IIt shouldn’t be that difficult to reach Portugal by train. About 15 years ago, I traveled from Berlin to Lisbon with just one change in Paris. But despite major improvements in Spain and Portugal’s domestic networks, cross-border services between the two countries have been miserably neglected. There have been no direct international passenger trains to or from Lisbon since before the pandemic.
One notable international train that departed from the Portuguese capital last year was a one-off special called the Connecting Europe Express (CEE). As part of the celebrations surrounding the European Year of Rail, the CEE left the Portuguese capital on September 2, 2021 with great fanfare on a meandering journey through 26 countries via Rome, Athens, Warsaw and Stockholm, finally reaching Paris five weeks later. It was a journey designed to show how railways are uniting Europe. However, CEE’s slow progress from Portugal to Spain on a route not otherwise used for passenger trains has highlighted the poor quality of some cross-border connections.
Until early 2020 there was a direct train from Lisbon to Madrid every evening. The Sud Express was also an easy overnight journey from Lisbon to Hendaye in France, from where there was a good onward connection to Paris by high-speed train. Unfortunately, these services have been discontinued.
Two cross-border options
With the sleepers gone, anyone traveling from Lisbon to Spain (or vice versa) must now travel during the day, choosing to take one of two routes, none direct and each relying on relatively small border crossings. The first option runs east of Lisbon and, after a train change at Entroncamento, follows a route into the Guadiana Valley, entering Spanish territory between Elvas and Badajoz. It’s slow but characterful, a wonderfully leisurely train through the Iberian borderlands.
The other route is from Lisbon north via Porto (where you have to change trains) to Vigo in Galicia. From the Portuguese capital, it’s just three hours by comfortable high-speed train to Porto, from where there are twice-daily direct trains to Vigo in Spain. The cross-border hop really ranks as one of the most beautiful international rail journeys in Europe, even better than the Guadiana route from Portugal to Spain in my opinion.
The railway line from Porto north into Spain, known locally as the Linha do Minho route, has historically been under threat, but mostly thanks to political pressure from communities on both sides of the border, particularly in the Minho region – the northern area -Western Portugal, which borders Spain – the line survives. And there is now a renewed commitment to improving services between Porto and Vigo.
Ride the Celta train
In the summer of 2013, the service was relaunched under the Celta brand. It’s a name that appeals to people on both sides of the border, as the residents of the Minho and Galicia regions are justifiably proud of their Atlantic heritage, communicated through maritime connections along the sea routes that connect the great Celtic regions of Europe . However, dedicated FC Porto football fans have to endure the often-repeated taunt that the new train service is named in honor of their rival Celta Vigo on the Spanish side of the border.
Usage of the route has skyrocketed in 2022 with a promotional price of just €5.25 for the one-way trip from Porto to Vigo, which takes two and a half hours with the Celta service. For those who want to stop here and there, the route also goes to Nine, Viana do Castelo and Valença – the fortified city on the south bank of the Minho River, which here marks the international border.
The train departs from Campanhã station in Porto; With its Romanesque windows and imposing station clock, it exudes quiet authority (though the city’s main station is the Unesco-listed Estação de São Bento, known for famous friezes and beautiful blue-and-white azulejo tiles). My journey north takes place on a Catholic feast day, so the station is packed with people boarding another train bound for Braga, a popular destination for penitents seeking absolution from their sins.
The train itself is a fundamental regional entity, its exterior sporting Celta branding in a font with ornate Celtic flourishes. Seat reservations are mandatory. This is a no-frills establishment, so don’t expect luxury like first class or a bistro. But the train manager on board is very hospitable and would like to let me know that he is one of the elite squad of Porto based staff who have been sent on a Spanish course to work on this cross border journey to Vigo. “Not that it was really necessary,” he adds. “The Galician they speak up there is very similar to Portuguese.”
Heading north through Barcelos, the line roughly follows the route of one of the ancient pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Just an hour after leaving Porto, there is a first glimpse of the Atlantic as the train crosses the Lima River and reaches the resort of Viana do Castelo. If you feel like breaking the journey this is the place to do it as Viana is a community of considerable grace in a magnificent setting. From the train there is a good view of the hilltop basilica dominating the city.
North of Viana do Castelo there is a nice 20 minute view of the coastal dunes, but then the line follows the Minho Valley inland and finally crosses the river to enter Spanish territory at Tui. It then skirts Mount Alhoya before descending into the great fjord on whose shore lies the port of Vigo. This final approach to Vigo has an air of drama as the train passes under the Ponte de Rande (which carries the Atlantic Highway across the Ria de Vigo) and then enters town along the waterfront. The Celta ends at the confidently modern Vigo Guixar station, all stained glass panes and not a Romanesque window in sight.
The Celta train to Vigo departs from the Estação de Campanhã in Porto at 08.13 and 19.10. The current promotional rate of €5.25 is valid throughout the year but may not continue into 2023. The normal full fare is €14.95, with discounts for youth and seniors. Buy online from Rail Europe and be happy that Rail Europe waives the usual service charge of €6.95 for fares under €15. Interrail Passes are valid, but pass holders still need a seat reservation, which is available free of charge at Porto Campanhã and other stations along the route.
The 17th edition of Nicky Gardner’s book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian Bookshop. She is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine