The New Year has well and truly arrived, and it's now time to say goodbye to Madrid. Today I took a big but worthwhile splurge, and travelled on the special high-speed Alvia train service from Madrid to Barcelona. The trains are extremely popular, here in Spain: I purchased my Alvia ticket three days ago (as soon as I arrived in Madrid); and even then, they were already sold out of economy-class tickets, and I had to settle for business-class instead. Additionally, I've now used up my Eurail pass — and it didn't cover Spain anyway — so I had to pay for the ticket outright, and at full cost. But still, I enjoyed a fast, pleasant, and bloody luxurious ride today.
I checked out of Cat's this morning, and embarked on the walk of 15 minutes or so from the hostel, down to Madrid's Atocha central train station. It was raining quite heavily this morning, and walking through the wet — with my big packpack and all — wasn't too pleasant; but I at least dried off once I reached the station. Atocha's one of the nicest train stations I've seen, anywhere in Europe: it's very big (separate floors for departures and arrivals); it's ultra-modern; and it has a security gate with x-ray machines and body scanners, that I've never encountered in any other train station before, and that rivals the security gates of most airports. I'm not sure why they take such big security precautions for the trains: maybe it's because terrorism is a more established threat here in Spain, what with the long-standing Basque separatism issue? Or maybe it's simply because they wanted to make Atocha a state-of-the-art train station, and because doing that involved installing extra security.
My "business-class" seat on the Alvia train today was much more than I expected — and it was easily the fanciest train ride I've taken so far in Europe (and since it's my last train ride in Europe, I guess I may as well do it in style). The seat itself was large and comfortable. We had numerous attendants, who served us a delicious breakfast of Spanish omelette (had to pick out the ham), bread with honey, fresh juice and coffee. Plus, we had in-trip entertainment. First, they showed a documentary on the Yellow River in China (in Spanish), which was interesting and colourful. Then, they played a hilarious if oh-so-French romantic comedy: a new Audrey Tautou flick called "Hors de Prix" (English title: "Priceless"). The movie was dubbed in Spanish — but even without the audio at all, it still would have been easy enough to follow the comical and super-cheesy plot, which I couldn't help but come to adore as the movie unravelled itself.
We reached Barcelona Sants — the central station of Barcelona, which is equally as impressive as Madrid's Atocha — a little late, but still amazingly fast (within about 5½ hours). From Sants, it was a quick hop on the Metro to Liceu, the station on the central Barcelona thoroughfare "Las Ramblas" (which my hostel is near). I had no problems on the metro, or during the quick walk down Las Ramblas; but as with Madrid, I've heard plenty of horror stories about the dangers of theft in Barcelona, and I was extremely wary the entire time.