Night Train to Lisbon
Have you read Pascal Mercier’s cult book Night Train to Lisbon, or seen the recent film adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Bruno Ganz? If so, you may well be feeling inspired to follow in the footsteps of the story’s protagonist Raimund Gregorius and spontaneously hop on board a night train to Lisbon on a journey in search of your elusive self.
One of Europe’s few ‘Trenhotels’ or ‘train hotels’, the real Night Train to Lisbon is an interesting experience and, while not quite as luxurious as it might first sound, it’s still a fine way to reach the Portuguese cultural capital overnight, via Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux and various other key French cities.
Where & when does the Night Train to Lisbon go?
You can start your journey from Irun, the Spanish border station, which has an interchange with its French counterpart, Hendaye. If you’re coming from another French train, you simply cross the tracks via an underpass, and emerge in Spain at Irun. You might have a bit of downtime to explore Irun, since it leaves at 18.50.
Irun station doesn’t have too many facilities – just a basic, stand-up cafe bar doing drinks and boccadillos, and some not-so-comfortable waiting room benches fashioned from old railway sleepers. It does give you an intriguing flavour of the town though, with its multi-lingual signage, some of which is in the Basque dialect, and atmospheric views of the nearby church of Parraquila Sagarda Familia.
The train makes a number of evening stops at busy Spanish stations such as San Sebastian, Burgos, Valladoid and Salamanca. The train also makes various stops in Portuguese stations through the night. These night time stops are rarely busy and are usually swift, apart from one 40-minute stop at Vilar Formoso, so while they may inevitably disrupt your sleep a little, you can usually drift off again easily enough.
You’ll finally arrive in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station around 7.30am.
One of the best things about the Night Train to Lisbon is the views it gives you of the noticeably rough ‘n’ ready Portuguese countryside, gradually revealing itself through the early morning mist, if you take it during the late spring and summer months.
This also paints a vivid picture of Portugal’s current economic turmoil, as you pass through town after town of crumbling, seemingly derelict villas and farmhouses. The countryside was certainly greener than I expected, but interspersed with river valleys and large patches of scrub land.
Before you reach the terminus in Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia Station, you’ll stop briefly at the more modern Oriente Station, which was built for Expo 98, along with the cultural marine quarter packed with equally striking structures.
Oriente easily ranks among Europe’s finest train station buildings. Drifting through this architectural marvel with its impossibly high web of white fins and struts, feels like passing through some newly discovered giant dinosaur skeleton.
There are 3 classes of sleeper accommodation on the train: Cama Tursita, Cama Preferente and Gran Classe.
There isn’t that much info available online in English spelling out how the classes differ, but we would not especially recommend paying the extra euros for Gran Classe.
The main difference between Gran Turista and Gran Classe seems to be that the latter comes with a 3-course meal, a basic early morning breakfast of pastries, coffee and orange juice and a cabin with shower. The GC cabins do come with an en-suite toilet.
A Gran Classe double cabin is actually a three bunk bed cabin, but it’s set up after dinner by the train guard with just the top and lower bunks made up. It also has its own en-suite WC and shower, with a neatly presented felt bathroom bag, including your essential toiletries and some very thin slippers, with towels also provided. We gave the shower a miss, but the loo was useful for privacy.
We found the cabin a little chilly on an early October night, even with the cosy wool blanket, as it lacks the carpeting often found in sleeper cabins. It also seemed a little dated too, decked out in pastel pink and green, compared to most other sleeper cabins in western Europe.
How much is the Night Train to Lisbon?
Prices for sleeper accommodation on the Night Train to Lisbon vary enormously, starting from around 38 Euros for a space in a shared 4-person couchette, all the way up to a private double Gran Classe cabin with en-suite shower and toilet, plus a 3-course meal and wine for 2 people at a hefty 350 Euros.
Some ticket prices vary, depending on whether you need a fixed or more flexible booking.
Booking the Night Train to Lisbon Online
The Portuguese Railways site CP is not the easiest to fathom and does not seem to offer international travellers the option to book tickets online for the night train to Lisbon.
You can book it via Rail Europe though, with a bed in a shared four bed sleeper available from around £84 per person.
For the best deal, try Spanish operator Renfe’s site where you can search for tickets in English, and buy them to print at home, with special advance promo prices from around 28 Euros and upwards.
If you’re planning on booking the train as part of an InterRail trip, it’s possible to get a sleeper supplement from 17 Euros, when sharing a basic ‘sleeperette’ couchette in second class. See Raildude for more information on booking this train for your InterRail or Eurail trip.
Food, Drink & Service
We paid for the premium Cama Gran Classe. This gets you a 3-course meal for two, with a bottle of wine. Maybe we were just unlucky but could only describe our main course as being ‘sub-school meals’ quality, with its strange arrangement of dried out cod, served with limp, over-boiled potatoes and vegetables.
The train does have an elegant dining car though with proper crockery and low lighting, which makes for a romantic setting as you glide through the busy commuter stations of Northern Spain in the late evening.
Staff on the train didn’t speak much English but were unfailingly friendly, welcoming and polite. One rather weary and slightly irate Irish traveller whose private cabin seemed to be double booked was dealt with very calmly and professionally.
Know before you go
You’ll cross into another timezone when on the train, so you’ll need to put your watch back an hour and time any connections accordingly. The staff on the train didn’t think to announce this when we took it!
If you’re booking a private cabin, you might notice your seat numbers described as something like 04 and 06. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’ve been put in separate cabins or will be sharing with a stranger, it’s just how the beds are numbered in what can also be configured as triple bunk cabins.
Is the Night Train to Lisbon worth it?
This night train covers a lot of ground and is a far quicker way of reaching Lisbon from France than its day train equivalents. We would say that the basic Turista cabins offer reasonable value, but you’d be better off grabbing a bite to eat at Irun rather than waste euros on the disappointing food served in the dining car.
It doesn’t quite live up to its train hotel tag, but it’s certainly an interesting journey on which you’ll feel the tangible transition from the relative affluence of Southern France and Northern Spain to the ramshackle, scruffy charm of rural Portugal.
Lisbon is definitely well worth an extended visit of course, with lively culture and nightlife, great food, rickety old trams and some incredibly atmospheric architecture and alleyways, the city really feels like a distant part of Europe, set adrift some time in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Have you taken the Night Train to Lisbon?
Tell us how you found it and leave a short comment below.