The Rollercoaster Train in Spain (Snippets 36)

san sebastian

San Sebastian, Spain (source:

Charles Marriott (1869-1957) was a writer of fiction who became an art critic for the Times.  In 1908 he wrote A Spanish Holiday, a travel journal detailing his experiences travelling with a friend around Spain.  In the following quote, he is travelling by train from San Sebastian to Bilbao, and finds the journey stunningly picturesque, but somewhat hair-raising!

At last, punctually to the minute, we were off, and for the first half-hour or so the experience was almost terrifying. The narrow-gauge line passing through a mountainous country, we crashed through cuttings and tunnels with a deafening noise which made the train seem to be travelling at a reckless speed, particularly when rounding the most violent curves I have ever seen on any railway. Sometimes the train seemed to be chasing its own tail and very nearly catching it. The gradients, too, were sharp ind sudden, and the pitch of the line round curves was so extreme that, the coaches being swung on bogies, the houses and churches we passed seemed to be leaning away at an angle of twenty degrees. I noticed that the coaches on this maddest little railway in the world were made by the Bristol Wagon-works Company. As there was only one lamp to the whole carriage, and that hidden from where we sat, the effect of broken light and violent shadow on the harsh, animated faces and restless hands was most impressive, and enhanced the devil-may-care character of the whole business. By and by we began to find it wildly exhilarating; a feeling which James expressed by suddenly sitting up in his corner and saying, a propos to nothing:

” Hang the expense ! ”

Before long we began to recognise, too, that whatever we were to see in Spain, we were now passing through some of the most fascinating country we had ever set eyes upon. It was like a glorified Devonshire; a country of deep, wooded glens and wide, fertile valleys redeemed from prettiness by the bare limestone peaks of the Cantabrian mountains. A broad, winding road, that seemed to gain rather than lose in beckoning charm from its well-kept condition as if the whole scheme of things were too big to need the pathetic appeal of picturesque decay kept more or less close company with the line, and every now and then we came upon a tumbling stream with brown, shadowy pools that looked troutful. Between Orio and Deva we had glimpses of the sea. The valley bottoms were bright with maize and corn framed in the woods of oak and chestnut, knee-deep in bracken, which clothed the lower slopes of the mountains. We saw many familiar flowers, heath and scabious and rest-harrow, but larger and fuller in their tints than those at home, as if their natures had expanded under happier conditions.

One brief note of explanation: a ‘bogie’ is a wheeled chassis  attached to a coach to absorb vibration and improve stability, particularly on curved tracks.

The ‘snippets’ series will continue in November, with October on Windows into History being devoted to ‘Creepy History’ in the lead-up to Halloween.  If you would like to be kept informed about new posts on Windows into History, please use the follow button on the right of the screen.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 20th Century, Books, History, Snippets, Spain, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Rollercoaster Train in Spain (Snippets 36)

  1. DiLava says:

    I really enjoyed this post! It’s so interesting to read a travel journal from so long ago, and how it differs so much from the things we get lost in when we travel now, the cost, value for money, rating hotels, rating restaurants, and I must admit, I too write about travel that way sometimes. In a way that seems almost detached of the whole experience, when actually all travel experiences change me somewhat and help me grow. I hope to change my way of writing from now, not just to review places – which is very important for the travel community of today to gather as much advice as possible – but to truly reflect my wanderlust just as Charles Marriott did here.


    • Thanks for your comments! I am glad it was of interest to you – there are so many fascinating travel journals from the past that have been forgotten and if I can bring them to the attention of a few people to be enjoyed again I will consider it a job well done. Congratulations also on your own excellent blog 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking forward to “Creepy History” already!


  3. Very interested to read that, as I have taken that route, and expect to take it again next month. It’s now a commuter train, and much tamer, but the scenery is still great.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gatofante says:

    I can’t agree more. Those are INCREDIBLE landscapes (all north Spain); I’ve traveled those paths many times, and every time is the same breathtaking feeling… Huge mountains, beautiful valleys, everything green and alive, and sometimes, even the sea comes closer to contemplate such a wonderful creation… it’s like a paradise. But yes, if you travel by train, it can be a paradise seen from within hell… And if you go by car, you have to be extremely careful, ’cause you want to see every detail and at the same time, you need to pay extra attention to the snaky road!!

    Great and original blog! Congrats!


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice to see a blog with good writing. Reminds me that my original intent was to write and post.
    ( Then I went off on a tangent and seemed to post mainly photos. Thanks for the wake up!

    Liked by 1 person

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