We were at the Berlin Bowling Center when things got weird. Fiona and I both received breaking news notifications that something awful had happened in Barcelona. We were bowling to kill time, waiting for the train to Paris. The master plan was to take trains from Berlin to Los Boliches in southern Spain. Barcelona is at the approximate two thirds point so we planned a stop there to get good sleep, eat tapas, and most importantly, do laundry. We’d spend just 30 hours there before taking the final trip to spend the rest of the vacation on the beach.
In the words of Dr. Seuss’s master philosopher, the Cat in the Hat – So, what would you do?
There’s a balance, right? One must weigh up the risk versus the reward. Someone said to me a long time ago that the safest day for air travel, ever, was September 14th, 2001 – the day planes flew again post 9/11. It was true. You weren’t allowed on a plane with anything other than the clothes you were wearing. And this is where rational thought must overcome fear.
We checked the US State Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for advisories. I was in touch with the host of the AirBnB – and my dad, who, bless, was doing nothing but digging out the lowdown for us – our very own BBC Correspondent.
In the end, the risk was minimal – it was safe to go. Any restrictions on travel had been lifted, our AirBnB host told us that things were returning to normal (or as normal as they could possibly be). We would head to Barcelona after the few hours layover in Paris. We’d keep a low profile, mitigate any risks by staying out of crowded areas, do our laundry (because we were all beginning to stink a bit), and then head to Malaga, as we’d planned months ahead, after our brief travel respite in Barcelona.
The overnight train ride to Paris was a unique experience. Our overnight train, the Moscow-Paris express, stopped at Warsaw (before we got on it) and Berlin (amongst others) on the way to Paris.
The train was full of Russians who thought I was absolutely nuts for no other reason than I would say “hello” whenever I squeezed past on the way to another carriage.It wasn’t obvious until now that Russians, unless you’re known, refrain from any conversation, or for that matter, eye contact. And I guess a symptom of a long train journey is people become comfortable parading around in various states of undress, bored out of their minds, longing for the train to arrive in Paris. Some passengers mulled around vestibules drinking tea in underpants. An introverts’ and exhibitionists’ paradise.
Des slept well on the overnight train, he always does. However, I look forward to hearing his stories of sleepless nights on overnight trains with his children when genetics wins and he’s chubby and middle-aged.
The train pulled into Paris Gare de l’Est station only an hour late, which I think is pretty spectacular considering it came all the way from Russia. If it were the successor to British Rail, we’d still be on it.
In Paris, we took the Metropolitan to Gare de Lyon, where our next train was due to leave. It was here we read final versions of the news and made the final go/no go decision. We contacted the AirBnB host and told her to expect us in Barcelona that evening.
We ate a couple of Croque Monsieurs while Des devoured a Pain au Chocolat. He ate it the way one would imagine a zombie would eat Donald Trump’s brain. After a couple of bathroom breaks we wandered over to the TGV Duplex high speed train.
From getting the train in Berlin to getting off in Paris and then getting on again for Barcelona, I can’t remember a time that I have traveled like this. Des and I took the overnight train to Chicago from Boston once, and the change in scenery was subtle – we noticed it when we got to Indiana because it was kinda flat. But this trip, because the train travels at three times the speed of most Amtrak trains, the scenery change is abrupt, bordering on violent.
As daylight broke this morning, we “woke” up in the Ardennes while a beautiful mist hung over the luminous green vineyards and rain and drizzle flashed by the window. And now, the TGV pummels down the backbone of France. Somewhere south of Valance, the scenery transitions from a green to a wheaty yellow. And houses and homes turn that brilliant Mediterranean white. Far off in the distance, in the east, the unmistakable outline of the French Alps. Then, in the west, the Pyrenees. And then, the Med. All in the space of about ninety minutes.
[Even as I write this (we’re actually on the next train now, but more later), we’re somewhere between Zaragoza and Madrid on a high plain, it’s rugged harsh desert, it’s 100F outside – I just saw Fiona take a picture so I’ll try to steal it and post tomorrow. My point is that yes, you can see all this from a plane, but you’re not a part of it. You don’t experience it. Not like on a train…]
Express train travel something the French do exceptionally well, and do exceptionally badly. The French TGV is a ground-breaking train – it’s the first European train to go 300 km/h, 187mph – and it’s a double decker. A double decker train tickling 200mph – wow, just freaking wow. But, the toilets don’t work, there’s no soap, and there’s no water for the sink, and the doors don’t open, and the air conditioning is busted. But the wine and Camembert sandwiches are to absolutely die for.
Anyway, we arrived in Barcelona just 15 minutes late and we were at the AirBnB a little while later.