Bordeaux’s Gare Saint Joan railway station is a fabulous structure with a spectacular 19th century glass-roofed concourse on 2 levels that features a wall-map of the area’s historic rail network – not only a work of art but a historical reference of long-gone railway lines. It’s not just the UK that has suffered major line closures in recent past.
The station’s platform areas are being rebuilt in readiness for the arrival of the extended Altantique LGV which will soon carry TGV services on dedicated tracks all the way from Paris. As a result of these works, many platforms are currently full of scaffolding, with small areas every few metres for passengers to stand and wait for trains away from the platform edge. When the 1051 TGV service to the French-Spanish border at Hendaye & Irun arrived, there were quite chaotic scenes as alighting passengers jostled for space with passengers trying to board and walking up and down the platform to find their carriage.
South of Bordeaux, progress was quite leisurely as the TGV services use slower-speed classic railway lines to reach the border. The journey is timetabled to take just over 2 hours, but an hour into the journey we rapidly slowed to a halt near Bayonne. My French isn’t good enough to understand all the announcements made, but the words I did snatch suggested the halt was due to a trespasser or blockage on the line. There was lots of tutting from some nearby passengers who were seasoned travellers on a tight schedule and I was glad that I had decided to stay overnight in Bordeaux to get an earlier train to the border than trying to travel all the way from La Rochelle in one day – if I’d got a later train I would have been far less relaxed about the delay. We were stationary for about 20 minutes before we pulled into Bayonne station shortly after.
On arrival at Hendaye, which is the station on the French side of the border, the train split into two. Although I got off at Hendaye, the TGV set I had been on, and which formed the front portion of the train, uncoupled from the rear set and carried onto Irun on the Spanish side, although this was a short journey. At Irun, there are direct connections to Pamplona and beyond using the national RENFE Spanish services. A few RENFE services seem to use Hendaye station too. Having previously done my research using the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website, I knew that I needed the Euskotren train which left from a small, separate station adjacent to the SNCF station.
Euskotren is a Basque train company which operates a narrow gauge rail network in northwest Spain using modern electric trains. The train from Hendaye crosses the La Bidassoa river into Irun and largely hugs the coastline for a 30 minute journey to San Sebastiân. From there, which is a key interchange on the network, it is necessary to change onto a separate train to Bilbao, a journey which takes around 2.5 hours. The single fare for the whole 3 hour journey to Bilbao was less than €6 – a real bargain.
As I had to change at San Sebastiân, I decided to break my journey there and spend an hour to take a quick look around. I was glad that I did. It is an attractive city with a spectacular cathedral and a large bay with an attractive sandy beach. I sat in the square outside the cathedral and ate the small quiche I had bought at Bordeaux and vowed to return someday for a longer stay.
When I returned to the station however, I found that my through ticket to Bilbao wouldn’t work on the ticket barriers. Although an irritation, I couldn’t really begrudge getting a new ticket even though it was only €0.10 less than the ticket I had bought in Hendaye. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to try and blag myself through the barriers.
The train journey from San Sebastiân to Bilbao was as scenic as I had hoped, with the railway line following river valleys through the mountains on the way. Some of the rustic views were spoiled by characteristic large Spanish apartment blocks but overall it was a pleasant journey. As the train got towards Bilbao, the railway surroundings became more urban until the train pulled into Axturo station beside Bilbao’s Ria river.
After leaving the station I made for the tram stop I had worked out would get me to the hotel. Unfortunately, it appeared that trams were not running and I continued walking – I was glad that I only had my small wheeled case. My sense of direction was assisted by checking Apple Maps on my phone before reaching the main square and a city map adjacent to the tourism office in the city centre. By this time it was clear that it would be easier to continue walking and I got to the hotel just before a light drizzle turned into heavier rain for the rest of the evening.