendly, colourful and airy.

Hidden down an alleyway venture to El Eshavira (Postigo de la Cuna, Calle Azacayas) for lively music and flamenco. It’s not touristy but since the place closes as dawn, many find it a challenge to keep up with the locals.

Youth hostel Granada:The building that houses El Granado hostel dates back as early as the 13th century. It has been beautifully decorated inside with modern amenities but still retains its historic charm. Guests will love the roof terrace and friendly staff and you can choose from private rooms, dorms and apartments.

WIN! A pair of 10-day rail passes in our European Rail Pass Competition

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Thanks to Eurail,  Hav n Knit Lover, Matt SeppingssaragoldsmithkarynsigmartinvarsavskyGoldmund100 for the images off Flickr! Please note, all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting. 

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