IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 21 > Granada - Madrid

Granada - Madrid

I faced another early start this morning. Whilst crossing town the previous day, I had stopped off at the rail station to make a reservation on a train to Barcelona. Direct long distance services to the Catalan cultural capital from here in Granada were infrequent, and only operated on certain days of the week. It had at first seemed that I was in luck. There was a Thursday morning service running which would get me there by the evening, a marathon journey of over twelve hours but it would spare me the ordeal of travelling back up through Spain via Madrid. Unfortunately, although I was enquiring the prior evening, the service was already fully booked.

There still remained one other direct alternative. If I could see out another day in Granada, I could take the overnight train and arrive Friday morning. The cost - a mere 120 Euros! I was astounded, and the ticket clerk assured me that this phenomenal figure was indeed the proper price simply for the supplement payable by Interrail pass holders wanting a couchette. It seemed iffy to me, I had been told many things by different people at ticket enquiries desks around Spain and Portugal, and I had the impression that nobody really knew the correct way of calculating an appropriate fare. Sometimes they would fiddle for ages on their computers and produce exorbitant quotes. Yet many other Interrailers I had met claimed they'd snapped up bargain fares for sleeper services around the country which didn't match anything like the prices I had been offered.

There were few other options available, with only a handful of major services departing from Granada each day, and it looked like my only chance of heading north was to catch the early morning train to Madrid instead. By the time this arrived there in the afternoon, I might have an opportunity to take one or two other services heading towards Catalonia, and even if I failed to make it all the way to Barcelona by the end of the day, I could stop at another city en route and stay there for a night. Some kind of fate was forcing me to travel through Madrid for a second time. I had no reason to dislike the city having never really seen it, and I was sure that it was probably a wonderful place, but I'd become a bit of a city-phobe and was keen to stay off the beaten track a little. Barcelona was an exception. I'd heard so much about the place that I felt I would regret it forever more if I didn't pay a visit. Aside from Luxembourg it was the one must-see location left on my agenda.

Having made my booking for the Madrid train, apparently being lucky to claim one of the last seats remaining, I made some advance telephone enquiries to hostels in Barcelona, Tarragona, Lleida and other north-eastern cities. I wasn't having much luck, since everywhere was fully booked well in advance, and I knew that if I became lumbered in Madrid for a night I'd have little chance of any joy with accommodation there either. Again, many hostel staff were being very unhelpful and refusing to confirm any vacancies unless I actually turned up there on the day, which was absolutely useless. I was not going to travel several hundred miles the length of the country only to find there might not be a bed available. One day's travel could involve a lot of complications in planning trains in advance, particularly in this country with its scarce and overcrowded services. Then a compulsory reservation would usually be required, incurring a fee and possibly an additional Interrail supplement (both being charges rarely implemented to such an extent in other European countries), only for me to have no guarantee upon arrival somewhere that there would be any vacancies at the hostel.

Mulling over these problems and trying to make arrangements by flicking back and forth through the pages of several hefty guide books and timetables, then finally settling on a plan and following the tedious process required to make calls using my pre-paid phone account, only to be greeted by constant engaged tones at a hostel, was time-consuming and immensely frustrating. I was getting sick of it, and I knew that if the French rail strikes had now ceased, travelling again in that country would this time be a joy compared to the badly organized Spanish railway system.

I would frequently abandon the phone account and resort to coins simply to save time, but it cost me more. One hostel I rang in Zaragoza had a man answer the phone who was so grumpy and rude that he spent the entire call, and considerable sums of my money, arguing about my use and pronunciation of the Spanish language, when the only simple piece of information I was trying to ascertain was whether there was a space for me the following night, si o no. After three minutes of him miserably stopping and correcting me mid-sentence and yet refusing to talk in English, even though he had briefly proved that he was able to, my money ran out and I slammed the phone down in a rage. I was stood in the reception of the hostel in Granada, and the staff had begun eyeing me suspiciously as I paced the floor shouting expletives under my breath, like I had suddenly lapsed into an attack of Tourette Syndrome.

Perhaps it was for this reason that when I appeared at half past six this following morning ready to check out, they promptly handed me a take-away breakfast bag, so as to avoid my wrath. It was actually a very welcome surprise, and the goodies inside were more pleasing than those on offer in the hostel's standard breakfast, which I had sampled the day before in the dining room.

It was not too long after dawn when I left for the station, and the dimly lit, quiet streets reminded me of bleak winter mornings in Britain, going to work early on an average weekday in a grey city and hearing the occasional sorrowful tweet from a seasonally stranded bird in a rare urban tree. But there were some differences. Granada was silent, but it was also quite beautiful. As I crossed a hump in the road over the railway line, the first rays of sunrise cast themselves across the skies, projecting onto surrounding mountains and reflecting off the tops of glass buildings. It felt good to be alive in the morning, this early part of the day was reserved exclusively for me, and there was nobody else around to spoil it.

I parked myself down on the side of the train looking east, but the glowing warmth of the eastern sun was diminished by the tinted windows and rather cool air conditioning of the carriage. Sometimes train journeys could be spoilt by the attempts of the rail companies to make them more enjoyable. Clattering along on the London to Brighton line on old, grimy, 1950s wooden slam-door rolling stock was a familiar experience to me through much of my life. Indeed, the stock still remained in regular service despite years of pressure from the public to replace it. And it was an experience I always enjoyed. Sitting in the oversized seats of these old carriages with the half-century of accumulated dirt around the edges of the windows, occasionally confined within the luxury of a separate compartment and facing a ridiculously small table designed for dangerously holding two cups of shaky coffee at 100 miles per hour, had its pleasures. It even had its own smell, and with the heavy bogeys thundering across the points and wobbling the train about, passengers felt like they were really going somewhere at speed. Once these rickety trains began being phased out and replaced by modern sliding door stock, the feeling was just never the same whenever I made that journey.

Here in Spain efforts had been made on a number of routes to install luxury trains, and although I was only travelling in the comparitively low-grade tourist class coaches, they still had various mod cons for which I was having to fork out extra in my Interrail supplements. The trouble was that I just didn't want them. If they could have provided an open carriage at the back of the train with no windows, just a roof, some wooden bench seats and an eccentric old man ringing a bell when the train was due to stop, I'd have lapped up the chance to sit there instead. Half the fun of travelling by train had been removed from Spain.

Not tempted by the in-carriage movie, or by the in-seat radio tuner and the throw-away earphones provided, I contented myself for several hours with the expansive, barren landscapes gliding past the window. Several offshoots of low mountain ranges occasionally provided company for the railway line, which cut across parched plains and rarely encountered anything so monumental as a town. I nodded off in short doses and wondered what I might have missed in skipping through these regions, what secrets this countryside held and which would remain untold until my next visit.

By mid afternoon, I had finally reached Madrid, and I emerged into the dreary concourse of Charmartín station once more. I had explored this place with great tedium for many hours whilst waiting for my sleeper train to Lisbon several days earlier. Passengers disembarked at platforms below ground level - a seemingly common set-up in many big Spanish stations, and rose on escalators to a large, uninspiring concrete mezzanine which some decades ago had probably been the pride of Madrid's modern transport network. There was little left to impress now, especially not on the open-air upper level, which like so many ambitious projects of times past had been largely abandoned by those shops and businesses which may once have thrived there. I spent some more time phoning hostels, but I already knew that I had no chance of finding a place and was wasting my money. I found a private hostel listed in my guide and set off on the underground to find it.

I travelled to Puerta del Sol, a central location in the capital, and also in one sense the centre of the country. It was the point from which all distances in Spain were once measured, and the square was lively and excessively hot when I arrived. This district was apparently host to a plethora of budget hotels and other cut-price accommodation. Sadly the independent hostel was full, and the travellers who passed me on the landing of the large apartment building that it occupied had sneaky grins on their faces, looking very excited at returning to this trendy little backpackers' retreat. The owner was very helpful in trying to point me in the direction of alternatives, but the impassioned Spanish language she used was never relaxed in any way to accommodate for the less than confident foreigner, and I left with the name of just one place which I soon found to be non-existent.

In heading for the nearest tourist information office a few streets away, I found myself in the famous Plaza Mayor, which was surprisingly quiet and lacking the expected armies of tourist snappers. A sweet girl in the office soon recognized my desperation for finding LOW priced accommodation, handing me a sheet detailing local establishments in ascending order of price, and quickly pointing at the first one on the list as being suitable for my requirements. At least she cut straight to the chase and didn't try to fob me off with other exotic suggestions. She made a call to the proprietor of Hostal Ruano, and sent me off in search of the place, which was back down at Puerta del Sol. This at first seemed like a good omen. For just 15 Euros I would be staying in a building overlooking the central square of one of Europe's major capitals, I was privileged! It didn't take many cog movements in my head to ascertain that the likeliness of this vision holding true in the real world outside of my fantasy mind, was practically nil.

Although sited slap bang in one of Madrid's prime locations, I entered the main doorway of the block past a gang of busy, noisy workmen laying dusty boards across the entrance, and past a shabby little security cubical occupied by a shady man who eyed me with caution. Three flights of stairs later I stood in the gloomy central stairwell outside the door of the hostal, ringing a nicotine-stained bell that clearly hadn't worked since the Franco era. Another unlucky couple of residents returned with keys and let me in, and I was met by a stern old lady who emerged from the shadows at the back end of the corridor. She whipped the 15 Euros from my hand and led me to a single room next door to her own lounge, where she could keep an eye on me. The room was small and had no window, but there was a sink and television, and I was the nearest person to the bathroom which at least scored me some points over the other inmates should we all go down with E.coli. It was far from ideal, but it would do for one night, and I was glad to have found somewhere which didn't stretch my wallet, giving me a chance to relax for the remainder of the day.

No sooner had I laid down on my bed and confirmed that the telly required professional maintenance, than I was hit with the realization that if my plan to escape this place would succeed in the morning, I had better get the travel arrangements in place by yesterday at the latest. And so it was off to the rail station again to get that particular matter out of the way.

The nearest station from here was Atocha, which turned out to be a huge, heaving transport hub close to the centre of the action and far more exciting than Chamartín out in the sticks. It was so bursting with human life, however, that the queues in the ticket offices were spilling out to the regions. Customers wanting a ticket to the Madrid suburbs only had to join the back of the queue to find themselves automatically transported there. I joined the packs of waiting travellers, many of whom were slumped on the floors looking defeated. The phrase Venta Anticipada had become the bane of my travelling experience. There were other ticket options for sorting out purchases via the phone or the Internet, but I had been told that reservations with my Interrail ticket required special personal attention, and I therefore had no choice but to join with the masses. Whether this was really true I began to doubt, since everybody I had spoken to connected with RENFE seemed to hold a different opinion about all rail matters. It was as if the knowledge of the national rail network's employees had been privatized. There was another almost empty queue which served tickets for immediate departures only, but there was little point me returning in the morning and trying my luck there, as the long distance trains were packed out well in advance.

I pressed the Venta Anticipada button on the machine, and it ejected ticket number A499. I stood looking at the electronic boards which showed that currently, the lone, tired clerk assigned to queue A was dealing with customer number 230. I returned half an hour later and this figure had increased to 234, so only another 265 to deal with before my turn. At this rate, any of the available trains the next day would depart before I had reached the front of the queue. I found an enquiries desk, and I was advised that around the corner in the other part of the station, there was a second ticket office which usually served customers a little more quickly.

When I wandered around there, I unexpectedly found myself standing under the canopies of a glorious indoor jungle. What had once been the main shed of the station with a single-span arched glass roof, had been converted into a giant botanical garden filled with exotic plants and palm trees. Steam was squirted from jets above the leaves creating a bizarre tropical paradise. Alas, the departure boards only displayed routine local and national destinations, and not the Brazilian rainforests that I had now assumed might be proposed. I went into the second ticket office and tried my luck with the queues there - this time I only had to wait two hours to be seen.

The clerk checked every train to Barcelona for the following day, but each one was completo, or to put it another way, 'full of smug well-organized people'. I enquired about the day after that, cursing the idea of spending a second night in Hostal Ruano, but again all were completo. He suggested Domingo, three days ahead, but I gave up, asking him if there was space on a train on any other route that would head in the rough direction of France. I had no time to go away and re-examine my map and timetables, else I'd lose my place in the queue. The only possibility left for me was to get on a train to Hendaye in the south-west corner of France, and end my journey at Biarritz, following the same route I'd taken coming down into Spain originally, and being forced to take a 250-mile diversion away from Barcelona and the French Riviera. Anything to get me out of this country and its ridiculous transport system would do, and after the previous strikes which had made navigating France a nightmare, I was glad to be heading back there and to a train network which was now frequent and reliable. Barcelona was a big enough attraction to merit a visit some other day, and I had heard that it was not only expensive and crowded, but currently some of its key sights were under wraps due to restoration works, so in the end I shed few tears at missing out on it this time around.

I took a leisurely stroll the mile or so back to Puerta del Sol on a sultry summer evening, and found the square had been transformed into a mass demonstration zone. From streets away I could hear the hubbub of whistles blowing, horns beeping, crowds chanting and angry voices addressing the throngs of people with megaphones. But just as I arrived the hordes were disbanding, and I felt immensely disappointed to have missed 'the action'. I recalled the many let-downs of school years when children would charge across the playground after the final bell to strain at a fight taking place between two kids, invariably boys. Stamping, clapping and shouting 'scrap, scrap, scrap...', the fixated onlookers would grow into a huge spiral moving mass and I would frequently arrive just too late to catch the good bits. My appearance on the scene would usually coincide with that of a staid teacher who would spoil all the fun just with their peripheral presence alone. It was all for the better on the odd occasion when the fight had become so viscious, and its triumphant outcome was so prized by all involved, that the teacher could be disregarded or possibly dragged into the action. Mr King caught one on the nose once, and assemblies for the next week were full of unstoppable sniggering each time he made an address wearing his nasal bandage, which from the back of the hall made him look like a cheap imitator of Adam Ant. I don't know what shortcomings of Spanish society had given rise to this public event but it was all over now, and I hunted around for some nosh.

There were plenty of bars and restaurants in the area, many serving traditional Spanish fare, although some seemed to be offering dubious tourist versions at pumped up prices, so I scoured the backstreets for alternatives. This was going to be one of few occasions when I would actually eat out and not simply scavenge cheap eats from a supermarket. As well as the money issue, there was another problem which restrained me from making more visits to restaurants. As a lone diner it could sometimes feel decidedly awkward occupying a whole table in a busy establishment full of chatting groups, especially when others were waiting outside for tables to become free. Neither was it pleasant to find completely empty premises and be sat alone, watched by an uncomfortable looking waiter, and by the passing public who might assume that I must carry an unhealthy odour.

Even when I had more money to spend, this didn't turn the ritual into anything more enjoyable. During my business work in the spring I had regularly eaten like a king in restaurants, with the bill being picked up by my company, and there were odd occasions when I had no work companions and was forced to eat alone in strange towns. But the higher quality food couldn't make up for the void of social experience. It became too often a case of wanting to get the occasion over and done with, which didn't enhance the appreciation of the meal. When in a youth hostel I would have no qualms about asking other travellers to join me, certainly if they matched my favoured description of being born a girl, but I'd not been presented with many such opportunities at the right time during most of my trip.

So I found myself back at the main square inside a half-hearted establishment promising cheap grub. It suited me fine, I'd found the perfect match. They would serve me half-heartedly and I would eat half-heartedly. It was a casual restaurant for half-hearted people, and nobody here really cared if I had any human attachments or not. I was presented with a menu listing many Spanish dishes, and then with another which detailed a selection of pastas. Without thinking, I changed my preference at the last moment to a spaghetti dish, only to realize after ordering that I had now shunned the wonderful cuisine of this nation and opted for an Italian intruder instead. I had instantly been transformed into the typical English finicky git diner, and I might as well have ordered fish 'n' chips and a fight. It was a genuine oversight, and I doubt if anybody but me cared.

Outside in the dark, legions of dodgy dealers had gathered in Puerta del Sol, trading in everything which one would firmly expect to have snatched back from them in the surrounding backstreets. They paraded handbags, mobile phones, purses, jewellery and other wares laid down on blankets all around the square. I toured some of the streets by nightfall and landed myself in an Internet café, from where I hoped to book some accommodation for the next night in Biarritz. What masqueraded as a cybercafé, however, was just a front for other seedy activities which took place within. I was pointed in the direction of the back room and I settled down at a computer still showing the pornographic interests of the previous visitor. Then I noticed that the other men sat at neighbouring terminals were all indulging in the same, and at least one of them had his hand wedged in his trouser pocket. At the back were a set of booths used for making phonecalls, and some rather unsavoury women dressed like tarts came into the shop and occupied them on a regular basis.

The time was approaching midnight, and worried by thoughts of witches I finished my business, which involved little of the same degree of excitement being supplied to the other surfers, and left for the hostal. The next long journey which faced me in the morning required rising early once more. I had barely begun to explore Madrid but I was soon set to leave. I hoped that there wouldn't be too many more 'sit on a train days', although any such desire seemed like an absurd grumble after splashing out for an Interrail ticket. I was restless yet knackered, enthusiastic but downtrodden, and I hoped that whatever Biarritz had to offer, it would include a cure for being a Gemini.

HOSTEL REPORT: Hostal Ruano, Calle Mayor 2 - 3º (Puerta del Sol), Madrid
There was little worth commending at this budget hostal (not, incidentally, to be confused with hostel). Spanish hostales could offer cheap accommodation but that varied dramatically, and here in central Madrid one costing 15 Euros per night wasn't going to afford much in the way of luxury. Occupying part of the third floor of a large building which was rather gloomy inside, the only salvation here would have been a room at the front commanding a view over the square outside, if any such rooms existed. The location was excellent, on the corner of Puerta del Sol right in the thick of things, but aside from being inexpensive and free from rats, Hostal Ruano had little going for it. Score: 3/10

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