I didn’t believe it when they told me, but it finally turned out to be true. The tracks between Spain and France were a different size. Francewent by the international standard gauge, with a width 4ft 8 ½ inches across; but on this side of the Pyrenees, the authorities preferred the wider Iberian gauge, which comes to 5ft 5 2/3 inches. It’s the second broadest track in the world, just a fraction narrower than the Indian gauge. This is no doubt a tidbit of trivia most citizens of this world do not know, and may not see the need to, but there you have it, a fact all the same. This discrepancy in iron girth, struck me as yet another example ofEurope’s inability to set up its infrastructure in a cohesive manner, in addition to its myriad currencies, languages World Wars and such; and I may just be on the mark. Common Lore claims it was a deliberate attempt by the Spanish to keep other Europeans nations, in particular the French, from invading the country via the railway routes.
There may be a shred of truth there since France had on more than one occasion proven itself inclined to incur and plunder this land, with extreme prejudice, I might add. What better way to hinder future aspirations of this kind than to make an entire army hop off the train at the frontier and hoof it from there. No one likes to hike thePyreneesbefore battle, I can assure you. It makes for uncomfortable warfare.
Of course, on the other hand, no one has considered the thought that maybe it was the rest of the countries which narrowed their tracks to keep the Spanish out. Unlikely as it may seem, it is fair to mention all the same.
Despite the general belief, no specific mention of any military aims was made when the Iberian gauge was established as this country’s official size back in 1950s. Spainjust likes to be different it would seem.
Decades later it meant that if you wanted to invade the rest of the continent as a tourist, first you had to alight at a town called Portbou, cross the border and hoist yourself back on another at Cerbere to carry onto Avignon. Or something like that. It may be that in Portbou itself there was a continental track parallel to the one we had used. In any event, the peculiarity came across as quirky at first, but the novelty soon wore off. On top of that, my friend John, who had bought some kind of fancy six-month all included pass, had to pay the sucker’s surcharge. But that was in France, and that was the French.Le supplemént du Sucker, I think they denoted it. The return was similar, just the other way around in almost every sense. We got back on the Spanish train and bolted back toMadrid, passing byBarcelona. The German was no where in sight. That meant he had either recovered or been admitted to a hospital. Having no money on us and no new travel companion to get drunk with, we were forced to deal with the backboard without the assistance of booze. Soon the bench’s virtues as an instrument of torture became more apparent by the hour, and the passengers who shared our cabin had the annoying habit of living in places whose stations we reached at the most unsettling hours. Sleep was seldom. Slumber even rarer.
We finally made it to Madrid just past dawn. It was Easter Sunday. We had returned with an American friend who was living in Avignon and yearned to spend a week or two in Spain to catch some halfway decent weather. When we sat down to lunch, we paused in mid-meal to stare out the window with astonishment as the first snowflakes of the winter tumbled to earth. Although it was early April, it was the first time that year. Expect the unexpected from Madrid. Always.