Meander round Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium: part 2

Jennie, Ian and the team at are promoting train travel stories to make it easier to travel by train. If you would like to donate or contribute a story to our train travel promotion mission, please DM us on Twitter. In the meantime, enjoy the second part of Helen’s adventures through Europe. Part one is here.

Where’s this beautiful beach? Keep reading to find out!

After a quick visit to Barcelona, next on the itinerary was Torralba de Ribota, a little village near Calatayud, and the site of the Saltamontes festival. We decided to try our luck with BlaBlaCar, and despite a few communication challenges (turns out that listening to voice notes in fast Spanish with Barcelona bustle in the background is a lot harder than listening to TED talks) it was generally a good experience and an easy way to reach Calatayud.

The festival was an intense experience: staying with a group of volunteers in a shared dorm in the village council’s hostel, cooking together and turning a warehouse full of random stuff into something resembling a festival site. Even with a siesta to escape the heat during the day, it was HOT – pushing into the 40s most days (which is apparently not normal for summer there). The festival itself was fabulous, with a mix of music, theatre, circus, art made as part of local projects, rural produce displays and more.

After the festival, another episode of “Holy c***, the climate” struck. We had been seeing in the news that wildfires were sweeping much of Europe, including Spain. Suddenly, we were brought face-to-face with the reality when one came to a village about 20 km away. 

Celebrating the festival and ignoring the wildfire smoke clouds in Torralba de Riboto

The air was thick with smoke and an ominous grey-yellow colour. When it got dark, we could see a red glow behind the hill. All the volunteers were scared. We sat it out waiting to hear if Torralba de Ribota, like neighbouring villages, would be evacuated. Luckily the fire didn’t reach us, but it was sobering hearing villagers talking about friends who had lost everything. We were told the Red Cross were sending a team to help, and they needed the hostel we were staying in. It was time to move on again.

We decided to visit some long-lost family near Bordeaux. A bit of playing on Google Maps later, we plotted a route via Zaragoza and Pamplona. I had never really heard anything about Zaragoza, but it turned out to be beautiful. It was just a short regional train ride from Calatayud through spectacular arid, hilly countryside that has apparently stood in for the Wild West in spaghetti westerns. Definitely on my ‘explore further, preferably when less hot’ list. 

 Spaghetti Western landscapes from the train window in Aragon

Booking one of the cheapest hotels on, we somehow got a nice room with a view right over the spectacular Basílica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar. We spent an evening hanging out eating yummy tapas and drinking vermouth at the amazing Bar Gallizo owned by Pedro, who had been helping at the Saltamontes festival.

Zaragoza train station is a masterpiece in confusion. Boasting loads of ticket machines, none of which would let us buy the tickets we needed, it then followed up with a really long queue to actually speak to someone by which time we’d missed the train we wanted to get. The train to Pamplona itself was lovely though, and we spent a couple of days enjoying the views and architecture, and not being there when scary bulls are running through the streets.

A nice static statue of the running of the bulls in Pamplona- way less scary than the real thing

Spain to France

We were back on the coach for the next step of the journey as it was much cheaper than the train – Flixbus to San Sebastian, time for a quick lunch and looking at the river and then on to another bus to Bordeaux. We spent a fun few days hanging out with distant cousins in the gorgeous wine region (blessedly not hit by the wildfires that struck Gironde, about 50 km south), wondering why I hadn’t made the effort to visit since I was about seven and catching up on 35 years of gossip.

After sad farewells, we got the OuiGo to Paris – the not-quite-the-fastest train still only took 2 hours 40 minutes and was way cheaper. Then navigating the Paris Metro while Tom listened to a webinar, another train to Lille, cake in a café overlooking the Saint Maurice Church, then on to a coach to Rotterdam and a train to Utrecht

I felt I outsmarted the online travel platforms here: the combination of train to Lille then coach trimmed hours from the coach-only journey but was way less expensive than getting the train all the way.

The Netherlands and Belgium

The Netherlands has never been high on my travel radar, but we met a lot of lovely Dutch people in Malawi and were keen to visit them. We actually enjoyed the Netherlands way more than we expected. The canals (particularly in Utrecht, with lots of bars and restaurants right by the water), the amazing beaches outside the Hague, and cool arts (an explicit performance about vaginas at a theatre festival did a great job at confirming stereotypes I had about the difference between British and Dutch cultural norms) were particular highlights.

Our last destination was Brussels – an easy coach from Rotterdam. (We could have got the train but we were feeling cheap.) I feel Brussels gets a bit of a boring bureaucratic image in the UK, but that is only one very small side of the city. Having a friend who’s lived there nearly 20 years to show us around obviously helped, and the vibe we got was great outdoor music gigs, fascinating architecture (even after visiting all those European cities, the Grand-Place still stands out), street art, and almost Italian-level gelato. Oh, and beer and chocolate, of course.

We stumped up for the Eurostar back to London, as from Brussels it is way quicker than the coach. After some intense queues at the station, the ride itself was great, watching the sunset while sipping Belgian beer – and it’s amazing how quickly and easily you can be back in the UK.

Some general thoughts and travel tips

Travelling overground was a great experience. We saw so many places we wouldn’t have visited otherwise, and got a little bit more feel for the countries we were visiting as they passed by the window. It gave us loads of ideas of places we’d love to go back and spend more time.

Yep, they are less glamorous, but coaches are worth looking at for at least part of long trips, especially if you aren’t organised enough to book trains way in advance. Not my area of expertise but from the searching I did, they seem comparable carbon-wise to trains.

The Trainline is pretty good for researching and booking trains and coaches across Europe. I don’t know if it manages to get all the offers, but when I checked it didn’t seem more expensive and it saves loads of time compared to trying to navigate loads of different transport company sites in different languages. I think there’s a gap in the market for an app that helps plot multi-day routes with suggested stopovers, though.

With some research, travelling overland doesn’t need to be crazy expensive and considering the way climate change is escalating, it urgently needs to become more normal than flying. The heatwaves, fires and droughts in Europe this summer brought this home, though obviously the impact on people in East Africa and Pakistan this year is infinitely worse (and hitting people with some of the lowest carbon footprints). Changing travel habits will need structural change though. I had a sneaky look at flight prices for some routes and there were options that were way cheaper, particularly factoring in accommodation etc. This isn’t just a coincidence – it’s because flying is under-taxed and over-subsidised, despite all the talk about moving to net-zero. 

We do need a movement to change the system and make travelling overground cheaper and easier than flying. But don’t let that stop you getting out and travelling by train and coach now – we had an amazing trip and are really excited to hear about other people’s adventures!

Many thanks to Helen for this great article.

Would you like to read more travel stories? Why not try the first part of Helen’s great adventures around Europe? Or Matthew’s trip from Barcelona to Paris?

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