Marathon des Sables – Chapter 15 – The Train in Spain

The Train in Spain
Goes Mighty Fast

Sunday the 18th of April and the morning was finally here. I was afraid it would never arrive. As soon as there was enough light I had my morning jabs and breakfast and we prepared to continue on to Tangier. We had no idea where we would be by the end of the day, but we had to keep moving forward.

Tangier held a certain fascination for me because it featured in one of the passages from the third Jason Bourne movie. After arriving there at 11 o’clock, I found that it wasn’t like it was in the movie. Surprise, surprise! Tangier is a reasonably modern city with an obvious strong Portuguese influence in its architecture. We drove straight to the ferry port to find out about the ferry across to Gibraltar, but there was so much fuss going on and people talking in loud voices that it was difficult to learn anything. It also appeared that very few people spoke English, so it all became a bit of a guessing game really.

Nick managed to learn where and how to buy some tickets on the ferry, so we did finally get some. But we also learned that there was only one ferry to Gibraltar per week, and it just so happened to be today. Now I’m not going to put my hand on my heart and say that this was fact, but it certainly did seem to be. Most of the ferries travelled to other cities further along the coast of Spain with only one travelling to Gibraltar. I found this odd, but it didn’t really matter. We now had tickets for the ferry that left in the afternoon.

As we had a few hours until departure time, we drove the car back to the airport to return it to the car hire company. All went well there, but we had another interesting encounter. The car hire fellow asked how we were returning to the ferry port and we told him that we would just catch a taxi, indicating towards the taxis out in the car park area. At this the fellow urgently stressed that we must not take one of the small taxis, only the big ones. We acknowledged the warning but he stressed it again. He said we must not, OK? We agreed again, thanked him for his help and left. To this day we don’t really know why he was so insistent, so we can only guess that it was either to do with getting cheated in the little taxis OR that they routinely carry multiple fares and we could end up paying way too much or not even getting to our destination. Who knows? But we took one of the large taxis, which was a Mercedes just like you see in the Jason Bourne movie, and had a very pleasant, but interesting, trip back to the port.

Interesting? We had now ourselves travelled to the airport from the port area, so had some experience with how to get there. Our driver, who was a lovely older fellow, went a completely different way. It didn’t matter as far as the fare was concerned because it was a set fare, but we again wondered briefly if we were being taken to our destination. It seemed that we did a sightseeing tour of Tangier, seeing some wonderful Portuguese houses and architecture along the way. I was just starting to wonder if we would ever get there when the driver pulled over and said we were there. He unloaded our bags, we shook hands and said thank-you, gave him a small tip then wondered where we were. He pointed down the hill and waved good-bye. With hope on our mind, we dragged our bags around the corner and there was the port right in front of us.

Mid-afternoon and we were in the departure area for the ferry. We really had very little idea of exactly where it left from or when, as there were ferries regularly arriving and departing for various spots in Spain or further along the North African coast. The best I can say is that the organising of the ferry departure process was ramshackle at best. At one stage someone said the Gibraltar ferry was about to leave and we had better hurry, so we grabbed our various bags and rushed off, concerned that we would miss the once-a-week ferry. But after a few minutes in the wheezing line, we discovered that this ferry went to a different city in Spain. I was furious about this confusion that had been pressed onto us. We went back to the departure lounge to wait for the proper ferry. The crazy thing is that there wasn’t a board in the lounge showing which ferries were leaving or from which berth. There was no indication at all. So it was purely guess work, gossip and panic that kept people moving towards their various ferries.

Even when our ferry was boarding, we all lined up for over an hour waiting to get on board. When everyone was finally on board and the ferry finally underway, we were 45 minutes behind schedule.

But, after all of this frustration and drama, what a wonderful trip it was. Firstly the adventurer in me was excited to be on a boat crossing “The Straights of Gibraltar” (isn’t that exciting for you?), travelling between Africa and Europe, going past all of the freighter traffic entering into the Mediterranean. Secondly, we watched the dolphins playing in the bow wave of another ferry as we went past. This went on for ten minutes, so we saw lots of dolphins as they came diving out and ahead of the ferry. Thirdly, Nick bought a couple of small bottles of wine for the trip, which lasted only 45 minutes. All together it was a great crossing. I have to admit that I almost lost my composure as the ferry was docking. It slowly turned around so it was facing out again for the return journey and in doing so The Rock slowly came into our field of view. There it was, THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR. What a fantastic sight. And as we stepped off the ferry, we were in Europe.

Once through customs, which was an easy exercise because Nick is British and I’m Commonwealth, we set off walking towards La Linea, which is the first town on the Spanish side of the border. Our loose plan was that we were going to catch a train or a coach the next day, heading for Somewhere Else, so it was best for us to go to La Linea. One thing that I found amazing was that to walk from Gibraltar to Spain, you have to walk across the runway of Gibraltar airport. I couldn’t believe it; they even have pedestrian traffic lights so you don’t get hit by a plane. Cool huh?

By now it was raining lightly, but not enough to be of any concern. But it did add emphasis to finding a hotel room for the night. We bumped into another Brit who was also walking down the almost deserted street and he told us that there was a hotel up the road on our left. So we headed there, found the hotel and booked in for the night. It was now a quarter past ten, it was raining lightly and getting cold. It was the end of the day.

*   *   *   *   *

Monday and the aim today was to be closer to the Lakes District in England than we were in the morning. While Nick had breakfast, I went for a walk around the local streets. In doing so I found the short cut to the bus station, which was only 500m from the hotel. So when our breakfast and morning ablutions were complete, we booked out of the hotel and dragged our bags to the bus station.

In Spain, the understanding of English is very close to poor, so making ourselves understood was to be a chore for the next few days. We were finally able to learn that there “may be” a train that left from Algeciras, a small city only about 10km away. We waited fifteen minutes for the local bus then climbed aboard and paid. I was surprised at how cheap the fare was, being only about 2.5 Euro for each of us. As we were about to sit down a funny thing happened. A local fellow who had a good understanding of English told us that he had closed the door to the luggage compartment under the bus. “Oh yes” I thought, “Uh huh”. The full meaning of his comment was lost on Nick and I. So he kindly expanded and gave us a lesson in Spanish customs. It turns out that while in Spain, it is expected that you do almost everything for yourself. This included putting your own bag in the luggage compartment and then closing the door to the compartment. Apparently the next person then must open the door, put their bag in then close the door again. We were also to find out later in the day that the checkout chicks and guys at a supermarket do not put your groceries in bags as they do in Australia. Nope, they grab some plastic bags and dump them on top of your forlorn groceries. You must then scramble to get them in the bags before the next person gets all bent out of shape because you’re in the way. Travelling can be so much fun as you learn these little things.

The trip to Algeciras was only short and delivered us to the main bus terminal, which is only a short walk to the main train terminal. We hurried across the road to the trains with the idea being to get tickets on the next train to Madrid, only to learn that the trains don’t run between Algeciras and Madrid. They will in a month but not now, because they’re still working on the new or upgraded train line.

Oh.

We asked the fellow behind the glass what our options were, which involved lots of waving of hands, as his English wasn’t much better than our Spanish. His advice was to go back to the bus terminal and catch a coach to Malaga, which is a tourist town popular with British tourists, about 150km up the coast. There was a train for Madrid leaving from there. So now it was back to the bus terminal to buy tickets, which were again relatively cheap, to Malaga, on a coach that left not long after. Even though we were zig-zagging a little, the timing was working out OK.

The trip to Malaga took us along a section of the Spanish coast that surprisingly put Nick in a bad mood. I’d never been to Spain before but living in England, Nick had been here a number of times. Apparently Malaga is the centre of what Nick referred to as the “British invasion” of Spain and because of this the countryside is being decimated so they can build kilometre after kilometre of bland, characterless holiday apartments, with British pubs and British “Fish’n’Chip” shops every 200m. Nick hated what was happening to a piece of coastline that used to be so beautiful.

After arriving in Malaga and briefly casting around looking for the train station, we finally found it. It’s a large station with the ticket office at one end of a big, brand new shopping centre, the whole building surrounded by construction work, which is why it was hard to find. We joined the queue for tickets and started sharing travel stories with our fellow queue waiters. This was where we found an ever growing group of stranded travellers and their various stories of midnight journeys. The volcano had created havoc in Europe and it seemed that half the world was now dragging suitcases along behind them.

As the line slowly shrank and we got closer to the ticket booth, we began to overhear conversations that were saying that there were no available seats to Paris. Our general idea had been that we would catch a train to Paris, make our way to Calais then get a ferry from there to England. But that was now seeming unlikely at best.

When it was finally our turn, Nick used his meagre Spanish to talk to the very patient and helpful fellow, who confirmed that all seats from Madrid to Paris were fully booked. We could, if we wanted to, take a train from Madrid to Barcelona on the “chance” that there were seats available from Barcelona to Paris, but he couldn’t guarantee there would be. I was OK with taking that option but Nick thought it was silly to be effectively travelling backwards on only the chance of getting a seat. So he asked the very patient fellow for other alternatives. The fellow said that another way would be to travel to Madrid, then catch a train from there to Santander on the north coast of Spain. An overnight ferry left from Santander, bound for Plymouth in England. Suddenly this appeared to be the best option as at least we were closer to England, so we bought two tickets.

As the train didn’t leave for about an hour and a half, we had time to relax, have a cup of coffee and for me to find a supermarket. I asked somebody where I could find one and they told me that there was one in another shopping centre a kilometre away. So I left Nick to relax with a coffee while I took off to get my new bag of travelling food.

I found the supermarket, which was huge, quite easily and left my backpack with the bag guard, in a locker by the exit. Off I went to get my required food, such as some fruit, cheese, water etc, then went to the checkout. This is where I experienced the Spanish checkout process for the first time. They have a stick in the place where they push your groceries down after pricing them. When she has finished, the girl grabs just enough plastic bags, minus one, and dumps them on top of your groceries. She then slides the stick across to allow her to push down the groceries for the next customer, leaving you to get your groceries packed into the too few bags as quickly as you can.

At first I had no idea what I was supposed to do, then suddenly realised so started packing the bags. I ran out of bags before I’d run out of groceries, so the nice lady beside me, the other customer, gave me another one. She didn’t smile or say a word, just handed over the extra bag.

After finishing my shopping, I grabbed my bags and headed back to the station, where Nick was sitting in the café still with his coffee. We were sitting there relaxing before our train trip when, with less than half an hour to go before the train left, I suddenly realised that my backpack was missing! What the?!! I looked around and couldn’t see it. I thought back over the past ten minutes and realised that there were times over the last ten minutes when I hadn’t had my eyes on my bags, so assumed immediately that my backpack had been picked up by someone walking past. I told Nick it was missing so we could share the feeling of panic. We went over what my backpack contained, to see if there was something critical in there and determined that there wasn’t. But still, it was MY backpack which I had used in the Sahara and I DIDN’T WANT TO LOSE IT! I was very much not happy.

Furious, I went to the toilet. Suddenly, at a rather inopportune moment, I realised what had happened. My backpack was still back at the supermarket in the security locker. I’d been so intrigued by the whole shopping bag packing routine at the checkout that I had entirely forgotten to pick up my backpack.

I came rushing back to the café, where Nick was still looking mighty concerned, and told him I knew where it was and that I’d be back in time for the train. Then I took off and ran back to the supermarket, got my backpack from the security fellow and ran back to the station. We rushed off to the train and got there with five minutes to spare. Phew, what a drama.

We were now entering a whole different world. This was the world of high-tech and very expensive to build, very high speed trains. Wow, do we need these trains in Australia! On the way from Malaga to Madrid we hit 300kph. For anyone in a non metric country, this equals more than 180mph. And it was as smooth as glass. The countryside was beautiful as it swept past, usually at more than 200kph. In France there are a lot of vineyards; in Spain there are a lot of olive groves. The trip from Malaga to Madrid took only around three hours.

As our train to Santander the next day was leaving at 6:50am from a different station to that which we pulled in to, common sense dictated that we needed to travel to the next station and find a hotel room near there. That would make it much easier to get to the train so early in the morning. After leaving the station we caught a taxi and, after driving through a chunk of Madrid, were soon at the second station. Fortunately there was a hotel right there at the station, so we quickly went in to get a room. It was becoming less of a surprise for us now to see that there was already a short line of people booking in, so we just silently hoped that there was a still a room. And, fortunately for us, there was.

If at this point you are wondering why the story is moving along at a regular but fast pace, that’s because that was how we were travelling. We weren’t in a “tourist” mode; we were in a “race everybody else to get the next opportunity that was available” mode. Europe was now aswarm with displaced people, all struggling to keep moving forward towards their destination. Nick and I were no different.

We settled in to our new room then, as I didn’t need to get a bag of food tonight, we went down to the station to see where we had to go in the morning. While exploring the food shops that were open, and looking amazed at how many families were preparing to bed down for the night on the hard concrete in the station forecourt, we came across a car hire place. Suddenly this started a whole new discussion between Nick and I. The car hire place wasn’t open, but we started discussing the possibility of hiring a car the next morning and driving to France and the ferries. We convinced ourselves so readily that this was a workable option that I even went to the train ticket office to see if I could cash in our tickets to Santander. Annoyingly, and fortunately, the girl on the other side of the counter claimed to have no English at all, and even less patience with whatever I was trying to tell her. So I cracked it and stormed off in a hissy fit, waving the tickets over my shoulder and telling her that she could have had them back in order to sell them to somebody else. I know, I know; she was shaking in her boots. We stomped back to our room, well I stomped and Nick walked, and settled down for the night.

While preparing for sleep we tuned the TV into BBC and listened to the latest news. With regard to the volcano disruption, which was still the main story, this included an item about rumours that car hire places were starting to charge a fortune to hire cars and another item about the ferries from Calais being thoroughly and completely booked out for the next week.

Oh ….. we weren’t expecting that. Oh ….. ummmm, maybe we needed to rethink this. What do we have? We have booked tickets to Santander on a train that leaves from just downstairs. What don’t we have? We don’t have any idea if we really can get a car, how much it will cost, even if they will let us drive it to France. We also don’t know if we can get on a ferry if we get to Calais. There was one other interesting story on the BEEB, and that was that a British Navy ship was at Santander to pick up stranded Brits and take them back to Blighty.

At this we again changed our minds. We clutched our train tickets lovingly to our hearts and silently thanked the girl downstairs for not helping us.

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