George Pearce

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The Overnight Renfe Estrella Train (Barcelona to Spain)

TL;DR: The Estrella is cheap but it isn’t particularly comfortable or quiet in preferente and looked unbearable in tourista. Next time, we’ll be flying or taking the ave.

When you think of transport between two of Spain’s major cities, Barcelona and Madrid, there are really three options: plane, train or bus. When we visited Spain recently, Alice and I elected to take the train – and instead of taking the ave (high speed), we thought we’d try the overnight Estrella train from Barcelona to Madrid.

We booked our tickets not long after Christmas, securing two preferente seats for just shy of €32 each. This is significantly cheaper than the cheapest tickets on the ave, so we thought we’d gotten a good deal. We also knew already that preferente meant no beds – just reclining chairs, though the renfe website (and any online information about the Estrella train) made this about as clear as mud. We also saw (post-booking) some horrendous reviews – they said the service was old, noisy, smelly and uncomfortable. Expectations were not high.

We arrived at the train station about an hour and a half ahead of our departure – and unfortunately the Barcelona Preferente lounge was closed for refurbishment – so we found a spot and sat on the floor. There is a McDonald’s in the station, which means free (though not fast) WiFi is available, and it doesn’t have any time restrictions on it – a good way to pass the time.

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A view of the preferente carriage

And so to the train: we were pleasantly surprised (for a little while, at least). The train is definitely old and dated – it was almost certainly used for a day service and to save it from retirement, it looks like Renfe repurposed it for the Estrella. With that said, the preferente class seating (seen below in various grainy photos) was not at all bad – it was comfortable and the chairs reclined to about 30 degrees. There was also more than enough legroom, and when we travelled there were only 8 people in a 76-seat preferente carriage – making for several seats each.

The seat at full recline

The seat at full recline

With that said, I had a brief look in a standard tourista class carriage while we were travelling, and that looked awful. The seats in that class don’t recline and have significantly less than the cost legroom we enjoyed – the best I can liken it to is Ryanair / easyJet seating – it looks like it was designed with short trips in mind, and I would not want to sleep in it (or even try to).

Tourista class

Tourista class

The carriage also smelled pretty bad – perhaps the combination of an entire carriage of travellers removing their shoes – perhaps this is where all of the terrible reviews came from. The preferente class is a reasonable alternative, and with advance booking prices being pretty reasonable – and even if you rock up on the day, it is still only about €60 a seat.

After we pulled away and everyone settled down to try and get some sleep, we noticed two things. One: the seats, while reclining, are damn near impossible to get comfortable on. It may have been because I’m relatively tall, but I got very little sleep that night. The second is that it isn’t quiet – various fixtures (mostly the tables built into the seats) rattle and shake with the train, making an infuriating amount of noise. In the end, we both got minimal sleep, and checked into our hotel at 8am the following morning (8 hours ahead of schedule – the Puerta America Madrid is awesome) to get some much needed shuteye before we explored Madrid.

So, the Estrella was a functional way of travelling between cities and saving a night in a hotel, but it wasn’t in any way luxurious or even especially comfortable. Next time, I think we’ll fly or take the ave.

Frankfurt Christmas Markets

frankfurt-christmas-market

In December last year, Alice and I visited Frankfurt for a weekend – primarily to visit the famous German Christmas Markets. While Frankfurt isn’t by any stretch the most famous, it is still a wonderful experience that sprawls around the city centre (and never seems to end) – complete with German sausages, art, and beer. Christmas Markets have been a tradition in Frankfurt for more than 600 years [1], and the German Christmas Market concept is replicated in many cities across the UK – something that has greatly bolstered its popularity.

We chose Frankfurt because of its proximity to the largest airport in Germany, and because the location (Römerberg Square) is an easy walk from pretty much any hotel in the area. It also helped that British Airways had a deal on flights and a hotel for a weekend in December!

One of the first things we noticed about the market was the smell – something that is hard to describe, but is a mixture of baked apples, mulled wine and grilled sausages – a sort of inviting smoky smell that sets the tone for the whole experience.

The Christmas Market itself is presented as a maze of wooden stalls, brightly lit and selling everything from food to metal art (I wish I had gotten a picture) and lots more in between. There’s no real direction, so you can stumble around completely at random and enjoy the delicacies and oddities. The food was reasonably priced, and indeed made up most of what we ate during the day on our weekend.

If you want to find out more about the German Christmas Markets, this website has a complete list and a huge amount of information.

Plans for 2014

2013 wasn’t really a big travel year for me – the combination of finishing University and starting my own business didn’t leave a whole lot of time. I travelled to Italy and Germany – at the start and end of the year.

Thankfully, I’ve a little more planned for 2014:

Spain – Alice and I will be visiting Barcelona and Madrid in January, and taking the Estrella overnight train to connect the two. Spoiler: if you aren’t Spanish, the Renfe booking website is a nightmare.

Netherlands – Sometime in March, I will be spending a weekend in Amsterdam – somewhere I visited in 2012 and have since looked forward to doing again. This time around I’ll be flying in (rather than getting a £1 Megabus) with the wonderful budget carrier that is easyJet.

USA – In late 2014, I plan to visit the US – starting on the West coast and working my way East until I reach New York, from where I will be flying home. The plan is to spend between three weeks and a month out there, during which I would like to visit LA / San Francisco / Tennessee (three guesses why), the Smithsonian Space Museum, and other wonderful places I haven’t settled on yet.

I’d also like to visit Italy again, Morocco, Russia, Poland and Turkey, though I haven’t settled on any fixed plans for those.

Here’s to 2014 being a busy year!

Escaping to Frankfurt

A few weekends ago, Alice and I travelled to Frankfurt for a few days away – the first we’ve had since Venice at the start of 2013. We booked a simple holiday package through British Airways that gave us two nights in a hotel just outside Frankfurt (the NH Niederrad) and time to explore and relax.

Apart from BA managing to leave our baggage in London (though they did fly it out pretty quickly) the trip was relaxing and had the desired effect – to get some time away from computers. The NH does have wifi and in-room wired internet, but it isn’t particularly quick or reliable. For the purposes of this trip though, it was ideal.

Frankfurt is a fantastic place to explore, and while it’s Christmas market isn’t one of the ones everyone talks about, it is still pretty impressive – it sort of sprawls around the centre of Frankfurt (we found it entirely by accident) and just seems to keep going.

Hopefully after Christmas I’ll have more time to post about Frankfurt, the Christmas Markets, and our hotel.