There & Back Again: Odyssey to Spain and back to Freiburg

Headshot of Thomas Matallana.
Thomas Matallana
July 1, 2023
Train Mirror

Some weeks ago, IES Abroad Freiburg had a four day weekend - glorious, I know. Like any good student wanting to take advantage of this opportunity, I chose to travel with a good friend I made here. Ultimately, we decided to go to Spain - I knew the language, and there were several sights and places we wanted to see and experience in Barcelona and Madrid, and we figured that returning by rail through France would be very worth the expense. Since both of us are massive cheapskates, we decided to get the EU Rail Pass, as it would be the cheapest option to travel. To those who do not know, the EU Rail Pass is a pass someone can buy online for a set period of travel days within a 30 day period, which will get you on most regional and high speed trains for free (except the seat reservation, which you need to buy). From there, we set up our journeys in the Rail Pass planning app, and flew to Barcelona.

While we were in Spain, we had a great time - we visited the Poble Espanyol, walked throughout much of the heights and palaces of Barcelona, swam in the Mediterranean, ate proper paella, and had fun in a tapaderia. However, it was when traveling to Madrid that things started to go a little wrong. I like to think of myself as an experienced traveler, and when things go wrong, I generally know a solution without help. However, I have never “properly” traveled on a high speed train before, nor have I been to Spain or France. When my friend and I left Freiburg, we figured that we would simply buy the seat reservations on the day we would need them through the app, since we saw that it had been an option for other train journeys we had been experimenting with. Unfortunately, reality in Spain clashed with our naiévete, as we had not bothered to do any real research regarding the train system in Spain before we left. When we arrived at the station, we found that we could not buy the seat reservations through the app - instead, under Spanish law you have to buy seat reservations in person for high speed trains. The resultant rigamarole in trying to secure the seat reservation at the ticket office cost us our train, and we were forced to take the next one instead, and pulled into Madrid four hours later than we had first anticipated. Owing to the delay and the lack of availability in second class, we decided to take first class, since it was an astonishingly cheap 30 Euro for two people. Considering the stress and irritation that both of us were feeling towards the Spanish rail system, as clearly - it was their fault, not ours, it was a nice change and allowed us both to relax a bit before the march to the hotel through the crowded Madrid metro. Word to the wise - if you are claustrophobic, I would not recommend going on the Madrid metro, as every time we went on it, it felt as if you had barely a square foot of space for yourself, and you would inevitably rub shoulders with every single one of your “neighbors.”

Owing to our limited time in Madrid, we, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to get the full measure of the city, nor see many of the sights. We went to several of the more famous squares, the Casa de América and I bought a spiffing aguadeño in the Casa Yustas, a famous hat shop. Eventually, we had to make our way back to the train station to take the train back to Barcelona to stay the night before the next series of trains I would have to take to Freiburg, while my friend flew back via Basel. It is here where things start to get interesting.

Having experienced the Spanish rail system, I made the flawed assumption that one would need to buy the seat reservation in person for the French train we were taking, as it was leaving from a Spanish station. This was not the case, and I eventually caved to asking the local Renfe representative for help. He was a God-send and patiently explained to me that I could either buy the seat reservation for the train online or on the phone. He did not know what website to use (it was this), but he did know the number to call, and helped me deal with the French train company. Nonetheless, fate decided that things would not be easy, and I could not get a seat reservation over the phone as SNCF (the French high-speed train company) did not take cards issued by American banks, even if they were Visa cards. Because of this, I was forced to take the local regional train to the border and keep transferring between trains until I reached Narbonne.

By this point, I had figured out how to book a seat reservation with the Rail Pass online, but due to so many trains being full, I was forced to take the bus back to Freiburg instead. To this day, I swear that the Fates wanted to ensure that that day was one which would surely try my patience, as the bus was late by two hours, and my two-hour layover in Montpellier turned into a four-hour layover as the other bus was late by a similar amount. While the first bus was fairly uninteresting, the second Flixbus was certainly an experience, not because of the bus itself, but because of the passengers around me, as they truly came from all over. There was a group of English girls, I assume on a trip from their high school or otherwise being chaperoned, several local French, as well as many others from the immigrant communities in France. This was not exactly interesting to me for the first six hours of the ten-hour bus ride, as I was finally able to get some sleep, as by this point it was two in the morning. The remaining four hours would be extremely lively, however. At some point during my nap, a misunderstanding developed between myself and one of the chaperones over some trivial matter that I do not fully remember, and I was forced to choose my words very carefully to avoid the situation from escalating. Despite this, I was able to join several lively conversations I thoroughly enjoyed with several English speakers about the differences between living in the United States and France in particular, as well as about various school matters, such as the subjects of study, academic interests, etc. Later on, when we were leaving a rest stop, the passengers realized that one of us had been left behind, and essentially launched a revolt against the bus driver to force him to wait for the other passenger. This caused a substantial delay of about an hour, but little else would happen and the atmosphere would return to normal. I would only say that on the bus, so long as one is careful, one can enjoy the atmosphere, but things can shift very quickly and one needs to be able to position themselves in such a way as not to get hit.

Even if several things went wrong, I would say that my odyssey to Spain and back was well worth it. The fun I had with my friend far outweighed the costs of our mistakes and the temporary embarrassment which we felt. This was our first trip, things are supposed to go wrong as it is a learning experience. I’m currently planning a trip to Berlin and Copenhagen for our next break, and I am taking the lessons of this trip into consideration to ensure things like this do not happen again. After all, it made for a fun story to tell when I was back in Freiburg! As I’ve learned over my last 21 years of existence, a good story is all you need to start making friends. Take my lessons to heart my friends, and go out and find a good story to tell! I know I’ve enjoyed relating this one.

Headshot of Thomas Matallana.

Thomas Matallana

Buenas! My name is Thomas, and I am majoring in PoliSci & International Affairs. Very much excited to start learning about the EU in Freiburg this summer, as well as go beyond the Western Hemisphere for the first time. A good cook, and geopol nerd!

2023 Summer 1
Home University:
Transylvania University
Louisville, KY
Political Science
International Affairs
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