The Slow Train to BilbaoSeptember 21 in Spain
The distance from Madrid to Bilbao is only about 400 km by car. When I found out that the "high speed" renfe train would take us over 5 hours to complete the trip, you can understand why I was slightly confused. Douglas and I had lashed out the bargain price of only 22 Euro for First Class (Preferenta) seating,whereas Allan had, for some unknown reason, opted to settle for a standard seat when he made his booking. When we found out that we had all paid the same amount for our seats, the situation became even more mystifying. But this is Spain after all.
We had previously spent our last morning in Madrid having a final wander around the streets of the central city. We had elected Douglas to be the tour leader as he seemed to have spent the most time learning the major landmarks. All he was missing was a selfie stick with a yellow flag on the end.
He soon had us frogmarching up and down a series of hills (mostly up) and through a number of gift shops. He has been on a quest to find a charm for his wife to attach to her charm bracelet. His quest seems just as forlorn as that of the legendary Man of la Mancha. After three days in Madrid, all he has managed to buy is a brightly coloured dress, and I am not convinced that it is even his size.
By midday it was getting hot again and I was starting to get hungry. I asked Douglas if lunch was included in his tour, but apparently it wasn't. The first place we considered eating at was about as quiet as the main runway of Tullamarine during take off time. The combination of jack hammers and other heavy equipment was enough to make my ear drums bleed. We went on a quest for quietness and finally found a much more peaceful pedestrian only area, with a likely looking outdoor eatery.
We picked up a couple of menus and could not believe the great prices of the food. A lovely looking baguette, filled with chicken, cost only 1.2 Euros (about $1.60 AUD). There was even about a 100 different combinations to choose from. We ordered our baguettes, paid our Euro 1.20 and waited for the feast to arrive. What nobody had warned us was that the photos in the menu must have been taken through an electron microscope with a 100,000 x magnification. The baguettes were actually perfect miniature reproductions - each about 4 cm long. I ate mine in two swallows and still felt hungry. We learned that you are meant to order quite a few of them to make a lunch. At least the drinks were cold and cheap also. Next time we will look for a proper tour guide who would have clearly explained such local idiosyncrasies.
On the other side of our planet there was a football match going on in Melbourne. It was the preliminary final between Collingwood and Richmond. To our shock and horror, Collingwood was actually winning. We could only imagine how horrible it must have been at the MCG with all those toothless and tattooed Collingwood supporters belching their delight. I really was glad I was a world away at that time.
By 2 pm it was getting hot and it was time for us to check out of our hotel and catch a taxi to Chamartin Station. We had ordered and negotiated a special rate for the taxi and were impressed when a shiny black limo arrived to chauffeur us to the station. We felt like pop stars as we were silently gliding through the streets to the large central station.
After a short wait we made our way to the allotted train and took our seats (Doug and I in First Class and Allan in steerage). Right on time the train started moving and was soon smoothly making its way through the rolling hills to the north of Madrid. According to my GPS we were moving at around 150 kph, so there was no way the 400 km trip could take over 5 hours. Or so I thought.
Over the next couple of hours the speed of the train varied between 70 kph and around 150 km and the landscape slowly became more hilly and interesting. We passed a succession of picturesque villages, each with its obligatory large church in the middle. Rather than travel in a straight line, the route of the train started to curve and wander around large hills, sometimes passing through extended tunnels. The time slowly passed. The outside grew darker. Unfortunately Bilbao drew no closer.
With over two hours still to go, Bilbao was still 100 km away and the light had almost gone. It was only when it was completely black that the train entered a spectacular mountainous region. Well I am sure it would have been spectacular if we could have seen anything. I was watching the screen of my GPS which showed just how circuitous the route was. At times the train almost completely doubled back to where it had been 20 minutes earlier. The route that was being drawn on my screen began to resemble a snake in its death throes. All this time the speed of the train had slowed down to what seemed like walking pace. Now we understood why the journey was going to take so long. It was just a pity that we saw none of it.
The train finally rolled (very slowly) into Bilbao Abando Station at about 9. 20 pm. The journey seemed almost as long as our flight from Australia a few days earlier, but we were here. We were also very hungry as we had not eaten anything since that microscopic baguette, about 9 hours earlier.
Outside the station we climbed into a taxi and asked to be taken to the Barcelo Hotel. He didn't seem excited. When we arrived at the hotel, about 500 metres from the station, we understood why. It had taken him longer to pack our luggage into the boot than the actual journey itself. I felt we had to reward him, so I gave him a smile and a generous extra 3 Euro. Considering that was twice what I had spent on my lunch, I reckoned it was pretty good.
The luxurious Barcelo Nirveon Hotel was a rather pleasant surprise. Sometimes it is nice to be spoilt and this was a lovely surprise after the long train trip. Even though it was well after 10 pm, the restaurant was still open and the 15 Euro set menu was great value. It was also delicious.
Back in my room I was thrilled that my room had a real window and the bed was soft, clean and cool. By tomorrow all of our team will have assembled and our adventure will be able to begin in earnest.Read more