In this compulsively fly-drive, time-crunched era it may seem implausible to travel by rail to the southern extremity of Europe – but the craziest trips are sometimes the best. You can forget about ferries, car-hire rip-offs, driver fatigue, traffic jams and parking problems; and enjoy instead a variety of scenery and serendipitous conversations on platforms.
This trip uses fast trains to reach Andalucía and slow(er) ones to get around once there. The minimum length for this trip is 10 days (four getting to Andalucía and back) but it is better spread over two or three weeks, especially if you also want to visit Barcelona and Madrid.
The train in Spain goes mainly in the plane … a high-speed train crossing a viaduct Zaragoza on the Madrid-Barcelona route. Photograph: Pedro Antonio Salaverria Calahorra/Alamy
To get to Spain from London, take the Eurostar to Paris and transfer from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon. Here, catch the high-speed Franco-Spanish train that streaks through the Rhone valley to Perpignan before slipping through the eastern Pyrenees. In the Rhone valley, the train passes through Lyon and reaches the western edge of Provence. The line follows the Mediterranean coast (vineyards, lagoons, roman ruins) into French Catalonia and across the last of the Pyrenees (trees and pastures) into Spanish Catalonia. Once across the frontier the train passes Figueres (birthplace of Dalí) and medieval Girona before arriving in Barcelona.
Photograph: Guardian Graphics
Even if your time in Barcelona is short, visit the Gothic Quarter, including the cathedral, and the Gaudí monuments of the Eixample. Spend the night at Acta City 47 hotel (from around €69 room-only), just five minute’s walk from Barcelona Sants station.
The greenhouse on the concourse of Madrid’s Atocha station. Photograph: Luis Castaneda/Getty Images
The next morning continue the journey on the super-fast AVE to Madrid via the austere badlands of Aragón to monumental Zaragoza. The line then cuts south-west via Calatayud in the Jalón valley to get to Madrid’s Atocha station. Take a moment to enjoy a coffee, at least, in the station’s singular concourse (a vast greenhouse).
Once across the remote Sierra Morena, with its pasture and wild vegetation, the train descends into the fertile Guadalquivir valley with its olive and citrus trees, before entering Córdoba. It is about 40 minutes’ walk from the station to the city’s famous mosque and Jewish quarter.
View of Málaga cathedral seen from the Alcazaba. Photograph: Sergdid/Getty Images
The southbound line sweeps round to the west of Córdoba and travels through farmland and olive groves.
Finally, the high-speed mainline runs out in the port city of Málaga, famous for its Alcazaba (castle) and as the birthplace of Picasso. To get to the cathedral, castle and Picasso museum means a bus or taxi ride.
Take the local train on the scenic line from Málaga up the Guadalhorce valley, with its arable land, woods of evergreen oaks and blue lakes, to El Chorro, which serves perhaps the highlight of this trip: El Caminito del Rey, a walkway, pinned to the steep walls of a dramatic gorge. Get off here and catch the shuttle bus to the start of a sensational walk through two gorges culminating in a vertiginous suspension bridge.
El Caminito del Rey’ (King’s Little Path). Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
Continue on the same line towards Seville across the under-populated plains of central Andalucía, with their fields of cereals, carob and olive trees, and stop at Osuna, 1½ hours from El Chorro. A handsome small town often overlooked by tourists rushing between the cities of Andalucía, Osuna was once a ducal fiefdom and has more than its share of mansions and churches, as well as a 16th-century university.
From Osuna continue on this branch line to Seville – and then allow plenty of time to explore it. You’ll be spoiled for choice with accommodation in Seville: the best within shouting distance of the station is Virgin de los Reyes (from €83 room-only).
When you are done with flamenco, tiles, flowerpots, window grilles and tapas bars, head back to Santa Justa and board the northbound AVE to retrace your journey through Madrid, Barcelona and Paris.