Before leaving, I had really looked forward to the romantic notion of train travel. Despite my close affection and relationship with many European countries, I’d never interrailled before.
I was aware that I was interrailling about 15 years too late and 15 years too old, which many of my friends tripped over themselves to point out. But if you’re travelling through five different counties over a six-seven week period it seems pretty expensive and socially irresponsible to even consider air travel.
The actual train journeys were brilliant. Copenhagen to Hamburg had been by bus and then boat, with a couple of trains at the end. I got to take the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux which was legitimately exciting – it’s as ludicrously fast as the name would suggest. And the scenery as you cut down the side of the Pyrenees to enter Spain is exactly as breathtaking as epic mountain ranges with snow capped summits basking in the warm foreign sun should be.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Primarily because it was on a train, but also because no matter where you are, there will always be the occasional other train voyager who isn’t quite capable of behaving themselves in as a refined and mindful manner as one should on a train. As we sped southwards with the Mediterranean glistening on our left and the Pyrenees majestically rising on our right, the quiet calm of my carriage was shattered by a high volume Australian gentleman mewling at his daughters they were crossing the Spanish Alps. For some reason it really bothered me. And he kept saying it. Why would you call them the Spanish Alps? Why would you repeat this error more than once? I prevented myself from correcting him which would have definitely been even more dickish, and continued staring out my window.
I wondered what a journey through Europe with him would be like.
“Look kids, The French Rockies.”
“Oh girls, The Paris Leaning Tower Of Italy.”
“The Capital of Catalunya – The Spanish Vienna.”
I tuned out his nasal accent and inane babble.
On top of the occasional other passenger, there is another part of interrailing that grew a bit tiresome. If you are a thorough and prepared traveller, you can spend a lot of time pre booking specific seats on trains ahead of schedule. I mean, I think you can. I didn’t even try. So every time I wanted to get a ticket I elected to go to the ticket office of the appropriate railway station and buy one in person, my preferred, old-school style. In the UK I feel like this is a relatively painless process involving orderly queues and efficient customer service.
European ticket offices are a bit of a cluster fuck. They always have somewhere between 50-100 customers, a maximum on a good day of about two manned desks for public use and a third person sitting at a kiosk doing nothing, and a ticket numbering system that for some reason, can’t just be numbers that increase sequentially.
You take a ticket that says something like A97. At the top of the call out screen will be a very hopeful and promising number like A82.
“Fuck it, I can wait for about 15 customers,” you’ll say to yourself, “get out in time for a spot of lunch and a cheeky wee beer. I am so much better at travel than all those wretched, overbearing control freaks who book their tickets months in advance. I am so good at this. Fuck, I am brilliant. Really I’m just a citizen of the world – bask in my magnificence.”
This narcissistic illusion will then be brutally and mercilessly squashed when some other unforeseen number will appear from nowhere. C36 will suddenly be top of the list.
A cold sweat descends.
What the actual fuck. How many letter categorisations are there? How does it decide which letter takes priority? Suddenly, what seemed like a half hour wait, turns into, quite literally, anybody’s guess. It might be an hour. It might be three. As if by magic, new customers materialise from nowhere and go to the desks ahead of you. And reluctantly, even with a ferociously Pro-European stance, you are forced to admit that some things, such as customer service and queueing, are really pretty good in The UK.
Don’t get me wrong, Interrail should be highly, and I mean HIGHLY commended, for managing to homogenise train companies from a diverse range of countries. But this also creates issues. For example, you’d obviously have to be a presumptuous idiot for assuming there’s a direct train from Bordeaux to Barcelona.
Like I did.
It took not one, but two connections, in France alone. From Carcassonne it was a direct jump to Barcelona. But then I needed to get the train to Lleida, where my pal Dani and his craft beer and record store were awaiting my arrival. Four trains, sevenish hours, and the heat ever increasing with each connection.
Lleida is not a tourist destination. It’s a small town in the west of Catalunya which is very agricultural and a hotspot for Catalan nationalism. It’s peculiar in a couple of respects; primarily the microclimate, which apparently has something to do with where Lleida is situated, having almost completely flat plains to the south west, and the foothills of the “Spanish Alps” to the north east.
An incredibly brief history lesson – bear with me.
Like most of Europe, Spain was an ancient Roman province. The Roman provincial capital for Spain was Tarragona, which is on the Catalan coast, just south of Barcelona. According to my work colleagues when I first taught English in a high school in Lleida when I was 21, Lleida was where Roman soldiers were posted as a punishment for misconduct. “Why?”, I hear you ask.
In the winter, a thick, cold fog descends over Lleida, and it becomes one of the coldest places on the Iberian peninsula. Spring lasts about 3 days in March as the cold then transitions into heat, which then continues to get hotter and hotter until it hits a blistering 40oC+ in August. Autumn lasts 5 days somewhere between November and October and again, the perishing cold returns. I’m exaggerating of course, the weather does vary a little more to one extent or another, but generally, it is widely maintained that Lleida only has two annual seasons of remarkable extremes, at least by Iberian standards, with ludicrously brief transitions in between.
Even though I arrived in Lleida at the beginning of May dressed down to shorts and a t-shirt, sweat was dribbling down my back, and running deep into the crevasse of my arse cheeks long before I even exited the train.
It’s also peculiar, the tricks the mind plays and how memories become distorted over time. The main street in Lleida runs from right next to the train station to the other side of the centre of town where Dani’s bar is situated. In my head I always think it’s a ten minute walk. With luggage, in the evening, when you also forget where exactly the bar is and have to ask directions, it takes a good half hour and change.
Beleaguered, sweaty and thirsty, I presented myself at Dani’s bar for a beer and a catch up.
Little did I know, my trauma was not yet over.
“I have good news and bad news.” said Dani.
“The good news is you have a room and a bed, that’s all fine. The bad news is Idurri is also on the way.”
I had no idea what an Idurri was or what an Idurri would entail, but soon I would find out.
There are forces in nature that defy explanation, forces that really cannot be controlled and must be allowed to simply function.
Six hours later, and three hours later than originally planned, Idurri whirled and clattered into the bar.
Armed with nothing more than a small diving bag, and a glint in his wild eyes, loaded with intent.