Train journeys through Spain

(“Typical Castilian landscape,” taken from Wikipedia)

Friend Alan and I talked about our train rides through Spain in the ’60s, first on school trips and then as lone students. In my memory, steam engines were as exciting and romantic as they are cracked up to be. Trainspotting has long been a popular hobby in Britain but most enthusiasts now seem to be overgrown schoolboys like me.

The first time I entered Spain it was through Irún, where the group changed trains. Then we made a slow journey down through the heart of the country, all the way to Madrid. Forty years ago, a trip like that was a magical experience for kids from Central London. My biggest adventure hitherto had been family holidays in England and Wales. The trains were incredibly slow (I remember a few years later it took me 20 hours just to get from Madrid to Barcelona, sleeping on newspapers in the corridor).

I stumbled across an interesting blog (in Spanish – go here) on the history of trains in Spain. It has photos and videos. When I first traveled on them, some of the locomotives were ancient. I especially enjoyed the poem about a train journey on the first page of the blog – by Antonio Machado (read about him here), who became one of my favorite writers once I had learned enough Spanish to understand his poetry.

Alan recalled the following description by Nina Epton, an English woman who wrote a number of memorable travel books.

“Surely we would soon reach Madrid? The hours passed and the new Spanish train we had changed into was in no hurry to reach the capital. At first, I did not mind because the mountains and starch-white villages of the Basque country were absorbing, but these were soon followed by endless barren plains. Where had the grass gone to? Who had burned it up? And where were the cattle?

The lonely earth stretched for miles, changing colour every so often as if weary of its own skin. Suddenly a fairy-tale vision appeared on the naked horizon. This time nobody could tell me it was the effect of clouds. It was a real, solid town with a real solid wall all the way round it, and turrets. Everybody saw it this time – not just me – and they exclaimed: ‘Avila!’ A name like the beginning of a prayer. I was disappointed we could not leave the boring train to visit the city.

In the late, violet afternoon we reached the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and a tableland of rocks rising to bare mountains upon which patches of snow glittered like fallen stars. Bluish-green bushes grew between giant boulders and aromatic plants threw out a sneezy perfume like chicken stuffing. Flocks of sheep and goats tinkled dreamily between stumpy trees that did not have any leaves, only immense birds’ nests of dark green needles resting upon their branches. The birds that built them must be as large as the roc in the story of Sinbad the Sailor. Mother laughed when I pointed at the nests and told me that the trees were umbrella pines.

‘Ah, there is the Escorial’, somebody said. I rolled the word round and round my tongue. Escorial. It sounded hot and dry and twisted.

‘Look at it’, my mother commanded in a crisp teacher-tone. ‘It is the palace built by King Philip II, the king who made Madrid the capital of Spain.’

At the word ‘palace’ I leapt to the window and screwed up my eyes in the fading light. What I saw made me shiver. Had a king really lived in that large, dreary place? I could imagine soldiers or prisoners having to live there, But a king! Who could he show off his crown to? There was nobody there.

‘We shall reach Madrid in an hour,’ a man’s voice said, and Mother sighed.

‘It is the longest hour of all.’

Now we could see nothing. The air of the Sierra poured in through the open windows, penetrating as incense. Soon lights began to appear, first singly and uncertainly, then in firm clusters and lastly in an intricate pattern of loops and curves and parallel lines – green, red and orange – like congealed fireworks; at the sight of them everybody in the compartment stood up and shouted: ‘Madrid!’

‘Madrid!’ Mother echoed with tears in her eyes. People reacted as if there had been a free distribution of champagne. The sight of Madrid in the distance revived the drooping, unruffled the bad-tempered, bestowed the gift of tongues upon the inarticulate. Everybody waved, laughed, cried and shouted.

I have observed the same reaction, in greater or lesser degree, every time I have approached Madrid by train. (Aeroplanes are too rapid to allow for the pleasures of anticipation.) Why should Madrid have this effect? It is perhaps the least beautiful capital of Europe and certainly one of the least beautiful cities of Spain – what, then, is the explanation?

‘There is something in the air of Madrid,’ people tell you vaguely, searching in vain for a concrete answer. ‘It is because of the wind from the Sierra,’ poets have assured me; ‘which, married to the beautiful women of Madrid – most of whom come from Andalusia – creates a magic effervescence. It is a mystic marriage of sky and earth similar to those described in ancient mythologies.’ Such chemistry defies analysis. All one can say is that the ‘magic something’ exists, but it is intangible.

(From Madrid by Nina Epton, Cassell, London 1964)

I read the following about the author:

“Nina Epton travelled as a single woman into Andalusia in the days that there were very few travellers in the inland areas and lone women, especially foreign lone women were far from the norm… Epton covered a fair few kilometres and many months crossing the south of Spain from the northern border of Jaen through the rocky Despeñaperros pass to the southern coast of Malaga and from the east coast of Almeria to the west coast of Huelva. Her book, with a copyright date of 1968 was dedicated to Gerald Brennan (read about him here) [in my youth, a very popular author among “Spanophiles”], who lived and wrote about the area of the Alpujarras in Granada province and later about the Civil War.”

I also learned that in Andalucía Epton met Casimiro, the woman involved in the real-life tragedy that inspired García Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (read about the writer (here).

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