Monday, 27 October 2008

The Honeymoon is Over (pt 1: transport)

Well, the attempt at a (reasonably) low-impact honeymoon is done, with varying degrees of success.
My number one Top Tip for trans-European train travel is now Break The Journey Each Way. Ie, if you don't leave in the south of England and therefore can't hop on a morning Eurostar, leaving lots of time to catch your sleeper on to Italy, Spain etc, then the precariousness of train times can make it well worthwhile factoring some extra give into your itineraries, whether it's a night in London or Paris.
The sorry tale behind this bitter comment is partly due to the Eurotunnel fire in September, which is of course a pretty extraordinary circumstance. Also, being a Strange Person who started off her honeymoon sans new husband and with a friend, going on a writing course, I was tied into more pressing timetables than on most holidays. But when someone decided to end their life by jumping onto the fast live rail between Watford and Harrow & Wealdstone stations, holding us up for two hours, I was somewhat split between sorrow that somebody needed to finish it this way, pity for the poor train drivers who have to live with their memories of suicides, and cuticle-chewing, hair-pulling stress at the knowledge that we were going to miss not only our Eurostar to Paris but also the connecting sleeper down to Madrid. And that waiting for a train to Madrid next morning was going to mean that we missed the start of the writing course. And the Eurostar staff at St Pancras could have more polite and helpful too...
So, ashamed and angry as I am to admit it, we ended up on plane to Malaga next morning, followed by a bus up to Granada. And I promised myself that I will never put myself in that situation again.
Getting around Andalucia by coach and train was a joy, and an illustration of how punctual and comfortable well-run public transport can be. The train system, in particular, was a delight, especially the contrast between the amount of legroom available on Spanish trains compared with the battery-chicken conditions of the vile Virgin Pendolino. Booking coaches from the UK via Alsa, a subsidiary of National Express, was a doddle, and the advance-purchase machines for their tickets in most Spanish coach stations were also easy to use. Renfe, the Spanish train network, was less user-friendly for advance purchases, but helpful advice is available on
The overnight coach from Lisbon to Madrid, booked via Eurolines, was ok and surprisingly comfortable. And the sleeper from Madrid up to Paris, with tickets bought direct from SNCF after RailEurope's website decided to be awkward, was extremely comfortable for short-arsed me, although OA's height was a bit much for the berths. We met a great family from Aberdeen who were doing the through journey from the south of Spain to the north of Scotland in one go, and having done a similar trek between Aberdeen and Italy the previous year were impressively sanguine about it - and gave two fingers to people who claim that distance train travel with kids is impossible. Although obviously it helps when your son is happy to sit and read or actually have conversations with people around him, rather than drive fellow passengers up the wall with nasty noisy bits of technology. Fortunately we'd got a couple of days in Paris on the way home, so there were no nail-biting moments about whether we'd catch our trains (just horror at the continued inadequacy of the facilities and staffing at the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, where the vast queues nearly left OA standing on the platform watching the train vanish England-wards).

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