It has taken some time to convince my children that we should travel between Spain's two major cities – Madrid and Barcelona – on a train.
They think of trains as slow local transport, like they are in Australia, but when we arrive at Madrid's Atocha station two things win them over. The first is the pond full of turtles in the centre of Atocha, covered in greenery and bursts of movie-set mist. The second is the sleek, space-age look of our European fast train at the platform ready for our 2pm departure.
If we have seen the turtles, then this is the hare: Renfe's Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) high-speed train that can reach 300km/h, and has a pointed nose cone like a fighter jet. This is train travel, but not as my children know it.
We take off at the stroke of 2pm and 10 minutes later the movie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – starts and the roaring of the empire's ships kicks in as we clear the city and pick up speed. The space ship is the only engine to be heard, though, as we glide silently along the rails. We pass Madrid's sprawling outer suburbs with squat apartments, but at our speed the vista changes quickly. Little villages soon appear dwarfed by mountains, castle ruins top crumbling hills and the dirt and dust change from red to yellow.
By the time the Star Wars baddies capture Poe Dameron we're doing 268km/h and the parched mesa is hurtling past. The kids are also very on board with our choice of transport, they want to explore the carriages, play with the radio stations and snack from the food trolley where our bocadillo de jamon y camembert comes with a tiny bottle of olive oil (which the kids quickly souvenir).
My seven-year-old thinks the Spanish countryside looks "slightly like Uluru" while my eldest is yelling loud radio station selections from his seat on the other side of the aisle.
Half an hour from Barcelona we glimpse the coast at Guadalajara and, as Rey gets a crash course in lightsaber fighting for the Star Wars finale, we reach Barcelona's outskirts.
We arrive at precisely 4.30pm.
"Can we travel by fast train when we get home?" asks my eldest as we depart. If only we could.
The local Renfe site can be a little slow and confusing so a safe bet is using Rail Europe (raileurope.com.au). Trains run several times a day and fares start at $109 for an adult, one way, second class.
Paul Chai travelled at his own expense.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN SPAIN
Part of the El Born design district, this funky shop sells twisted takes on the average souvenir, such as lightweight beach towels with modern Spanish-inspired prints, tapas forks shaped like sardines, and original art works by local artists. Carrer dels Carders, 14, Barcelona; see facebook.com
For a snack as you walk around the El Born area, grab a perfect parcel of Argentinian empanada at La Fabrica. There are traditional flavours as well as modern takes on this South American staple: the provola has pesto and provolone cheese. Plaça de la Llana, 15, Barcelona; see www.lafabrica-bcn.com
Another restaurant putting a spin on the classics is Pez Tortilla in Madrid, part of a new wave of joints doing tapas with a modern eye, in the fashionable Malasana district. This rock'n'roll joint serves tortillas and croquetas to a young crowd clasping craft beers crammed into the small space, surrounded by black-and-white photos of Bardot and Jagger. Flavours include pulpo a la gallega (local octopus), prawns and the wonderfully oozing brie and jamon. Calle del Pez, 36, Madrid; see www.peztortilla.com
Looking like it has not changed since it opened in 1928, this old-skool joint in the ever-changing Malasana district keeps it simple with the house drink, or "yayo"– a cocktail of vermouth, gin and soda water that comes out of elegant silver spouts – and simple pinchos. Even blow-ins are treated like locals, and the kids get a plate of lollies with each round of drinks or food. Calle San Andres de Rabanedo 4, Madrid.
TEMPLE OF DEBOD
In the popular picnic spot in the Parque del Oeste in Madrid sits an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt in the Spanish capital. This quirky attraction was built on the River Nile in the 2nd century and is dedicated to the goddess, Isis. The temple was a gift to Spain from the Egyptian people. See www.esmadrid.com
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