A misadventure in Spain 13 Jul 2006
Jennie McClean has an experience she’ll never forget in Spain – and Stansted airport.
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"Just pay the taxes!" the advertisment read. "1p flights!" Sold – to the drooling Kiwis as they pored over the options to escape another British winter. Ryanair flies to more than 25 destinations so the process of elimination was cut short by measuring the distance from the equator, which pointed to Spain. After consulting the atlas, we compared the destinations on offer in relation to where our favourite cheap hotels were situated.
A friendly, French finger pointed us to Formula One extraordinaire. Fully automated, it welcomed us and our visa card via a large machine outside the main door.We punched in our order: two rooms, no breakfast and two nights. It responded with a print-out of six digit codes that gave us entry into the hotel and our rooms, definitely a bargain at 92 euros. So, finding Formula One in Lleida, we booked three nights with the first and final nights in different hotels in Zaragosa.
Of all the best laid plans, the one potential fly in the ointment was the fact the Home Office had our passports, as we were in the process of naturalising our four sons and myself.
They did assure us they’d return them in time to travel, despite an American friend, whose own immigration problems were still stingingly fresh and advised us not to trust them! Sinister-sounding suspicion, or sensible, sound wisdom? I chose to send them in trust – after all they had given their assurance.
However, two days before departure, and with no sign of the passports, I managed to get hold of an un-automated voice that informed me the passports had been sent registered delivery (taking one to three days). Panic started to loom.
Extraordinarily, a collegue of my husband suggested checking to see whether they had actually left the Home Office building or not. On further inquiry, we discovered that indeed they had not – we were in with a chance. If they could be re-sent special delivery (guaranteed to arrive by 9am the next morning), straight to the information desk at Stansted airport, we could fly! A perfect plan – alright nearly perfect.
Just to rewind the tape a little ... on the first phonecall to Stansted, I was told no one would take personal responsibility for anyone’s passports on the desk so it was a no-go. The second conversation fared better: "If I’m there to pick up the packet can it be sent there?" "Yes, sure."
Our flight was leaving at 9.45am, the booking office closed at 9.05am, passports at the information desk by 9am ... we had a fine margin of at least five minutes to dash from the information desk to the Ryanair booking office – the suspense and adrenalin made it all the more exciting! Life on the edge – I couldn’t wait to see the magic unfold.
Did I just say couldn’t wait? We ended up waiting at Stansted Airport for a total of 36 hours before catching a) up with our passports and b) the next available flight to Spain, which was hundreds of miles from Zaragosa and our booked hotels! But hey, we didn’t mind a bit. We knew somewhere, anywhere in Spain there’d be a comfy bed waiting with clean sheets, pillows and with-out hundreds of arrivals walking through our bedroom all night!
The whole situation is a lesson in how a near perfect plan can slowly disintegrate before one’s very eyes. 8.45am at the information desk – no sign of the parcel. The consequent phone calls to immigration (now a direct line to "Rupert") and the Passport Office proved frustratingly contradictory. On the one hand the Passport Office was adamant the parcel never left the Home Office or it went normal mail and on the other hand "Rupert" was emphatic it was sent, he personally saw to it.
A stalemate ensued all day and half of the next until finally my beloved husband, John, decided he’d wander to another building in the airport to make enquiries. A helpful worker, glad of the excuse to stray from the confines of his job, made the discovery of our precious parcel in the immigration section in the bowels of Stansted – of course they were there, John Cleese could have told us that. Fortunately the staff at Ryanair were sympathetic to our dilemma and only charged £40 to change our flight to somewhere called Reus.
We celebrated with a red wine (mingled with feelings of utter relief) before saying goodbye to our new-found Polish friend Marta, who was incidently in a worse fix than us and was preparing for her overnight stay before flying home in the morning. By way of explanation, "Rupert" had unfortunately quoted the wrong parcel number so we were tracking the wrong parcel. All was forgiven, we just wanted out, so we finally arrived in Reus at 11pm and took a taxi to a hotel where we gratefully unloaded and crashed out.
A short walk away we discovered a museum dedicated to Gaudi that explained about his childhood and upbringing in Reus and consequent studying and move to Barcelona where he spent his life manifesting his brilliance in architecture with fortuitous financial backing.
What fascinated me most was the fact that a childhood illness kept him confined to bed for numerous days, whereupon he made observations of shadow, light, landscape and nature, which proved the building blocks for his plans and experimentation of radical "artitecture".
Once we’d picked up the Gaudi scent, we were determined to track down his works in Barcelona, but not before finding our Fomula One hotel in Lleida. Booking the hotels had proved a nuisance, being off-season and out of the way we could easily have just turned up. However, we also discovered when we hadn’t shown up the first night, they cancelled the other two nights custom without taking our money – I thought we’d prepaid all three nights but apparently not Also had we cancelled (within the last 24 hours up to 7pm) we wouldn’t have had to pay for the first night. However, a breakfast charge was also taken and when I protested it was for any one of the mornings we booked, we got duly fed.
As this was our cheap holiday we decided to try to hitchhike to Barcelona (the last time I hitchhiked was in 1982). Okay, giving away our age here, we’re both well into our 40s and with five kids to support – we do cheap! After realising we were wasting precious holiday time by the side of a fumy road, we changed tact and hitchhiked on another road and got a lift by a workman in a white transit van who dropped us off at the train station.
We got to Barcelona at about 5pm and were able to walk to Gaudi’s most famous work, the Sagrida da Familia, a multi-towered cathedral. It was famously Tolkienish, over the top, unfinished and for eight euros we didn’t see inside as it closed at 6pm. Time to find a bed, and on the advice of an English couple a hostel was the cheapest option. We were told at the first one we visited it was 65 euros as there had been an influx of people for that week in Barcelona.
We hit the street and were told of a Backpackers from 16 euros per person near Universitat underground. When we got there we found the welcome friendly, and with brightly painted walls and priced at 20 euros each for a room just off the communal kitchen, it was quite homely. I enjoyed the sign in the kitchen: "please clean up after yourselves, your mother isn’t here!"
One of the best things about the location we discovered later, was it was walkable to the most popular live music venue in Barcelona – the Pub Mediterrana. The first act was a solo woman singing English songs, a welcoming sound, then the following act was a young guy who had the local residency and sang all in Spanish. The venue was so popular, a queue trailed from the bar to the door, and only when seats were vacated were people allowed in to enjoy the music. The bar was in a long narrow venue with lively hard-working staff but the amount of smoke made us wish we’d brought one of those lacey Spanish fans.
The final lasting impression of Barcelona occured on the street the next day just before we caught the train to Zaragosa. John watched as two women walked by him rather briskly, a fairly average sight but what made him really gape was the sight of one of the woman’s arms was deep inside the other woman’s handbag, who was totally oblivious to it.
His warning shout was unheeded so he pursued the women and caught up with the victim and explained what he’d just witnessed. She checked her bag and all seemed intact.
We had been warned at the backpackers to keep alert for pick pockets, so this experience put us on full alert and wanting to warn others we let a security guard outside a restaurant know what had just happened and described the perpetrator. That was easy, as she was obviously pregnant and trying to blend in as a tourist, casually dressed with a brochure in hand.
Following a seven-hour train ride to Zaragosa, we spent the final night in Spain at a wonderfully luxurious hotel, the Cesar Augusta, and had a truly wonderful meal at a Hong Kong restaurant a few doors down. Not at all familiar with the cuisine, and nowhere near Hong Kong, it was a risky move that paid off.
The dishes arrived in stages, each one as sumptuous as the last – vegies cooked exquisitely, spring rolls in delicious sauces – it was heavenly. After instant, dry packeted couscous and vegies and just-add-hot-water meals, this was indeed a feast.
Our last mission was to stock up on one euro per litre Spanish red wine without going over our weight limit, which Ryanair charges at £5 per kilo to unsuspecting travellers. The flight from Zaragosa to Stansted was the most straightforward part of the holiday, and to tell you the truth, rather predictable really, considering all we’d been through.
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