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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

Diddle de dum, diddle de dum, diddle de dee. It’s time to tell you about getting to Ibiza by train (or, at least, getting to Barcelona by train because you’ve not got a Mediterranean tunnel). But don’t scoff, because I’ve just been reading about a sort of Perspex train that goes over the sea from Norway to Sweden or somewhere.

I’m assuming you are starting from the Northwest of England for no better reason than that’s where the best football teams are based. Here we go then.

You start with VIRGIN TRAINS (www.virgintrains.co.uk) from Manchester. I’ve been three times in the past few months from Manchester to London on the 10:27am and each time it’s been late (on the way to Ibiza, it was actually cancelled). So I’ll rephrase that. By next year, when all the work on the track has been done, you will be able to set off at 10:27am.

For an extra twenty Euros or so (that’s £15 to our friends up North) you get to go First Class and that means you have luxurious free lounges both here and at Euston. You get free tea, coffee, ice-cold water, apples and oranges and crunchy biscuits including delicious Scottish shortbread. You can fax from here and someone will tell you when your train’s due.

You can get a proper drink, but you seem to have to pay and anyway the businessmen aboard seem to think alcohol is politically incorrect, unlike in my day.

Once on the train they’ll give you a drink or two and a baked potato with tuna and sweet corn spooned over it and more fruit or a scrumptious chunk of poppy seed cake to follow. If you go earlier in the day they do a very good cooked English breakfast, but it will cost lots more for the fare.

From Euston to Waterloo is effortless. Buy a one-way underground tube ticket and just follow the signs and keep going, because before you know it you’ve shown your passport and are heading for France in your smart, new EUROSTAR (www.eurostar.com) compartment.

It’s the last time you need your passport until you set off home from what only the English call the Continent.

I rang home from the mobile and said “I’m just going into this tunnel” and the phone went dead and all the lights were on in the carriage but you couldn’t see anything out there except a bright light every few seconds and twenty minutes later I reconnected and said: “Hello, I’m in France”. It was oddly exciting, like undertaking a big adventure.

In no time we were in Paris and checked into a scruffy, but convenient little hotel within a hundred metres of the Gar Du Nord, that grand, imposing railway station you’ve seen lots of times in films.

It was time for le stroll and there was a bar on the corner where you could get pastis from an optic and in my case the first of a hundred espressos during the ensuing two weeks. You could choose a quick trip on the Paris Metro and come up for a view of the Eiffel Tower, but we opted for a steak and salad in the local bistro and went to bed, excited to be on le Continong.

We each took a thousand Euros in cash (about £640) and it was our first time to try them out and attempt to figure the change. There were, we discovered, eight different coins, the same as in old English money - or should that be real money?

There was a small but spectacular French food market opposite our hotel, open from 08:00am. It’s been said before, but Spain reserves for fish its grandest affection in terms of market display. Here were ribs of beef, hung for a month and cuts of veal and sweetbreads and hand-carved hams and all manner of sausages, vegetables still fresh with the morning dew and… the only thing I could permit in my small case, a big bouquet garni with sticks of cinnamon tied into a bundle of dried thyme and garnished with bay leaves. It looked like a feast all by itself and cost a couple of Euros. Weeks later it infused a big pot of pea and ham soup and I swear I can still catch the aroma in Meadow Lane two months since.

Back at the train station, we joined the late French commuters downing espressos and water with big chocolate cakes and croissants some of which were also daubed with apricot jam as well as being stuffed with chocolate.

Le clickety clack, etc. The RAILEUROPE (www.raileurope.com) train to Barcelona, well timed at 10:30am, was equipped with what looked like comfortable, familiar and well-worn armchairs and bags of room. One lovely old man hauled a hunk of cheese and a penknife from his pocket and cheerfully whittled away as we tackled a baguette filled with some sort of stringy, Parma ham. Now we were really travelling. We had caught a train in a foreign country! There’s something different about the train tickets from here on in. There are lots of them; one for each way and one for upgrading to First Class and another pointing out you’ve got one of each. Then there’s another set for when you reach the Spanish border. I’ve gone on about this before, but you have to change trains because the tracks widen in width. Sort of los clickety claak.

Your fellow passengers are interesting: a mixture of Spaniards going home and former members of the Resistance puffing Gauloises and still looking full of intrigue. Everybody smokes and the few American tourists on board were required to just shut up moaning, which is what they should be told all the time anyway.

It took all day, but was very pleasant. As Martin’s father pointed out, you just lounge back and let the driver, er, do the driving.

It was getting warmer by the hour as untidy towns and valleys and sleepy railway stations passed by. There were televisions everywhere on the train and we watched in awe as a map with an arrow blinked us in the right direction all the way south. There was a film too, with Spanish dubbing on the free headphones.

You really just get off one train, walk up a platform and down some stairs and onto another, and just take in the fact that no-one speaks English anymore as you put your cases up on a rack again. And then you spend the latter part of the afternoon and the early evening heading towards the big city, the housing telling the country’s story.

I had a few magazines and even the London Evening Standard with me, but they were forgotten as we journeyed on. It had been Tuesday morning when I caught the 204 bus from the end of Meadow Lane and now it was 09:00pm on Wednesday night and we were in the Ramblas with thousands of partying holidaymakers sitting at pavement cafes with giant’s goblets of sangria. It was remarkably easy to find a marble-staired hotel (about thirty Euros a night, including a choice of pastries in the breakfast room) and lo and behold we awoke to find we were on the next block to La Boqueria, probably the best food market in the world.

You can wander around the market admiring mounds of baby artichokes and strange things from the bottom of the sea and then sit at one of the bars around the old stone building and get them to cook them for you. Right there in front of you. An awful lot of people seemed to be drinking liquids other than coffee whilst chain-smoking and gabbling away ten to the dozen at a hundred miles an hour, even though they have kilos rather than dozens and whatever it is that kilometres are.

You’ve time to visit anywhere you like in Barcelona and there’s anything - and I do mean anything - you would like to see. You can see half-finished Cathedrals amidst some astoundingly brave architecture and city centre parks full of young people hanging out and enjoying being alive and well. But I have to say I thought it was a bit touristy and there were too many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets for me. We did find a cool, wind-kissed square with an Irish theme pub though, forgoing the tapas bars for when we would get to Madrid and there were people drinking pints of Guinness in the salt-tanged air. For some reason I found the English editor of the Spanish edition of the Independent sitting at the next table and we talked about days gone by when we would have been downing large Soberanos by now.

They’ve moved the ferry terminus since I was there, so you turn right at the Christopher Columbus statue and walk for what seems like miles before clambering onto the Ibiza ferry. If only they could put lifts on these ships! By the way, the hotel found no problem in letting us leave our baggage there throughout the day and it was safely locked into a cupboard until we were ready to go.

This next bit of the journey is the worst. It’s exciting when you pull out of the harbour and into the dark, dark, coal-black sea, but after that it just all smells of oil and the cabin was stuffy and noisy. I finished up wandering around the ship at some ungodly hour, gulping little bottles of iced water at the rate of three an hour and stepping over students on gap years with gaping mouths as they slept on the floor of the lounge bar.

The restaurant was all right though. I had a big fish, which seemed appropriate as I was sailing over them. I think it was a dorada and it came naturally with its head on and some ubiquitous chips and not a bad salad.

I have no doubt it will always be a surprise to get off a ship at 07:00am in Ibiza (by now it was Thursday) and see people strolling home from a nightclub, but there you are and there they were, with matching tartan hair-do’s and tattoos. I’m not sure about that apostrophe there, by the way, but - like Ibiza - it just felt right. It was time for the apartment, a shower and some daytime sleep.

All in all, I would say it was a journey of a lifetime for most English people and I’m being the opposite of patronising, whatever that is. It’s easy to get a lift to the airport and jump on a plane to Ibiza. Lots of people spend longer than that getting to work every morning, though I must say that had it been me I would have taken days to get home.

But we had seen and smelled Paris and the way they swill the gutters every morning with a strange water system that must date back to the Ark.

We had mingled with a million people and I have to say that travelling like this does give you some idea of the size of that little bit of the world they call Western Europe.

On the downside, I think it took a day and a night of virtually doing nothing except looking out at the sea and to recover properly and stop hearing those diddly-clack noises. At least we never heard anyone shouting “All aboard!”

In a moment of madness, I had suddenly said to Rick: “Why don’t we go back via Madrid. Look, it’s only a few inches to the left on my old School Atlas.” (I’m still strangely amused by the way I used an early version of what became the felt-tipped pen and made it say Oxpobd Schooe Atease, by the way).

And so a week later there we were on a different train out of Barcelona and from a different station. Easy though. You are off the ferry in time for a stroll up the Ramblas (at least, it would have been a gentle stroll if they hadn’t moved the terminal, unless it’s the Ramblas they’ve moved). You can get churros and hot chocolate, that day’s edition of the Independent with the changes that bloke we met last week had made (not many, by the look of it) and have plenty of time to jump in a cab for the RailEurope to Madrid.

What a journey! You feel as though you are an extra in all the off-takes for a movie. It’s actually a bit like the look of those Spaghetti Westerns. You go through sensational scenery, mountains and cliffs and adobe villages and it’s as if you are watching a film through the carriage window rather than where you really are. I’ll never forget that journey. We should have got off. We should have just got off anywhere. Next time I will and I’m sure there’ll be a next time.

OK then you get to see Madrid and it makes you wonder why you didn’t just fly there direct in the first place. Now this really is a city. I have to say I regret going to the bullfight, but I honestly thought it was only going to be a pretend bullfight, like not where they actually torture young bulls and then stab them to death.

Anyway, the big flea market on the Sunday morning was good fun too. I discovered that there’s a strangely original way of queuing at a Madrid flea market. You ask something or other in Spanish, which means “Who’s next?” and then wait to be served after whomsoever answers. Neat, eh? I bought a Jimi Hendrix flag for a reggae friend of mine that I could probably have got anywhere in the world, but I was in Madrid. What’s more? There’s a cheap, open-topped bus that goes round and round the city and gives you a headphone commentary in any language you like. It seemed a short way from Maine Road and Old Trafford as we passed the legendary Real Madrid Bernabeau stadium.

There was a sardine bar in the middle of all the open-air market mayhem. You got a plate of freshly grilled sardines with a glass of sherry and thought you were already in Heaven, never mind having to atone and die.

Our hotel, found for by us by a manic taxi driver who wouldn’t say whatever the Spanish is for No, was less than three hundred Euros for the entire weekend and then we were off to Paris and back to London and back up North in Meadow Lane and it was all a dream. Except there was this bouquet garni and a little tin of paprika in my case and I was a wiser and happier man.

Oh, and there was the pastis glass the French barman had given me, though I’m not sure what to put in it, and a little espresso cup and saucer the waiter insisted I had in a little café in Madrid where the tapas were slices off a freshly boiled ham, still steaming, with a few anchovies on the side and a couple of salted capers if you wanted them.

I suppose I could have flown and had memories of the oafs at the airport rather than the charming couple I met on a train somewhere who said they were from Ohio and had come to Spain because they’d heard there was going to be a war in Gibraltar. And I could have had souvenirs of the little packets of salt and pepper you get with your airline chicken. The airhostesses never offer you one of the plastic glasses to go because they know you wouldn’t them and your memories don’t include the sights and the sounds and the aromas of travelling abroad. I feel Colonial, as though I’ve been travelling rather than just going on holiday and isn’t that interesting?

Sinclair Newton