IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 22 > Madrid - Hendaye - Biarritz

Madrid - Hendaye

I had kept the door of my cell locked overnight for fear of the terse old lady proprietor turning crazed psychopath and looming over me at 3am with a carving knife. The bathroom was basic, unlockable and featured a bath with a curtain around it. I survived the shower scene intact and noticed no worrying tears in the cloth, but I wanted to escape Hostal Ruano as soon as possible. Whether or not any breakfast was included in my stay I wasn't sure. I'd not seen any kitchen or facilities, and there were no other guests either awake or left alive. I bid farewell to the lady in the shadows of her lounge, and departed.

Around the corner was a sandwich shop and I took some breakfast there instead. It was morning rush hour in Madrid and I waited until exactly nine o'clock before leaving and taking the Metro to Chamartín, in the hope of avoiding most of the stampede. After another couple of sticky cakes at the station, it was time to board the train to Hendaye.

Following the difficulties in finding a space on board any northbound service the previous evening, it was not unexpected to see my carriage teeming with people, and with a seven hour journey facing me I was disappointed to find that my seat was in an aisle. I was parked next to a man in a suit who didn't seem particularly pleased to see me, and turned his head away when I tried to acknowledge him. I knew the feeling too well myself, of waiting for the train to depart and watching the carriage fill up with passengers, only to get a couple of minutes away from departure and the neighbouring seat to eventually be sabotaged by an invader. Again, I had more luck than most in this regard. Over the years, that same subliminal weirdo expression which I broadcast from within seemed to put most people off choosing my company, and I'd have the twin seats to myself. In Spain, however, there was no escape. Seats had to be reserved and one got what they were given, no arguments. He was still a miserable arse though.

The train was nothing special either; no unwanted luxuries today, and like that other journey out of Madrid on the sleeper service I'd rather have forgotten, there was again nowhere to rest my head. If I nodded off and it rolled slightly to the right I'd risk upsetting the suited misery-guts, and if I went an inch to the left I'd be constantly buffeted by the streams of passengers stomping down the aisle with their luggage, or spilling hot coffee over me on their way back from the buffet car.

I was close to the end of the carriage and had only a plain wall to stare at ahead. So inbetween taking brief glances out of the windows left and right - timed in short doses so as not to draw concerned return gazes from my neighbours, who twitched uncomfortably whenever my stare was less than parallel to their own - and failing to acquire any rest on my narrow, upright seat, I sat frozen like a dummy for much of the ride. I thought that these strange paranoid foibles and quirks of personal spatial relationships on public transport were confined to the British, but it seemed they had spread like a disease to other parts of the world. However, at least half the booming voices I could hear from other parts of the carriage were those of the Americans and British, so it wasn't necessarily a trait which had taken hold of the Spanish. Certainly in France it seemed very different. There, the people would often be more than willing to strike up a conversation and greet anybody who sat down beside them.

The one opportunity this situation did present to me was a chance to try and finish the novel which I was reading about Spain, before I actually left Spain. Even this wasn't as easy to achieve as it ought to have been. One of the difficulties I had always experienced with reading, whether on the sofa, in bed or here on a train, was the feeling of being constantly uncomfortable no matter what position I adopted. Within seconds of changing posture I would become instantly and acutely aware of a rogue limb or muscle somewhere which wasn't settled. I had always been an extremely fidgety person, and perhaps this reflected in my life on a larger scale. Never able to stick with one career path or interest, rarely remaining in the same circle of friends for any length of time, and itching to get away somewhere else in the permanent belief that the grass was greener beyond, I knew that my life was always destined to be this way, but being on the move like I was now suited me just fine.

A more direct rail route to the north coast of the country existed, but our train was ploughing its way around the houses, taking in the towns of Ávila, Medína del Campo, Valladolid, Burgos and many others on its winding path. Most of the route was the same as that which I had followed in the opposite direction, on the way from San Sebastián to Salamanca two weeks prior. That seemed a long time back in history. For some, the old adage would always hold true that time flies by when you're having fun, but mercifully, I would always find the opposite. Despite the many setbacks and hassles, I was having a good time thus far, and my first few days in Paris seemed like they'd passed months ago.

Upon reaching our second stop, the sour fruit in the suit got up and I breathed a sigh of relief, but it didn't last long as a young guy with a personal stereo replaced him. I felt like I had suddenly aged forty years as I sat cursing under my breath the loud, tinny noise emanating from his earphones. Also joining the merry bunch at this station were a couple with a small child and a newborn in a pram, who took up the seats behind me. For three hours the child ran up and down the aisle beside me, wobbling his lips and making humming warrior noises, and with guilt for my unscrupulousness I sat there dying to stick a leg out and to see the poor thing go flying. He was replaced by his younger sibling in the pram, in a display which had me checking the ingredients of my mineral water for hallucinogenic drugs. The mother behind slowly rocked the pram backwards and forwards in the aisle, and from my position in front, all I could see was this radish-faced baby with a fascinated stare on its face - of the type that any adult could only achieve with the aid of illicit substances - popping to and fro and appearing every few seconds unnervingly out the corner of my eye. It was like a prolonged clown routine that might be performed as a form of confession-inducing torture to suspected terrorists.

Again, it appeared that even this small new being found enough in my facial composition to cause alarm, and it began crying. This crying turned to screaming, which encompassed all the best elements of squealing and screeching, for a record-attempting two hours. When the train passed through San Sebastián, although we were only a few miles from the end of the line, I seriously considered getting off and seeking salvation with my friends Asier and Luis in the city. It would have been nice to have said another hello, but the conductor on the train had already been around issuing personal advice to travellers about current problems with French rail services. It seemed that although the strikes were largely over, they were still having knock-on effects, and many trains were cancelled or subject to disruption.

We crossed the river border into France and rolled into Hendaye, a station that still had check-points sitting redundant on its platforms, and which looked like it had once been the site of much grief for those trying to escape or re-enter the country. The wailing child had finally disappeared from sight and sound, and gone to bother some other section of the community. I didn't have to wait more than a quarter of an hour for one of the scarce trains running north this evening, which would take me the few miles onwards to Biarritz.

Hendaye - Biarritz

A short way up the line, I alighted at Biarritz on a mild cloudy evening. After some confusion trying to make sense of local maps, I eventually found the youth hostel nestled in a peaceful location near a lake. I had made my booking whilst at the cybercafé-cum-brothel in Madrid the previous night, and I was pleased to find it was a nice, spacious modern hostel that seemed a tranquil spot in which to spend a day or two. I had intended to come here during my journey south from Poitiers, but les grèves had forced me to stay put in Bordeaux instead. A couple of young American guys occupied two of the four beds in my dormitory, and I knew that I had been assigned the English-speaking room again. They soon left though, and it gave me an opportunity to steal the reading light from the empty fourth bunk for my own use.

Wherever I went, I always ended up with either the only bed which didn't have a light, or one that hosted a crane-fly party. Here I was landed with both, so I tidied up the insect theme park in the corner above my upper bunk, offering its visitors the freedom of the outdoors, and snatched the only lightbulb which was surely subject to constant rotation by other guests. When I returned to the room an hour later it was no surprise to find that I had lost the bulb, and acquired a new crane-fly.

I'd gone out in search of food, which was rather thin on the ground in this quiet district of the town. The centre of Biarritz lay a couple of miles away, and here inland there was little except the leafy suburbs and the railway station. There were a pair of competing pizza parlours up the road, and I was given a friendly greeting by the lady inside one of them, who had no worries about preparing me a pizza without its usual primary ingredient of cheese. This particular food made me feel physically sick in its every shape or form, and even venturing into a pizza parlour was something I rarely plucked up the courage for because of the smell of the stuff. Many establishments would refuse to serve me a pizza which didn't contain it, mistakenly arguing that it was a traditional ingredient, without which the other toppings could not be fused together and would roll off. All that was required was a decent layer of tomato sauce which would melt into the dough and meld the toppings onto it.

During my student days in Manchester, I had once thrown a pizza back in the face of a member of staff at a shop in the seedy suburb of Cheetham Hill. Despite my clear repeated wording to the effect of 'absolutely no cheese whatsoever', he had still smothered the thing with it, and then refused to refund my money claiming that a pizza without cheese was impossible. At that time, the area was frequently on the national news due to riots taking place on the council estate around the corner, and having shampooed the assistant's hair with a nine-inch Vegetariano, I ran like the clappers as I was chased out of the shop by some dodgy geezers who emerged from the back room.

Here in Biarritz, the lady in the shop said it was common for her to prepare pizzas without the yellow peril, and I left with a happy grin and a square box. My only complaint when I opened it back at the hostel, was that they had prepared the thing with a base as thick as rice paper. If food was thin on the ground in these parts, it was also thin on the plate. Perhaps this was the norm around here, and I had to admit it tasted good.

It was Friday night, and my room was empty. There was a large bar area in the hostel, but this was closed, and the only action taking place was based around the table tennis outside. I heard some English voices and gatecrashed a conversation at a table. Vicki and Bruce were from England and were Interrailing around most of the same zones as myself. They were joined by a Canadian guy who had been battling with many of the same problems of French rail strikes, and who had also failed to get within 250 miles of Barcelona. We were sat for hours into the night with our rations of alcohol, discussing our adventures and the up sides and down sides of holding Interrail tickets.

It seemed that the Canadian had got a particularly raw deal with his Eurail pass. There were many different types available in different countries, and his own had cost over a thousand Canadian dollars, but permitted him just ten days' travel within a month. Having also paid a few supplements and been subject to hassles with reservations and restrictions, he clearly wondered if buying tickets separately would have worked out any cheaper. For the rest of us, our Interrail passes seemed to offer fair value, providing we made the most of them and travelled frequently. But the main bone of contention was our belief that after paying large sums of money for a ticket offering freedom of travel, we shouldn't then be subjected to additional charges, except when taking sleeper trains or luxury services. I had waited years to go Interrailing and I felt sure that I wanted to go again in the future, but whether I would endure the difficulties of the Spanish and Portuguese rail systems again was doubtful, and I certainly wouldn't wish to encounter any more strikes.

There was also much talk about the hostel, which despite being modern and having various facilities, suffered from some unfriendly staff and certain assets which were advertised yet unavailable. Apparently the bar had run dry, and would remain closed for the weekend until new stock arrived. The kitchen was out of bounds during the summer season for some strange reason, and most irritatingly there were dozens of wholly unnecessary signs posted everywhere, potently warning guests of what they must not do. One, in English, stated that anybody who dared use the kitchen facilities would be immediately ejected from the hostel, whilst others were very patronizing in asserting orders which should have been blatantly clear to residents anyway. It created a rather negative atmosphere, and this wasn't the first hostel I had encountered which would have been more appropriately relabelled 'hostile'. It was obvious that staff could sometimes be working under a lot of pressure, but at least one stressed out worker here had taken things too far with their written warnings. The great shame was that some other staff were friendly-mannered and rather cool, and had all the facilities been available, this could have been a shining example of a hostel.

Vicki and Bruce had been around Italy, which had offered them some pleasant surprises but had been expensive. They were also lucky enough to get to Barcelona, which they attributed to their approaching it from the north, unlike me. Once again I had to listen to the tales of what a wonderful city this was, which only made me envious and peeved that I'd not been able to get there. Often it seemed that some hostels were almost exclusively full of rail travellers, and we covered many familiar topics regarding this often forgotten way of exploring the continent. In an age where the economy charter flight ruled and people had ever increasing desires to travel at the speed of sound across the globe, taking the train was less frequently discussed in holiday brochures or travel programmes, but it offered an ideal way of discovering town and country and the many varied attractions of a diverse continent. Whether our Interrail passes had offered the cheapest way of exploring Europe could be debated endlessly, but all those who bought into the idea felt they belonged to a happy little alternative community of travellers, and tended to stick together.

It was around midnight when we were ordered indoors in case our chatting upset the neighbours, and we spent another couple of hours in the empty bar dreaming of imaginary drinks. My friends were staying another night, and despite the unfortunate lack of atmosphere at the hostel, this persuaded me to do the same. I couldn't face a second consecutive 'sit on a train day', and I looked forward to examining Biarritz in more detail the following morning.

HOSTEL REPORT: Biarritz - Aintziko Gazte Etxea, 8 Rue Chiquito de Cambo, 64200 Biarritz (Pyrénées Atlantiques)
The location of this hostel was a fair way from the centre of town and might have merited a bus ride, but it was close to the rail station. If all of the facilities at this hostel had been available, in particular the bar and kitchen, it would have offered a lot more than it did during my stay. Bicycle hire wasn't particularly cheap, and many residents were perturbed to arrive and find an extra charge for sheets was added on to the price whether they wanted them or not. Many like myself had brought their own and didn't need them, and we were decidedly narked off at being forced to stump up more than the advertised nightly fee for no reason. Whilst some members of staff were laid-back and helpful, others were unpleasant or spiteful. The breakfast was decent and there were some vending machines for emergency rations, which could be essential due to the area having few other amenities after dark. My dormitory was clean apart from the crane-fly picnic, and there were full en suite bathroom facilities featuring a separate toilet, in fact some of the best I found. There was some nice countryside to explore nearby, and the towns of Biarritz and Bayonne were very pleasant, with the former having several excellent beaches. This hostel had the potential to be top notch, but lost a lot of marks for various irritating reasons. Score: 6/10

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