This is the second of four installments on Spain which I recently visited with my husband and two other friends. In this post I remember my first experience with train travel more than thirty years ago and share the best way to travel in the 21st century. “Oh that more Americans might know what it is to fly pleasantly like a bird right here on the surface of the earth.”
My first real experience with train travel happened on my first visit to the European continent more than thirty years ago. In most countries, even then and even with a student Eurail pass, train service was excellent. Spain, however, was another story; at that time train service was slow, inefficient, and uncomfortable.
The trip from Madrid to Barcelona seemed to take all night. The seats were nothing more than hard wooden benches. The coach was hot and airless. Then, after what seemed like hours, in the middle of the night, somewhere far from any visible signs of civilization, the train stopped. The passengers acted as though they expected this. Some got off to stretch their legs, smoke a cigarette, or relieve themselves in the dark. Others opened the windows and then lay on the wooden benches trying to sleep. Invited by the light, a variety of insects invaded the coach. I don’t remember ever feeling more miserable than I did that night. Every bone in my body ached; and even though I was with my fellow travelers I felt disoriented and abandoned in the dark countryside as we waited for something to happen, I didn’t know what, so we could continue our journey. Suddenly a whistle blew and the passengers scurried back to their seats as the train slowly started on it way again. In the morning, as we pulled into the station I was relieved to see our friend, Juan Manuel, waiting to take us to some more comfortable and hospitable place. Felicitously, since then things have changed for the better and train service is a shining example of the new Spain.
It is almost impossible for the average American, especially one who hasn’t had the benefit of European travel, to appreciate the fast train. In this country when someone says, “train,” the image of a loud, black-smoke-belching, graffiti splattered, and lumbering hulk comes to mind. Even the few fast trains we have are poor cousins to the quiet, sleek, needle-nosed ones that efficiently crisscross the European Union whisking travelers among city centers all across the continent and even the English channel.
Seats, whether in premium or economy class, are roomy and comfortable (no knee knocking anywhere), bathrooms are plentiful, cell and internet connectivity is available, enjoying a movie, refreshments or light meal is easy, and gathering with friends for a chat in a cafe or coach car is commonplace. The attendants are efficient, polite and plesasant. No one tells you to stay in your cramped seat or bars access to one of the too few bathrooms, and before you board, no one demands your arrival at the station 1.5 to 2 hours before departure or condemns you to long lines for check-in and security as in plane travel. Whether at your point of departure or arrival you’re at the city center with access to efficient local transit.
The rate of fast rail construction in Spain is nothing but Herculean. Since the mid-90s the country has been engaged in a program to not only build fast rail service on its AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) lines, but to upgrade service on all lines providing travelers efficient and agreeable service.
Taking the AVE is easy. In both Barcelona and Madrid, the point of departure is from the City center, a mere ten minute taxi ride from our hotel. Passing our bags through security and presenting our ticket for scanning takes no more than fifteen minutes. Then once the gate opens, we descend on gleaming escalators to the waiting train where smiling and helpful attendants direct us to our coach. On our way to Madrid, as the countryside passes by, we watch as the video screen at the front of the car announces the train’s speed. Starting out at 90 kmh (56mph) as we leave the city our speed reaches 300 kmh (186 mph), although without the speedometer flashing in front of us or a peep out of the window at the slow-moving cars on the highway, we would never realize just how fast the train is traveling. It is quiet and smooth. I am day-dreaming, having visions of fast rail connecting Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles in a wink. I fall asleep. When I awake, two hours have passed and we’ve arrived to the Estación de Atocha in Madrid; descending the train, we hop on the escalator. Half-way up, I see our friend, Juan Manuel waiting above us, his hand waving in welcome. Fast train travel is civilized; I love it.
All original content copyright 2009 Mary E Slocum