After last night’s rather challenging foray into train ticket purchasing, we figured we were headed for smooth sailing when we grabbed the L1 subway at Sol for the fast ride to Atocha-Renfe and on to Ávila for our day trip. We arrived with plenty of time for coffee and grabbed an available seat at a counter close to the departure platform. The barista was shall we say “gruff” and a bit more so when I pointed to the shot of espresso and asked “café con leche?” She rattled off something in some dialect, wheeled around and grabbed a pitcher of hot milk off the espresso machine and filled the cup to the top. It was nice sitting there watching the commuters and travelers scurrying about, there was even a bit of drama when some old guy with a pony tail got into a shouting match with a woman and her teen-aged daughter. We sat and enjoyed our drinks until some guy working in the back of the shop started rolling empty metal beer kegs by us. The message then was clear – time to move on.
Observing the giant crowd in the office where we’d bought tickets last night, we patted ourselves on the back as we continued on to the entry point for Cercanías trains that we had previously scoped out. It was closed. So we queued up behind some people standing in line for a guy working a window in the same big kiosk. The line wasn’t moving so I turned to a woman behind us was about to ask if we were in the right place when a Renfe agent got in between us and asked where we were heading. I showed him the ticket and he said “No, no, you’re in the wrong station,” well I was ready for that given our ticket buying experience and just as I was about to say “El agente digame” he said, “Yes, yes, right over there” with “there” being somewhere off to our left. Turning on a dime we headed “there” and found nothing so I asked another agent who was either customer service or guarding a giant glass cube with sliding doors where we needed to go. “Right here” she said, waving her arm and opening the door which led to escalators that went down another level. “Via 2 or 3” she called after us as we descended.
Perhaps we were getting somewhere, but it wasn’t all that clear. Turning towards Via 2 & 3 (Vias are the platforms here) we saw another agent and asked “Where?” She replied “Right here, and the train will be either on Via 2 or Via 3 but usually it’s Via 2 so it should be there.” Yes, even more certainty in a morning otherwise built on shifting sands.
To my surprise and relief the Via 2 sign actually said “Ávila” and I figured we were finally on the road to success. The minutes clicked by, a train came and went, our sign changed to “Our of Service” which I rightly assumed was referring to the dark train that didn’t stop. MLW was now involved with a German couple, trying to find their way to El Escorial, the monument that Philip II built in the 16th century to house the bones of his ancestors and to the grandeur of the Catholic faith. The Germans had even less information than we did and it wasn’t even remotely clear if they were in the right place. While this was going on our sign changed from Ávila to some other city, and a train on Via 3 pulled up, collected its passengers and took off. My first thought was of course – that one was ours. It was still a couple of minutes until ours was supposed to leave and there was no indication that it was ever coming. No sign, no announcement, nothing. So I grabbed MLW and headed to the escalator to ask the woman at the top if we’d missed our train. Arriving up top I realized we had somehow taken the wrong escalator since we were now up on the level behind the giant glass cube where we’d gained entrance in the first place. Looking back down I saw that the sign had once again changed, back to Ávila and the train was coming. We got off the up stairs and got on the down stairs and hit the platform just in time. Waiting at the bottom was one of the people we’d met at the ticket counter the night before, the ones that our ticket agent had to run down when he realized the tickets had printed out incorrectly. “Ávila? You’re going to Ávila?” the man said. “The train is right here.” I smiled and thanked him and we got on.
I knew we had tickets for a regional train, I’d chosen it purposely because it left from Atocha which is our closest station. This option avoided a long L1 subway ride to the Chamartin station. But I wasn’t really ready for it to be a subway car. Two hours on a subway? Certainly a new experience for us. Normally the trains are very comfortable and well appointed - this was well, a subway car with fabric covered steel seats, just the kind of thing you want to sit on for the next two hours. We settled in for the ride through the city, all of it underground until Chamartin where we finally came back up above ground. There weren’t many people on the train with us, and the Germans and our friends from last night had disappeared into other cars. We were pretty much alone. There were a lot of stops in Madrid’s northern suburbs, neighborhoods that looked pretty and prosperous in the morning sunshine. Eventually we left the last of the city behind and went on through the countryside we’ve become accustomed to - rocky ground, olive trees and small whitewashed farms.
But it began to change as we climbed into the Sierra de Guadarrama, the mountains that ring the towns north of Madrid. Pines and scrub replaced the olive trees as the foothills began to rise along both sides of the tracks. We made a lot of short stops in tiny towns that had no clear purpose and we continued to climb.
An hour or so outside of Madrid an elderly woman conductor came through the car. I assumed she was going to stamp our tickets, but she only looked at me and mumbled something, the limit of which I caught was “Escorial.” I figured she had assumed we were going there and was nicely pointing out that it was the next station. The Escorial palace had just come into view off in the distance. The station was announced and the train began to slow down. I had moved to the right side of the car to try and get a photo when the train stopped. The woman looked at me and gestured with her head. She said “Escorial” again. I said, “No, we’re going to Avila” and she looked at me and repeated herself. Okay, we got up and stepped out on to the platform. Our train was parked at a dead end and there was another one waiting. As we got on I noticed some other woman smiling at me as though I was not all that bright.
The train started up and rolled on, passing the Escorial and continuing to climb into the mountains. The hills were now covered with low weedy bushes and a few pines, and more rocks than I have ever seen in one place at one time, no doubt due to these mountains being the terminal maximum of the last ice age glacier. Exactly like my backyard in Massachusetts, and identical to what we've seen in Ireland and England, the ground was absolutely strewn with them and in response to nature’s bounty, some ancient farmer had decided to build rock walls to carve up sections of this useless land. To our right, tight rocky hills and to our left, a broad plain stretching off to the east as far as I could see. A very big wind turbine farm hugged one of the ridges ahead of us.
The land changed once again as we crested whatever we’d climbed, giving way to a completely barren prairie, dissected with a huge web of rock walls leading into to the occasional stone farmhouse with an orange tile roof. The fields were very green, some sort of short grass or ground cover and dotted everywhere with black or russet cows. It was quite beautiful in its starkness.
We continued on across this plain before signs of civilization appeared, some villas and eventually the outskirts of Ávila. The station was announced, the train slowed and we pulled into the station.