Friday May 13: Travel to Madrid
A Physical and Symbolic Transition
The only challenge today is getting to the train station and on the right train before it leaves. That should happen in about an hour. It is probably a good thing that I didnít realize until partway through the train ride that we were doing this on Friday the 13th.
I seem to have left my tee-shirt at the previous place. At least it was just a tee-shirt and nothing terribly expensive. It must have gotten mixed in with the bedding and been overlooked when I was packing.
The place in Santiago, Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, is a really nice place. I would say that this is the epitome of luxury "large hotel" experience, and that the earlier place was the epitome of luxury "small hotel" experience.
They had a very nice, very large room for breakfast. To be clear, they had a sign that essentially said "eat all you want". They had a buffet with just about everything. There were meats and cheeses and breads for a Spanish-style breakfast. You could order eggs or omelets (which the Spanish call French Tortillas). You could have the waiter bring over a pot of coffee and one of warm milk. There were coffee machines if you wanted to make something exotic or make tea.
The plumbing here is interesting. The large tub is free standing, and the sinks are set off from the back wall. In both cases, there is a tube coming out of the wall to reach over the edge of the tub/sink, and then turning downward. The control is against the wall, sort of independent of the tube.
There is also an interesting style of door “knob” here. I've seen it elsewhere, so perhaps it is more of a Galecian style. It sort of looks like a sideways "j". Imagine a horizontal rod extending from the rotating part of the latch mechanism. After about 5 inches or so, it turns 90 degrees to be pointing upward, and then there is a large horizontal cap, sort of like a mushroom. To open the door, you push down on the "cap". Particularly if there is a lot of spring tension in the mechanism, this gives you something big to push on.
We are about to start the second stage of our trip. This hotel (and breakfast), and the transfer to the train station are the last vestiges of the formal tour. After we get dropped off at the train station, we have completed the tour package, and the rest is only on us.
The hotel has various placards on the walls giving snippets of history or details about the structure. Apparently in modern times, it was in rather poor shape. They then undertook a major renovation, trying to turn it into a five star hotel, while keeping its historical context/style. I would say that they succeeded.
We are now on our way to Madrid. We're sitting in one of the preferred coaches, zooming along at about 100 MPH. Later on we hit 112 MPH (they had a display in the car that gave the time, temp, and speed).
I tend to worry when I don't know what to expect, and so I was a bit worried that we didn't have enough time to manage the train station and get on the train or how exactly the process would work, but it was all for naught--the process went smoothly.
I had rescheduled the taxi so that we would get to the train station about 20 minutes before the train's departure. We weren't doing anything except wait in our hotel room, so I called to see if I could move the taxi 15 minutes earlier, but the answer came back no.
I was worried that it would be a massive train station, and that it would take 15 or 20 minutes to navigate our way around. It turns out that the station is fairly small, with only 5 or 6 platforms.
When we got there, it was clearly labeled in the overhead displays that our train was departing from Platform 2. The next piece of the puzzle was how to get to platform 2, as that was on the far side of the tracks from Platform 1. I saw a bridge spanning the tracks, but it was blocked off as a construction zone, and you couldn't use it.
Then I saw a sign pointing to platforms 2 and up. We started heading over there, and then it got strange. There was a "people maze" on half of the platform, full of people, who were running their luggage through a x-ray machine. The strange part was that I didn't see anything that would prevent me from just bypassing the maze and proceeding on to the platform without getting scanned. Maybe if I tried, people would just start yelling at me in Spanish. In any event, we didn't want to find out.
So we went back into the station and got into the back of the line. It moved pretty quickly, faster than at the airport. On the way out of the maze, a lady scanned our tickets. Again, I don't know what would happen if you just walked past this area.
We then entered a tunnel under the tracks and crossed under to Platform 2. We weren't sure exactly where to go, so we just followed the crowd. I had hoped that the train would already be there, so that we could load at our leisure, but there was no train there.
The train ended up being significantly late. It was scheduled to leave at 10:20, but it didn't arrive until about 10:30, and it didn't depart until about 11.
I would have been worried if Sam and I had been there alone, but there were a large number of people doing the same thing we were doing (waiting).
Eventually, the train pulled in from the left. It looked like our tickets were for particular seats (coach 2, seats 7B & C), but I couldn't see any numbers on the coaches. I ran around and found an official. He glanced at the tickets and said "Coche dos" and pointed towards the front of the train. I noticed that the coaches near where I was standing were labeled something like "touristo". So I started hurrying towards the front of the train.
At this point, the doors had not yet opened, so the platform was full of waiting people. At one point, I noticed that next to the door was the number 7. Aha! I kept going and almost ran out of numbers. It turns out that Coach 2 was the first coach, right next to the engines.
I had tried to get a picture of the train as it came in. My camera battery had been fine for the whole trip so far, but when I tried to take a picture of the train, it said "battery exhausted". I thought that this was great timing.
Then we waited...and waited...and waited some more. I would have been worried if it was just Sam and myself waiting, but we were with lots of other people. Occasionally, someone would push the button on the coach to open the door, but nothing happened. My guess is that they were going through and cleaning the cars or something, and that they would open the doors when done.
After a while we noticed that the people towards the middle of the train were boarding. Eventually, the opened doors worked their way down the line until it finally reached our coach. I was sort of worried that since we were in seats B and C, that there would be a seat A next to us, and we would sitting next to someone for the next 3 hours, but it turns out that there were 3 seats across arranged in groups of 1 and 2, and these were labeled A to C. So we had two seats on one side of the aisle, and someone else had A on the other.
Not surprisingly, the seats are much bigger and with more legroom than on a plane. I figured (and later verified) that the cheaper seats were 2 and 2 for four across.
As I expected, there was a rack next to the door in which we could put our big suitcases, and an overhead shelf, onto which we could put our "carry on" bags.
I was surprised that they would have us facing backwards for the whole trip, but when the train eventually started moving, it went out the same way it came in (i.e. it reversed direction). So we weren't at the very beginning of the train, we were at the very end.
As seems typical from my limited experience with trains, no one has checked our tickets since we got on. I'm not sure if anything would prevent someone from moving to a higher class and claiming an unoccupied seat.
A guy came by with a small cart, and despite just having a big breakfast an hour or so ago, Sam wanted a sandwich. I'm guessing that the tourist class needs to go there to get food, but that in the preferred coach, they bring the food to you?
Like the taxi ride earlier, and unlike planes, I find that the gentle swaying is putting me to sleep.
At one point, we were going through a fairly hilly area. We would go through a tunnel, then across a bridge over a valley, back into a tunnel, repeat. Going through the tunnels and out tended to make my ears pop on a regular basis.
In the middle part of the trip, the terrain looked a lot drier than up by Santiago. There were not as many trees and more small scrub bushes covering the ground. It wasn't as bad as the American Southwest, but closer to that, than to New England or even Santiago.
At one point, I got hungry myself, so I went to the food car, and got a sandwich that I brought back to my seat and ate. The food car was somewhat crowded, and it was not set up for "sit down" dining.
It was very strange having no seatbelts and being able to get up and walk around fairly freely. In pretty much everything else I ride on (essentially cars, taxis, and planes), I always wear a seat belt.
In some ways the train ride was both a physical journey and a symbolic one. Before the train ride, it was "Jim's" vacation, organized by travel agency, spending time in mostly historic old buildings (and doing lots of walking). The train ride was a transition to "Sam's vacation": in a city, in a modern hotel, doing what Sam wants to do.
The train station in Madrid was a royal zoo. It seemed closer to an airport than a train station. There was a large group of people waiting to go down to the platform. I'm guessing that they had gone through security, but were not being let onto the platform until we had left it. In the "concourse", there were shops and lots of people.
We found the metro without too much trouble, and then figured out how to buy two cards and put some money on each one. It was pretty straight-forward to get to a stop sort of near our hotel. We could have done a transfer to a different line, gone one stop, and been pretty much at our hotel, but I opted to just walk that one stop to keep things simple. Afterwards we found that the transfers were quick and simple, and we should have done that from the beginning.
The hotel in Madrid is...strange. It is modern and looks like it was designed for yuppy 20-somethings--not exactly my style. For example, the bedside tables have a glass top with built-in lighting, and you can select various patterns of colored lights to flicker through it.
Strangely enough, after all of that walking on the Camino, we spent the day doing a self-guided walking tour of downtown Madrid...
We got into the hotel room around 4:15. We expected to get in earlier, but the train left late and then was delayed getting into Madrid. We were a little confused by the Madrid subway, but eventually we figured it out.
After getting settled, Sam was in desperate need of ice cream, since we didn't find any the previous night. She found one fancy place on-line, and it only took about a half hour to walk there.
Then we walked to the Paseo del Prado, visited a chocolate shop, and then walked back to the hotel. We tried to get dinner at 8, but the restaurant didn't open until 8:30.