Six European Train Tales

Iberian Nights
By Nicolas Clifford

The scene: A dimly lit station platform in Irun, on the French-Spanish border. A hot summer night, shortly before the 10 p.m. departure of the "Sud Express," the overnight service to Portugal.

The train is huge, stretching into the night off each end of the platform: first-class coach, sleeping car, dining car, at least six couchette cars, another six or eight second-class coaches . . . But the railroad has not underestimated its clientele: The platform is packed. Portuguese migrants pass empty ceramic wine jars through the compartment windows for the trip back to the homeland and a summer refill. Lost Eurailers wander up and down trying to find the cars listed on their reservation coupons. Blond Scandinavian backpackers awkwardly tower over their Iberian cousins. Last-minute travelers hoping for a space on the sold-out train besiege the ticket windows. Many will spend the night in Irun, waiting for the next train.

I have my spot: The $20 couchettes having sold out, I forked over $40 for the cheapest bed in the sleeping car. I can't really afford it, but sitting up all night on the vinyl benches of the un-air-conditioned Portuguese coaches wasn't an option I was ready to entertain.

The white-shirted porter greets me at the door and shows me to my cabin. My cabinmates are a Portuguese university professor headed to his home in Coimbra, and a college-age Frenchman who doesn't seem to know why he is going to Lisbon. Sleeper cabins are single-sex (unless booked as a whole cabin by one coed group), so my dreams of sharing one with Mata Hari are frustrated. With three adult males, space is at a premium, but it feels cozy; wood paneling soothes the nerves, and a comfortable bed is appealingly made up.

But it is not my bedtime yet. Departure time comes, platform whistles shrilly sound, and the train slips into the darkness. I wander to the bar. A line of regulars holds an animated conversation in Portuguese with the bartender. These are people who travel in the winter, too, when the train is not so crowded and faces are more recognizable. My French order for a glass of wine is easily understood.

The first dinner seating has already been called and the tables are packed with diners. Appetizing platters heaped with roasted veal, rice, broccoli, and cauliflower steam out of the kitchen. Fruit, cheese, and a Portuguese flan follow. I had been preparing to buy a sandwich in the bar, but the four-course menu costs only $10; I reserve a seat for the second seating.

Luckily, I am seated with Mata Hari. To be precise, she is an attractive young American woman whom I discover over dinner to be a luxury call girl. Over the roar of the train (the car's windows are open to provide a breeze) we share a fascinating conversation about her job — talk about a window on another culture! Tables around us speak in every different language. French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish are the ones I hear, but there seem to be as many as there are tables.

Dinner and northern Spain slip by agreeably. At the end of the evening, the waiter arrives with miniature bottles of port and brandy. I can't resist; many others share my weakness. As if on cue, the holdovers from each table turn their chairs to the center of the car, and the multi-lingual conversations meld into one that lasts late into the night.

I go to bed at 2 a.m., just as the train leaves Burgos, El Cid's home on the plains of Castille. I undress quietly so as not to wake my cabinmates. I have never been to Portugal, but I am looking forward to my trip now in a way I was not before I boarded. The train has gradually become Portuguese as it has traveled, its many communities increasingly united by their destination. In the morning I will be in Lisbon, surrounded by palm trees on the banks of the Tagus.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »