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Waking up on the TrenHotel
By Lisa Drittenbas

I was in Barcelona over the winter holidays and got the notion to take a romantic train journey. Actually the notion began in a San Francisco pub several weeks earlier. My Irish bartender friend had rolled her eyes at me. “You want to spend 15 hours on a train? Oh God, I couldn’t take it! Why dontcha just fly?” Well, because, I said. Train travel is relaxing. You can see the countryside. Meet interesting people. There’s time to read, to doze…sip cappuccino on the observation deck. No hassles from airport security. She looked at me blankly. “I might meet someone cute.” I said finally. “Oh, now that’s a reason!” she chirped.

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I decided to go from Barcelona to Paris by night, through Switzerland by day. The final destination would be Milan, where I planned to take a cheap flight to Istanbul to visit a friend. As usual with travel that is memorable, things didn't go quite as planned. I waited until after the New Year and discovered that all of the trains -- to Madrid, to Paris, to anywhere I wanted to go -- were completely booked. In Barcelona, as in most of Spain, January 6th is a big holiday and the party keeps on going through New Year's until the kids get to open their presents on Kings’ Day. Then everyone gloomily goes back to work on January 7th.

Booking my own trip proved impossible online. I couldn't book anything through the RailEurope site, because I didn't have a RailPass. And I couldn’t buy a RailPass because a) I was already in Europe and if purchased online, you must have the paper tickets or pass mailed to you in the US; and b) the cost of a RailPass was going to be more expensive than the single-ticket prices of my 3-part supposed romantic train journey.

The French rail site (http://www.voyages-sncf.com/) is impossible to navigate. Even if you read French, once you get to the payment process they will require a French-approved credit card. The same thing happened to me while trying to book on the UK site ((http://www.raileurope.co.uk/). I spent several hours online swearing at my computer in both languages.

Just for the heck of it, I went to the Barcelona Françia station and asked for one, but they didn't have any RailPasses there. I thought about trying to weasel myself a InterRail pass (much cheaper and only for EU residents) but I knew they were going to ask for my EU passport and residence card. (“Uh, I left it back at my…office / home / school….” ) Another traveling friend who studied international law informed me that it is illegal to ask for my passport when purchasing an InterRail pass. But in the end, I just wasn’t brave enough to try and fake EU residency.

Photo Right - cramped quarters in the Elipsos TrenHotel

At the Barcelona Estacio Sants train station there was a strike (but only until 3pm….I know, what kind of strike is that?) and I couldn’t get exact prices for any parts of the trip. Finally I went back the next day and booked the first available night train to Paris. Tourist class (sharing a 4-bed cabin), for €155. I thought I had done my research and was being so clever. I had read online (don’t believe everything you read online) that a 4-person cabin is significantly better than 6-person cabin, so I already felt lucky.

Leg one of the Journey: the Elipsos TrenHotel. Imagine a romantic journey at night on a gently rocking train, sitting up late with a cup of tea watching the snowy landscape go by. Followed by a restful night's sleep in your comfy “roomette”. Well, if you want that, don't book a sleeper cabin. And if you want romantic scenery, don’t travel at night. And if you want interesting company, don’t take the TrenHotel. I discovered that people who take the night train are there because they can't or won't fly. They are elderly, traveling with kids, or probably want to cross borders for varying reasons without presenting a passport (no one on either the Spain or France side asked for mine).

With 10 minutes to go before departing Barcelona, I looked around my empty 4-person cabin and thought, "Great, I have it all to myself!" Then entered my first cabinmates: a pregnant woman yelling at her 20-month baby to get into the cabin so she could change her diaper. “Are you poopy?” She inquired. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out. The seats, before being made into their fold-out beds, are about 6 inches away from each other. The train conductor came for our tickets and suggested the woman and baby sleep on the bottom bunk instead of the top, and, even though I had booked a bottom bunk, that I should trade with her. Confused, I asked, "But why can't we both have the bottom bunks...?" She explained with irritation that one more woman was being picked up in Figueres. And then she left. Already unsure about this experience, I didn't want to make it worse by sleeping in the top bunk.

“Work it out amongst yourselves,” she casually threw over her shoulder as she hurried away. Thanks.

Eventually we picked up another woman who was elderly and required a bottom bunk. That put me on top. Damn. I don't like the ladders, it's hot up there, and I hate climbing down in the middle of the night to use the toilet.

The elderly woman had obviously done this before and had no illusions of a grand trip. She said nothing, simply laid down in all her clothes and went to sleep.


Photo - TrenHotels are not the highspeed trains shown above.
Windows shades drawn, nowhere to look, nowhere to sit, barely any room to put our personal belongings, all I could do was lay down dutifully in my bunk and read or sleep. Well, read. The baby slept through the night, thank goodness, but it was so incredibly hot in our cabin, even leaving the cabin door open didn't allow any of the -2 º C winter weather in from outside.

The corridor was so narrow only one person at a time could pass, and the WC was shared by several cabins, located between cars and was the exact size of an airplane toilet. By the morning it was filthy.

The only place to hang out, other than the top bunk I had paid 155 euros for, was the dining car or the cafe car. The cafe car had uncomfortable little stools, a strangely jovial bartender, and high-priced espresso. The dining car was closing. No observation car, no late night chats. I didn't meet anyone else, and I couldn't see the landscape for the fluorescent lights. All the other passengers seemed to be Russian single men, snoring heavily in their packed, smelly cabins. And I didn't sleep at all that night.

Continue to page 2 - Sleeping on a TrenHotel

 

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