June 15, 2012: From Catalonia to Castilla

Today we are travelling from the Catalan region of Spain to the Castilian region (which is what most people identify as “Spanish.”)  From Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain to Madrid, the largest.

Our morning was packing, checking out and heading northwest on the Metro from Barceloneta to Barcelona Sants.  We made an attempt on this trip to find a way to get from one to the other with a minimal number of stairs by looking for transfer points that have elevators.  That turned into a disaster and ended up with us doing easily three or four times as many stairs as we would have just taking the shortest route.

It is really hard to describe just how difficult it is doing any number of stairs when we have the kids and the luggage.  Liesl needs to ride in the stroller so it takes two people just to move the stroller.  The luggage weight in at not that far off from seventy pounds and is quite awkward so it has to be carried alone as well.  So this normal results in me running up or down a flight of stairs, stashing the luggage in a corner and then racing back to help get Liesl with Dominica (who is normally wearing Luciana.)  We have no means of doing this without leaving our luggage sitting somewhere while we move the girls.  It is really bad.  Elevators are really critical to traveling this way.  We can make do with escalators as we have mastered that but almost nowhere in Europe has down escalators and up ones only once in a while.

We finally got to Sants and tried to get a ticket on the noon train (it was about ten to eleven when we got to the station) but the noon run was sold out, both first and second class.  So we had to settle of the one o’clock train but that one had first class available.  So not too bad at all.  This would give us some time to sit and relax before taking the train.  Two hours is not a long time to kill when there is food and shopping to do and boarding takes place at least half an hour prior to departure.  Two hours will fly by just like it does in an airport.  Trains go between Barcelona and Madrid every hour, on the hour.  Very nicely done.  As Spain’s two main cities I am sure that the traffic level between the two is really crazy and considering that they have a direct, no-stops, high speed train going between them I doubt that there are many flights at all between the two as there is little point.  With the headaches of flying it is hard to imagine that a plane can keep up with the train at all.  It a plane is faster, it can only be by a few minutes.

We grabbed some lunch and relaxed.  The cafeteria had some really good stuff including ensalada russa – the “Russian salad” that we have discovered in Europe and love so much.  Dominica will be attempting to recreate that as soon as we return to the States.  The coffee was really good too and Dominica is really glad to be in a country where cafe con leche is the standard drink rather than espresso.

We also hit the shop where we bought the toys for the girls yesterday.  Liesl woke up yesterday after we had bought her the little plastic Oreo and was really upset.  We aren’t sure exactly what happened.  Maybe Dominica was wrong that this was the dog that Liesl wanted.  Maybe Liesl was upset because it reminded her of Oreo.  We were very lost.  But in any case, Liesl was really upset and really wanted a dog that did not look like Oreo.  So as this is specifically an Oreo issue and it has gone on for two days we indulged her and got her a little white poodle and she was very happy after that.  We will probably never know if this was a ploy to get a new dog toy or if she is really upset about Oreo or what.   It is just a tiny, plastic dog so whatever – this time.  Luciana still loves her stuffed toys from yesterday.  We have new favourite toys.

Renfe actually has a boarding process much more like a flight than a train.  You wait at the gate and go through an x-ray machine with your luggage – although it is a trivial exercise and not stressful like an airport.  Then they check you in as you go through the gate rather than coming around to your seats and checking your tickets.  This seems much more efficient.  And it keeps there from being crowds trying to push onto the train.  It was very relaxed.

The Renfe high velocity train was very nice.  Because it is a full train with reserved seats and because there are no “table” seats we were stuck with the four of us sitting in just two seats which is less than ideal.  But Renfe first class is very nice with tons of leg room, power for every seat, on board movies and radio stations and dinner is included.  Very nice.

The on board movie was “X-Men Origins” or something like that.  I’m not much of an X-Men fan which makes it hard to follow the storyline even when watching the movie in English since I don’t really know what is happening in general so I think that I did pretty well as I pretty much was able to watch the movie.  I didn’t listen to it and just watched it with the Spanish subtitles on.  My reading comprehension of Spanish is way, way above my listening comprehension.

The meal service was good but the only meal was lasagna with meat so we had to skip the main course.  Maybe if we had known to say something ahead of time and had booked more than an hour in advance we could have had vegetarian, we don’t really know.  Spain is a very meat-centric food culture.  What food we were able to eat was quite good.  And there were free drinks, coffee, etc.  Very nicely done.  This explains why the seat reservation price is so high.

The train moves fast hitting 150 km/h almost immediately and climbing to over 300 km/h for much of the trip. You just whiz through the arid country side. We were very interested to see the open countryside of northeastern Spain as we really had very little idea of what it was actually like.

Much of Spain actually looks a lot like Texas.  The landscape was pretty varied and interesting.  Very brown, hot and dry.  The train showed the currently exterior temperature as we traveled and we were able to watch the temperatures climb from warm but pleasent in Barcelona to nearly one hundred degrees in the middle of the trip.  Fortunately it was back down to something nice by the time that we got to Madrid.

We arrived in Madrid at about three thirty.  We are very impressed with the Spanish Renfe trains.  Riding the train in Spain definitely the way to go to get around.  Texas should take note as they have much in common.  Unlike in Italy where there are tunnels everywhere to take the trains through the mountains, the trains in Spain run mainly on the plains.

We arrived in Madrid’s Atoche station which was huge and incredibly impressive.  The entire railroad complex was mindbogglingly large.  We took the Metro (line 1) to run us from the Atoche station where we had arrived in from Barcelona to the other train station, Chamartin, which is where we have our hotel and from where we will be taking the night train (tren hotel) tomorrow night to Lisbon.

The Metro was quick, cheap and easy.  Clean and well lit, very easy to use.  All train transport in Spain seems to be really good.

Once at Chamartin we just had to pop up and do some map navigation to find our hotel, the Tryp Chamartin, which was right across the street.  We were very glad that the hotel was so close.  It is literally right across the street.  This is our third hotel located directly next to a train station.  These are very handy.

I had not realized that the Tryp was a part of the Wyndham chain.  This turned out to be an extremely nice hotel.  Our room was great.  Dominica has scored again and again on finding us great accommodations.   This hotel is so comfortable and has room service so we decided that tonight is going to be a total “relax” night and we are not going to leave the hotel at all.  We will save seeing Madrid itself for tomorrow.

Dominica did some laundry in the hotel room and when she was done I took Liesl down to play in the hotel’s playground area.  Liesl spotted the playground from our twelfth floor (room 1205) window and asked me to take her.  She has done very well today so that was no problem.  It was a tiny playground with just a slide, teeter totter and a bouncy horse.  There were no other kids there or at the pool and the playground had not been mowed and so the grass there had gone to seed.  It only took a minute before my sandals were full of the seeds and I realized that this grass was like little knife blades and I had to extract seed pods that were like huge wood splinters driven deep into my skin.  It was really painful.

Between the desolation, lack of kids, painful grass and boring things to do Liesl only put in about ten minutes before she declared that she was done and just wanted to go back up to the hotel room.  I was happy to oblige.

We decided to just get room service.  There is a service from the hotel and the Spanish chain Telepizza to be able to get pizza and pasta delivered right to the hotel room and that seemed like a good idea so we tried to do that.

We had a bit of a fiasco attempting to order dinner.  The Telepizza information in our room said that food was available anytime after 13:00 but when I went to the desk to place the order (thinking that doing it in person in English would be far easier than trying to understand each other over the phone) at 19:30 they told me that we could only place orders from the phone in the room and that they were only open after 18:30 (which was pretty confusing since that was an hour before the time that it already was.)

So back up to the room and I called down immediately just to be told that they did not open until 20:30.  Argh.  Okay, so now we just have to wait for an hour and then try again.

While we waited we turned on the television in the room and they have the Disney Channel so Liesl was content to just sit and watch that all evening.  In reality it is probably really good downtime for her although having her exposed to commercials is driving us crazy as she wants to buy everything that she sees.

At 21:00, High School Musical came on which was perfect as I have never seen it.  So this was my chance to actually see it while trapped in the hotel room for the night.

At 21:30 I called down to order the food.  This time I was told that I could only place the order in person – which of course conflicts with what I was told when I tried to do just that.  So down to the desk again.  I got to the desk and they told me that I couldn’t come down and that only calls over the phone would be accepted – but then the other person at the desk realized what was said and said that she had just told me to come down because it couldn’t be done over the phone (now, days later as I write this update, in retrospect I am pretty sure that the time being quoted for Telepizza to open was from the person who also thought that the orders had to be done over the phone and was thinking of the wrong service entirely as the hotel’s own room service from its own restaurant does open at the time that he had stated.)

So finally we were able to place a food order after over an hour of trying and four discrete ordering attempts.  Dominica and I each got a pasta item and we got a lasagna pizza for the family to share.

The food arrived about halfway through the movie.  It was actually quite good.  The pizza especially was quite delicious.

We all, expect Luciana, ended up staying up until well after midnight.  Liesl snuck into bed with Dominica and I are watched several Disney shows after High School Musical was over and even got in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos (can you believe that this show has existed for the past decade since the advent of YouTube?)

Tomorrow we are sightseeing in Madrid most of the day and heading off to Lisbon at night.  We are getting very close to the end of our European adventure.