Marrakech Express – London to Marrakech by Train – Part 1May 13th, 2010
Upon leaving the grandeur of London St Pancras one busy Friday afternoon, the epic nature of my adventure began to dawn on me. As usual, Eurostar whisked me away through the Kent countryside and into Paris, then I made the easy metro transfer on line 5 to Gare d’Austerlitz. This all seemed fairly straightforward, but was simply the hors d’oeuvres for what was to come.
The Paris-Madrid overnight train commenced boarding around 45 minutes prior to departure, and the friendly Spanish steward showed me to my cabin. It is somewhat bizarre that, little more than 3 hours since London, the unmistakable lilt and lisp of Castilian Spanish between train staff can be heard. The Elipsos train is run by Renfe (Spanish Rail), and I consider it to be the best scheduled overnight service in Europe. There are three main classes of sleeper travel, the “Turista” – a 4 berth couchette with limited facilities and no meals included, “Club Class” – a 2-berth compartment with washbasin and breakfast included, and the best of them all, “Grand Class” – again a 2-berth but this time with ensuite toilet and shower, as well as evening meal and breakfast in the train’s excellent restaurant car. The upgrade to Grand Class is excellent value, seeing as your meals are taken care of, and you can feel fresh in the morning after a shower in your own private ensuite compartment. Having boarded the train shortly after 7pm, I made my way along to the restaurant car where I enjoyed a three course meal, which was restaurant-quality, and very impressive for a scheduled train. Adjourning to the bar with a nightcap was quite natural progression, and went a long way to ensuring I dropped off to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow!
During the night, the train changes bogies in Irun, on the Spanish border, as the Iberian peninsular runs on a different gauge to the rest of Europe. Thanks to my rather large Remy Martin VSOP at the bar the previous evening, I slept through this process, and woke up in time for an invigorating shower and breakfast while watching the sun rise across the countryside north of the Spanish capital. As the train rolled into Madrid Chamartin, in the northern part of the city, I turned my mind to my metro transfer between the two stations. I needn’t have worried, as this is relatively easy – Madrid’s metro system is clean and regular, and before too long I was at the modern and airy Madrid Atocha station. With a couple of hours to spare before my train to Cordoba, I made use of the left luggage facilities and popped up to the Botanical Gardens as well as taking a look at the architecture around the Prado Museum. I wished I’d given myself more time to see more of what Madrid has to offer, but that will be for a later date.
The Spanish government has invested royally in their rail network over the last 20 years, and nothing better illustrates this than the AVE high-speed train. Having been fortunate enough to travel by rail in the majority of European countries, I would without hesitation suggest that the Spanish AVE trains are the best in Europe. These trains have three classes of travel – there is “Turista” standard class, which is self-explanatory, and then there is “Preferente” and “Club”, which are both First Class. Both Preferente and Club entitle you to lounge access at the departure station, as well as a meal on board. Club is more exclusive than Preferente, and essentially is a slightly enhanced food and drinks menu. Another great feature are complimentary earphones for all classes of travel and a range of audio channels, with one linked to an “in-flight” movie, usually English with Spanish subtitles. The audio channels cater for a range of musical tastes – alarmingly, when I first plugged them in before the train left Madrid, the gravelly tones of Rod Stewart asking me if I thought he was sexy was the first thing I heard. After some swift changes of the at-seat control, a Scottish musical genius was swapped for a German, and I enjoyed some Beethoven as we rolled smoothly out of the southern suburbs of Madrid. Soon afterwards, the at-seat service of a Cava aperitif and a meal. A fine lunch was enjoyed by the packed Preferente coach, as we sped through the countryside, arriving in Cordoba in under 2 hours.
Arriving in Cordoba, I went out to the well-organised taxi rank and took a cab through to the Hospes Palacio del Bailio, which was to be my overnight stay on the route through to Morocco. The Hospes hotel group have an excellent reputation with various top-end properties chiefly in Spain, although this was my first Hospes experience. To put it mildly, the hotel simply took my breath away. It is blessed with Andalucian charm because Hospes pride themselves in buying and renovating old buildings, many of them listed, which essentially means you are staying in an old Cordoba town house. This contributes to a wonderful guest experience, unlike any I have enjoyed at the many hotels I have been fortunate enough to stay at across our programme. You are made to feel special and wanted the moment you walk through the door and shown to your room. The hotel has a fantastic restaurant, a reading room steeped in history and a beautiful interior courtyard furnished with orange and lemon trees along with a tastefully appointed swimming pool. The deafening tranquillity along with the gorgeous aroma of the trees in blossom make you appreciate more and more this oasis in the heart of the old town.
Like many large settlements in southern Spain, Cordoba was under Muslim rule for many centuries, and the rich architectural heritage is there for all to see. The old town takes the form of a medieval medina, the like of which I expected to see once I had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar. Each alleyway, nook and cranny is a new adventure, and getting lost is one of the great pleasures of visiting this atmospheric centre. I eventually found myself to the Mezquita in the middle of town, crossed the magnificent Roman bridge for some great photo opportunities and eventually found myself a quintessentially Spanish tapas bar for some early dinner.
When I returned to the Hospes, my room had been “turned down” and I found a candle and bathsalts in the bathroom and a weather forecast for the next day which was none too appealing. What did I care? I adjourned to the hotel bar, ordered a large Jerez brandy and gave my feet a welcome rest.
Simons journey contiunes with part 2 here.