Rail journey of the month: Lisbon to Vigo via Porto, past dunes, rivers and the Atlantic

<span>Photograph: Andrea Di Martino/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Andrea Di Martino/Alamy

It should not be that difficult to reach Portugal by train. About 15 years ago, I travelled from Berlin to Lisbon with just a single change of train in Paris. But despite great improvements in Spain and Portugal’s domestic networks, cross-border services between the two countries have been woefully neglected. There have not been any direct international passenger trains to or from Lisbon since before the pandemic.

One notable international train departure from the Portuguese capital last year was a one-off special train called the 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 2 September 2021 on a meandering journey through 26 countries, travelling via Rome, Athens, Warsaw and Stockholm to eventually reach Paris five weeks later. It was a journey designed to showcase how railways unite Europe. The CEE’s slow progress from Portugal to Spain on a route not otherwise used for passenger trains, however, really highlighted just how poor some cross-border connections are.

Campanha railway station in Porto
Campanha railway station in Porto. Photograph: 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 onward connection with a high-speed train to Paris. These services have, sadly, been axed.

Two cross-border options

With the sleepers gone, anyone heading from Lisbon to Spain (or vice versa) must now travel by day, opting for one of two routes, neither direct and each relying on relatively minor cross-border crossings. The first option tracks east from Lisbon and, after a change of train in Entroncamento, follows a route into the Guadiana valley, slipping into Spanish territory between Elvas and Badajoz. It is slow but full of character, a wonderfully leisurely trundle through 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 have 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 really rates as one of Europe’s finest international rail journeys, even better than the Guadiana route from Portugal into Spain, in my view.

The railway from Porto north into Spain, known locally as the Linha do Minho route, has been under threat in the past, but largely thanks to political pressure from communities on both sides of the border, especially in the Minho region – the area of north-west Portugal which borders Spain – the line survives. And there is now a renewed commitment to improving services between Porto and Vigo.

Riding the Celta train

In summer 2013, the service was relaunched under the Celta brand. It is a name that appeals to people on both sides of the border, for residents of the Minho and Galicia regions are justifiably proud of their Atlantic heritage, communicated by maritime links along the sea lanes which connect the major Celtic regions of Europe. The dedicated football supporters of FC Porto do, however, have to endure the oft-repeated jibe that the new train service is named in honour of their rivals Celta Vigo on the Spanish side of the border.

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

The train leaves from the 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, renowned for celebrated friezes and beautiful blue-and-white azulejo tiles). My journey north is on a Catholic feast day, so the station is full of people boarding another train to Braga, an ever-popular destination for pilgrim penitents looking for absolution from their sins.

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

The train itself is a basic regional unit, its exterior sporting Celta branding in a font with elaborate Celtic flourishes. Seat reservations are mandatory. This is a no-frills operation, so don’t expect luxuries such as first class or a bistro. But the onboard train manager is very welcoming and keen to tell me that he’s one of an elite posse of Porto-based staff sent on a Spanish language course in order to work on this cross-border run to Vigo. “Not that it was really necessary,” he adds. “The Galician they speak up there is quite like Portuguese.”

Heading north through Barcelos, the line roughly follows the route of one of the old pilgrim paths to Santiago de Compostela. Only an hour after leaving Porto is there a first glimpse of the Atlantic, as the train crosses the River Lima and reaches the resort town of Viana do Castelo. If you are minded to break the journey, this is the place to do it, as Viana is a community of considerable grace, with a superb setting. There are good views from the train of the hilltop basilica which dominates the town.

Vigo’s harbour.
Vigo’s harbour. Photograph: Alamy

For 20 minutes, north of Viana do Castelo, there are fine views of coastal dunescapes, but then the line follows the Minho valley inland, eventually crossing the river to reach Spanish territory at Tui. Then it skirts Monte Alhoya, before dropping down to reach the great fjord, on the shore of which lies the port of Vigo. There is a touch of drama about this final approach into Vigo, as the train passes under the Ponte de Rande (which carries the Atlantic Highway over the Ria de Vigo) and then runs along the waterfront into the city. The Celta terminates at the assertively modern Vigo Guixar station, all coloured glass panels and not a Romanesque window in sight.

Travel notes

The Celta train to Vigo departs from the Estação de Campanhã in Porto at 08.13 and 19.10. The present €5.25 promotional fare has been valid all year, but may not continue into 2023. The normal full fare is €14.95, with discounts for youths and seniors. Buy online at Rail Europe, taking delight in the fact that for fares under €15 Rail Europe waives its normal service fee of €6.95. Interrail passes are valid, but pass holders still need a seat reservation, obtainable for free 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