IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 10 > Salamanca - Madrid>>Lisbon

Salamanca - Madrid

The gradual awakenings of the plentiful other hostellers in the dormitory became tedious, as each adopted the same routine of rustling bags, clunking things about, coughing their throat into action for the day and chatting at a thoughtlessly loud volume to any other guest who had timed their rising to the same window of opportunity. Eventually we were left with just the noisiest snorers, who could be guaranteed to remain there most of the morning, and my own turn at disrupting the aural habitat was due.

The fair breakfast was a bonus in what was otherwise nothing much more than a tidy modern doss-house. I pulled out my assortment of bibles, comprising my rail timetable, map and other factual volumes which offered confusing examination material for my dazed Sunday morning head. There was no escaping the grim fact that I would have to board the early morning train the following day to Lisbon. Except there was one other slightly daft option.

I could perform an about-turn and travel east to Madrid, the place I had tried to avoid in the first instance, and from there take a service to Lisbon. It would be a longer journey, zig-zagging unnecessarily across the country, but it would keep me on the move and occupied, and save me hanging around all night in Salamanca wondering what to do with myself. Violaine was returning to Madrid this afternoon, so I would have to face a night alone wandering the streets and befriending night-creatures in order to stay awake and not miss the dawn arrival of the sleeper train.

I expected there to be a regular service linking the Spanish and Portuguese capitals, but I was startled to find that again, only one train per day ran from Madrid to Lisbon, and it was another eleven-hour journey through the night. It was utterly perplexing how a western European country like this, with a complete rail infrastructure and spare rolling stock sitting around on sidings, could offer such a lousy schedule for its passenger services, often running just one train per day on each line in each direction. And these trains were packed, regularly having only a few carriages and causing choking queues sometimes days in advance at every major station, as prospective passengers were forced to make compulsory reservations. It still seemed a better idea to travel via Madrid, because at least I could board the sleeper train from there at a reasonable time, and enjoy a full night's rest on board. I would arrive refreshed in Lisbon and ready for action when I met my Renault 4 companions on Monday. Or so I believed.

I didn't have time to waste mulling it over anymore, and I had to say goodbye to the delightful Violaine who was intending to catch a later train than my own. I trudged in agony back to the station, for my feet could barely cope with much more toil. I'd brought a scruffy old pair of trainers as my sole footwear (pun not intended), with the aspiration of purchasing a spanking new pair during my travels. All my trainers at home were on their last legs (pun not intended, again), but combined they would probably offer me a few more months of use when I returned, and I was reluctant to dip into my budget for another lot if it was at all avoidable. But the amount of walking I had done in them thus far was insane, and giant holes and rips were spreading all over. I found the perfect pair at a perfect price in a shop at Salamanca station, but I was so mean to myself that I left them on the shelf, as though I was somehow determined to suffer as a penance before the gods for the enjoyment of my travels.

I entered the queue in the ticket office, and emerged satisfied having managed to reserve my seat on the train to Madrid wholly in Spanish. However, I had been booked onto the later service, which I would have known if I had bothered to translate the conversation fully, rather than standing there attempting to look clever by soaking up a wash of unknown foreign phrases like they were everyday familiarities. I had guessed correctly when to nod or shake my head to seem convincing, but I must have nodded in the affirmative when asked in Spanish, 'you dumb nodding Englishman accept dodgy seat on inferior train yes?'

The first train - the one I wanted to be on - was leaving in minutes, and by the time I could queue again and explain my desire to change the reservation, I would miss it. Bored, I wandered through the subway and sat alone on an empty island platform between the tracks, reading a book. Fate must have brought about the situation, because I was first entertained by a dramatic thunder storm which shook the ground underfoot (probably loosening a few more threads on my trainers), with rain hammering down on the narrow canopy above me and a beautiful rainbow succeeding the events. And secondly, there was clearly a pot of gold at the end of my rainbow, as I was later joined again by Violaine, who entertained me with the traditional French folk music on her Walkman. She was a welcome sight, although I felt slightly embarrassed having bid her a fairly dramatic final, fond farewell just hours before.

When the train arrived, it was once again bursting with tinned fish travellers, with Violaine and I finding that our seat reservations separated us at opposite ends. The dated diesel engine muscled its way through the countryside to the best of its ability, passing ancient walled towns and winding around the valleys. I had become in need of a visit to the toilet, but my discovery of a difficulty inside the carriage's cubicle forced whatever was waiting within me to turn around and take a rest.

The problem was that there were three buttons on the wall inside, all labelled in Spanish and none giving any obvious clue as to their function. A couple more were located at waist level close to the toilet, and there were at least two foot-operated features on the floor. I had learnt the Spanish verbs for open (abrir) and close (cerrar), but the text of the words facing me looked more like it was written in Czech. Perhaps the national rail operators RENFE had rented some cheap carriages from another country, or were deliberately using a higher register of obscure Spanish language in order to put off delinquents of society from using and abusing the facility. Alas, having stupidly decided not to bring a dictionary with me to the lavatory I could only guess at their meanings.

The automatically sliding door had closed behind me seconds after entering the cubicle, so I could not eliminate any button from my enquiries into which one locked it. I tried pressing some of them, but then I worried that one might be an emergency alarm, and any private functions I might be in the middle of executing would be rudely interrupted by a panicking guard forcing his way into my personal space.

Faced with the threat of the door being opened by somebody in the queue outside, and me being found sat on the loo with my bare arse on display to an assorted bunch of strangers, I rather lost the appetite for performing any bowel movements at all, and retreated to my seat. Unavoidably, once back there it was only forty-three seconds before I felt the urge again to visit the bog, but if I dared get up twice in quick succession I would invite the attention of all the other passengers, who would regard me as the Weak Bladder Man.

I held on for the remaining two hours with pursed lips and a beetroot face, and we ascended gradually to the high plains well above sea level upon which Madrid sat famously. In the hustle and bustle of the crowded platform at Chamartín and my desperation to reach los servicios, I lost my Princess Violaine amongst the mayhem, and with a tinge of sadness, I spent hours circling the concourse for stomach food and brain food before my sleeper train was ready to depart.


Whilst at the station in Salamanca, I had also made my reservation for the Madrid-Lisbon sleeper train, which brought about an unpleasant surprise. It would cost me nearly 30 Euros in supplements just for a seat on this service which, being the only one linking the cities each day, gave the company operating it something of a monopoly. Unlike the distinctly downbeat names of 'Diurno' and 'TRD' governing the previous two journeys, 'Trenhotel' was the glamorous title of this night service, and my bible lent it the description of 'quality night express trains'.

Knowing this, I felt that I would at least have some comfortable, superior accommodation in the carriage, even if I was only granted a seat and not a couchette or cabin which would have cost at least twice the price. At that sort of mark-up I would probably be better off flying, but with a rough plan to stick to a maximum of 30 Euros spending per day on everything, including accommodation, the standard seat was all I could afford. It seemed a bit rich that after forking out a few hundred pounds for a rail pass giving me free travel in my selected zones, almost every train in Spain required me to pay an extra supplement, in this case a whacking great 28 Euros.

I knew something was amiss as soon as I strolled down the platform at Chamartín station. Whilst the train attendants sycophantically administered well-heeled occupants of the first class carriages, upon examination of my ticket I was simply directed up the platform with a casual shrug. As I passed the carriages, they became evermore basically furnished, from the splendid first class private cabins, past the decent second class couchette compartments, the snazzy bar, and on to the shabby tourist class coaches at the far end where I belonged, along with throngs of other desperate travellers clutching rucksacks. We, the great unwashed, were not worthy of such luxuries as headrests, tables or comfortable seats. Indeed, of all the many trains I had travelled on throughout my journey, this carriage was just about the most filthy, cramped, uncomfortable and badly furnished one I had found, and we were expected to get a good night's rest in it.

I was joined in my set of four seats by three American girls, whose designated seats would have had them split thoughtfully across the carriage. Another German couple had similarly been set apart, so they all sorted it out between them until a logical order was achieved. Nobody was at all happy or impressed with the state of the coach, and with most of the travellers on board the car holding Interrail or Eurail tickets, we were all miffed by having to pay such steep supplements and having no other choice in reaching our destination. If the opposite end of the train was the 'Trenhotel', we were most definitely in the 'Trenshopdoorway'.

As the train pulled away, nobody had even bothered to come and shut the exterior coach door, and a cool night breeze swept through the carriage. I was sat at the end so it seemed to be my duty to get up and slam it shut, and I was lucky to find that it opened inwards, saving me from risking life and limb hanging out the side of the train like a chase scene from an old black and white movie. I wondered what might have happened should a small child have come running down the aisle on the loose. In addition, the sliding door behind me at the end of the compartment was jammed open, and the noisy clanking of the articulation unit, the wheels on the tracks and the squeaking of the rubber join between the carriages was going to prove a great distraction for anybody lucky enough to get an ounce of sleep.

For a while I tried to occupy myself with a book, occasionally chatting with the American girls, all of whom had brought along convenient inflatable head cushions. I'd seen them myself in the shops before my travels began but had shunned them, opting to spend my money instead on a pair of collapsible plastic drinking cups, which in this situation were to provide no suitable comfort for my head unless I was enormously inventive. There was absolutely nothing to rest it upon, although I did wonder how much I might have to bribe the girl next to me to use her shoulder. The legroom was also pitiful, such that most of the girls' bare feet ended up either on my lap or wedged beside it with their toes poking into my buttocks. I had never been a hardened foot-fetishist but I didn't really mind, they were rather cute, although combined with the eye masks that all the girls had also invested in and were now sporting, I began to wonder if I had inadvertently paid a high supplement to be seated in the kinky sex zone of an overnight Spanish brothel train. I envisaged a busty matron strutting down the aisle with a whip, and I knew that these thoughts should be confined to dreams which could only result from the thing I needed most - sleep.

One thing we all needed was water, as the carriage was beginning to get very stuffy. Foolishly I had failed to purchase any at a reasonable price beforehand, although this was largely due to a scam in operation at Madrid station. There, the only source of water was contained in vending machines and sold at an inflated price, and I had no change. So I visited the bar on board the train, where the hotel aspect of the service certainly came into play and I was ripped off even further. Two small bottles of spring water set me back several Euros, and I was not amused.

After calling at a couple more early stops, the train lights were dimmed and my reading material was rendered defunct. Presumably we were expected to sleep now in this environment which resembled the central reservation of a busy motorway during an earthquake. The German girl opposite did succeed in closing the jammed door, but it was no good, she'd had enough and had to find alternative sleeping arrangements. It later transpired what a genius she was, when she was found tucked up inside one of the large box-shaped luggage compartments at the end of the next carriage. I only wished that I'd thought of the idea first.

I managed to find about an hour's sleep somewhere along the line, but it wasn't easy when the train continually came to a lurching halt at several stations in the middle of the night. By the time dawn arrived, my neck and chest were aching having supported the full weight of my head which had nowhere else to go, and I felt extremely weary. At half past eight Portuguese time, our eleven-hour nightmare was over, and we slumped off the train into Lisbon. My lungs felt like newspaper tied together with brittle sardine bones as I took a deep breath, and prepared to stay awake for another sixteen hours or more.

HOSTEL REPORT: Madrid-Lisbon 'Trenhotel' night train
Easily the worst night's sleep I had ever attempted to gain. The experience of the sleeper cabins and couchettes may have been quite different for those who could afford them, but the tourist class coach was diabolical. The only reason I awarded it one mark was because we didn't crash. Score: 1/10

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