Six European Train Tales

Talgo Tango
By Anthony Ziehmke

In September 1997 at the start of a nine-month-long education bicycle tour around the Mediterranean Sea organized through BikeAbout, two friends and I had to transport five bikes, two B.O.B.s (Beasts of Burden — bike trailers), three sets of bicycle panniers, and three large equipment bags from Paris to Barcelona. It had been decided that we would meet our two other BikeAbout team members in Barcelona and then, as a group, head further down the Mediterranean coast to the ferry to Morocco and the real start of the trip.

But how would we move so much equipment without paying hefty cargo charges or suffering from shipping delays? Well, we figured that our best option would be to sneak all the equipment into a sleeping compartment on an overnight train to Barcelona. In many ways this was the hardest and the easiest option we had. The train we took was the"Talgo," one of the best Spanish trains — so nice that they call it a "Hotel Train." Our compartment would have four beds (real beds with sheets, pillows, and blankets) and a wash basin (with hot water!). The beds could be folded up into seats.

We were faced with two problems: size and a need for stealth. Size was an issue because the compartment was no more than five feet wide, eight feet high, and seven feet deep. This might sound large enough for four people, but remember we also had five bikes in boxes — each one about five feet long, three feet high, almost a foot wide, and weighing more than 30 poounds — and all the bags. Stealth was a concern because the Talgo is such a nice train that each car has its own attendant, and ours might not like our plan.

We showed up at the train an hour early in the hopes of getting there before the attendant arrived. No such luck. So we did our best to keep a low profile. First, two of us — Padraic and I — appeared with one B.O.B., two bikes and about half the luggage. We did not want to overwhelm the attendant with everything, so the third in the group, Corinne, hid with a friend and the rest of the baggage behind a pillar.

At the door of the train car, we were met by Diego, the car attendant. He was in his late 50s, spoke a little English and good French, but was Spanish. So we started in English, toyed with Spanish, and then, once he got excited, everything was in rapid-fire French. Diego, seeing the bike boxes, started to shake his head."NO NO NO NO!!" he kept on saying, while I kept on talkingandtalkingandtalking. I finally got through to him that we had reservations for all the beds in the compartment and that it did not matter whether we slept or not. We just needed to get all the equipment to Barcelona. Diego kept on saying, "This is not allowed! This is not permitted! This is not possible!" and I kept on talkingandtalkingandtalking.

And talking and talking . . . So Diego started a routine of saying, "I see nothing!" (Je ne vois rien!) and he would turn away while we loaded the boxes. We started piling bikes in. It was tight. Very tight. It was like being inside a puzzle and trying to figure out where the pieces go. About the time we succeeded, Corinne and our friend showed up with the rest of the bikes and boxes and Diego went ballistic again. He yelledandyelledandyelled and I talkedandtalkedandtalked and Diego continued his "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I do nothing."

In the end, everything fit. Barely. We had to use two of the beds for storage and put one of the mattresses on the floor so we all had a bed. Being inside the compartment was like being in a little cave. There was this sort of boxy echo when we talked. But the door could shut and we were happy. We had picked up dinner in Paris before leaving: bread, pati, three different cheeses, veggies, fruit, and a sack-o-pastries. Plus, Diego was a really great guy. He could have kicked us off at anytime with just cause. But once we had everything on, he even stopped by to see if we needed anything.

In the morning we arrived in Barcelona, safe and sound, and embarked on a much greater adventure.

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


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