A beautiful monastery and some terrible trains

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April 26th 2008
Published: April 30th 2008
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Come back British Rail, all is forgiven

On Saturday we decided it was time for another day trip. We leave Madrid at the end of June, which isn't very long now. We want to see more of the surrounding area before we go. We decided on an afternoon visit to the town of El Escorial and its monastery complex. It's about 50km North of Madrid, near the mountains. We saw there were regular trains from Atocha, the main Madrid train station, which also happens to be close to our flat. So off we went to the station to catch a train. Simple we though.

Oh how wrong we were.

We got to the station and followed the signs in Spanish for the ticket office. Inside the ticket office it was chaos, there were people everywhere and really long queues for each window. Strangely, our destination wasn't mentioned on any of the screens or any of the windows. There wasn't a timetable for it anywhere. Puzzled, we stood about for a a bit, hoping it would become obvious. We noticed that the woman on the information desk was speaking English to an American couple, so we went over and asked her where to go. Ah, she pointed out, we were in the national ticket office, there was another office for local trains at the other side of the station. Right, we thanked her and set off to find the other ticket office.

At the other side of the station, past a row of shops and a greenhouse (??) there was another ticket office. So we went in. Again there were people everywhere, this time just standing about, not queuing. They all held tickets, like you get from the deli counter at the supermarket. The ticket desks had numbers above them. So we took a ticket to buy a train ticket for today. We got number 575. Right. The next number for the ticket desk was 776. Now we were thoroughly confused. Did we have to wait for it to go around again, from 776 to 1, and then up to 575 again?? We could see that might take a while, and there did seem to be over 50 people waiting with tickets and only 3 ticket windows. We wanted to go today, but at this rate we weren't going to buy a ticket
Monastery gardensMonastery gardensMonastery gardens

and the view beyond
until Tuesday....

Looking around the ticket office, we couldn't see anywhere that said you bought tickets to El Escorial from there. Puzzled again, we left the ticket office (well we weren't going to be served any time soon) and wandered around the station some more. And, aha, there were some machine were you could buy tickets, hiding around the corner. It turned out there were two types of local trains, Renfe, that were local but to other regions than Madrid, and Renfe cernanias, that were for local trains in the Community of Madrid. Obviously. BUT WHY DIDN'T YOU SAY SO? Like with a sign or something? They really don't make it easy in this country sometimes.

We finally got a ticket and got on a train to El Escorial. I was very excited because it was double decker! I've never been on a double decker train before, so we had to go on the top deck!!

At last, the monastery

El Escorial is a cute little town with lots of old buildings, narrow streets and tree filled plazas. We headed for the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a combination of palace, monastery and royal mausoleum built by Felipe II in the 16th century. It's huge. Apparently it has 1,200 doors, 2,600 windows and 24km of corridors. Inside there is now an art museum with lots of religious paintings, an architecture museum, a huge basilica and a chapel. You can also look around the Royal apartments that have been restored to how they were when Felipe and his family lived in them and visit the Royal mausoleum, where almost all of the Spanish monarchs since it was built have been buried. The apartments look out onto some ornate gardens and then over open countryside, which is really beautiful. It was also amazingly cold inside. It was about 25 degrees outside when we visited but inside everyone was wearing jumpers.

Once out of the museum we made the most of the beautiful weather and sat on a plaza for a beer and some food. At about 6.45pm we decided to head back to Madrid, and caught the bus from the monastery to the railway station for the 7.15pm train. We thought we'd get back to Madrid at about 8.30pm and go for some dinner. Again the train system was to foil us....

Why we now take the bus

We got to the station at El Escorial and realised that there was no screen to tell us which platform to go to. We went through the turnstyle with our ticket, and looked at the signs to the platforms. All three had wooden signposts that said exactly the same, they all said C8 El Escorial - Madrid. So we tried one. There was a train on the platform. Aha, we thought, this must be it. There was no screen or sign on the platform, apart from the one wooden signpost saying C8 El Escorial - Madrid. But the train doors wouldn't open. Maybe it wasn't this train. There was a train on the next platform too. This one had a electronic sign on the front. It said 'Guadalajara'. Not Madrid. 'That can't be it' we thought, 'it must be this one'. So we stood on the platform and waited, as the other train pulled away.....on it's way, it turned out, to Guadalajara, VIA Madrid. We only realised this when 7.25 came and the train we were waiting for didn't open or do anything. So we went to another platform and found a timetable. There wasn't another train for an hour. A long wait. We sat down in the sun. It got a bit hot and we got a bit thirsty. We went looking for a drink. But there was nothing. There was nothing at the station at all, no drinks, no food and no toilet. And no toilet on the train either. Ahhhhh!! The toilet was at the other side of the barrier and we had to lose our ticket to go through again.

At this point we were thoroughly pissed off with rail. Not even an engine with a Thomas-style smiley face and Ringo Starr's voice would have made us want to set foot on another Spanish train. So we went back through the barrier, went to the toilet, bought a drink, caught the bus to the bus station and took a bus back to Madrid. The bus station incidentally had screens telling you what time and platform the buses went from, the bus was labelled and you bought the ticket on the bus.

It's safe to say we will be taking the bus around in future.

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