Sunday, September 13, 2015

Day 32: Paris to Barcelona, Barcelona to Madrid

Is it better to fly from Paris to Madrid or to take high speed trains? It is quicker and cheaper to fly. The down side of flying is that you have to get yourself to and from the airports in Paris and Madrid, which involves long and expensive taxi rides. And you miss the experience of traveling through terrain. Captain Dan really wanted to experience the high speed trains. We purchased our tickets online 3 months in advance.

We had to get up very early and get a cab, right outside our hotel, around 6:15 a.m. for a train that left Gare de Lyon at 7:15. It was still dark when we had our last look at the city. We dragged our bags hurriedly through the huge and confusing railway station to the section used by the high speed trains, called TGV in France, for Train à Grande Vitesse. They don't announce the tracks for different destinations until about 10 minutes before arrival. We had time for a latte and our final croissant in France, sitting amidst a large group of Spanish-speaking families. When they finally made the track announcement, we barely had time to make the long haul to our coach.  We hustled in and stowed our bags on the racks near the entrance with some difficulty, and found our assigned seats.

The towns we passed through—Nimes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpigan, Figueres and Gerona—were not that large. Much of the scenery was farmland, sprawled comfortably over green rolling hills. Moving at speeds around 250 km per hour, as shown on a screen near the front of the car, I couldn't determine the nature of the crops, but by the size of the fields, I would guess some sort of grain. Toward the south the land grew more mountainous and less hospitable to agriculture. Interest perked up along the picturesque coast of the Mediterranean.

The trip to Barcelona took over 6 hours. We watched the scenery and read. I had a cup of tea and a donut for an excuse to watch the scenery in the bar car, where the stools face the windows. Later Dan had a beer there. After a few hours of boredom, everyone loosened up, and we got into conversation with some other travelers. We spent a long time chatting with a black American family from New York City. The parents both had good jobs and were well-traveled. The fellow, in particular, liked to show off how many places he had visited, and we had a little competition with him, as avid travelers will do, all in good fun, and revealing interesting travel tips in the process. They were taking their son to Barcelona, where he had been admitted to a prestigious music school. He spent the entire trip listening to his headset.

At the Barcelona Sants station, a strong young man helped us get our bags off the train. A woman wearing a uniform and a cap was there to guide us to the section for high speed trains, called AVE, in Spain; ave means 'bird' in Spanish. We only had a half hour to make the connection, and the officious woman was hustling the crowd up an escalator. I looked around for an elevator, but I didn't see one and there didn't seem to be time to quibble. I had never taken my two medium-size rolling bags on an escalator before, and didn't have any idea of how to manage them, since I couldn't lift both of them at the same time. The other passengers seemed to be dragging their single bag behind them and just stepping on the escalator, so I tried getting on while dragging my two bags behind. Unfortunately, the bags got out of control and pulled out my hands, causing me to fall backwards. I had a vision that I would fall against Dan and start a domino effect of passengers and luggage tumbling down the escalator, but I was able to catch myself and get upright by the time we got to the top. In the meantime, a tall young man had lunged past Dan, picked up my two bags, and sprinted to the top. He handed me my bags when I arrived, saying, "For future reference, put your bags in front of you." He disappeared before I even got a look at him.

We hustled with the crowd to our coach, stowed our stuff, and settled into our assigned seats before I checked on my condition. My hands and knees were slightly bruised by the fall, but there was no blood. I felt shaken and excruciatingly embarrassed for the first hour of the trip.

The AVE train was slightly newer and more comfortable than the TGV, and hit higher speeds, coming close to 300 km. The scenery was rugged and picturesque, as we passed through mountainous country. The trip lasted about 3 hours. I had a excellent Caesar salad with finely chopped chicken from the bar car. A fellow passenger helped me get my bags off the train. Too much luggage.

We arrived at the Madrid Atocha station at 5:10.

The AVE in the Atocha station
Photo by Dan L. Smith
After 9 hours on the train, we were not at our best and somehow missed the signs pointing toward the taxi rank. We got out of the station in the wrong place and had to do a lot of walking and asking questions before we found a taxi. When we told the driver that we wanted the Hotel Atlantico on Gran Via, he smacked his forehead in dismay, then consulted with another driver. The problem was that there was a bicycle race down Gran Via and traffic was blocked off. In the end, he dropped us on a street behind the hotel and we had to walk a block up an alley.

The dapper desk clerk was very efficient and courteous, and another courteous fellow whipped our luggage into one elevator, while we took the other.

Our room was stunning. It was four times the size of our room in Paris, and beautifully decorated in soft yellow with dull green stripes—bedspread, upholstery, drapery and wall-paper. In addition to the bed, there was a dressing table, a snack table, a pair of chairs, and night-tables, all light-colored, old-fashioned, and matching. Plus a small refrigerator, stocked with booze and nuts. One wall was lined with pairs of tall windows that pulled open—a style we used to call French doors. In addition to drapes and sheers, each pair of windows had its own electric shutter. I raised one pair of shutters, pulled open the windows and stepped out onto the balcony to look down on the bicycle race we had heard about.

The bathroom was likewise four times the size of the Paris version, with a large tub and shower, two sinks, a toilet and a bidet. It also had French doors with electric shutter and its own balcony. I stepped out to take another look at the race. I've never had a bathroom with a balcony before. The bathroom was tiled—floor, walls, and countertop—in dark green marble, with matching facilities; dark green marble tile, just like the podium at the U.N. General Assembly.

The room seemed so marvelous that we couldn't believe the rate was lower than for the Paris room. Dan went down to the front desk to confirm that we had it right.

After we got settled in, we went up to the lounge on the top floor. This was a casual affair. One bartender with a limited selection and rather slow service. We drank a beer and shared a frittata. A frittata is a mixture of egg and potato baked together in a pie dish. An easy dish for a bartender to heat up. He served a piece with wonderful sliced tomatoes. That was sufficient for me, and I called it a night. Dan explored the neighborhood—an extremely busy area in the commercial center of town—and found a family-run Chinese place where he could get stir-fried veggies with chicken, and cheap red wine.

A flight on a jet is like limbo. You're in a static bubble with no experience of the world outside. Then you set down, and suddenly you're in a whole different place. When you take a train, you can see the world passing by out the windows most of the time. You can think about where you are. You experience movement and speed. You have a bar car to walk to. More happens. When you finally get there, you're just thankful. It's like driving across the US, which Captain Dan and I have done 5 times. When you drive it, you feel like you own the place.