Posts Tagged ‘ travel ’

A week in Spain

I have decided that I would like to move to Spain for six months or so to learn Spanish (and to avoid the Belgian winter). As I am planning to move back to Australia in mid-2011 I am running out of time for more European experiences. Therefore, the plan is to move to Spain in January 2011, but I was unsure exactly where to go.

As you will see from previous posts I have been to Barcelona a couple of times and I really do love it. It is a great combination of old medieval centre and modern city. It’s not too big and not too small. It’s also by the beach and has great weather. But the fly in the ointment is that they speak Catalan rather than Spanish. Of course everyone can speak spanish as well but it’s not what you hear on the street and I think that will be detrimental to the immersion learning experience. So I ruled out Barcelona which basically left Seville and Madrid. And here I am on holiday for a week to check them both out.

I’ve already had a couple of days in Seville and I can report that it is a very pretty city with an unusual mixture of Islamic and Catholic architecture, often bizarrely intertwined. The main cathedral has a Moslem minaret from the time of the Moors but it is now a catholic cathedral and the minaret has a new bell tower on top. If only religions themselves could coexist so harmoniously.

Seville is supposedly the warmest place in Europe and it didn’t disappoint. I was out in a tee shirt with just a light jacket and it was sunny and warm. The city is completely flat so the best way to see it all is by using the city bicycle scheme which I did. Once you have joined you can take a bicycle from any of the hundreds of depots and then return it to another one. If you take the bicycle for less than half an hour it doesn’t even cost anything. I used this extensively and it saved my poor feet.

After a day and a half I think I had seen most of what there was to see. It isn’t a large city after all. So I bid adieu and boarded an AVE train to Madrid, 550kms to the northeast, in the centre of Spain. These trains are wonderful, smooth highspeed trains complete with movies like an airplane and the trip took only 2 hours and 30 minutes. I was also impressed that it departed and arrived on time to the second. Not consistent with my mental image of Spain at all! Japan yes, Germany maybe, but not Spain. I stand corrected.

The central plateau of Spain is very arid and there is almost no vegetation or features. It is, as scenery goes, quite boring. Luckily i had the movie and my iPad to entertain myself.

Madrid pops out of the desert quite suddenly. Unlike most cities, particularly in the US and Australia, there are no sprawling suburbs of McMansions. Instead it is featureless desert and then, right on the outskirts, high-rise apartments. I’m told that Madrid has virtually no detached housing. As a result the city is quite compact and it took only a few minutes to travel from the edge to the centre.

Immediately I could tell that this was a much bigger city than Seville. It has large boulevards and a lot of traffic all going very fast. It also surprised me with the size and grandeur of the buildings. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Spain did have an empire after all but I had always thought of it as a poor cousin to France and Germany. Not so. The buildings along Gran Via would rival and in some cases surpass what Paris or Berlin can offer. I will post photos in a future blog when I am back at my PC #iPadlimitation.

I’ve spent a few days in Madrid now and I have walked miles. It doesn’t seem to have a bike scheme and it is quite hilly anyway. There is an excellent metro but i haven’t used it much because you can’t see anything down there. I’m staying very centrally in the bohemian Chueca area which is convenient, and delicious, lots of little restaurants.

I think it is safe to say that Madrid has won. There is a lot more to see and do here compared to Seville and it also seems to be a little easier for the non-Spanish speaker to get by. I even have the potential to pick up some work here.

So there’s the verdict. Madrid in January. I hope it doesn’t snow…

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Train travel in Europe

I’ve recently advocated the building of a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, currently one of the busiest air routes in the world. I feel that I should qualify this a little more by sharing some of my own experiences of rail travel around Europe, both high-speed and standard.

High-speed rail has become very popular in Europe and on some routes has virtually wiped out the competing air traffic. There are no flights from Brussels to Paris anymore for example. In fact, if you are flying on Air France out of Charles de Gaulle Airport your plane ticket includes the high-speed train trip from Brussels and you can check in your bags at Brussels South Station. C’est incroyable!

The first high-speed rail lines in Europe were built in the 1980’s beginning in France. In 1981 the LGV Sud-Est line from Paris to Lyon opened and the famous TGV started running. France now has the most extensive high-speed network in Europe with lines radiating out in every direction from Paris. The TGV network now extends into Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK and in 2007 a TGV test train set the record for the fastest wheeled train with a speed of 574.8 km/h!

I have had the pleasure of quite a few different train trips whilst living in Belgium, mostly to London but also to other destinations. My main experience is with the Eurostar service from Brussels to London which is slightly different than other train trips around continental Europe so I’ll comment on this first.

Eurostar

Eurostar

Eurostar began operating in 1994 following the completion of the Channel Tunnel. I have used it many times to travel between Brussels and London and find it very convenient and generally hassle-free. I’m not known for my patience and the idea of queuing for anything, particularly airport security, fills me with horror. Because the UK has not signed up to the Schengen Agreement there is still passport control which you pass through at your departure point. There is also security similar to airports due, I suspect, to the Channel Tunnel being a likely terrorist target. However, unlike at airports, this check goes very quickly and I’ve never taken more than 15 minutes from arrival at the station to boarding my train. That I can live with.

The trains themselves are very comfortable and quiet and they travel at up to 300kph once they are out of Brussels. This is particularly noticeable when another train passes going 300kph in the opposite direction!

St Pancras International

Now that High Speed 1 line in Southern England is complete the trip takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes and you arrive at the recently refurbished St Pancras Station which is amazing. The interiors of the trains are a little dated but they are clean and comfortable with plenty of legroom and big windows. On a couple of occasions when I have caught a special deal I’ve travelled “Leisure Select” which is what they call first class. Even bigger seats and a decent 3 course meal served at your seat with wine for only 15€ extra! If I book far enough in advance I’ve usually managed to get fares for between 60 and 90€ each way. I don’t believe I could fly for that little and regardless, I would rather pay more for the point-to-point convenience.

Thalys

Thalys

I’ve also travelled between Brussels and Paris several times on Thalys, an international joint venture between the French SNCF, Belgian NMBS, and German Deutsche Bahn. This hasn’t always gone quite so smoothly, mostly due to the belligerence of French railway staff and their propensity to go on strike. However, aside from a particularly bad experience last Christmas, partly due to bad weather, the experience has been good. The Thalys trains are newer than Eurostar and also travel around 300kph. One bonus is the availability of WiFi at a reasonable cost so you can work if you’re not on holiday. The train from Brussels arrives at Paris-Nord which is right in the heart of Paris and connects you to everywhere easily via the Metro. It only takes 1 hour and 20 minutes from Brussels. I drove to Paris once and that took over 3 hours and I was faced with the horror of driving my new BMW amongst crazed Parisian drivers and the impossible task of finding a parking space. Never again.

ICE

ICE

German trains are the coolest, mostly because they are sleek and white and called ICE (InterCityExpress). I had the pleasure of travelling on one of these a couple of years ago from Köln to Brussels. These trains travel at up to 320kph and, like the Eurostar and Thalys they are very quiet, smooth and comfortable. The other bonus with travelling within continental Europe is that there is zero security so you just turn up at the station and get on the train. The trains have a dining car so you can purchase snacks if you get hungry.

ICE

Whilst most of Western Europe uses the systems developed for TGV, Germany is slightly different which limits the trains that can cross their international borders. For this reason there are two types of TGV train, domestic and international. The international (ICE 3M) trains are able to cope with changes in voltage experienced on different networks. ICE trains are also the only ones able to run on the Köln-Frankfurt high-speed line because of the steep 4% incline.

There are still differences between the various high-speed systems used across Europe but these are slowly being resolved as a Trans-European high-speed rail network is being realised. Railteam is an alliance of 7 European high-speed rail operators whose aim is to offer integrated rail travel between major European cities in different countries. The aim is that services will be better co-ordinated to offer shorter connection times and more integrated booking. For a great overview of high-speed rail across Europe check out Wikipedia.

Deutsche Bahn

BMW on train (DB Autozug)

In addition to high-speed rail there are of course still plenty of slow trains. In 2009 we decided to go on a driving holiday around the northern half of Italy. However, because it is 1,000kms from Belgium to Italy we weren’t so keen on driving there. It would have used up 4 days of our holiday, cost us 4 nights accommodation, and put 2,000 unnecessary kms on my new car. But we wanted to drive my car when we were in Italy as a rental car would have been expensive and probably not very exciting for zooming through Italian mountain passes. So we booked ourselves on the Deutsche Bahn Autozug, a sleeper train with a car carrier at the back, the perfect solution. The Autozug leaves from Düsseldorf (which is only an hours drive from Antwerp) in the late afternoon, travels overnight down the Rhine Valley, through Austria and the Alps and arrives at 9am in Verona, Italy. Because it was summer it didn’t get dark till after 10pm so we had some very picturesque views of the Rhine Valley out the window of our sleeper.

The train was certainly not fast and it was pretty rattly but with the help of a sleeping tablet I got a good nights sleep while we meandered across the continent. This meant that the first day of our holiday started in Verona and no time was wasted driving there. Two weeks later we were back in Verona for the same trip in reverse. I highly recommend it.

NMBS

NMBS

Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen (National Railway Company of Belgium) is the Belgian National rail operator and, given that I live in Belgium, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on their trains. I’m inclined to believe that they are fairly typical of a continental European train operator in that they are very good. Belgians will complain about their trains but then I think complaining about the trains is a national past-time in every country. My experience has been that they are clean, mostly modern, and generally on-time. Of course there have been occasions when I’ve been inconvenienced by a cancelled train or late one but those have been the exception to the rule. Certainly if you want to travel between Antwerp and Brussels the train is the fastest way. A lot of the trains even have power outlets by the seats for your laptop.

Antwerp Railway Station

By far the best aspect of Belgium’s rail network is not the trains however, but Antwerp railway station. Constructed between 1895 and 1905 it has a vast dome above the foyer with an enormous iron and glass trainshed covering the platforms. According to Wikipedia it was voted the 4th most beautiful station in the world in 2009.

Antwerpen Centraal

It was originally a terminus but has recently been renovated and extended underground so that now a new tunnel continues right under the station and emerges north of Antwerp City. This will allow future high-speed trains to continue through to Amsterdam. So even if you don’t arrive in Antwerp by train, I highly recommend checking out the train station.

Metros/The Tube

The Tube

In addition to overland trains I’ve also experienced the underground system in a few cities, namely London, Paris and Barcelona. They certainly have their flaws but for getting around these big cities quickly, they can’t be beaten. The Tube in London is often crowded, very hot, and some of the stations have endless stairs. Also, for some reason your snot always ends up black after 5 minutes down there… But there is no better way to move across London due to the congestion above ground. The Paris Metro is more modern than the Tube and the stations seem to be better designed as a result. Again, it is the fastest and most efficient way of getting around. The Metro in Barcelona is not as extensive as the other two cities which means you have to walk a bit further to the stations but it is still a good way of getting around. Beware pickpockets though!

So there you have it. As you might have guessed, I quite like trains, particularly the fast ones.