When my husband and I decided to visit Spain last May, we each had our wish lists: I wanted to spend as much time as possible in Madrid, while he hoped to linger in Barcelona. But we had only one week.

My husband argued that seeing all of Antoni Gaudí’s architectural spectacles in Barcelona alone would take the full week. But I had my own plans in Madrid, to see several good friends and take in the big-three museums: the Prado (with the final phase of its $202 million expansion now complete), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Picasso’s Guernica’s permanent home), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza’s wide-ranging collection—as well as the newly opened CaixaForum Madrid, featuring a hanging garden, rotating art exhibitions, and live performances.

Thanks to the recent high-speed rail connecting Barcelona and Madrid, we both got our wishes. Inaugurated earlier this year

[SPRING ‘08], the Barcelona-Madrid line of the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) is the latest addition to Spain’s high-speed train service, first begun in 1992 with the AVE connection between Madrid and Seville. With 20 trains running daily at speeds of up to 186 mph, the AVE cuts train travel time between Barcelona and Madrid (342 miles) almost in half from pre-AVE days.

So, with our five-year-old daughter in tow, we moved through the port city of Barcelona for half of our vacation week, from the carnival atmosphere along the Ramblas avenue to the Sagrada Familia cathedral and all of the other major Gaudi structures (by day two my daughter could spot one a block away). Then, after a short afternoon’s ride on the AVE, we arrived in Madrid and enjoyed the final half of our vacation among friends and some of the world’s finest art.

Travelers taking the AVE between Spain’s two largest cities will find many benefits over flying—especially for families with small children. With kids along, you want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible, with minimal chance for boredom or tantrums. Along with time and cost savings, travel on the AVE offers the open space and ease of movement of roomy train cars—not to mention picturesque views of Spanish countryside, including olive and fruit groves, horse pastures and grazing sheep.

Although a flight between Barcelona and Madrid lasts only about an hour (as opposed to the AVE’s 2 hours and 38 minutes), ultimately the AVE saves on travel time to and from the airports, which lie well outside each of these cities, as well as time saved waiting in line at the airport and going through security checks. (The AVE pulls in and out of Barcelona-Sants station and Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station, both centrally located in these cities.) What’s more, although one-way discount flights between Barcelona and Madrid average around the same price as the AVE ($160-$175), taking the train saves on the transportation cost of getting to the outlying airports.

With the first row in each coach car featuring a table with four facing seats, families can bond over card games and conversation. Dining car snacks include a selection of Spanish olives, potato chips cooked in olive oil, baguette sandwiches made with Iberico ham, and tortilla Espanola—Spanish omelette made with potatoes. The Barcelona-Madrid line also offers fine red and white wines from Catalunia as well as a selection of Riojas.

Book early for the best availability and prices (when tickets for the new connection first went on sale, there were 20,000 bookings in one day!). AVE tickets for Madrid-Barcelona start at $157. Additional newly opened AVE connections include Madrid-Malaga and Madrid-Valladolid. Contact Rail Europe at 1-888-382-7245 FREE or www.raileurope.com to book online for savings of up to 10%. Rail Europe also offers City Cards for Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville for discounts on museums, transportation, and other attractions.