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For free rail travel, head to Spain


Celia walked me to one of Barcelona’s train stations shortly before 2 in the afternoon. Now all I had to do was take a train to Madrid. Without a ticket or money.

An interesting aspect of train travel in Spain is that since the terrorist bombing of a passenger train in Madrid in 2004 you are not allowed to enter the platform of any of the main stations without first having your entire luggage x-rayed, just like at the airport. I hadn’t been aware of this little detail and so found myself standing impatiently in the queue, knowing that my train was leaving in just a few minutes. I really didn’t want to miss it and spend another two hours in Barcelona, as it decreased my chances of making it to Madrid at all that day. I got through with a couple of minutes to spare and Celia accompanied me to platform number 9. Assembled at the front of the platform were a group of railway employees, sat at a table, checking the ticket of every passenger before allowing him or her to pass on to the train. Celia was quick off the mark with a little fib and immediately started explaining to them in Spanish that I was a friend and that I’d had my wallet stolen the previous night out on Las Ramblas, the main tourist street in the city centre. My parents were ex-pats living down in the south of the country and were going to drive by car all the way to Madrid to meet me at the station and to pay for my ticket on arrival as they would be arriving in the city at about the same time as me. These people were nobody’s fools, however, and told Celia that I would have to go to the police inside the station to have them call my parents to confirm my story. I watched as a man in a hat, further down the platform, put his whistle to his lips and sent my train on its way without me. I gave up the ghost and trudged back to the terminal where I parted ways with Celia as she had to get to work. I was now left without a friend and interpreter.

As I sat on the station’s bench with my head in my hands, I became aware of some movement. I watched intently as the ticket inspectors from the platform carried their little table through a Staff Only door, leaving the platform unguarded. So, they only take up their positions shortly before the train is due to depart, do they? I rubbed my hands together, did an evil little cackle and uttered the elongated word: “Eeeeeeeeeexcelent.” All I had to do was walk all the way to the very end of the platform, out of sight of the terminal, and hide behind one of the station’s support pillars for a couple of hours. And so that’s what I did. It wasn’t the most comfortable couple of hours, standing leant against a piece of metal, constantly conscious that if any bit of myself or my body or my belongings were to stick out a bit from the sides it would lead to me getting chucked off of the premises at the very least, or having to answer to the local constabulary as a probable worst-case scenario. Fortunately, I have the hiding skills of a really good hider.

* I really tried to come up with something a bit better there than ‘really good hider’. I wanted to use an example, you know, of a really good hider. But none of my efforts pleased me as much as ‘really good hider’. It just seemed funnier, although my comedic judgement has often left much to be desired, so just in case I got it wrong I have added a few alternate endings, like you get in the ‘extras’ part of a DVD.

Alternate ending Numero Uno: I have the hiding skills of Salman Rushdie.

Alternate ending Numero Dos: I have the hiding skills of Wally. Or Waldo if you’re American. Waldo? Sort it out, Americans! It’s Where’s Wally!

Alternate ending Numero Tres: I have the hiding skills of a teenage altar boy who has yet to be caught drinking the communion wine, even though on three previous occasions a suspicious nun (I mean that she smelt a rat, not that she was behaving in a fishy manner) has stormed into the chapel unannounced in an attempt to catch the thief off guard.

Alternate ending Numero Cuatro: I have the hiding skills of Elvis. He’s not really dead, you know?

And finally, alternate ending Numero Cinco: I have the hiding skills of Anne Frank.

I am aware that that last one was borderline risky. But I will bet a fiver with any of you that you weren’t expecting to see it in the list.

*That last statement is not legally binding.

A few minutes before 4pm I spied my train approaching through the haze of heat that was in the air. As it got nearer, I patted myself on the back for a job well done. I had outsmarted the authorities. Why did they even bother? They couldn’t beat me. I was clever. I had hidden at the end of platform 9 for almost two hours and evaded all monitors, but now I could enjoy the fruit of my labour and how sweet it was going to taste. For there was my train, sitting invitingly…. On platform number 6.

Shit! How did this happen? My plan had been fool proof. Not to worry, this can still be saved. Think sharpish. I was far enough down the platform to be able to nip across the tracks without being spotted as long as I moved quickly and stealth-like. Or at least just quickly. I looked right, I looked left. I don’t know why I looked left, I was at the end of the platform and to my left there was nothing but miles and miles of open track. I crouched down and then took off, sprinting across tracks 9, 8 and 7 before jumping up onto the beautiful number 6. Then horror set in as I realised that everyone sitting in the end carriage of my train had just watched a foreign guy audition for a part in the remake of the Great Escape. Surely someone would stitch me up. I wasn’t going to hang around to find out. I walked briskly up the platform right past that end carriage of witnesses, nodding my greeting to a few of them on the way as if I did this sort of thing every day, and clambered up the steps and into the next carriage along. I wiped my brow of sweat and stood waiting for a guard to come and escort me off of the train and out of the station. He took his time. Then the beeping sounded and the automatic doors closed and locked shut. The guard wasn’t coming and the train was moving. I was on my way to Madrid.

At 4:12 we pulled into the next station, Barcelona Sants, and I noticed something very interesting through the window. To get to the train, passengers had to pass through the same kind of walkway that takes you from the terminal of an airport on to the plane. And just like at the airport, there was a lady standing at the end of that walkway checking every single ticket before letting anyone through. If this was happening at every station we stopped at, I thought to myself, then surely there would be no need to employ anyone to walk up and down the train checking tickets. What would be the point? We sat at that station for 18 minutes, although it seemed more like 18 hours as I was continuously expecting someone to come and grab me by the scruff of the neck, especially after I was kicked out of the seat I was sitting in by a well-dressed lady who had reserved it. I got up and found an empty one to put my bum on, but made sure not to get too comfortable just in case someone had booked that one, too. My nerves weren’t done any favours by a man in a large trench coat and a Gomez Adams moustache who spent the entire 18 minutes pacing up and down my carriage. Fucking sit down and relax, you’re making me tense! At 4:30 we finally pulled out of the station and I sat back in my chair.

This train wasn’t like any train I had been on before; it had the look and feel of the interior of an aeroplane, and not a crappy Ryanair one, either. I’m talking British Airways. A gorgeous stewardess even made her way up the carriage handing out free newspapers, packets of dried fruit, cartons of freshly squeezed orange juice and headphones that could be stuck into the back of the seat in front for listening to the radio. At the front of the carriage there was a TV mounted high on the wall that played a DVD that could also be listened to through the headphones. And wait, there’s more still. A high-class stripper performed a little dance at the front of the carriage before paying a quick visit to every passenger, who was then encouraged to pull €50 notes from between her bum cheeks. Just a little gift courtesy of the driver. Unfortunately, I had to pass on this, as handling cash would have meant breaking the main rule of my challenge. Also, I made that bit about there being a stripper up.

Just before 5 the unthinkable happened. I was dropping off to sleep when there was a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see an inspector frowning at me, asking to see my ticket. I was just about to start telling the lie about my parents waiting for me in Madrid when he cut me short by signalling for me to stand up and to follow him. I did so without question, I knew my time was up. He led me through the carriage and into the next one – a less luxurious one – took me to an empty seat and then pointed for me to sit down. I did as I was told, even if I did think it strange that he was going to bollock me right there in front of all the other passengers. Then he muttered something that included the word ‘Primera’ and left me alone. How odd. As he passed through the door and out of sight, I took a look around my new surroundings to try and work out what had just happened. The people around me didn’t look anywhere near as classy as they had in the other carriage. They looked more like Ryanair passengers. They looked more like…….. Me! And why wasn’t there a telly up on the wall? And where was the pretty girl handing out freebies? And what had the inspector been waffling on about? Primera? Aha… I had only been sitting in First Class. What a stroke of luck. I hadn’t got into trouble for not having a ticket; I’d just got into trouble for not having a First Class ticket. My feeling of joy quickly turned to one of offence as I questioned why I had been singled out for special treatment. No one else around me had been asked to show a ticket. What made me look any less likely to be travelling First Class than anyone else? I could have been travelling first class, man! I consoled myself with a packet of dried apricots that I had managed to smuggle out with me and plugged my free earphones into the seat in front. At least my class of people were still permitted radio. My fellow cattle eyed me enviously as I savoured the little bag of nutritious goodness. I had experienced how the other half lived for almost an hour back there; these guys hadn’t. Probably ever. And they probably never would, either. I looked down on all around me. They were not worthy of my presence.

The journey towards Spain’s capital took us first Southward along the country’s eastern coastline. The blue water of the Mediterranean glistened to my left as it washed in and out onto the golden beach. At 6 we arrived at our next station, Lleida Pirineus. No inspector came along. At 6:55 we arrived at the next stop, Zaragozza. No inspector came along. I knew now that I was only two stops away from making it to Madrid. I closed my eyes and flicked through the three available radio stations; one that played Spanish pop, one that played classical music and one that played a kind of native South American music with wind pipes and strange chanting, I guessed it was from somewhere like Peru or Bolivia. It was definitely my station of choice and I quickly became a fan. I had been listening to it for about an hour, drifting in and out of sleep, questioning again the logic behind this ridiculous and stupid challenge I found myself on, thinking about all my vices that I could be indulging in if I were back at home with my mates – the poker, the drinking, the betting, the drugs – when something strange happened. And this really did happen, I didn’t just dream it. At least, I don’t think I did. The indigenous music faded out and was replaced by the English lyrics of Bob Dylan:

“I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler, I’m a long way from home. And if you don’t like me, just leave me alone.”

The song had been put on for me; there was no doubt about it. But by who? It wasn’t for me to question. I looked around at my fellow passengers to see if anyone had noticed that the music had changed so dramatically, but everyone looked normal and content. I wondered if this was because the song hadn’t come through their headphones and was indeed something supernatural, or if it was just the case that no one else on the carriage had chosen radio station number 3. I decided the latter was more likely. Well, when I say more likely, I mean the only possible answer out of those two. I was still trying to work out what was going on, when just like that Dylan’s voice disappeared and was replaced by the original pan-pipe selection. I spent the rest of the journey to Madrid feeling invigorated and to this day I can’t explain why. Good song!

At 8:25pm we pulled into the penultimate stop, Guadalajara. Not the Mexican city; that would have got me believing in the supernatural! A quick look at my atlas told me I was now almost in Madrid. I loved the fact that in Spain people were so lazy that the job of ticket inspector on the trains didn’t really exist, as there was no way they would be able to find anyone willing to walk up and down a train all day. It wasn’t only these fast intercity trains – no one checked my ticket on the local Catalan train into Barcelona either – so, essentially what it means is that if you can manage to get yourself on to a station’s platform in Spain, you can travel for free to anywhere you like in the whole country. Just as long as you don’t plan on sitting in First Class, of course.

At 8:55pm my train stopped for the last time. In Madrid. Nice.

Kris Mole’s book ‘Gatecrashing Europe’ – where he freeloads his way around an otherwise expensive continent – is published by http://www.valleypressuk.com/.  And there’s more about him at Smashwords. Follow him on twitter at @KrisMole.

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