I had every intention of arriving in Madrid at a reasonable time, but didn’t think too much of it because things usually have a way of working themselves out – except for when they don’t.
Generally speaking, a train from Barcelona to Madrid takes about four hours, but by following a few easy steps you can easily turn a leisurely afternoon gallivanting through the Spanish countryside into a painful eleven hour ordeal.
Don’t make a seat reservation
You wouldn’t expect to need very many seat reservations while backpacking through Europe with a Eurail pass in January – especially for a train leaving at 2pm. But you’d be wrong. In fact the 4pm train was sold out too. It was only a 6pm train that allowed me to leave Barcelona that night. After killing four hours, I finally boarded the train, slumped into my seat, and popped in my earphones.
Don’t account for the weather
Two hours into the trip, the train began doing a rather horrible job of what it was designed to do – move. Even though it felt like I could get out and run faster than I was otherwise moving, I hoped our speed would begin to accelerate at any moment. Two hours later, after navigating ice on the tracks, we finally get going again, but don’t arrive in Madrid for another two hours. What was supposed to be a four hour ride, turned into a six hour one.
Don’t have a plan once you arrive at your destination
Since I originally planned on arriving in Madrid around 6pm, I didn’t particularly plan out much. I assumed I’d just figure it out once I got there. Stepping off the train into a practically deserted station just before midnight has about as much appeal as you’d expect. While everyone else hurried off to a waiting cab, the car of a patiently waiting loved one, or the subway, I just walked around aimlessly with my guidebook trying to come up with a game plan. The only other guy in the station kept following me around trying to talk to me. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I was positive I better come up with something quick. I couldn’t just start showing up at hotels hoping they would have an extra room, so I found a pay phone and started dialing.
Don’t speak the language
A surprisingly small percentage of people in Spain speak English, and being nearly six years removed from the end of a three year career earning C’s in high school Spanish, I was beginning to get a bit concerned that my current telephonic skills would leave me no choice but to approach the creeper behind me for help.
The strangest thing then started happening. As I called the first place in my guidebook, I began hearing words that I’d not heard in years – but this time I understood many of them. While talking to the guy on the other end, I definitely had to ask him to slow down and repeat many things he said, but I understood what he was saying – even though I didn’t exactly understand all of the words he was using. I even began saying words that if I had to think about it, couldn’t have told you what they meant if my life depended upon it – but they seemed to make sense, and the guy on the other end seemed to understand. Unfortunately he didn’t have a room available, but the third hotel that I called did. He gave me directions to the hotel, and I finally headed to the subway.
The guy I talked to on the phone must not have had much faith in me because when I showed up at his door, he had a look of complete shock and confusion that I actually made it. It was closing in on 1am, but my day was finally complete.
While I would have disagreed at the time, my adventure from Barcelona to Madrid was one of my favorite stories from my European vacation. The occasions where everything seems to go wrong almost always end up surprising you with things that you’ll never forget. Cheers!