I can’t pretend to enjoy flying. It’s noisy, stressful and horrendously bad for the environment. On my last journey to Madrid, I took the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander and the train on from there. The ferry crossing itself took about thirty hours spread over two nights (with an evening departure and an early morning arrival) and was a wonderfully relaxing way to travel. However, I didn’t fancy risking the Bay of Biscay crossing in the middle of winter for my trip back to the UK for Christmas. The next best option was to travel by train.
The first leg of my journey was a short walk from my apartment in Madrid to Gran Via metro station, where I took line 1 to Atocha station, about a fifteen minute journey. At Atocha, I boarded a Ouigo high speed train to Barcelona Sants. A note here about the Spanish rail system: you have to put your luggage through an X-ray machine before catching the train. You can’t simply stroll up to the station and get straight on the train as you can in the UK. I would advise getting to the station an hour before your train is scheduled to leave, especially at weekends or on bank holidays. If you’re really pressed for time, you can jump the queue — I don’t think anyone will mind (it may be a stereotype but I don’t think the Spanish are quite as uptight about queueing as us).
Ouigo is a budget train company owned by SNCF. You can find their trains in both France and Spain. It was my first time travelling on a Ouigo train, and it was pretty much what I expected. The tickets were cheap (at the time of booking, roughly half the price of the Renfe Ave tickets for the same journey), though the price could quickly rise as you have to pay a 5 euro supplement for every piece of luggage, excluding hand luggage. I was travelling with a rucksack and my violin, but I paid the supplement just in case, as the fee costs 20 euros if you are forced to purchase it at the station.
I’m not in favour of luggage charges on trains — it’s not like an aeroplane, where the weight is crucially important. However, for this particular Ouigo train it may have been justified. I believe the train itself was an old TGV, and the interior was quite cramped. The luggage space was also fairly restricted: I couldn’t even fit my rucksack in the overhead rack, for instance. However, the seat was quite comfortable, and the seating was laid out in fours around tables. There was an onboard cafe bar but I didn’t visit it.
My lasting impression from Ouigo was that it was a company relying too heavily on branding itself to appeal to young people (or at least, a fifty year old marketing executive’s idea of young people). I cringed at the scripted announcement the conductor had to read, which started with “Welcome to the Ouigo Universe!” and concluded each time with “Let’s go!” as the train pulled out of the station. On top of that, there were twee slogans posted all over the train, such as “Shh, the suitcases are sleeping!” above the luggage rack. It’s a train, it doesn’t need to be cute!
So, I didn’t quite “Enjoy the Ouigo experience!” despite being exhorted to at regular intervals. The interior was tired and the upholstery dirty. The train was also quite noisy compared to the modern Aves. Lastly, I am suspicious of any company which is neurotic enough to include company-branded footwear as part of its employees’ uniform.
Nevertheless, the train arrived into Barcelona Sants on time. I decided to stay the night in Barcelona, as there is only one TGV to Paris a day at the moment, which leaves at 9:10am, making it very tricky to do Madrid to Paris in a day (that would involve leaving Madrid on the first train to Barcelona of the day, at 6:20am, and even then only having a twenty minute connection at Sants, which is rather risky).
So, I stayed overnight at the Hotel Transit, a budget hotel just round the corner from the station. It wasn’t the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in but it did the job and I got a good night’s sleep. As a side note, I had one of the best Indian meals of my life at Out of India, a restaurant very close the station. If you’re ever in Barcelona, go there and make sure to get the garlic naan! The only downside of my stay was that the hotel didn’t serve breakfast, but that problem was remedied by the McDonald’s in the station.
The next leg of the trip was the TGV from Barcelona to Paris. I bought a first class ticket — the price difference was around 20 euros, and I would definitely do it again. First class was pretty empty and very quiet, and you get the bonus of solo seats which I love because it avoids having to ask your seatmate to get up every time you want to go to the loo (or have to constantly get up to let your seatmate out).
The train sped along at 250-odd kilometres per hour, stopping at Girona, Figueres (birthplace of Salvador Dali — there’s a great museum of his works there if you’re ever in Catalunya), Perpignan (a long stop to allow the French police to board — I was expecting a thorough passport and Covid vaccination status check, but the police officer simply walked through the carriage and back), Narbonne, Beziers, Agde, Sete, Montpellier (these stops had me reminiscing about the many childhood summer holidays spent down in this region), Nimes, Valence and then straight up the Rhone valley before turning west to Paris, arriving at the Gare du Lyon about six and half hours after leaving Barcelona. The journey was smooth, quiet and comfortable.
Typically, the RER D was stopped, so I took the metro (line 14 Gare du Lyon to Pyramides and then line 7 Pyramides to Gare de l’Est, next door to Gare du Nord) to my hotel, an Ibis just round the corner from the Gare du Nord. A very standard Ibis and not much to write home about, although the breakfast was great.
The third leg of my journey was then the Eurostar to London. Eurostar is advising passengers to arrive two hours before their train departs since Brexit and Covid have slowed down check-in, but in the end that time wasn’t necessary. I think the check-in process was virtually the same speed as the last time I travelled on the Eurostar, which was pre-Brexit and Covid. So, I had an hour and a half to while away waiting to board the train.
I booked to travel in Standard Premier on the Eurostar, which may have been the best travel decision of my life. There were only three people in the entire carriage, so I got to move to a better seat. I was expecting to be given some food, but not expecting the “festive surprise” laid on by the staff: a glass of champagne, chilled to perfection and decorated with tinsel. I laughed to myself in something like disbelief as I sipped my champagne and sped across northern France. I was very glad not to be flying.
Lunch was also wonderful — I had some kind of goat’s cheese pie with a bulgur wheat salad. It also came with a bread roll and a mini apple crumble which was delicious. I was offered more champagne or wine with my lunch, which I regretfully refused. If it hadn’t been 11:30am, and if I hadn’t had another train to catch after the Eurostar, I might have said yes. I was also offered a second helping of lunch — I think there must have been a lot of cancellations, since the whole train was very quiet, and so there was a lot of left-over food.
Sufficiently stuffed and sozzled, I arrived in London bang on time. I decided to take a cab from St Pancras to Paddington, as I wanted to avoid the Tube. The soaring case rates and lack of mask-wearing in London made it a sensible decision.
I then had an hour or so to kill at Paddington before my final train, which I spent getting reacquainted with a proper cup of tea, something which I keep ordering in Spain and keep getting disappointed by. My final train was the same route that the Cathedrals Express runs on: London to Hereford, though the one I caught today was terminating in Great Malvern.
That also departed and arrived on time. I still enjoy travelling on the new Great Western Hitachi trains, though part of me misses the old First Great Westerns with the manually operated doors. As we sped west into the gloom, I recalled how watching the tourists alighting at Oxford struggling to work out how to open them — from the outside, by sticking your arm out the open window — was the source of a small but distinct pleasure in my teenage years.
And so two Covid tests, one glass of champagne and approximately 1800 km of railway track later, I’m home for Christmas! I would do the trip again in a heartbeat. It was far better than flying. It may have been harder on my wallet, but it was far easier on the environment. I would love to do this trip in reverse when I return to Spain after Christmas, but French border closures may make that tricky.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the amazing train travel resource that is seat61.com. I use this website all the time and it gave me confidence in my route-planning and also that such a trip would be feasible and enjoyable. Thanks also to Mark for answering me on Twitter when I was wondering about connection possibilities in Barcelona. Quite coincidentally, and very fittingly, my final seat reservation for this trip turned out to be seat 61.