Pilgrimage to Catalonia

Barcelona by rail? It may be a schlep but it'll cut down on your air miles. And, says Laura Craig-Gray, it's much more fun than sitting on a plane - just as long as you take your earplugs
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The Independent Travel

Two friends moved to Barcelona earlier this year, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to jump on a plane to visit them. Flying to Barcelona for the occasional weekend need not be expensive in financial terms, but I have concerns about the environmental costs of such a habit.

Two friends moved to Barcelona earlier this year, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to jump on a plane to visit them. Flying to Barcelona for the occasional weekend need not be expensive in financial terms, but I have concerns about the environmental costs of such a habit.

On such a journey, CO 2 emissions per passenger mile are about four times higher by plane than by train. Water vapour and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur emitted into the upper troposphere adds to the damage. You can do only so much pipe-lagging and double-sided photocopying to ease a guilty carbon conscience, so I opted to take a train to Barcelona from my home in London.

My difficulties in booking a seat suggest that few people try this journey by rail. The consultant at STA Travel clearly regarded me as an eccentric. I tried to explain, but he gently reminded me how far Barcelona is and launched into his spiel on flight times anyway.

Looking online - where nearly all short-haul flights are sold these days - I found it impossible to get a through rail ticket. I had to buy a return from London to Paris, then try to book the night train on to Barcelona. But the Rail Europe website www.raileurope.co.uk asserted that there was no availability on this leg for months. Rail Europe's telephone sales person confirmed there were problems with the website and explained my options on the Paris-Barcelona "Train Hôtel": a bed in first, business or tourist class, or a "super inclinable" seat. It turned out that the seats tilt back only a few degrees, which didn't sound particularly super. Anxious not to waste a day of my holiday catching up on sleep, I chose a bed in tourist class.

I also arranged a stopover, allowing myself a day and a half in Paris on the outward leg. Over the years, I have changed planes many times, but the thought of traipsing from the airport to a nearby city and back again has never appealed. Airports the world over cultivate a bland uniformity. You can pass through them without ever yearning to visit the regions to which they are supposed gateways. But since I had to change trains in Paris, it seemed crazy not to arrange a bonus holiday there.

As ever, I felt a frisson of excitement when I boarded the Eurostar. Sure, the grey and yellow livery is beginning to look a little scuffed, but the multilingual announcements, the perfectly coiffed stewardesses and the remarkable engineering achievement that made it all possible ensure that it never feels ordinary. After 20 minutes in the tunnel (more tranquil than a Eurotunnel AGM), we sped across bland French countryside, into the Paris suburbs. The Sacré Coeur loomed above the city.

We arrived at the Gare du Nord 10 minutes early. There were none of the procedural inconveniences of an airport arrival - no wait at the luggage carousel, no queuing at customs or immigration. I strolled off the platform into the heart of Paris. An accordionist played a Chopin waltz, perhaps to ensure that we knew where we were.

I had arranged to stay in the Latin Quarter, that long-established place of pilgrimage for those who believe themselves to be of a radical intellectual persuasion. The proprietors of the Mercure Libertel hotel had set themselves an impossible task - to cultivate an avant-garde, bohemian edge without compromising the slick, uniform Mercure brand. Although not the most characterful hotel, the Libertel is in a fabulous location. Within moments of dumping my bags, I was ambling beside the Seine, dodging elegant elderly Parisiennes walking little dogs.

On this glorious spring evening, courting couples (of all ages, nationalities and degrees of modesty) were out basking in the rosy sunshine. A group of teenage in-line skaters had gathered on the bridge crossing the river to Notre Dame. With moody nonchalance, they performed a series of breathtaking jumps over a horizontal pole two metres above the ground.

I had arranged, alas, to leave Paris the following evening. My train, the Joan Miro, departed from the Gare d'Austerlitz at 8.30pm. It took a while for everyone to find their seats as the train was crowded and very long, with narrow corridors. Space for luggage was in short supply, which caused particular problems for an extended Spanish family who had about a dozen fridge-sized cases.

When I arrived at my cabin, I discovered three matronly Spanish women in their seventies. They had clearly taken this train before as they were expertly shoving bags into nooks and crannies and hanging clothes on the tiny rail above the basin by the window. All was spotless, if cramped. My cabin-mates chatted away to me in sing-song French when they discovered that I don't speak Spanish.

We set off through the Parisian suburbs again, past double-decker suburban trains and out into the countryside. For the early part of the journey we sat on chairs as the beds were folded up against the walls. Our train would travel the pretty way, calling at Orléans, Limoges, Toulouse, Figueres and Girona. It seemed a shame to pass through such scenery at night.

The stewardess soon came round to collect our documents so that we would not be woken as we crossed the border. The passports in her stack came in lots of colours, but mine appeared to be the only British one. I suspect Brits are a rarity: the notices on board appear in French, Spanish, Italian and German, but not English.

There was a bustling bar and a separate restaurant, with subdued lighting, linen tablecloths and three wine glasses per place-setting. The maître d' on the Joan Miro was a rotund man in his fifties, with half-moon specs, a white cloth from his waist to his ankles and a no-nonsense manner. I wished that I had booked a meal.

At about 10pm, the stewardess briskly transformed our cabin, replacing the chairs with two sets of bunk beds, with little ladders and tartan blankets. The cabin felt more spacious with the beds in place, and I could sit up quite comfortably in my top bunk.

This mode of travel would not suit the overly modest. The lavatory at the end of the carriage was minute and so, in tourist class at least, all undressing had to be done in full view of one's cabin-mates, horizontally on the bed.

The women in my cabin proved to be snorers. I suspect that they had a better night than I did. But the rocking motion helped, and I managed about five hours' sleep. The stewardess woke us at 7am, as we sped through a birch forest. Northern Spain looked glorious in the early-morning sunshine. We raced past shuttered villages, and by 8.15 had arrived in Barcelona.

If you have only a weekend, Barcelona is too far by rail. But why allow just a weekend? The train journey is part of the adventure and opens up travel opportunities to those nervous about or opposed to flying. Next time, though, I'll take some earplugs.



A return to Barcelona, travelling second class between London and Paris, and in a tourist-class cabin on the Paris-Barcelona sector costs between £120 and £263 through Rail Europe (0870 584 8848; www.raileurope.co.uk).


Eurostar from London to Paris takes two hours 35 minutes (plus 30 minutes check-in). You have to change stations in Paris. The onward journey to Barcelona takes 12 hours. The flying time from London is around two hours.


Libertel Quartier Latin (00 33 1 44 27 06 45; www.mercure.com). Doubles from €89 (£65).


Barcelona Tourism (00 34 932 384 000; barcelonaturisme.com).