Letting the train take the strain

1630 GMT, Friday 27 March – first leg of the journey home is under way…

1710 GMT, Saturday 28 March – last leg of the journey home is under way…

See, which would you prefer, eh? My favourite moment on the entire Lisbon-Hendaye-Paris-central London-Charlton ride home (aside from having a woman swat a mosquito from my face on the Paris Metro) was getting a faceful of hail on platform one at London Bridge. Yeah, welcome home.

That said, I had a terrific time on my travels – everyone should share the exhilaration of Las Fallas in Valencia at least once in their lives; Madrid’s a terrific, cosmopolitan place to shop (when the euro/pound relationship improves) and enjoy yourself; and Lisbon was a world away from anything else I’ve experienced in western Europe (which isn’t saying much, admittedly). I should, actually, at this point plug the Solar Dos Mouros in Lisbon, possibly the best hotel I have ever stayed in, with rooms the size of studio flats and the nicest service I have ever come across. Take the one you love there (even if it’s just yourself) and give them a treat.

Doing the whole thing by train was expensive – I’ve not even started to tot up the fares – but made the whole thing into an adventure which just wouldn’t have been enjoyable by flying. And, of course, it pumps far less crap into the air too.

The downside? Well, trying to sleep on a train isn’t the easiest of things. Two out of the three sleepers were in shared compartments – Paris-Barcelona was shared with a Japanese tourist and a bloke from the Islamic Republic of oh-his-thumb’s-in-the-way-on-his-passport, Madrid to Lisbon with a Canadian photographer. I was a little more grateful to be with two non-English speakers, to be honest, although I probably pissed them off by heading to the bar, was bought beer by a man from Hong Kong for talking about football with him (“no, not Chelsea, Charlton – remember them?”) and then having to use the toilet 17 times upon my return. That aside, yes, the rocking motion of the train can lull you to sleep, but the clanging noises outside can be off-putting. If you’re tall, you might find the small beds a pain. Even on my own, and feeling tired and hungover, the Lisbon-Hendaye (on the French side of the border with Spain) train didn’t produce that much sleep for me. Then again, if you have another journey to come after a sleeper, you can catch up with sleep on that – Hendaye to Paris was first class on a TGV, and I quickly dozed off there; but Barcelona to Valencia in preferente class – free cava! free food! free in-train movie! – had such beautiful scenery that it was worth staying awake for. So be prepared to be not all there the next day, or to take a nap the next afternoon to catch up.

But the upsides are wonderful – watching Europe’s scenery change through sunny Portugal, waking up in the rain in the Basque country (and seeing the calm, blue Atlantic become an angry, grey beast as we slipped into France) and dozing off travelling from one end of France to another is a great experience. The service on most of the trains was terrific – it’s pretty cheap to go first class if you book early enough, and on a TGV you get a seat which feels like going back to bed. There’s a bar and restaurant on most sleeper trains – ones operated by/for Spain’s Renfe are usually pretty cheap, too, and chatting or eavesdropping in one of these makes the world feel a lot smaller. And, of course, you’re travelling city centre to city centre, and with none of the faff of airports, nor the idiots you find clogging them up. It’s a damn civilised way to travel.

Of course, with the planet’s future in the balance, it’d be great to have all this made easy for us, but… Eurostar sleepers were built, but never used, a legacy of successive governments eager to discourage any kind of sustainable living for fear they might disrupt their airline pals. Other countries are investing in high-speed rail, we want to build more airports. By 2012, Paris and Barcelona will be five-and-a-half hours apart – making it easy to do London-Barcelona within a day, without the pain of getting to/from airports. Even supposedly carbon-neutral Eurostar is part of the problem – its spookily-quiet Ebbsfleet International station was built to encourage car travellers from the M25, and was built without interchange with adjacent Northfleet rail station. With the help of the likes of The Man In Seat 61, it sometimes feels that travelling by train to Europe is sticking two fingers up at heads-in-sand politicians who’d rather we all just shut up and went by plane instead. Hey-ho.

There’s a couple of things to catch up on which I let simmer while I was away – and a few tweaks to be made to this blog now I’ve a bit of time on my hands. It was good to be away, but it’s good to be back…