Friday, January 17, 2014

17 January 2014 - Madrid to Alicante

Sleep was not very easy to come by. I woke up almost every hour after I hit the bed. By 3 am I was tired of the hourly, almost metronome precision, visits to the loo. My circadian clock was perhaps letting me know that it was well past the wake up hour in Cochin! I decided to update the expenses account and complete the blog write up. I did not repent for the thoughts flowed clear and without breaks. In a couple of hours all was done. There were three hours and more to go before the promised time of meeting Vinod over breakfast at a quarter past 8. I was so sure that I would wake up without an alarm that I settled back comfortably into the bed.

I was not sure how long I had slept when I heard the room phone ring. It was Vinod. I had missed the breakfast appointment. It was almost 9 am! I quickly went down to the dining hall. Mercifully Vinod had finished his breakfast when I started tucking into mine. I picked up a bowl of muesli with milk and a plate of ham, cheese and brown bread. European breakfast does not consist of egg, but there was some preparation laced with egg. Hot helpings of strong coffee and canned juices helped the solids down. In the meantime, Vinod got in touch with the agents in Alicante and Barcelona to plan further for the day. After a few calls we decided to travel to Alicante in the afternoon, for MV DAINA was expected to port at 5 pm. The young girl at the reception found out for us over the Net that there are almost hourly trains to Alicante. The best way to find out alternatives was to go to the Renfe train station using a combination of buses and Metro trains.

Despite the fact that we were using the transport systems for the first time it was completely hassle free. A day pass ensured unlimited travel in Madrid by Metro and bus. Using connecting Metro hubs and hopping from one line to another we reached the Atocha Renfe station in less than an hour. After scouring various options we settled for the 4.25 pm fast train to Alicante, called AVE. It promised to cart us in 2 hours and 20 minutes to Alicante, a distance of 410 kilometers. The fare was under Euro 68 per passenger. Enquires earlier in the day for flight tickets turned up atrocious fares ranging from INR 16,000 to 32,000 per passenger! And we thought such fares were peculiar to India and the effect of cartelization among the airlines! Anyway, we were quite happy to have got a cheaper alternative.

We had about three hours ‘to kill’ before leaving the hotel for the train station. The choices were to either make a short visit to the older part of Madrid, the Sol, or to the iconic Real Madrid football stadium. The latter was preferred when time was considered. The Santiago Bernabeu Metro station deposited us almost outside the stadium. The Euro 19 entrance fee for Tour Bernabeu was well worth it, in the end. Tour operators brought in large number of visitors to the stadium. The almost reverential look on the faces of those who alighted from the coaches as they set their first sight of the stadium signified the huge impact the game had worldwide and the god-like respect footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and the like enjoyed. The Tour Bernabeu is well organized. There are volunteers to direct the visitors and of course, photographers at vantage locations to tease you out of a few Euros. A well appointed souvenir shop had the tills ringing aloud. There were even machines where one could make one’s own choice of souvenir out of a Euro coin. I turned one into a Ronaldo souvenir for my son, Ajay, who is a huge ManU fan; a heartbroken one today, thanks to their poor post Ferguson performances.

The Tour is organized in 9 levels. The first level is reached after you climb up one of the four towers of the stadium, with the help of escalators of course. This view affords a panoramic view of the majestic stadium. From the top most stands also one can get a good view of the action on the turf. At the time of visit the turf was being heat treated and moisture was being taken out to neutralize the winter conditions. The tour brochure describes the stands as a place “where one can almost touch the sky and yet listen in silence to the echoes of a million cheering fans”. It is not an empty boast. The press and commentary boxes are secure temperature controlled enclosures with TV display. The Best-Club-Ever Room is next. This is a modern and interactive room provided with giant screens and multi-touch technology. The room has almost every prestigious silver ever produced for football – European Cups, intercontinental Cups, Spanish Leagues, UEFA Cups, Super Cups and many such. The awe grows as one navigates through one end of the room to the other. The Trophy Room is the third attraction, continuing on from the previous showcase of achievements of the real Madrid teams over the years. Carefully preserved memorabilia enhance the historical value of the museum. The piece de resistance is the pitch where rivals have faced off for over 60 years, marking struggle, triumph and passion. The Presidential Box is reserved for the VIPs and the most important guests. The changing rooms are now open to public. These are the places great players, past and present, of legendary teams have used. The players’ tunnel, the benches and coaching areas are other emotional locations in the stadium. A walk around in these places is almost magical. It is difficult not to compare the ancient atmosphere in the Coliseum and the modern in the Real Madrid Stadium; the intense competition, the passion of participation, the heights of glory and the teeming fans. The Press Room, where the match is dissected between coaches, players and reporters is a simple affair. The Tour rounds off, naturally, in the Souvenir Shop. The Tour leaves one spellbound – how well an iconic stadium has been marketed.

We had to hurry back to the hotel, pick up our bags from the locker and get to the train station well in time for the Alicante Express. We knew that the trains in Europe leave on the dot and maintain exemplary timing. We chose not to take any chances on that front and settled for a taxi to get us to the train station. The driver, fully aware of the time limitation, took a longer route skirting city traffic and got us to the station about 25 minutes before the scheduled departure. The gate for the train had just then opened and we settled into the coach and wondered why we were issued two window seats and not two seats together. A lady agreed to shift for the sake of the two of us sitting side by side. The luggage was firmly lodged in the rack and we settled down to enjoy the ride when a passenger came to us and produced her ticket for one of the seats we were occupying! Then we realized that the tickets we had were for two different coaches, one in coach 4 and another in coach 12. We were in coach 4. I picked up my shoulder bag and ran out of the coach in search of coach 12. Fortunately, there was enough time.

As soon as the train started a conductor distributed headsets to listen to music and radio on the channels provided by Renfe, the train operator. ADIF is the company that does the management, maintenance and construction of rail infrastructure. Spain has nearly 15,000 kilometers of rail track of various gauges. High speed corridors are being developed on the European gauge to integrate it with the rest of the Continent. No one came around to check tickets, the doors closed a few minutes prior to departure and train left at 4.25 pm, as scheduled. The ride was so smooth and noiseless that I felt jealous and angry; both because train rides were not so in India. The densely placed concrete sleepers and better maintained tracks and coaches possibly were the reasons for the excellent ride quality. The vast countryside zipped by as the train attained speeds of over 300 kmph; large swaths of farm lands lay prepared for the next planting season after the harsh winter. Daytime temperature ranged from 7 to 10 degree centigrade. Heating in vehicles and trains make it comfortable. However, the lower temperature and winds combine for a tough outdoor, unless one is adequately protected. On the train I listened to international music on one of the channels – it even had Hindi remixes, a ghazal and the old classic Aao Huzur Tumko.

Albacete Los Llanos was the only stop at 5.45 pm. I had not felt the passage of an hour and twenty minutes till then, thanks to the mellifluous music and the lovely countryside. It got dark quickly thereafter and I settled down to jotting down points for the day’s blog. The train reached Alicante exactly at the appointed time of 6.45 pm and I decided to keep the earphones as a souvenir of the train travel. 

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