Sunday, September 16, 2007

A night train to Lisbon*

Fed up with airports and - perhaps rather pathetically trying to do my bit for climate change - I'm taking the train from Bristol to Lisbon. In planning the trip I quickly discovered that taking the planet friendly option is neither quick, cheap, or particularly easy to organise. Of course I didn’t expect it to be quick and anyway part of the attraction was to actually see some countryside en-route. Nor did I especially expect it to be cheap - around 29 hours of train travel across four countries including a sleeper is never going to be able to compete with a point to point budget (or even regular) airline. As for organisation, amazingly I found a great web-page dedicated to the business of getting from the UK to Lisbon by train.

There are a couple of options but the one I chose (and the shortest in travelling time) was Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Irun, then the sleeper ‘Sud Express’ from Irun to Lisbon. So, an early start from Bristol to get the 06.56 Bristol Parkway to Paddington, to be in good time for the 10.10 Eurostar to Paris Nord. Not my first time on Eurostar but, I’m ashamed to say, my first time in Paris, so I got a cab from Gare du Nord to Gare Montparnasse, to get at least a glimpse of the city. The taxi route crossed the Seine and passed the Piramide Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. Wonderful. Mental note to self: must come here for a proper visit. Then had less than an hour to wait for the TGV. No time to do anything but wait in an especially dismal cafĂ© on the station concourse - with amazingly aggressive sparrows trying to fight me for my tarte de pomme. Good coffee though.

The 15.50 TGV from Paris to Irun was packed and - I must confess - slightly disappointing. Not in speed or timeliness - which couldn’t be faulted - but I was somewhat nonplussed to find there was no restaurant car. For some reason (probably a romantic impression gleaned from too many European train movies - Poirot and the like), I expected that on a five and a half hour journey I would be able to get dinner. Oh well, at least the buffet was a significant improvement on English trains, and the French seem to prefer to stay in the buffet car to consume their sandwich and coffee, which I rather liked. The loos were also pretty inadequate for the number of people on the train and the length of the journey. There’s nothing quite like the dismal experience of putting a generous gloop of soap on your hands to then discover that the water has run out and there are no hand towels. Still - pretty impressive to find myself looking out of the window on the Atlantic at Biarritz a little over 5 hours after leaving Paris.

I did notice that the French have not banned smoking from stations - only trains. Thus, on every approach to a station a handful of smokers would gather by the carriage doors ready to leap onto the platform for a tobacco fix in the few brief minutes of the halt. I don’t think I ever saw anyone drag so deeply or gratefully on his kingsize Gitanes as one fellow.

Resumed 11.30pm. The romance of long distance trains fully restored on discovering a restaurant car on the Sud Express. The slick air-con and Starbucks-alike chic of the TGV buffet is replaced by 1960s wood-effect plastic and a no-nonsense bar of the sort you can prop yourself up against. And I did. No namby-pamby air conditioning here. The only way to reduce the temperature to anything bearable is to open all the windows which means the noise level in the restaurant car is deafening. Which is fine really because it helps to mask the fact that I don’t speak a word of either Spanish or Portuguese, and the waiter doesn’t speak more than a word or two of English. There were only three of us eating, me and a Spanish looking couple, his back to me and her huge beautiful brown all-seeing-all-knowing-female-wise-eyes glancing at me from time to time. After a while I realised that the reason there were so few of us in the restaurant was that the doors at the other end of the carriage required superhuman strength to open - eventually a few did manage the necessary feat of strength and the bar achieved something like a friendly buzz. I think there must be something very strange about me that I could so much enjoy this solitary repast while clattering through Spain in the middle of the night.

The following morning. The night seemed too hot for anything like proper sleep on top of which the sleeping car was right behind the engine which sounded to me like the oldest diesel locomotive they could possibly muster. However, the rhythm of the train did get the better of the noise and I awoke surprisingly refreshed. A leisurely breakfast in the restaurant car and in what seemed no time at all we were pulling into Lisbon's Santa Apolonia station exactly on time at 11.03am. Great. No queuing at passport control or the baggage claim. Just step off the train into the city. A civilised way to arrive.

*With apologies to Emily Grayson