Let me be the first to reiterate powerfully that I love trains; I would also hasten to add that since a peculiar childhood, influenced by a father who was totally enamoured by public transportation, I have collected, read, studied and loved timetables. It is a curious interest, perhaps, but no reason to move a couple of seats away from me in a waiting room.
There are many fine train rides, often collected in glossy coffee table books, labouring under a title like “The Greatest Train Rides in the World”, or some such other similar title; many are terrific, many are simply there because the author scored a free ticket to travel on the train and include it in their catalogue, some are simply ordinary, but take place in a strange part of the world.
They are all mildly exciting. Few, however, are part of a major European city’s regional suburban system, and are thus not always so easy to find. Having told friends about the run down the mountains into Barcelona, they asked at local stations to astonished disbelief, "There is no such train" they were told, but I knew better.
The run from La Tour de Carol, an unusual town lying astride the Spanish and French border at an altitude of about 1,400 metres down to Barcelona is a fine journey, and starts at the evocative and rather marvellous station, large for its current, rather dozy existence, but in days gone by, a busy centre of smuggling between the two countries. Smuggling of people, northbound from Franco’s ghastly regime and southbound from pursuing Nazis, of goods, mostly of an alcoholic nature and the rather pungent Spanish tobacco, was the mainstay of the local economy. And the station, sitting pompously on the border reflected the authorities’ attempts to subdue or at least profit from this trade.
It is also where everybody changes trains; railway tracks in Spain are 5’5 ²¹̷₃₂” wide, while their French counterparts make their railways travel over tracks that are a mere 4’8 ½”. Now the discrepancy of just over 9” makes travel cumbersome, not to mention dangerous if attempted. If you think that this is all a bit unnecessary, know that in Spain alone, four different gauges of railways exist in the country, this one being called the Ancho Iberico, if you were wondering.
We, however, only wanted a scenic railway ride, and fortified with a marvellous lunch at the Auberge Catalane (opens daily at noon for lunch), we were in time for the 1345 train to Barcelona. The train is not a normal one, and is awkward to find details of its running. It is, in fact, part of the Rodalies de Catalunya (route R3), and thus wobbles its suburban way for three hours down through the mountains to the coast.
The journey is terrific; there are 22 stations on the way, and for the first ninety minutes or so, they are picturesque Catalan hill stations, the train populated by market goers and hordes of hikers and bikers back from the mountains. The Pyrenees are truly stunning; unlike the Alps, Rockies and even the Great Caucasus, they have an almost human shape; rising up to 4,000 metres, that assume dizzying heights in a formation that seems to bend with the wind. They are beautiful, and in common with other distant and remote ranges are home to dozens of ancient cultures and languages, some living in adjacent valleys for millennia, yet with mutually incomprehensible lives.
The train journey is more than worth the €12 that one is charged for the privilege, and once in Barcelona, there are a choice of five different stations to alight, suiting all but the most persnickety. Our aim was to enjoy some tapas, wander the unique streets of the city and enjoy dinner at the Catalan restaurant El Glop in the district of Gracia.
Barcelona is an astonishing city; it is one that I believe could be detected if blindfold. Its streets follow a unique pattern of hexagonal corners, and the ambient noise of the city comes from the thousands of scooters that whizz around all day and all night. It is an exciting city for those who wait. Dinner time is, in the Spanish way, from 9.00pm onward, and arriving at midnight, on a Tuesday or Wednesday is not at all uncommon.
A walk back through the town looking at its collection of eclectic and gripping architectural masterpieces, the Sagrada Familia, the Bullring, the Arc de Triomf and the superb (at night) Agbar building were all on the way to the hotel, was a fine end to the day.
And so to the hills in the morning; an hours’ walk to the train station to catch the return journey to La Tour de Carol (in Barcelona called La Tor de Querol) proved uneventful; other than the small matter of purchasing the tickets.
Although the train heads to La Tour de Carol, and indeed says so on the front, the ticketing office will only sell a ticket as far as Puicgerdá (pronounced Poo-chair-DA); and should one want to use a credit card, then the ticket office was of no use at all, and a machine had to be brought to attention and made to dispense the tickets. I am not sure why the Rodalies Catalunya pretend that the final station on their route does not exist, perhaps it is because it is in France, but needless to say, after a little confusion, a ticket was bought, the train boarded and the three-hour haul up the mountains commenced.
And let me say that the return journey was spectacular. While the southbound trip was wonderful, heading into the mountains gave one a sense of spectacle; they loomed ever closer, the population on the train thinned out, the stations became more rural and finally, almost poetically, we jumped into the scenery; Secret meadows far below us, cascading waterfalls of spring run-off thundering into the rivers, tiny and ancient houses perched precariously on the hills and the ruins of ancient fortifications punctuating the skyline. Terrific stuff, and when the six-carriage train pulled into La Tour (each carriage could carry up to 203 passengers, 58 seated, for a total potential passenger capacity of 1218), only 12 of us got off.
The lucky ones.