This trip review is a radical departure from my usual theme in that it is a review of a trip I make by train and not by plane.
Date: Friday, 27. April 2012
Vehicle: AVE Highspeed train
Class: Club Class
Seat: 7C, aisle
GETTING TO THE STATION
I arrive in Madrid on an Air Europa flight from Amsterdam. The flight is certainly nothing to write home. It doesn’t help that we arrive in Madrid with a delay of 90 minutes. If everything had gone according to plan, I would have had three hours to make my connection by train from Madrid’s Atocha railway station to Cordoba. I have now only 75 minutes. So I deplane straight away and head for the Metro. There is a direct train from the airport to Atocha, but that only runs from the new Terminal 4, not from Terminal 1 where I arrive.
But the journey proves to be an easy enough one. I take the Metro to Nuevos Ministerios and from there change onto a suburban train that gets me to Atocha in no time. I even have time for one of those lovely baguette sandwiches with a tortilla and grilled green peppers in it!
The Spanish railways are simply amazing. They’re fast, reliable, very clean and stylish and the service is absolutely outstanding. What’s more, it is obvious the railways are competing head to head with the air carriers. And if you ask me, right now they have the upper hand in Spain.
At Atocha station there is something like a transit area. To access it you have to have a valid ticket and you have to put your luggage through the x-ray machine. You are then inside the departure lounge. The platforms are one floor up from the tracks. To access them you have to wait for your train to start boarding, at which time your ticket is scanned at a counter that looks very much like an airport gate. And then from there you descend via escalator to your train, where your attendant is already expecting you.
The cabin of the train is very nicely appointed, with use of wood for the tables and the back of the seats. The seat itself is very comfortable and made of leather. Fortunately, the train is not very full today either.
The service is simply amazing. We start with a welcome drink served in a real glass, with dried fruit and nuts to go along with that. A short while after earphones are distributed.
Once we leave the station we receive a hot towel to refresh us, followed by the distribution of the menus.
And then comes the meal. It is served in real crockery and with real metal cutlery. As it is the afternoon, we are served an open canape sandwich with a Russian Salad and peppers. For dessert there are two small and very tasty cakes. With that I have a diet coke. I comment on the funky design and ask the attendant if it’s okay for me to take the empty bottle with me. He replies that yes it is and even gives me an extra bottle to have a nice, unopened one to keep. How nice is that.
After the meal comes the coffee and a Lindor chocolate praliné, which I’ve demolished by the time I remember to take a picture of it. Yes, I really am impressed! Next stop: Cordoba.
The journey by Renfe is a smooth and quiet one. For a place as small and as densely populated as Europe it really would make more sense to expand the railway network instead of further adding to the seemingly inevitable congestion in the air. Travelling by train simply makes more sense: the stations are usually not that far out of town, security is not quite such a pain and you can basically take as much luggage as you like. Perhaps therefore, the time has come for the railways and the airlines to stop competing head to head and instead to understand that they are two different transport modes that could very easily complement each other. In some countries this is already a reality: in France Air France has slashed a number of domestic routes in favour of a code-share agreement with the TGV, with trains running directly to the Roissy Airport in Paris. Lufthansa has a similar set up in Germany and so does Switzerland. But so far all these collaborations have been on a purely national level. And for a change it’s not the airlines being overly protective of their markets, but the railway companies.
When the Abbassids took control of the Arab empire in the year 750, they were unable to retain power in many of the more remote areas of the realm and within a short space of time a series of so-called heresies were established throughout the Maghreb and al-Andalus, the Arab dominated part of the Iberian Peninsula. One such heresy was the Emirate of Cordoba, which was proclaimed in 756 by the Ummayyad prince Abd ar-Rahman I.
Initially the range and strength of the emirate varied considerably, nominally on the fringes, where it bordered and subsequently clashed with Christian civilization. Eventually though, by the year 912 prince Abd ar-Rahman III. had managed to restore and secure power in all of al-Andaluz and even managed to expand the emirate’s territory into North Africa and the Maghreb. By 929 Abd ar-Rahman felt sufficiently confident in his rule to proclaim himself the rightful ruler of the Caliphate of Cordoba. In doing so he was openly challenging the legitimacy of the Abbassid claim to power as the supreme rulers of all Muslims. Abd ar-Rahman’s proclamation set the stage for a confrontation with the Abbassid Caliphate in the heartland of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, and the ambitious Fatimid Caliphate of North Africa. Eventually, it was the Fatimids who would emerge as the winners of the conflict. Not necessarily because they had the strongest armies but because they had managed to retain unity within their realm during the course of the ensuing power struggle.
The Ummayyad Caliphate never fully recovered from the efforts of war and subsequent defeat and gradually went into a decline. Eventually the Caliphate of Cordoba was officially abolished in 1023 with the deposition of the last Caliph, Hischam III. The Fatimids in turn, went on to conquer Egypt, where they would eventually establish Cairo – the City Victorious – as their capital.
On my first evening in Cordoba I have a ticket to visit the cathedral of the city. The doors open at 22:30 and the guided tour takes a bit more than an hour. The tour is similar to the Sound and Light Show they have in the evenings at the Giza Pyramids in Cairo.
If ever you have the good fortune to visit Cordoba, I can only recommend the night tour. First of all because there are far less people there by night, and secondly, more importantly, because the atmosphere is simply magical. The cathedral was originally built as a mosque and repeatedly expanded during the reign of the Ummayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus. Later, when the Christians had reconquered the Iberian Peninsula, the mosque was converted into a cathedral. And what a mess they made of it! Even so, it is a fascinating place to visit, it is unique and very likely the only place on the planet where you are likely ever to see statues of those plump little Christian angels alongside traces of Islamic architecture at its very finest, with beautiful inscriptions written in Arabic praising the virtues of the rulers who had commissioned the construction of some part or other of the original mosque.
Unfortunately photography is not permitted so the only pictures I have to share with you are from the outside.
Here are some pictures I took of the cathedral in daylight.
On my second day in Cordoba I head out of town to Madinat Az-Zahra, the former residence of Caliph Abd Ar-Rahman III. The Madina was essentially a city inhabited by the people who worked, in some form or other, at the court and in the government of the mighty Caliph. Only ruins remain today of this splendid city.
Have I already mentioned just how bad the weather was in Cordoba during my stay? Just in case I haven’t, let me tell you it was something nasty! There is little or no shelter from the elements among the ruins of the Madina. Just as I start to make my way back to the shuttle that takes passengers from the site back down the hill to the museum, there is a torrential outburst of rain! It must have been this kind of down poor that convinced Noah to build his arch, and I don’t blame him!