Who would think that travelling in Europe would present so many challenges after my extensive travel through Asia, Africa and the Middle East? All commenced well enough – my arrival within the incredible Barajas airport in Madrid was a positive augur as my experiences within the city continued to impress. The city’s architecture was striking – exquisite old buildings with black iron railings loomed over paved streets lined with cafes. Small touches, such as street signs made of porcelain tiles, and the audible pedestrian crossing ‘walk’ signals (that sounded more like birds than an electronic beep) all added to the sense of elegance. Madrid exuded a vibrancy and energy in the evenings – for though the streets were quite empty around seven at night, within a couple of hours, the cafés and restaurants filled with Spaniards devouring tapas, wines and engaging in spirited conversation. Even my humble pension held a pleasant surprise, for it sat adjacent to a theatre hosting a modern opera, and I could lay in my bed listening to the forte
parts of the performance. Madrid has charm oozing from every corner, and it would rate as my second favourite city behind Paris.
After several days in
the capital and at the oversized Monastery of Escorial, it was time to explore further. So I hired a vehicle for the following ten days, a new Volvo that initially performed perfectly, but then came the pain. On driving through roadworks near Lisbon, I heard the ominous sound of rushing air and stopped to discover a deflated front right tyre. Regrettably, the jack had never been used, so it took almost an hour of forcible coaxing for the parts to finally move and change the tyre. The car limped to my hotel where I discovered that the rear right tyre had also been punctured – a double puncture! The good folk at Avis (where I hired the car) lent me another vehicle for a day, and then the newly-tyred Volvo and I were reunited for more pleasure, which included the Bone Church of Evora.
But alas, such pleasure changed on entering Gibraltar, for when driving the steep and narrow streets on the Rock, I veered too far right and rode over an object that was followed by that awful gushing of air sound again – my third puncture in four days. This time the situation was more dire, as
I was on a steep road that caused my car to wobble when the now easy-to-use jack was raised. Furthermore, the Chief Minister for Gibraltar was visiting the Rock within the hour and my stranded car was located on his travelling route. This necessitated a visit from the local police who searched my car and bags to ensure that I was not a security risk, after which they directed me to another section of road to change my tyre – on the instruction that I needed to leave within 20 minutes. After much straining and sweating, I completed the task two minutes after the allotted time, but before another visit from the local constabulary.
I changed to a new car – a Dodge that took me to the city of Granada – home to one of the most important buildings in Europe – the Moorish enclosure called the Alhambra, constructed in the 14th Century. This is supposedly the second most visited historical site in Europe, and it was the main reason for travelling to Spain. The Alhambra’s most famous part is the Nasrid Palace, and my first visit was in the evening, where the interior was beautifully lit by
cleverly placed oblique lighting that allowed every detail of the intricate carving to be examined. Room after room was ornamented with similar designs and it was almost incomprehensible to absorb. The impact of the Palace was best epitomised in the Hall of the Abencerrajes where approximately eight people were viewing the room. Some of the visitors were couples, others were solo travellers – but the whole room was absolutely still – no-one spoke, even the cameras held by many were lowered as we all stood in absolute awe to marvel at the amazing artistry that crafted these decorations of the highest order. This is the only royal building I have seen that could rival the glorious palace at Versailles in France.
The following day I again visited the Nasrid Palace, and though it was still mesmerising, the natural light flowing through the many windows washed out some detail of the carvings. The day visit did enable me to stroll the extensive gardens, and tour other buildings such as the Generalife - a structure that would normally be the highlight of any other historical site, but seemed insignificant when compared to the Nasrid Palace. The Alhambra is certainly one of
the greatest sites I have ever visited and it should be on every traveller’s itinerary at some time during their explorations.
After leaving Granada, I briefly travelled through Barcelona to see the unfinished Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi, and visited the stadium that hosted the Olympics. It was in July 1992 that I sat in the arena on a balmy July evening to watch my first ever Opening Ceremony, and the spectacle of that night, including the archer igniting the Olympic Flame with a well-placed flaming arrow are still amongst the fondest memories of my life. After more pleasure driving through the beautiful Spanish Pyrenees, I returned my car to Avis – and received more pain. It was only then that Avis informed me that the three punctures I had were considered ‘accidents’ and they were going to charge me a ridiculous amount of money for the repairs. Even though my travel insurance would cover this charge, I still needed the incident reports, and the not-as-good folk at Avis should have given these to me at the time of the punctures. After three weeks, I am still waiting for Avis to furnish me with the required information.
should be easier travelling than this – and to prove that the Iberian Peninsula was not alone in providing me with difficulties, pain again followed pleasure in Italy. After gazing at the incredibly emotive Last Supper by Da Vinci in Milan, and the fortified escarpment of San Marino, I organised to post four kilograms of accumulated travel items from Rome to Australia. I thought that an hour to fulfil this task would be sufficient before heading to the airport to leave Europe. Unfortunately, I happened upon the world’s stupidest customer service employee – and she works at Italia Post. What should have been an uncomplicated procedure was prolonged to more than two hours – not due to any language barrier – but by a person of staggering incompetence – Italia Post should retrench her immediately. Despite the assistance of two native Italian speakers, who, like me, were bewildered at the ineptitude of this employee, the time taken in the postal centre allowed me only 30 minutes to catch the last train to the airport.
I sprinted to my hotel, and burdened with over 25kg in two backpacks, lumbered towards the metro that would take me to the airport train.
With only 20 minutes to make the connection, I calculated the metro journey would take approximately 15 minutes, thus allowing me barely enough time for the transportation transfer. The train took 16 minutes, and I burst forth from the carriage and raced along the station complex. The corridors seemed endless, but were assisted by the moving walkways that I ran along – the weight of the backpacks bouncing against me made rapid movement difficult. All seemed well, but the last moving walkway was broken, and so after more sweaty effort, I arrived at the station with only a minute to go. I scoured the tunnel that led to the platforms seeking the airport train, but the electronic displays were broken – how frustrating! I then noticed a plane symbol on the entrance to the most distant platform – it must be the airport train. I heaved my weary body up the stairs and the train was thankfully still in the station; “Aeroporto?” I quizzed the train driver. “No,” he replied. Perhaps this would make too much sense – having the airport train leave from the platform designated for the airport train.
I frantically looked around and noted another train
The Prado - Madrid, Spain
One of the finest art galleries in the world. The Thyssen-Bornemisza gallery nearby was another highlight.
sitting a few platforms away. I shouted “Aeroporto?” and the driver answered with “Si”. By this time, the train’s departure was imminent, so I stumbled down the stairs and headed to the correct platform, but weary me miscalculated the distance, so I emerged from a steep climb of stairs to an empty platform with the train a further stairwell away. So again into the tunnel I plunged and as I mounted the last few steps to the correct platform, I was aghast as the train was departing the station. I leapt to the top of the stairs screaming “Prego! Prego! Prego!” and in what may be a defining moment in customer service in Italy, the driver looked at my dishevelled state and halted the train. I opened the door and collapsed on the train’s floor, my backpacks sprawled around me, sweat pouring in rivers down my face and body. The train lurched forward again and I breathlessly exclaimed to myself (with expletives deleted) “I made it!!!” Perhaps my fortunes are changing.
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