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The Train In Spain

March 22, 2011

Nigel in Spain

There’s something I still find boyishly thrilling about the very idea of getting on a train in London, where I live, and getting off it six hours later in, say, the South of France as I did a couple of years ago for a family holiday. It’s a strange world isn’t it, where getting on an old-fashioned train is actually more exciting than taking off in an aircraft. Nowadays travel companies are offering rail journeys all over the world; Namibia, Siberia, China, India, America; and then there are the special scenic train journeys such as the ones up to Machu Pichu in Peru, or to Darjeeling near Everest in India.

There are loads of reasons why travelling by train is on the increase nowadays; obviously, it’s more romantic, it’s more environmentally friendly, it ought to be cheaper (although in this country, unfortunately that’s not always the case), it beats sitting, fuming in a traffic jam, and it gives one a real sense of the distance travelled. Sure, if you want to go from one place with TV, mini-bar and air-conditioning to another identical place with TV, mini-bar and air-conditioning in the quickest possible time without encountering anything interesting on the way, then the plane is probably best for you. But if you want an experience, if you want to see things and meet people and to investigate not only your destination, but points of interest on the way, then it has to be the train.

But just how realistic is it to travel by train these days? Is it actually cheaper? Are connections easy? What about luggage? I thought I’d test it out by travelling to Spain – a country with a high percentage of Brits, many of whom virtually commute on cheap airlines to their apartments on the various Costas. After a few hours of shouting at my computer, trying to work out the different European rail company’s time-tables and pricing systems, I gave up trying to make my own connections and booked the entire trip through an agency. Based in York, Great Rail Journeys is run by ex-British Rail employees who really know their RENFE from their SNCF. And they throw in a guide or ‘host’ to escort you at crucial moments, such as non-English platform announcements.

The journey started, of course, at St Pancras, where the security queuing and passport checks were much smoother and easier than at any airport, and there’s a much more relaxed feeling all round. The EuroStar journey to Paris was a dream, as ever; it’s funny how quickly we’ve all grown accustomed to it, like mobile phones; “what on earth did we do before?” people are always saying. In Paris however, there is the problem of changing stations. You have to get yourself from Gare-du-Nord to Austerlitz station, which is right over the other side of Paris. This was the first of many times I was glad of my decision to book through Great Rail Journeys. Then you have to wait an hour or so at Austerlitz, where there is a near total lack of seating. And all this carrying your own luggage. Luggage is where the train experience really does compare badly with the aeroplane. There’s no check-in moment, when you can heave a sigh of relief and wander off to the shops with your shoulder bag. No, you’re stuck with your cases; heaving them on and off trains, stuffing them into inadequate shelving, or hoisting them up onto overhead racks. I came prepared with my Musto Wheely bag, a brilliant invention, which is a backpack on wheels which also happens to fit exactly most airline’s hand-luggage size restrictions.

At Austerlitz I boarded the wonderful “Francisco de Goya” overnight train to Madrid, and this was where the adventure really began. A proper dining car for supper and breakfast the next morning, ones own cabin with shower room (I was travelling ‘Gran’ class), and the scenery of France and then Spain shooting by outside the window. The interior of the cabin was beautifully designed in a sort of retro 60s, pink plastic cladding, but the designer did seem to have forgotten to include anywhere to put luggage at all. Nevertheless, it was a treat to find, on returning to the cabin after supper, that the beds had been made up with fresh, clean sheets, like in a hotel.

Spanish Courtyard

In the night we must have crossed the Pyrenees because for an hour or two I can vaguely remember clonking and bonking up hill after hill followed by rattling downhill again with the breaks on. Nevertheless sleep was possible, much more so than on even a Business Class flight on any airline I’ve ever been on. In fact, on arrival in Madrid I was able to go immediately on a four hour sight-seeing walk around town, ending at the Palacio Real with its endless rooms with painted Tiepolo ceilings and rich furnishings. There was no afternoon exhaustion that would have kicked in after an overnight flight. Just dump the bags at the hotel and straight out for the day. And out that night to the Tapas bars of the Plaza de Ana, and a Mojito on the trendy Penthouse Roof Terrace there, with its dedicated elevator and panoramic views over the city. The next day there was time to look around Madrid and its parks. I didn’t go to the Prado, or any of the other fabulous art galleries, because I knew I’d get sucked in for the whole day. Madrid is a town in which one could spend a whole week doing nothing but looking at Art, I know, I’ve done it. But this time, with a few hours of sunshine, I thought I’d take in the Botanical gardens and the Parque del Retiro . There are trees everywhere in Madrid, more so even, than London. It was Easter time and the Judas trees, or Arbor de Amor were blooming with a luscious lilac colour. Then off to Atocha station, which has a grand atrium full of tropical plants and tall banana trees. There was a freshness to the air and to the light, which raised the spirits in a way no airport waiting lounge can.

The high-speed train from Madrid to Ronda stops at Antequera to change from the international to the national gage. How they achieved this without lifting the carriage up and changing the bogies underneath, I don’t know. An English rail buff in obligatory anorak – the first of his kind I met on this trip – told me excitedly that in Belarus that’s exactly what they do do. Then, on we chugged to Ronda, far slower than the high speeds we had been going at before.

Ronda, in south west Spain, is a town with a famous view. An aqueduct bridge – the Puente Nuevo – spans an enormous gorge. And although the view from the bridge and from below it where I had a delightful country walk, is very, very impressive, there’s a lot more to Ronda than just the one photo opportunity. It was part of Roman Spain, and then part of Moorish Spain and so has a strange mix of cultures; tucked away in its winding streets are houses, churches and museums, some with beautifully laid-out Arabic gardens and courtyards with fountains, many boasting further fantastic views. Ronda is also the home of the oldest bull ring in Spain – where you can walk above the maze of backstage passages and gates through which the bulls are herded. Next door to this is Ronda’s famous riding school – a huge barn where equestrians have developed their skills for three hundred years. The day I was there, some young riders were being put through their paces by a very exotic looking riding teacher in a black bandana. One can see why Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles were so in love with the bravura of this town.

Nigel out in Spain

A light breeze ensured that walking around Ronda was not insufferably hot, and eating outside was pleasant even without shade. Another advantage of the slower journey to the south coast by train is the food. All along the way I was sampling genuine Spanish dishes which were of the highest quality; paellas, artichokes and ham, seafood, asparagus with eggs. Not for me that queasy feeling you get when you go straight from airport fare to beach snacks. A few days in, and I was becoming quite a gastronome; cheese with ‘membrillo’, which is a delicious Quince jelly, and thick, dark hot chocolate with ‘churros’, or long dunking donuts. Chorizo, anchovies, grilled pimentos, biscuits with caraway seeds, local almonds; all seriously delicious.

Since, on the train, the journey itself becomes the experience, not the arriving, it is difficult, I think, to make a fair comparison between air and rail travel. There are downsides and advantages to both. But all in all, my conclusion is that despite, or perhaps because of its many inconveniences and eccentricities, the train is a whole lot more fun. In fact, I can imagine becoming a train nut myself. As we changed back to the high speed track at Antequera on the way home, I met my second railway anorak of the trip, and found myself listening with genuine interest while he told me that we were changing from 1.678 gage to 1.40. Or was it the other way round? I can’t remember.