My partiality for train journeys goes back to my youth and shows no sign of deserting me any time soon. It was revived most recently by a train trip down the length of Italy. On one side, only the narrowest strip of yellow beach separated us from the limpid Adriatic Sea, while on the other, our eyes were rewarded with views of the snow-covered Apennines. As the ticket inspector said when he examined my ticket, Tutto perfetto.
However, the landscapes and scenes of everyday life glimpsed through the windows are only one of the joys of train travel. At least as important for me is the contact with people and cultures found in the confines of the carriage. Forced into proximity with random local travellers, you learn so much more about a country.
After the Trans-Siberian Railway (see previous post), our adventures took us further east to Japan and then on a backpacking odyssey around SE Asia, where the comfort and efficiency of the trains varied as widely as the topography. I had expected comfortable berths on the Japanese trains but it turned out that at five foot six (1.67m), I was too long; few Japanese are of such giant proportions. There was little concession to comfort on the Indian trains either: the beds, though longer, were unpadded wooden shelves. Whenever possible, we travelled in the Ladies’ Compartment, a safe refuge from the crowds and chaos elsewhere. As for punctuality, Russia got top marks while in India and Indonesia the word was meaningless. In Burma, as the charming immigration officer explained to us, the Rangoon-Mandalay Express was ‘punctually four hours late’.
Food was one distinguishing cultural feature. Long before sushi became trendy in Europe, Japanese travellers boarded their trains carrying balsawood o-bento boxes packed with little parcels of rice, raw fish and pressed seaweed. In Burma, chicken biryani was served on delicate banana leaf plates. On some Indian trains, orders for meals were taken on the train and telegraphed to the next station, where they awaited you on arrival. But those with pantry cars were the best. Recently I was sent an email detailing the government’s plans to ‘modernise’ by abolishing these and selling hamburgers and pizzas instead. Invited to comment, I was sufficiently outraged to write to the Minister, pleading for a change of heart. What would Indian trains be without the waiters making their way from carriage to carriage with urns of tea and milky coffee at ten rupees, with portions of vegetable biryani or samosas, and the regular chants of koffee koffee koffee, chai, chai, chai, biryani biryani biryani?
An unexpected challenge on our 1975 trip was the bra test at the Malaysian border. Posters announced that only those women with the requisite support would be allowed into the country. Was this an excuse to ogle female travellers, I wondered? Fortunately, we got through without being manhandled or examined too closely. We arrived at Butterworth with a tropical storm raging. As we sat in the station restaurant in darkness illuminated only by a flickering candle, we were pounced on by an American Scrabble fanatic. Despite the lack of light and the arrival of our meal, he insisted we must play then and there. On the next train, we were entertained by another eccentric – a young man accompanied by a Pekinese dog, which he hid in a biscuit tin every time the conductor passed by.
My fondness for trains was most severely tested on a journey across Java in Indonesia. For twenty-six hours we were confined to hard wood and rattan seats by the press of humanity and baggage crammed into every available space, including the adjacent toilet, occupied by at least five people undeterred by the overpowering stench. The windows only opened a fraction and when we were stationary – waiting for trains from the other direction on the single-line track or for relief engines on the two occasions when our train broke down – there was no air at all. In the humid tropical heat, we had no choice but to sit and sweat like everyone else. Vendors of duck eggs, rice-and-duck, fruit and garishly coloured iced drinks fought their way down the train at regular intervals, shouting their wares in loud, frantic voices. Soon the floor was a sea of squashed fruit and peel, eggshells, duck bones and rice. The lights were all out of order so once darkness came, reading as a means of distraction became impossible. Children screamed. I felt like screaming too.
But back to Spain and the 21st century. While Granada’s high-speed AVE remains stalled, my favourite railway line is one built by the British in the late 19th century between Ronda and Algeciras, port city for the crossing to Africa. The scenery here is spectacular, passing through two of the most unspoilt and beautiful Natural Parks in Andalucía, Los Alcornocales and Sierra de Grazalema. I can board the train in Granada but the best part comes after Ronda. For much of the way, the single-track line snakes in graceful curves along the valley of the river Guardiaro, its banks lined with ash trees, poplars and willows, and in summer the bright splash of pink oleander. The track crosses the river several times by way of picturesque bridges and viaducts so that the clear tumbling waters can always be seen on one side or the other. As the land slopes upwards, the evergreen cork and holm oaks take over, their silvery foliage contrasting with the darker hue of cypresses, the yellow of broom. Higher still, jagged outcrops of limestone stand out starkly against a sky of deepest blue. Numerous tunnels had to be cut through the rock and in places the slopes are so steep that in wet conditions, sand has to be sprinkled on the line to prevent the wheels slipping. You pass huge flocks of goats, pigs grubbing for acorns in the forest, ruined cortijos, olive, almond and orange groves and now and then a picturesque whitewashed village or hamlet crowning a hill or nestling in a valley.
The main purpose of this line was to ship British goods from Gibraltar, but military officers stationed there also took advantage of it to escape the heat of the Rock in favour of cooler climes inland, avoiding the potholes and bandits that made the roads through this area so dangerous. Smugglers found the slow steam trains used on this route until 1976 the perfect way to transport contraband tobacco, selling it from the windows.
In The Red Gene, my novel-in-progress, Rose, traumatised by her recent experiences, is escorted along this line by two Civil Guards. The year is 1939. Bobadilla, Campillos, Ronda, Benaojan… Rose gazed out of the window at the landscape of densely wooded hills and limestone outcrops, the dramatic river valley below. She recalled a young Spanish soldier whose last moments she had shared at the Ebro; whose hand she had held as he talked with longing of his village here in the Serranía de Ronda.