“Encounters between people, it often seems to me, are like trains passing at breakneck speed in the night.  We cast fleeting looks at the passengers sitting behind dull glass in the dim light, who disappear from our field of vision almost before we perceive them” ~ Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon.

“You’re getting the train to Iran??” Asked my neighbour on the platform of Amsterdam Central Station, somewhat startled.

“No”, I hastily repeated, “I’m getting the train to Irun.  It’s on the France – Spain border in the basque region, and there I’ll change to the night train to Lisbon.”

Iran is very high up on my wish list, but that’s another story….

This journey didn’t begin with the night train though. It began with me standing on the platform in the very early morning darkness of Amsterdam waiting for the train to Paris to pull in.

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Lisbon by Train

Views from my Hostel over the Tagus.

Standing with my two backpacks strapped one on my front and one to my back, I wondered how such small packs—that I’d struggled to fit as much as I could into—could feel so heavy. This was the beginning of the biggest adventure of my life so far: the stuff I read about every day, but rarely find myself doing.  I was setting off on my travels, with no end date or return ticket in hand. Travels that would ultimately take me who knows where, but to start with through Belgium, France, Spain and finally Portugal.

The journey to Lisbon by train would take around 24 hours in total (21 hours actually on trains). My destination: Lisbon, and the coast just south of Lisbon for a week of camping, surfing and yoga.

Inspired by Pascal Mercier’s book Night Train to Lisbon—which, I’ve felt, has always had a certain ring to the title—I made sure I brought a copy to read with me. Which attracted more than a few comments and conversations on the train.

The trip got off to a great (if far too early) start.  I’d forgotten that it must have been the same price for 1st Class as for Standard between Amsterdam and Paris (by far the priciest portion of the journey) and so was pleasantly surprised to find myself climbing into a 1st class carriage on the Thalys train and being offered breakfast.


I love the old style flicking-over departure boards of Paris..

Zinging down the tracks away towards Belgium was a bitter sweet goodbye to Amsterdam. Partly because it felt that an era of my life was ending. Which it was. I’d packed my things away and rented my home out. After being home for 7 years, Amsterdam was now another place I was leaving, for now at least. The weather seemed to recognise this perfectly, as the warm late summer sun shone and lit up the low fields all through the Netherlands and Belgium, only to turn into grey cold drizzle by the time we pulled in to the Gare du Nord.

In Paris I took the metro across the city to the Gare Montparnasse, pausing for lunch before boarding the TGV for the six hour journey to the border station of Irun.  The line through most of France felt grey, hemmed-in and unremarkable, especially in contrast to the brightness of the morning sunshine that I’d left behind.  Outside Bayonne, the sky cleared fleetingly before returning to layers of grey, as groups of Spanish and Portuguese passengers boarded the train, adding to the multinational sounds of the TGV carriage.

“Encounters between people, it often seems to me, are like trains passing at breakneck speed in the night.  We cast fleeting looks at the passengers sitting behind dull glass in the dim light, who disappear from our field of vision almost before we perceive them” ~ Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon.

Near Biarritz, I began talking to an American couple, who were also bound for Portugal and were taking the same connecting train as me.  The TGV crossed the Bridge of Santiago over the river marking the Franco – Spanish border, leaving Hendaye and the French side behind and drawing in to Spain and Irun.

Leaving the TGV at Irun.

Leaving the TGV behind at Irun.

At Irun, it was a simple stroll across the platform to board the Renfe sleeper train to Lisbon.  The Spanish service that would take thirteen hours to cross the Iberian peninsular in a diagonal line was eerily quiet at first, and I was alone in my four birth couchette. The couchettes were clearly old and dated, but comfortable enough with clean bedding. Walking down the train in search of entertainment I discovered a small crowd of Portuguese who had already congregated in the bar car, plus my American friends that I’d met earlier on the TGV.  I joined them in a tasty supper of cod with vegetables (the Portuguese plat du jour), cheeses, and a generous half bottle of red wine (they refused to sell it by the glass—this was clearly my kind of place).

The American couple, it turned out, were from LA: she a film producer and he a scientist, and they spent half their time in LA and half in Switzerland, with many a trip to Portugal to get some ocean air. We chatted about surfing, food, blogging, the film industry, and of course: train travel. Particularly the lack of investment in railways/Amtrak in the US.  I had no idea it takes twelve hours to get between LA and San Francisco for instance.  No wonder so many people fly.

Couchette 4 birth compartments on the Renfe Sleeper train.

Couchette 4 birth compartments on the Renfe Sleeper train.

Feeling heavier from the food but lighter from the wine, I made my way back to my bunk for the night and fell into a deep sleep.  At midnight I was awoken by my new room-mates, getting on at Valladolid, only to fall back to sleep again until morning. In the morning I found out that they were two Spanish girls going to Portugal for the long term—one of them to study, and the other to teach English there.

Arriving into Lisbon’s Oriente station at about seven thirty in the morning, I was struck by how quiet the city was, even when walking out of the station and into the bright early morning sunlight. A few metro stops later I was at the Cais do Sodre, and walking to my hostel which—as it turned out—had the most incredible views of Lisbon: of the famous bridge, the river Tagus, and the Alfama district set out below it.

Arriving bleary-eyed at Lisbon Oriente station.

Arriving bleary-eyed at Lisbon Oriente station.

By travelling to Lisbon by train, my trip had got off to a good start. One of the best things about it was that aside form being much more environmentally friendly than flying, and more of an adventure, the journey was cheap.  The Thalys from Amsterdam to Lisbon was slightly more pricey, but to travel all the way from Paris to Lisbon cost me a total of 60 Euros.  When you think that that effectively includes a hotel for the night, it’s pretty great value! I booked my train tickets via Loco 2, who I’d definitely use again.

Have you taken a long distance train trip somewhere recently, or are thinking of it? What do you think of sleeper trains? Let me know in the comments below!