Monday, 30 March 2009

Transport tribulations on route to Valencia

We nearly didn't make it to Valencia at all.
The signs weren't good. When our Valenciana friend Amalia suggested a trip en masse by people from the Pueblo Ingles La Alberca programme end of October 2008, at least twelve people said they were interested in joining the party.
By the time we had got to the week before, everyone had dropped out (for a variety of understandable reasons) except Theo and me and Lynne, who was flying out from London. On Friday, I checked the weather forecast and guess what? After three weeks of unbroken warm sunshine across much of Spain, there were black c
louds and big fat raindrops all over the map of Espana, especially the Valencia bit.
As it was, Theo and I had to curtail our visit a tad because of his timetable - rather than arrive very late after his classes on Friday night, we opted to take the train at a reasonable hour on Saturday morning - it was only a three-hour journey with Renfe and we would arrive early in the afternoon.
It all started very well. We arrived in plenty of time at Atocha station, which resembles an airport terminal with attendant baggage x-rays and check-in desks. "This is going to be a breeze," we thought, as we sat down for a cuppa before boarding the train.
Except it wasn't. A train, that is. As we handed our tickets ready to embark, the lady in the smart uniform said something in rapid Spanish which sounded suspiciously like "bus". Some Spanglish later, we had established that there was a problem on the train line and we would need to take a bus as far as Alcazar de San Juan - adding an extra hour to the journey. Great.
Ah well, we had sandwiches, books and backgammon with us, we could afford to be philosophical.

The journey began uneventfully. After we got out of the southern Madrileno suburbs, there wasn't a great deal to look at out of the window so Theo snoozed while I enjoyed myself reading the man in front's book over his shoulder and looking up all the words I didn't know in my Spanish/Ingles dictionary. Very educational.
After a couple of hours on the road, we made an unscheduled stop in a one-horse town off the motorway where the driver stopped and spoke to a passer-by. It looked suspiciously as if he was asking for directions. A few passengers exchanged glances, but apart from the group sitting behind us, who'd been complaining about the bus-replacement ever since we'd got on board, no one made a big deal of it.

A few more kilometres down the road and we were off the motorway again, round a couple of roundabouts and back on, this time travelling in the opposite direction. This didn't look good. There were a few rumbles of consternation.
Eventually we entered Alcazar de San Juan and started making our way to the town's railway station. At least, that was the intention. After he'd stopped twice to talk to passing pedestrians, it was clear our driver didn't have the faintest idea of where we were or where we were meant to be going.

Then he saw a policeman in a squad car and flagged him down. By now, all the passengers were watching the driver's progress through the town with a mixture of anxiety, irritation and amusement. So, with a police escort, our bus picked its way through the narrow streets, only just avoiding pinning several passing cars to the wall, or at least forcing them to drive over the pavement so they didn't hit us. We passengers had a moment of elation when we saw the railway line at the end of one of the streets, but it didn't last long. We drove on past. But it was clear, even with the policeman indicating the way to the station, our bus driver had other ideas. We got stuck in another small street, hemmed in by the traffic in front of us and the station still tantalisingly out of reach.
By this time, the passengers had decided to take matters into their own hands and with typical Spanish directness, they started shouting for the driver to open the doors. When he did so, everyone grumpily climbed off, pulled various bits of luggage out of the coach's cavernous hold and stomped off to the station on foot.
Thankfully, they held the connection or we would have had to wait until 4.30pm to catch the next one - well after we were supposed to have arrived in Valencia itself. So, we made it - late, but still in one piece.
When we told the story to our Valencia friends later, they unhesitatingly reached the conclusion that this was entirely typical of Spain. "You must write and complain!!" they said. We might do. After all, it would have been a lot cheaper to just get the coach the whole way - we would have arrived no later and saved ourselves a bunch of money.
Still. The rest of the stay was lovely. Yes, the weather was pretty rubbish, but the hotel Theo had booked as an anniversary surprise was lovely and only five minutes from Valencia's historic centre, which is a charming and interesting place. It was fun seeing Lynne again and Amalia, Juanvi, Jose and Maria proved, once more, to be excellent partying companions as we moved from one bar to another, then a tapas restaurant, then another bar, then a club.

We could have done with the extra hour the Spring clock-change stole, but we were up early enough on Sunday to get a personal guided tour around Valencia's beautiful streets and buildings from Amalia and her sister, Maria.
The visit was topped off with a long-promised Valencian special dish, paella, including a delicious veggie version for us sin pescado, sin carne types.
Thankfully, the train going back didn't require any buses to help out and we made it back to Madrid Atocha without incident. Not as entertaining, sure, but by that time we were too tired for any kind of bonus cabaret.
Valencia, by the way, is lovely. But next time we go, we'll either drive ourselves or get the bus the whole way.

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