Viva Espana: Day 5 – Off to Madrid

After taking a last look at Barcelona, seeing the Sagrada Familia lit up, and being slightly surprised that none of the other monuments were, I returned to the hostel.

Chile had left. USA 2 had arrived and was in the bunk above mine. Interestingly, she had parked her shoes next to the other bunk. I didn’t realise this until Japan arrived and politely, though pointedly, moved them to the centre of the room.

Humans are territorial, and there is definitely an etiquette to shared hostel rooms: don’t spread out.

How this would pan out in the morning, I wouldn’t know. I was up and out by 8am to head for the railway station, stopping for breakfast on the way.

I had ambitions to embrace the Spanish, or Hobbit, idea of second breakfast today. First breakfast: the sugar rush. Second breakfast: savoury. I did wonder what the catering on the train would be like, as I wouldn’t be arriving in Madrid until after 1pm.

Maybe today wasn’t the day to try this?

The streets were busy with traffic and pedestrians heading to work. I had the choice between a 45 minute walk or a 15 minute walk with a ten minute metro ride. I didn’t want to join the subway commuters with my rucksack – it would be crowded, and I’d get in people’s way. It was a cool enough morning for the walk to be pretty comfortable.

(Having had to walk five miles, to my hostel, across Beijing in 27°C, carrying my rucksack, because Western credit cards aren’t accepted and only one, possibly two Chinese banks dispense cash on said cards and none of them were near the railway station… so I couldn’t buy a subway ticket… today’s stroll was not a problem).

Barcelona-Sants is a vast concrete monstrosity. It was built in the 1970s, airport style, according to Wikipedia. On arrival, it did feel like walking into an airport. There was a vast array of display boards for departing trains, which was initially somewhat disorientating with departures not shown chronologically. Yes, it’s alphabetical, which makes perfect sense until you move to the M section and realise Madrid doesn’t feature.

I spotted a board entirely listing Madrid trains… they were all arriving from Madrid.

Above the ticket windows was another departure board, this one in chronological order. I found a seat and settled down to wait.

Like catching a plane, boarding for Madrid would open thirty minutes before departure, according to my ticket, and I would put my luggage through security checks and have my ticket scanned twice. It was just like catching Eurostar or a plane but without the passport checks.

Strangely, it seemed at least, at Gare de Lyon there had been no such checking even though the journey would cross borders. I belatedly realised that there hadn’t been a passport check when the train crossed the Spanish border. (There had been passport checks and stamping when I crossed the Italian border by train last year).

I settled into my seat – earth deck rather than sky deck this time. Ouigo’s naming style does entertain me.

The train was packed, everyone sniffing and snuffling. The food tour guide had said that there is ‘a terrible flu’ going around at the moment. (Probably a bit of Covid too). I fought the urge to pass around tissues – at some point in the last few years I’ve turned into my mother!

We departed on time and ten minutes later were on the outskirts of Barcelona, passing districts of apartments nestled at the foot of darkly wooded hills. The flat valley floor was heavily industrialised – electricity substations interspersed between factories. The further out the train moved, the more woodland and we began to pass through several tunnels, the duration of each growing longer each time.

The train was travelling through rolling farmland, vineyards mostly, with wooded hills framing the horizon. There were fairly large towns too – appartment buildings and white houses with red rooves .

It was a dry and dusty scene – the only green provided by the evergreen trees and, now, the olive groves. The view became more forested with yellow stone viaducts bridging narrow valleys. Above, grey clouds, though it was a bright, almost sunny day.

The land became wilder, more rugged, and greener. Blue sky began to appear, and the grey became white fluffy clouds. In the distance were windfarms, lining the ridges.

Solar farms filled fields closer to the railway lines. I’ve seen more and more of these on each rail journey through Europe in the last year. The continent seems to be doing far more than England to embrace renewable energy.

On board the train, the sniffing had stopped: it seemed that most people had fallen asleep.

The scenery became more rural again, but it was greener than further North – aided by vast watering systems. Yellow stone barns and farmhouses dotted the view.

Each view didn’t last long. Once again, the train was travelling through flatter countryside. Even the rockfaces and soil changed colour: from a red-brown, through mustard to white; and where the land changed colour, so did the buildings.

In terms of variety, this was an incredibly changing landscape, making for a fascinating journey. The rails carried the train up in the hills and then deep through the valleys. Forest, farmland (of different uses), rocky and barren, wide open plains, urban and so many different colours…it all featured on this route.

The next, and only stop, before Madrid was the wonderfully named Zaragoza Delicias. Zaragoza is the fourth largest of Spain’s cities, and it was around five minutes on entering the station’s perimeter before the train ground to a halt at the platform.

Everyone at my table left, and I wondered if I might take the window seat… Nope. Three more travellers took their seats. But they were a happy bunch and weren’t sniffing! The chap opposite me was very expressive (miming boxing) and evidently highly entertaining, judging by the laughter of his friends.

As the train left Zaragoza; it pulled through an immense expanse of industrial estate and rows upon rows of shipping containers. Beyond this, the view became as varied as the first half of the journey – though the land featured more terracotta shades and more shrubland on this leg of the journey.

Half an hour from Madrid, the sun appeared, and the sky turned blue. The train was travelling through rolling countryside – the earth largely orange and the landscape greener. In the distance were snow-capped mountains.

Arrival into Madrid Atocha was ten minutes early. As in Barcelona Sants, exit from the platform takes you straight out of the station rather than herding, arriving passengers through the crowds wishing to depart.

St Isidro is apparently the patron saint of Madrid, born in the 11th century, and could be considered to have had a good innings as he was in his 90s when he died. It may be a presentational issue, but I’m not clear (based on the display in the cathedral) what his miracles were when he was alive. There’s a replica of a painting of his miracle at a well, but the details are not described.

Things seemed to heat up after he died with various people reporting that he appeared to them in a dream, instructing that he be dug up and his remains venerated. That doesn’t strike me as very saintly, if I’m honest – a bit big-headed really.

Because Isidro had been a farmer, he became a popular figure for worship among ordinary people. Never to miss a popular trend, the nobility and then the royals jumped on the bandwagon. Queen Isabella of Castille became ill and prayed to Isidro for a cure. When she felt better, she had the tomb opened so she could visit the grave to give thanks.

It’s not clear whether the next incident occurred on the same visit but one her ladies-in-waiting bit off the toe of the saint and the party were then unable to cross the river to go home, until the lady repented and returned the toe.

I hope something has been mistranslated here. Let’s ignore the issue of feeling the need to bite off the toe of a dead body. I don’t know where to even begin with that. But I’m none the wiser on how to imagine the conversation that followed.

The party has, by supernatural intervention, been stopped from crossing the river. The boats have been checked, the oars given the once over, the sails have been inspected for holes but there’s no obvious reason why they can’t cross the water.

How do you even begin to fess-up to the boss, her queenship, that you’ve bitten off the toe of her favourite (not yet a) saint, in a fit of weird vandalism and desecration and, that might just be why you all can’t cross the river?

People are odd.

Isidro was finally canonised in 1622 after a concerted lobbying campaign by the Spanish nobility.

As the day draws to a close, I’ve managed to eat two of the five traditional meals, but I am at least wrapping up in a popular way. The queue for the main restaurant was along the street, mostly filled with non-Spanish speakers and Instagram Influencers. I know they’re influencers because they’ve got their partner or friend taking a photograph of the back of their head.

I clocked this in Barcelona as I watched a couple trying to get the perfect shot of her walking away up a narrow and crowded street.

Why don’t we just take a picture of you smiling?” he asked.
“I want to capture the atmosphere of the street,” she said. “Do you think we’ll get a better picture of I walk slowly?”

I thought they’d annoy the shit out of everyone trying to go about their business.

Meanwhile, at the chocolate restaurant (San Gines) in Madrid, I spotted more than several old ladies tutting at the queue and marching to a small shop on the corner. It’s more of a cafe than a restaurant and hidden behind the icecream shop (also San Gines) and it’s owned by San Gines, serves exactly the same chocolate and I was shown to a table after a brief chat with the French waiter about Manchester and football. No fuss. No faff. Always follow the old ladies, not the influencers.

I was still finishing my glass of wine when I glanced outside. The queue was still there.

Categories: Madrid, Spain, Travel, Viva EspanaTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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