‘The whole way?”
“You’re not in a rush, are you?”
“Are you sure?”
My plan to traverse the northern coast of Spain on the Feve (Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha) railway was questioned by hotel hosts, sidrería owners and once (justifiably) by a taxi driver who rescued me when the train failed to show one day. I’m far from fluent in Spanish but I’m pretty sure a waiter in Oviedo mimed the carriages falling off the rails.
“Good luck” he said, clearing my plate and chuckling.
The Feve – unmarked on most Spanish railway maps, despite being a division of state-owned Renfe Operadora – is a trio of 1,000mm narrow-gauge lines, built in 1965, that dawdle from Bilbao, in the Basque country, to Ferrol, Galicia, stopping at more than 100 stations along the way.
With so many high-speed inter-city routes available across Europe, it may seem bloody minded to take a six-day journey on the continent’s longest narrow-gauge network – but wait until you see where these narrow rails can take you. Starting at Santander in Cantabria, I shared the unremarkable, boxy little train with commuters tapping away at their phones; once free of the city, however, the stations grew smaller and the train passed between the pristine Picos de Europa and the coast, immersing me in an astonishingly green landscape.
An hour outside Santander, I got off at Cabezón de la Sal, a tranquil old town that takes its name from its former salt markets, which date back to Roman times. Narrow streets, with few tourists, thread past ancient casas señoriales (noblemen’s houses) built on the wealth of this precious local commodity. I ambled in the early evening light to El Jardín de Carrejo. Built in 1901, this former stable has been stylishly restored and is now a hotel. Its pride and joy is an abandoned canal in the back garden, complete with locks, sluice gates and moss-covered bridges. As the light dwindled, I dangled my legs over the empty channels and watched lizards scuttle on wet stones. The only sounds were bickering blackbirds and the distant chime of cow bells.
The next day, in Ribadesella, Asturias, a down-to-earth seaside town in the sweeping “S” of the river Sella, a barman was arranging cider barrels outside Sidrería La Marina (Plaza Santa Ana 19). An expert escanciador (cider pourer), he came over and raised the bottle high in his right hand and sloshed an inch of dry, earthy cider into my glass without looking. “It adds oxygen and gives the cider crispness,” Elena, owner of Bajo los Tilos, where I was staying that evening, told me.
As we inched our way through the bottle, Elena circled hidden beaches and blow holes on a map and drew a picture of the fish I promised to ask for at lunch. “A meteor struck in Mexico and moved the ground up in Asturias, like this …” she said, scrunching up the map to demonstrate the continental uplift that created the Picos de Europa, which painted a ragged line behind the town.
At Casa Basilio, an unpretentious promenade cafe, locals thumbed through newspapers while tucking into piles of mussels; everybody was unashamedly daytime drinking. I ordered rodaballo (turbot) and then unfolded Elena’s map to seek out the region’s marvels. Later, I wandered along an avenue of ornate Indiano mansions – built by rich Spanish mariners returning from the Americas – and stepped over the clints and grykes of the Acantilados de Castro Arenas (limestone pavement just down the coast and dotted with blow holes).
The following day, the Feve’s route took an even wilder turn, through rough-hewn tunnels and over bridges. But it was just a short journey: an hour later, I was eating lunch of charred octopus and warm goat’s cheese salad with black pudding, walnuts and quince at El Pando, a restaurant overlooking the river in Infiesto. Full of food, I walked in the foothills of the town towards guesthouse El Gran Sueño. I arrived to find hosts Dave and Javier taking a batch of sourdough from the oven; they tutted as I told them how many raciones I’d recently gotten through.
“I didn’t have time to be interested in cooking when we lived in Brighton,” said Dave, explaining how they’d swapped Sussex for this hamlet, close to where Javier grew up, five years ago. “Asturias gives you that space to slow down.”
To work up an appetite, their Brittany spaniel, Carson, took us for a walk along the byways. Red-roofed homesteads and hórreos (granaries on stone pillars) dotted the fields. Asturians have traditionally focused on fishing and farming: rearing cattle, maturing cheese and fermenting their own cider, Dave told me. Little has changed here in that regard.
At dinner, Dave served up soup (“It’s made from Jerusalem artichokes and, er, I’ve forgotten the English for it … leeks!”), followed by crayfish tapenade, monkfish and local cheese.
But on with the train, where a brief stop in Oviedo the following day allowed me to fill my bag with vacuum-packed fabes beans and spicy Asturian sausage, and then continue west. By this point the route was cutting across deep valleys and pulling into tiny platforms in the middle of nowhere.
Manolo, the hotelier at the elegant La Torre de Villademoros, met me at Cadavedo and we chatted about his memories of riding the Feve as a child. A cat stared down from a window in the station building, above a disintegrating tile map of the route. “We used to have our own station master,” said Manolo. “He still lives in the building but now he has to work at a larger station in a nearby town,” explaining why this remote stop is now unstaffed.
The Feve has resisted modern life: it used to take three hours to drive between Cadavedo and Oviedo, now with the Autovía A-8 it takes 50 minutes. Meanwhile, the train continues to amble, but remains integral to rural life. “In the city, commuters sit away from other people,” Manolo said. “On the Feve, if there’s another person in a carriage, you’ll sit next to them. It’s a chance to meet people and reach the culture of nearby towns.”
My slow journey wound up in Galicia and I couldn’t resist jumping off at one of the tiny platforms. From Loiba, it was a 2km walk to the Praia do Picón, where I sat on the “most beautiful bench in the world” (as voted in a photography competition), watching waves crash into the tilted granite coastline.
“Galicia lets you live slowly,” Mónica and Alex, who run El Castaño Dormilón in nearby Ortigueira, told me later over tapas. “When we arrived, we used to run past our neighbours because they wanted to chat,” Alex said, laughing. “Now I love spending 20 minutes talking about how clear the river is that day.” Evidently, time spent in the Asturias and Galicia has the power to help people decelerate. After six days on the Feve, I certainly felt no desire to rush.
• The Feve is independent from the main Renfe system. Check routes and timetables at renfe.com and buy tickets at the station. Accommodation was provided through Sawdays at El Jardín de Carrejo (doubles from €89, room only), Bajo los Tilos (doubles from €56, room only), El Gran Sueño (doubles from €120 B&B), La Torre de Villademoros (doubles from €86, room only) and El Castaño Dormilón (doubles from €89 B&B)
Jo Keeling is a freelance writer, festival curator, and editor and founder of Ernest Journal