Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The railway museum – Vilanova on the right track

I like to lose myself in museums with a lot of text and explanations. My wife, and certainly my children, prefer museums with a bigger share of entertainment. A few museums have both qualities and the railway museum of Vilanova belongs to that group.

Our four-year-old loves trains. Not as much as he loves airplanes, that is true, but thanks to a school project, I am confident that he knows a lot more about trains. Vilanova is a good place for anyone interested in this subject since there is a cluster of things to explore – a beautiful classic station building, a miniature steam engine track close to the Platja de Ribes Roges and, above all, the railway museum.

A number of towns of the Barcelona province have specialized museums, and Vilanova has been selected to house the one related to railway history. Because of the mountains which separate us from the city of Barcelona, the construction of the railway tunnels was the starting point for the town’s industrial development. Later on, RENFE opened up a train repair and service area here, and it is a part of those premises which has been converted into a museum which, apparently, now holds Europe’s largest collection of steam engines. Unfortunately, it seems that the museum is a bit under-financed. The exterior of all the old engines is more or less well preserved, but it is a shame that some of them have interiors which are falling apart.

My first visit to this museum was for Vilanova’s annual Xatonada – a competition in making the best Xatò, a sallad with cod, tuna, sardines and a special dressing. Since there are always very many people there on that day, it was difficult to feel any presence of history. Now, when I went there a for second time and with the purpose to take a closer look at the exhibits, I had a much richer experience.

We decided to go when we had some friends visiting so in total we were two grown-ups and three small boys. At first we almost got stuck at the model railway in the play area of the museum, but when we finally managed to drag the boys out in the open-air part, I was glad that I did not take them there by myself. The older boys’ presence encouraged my son to repeatedly run out of sight, and I usually found him crying, half-way up a staircase which he had not yet managed to climb, while the older boys had already ran off the next one.

It becomes scaringly clear from the exhibition what a hard and dangerous job it must have been to be a steam engine driver, at least in the early days of the technology. Most objects are full with evily pointed sticks and metal doors just waiting to catch a finger, so I am grateful for not having had to be up on them when they were moving and literally at full steam.

Personally, I found the few old carriages more interesting than the engines, since they made it possible to picture what traveling might have been like in different era. There was an old carriage where I could easily explain the difference between first, second and third class to my son, since this was more obvious in history than it is today. The highlight, however, was to have the opportunity to step into a classic Talgo train, with its unique curved desing, and learn what luxury train traveling was like in the years of the Second World War.

I am confident that most children will love this museum just as much as our oldest son does. Our friends' children certainly did and wanted to go back another day. However, there is charcoal on display on some of the engines and rests of it on others, so for children who like to climb on things this is a place where they easily get dirty. So, if you decide to go, dress your children in dark, insensitive clothes - otherwise you will not enjoy the visit.

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