From Lisbon to Vigo via Porto, through dunes, rivers and the Atlantic

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It shouldn’t be that difficult to reach Portugal by train. About 15 years ago, I traveled from Berlin to Lisbon with just one train change in Paris. But despite great improvements in the national networks of Spain and Portugal, cross-border services between the two countries have been woefully neglected. There have been no direct international passenger trains to or from Lisbon since before the pandemic.

A notable international train departing from the Portuguese capital last year was a unique special train called Connecting Europe Express (CEE). As part of the celebrations around the European Year of Rail, the CEE left the Portuguese capital with great fanfare on September 2, 2021 for a winding journey through 26 countries, passing through Rome, Athens, Warsaw and Stockholm to finally reach Paris five weeks later. It was a journey designed to show how railways unite Europe. However, the slow progress of the EEC from Portugal to Spain on a route not otherwise used for passenger trains has really highlighted just how poor some cross-border connections are.

Campanha station in Porto. Photography: Sergio Azenha/Alamy

Until early 2020 there was a direct train every evening from Lisbon to Madrid. One could also travel in overnight comfort with the Sud Express from Lisbon to Hendaye in France, from where there was a good connection with a high-speed train to Paris. Unfortunately, these services have been discontinued.

Two cross-border options

With the crossings gone, anyone heading from Lisbon to Spain (or vice versa) must now travel by day, opting for one of two routes, none direct and each relying on relatively minor cross-border crossings. The first option departs east of Lisbon and, after changing trains at Entroncamento, follows a route through the Guadiana Valley, slipping into Spanish territory between Elvas and Badajoz. It’s slow but full of character, a wonderfully leisurely ride through the Iberian borderlands.

The Basilica of Santa Luzia, Viana do Castelo.

The Basilica of Santa Luzia, Viana do Castelo. Photograph: Mikehoward 2/Alamy

The other route heads north from Lisbon via Porto (where you need to change) to Vigo in Galicia. It’s just three hours from the Portuguese capital on a comfortable high-speed train to Porto, from where there’s a twice-daily direct train to Vigo in Spain. The cross-border hop is truly considered one of the best international rail journeys in Europe, even better than the Guadiana route from Portugal to Spain, in my opinion.

Porto’s railway in northern Spain, known locally as the Linha do Minho route, has been threatened in the past, but largely due to political pressure from communities on both sides of the border, in particularly in the Minho region – the northwestern region of Portugal that borders Spain – the line survives. And there is now a renewed commitment to improving services between Porto and Vigo.

Getting on the Celta train

In the summer of 2013, the service was relaunched under the Celta brand. It is a name that appeals on both sides of the border, because the inhabitants of the regions of Minho and Galicia are justly proud of their Atlantic heritage, communicated by maritime connections along the maritime routes that connect the great Celtic regions of Europe. FC Porto’s dedicated football fans, however, must endure the oft-repeated jibe that the new train service is named after rivals Celta Vigo on the Spanish side of the border.

Use of the route has surged in 2022 with a promotional one-way fare of just €5.25 for the journey from Porto to Vigo, which takes two and a half hours on the Celta service. For those who wish to stop here and there along the way, the route also serves Nine, Viana do Castelo and Valença, the walled city on the south bank of the Minho River, which marks the international border here.

The train departs from Campanhã station in Porto; with its Romanesque windows and imposing station clock, it exudes a quiet authority (although the city’s main station is the UNESCO-listed Estação de São Bento, famed for its famous friezes and magnificent blue and white azulejos). My journey north is on a Catholic feast day, so the station is full of people boarding another train for Braga, an ever-popular destination for penitent pilgrims seeking absolution from their sins.

Café culture thrives in Vigo.

Café culture thrives in Vigo. Photograph: Phil Rees/Alamy

The train itself is a basic regional unit, its exterior featuring Celta branding in a font with elaborate Celtic flourishes. Seat reservations are required. This is a no-frills operation, so don’t expect luxuries like first class or a bistro. But the train manager on board is very welcoming and makes a point of telling me that he is part of an elite group of Porto-based staff sent to Spanish lessons to work on this cross-border run to Vigo. “It wasn’t 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, you get your first glimpse of the Atlantic, as the train crosses the Lima River and reaches the resort town of Viana do Castelo. If you fancy taking a break from travel, this is the place to do it, as Viana is a community of considerable grace, with superb surroundings. There are lovely views from the train of the hilltop basilica which towers over the town.

Port of Vigo.

Port of Vigo. Photography: Aliyah

For 20 minutes north of Viana do Castelo there are fine views of the coastal dune landscape, but then the line follows the Minho Valley inland, eventually crossing the river into Spanish territory at You. It then runs along Monte Alhoya, before descending to reach the large fjord, on the edge of which is the port of Vigo. There is a touch of drama in this final approach to Vigo, as the train passes under the Ponte de Rande (which carries the Atlantic highway over the Ria de Vigo) then skirts the seafront to the town. The Celta ends at the decidedly modern Vigo Guixar station, all stained glass panels and not a Romanesque window in sight.

Travel Notes

The Celta train to Vigo departs from 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 rate is €14.95, with discounts for young people and seniors. Shop online at Rail Europe, rejoicing that for fares below €15, Rail Europe waives its normal service charge of €6.95. Interrail passes are valid, but pass holders still need a seat reservation, 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 Bookstore. She is co-editor-in-chief of Hidden Europe magazine

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