Bilbao was great. If you discount my slight bike mishap during the race, I had a wonderful time and was quite enchanted by the dynamic little city.
The one thing that was a little less enchanting about my Spanish trip were the logistics involved in getting there from the ten-house hamlet in Southern France I was using as a Spring base. It took me two whole weeks of checking flights, buses, timetables, prices to finally come up with a plan.
With no large airport anywhere close (other than Marseille which offered expensive flights via Paris, London or even Amsterdam…), I opted to take the train to Biarritz on the way there (12 hours – arrgh!), and the bus + train via Zaragoza on the way back (13 hours – double aargh!!).
In fact, as I write this I’m still on the way back…
I survived the out journey with a little more chocolate than was strictly necessary, but none of the pain usually associated with the French public transport system. Mercifully everything was running more or less on time.
The day after the race, I popped my bike onto the coach at 9am and admired the Spanish countryside for three long hours. Zaragoza station was massive and empty and boring, and the free wifi kicked me out after twenty minutes, so I killed the next two hours drinking coffee and dozing against my bike bag.
Fifteen minutes before my train was due I dragged my unwilling body up off the floor, hoisted one end of the case into the air and trundled towards the ramp leading to the platform. The gate was shut and there was bizarrely no one else about. I looked around, a little confused. A janitor noticed me and pointed to the opposite end of the station, where a row of other ramps led down to the platforms.
Now when I say “opposite end”, I mean the end which is 500 metres down the empty Zaragoza station hall. This was not good. I had no choice. I legged it, bike in tow. It still took forever and when I finally made it to the other side, I realised I had to go through what looked like an airline gate with stern guards and x-ray machines before I could board the train.
Second problem: I had no printed ticket – I had bought it online. I spun round to face the machines waiting in the corner and pulled out my phone to retrieve my booking number. I had ten minutes. I should be OK.
The machine glared at me and refused my request: it didn’t recognise the reference. Excuse me?? I started to sweat. Tried again and was met by the same blank screen.
I lugged the bike across to the info desk and strung together my entire Spanish vocabulary whilst waving my phone at the guy behind the glass. I had bought my ticket via the SNCF (French train service); I couldn’t print the ticket at the RENFE (Spanish train service) machine. Help por favor!!!
No, lo siento. RENFE office over there.
Are you serious??! This was not happening to me. The next train to Avignon probably wasn’t until tomorrow, and I hadn’t been that inspired by Zaragoza so far. I turned and sprinted another 150m through the station in the opposite direction to the boarding gates, chucked my bike against a glass wall and barged into the office. A distinguished lady wearing glasses was talking on the phone, running a pen down a list of numbers on the desk in front of her.
I was shaking. She didn’t seem to notice.
I checked my watch again: seven minutes. Madam Spectacles reeled numbers off into the phone without lifting her eyes. Adrenaline started pumping and there was no way I was not getting on that train.
Stuff it, a little acting never hurt anyone. I gasped, put a hand to my diaphragm and swayed from one foot to the other. She finally looked up. I made sure my voice wavered as I handed her my phone with the screenshot of my travel confirmation and explained haltingly that I couldn’t print the French-bought ticket at the Spanish machine.
She shrugged – what do you expect me to do? – and barked into the phone. My basic Spanish was sufficient to understand she was telling her colleague in a disgusted voice to expect a last-minute hopeless traveller. She waved me away. It seemed to be sorted. Until she lifted her head and spotted my bike leaning on the glass pane outside. Her eyes narrowed as she pointed the pen at it.
You’re travelling with that? Sì. It is far too big to take on board and anyhow, bikes aren’t allowed.
Five minutes. My hyperventilating was only half-faked.
Somehow, she managed to simultaneously shake her head, talk to her colleague and tell me rudely I should know the baggage policies of local transport. La bicicleta, es imposible.
I sobbed, hopped up and down again and willed my tear ducts to do their stuff. Exceptionally, they would accept my bike. Go, go away. NOW!
Muchas, muchas gracias!!
I grabbed my bike, tore through the hall and skidded to a stop at the X-ray machine. I just about climbed onto the mat after my bags in my haste but thankfully caught myself in time.
They were waiting for me at the gate and waved me through. I skated sideways down the moving carpet onto the platform, my 20kg bike chasing me on gravity-propelled wheels; carriage 8 was thank goodness the first and I leaped on without pausing. The door slid silently shut behind me and the train glided serenely out of the station, making a total mockery of the last fifteen minutes.
I leant breathlessly against the toilet cubicle door, lungs heaving. I turned my head and looked around me in disbelief. There was more luggage space than anyone on the train knew what to do with. My bike would be traveling to France in comfort.
Needless to say I couldn’t log onto the on-board wifi because I didn’t have a printed ticket with a Spanish reference number. I spent the next eight hours of mind-numbing boredom staring out the window, trying to bring my heart rate down to a reasonable level and thinking that maybe next time I would book a couple of flights via Amsterdam or Moscow or Dubai and stop being so bloody eco-friendly…