Time Travel on Rails
By VALERIE GLADSTONE
Standing in the big, bright, modern Santa Justa railway station in
Seville, Al Andalus looked anachronistic, like Greta Garbo surrounded
by hip 90's starlets. The brown-and-gold luxury train, most of its
cars built in the 1920's, exuded understated class in the midst of the
other sleek but characterless trains. Over the loudspeaker the names
of cities rang out, and people hurried to their gates. No such public
fanfare for those of us who were soon to travel on Al Andalus --
reservations must be made weeks in advance.
Except for the generator wagon, kitchen car and engine, all 14 of Al
Andalus's cars were built in Britain, France and Spain between 1928
and 1930, a time when rail travel enjoyed enormous cachet. King Edward
VIII of Britain used the sleeping cars in the 1930's on his travels
between Calais and the CÙte d'Azur. But during World War II and for
decades afterward they languished in rail yards, until 1983, when
Spain's Minister of Tourist Transportation, Juli·n GarcÌa Valverde,
decided to restore and reinvent them as a tourist train.
With the Orient Express as inspiration but not as model -- the Orient
Express didn't make sightseeing stops and was far more expensive -- Al
Andalus began limited runs in 1983 in southern Spain. Every year it
becomes more popular.
In June, a friend, Terry Hudson, and I joined more than 60 other
travelers on Al Andalus for six days and five nights, its last trip
until September. It runs in spring and fall only. Although the train
can be chartered anywhere in Spain, its customary route, two dozen
times yearly, starts and ends in Seville, with stops in CÛrdoba,
Granada, Antequera, Carmona, Ronda and Jerez de la Frontera, ancient
cities with tumultuous histories and remarkable architecture.
As on a cruise ship, we debarked at each stop for touring and meals,
then returned in the evening. The train traveled from two to six hours
every day, often in the middle of the night and occasionally in the
Climbing aboard, we entered a small, elegant reception area. A young
woman, one of five who looked after the passengers, greeted us and
gave us the key to our sleeping compartment. Besides being fluent in
English, French and German, these women knew the region thoroughly,
and patiently tended to our motley group, mostly Spaniards but also a
French couple, eight Britons, four Germans, one Japanese and four
other Americans besides ourselves. The nationalities change every
trip, but, a staff member told me, usually they're seasoned travelers.
It hadn't occurred to me that most people wouldn't take a vacation on
an old-fashioned train unless they were either train buffs or looking
for something a little different or had traveled a good deal. I, as it
happens, fit into the last two categories and Terry loves trains.
Then one night halfway through the journey, I understood the
implications of my choice. A group of us hanging out in the bar car,
built in France in 1928 and named Giralda after Seville's graceful
tower, marveled at how a few couples were managing to look romantic on
the tiny dance floor as they swayed to such familiar tunes as "Autumn
Leaves" and "The Girl From Ipanema."
Amused by the surreal quality of the scene, I remarked how peculiar it
was to be in a sumptuous railway car in a tiny station in the remote
Spanish countryside, drinking and dancing. "But my dear," piped up a
woman from Manchester, England, "Didn't you realize the trip would be
No, in fact. If I'd begun the trip with this in mind, I might not have
been so upset by our small quarters. Worn and disheveled after a
flight from New York to Madrid and a two-and-a-half-hour train trip
from Madrid to Seville, we eagerly anticipated sprawling out for a
couple of hours before joining the tour in CÛrdoba, our first stop.
As it turned out, a miniature poodle would have had trouble sprawling
out in our allotted space. Al Andalus offers sleeping compartments in
three sizes: standard, double superior, and club. Standard, our class,
is fit for only one person, or perhaps newlyweds -- very young and
extremely enamored newlyweds.
Two bunk beds practically filled the compartment, which otherwise
included a pretty end table and lamp. The mahogany walls, elegantly
inlaid with seashell patterns, did nothing to make things better when
Terry and I bumped into each other four times in the first three
A garment bag provided the only space for hanging up our clothes.
Luckily, Terry was the only clotheshorse. In a corner, behind a panel,
we found a sink and mirror. While the bathrooms, outfitted with
gold-plated faucets and shared with four other passengers, took only
seconds to reach from our compartment, getting to the modern shower
stalls involved a trek through several cars. Fine, if you don't mind
walking what seemed like a quarter of a mile in a bathrobe, clutching
toiletries, in a train reeling along at what seemed like 100 miles an
I couldn't blame the travel agent or Al Andalus; no one misrepresented
the facilities. We'd just economized and hoped for the best. Peeking
into the rooms of our neighbors, I saw that the bigger compartments,
some with toilets and showers, would have been quite comfortable and
were as handsomely decorated as our own.
F.J. Rodriguez/Cover, for The New York Times
Waiting to board Al Andalus in Seville.
To keep the peace, I left Terry to unpack and hurried through the
train to join the group boarding a bus into CÛrdoba. How ever small
our quarters, I admired Al Andalus's dÈcor. The interiors of the
vintage cars, paneled in burnished mahogany, look like the elegant
libraries you imagine in private houses in the 20's. Heavy ivory
brocade curtains, tied with satin tassels, frame the windows.
In the reception car, which doubles as a lounge, a room divider of
frosted glass etched with birds and flowers separates the front desk
area from an attractive space decorated with dark green leather
armchairs and large wooden tables and equipped with a television set,
board games and playing cards. In the two restaurant cars, small cozy
sofas upholstered in a rococo pink and dark gray filigree pattern
nicely substitute for chairs on each side of the dining tables. Lamps
shaped like seashells cast a rosy hue in all the public cars.
The visit to CÛrdoba revived me. Nothing like the fragrance of orange
trees, the sight of red and pink bougainvillea, and the splashing of
fountains in patios to soothe the soul. On the way to the Great Mosque
through the ancient Jewish quarter, we passed old houses with
flower-filled window boxes squeezed onto tiny terraces.
Then we came upon the mosque. Construction began when the Moors first
occupied the city in 796 and continued for two centuries. With its
endless forest of rose-hued, intricately inlaid columns, long arcades
and interlocking arches, it creates an extraordinary harmony. Our
guide pointed out some of the finer details -- the ingenious weave of
arches, resembling a piece of monumental lacework, that lead to Hakam
II's prayer niche and within it, the inscriptions in shimmering gilt
mosaic on a blue background. For an hour, we listened as she explained
Al Andalus picks its guides well. Almost every one -- in CÛrdoba, the
Alhambra in Granada, the dramatic mountain town of Ronda, the sherry
winery in Jerez de la Frontera, and Seville -- provided just the right
amount of information, without suffocating us with extraneous data. A
profound sense of irony tends to keep Spaniards from pedantry.
The combination of intelligent guides, a wise selection of stops,
meals at colorful, traditional restaurants and a few entertaining
folkloric performances means that you come away from the trip with a
good understanding of Andalusia -- one that would take far longer to
get on your own. Also, you are immersed in the countryside. Fertile
green fields alternated this season with plots of brilliant yellow
sunflowers. Steep, rocky terrain planted with olive groves gives way
to sandy, marshy monotony. Every tone and color and rise and fall of
the land brings you closer to its essence.
When I returned to the train that first evening, Terry and I agreed
that it might be nicer to eat on board than to go into CÛrdoba for
dinner with the other passengers. Except for the bountiful buffet
breakfasts and the last dinner of the trip, we passengers ate in
restaurants at our stops, many of them in paradores, the excellent
Spanish government-run hotels in converted villas, forts, convents and
castles. We were never disappointed by the well-prepared four-course
Although our request was unexpected, the staff didn't hesitate to call
the chef, GinÈs Navarrete Alonso, and ask him to prepare a meal for
us. And how good it was -- a fresh white wine, some grilled sardines,
still with the scent of the sea, puff potatoes, a green salad, a slice
of tender beef with a light tomato sauce and for dessert sweet pears.
By morning, as we rode the bus up the steep streets to the Alhambra in
Granada, we were in the swing of things.
This great palace, the last refuge of Spanish Muslims on the Iberian
peninsula, rises dramatically on a hill. At the end of the 14th
century its royal residents enjoyed a palace with a dÈcor of faience,
stucco and wood, elaborately adorned with patterns based on geometric,
vegetal and epigraphic motifs. There are no harsh accents, no garish
colors, only austere, subtle harmonies.
Although we spent part of most days learning about Andalusian cities,
there were breaks. We spent one morning and afternoon at the Hotel La
Bobadilla, a 1,000-acre country estate an hour's drive from Granada or
M·laga, deep in the countryside. A few famous people have found it
worth a stay, among them King Juan Carlos of Spain, Pl·cido Domingo,
Jessye Norman, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Some of its highlights:
several pools, lush grounds, limitless riding trails, tennis courts,
and spacious suites, each one different.
In time, on the train, we made a few good friends: Americans from
California who had just sold their insurance company to study religion
and who gave us insight into how the Moors and Spanish Catholics
wrestled for control of Andalusia 500 years ago; a witty English
couple with Cockney accents, and then, of course, the woman from
Manchester, who wanted to know what we "really felt about the
English," and her husband, who soothed her when their kosher meals
occasionally arrived cold. The efficient staff was apologetic and
usually managed to correct such mishaps. The shared routine had a lot
to do with the camaraderie that developed.
F.J. Rodriguez/Cover, for The New York Times
In the dining car.
After dinner at the parador in Antequera, a few of us decided not to
take the bus back to the train, and walked through the deserted town,
some quietly singing, happy to be outside in the starlit night and
having the unusual experience of returning to a rail station to go to
In Jerez de la Frontera, an English couple who owned carriage ponies
reacted as negatively as I did to the famous horse show presented to
tourists by the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art -- it struck
me as circus tricks.
Thus, having bonded with almost everyone who spoke English, our last
dinner felt like those final nights at summer camp when you can't bear
the thought of leaving all your newfound friends. It was by far the
best meal of the trip, beginning with waiters serving us a wonderful
variety of tapas. The surprising, and very un-Spanish, piËce de
rÈsistance was a baked Alaska.
Afterward, we retired to the Giralda. Imagine, at 2 a.m., they closed
The next morning we toured Seville and finally and inevitably, in the
train station where we'd begun, we exchanged addresses and said our
goodbyes. On Terry and I went by car to the coast. Oddly, that night,
alone in our hotel in our big roomy suite in our big roomy bed, we
felt a little lost and a trifle lonely.