A NEW high-speed rail link has slashed the journey time between Spain’s two major cities. Shuttle effortlessly between Barcelona and Madrid.
It was with a mild sense of trepidation that I walked through the automatic doors of Barcelona’s Sants train station to catch the new high-speed link to Madrid. In a foreign railway station things can go terminally wrong in seconds.
Trains don’t care if you’re hopelessly lost, or standing on the wrong platform – they just go.
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried.
A huge electronic sign announcing Barcelona to Madrid Platform 3 greeted me the instant the doors swept shut. I entered into a streaming system that took me through an airport-style X‑ray before gently guiding me to a large, comfortable seat with some complimentary radio headphones and a menu featuring a selection of hot and cold snacks, beer, wine and single malt whisky.
To my right an electronic screen detailed the time, destination, outside temperature and travelling speed of the train in bright red figures.
Overhead, a dubbed Hollywood movie flicked into life. The whole thing was about as nerve-racking as opening a pint of milk.
I shunned a Spanish-speaking Kevin Spacey in favour of the window, playing out scenes of the largely undiscovered region between Barcelona and Madrid flashing past at nearly 200mph.
For the next two-and-a-half hours the primarily agricultural landscape displayed its unusual beauty to the full, moving rapidly from conifer forest, to rocky hillside and vast open plains under cloud cover so low I felt I could reach up and touch it.
Yet the overwhelming feeling was one of immense stillness, thanks to the almost unnerving flatness of the farmland and rocky scrub stretching over the horizon in all directions. Only when a church tower or farm building reared into view did I realise the region harbours any kind of life at all. The natural wonders weren’t restricted to the countryside.
As I disembarked, I discovered the high‑arching glass roof of Madrid’s Atocha station houses a tropical garden surrounded by pools of turtles and colourful birds, plus numerous cafés and benches amid the foliage and hissing watering sprinklers.
I went in search of the nearby Reina Sofia Gallery. Simply by crossing a road, opening a door and taking a lift up two floors, I found myself standing at the foot of Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica.
A leisurely 20‑minute walk took me to the Royal Palace past the 17th-century columns of the Plaza Mayor and Ernest Hemingway’s former drinking hole in the Plaza Santa Ana.
The department stores of the Grand Via, sculpted gardens of Retiro Park and imposing facades of the Bank of Spain, Congressof Deputies and Cathedral of La Almudena were equally short strolls away. In the space of a morning I had gone from the bustling shops and markets of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas to the political, economic and geographical centre of Spain.
And all I had really done was walk down a railway platform.
Staying in the pop-art surroundings of the Oscar Hotel in the trendy Barquillo district I discovered why Catalans believe the people of Madrid are a bunch of alcohol-swilling party animals. Come six o’clock the bars filled up with thousands of office workers looking to bond over a beer and a boogie.
But forget any ideas of Benidorm without the sea as, like everything involving the Spanish, the whole affair was carried off with effortless elegance and minimal disturbance.
At the other end of the train line the nightlife in Barcelona is a far more sober affair, with strolling and shopping the main pastimes come clocking-off time.
During the day trendy locals sip coffee in the street and visit the sensory-overloading food stalls of the Mercado de la Boqueria – while the gardens and Olympic facilities on the mountain of Montjuic offer a completely different aspect to the
city, thanks to their combination of decorative flower displays, magnificent city views and sculpture-filled walkways. Then, of course, there are the Gaudi buildings to gawp at.
Barcelona’s Hotel Central in many ways sums up the city. From the outside it could be a Prohibition-era building in Chicago yet it has a modern, minimalist calm that extends throughout its restaurant, bar, sleeping accommodation and reading areas.
Its rooftop pool provides a view of the whole of eastern Barcelona, complete with muddled tiles, gleaming skyscrapers and church steeples.
It is a sight that takes your breath away yet the surroundings never feel ostentatious or out of place.
Quite simply it is a delight. And the same applies to Madrid, Barcelona and the train link that now makes it possible to enjoy both cities in the space of the same morning.** GETTING THERE: Ryanair (0871 246 0000/ www.ryanair.com) has return flights from Stansted to Barcelona from £60.Rail Europe (0844 848 4070/www.raileurope.co.uk) has return fares from Barcelona to Madrid from £168.Grand Hotel Central in Barcelona (dialling from UK: 0034 93 295 79 00/ www.grandhotelcentral.com) has doubles from £136 per night (two sharing), room only.Hotel Hesperia in Madrid (912 108800/ www.hesperia-madrid.com) has doubles from £117 per night (two sharing), B&B.Spanish National Tourist Office: 020 7486 8077/ www.tourspain.co.uk.