Sitting in our comfortable seats, we watch the speedometer high on the carriage wall climb through 100, 200, 298, over 300km/h. This is our first ride on a high-speed train and we are impressed. The countryside races by so fast we barely have time to take it in.
We are travelling on the AVE Express Train - Alta Velocidad Espanola - between Barcelona and Madrid, operated by RENFE, the Spanish national railway company. This train is designed for speeds of up to 350km/h.
We'd decided to take the train after comparing the cost and time of taxi-train-taxi with taxi-plane-taxi with a checked bag each. The difference was very much in favour of the train.
However, before booking, we had concerns about trundling bags up and down steps between platforms, hauling them on to the train and then hoisting them into the high overhead racks, as on other trains we've known. Sometimes, we've even had to negotiate "squatters" out of our reserved seats. This is emphatically not our AVE experience.
A bonus was the discovery of a promotional Preferente (First Class) fare of $180 for the two of us. We saw it on the RailEurope website and thought it was too good to be true. I emailed the RailPlus office, which books European rail travel, and it confirmed it was an available fare and booked it for us. Within minutes, our tickets and confirmed seating arrived by email from Paris.
From the moment we present our tickets on arrival at Sants Station in Barcelona to our arrival at Atocha Station in Madrid, we are treated efficiently and courteously
The transfers - taxi to train in Barcelona and taxi from train to hotel in Madrid - are seamless. There are a couple of gradual ramps and people-movers which are no problem, and cavernous lifts are available. Luggage trolleys are on hand if needed. Our bags roll "steplessly" on to the train and into a same-level luggage storage bay. The luggage allowance is 20kg each (three pieces maximum).
The sleek, silver AVE beauty eases from the station, rolling south through the suburbs and out into the countryside. We are soon served coffee, a soft drink and a biscuit. As we gather speed, the view becomes a blur. The distant rolling hills are easier on the eye. A movie is screened and headsets provided. The train slows then stops briefly at Zaragossa to drop off and pick up passengers.
Exploring the train is a smooth, stagger-free and elbow-friendly experience. There is no clickety- clack or swaying movement on board. In Preferente class, we are seated together and have plenty of leg room. We are later served a light lunch included in the price of our tickets. There is a restaurant car with a reasonably priced menu as well as a cafe car with takeaway food and drinks. The toilets are a pleasant surprise.
On arrival in Madrid, there is a rank of identical, new, strictly regulated and metered taxis waiting outside Atocha Station - no need to negotiate cab fares here. We are rested, relaxed and ready to start our discovery of the city.
Trains between Barcelona and Madrid leave 13 times a day in each direction, between 6am and 9pm. Our train left exactly at 11am (we had booked to travel over the lunch period) and arrived on time at 1.35pm.
Go to railplus.com.au or raileurope.com.au to book. Note that neither website allows you to book or buy your tickets until within 62 days of your planned day of travel.