The romance of travel … (not a thing)

The romance was beaten out of travel many years ago.

I am not so naïve as to expect tearful relatives waving me off with their handkerchiefs every time I jump on a train, but nor am I ever quite prepared for just how functional the experience has become.

To make matters worse, my journey began on a bus.

Don’t judge me. This was because the train journey from Ferrol to A Coruña takes nearly two hours (the bus is 40 minutes), and the timetable was constructed by people who don’t understand the need for sleep or sleek connections. I would have had to get up absurdly early and be left with a good couple of hours of dawdling in A Coruña station, two things I didn’t want to happen to me …  so I got the bus.

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I walked through the Ferrol Bus Station concourse, past the closed ticket offices, and past the closed shops and down the steps to the platforms.

Ferrol Bus Station is a good example of civic pride getting the better of what’s actually needed. It’s not pleasant or architecturally interesting, but it is about ten times bigger than it needs to be, and stupidly over-designed.

In any given hour, there are perhaps two or three departures and as many arrivals, so having about 20 platforms (my bus went from number 11) seems a bit excessive.

Any sensible person would have merged it with the neighbouring train station, but then the town of Ferrol seems determined to avoid sensible decisions at all costs.

My biggest beef is how little they make of the Road to Santiago – the popular English Way. This route starts in Ferrol, and they do absolutely nothing to promote it. It is barely even signposted. It drives me nuts!

They should put me in charge.

I got on the bus, nervously showing my e-ticket on my phone, expecting problems but was pleasantly surprised that it was an easy scan and I was on.

I took the window seat, and plonked my backpack on the seat beside me. There were enough empty seats around that this was a socially-acceptable move, at least until we got to Fene (the third stop on the “Express” bus) when I had to give way and let a child sit down.

I don’t like sitting next to other people’s children because they are rarely well-trained and tend to idly kick the seat in front, or slap their arms around, into my face, as if such things were perfectly normal and to be indulged.

Unless highly trained (this should ideally follow a lengthy course and certification process), other people’s children should be kept quiet with an iPad and crisps at all costs. Although, to be fair, this particular kid was sufficiently still and quiet to be an acceptable seat companion.

The route is quite pretty as the motorway skims around the edges of the beautiful Rias Altas, a series of bays and estuaries that cut into the coastline between Ferrol in the north and Coruña in the south.

Here’s one view (not a great photo, the bus was moving):

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I got off at Coruña’s similarly oversized bus station (at Arrival Platform 4 of about 100, all empty) and tried to find the neighbouring train station. It is, according to Google, a 12-minute walk, but this requires one to go in the right direction. I was exhausted from some medication I’m on, and fairly tight on time, so I needed to avoid all mistakes.

The map was unclear, and as is often typical in Spain, the route is not signposted. It is actually very easy, there is even a footbridge that goes almost door to door, but as it doesn’t say anything – like maybe “here’s a footbridge that goes to the bastard station” – I was left dithering, following others, and hoping for the best.

In the end I asked A Local Person who kindly pointed the way and explained how to get there, and then repeated himself a couple of times before eventually shutting up. I smiled and thanked him, he was a nice fella, he just didn’t know when to shut up, but then nobody’s perfect.

I got to the station to find a long queue to get through security. My backpack contained a wash-bag full of liquids, a laptop and a Swiss Army knife, but these didn’t seem to both anyone, so I got through fairly quickly and then tried to work out how to get through the ticket barrier.

Here is a photo of Coruña’s railway station:

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The ticket barrier had other ideas, every one I tried said it was the wrong train – so I aligned myself perfectly with Platform 4 and tried again “Wrong train” – I nervously checked I had the right date and time and tried again.

Same thing.

I, with diminishing patience, asked A Station Person who explained nonchalantly that the code on my printed ticket didn’t work on the machines in the station, like this was the most normal thing in the world.

OK, nobody’s perfect, and sometimes in large organizations one department lags a bit behind another, but these fancy barriers could surely be programmed to recognize the QR code generated by their own ticketing department, or the ticket department might want to think about generating a code that could be read by their own fucking machines – just a thought.

This is a surprisingly common thread on some leadership programmes I run: how often things are just left alone … not working, run out of batteries, clocks not changed, mess in the corner not cleared up … Prucian Hedges ripe for the attention of a leader with high standards – as a colleague and I used to mutter under our breaths whenever we saw lists of things not done properly: “get it fucking fixed!

Anyway, I held my tongue as I now only had four minutes to get on the train and me exasperatedly explaining my issues with their disconnected departments might not be overly helpful.

He (slowly) let me through after trying with his own pass four or five times, and then fortunately confirmed that although my printout was invalid for the fancy ticket barriers, it was fine for travel.

“Oh well, that’s the main thing” I said jovially, but he didn’t smile so I decided not to like him.

Now came the next challenge.

I had tried to pick my own seat when I bought the ticket, but Spain’s railway company – RENFE – are experimenting with airline style pricing. Unfortunately it seems as though none of the RENFE ticket people have ever bought an airline ticket, because even though it’s a cheap ticket (€55 for the seven-hour 600km trip) that doesn’t let you select your own seat (fair enough), but it also doesn’t offer the option to pay extra to do so (not fair enough).

The point of cheap tickets is that everything else you might want: luggage, seat selection, early boarding, flexibility etc. is added on the top, but not with RENFE. The ticket is cheap and that’s the end of it … they could easily have charged me an extra €10 or so for the seat, I would then have been comfortable in a seat of my own choosing, and thus a happy customer, and RENFE would have more money, and thus a happy supplier … but no, that was too much to ask, and so I was miserable for most of the journey (see below), and RENFE missed out on additional revenue and goodwill.

Next time I’ll be more likely to get the comfier (and quicker) (and even less romantic) bus.

On that first train, my assigned seat was taken by a French boy who was sitting with his family. This was no big deal, and I was happy to move to his assigned seat, as it didn’t make much difference.

It was a surprisingly comfortable train, and not being too crowded, we were able to spread out and I could eat my first block of sandwiches in private, without having to worry about being judged by what I was eating.

I dislike being observed when I eat. Strangers look to see what you’re having and will then form quiet judgements about you, especially if the food smells.

Friends similarly investigate your culinary choices, sometimes even getting a bit too close and having a sniff,  openly judging you – sometimes with accompanying lectures as to what you’re doing wrong because most people in the world seem to be amateur dieticians.

Galicia still doesn’t have many high speed lines and so we trundled slowly down to Santiago, then on to Ourense where I had to change trains to link up with the Madrid train.

The train to Madrid – like everything else so far – came in exactly on time on its way from Vigo, but was a much less-comfortable beast. The seat that RENFE had forced upon me was not as good as on the previous train, and probably couldn’t have been much worse. It was in a group of four – two facing forwards, two facing backwards, but with only sufficient legroom for two regular-sized humans. I was facing backwards (which I actually prefer because the scenery is easier to enjoy when it slowly recedes from view, as opposed to hurtling toward you), and my legs inter-tangled with the lady in front. She was nice, and smiled, saying “I hope you don’t mind the dog here on the floor” and I looked down to see a carry-case containing a lovely black terrier called Lola.

Lola was lovely and sweet and licked my hand as I petted her, but Lola also took up the tiny amount of legroom we had and so as much as I loved little Lola, I would have preferred not to have had my legs paralyzed … but the lady was quite pretty, and the doggy was sweet, so I smiled and said “it’s fine, what a lovely dog etc.”

The journey wore on.

It stopped a couple of times as it slowly meandered through Galicia’s beautiful countryside of forests, mountains and streams, one time stopping on the Portuguese border where a Portuguese family got on and loudly asked in Portuguese what car we were in.

I had no idea what he was saying, and was surprised he chose only to bark in his native tongue and not recognize he was in a different country.

Portuguese is similar to Spanish, but when spoken it is largely incomprehensible to Spanish people. Italian, by contrast, is fairly easy to understand, although Italians can’t so easily get Spanish – these things don’t seem to work both ways.

Romanian friends of mine easily get Spanish, but Romanian to Spanish-speakers is as unfamiliar as Greek.

I decided to eat my second block of sandwiches in the vestibule between the carriages so I wasn’t observed by the three other people occupying our block of four seats. I crouched down and slowly chewed my way though what were – having been shoved in my hot bag for a few hours – fast becoming a fairly unpleasant culinary experience.

I strode around as people came and went to the toilet,  and eventually went to the buffet car for a cup of tea and then back to my seat, which was so poorly designed that there was nowhere to even put a cup of tea.

I placed it carefully on the floor while it cooled, nervous that it might fall over and scald poor little Lola, so I picked it back up and held it awkwardly for the next hour, sighing at the lack of forethought when designing the seats.

I had bought Geoffrey Household’s “Watcher in the Shadows” as a treat for the train, hoping for another “Rogue Male” type pulsating adventure, but it was nothing of the sort, and I struggled to get into it.

I listened to a couple of podcasts, stared out the window, closed my eyes, read a bit more, stared out the window a bit more … eventually we got to Zamora and then things sped up as we hit the high-speed lines. In an hour we were in Medina, then half-an-hour later in the beautiful city of Segovia, one of my favourite places in all of Spain, and then after a lengthy tunnel under the Guadarrama mountains, we were in Madrid.

I got up first, desperate to get off the train and stretch my legs, and chose to stand by the door on the right without really thinking about which side the platform would appear on. Others got up and clustered by the left door, making me now think I’d chosen poorly and made a fool of myself.

I didn’t much mind that I was now someway back in the queue, it was making the less-intelligent decision that irked me. Had I stupidly got up first, bold as brass, bagging the space by the door, only to have chosen the wrong door? What shame! What embarrassment! How the other passengers must be looking and thinking me a fool, I thought to myself – well, not really, but as the train slowly approached, jerking across the points from one line to another, my fingers were tightly crossed that I had chosen well.

My wish came true, and as realization dawned on The Others, they all slowly turned to face me, ashen faces of regret that they hadn’t believed in me from the start.

Then I realized I was supposed to press the button to open the door …

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The journey didn’t end for me then, I still needed to get a local train to my suburb, and then a taxi from the station because I was far too tired and impatient to walk or get a local bus.

I sighed, managed to work my way through the cryptic ticket machine to get my free ticket (local trains are included in the long-distance price), and made my way on to the next train.

So far I’d been in a car, a coach, a train and now another train, then a taxi, before I could turn the key on my house door and get home … nearly there, I said to myself, nearly there …

 

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