My novel Curva Peligrosa opens with a tornado that sweeps through the fictional town of Weed, Alberta, and drops a purple outhouse into its center. Drowsing and dreaming inside that structure is its owner, Curva Peligrosa—a curiosity and a marvel, a source of light and heat, a magnet. Adventurous, amorous, fecund, and over six feet tall, she possesses magical powers. She also has the greenest of thumbs, creating a tropical habitat in an arctic clime, and she possesses a wicked trigger finger.
We recently returned from a five week trip to London, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. We were particularly looking forward to riding on Spain’s AVE fast train, anticipating excellent trains and wonderful service in first class. From everything I read online, I assumed we would be served a hot, elegant meal.
First disappointment: First class is a joke. Yes, really. Why?
Before leaving on our trip, we purchased a three-day first class Spain Eurorail pass, and booked one-way seats from Seville to Madrid, Granada to Cordoba, and Seville to Barcelona from RailEurope, anticipating excellent trains and good service. From the RailEurope website (and what little I could glean from the Renfe site), I understood that first-class (premier) tickets included a meal (from the RailEurope website: “Enjoy an a la carte menu served right at your seat.”) What we found was complete inconsistency in service and rules.
On the train from Seville to Madrid, we were given a skimpy snack. We also had to remind the staff to ask other riders not to use their cell phones in the car, though a sign clearly stated that cell phone users were to take their calls in the section between trains. This was far from the “warm and distinguished atmosphere” and “dedicated service” advertised on RailEurope. It was only on our train from Granada to Cordoba where a hot breakfast was served, a meal that we enjoyed.
On the trip from Sevilla to Barcelona, 4:00 PM to 9:30 PM, there weren’t any signs asking passengers to refrain from using their phones, so there was a a cacophony of ringing and loud talking that made that trip even more unpleasant. I also assumed that on a long trip we would get a hot meal. One of the Renfe agents at the information center in Seville told me a hot meal would be served, so I didn’t purchase something to eat on the trip. But all we were given were tiny rolls and cheese and a little ham. To make matters worse, the train ended up stalling 45 minutes outside of Barcelona. Only one announcement was made, in Spanish. Nothing in English. And we were kept in the dark, figuratively and literally, for two hours before another train arrived to rescue us, not knowing what was going to happen.
Surely we could have been informed more frequently of what was going on. It also would have been good public relations if someone had thanked us for our patience over the public address system and acknowledged the inconvenience we had all experienced (there were a lot of elderly people on this train, and they had no help in lugging their bags over to the train that rescued them).
In the future, I will book flights rather take trains, especially in Spain, since first class doesn’t live up to the hype and our experience with Renfe and RailEurope has not been a good one.
Update, June 2013
I wish I had followed my own advice about not booking first class in Europe. This June we are traveling in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. At my husband’s request, I booked first class on the last leg of our journey from Guteborg to Copenhagen. There was one first-class car at the front of the train. I had checked both with Rail Europe and at the ticket counter in Guteborg, and seats weren’t assigned on this part of the journey. First come, first served. We chose what I guess is called a compartment (it has a shared table, with two seats on each side facing each other). Because the train wasn’t fully booked, we somehow managed to occupy all four seats ourselves the whole way, but it would have been unpleasant to share because one can’t stretch out one’s legs and there’s no foot rest, the seat backs don’t recline as in second class, and one potentially has to deal with a succession of strangers (sometimes this can be a great way to get to know people, but on this particular train, I didn’t notice such conversations happening.) Instead, our ears were regaled with the flood of cell phone conversations that went on by what appeared to be businessmen. This first class didn’t have any signs saying cell phone conversations aren’t allowed, though when I strolled through the various cars later, I discovered there was one car at the other end designated as the quiet car: no cell phones allowed or noisy conversations. That would be my choice in the future, assuming most trains have a private car.
Though the first-class seats were leather (or simulated leather), they were no more comfortable than second class. In fact, we had our best rides in second class, where most of the seats are facing the same way, giving more privacy and the comfort of reclining seats and footrests. There also is space to store a computer bag under the seat, as well as a loaded backpack, as we did. We have first class book on our journey from Copenhagen to Stockholm, as well as from St. Petersberg to Moscow, but I wish I could change them. My hopes are high that our experience will be any better than it has been so far. First class is a sham!