Sunday 26 September 2010
In Lleida & Lleida to Béziers

I had the morning to look around Lleida before heading to Barcelona on the AVE and onwards on a gauge changing Talgo service into France, getting off at Béziers where I spent the night.

The weather was great with a blue sky and just enough warmth around to make for a very pleasant morning. I had no real plan for my time in Lleida but it had been suggested I would probably enjoy a trip up to the castle which is on the hill behind the centre of the city. So I decided to give this a look but also to have a general wander. I first headed out parallel to the railway and across the river hoping to get a good view of La Seu Vella on the hilltop it shares with the castle. I managed this and in doing so stumbled across a riverside park - the Elysian Fields - which contains a number of gardens and works of art. I walked down parallel to the city centre until it looked as if I should cross the river and head into the town. I didn't have a map so was very much following my nose. Luck must have been on my side as the route I chose took me the easy way. Next to the law courts is a tower containing a lift to get people up to the top of the hill. I had already made use of an outdoor escalator to get to this level. The lift isn't free but at €0.20 was hardly expensive and well worth it.

Now at the top of the hill I wandered around a little to get a feel for what was up there. A theatrical production of some sort was being prepared and had brought a lot of people in. Once it appeared as if it was going to start I left as I clearly wasn't going to understand any of it! The hill is shared between the old cathedral La Seu Vella and the Castle of the King. It took a bit of wandering around to finally find the entrance way to these two places. However the castle was shut for renovations so I was only able to look around the old cathedral. From the machine in the entrance hall I bought a ticket for €8 and went in. I was promptly stopped by a chap who came out from behind a desk. It turns out that entrance is free on a Sunday! So why was the machine on and if it has to be on why did it accept my money or not have a sign up (in any language) saying Sunday was free?!

Pleased to have got my €8 back I spent the next hour or so wandering around La Seu Vella. It hasn't been a cathedral for many centuries, rather it was turned into a military barracks on the instruction of King Philip V of Spain following its role in the defense of Lleida against his armies. Initially he had ordered the demolition of La Seu Vella but, thankfully, this did not take place.

Click here or on the image to the right to view my photographs of Lleida.
Lleida - 26 September 2010

My AVE to Barcelona Sants left Lleida at 13:40 so with a little over an hour left I headed down the hill, this time on foot, and followed my nose back to my hotel to collect my case. It was then just a short step across to the station. I bought a few things to eat on the journey but didn't need them for lunch. I was travelling back to Barcelona Club class, which includes a meal. The price was only a few euros more than the Turista class ticket I had bought for the run up to Lleida and not a huge amount more than the Turista class ticket back so it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do and I didn't regret it. The food was pretty good and, of course, the seat was more comfortable and roomy. However, before I even got on the train, I found out that you are not allowed anywhere near the platforms until your train is very near. So arriving with about 45 minutes to go I ended up having to wait until just before departure time to get my bags scanned and walk up to the platform. The train was rolling in as I walked up the platform. The journey, as outward, was very good with plenty to look at out of the window until the long tunnel into Barcelona Sants station was reached.

AVE Club class ticket.

AVE Club class ticket.

I had to wait nearly 2 hours for my onward connection. I was booked on the 16:42 Talgo service No.460 which had started its journey in Lorca-Sutullena and was heading to Montpelier in France. Until the coming of the AVE Spanish mainlines were almost exclusively laid to the Iberian gauge of 1,668 mm (5 ft 5 2⁄3 in). In France standard gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) is used. So, clearly, at border stations there is a break of gauge. Over the years and in different parts of the world different approaches have been taken to dealing with a change of gauge. The simplest being the running of 2 trains forcing passengers and cargo to switch trains at the border. Changing bogies and wheelsets is a popular approach, especially for freight vehicles, but perhaps the most interesting is the system adopted at the main crossing points between France and Spain. The trains used change gauge on the move. An explanation of the Talgo system used can be seen in this YouTube clip, an in action here (but not on the route to France).

To access the Iberian gauge mainline platforms at Barcelona Sants it was necessary to have my bags scanned again but at least there wasn't a mad dash for the train as plenty of time was allowed for the process, which was good as a lot of people wanted this train. When it rolled into Barcelona it seemed as if most of the passengers got off as my coach was practically empty as I got on. However this didn't last as all those following me in soon took up the room. The train lacks luggage space and was looking and feeling in need of refurbishment. The coming of the new high speed line from Barcelona into France probably means any such work is well down the agenda.

The train, which is hauled by an electric loco, made a fairly slow run out of Barcelona. A lot of money is being spent upgrading the railways which means slow running whilst the work is in progress. There were also plenty of signs of the new high speed line to France including sections which looked finished. The line had been dogged by delays and should have already been open. As it was, entirely selfishly, I am glad it is delayed allowing me to travel the classic route in a gauge changing train. I am not aware of the future for these trains once the high speed line is opine but can't imagine they will continue to run.

The weather had changed now with more cloud than sun as the train, running a little late, headed north through Gerona and eventually within sight of the Mediterranean Sea from Llancà onwards. This final section of running in Spain is forced out towards the sea as it is where the Pyrenees drop into the sea. As the scenery becomes more mountainous the line heads through a number of long tunnels the last of which brings the train into the border station at Portbou. This station is largely laid out with Iberian gauge track. Just beyond the station the line dives into a pair of tunnels which take the lines under the border and into France. The single bore tunnels contain different gauge tracks with standard gauge line being laid in the seaward side tunnel and Iberian gauge in the landward. SNCF passenger trains run through from France into a platform on the coastal side of the main station buildings but these trains return empty to France with RENFE providing a corresponding northbound service and empty southbound service to and from the French station at Cerbère. On both sides of the border the extensive freight yards contain tracks of both gauges and some sections of dual gauge track. Details of the two border stations can be found here.

Barcelona Sants to Béziers Talgo ticket.

Barcelona Sants to Béziers Talgo ticket.

Talgo 460 arrives at Portbou as an Iberian gauge train but before it enters the Balitres tunnel to France it is a standard gauge train. On arrival there was a bit of a delay whilst the Spanish loco was removed from the front of the train. I assume (but could be wrong) that this loco ran round then propelled the Talgo train into the gauge changing shed. After a very smooth and almost silent transit through the shed the train came to a stand with the first vehicle gauge changed. Here a SNCF electric loco was attached and, if at the rear, the RENFE loco removed. Once this was complete the train was on the move again and was shortly entering Balitres tunnel and France. Next stop, just a few minutes on, was at the French border station of Cerbère. On this side of the border the station is largely standard gauge. The Iberian gauge line, which is a simple dead end with no run round, looked rather rusty and sorry for itself but does host daily trains. The stop at Cerbère seemed to take ages but I didn't have a timetable to hand to check how late running the train was. Leaving Cerbère coincided with darkness starting to fall so after a few minutes the excellent views of the coastline disappeared.

The train made good progress north with the next stop being Perpignan. Here I was able to see from the station departure screens that the train was about 15 minutes late. I was now back in vaguely familiar territory having travelled on this line, in the opposite direction, in June. As it was dark there were only glimpses to be had of the lagoons between Perpignan and the next stop at Narbonne. From here it was just a short run to Béziers, arriving still 15 , minutes down a little before 20:50. Just a handful of people got off here. I was booked into the Hotel Terminus just across the road from the station. It was easy to find and once the slightly odd door opened I was in! The hotel was friendly and whilst small my room was clean and comfortable. I headed out briefly to have a wander around. Having eaten on the AVE and had food bought in Lleida I didn't feel like a meal so just had a quick walk around the deserted streets before heading back to the hotel and failing to get a wifi connection despite having all the details from reception.

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