As someone who has delusions about her station in life and far more aspirations than I can afford, I naturally decided when I quit work, to quit flying.
I should have been born to the rich families whose offspring went on The Grand Tour overland through Europe. In fact I’ve done The Grand Tour more than once, just on a slightly cheaper budget than rich upper class young men did a few hundred years ago.
So, when it became obvious that I would be returning to the UK from time to time, and far more frequently than I had planned, I rapidly became acquainted with every way under the sun of getting from Málaga to York.
The fastest, the cheapest, the most boring, the worst stations, the longest time hanging around for a connection – I knew them all.
I invariably took the train from Málaga to catch the overnight sleeper from Madrid to Paris, then a train to the port of choice. Similar in reverse.
And when I had exhausted the French ports, I moved onto the Spanish ones. The food at Austerlitz (Paris) station was truly awful, and somehow France had lost the attraction it held for me 30 years ago. Similarly I had lost my French, and when I opened my mouth intending to speak French, Spanish spilled out instead.
So the next combination of routes to be explored was across the Bay of Biscay – rather than the Channel – and avoiding Francia, and using either Bilbao or Santander.
I found an interesting sleeper from Málaga to Bilbao which ran on Sunday nights only. In the other direction it came from Bilbao on Friday night – looked like it was catering for people from el norte to come down to the Costa del Sol for the weekend.
As luck would have it there was a ferry from Santander to the UK on Mondays. I checked out connections from Bilbao to Santander. Extremely tight. Late train? Late bus? = Miss ferry. I employed some lateral thinking and looked up connections between Burgos and Santander. A three hour bus trip. It was now looking do-able.
Burgos, for anyone not familiar with Spanish geography, is halfway between Madrid and Santander. Madrid is sort of in the centre of Spain. That’s helpful yes?
When you buy a sleeper, you buy the bed for the whole journey. There’s no hot bedding on trains. So to speak. Although I do have a story … but for later.
The cost from Málaga to Burgos was 54.30€ and it left at 9pm. It was cramped though. Six beds in a women-only compartment. It was fine to start with, and then two old dears got on in Cordoba and spent half the night running in and out of the compartment. Not good for sleep.
We arrived in Burgos an hour late around 9am. If I’d taken the Bilbao option I would have been absolutely stuffed and missed the twice a week ferry from Santander (already booked my berth).
I hiked from the railway station to the bus station, which of course was in the process of a refurb. Buy your ticket at the ticket office – but the buses were departing from nearby streets. Oh yes. I’ve been down this road before. There is no option but to ask every single person that you encounter where the bus to Santander will depart from. I used to hate asking stupid questions in my youth, but there comes a point when you realise you either ask the question or you miss the bus.
I did (ask the question). I didn’t (miss the bus). My seat was next to a pleasant elderly Spanish woman, ie she seemed older than me, and we chatted some of the time, and enjoyed the views for most of the journey. The scenery through Cantabria was spectacular. Oh, the ticket cost ten euros.
Santander was beautiful. I grabbed some food. I got the ferry. It was Britanny Ferries. I like Britanny Ferries because you can get cheap cabins. I shouldn’t really give away this whizzy tip, but as none of my regular readers are such cheapskates as me, I doubt it will matter.
Brittany, being French, works on the same principles as the sleeper trains. You can either have an expensive cabin to yourself, or opt to share with someone else of the same sex. But because – certainly British – women don’t do that sort of thing, you invariably end up with a cabin to yourself for a cheaper price. Wonderful :) Of course, there are always the nail-biting moments just before the ferry leaves and you wonder if someone will suddenly arrive at the last minute. But when they don’t, you have the cabin to yourself.
On the return leg, there was no combination of ferry arrival and sleeper. I needed to spend a night somewhere as it was virtually impossible to get to Málaga in one day.
Burgos. That’s where I would stop. The ferry arrived in the afternoon, catch the bus to Burgos, hole up there overnight, and then a trip to Madrid the next day and onward to Málaga.
I spent more time in Burgos rushing to find the Tourist Information before they closed than anything else. They were amazingly (un) helpful. Spain has two types of TIO. A local one and a regional one, and never the twain shall mix. I found the regional one after walking miles, complete with luggage.
‘Oh just wander down to these streets around here, you’ll find a cheap hotel.’ That’s really helpful. Thanks. I took the map and found a cheap hotel. Hostal Hidalgo. Hotel Nobleman. Not quite. Fifteen euros a night. Nice building. Reasonable room. Just a shame about the thin walls that meant I listened to next door’s marital argument for most of the night.
But still, isn’t that what travelling is all about? ;)
Next morning I cleared off for the bus to Madrid. I decided to splash out and get a club class bus (!) Instead of ten euros I think it was a princely 15€. I thought it might go faster, but no chance. It did however have lots of space, only three seats across the bus, and an endless service by a hostess-type of soft drinks, poor coffee, and plastic wrapped Spanish doughnuts. None of which I indulged in.
Arriving in Madrid, I wound my weary way to the southern bus station, had a good wander round and went to buy my ticket. Only to discover the bus I wanted was full and I had to wait until 6pm. Great. That meant minimum arrival time in Málaga was midnight. No buses to my pueblo after 11pm. Partner and dog happily fast asleep 20 something kilometres away at our finca. Hopefully taxis queuing up outside the bus station for people who fail to buy their bus tickets fast enough in Madrid and end up in Málaga after midnight.
The bus finally set off, and was pretty full. Price? Around twenty something euros. We stopped every two hours at a café/bar. While it was tedious to have yet another delay, it was also good to have a leg stretch.
Around 12.30am we arrived at Málaga. The bus station was dead. The surrounding streets were dead. A taxi pulled up and a family of gippos appeared out of nowhere and told me they were FIRST. I didn’t argue. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was. What had happened to Spanish nightlife? It didn’t exist around the bus station. Someone told me it was change over time for taxi drivers. Great.
Some spooky minutes later, one finally pulled up. No gippos jumped in front of me. Naturally being desperate to get in this taxi, I started negotiating the price to my pueblo. ‘It’s 25€,’ he said. I figured that was good and jumped in. And jumped out at the other end, thanking him very much and wishing him good night.
Later, my Spanish neighbours told me 25€ was an extremely good price from Málaga. Ha! That made me feel good.
If I have whetted anyone’s appetite for this exciting journey – forget it. The sleeper between Málaga and Bilbao no longer seems to exist. Sadly. Unless it reappears in the summer. Although going via Barcelona seems to be a viable option!! But not at night.
As for the buses. Everything seems to be run by Alsa these days. So if you want to get a bus in Spain, just key in Alsa.es. And the train is renfe.es. Both are available in English.