2 NIGHT TRAIN FROM PORT BOU 2 3 by Basil Howitt 3 You may think that this was a daft request. When my wife Clare asked me what I wanted for my 68th birthday, I said a week in Madrid – but we must, please, go on The Night Train from Port Bou (the Estrella Costa Brava or Star of the Costa Brava). Instead of this journey lasting 11hrs 41 minutes, I could have chosen the daytime option of the Talgo from Perpignan to Barcelona and thence on the high speed AVE train (Alta Velocidad Espanola) to Madrid. I was set on the night train for several reasons. First of all I love all night trains: they are time-efficient, and the gentle clattering of the wheels lulls you to sleep, or at least into a nice doze or dreamland. It’s comforting to think you are being whisked along at 3 a.m. by a fully alert train driver. Another reason I chose the Estrella was because it may not survive much longer. It was pulled in October 2007 but later resumed after howls of protest. It must cost a fortune to keep open all night the many stations dotted across huge swathes of three Spanish regions: Catalonia, Aragon and Castile La Mancha. The train trundles south-west from Portbou via Barcelona to Tarragona. It then veers west as far as Calatayud before descending south west again to Madrid. Twenty-one stations in all, with few passengers if any getting on or off after Tarragona. 3 Line Diversion 3 May I briefly reminisce on the time-efficiency of night trains? In my cello playing days the one from London to Manchester (now long gone) enabled my duo partner James and I to do a gig at the Café Royal on Regent Street which would have been otherwise impossible. I finished at the BBC studios in Manchester at 4.00 p.m., met James at Piccadilly station whence we hurtled down to Euston. Taxi to the Café Royal – where the Commissionaire curtly instructed us to “use the kitchen entrance please gentlemen” – played background salon music (requests included) to the punters for three hours – taxi back to Euston and then the night train back to Manchester. Even travelling second class there was a steward to serve us tea, biscuits and a nightcap, before a good night’s sleep. Then time for a shower, and a good breakfast in the BBC canteen before a rehearsal at 10 o’clock. 3 TER: a fare dodger’s paradise 3 We left Perpignan at 17.26 in a virtually empty TER train (Transport Express Régional), arriving on time at 18.12 at Portbou’s main “French” platform (with its standard European track gauge of 1435-mm). Sadly, this line, serving all the stations from Narbonne, is a fare-dodger’s dream. Rarely does a contrôleur (ticket inspector) appear and it’s often impossible to buy a ticket at stations along the line. Is there a covert policy by SNCF to decimate the service by pointing to zero revenues on some journeys? At Portbou we had time to spare before catching the Estrella at 19.40. So we could enjoy a fine Catalan peasant dish in the station’s lively cafeteria: trinxat. This is a simple purée of mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage accompanied by gently fried belly pork slices, the purée being anointed with the melted fat. Not everyone’s choice but definitely mine! Then over to platform 8 to our Night Train. We were now of course on the standard Spanish track width of 1668-mm. The train was practically empty until Barcelona where it filled for Madrid. The cafeteria with its friendly barman was open throughout the journey apart from a break in the small hours. 3 Getting comfortable 3 We had chosen to travel 1st class “reclining” rather than share a compartment with 4 couchettes. Our coach was packed, noisy babies included, but they soon settled down and silence was the norm after an hour or so. Those less well cushioned than myself had some difficulty in getting comfortable and some ingenuity was required. The claim that the seats were “reclining” was rather overstated, given the scant few centimetres of backward tilt possible. And except for the tallest, there were no reachable footrests. In their desperate attempts to get a bit more horizontal, some passengers thought they had hit on a clever solution. Having discovered that the seats could swivel on their base, they tried this in order to put their feet up alongside their partners. The whole carriage quickly cottoned on to this manoeuvre and so a jolly air of camaraderie prevailed while people rushed up and down asking “how do you do that?” Seats were soon swinging round all over the place like a sort of mad carousel. In the end it turned out that the swivel facility was nothing at all to do with getting comfortable. So everybody gave up and subsided into variously postured quiet lumps, covered by their coats, their feet propped on various cases or bags, and their heads hanging down over their partners and friends in various contorted positions. 3 Vulgar! 3 I slept soundly though Clare was more wakeful – especially when she looked out of the window in the early hours and thought she was having a nightmare. Was it at Flix (00.52)? Caspe (01.34.)? La Puebla de Hijar (02.03)? – or even Calatayud (04.16)? Whichever, outside a station bar on the far platform Clare swears she saw several drunken youths celebrating the end of a Friday night out by baring their backsides for the delectation of any passengers looking out of the window. I’m told this is called “mooning”. Enough! For a simpleton like me it was overall a memorable experience and we came back the same way; the only difference being that on the return journey the Estrella actually goes beyond Port Bou, terminating on the “Spanish” platform at Cerbère, on the French side of the Balitres tunnel. Alas the cheminots (railway workers) of Cerbère are in high dudgeon. Fifty of their jobs will be axed by June 2009, and it seems little can be done. But that’s a story for another time. *** 3 References and follow up: 3 Port Bou always appears as Portbou in Spain, and often as two words elsewhere. [Estrella Costa Brava: 2 night shots on platform 8 at Portbou. Scroll down to photos 21 and 22->http://www.railforums.co.uk/showthread.php?t=19952]
[Estrella Costa Brava waiting at Portbou with engine->http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://esepueblo.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/costa-brava.jpg&imgrefurl=http://esepueblo.wordpress.com/2007/08/11/portbou-perdera-otro-servicio-en-septiembre/&h=398&w=530&sz=66&hl=en&start=4&sig2=jISXeUVdsYRJwraLnRyUOw&um=1&usg=__EgiyYuCtnQz_XrjVB-BuhplmWiM=&tbnid=amFBD5DPp6gdCM:&tbnh=99&tbnw=132&ei=k1cZSZntAZq80wT00o37DA&prev=/images%3Fq%3DPort%2BBou%2B%252B%2BEstrella%2BCosta%2BBrava%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26rlz%3D1G1GGLQ_ENFR275]
[Estrella Costa Brava: videos galore->http://video.google.com/videosearch?source=ig&hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENFR275&q=Estrella+%2B+Costa+Brava&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=X&oi=video_result_group&resnum=4&ct=title#]
[Film still from Night Mail – the GPO film unit’s documentary of 1935 with music by Benjamin Britten and W H Auden. (The film can be bought from amazon.)->http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.rohedpetergrimes.org.uk/cont/britten/image003.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.rohedpetergrimes.org.uk/pgs/main/news_story.asp%3Fid%3D2&h=240&w=320&sz=24&hl=en&start=2&sig2=MWm20d8ZiKD_QtuT3n0YvQ&um=1&usg=__wA6J6_2NOu2GmKD0iE7–vw41ag=&tbnid=p_MJu53pmuqoSM:&tbnh=89&tbnw=118&ei=alkZSfLbIpOA0gSandSBDQ&prev=/images%3Fq%3D%2522Night%2BTrain%2522%2B%252B%2BBritten%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26rlz%3D1G1GGLQ_ENFR275]
[Estrella timetable Portbou – Madrid->http://horarios.renfe.es/hir/index.jsp?page=hjhir130.jsp&O=79315&D=MADRI&AF=2008&MF=12&DF=01&SF=1&ID=i] © 2008 Basil Howitt Basil Howitt has also written
[Life in a Penguin Suit->Life in a Penguin Suit] (Camerata Productions 1993)
[Love Lives of the Great Composers->Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound and Vision 1995)
[Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Lives and Lusts of the Great Composers->Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Loves and Lusts of the Great Composers] (Robson Books 1998)
[More Love Lives of the Great Composers->More Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound And Vision 2002)
Walter and His Daughters: The Story of the Carroll Family of Manchester (Forsyth Brothers Ltd 2005) [(You can contact Basil by email: [basil.howitt@packsurfwifi.com->basil.howitt@packsurfwifi.com])]


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