Madrid Chamartín station has little of the appeal or the convenience of the Spanish capital’s main rail hub at Atocha. Located near the city center, Atocha is extravagant and exuberant. The classic art nouveau train shed, now a superb indoor tropical garden, stands cheek by jowl with architect Rafael Moneo’s assertive late-20th century new add-on terminal. The modern Atocha looks more like an impressive airport than a railway station, and indeed its entire way of working is more akin to an airport.
Chamartín, tucked away in Madrid’s northern suburbs, is the poor relation. It is convenient for the Real Madrid stadium and not much else. Indeed Chamartín has a football theme. The station was built in the run-up to the 1982 World Cup which was hosted by Spain.
The 6:12 p.m. to Paris
So at six in the evening, while Atocha bustles with the commuter rush, Chamartín is sedate and relaxed. It is the boarding point for one of Europe’s most distinguished night trains. The Francisco de Goya is one of a suite of Elipsos hotel trains that link Spain with France, Italy and Switzerland. It leaves Madrid Chamartín early evening and arrives in Paris just after nine the following morning.
Across the sierra
There is a touch of theater about the Francisco de Goya. We used the train last week, leaving Madrid on a cool but perfectly clear spring evening. The first two hours set the mood for one of the best overnight rail journeys on offer. On the run north from Madrid the rail route tussles briefly with freeways before taking to the hills. The line climbs up past El Escorial, with a fine view from the train of one of Europe’s grandest Renaissance palaces.
Beyond El Escorial, the line climbs steeply over the southern flank of the rugged Sierra de Guadarrama. This is a part of Spain rarely visited by regular tourists, and the rail route gives a glimpse of difficult terrain where winter lingers till well past Easter. Snow fences protect the line from drifts. Away to the southwest, the last of the evening sun picks out the peaks of the Sierra de Gredos, the highest of them – the 2,600-meter Pico Almanzor – laced with pinkish cloud.
At eight we cruise without stopping past the walled town of Ávila, but by now the light has almost faded. For those whose biorhythms run to northern cycles, it is already time for dinner. The Spanish eat famously late, so the idea of sitting down to eat as early as eight is judged a northern delusion.
Spanish travelers on the Francisco de Goya won’t eat till ten or even much later, so the early sitting is the preserve of the English and a few other interlopers from northern Europe. Many of those who fill the restaurant car are British travelers returning home from Spain. It’s a wise choice for those who prefer not to fly. The onward connections from Paris to London with Eurostar are excellent, so it is perfectly possible to leave Madrid at six in the evening and be in London by shortly after noon the following day.
The restaurant car is civilized in that restrained way in which Spain excels. Stylish decor, snatches of well-known arias, a bone-dry fino or a sparkling cava…. yes, they know how to make you relax. Dinner includes salad, rabbit chasseur, a little cheese and fruit, all accompanied by the statutory Rioja. Haute cuisine it is not, but the entire show and setting is designed to make you feel good. The formula works.
Puccini with breakfast
We sleep perfectly, blissfully ignorant of the border with France, creeping by night past Biarritz and Bordeaux. When we awake and pull back the curtains in our sleeper we are sliding gently along the bank of the River Loire. A heavy overnight frost has left a ghostly white veil over trees and hedges while a light mist hangs heavy over the river.
It is an easy run north to Paris, but still time aplenty to shower and return to the restaurant car for breakfast. Puccini is the musical theme of the morning, always a sound choice for coffee and croissants, while a French nuclear power station drifts by beyond the carriage window.
Arrival in Austerlitz
All too soon, we arrive at Paris Austerlitz—an architectural disaster that for as long as we remember has been in the process of being rebuilt. In Spain, they know about style. Remember those tropical gardens at Atocha? At Paris Austerlitz they have squeezed a car park into the once handsome train shed. It makes us realize that Madrid Chamartín really did have a charm all its own.
Austerlitz is not a place to linger and the fraternity of travelers who rode the Francisco de Goya soon disperses. The English make tracks for Eurostar, a few smart business types head off to meetings. And us? We walk the banks of the Seine and wonder if it were all a dream. Did we really cross the wild sierra only last evening?
Elipsos run night trains from Madrid to Paris, and from Barcelona to Zürich, Geneva, Turin, Milan and Paris. All services operate year-round but not necessarily every night.
One-way summer-season fares start at €93. Various classes of on-board accommodation are available. For the top-of-the-range Grand Class sleepers, summer 2012 prices start at €186 per person. These sleeping compartments have en-suite facilities (including a shower) and Grand Class fare covers the full cost of dinner (including aperitifs, wines and spirits) and breakfast.