“No habla ingles,” the guy in the high viz jacket said as he tried to slink away.
“Peudo ayudar, por favor,” I said in my best, old white guy tries to learn from the Babbel app, Spanish I could muster. Great, I managed to convince him to come over and help my sorry out of sorts, self.
I couldn’t operate the bloody handbrake on my rental. That’s how lost I was after nearly 24 hours of travel and barely any sleep. Neither could my travel companion, so we were both out of it.
He showed me and man, did we feel stupid. Even stupider when it took me about 10 minutes to figure my way out of the rental car parking lot.
How did this trip all come about and why is this fifty-something year old
guy traveling alone with his teenage daughter? Yeah, my daughter is a pretty young lady, and we sure got some weird looks and strange comments when we were out to dinner together. How the human mind immediately goes to the most salacious place is a mystery to me. Let’s step back a couple of years and let me explain.
Back in 2019, when my daughter was 16, she asked me about my family’s homeland and heritage. I explained to her as best as I could, with my limited knowledge and experience, of my parents’ journey from Belgium to Canada. I also gave her, as best as I could, a quick history and geography lesson of Belgium. She also told me that she really wanted to visit Belgium, and meet my extended family. The idea lay dormant for a few months and then suddenly, in late 2019, I was inspired to make the trip a reality. By January 2020, I had my Airbnb booked in Oostende, on Belgium’s North Sea coast – my parents’ hometown. Our flights were booked with Lufthansa through a local travel agent.
By March of that year, Covid 19 had that part of Europe in a stranglehold and by April, I had to cancel the trip planned for July 2020. Apparently, travel insurance doesn’t cover very much, and it certainly doesn’t cover global pandemics. No chance of getting my money back (well over $2000 Canadian). All I was promised was a travel credit, which I had trouble believing, given the number of times I’ve been screwed by various companies over the years.
I argued with that travel agent for close to two years. They kept promising me a travel credit, but I never got an actual written notification of such travel credit, only promises by email, so my credulity was stretched very thin by then. Their deadlines changed at least four times over an 18-month span and thus, my skepticism was on high alert for a very long time. It got to the point that I called them out and got TICO involved (Ontario’s consumer protection agency for travel agents). For some strange reason, the ball started really rolling and soon after that little encounter, my trip was booked. Only it was not longer booked for Belgium; it was booked for Spain, a country which I dreamed of visiting for years – yes, this was one of those bucket list moments. Maybe that’s why my travel agent wasn’t all that helpful and acted like she wanted to get rid of me most of the time.
With apologies to my relatives in Belgium, I decided to switch my travel credit to Spain (for an extra $600, so of course, the travel agent ended up with their pound of flesh after all). Nothing against my parents’ homeland and my extended family, I just really, really wanted to visit Spain. So there you have it, that is why we flew Lufthansa to get to Spain from Canada, and why we had to transit through Frankfurt, the weirdest airport I’ve ever seen.
After our very strange experience in Frankfurt, we made it to Madrid just after noon, on a Sunday, in late May, a couple of days before my 56th birthday. Fantastic! I will be spending my birthday in a country I’ve fantasized about visiting for years, but unfortunately, I’ll be without the love of my life, my wife of thirty years. But very happy to be with my only child, my eighteen-year-old daughter. Not accustomed to EU protocols, I had no idea that we didn’t have to cross Spanish customs, that having been taken care of in Germany – how efficient is that? We finally gathered our luggage, that fortunately, over three layovers and two airlines, had not been lost. The only drawback was the giant gouge in the side of my daughter’s suitcase. Nothing lost but the suitcase would have to be replaced before we journeyed home. Off to find our rental car!
After what seemed like an epic journey, we found the Avis Rental Car office, outside, in a very hot parking lot, and at the far end of Terminal 1, very far away from where we landed in Terminal 2. Standing in line – outside, in the sun – for close to half an hour, I finally made it inside. The clerk was a super friendly Spaniard lady, somewhere in the mid to late thirties, very pleasant to deal with and after a nearly 24 hour journey, very easy on the eyes. After a few questions and forms to sign, and a surprise “happy birthday Senor,” I made it to my car, a Citroen C3 Aircross. At first, my reaction was something like, “what the heck is this thing,” but honestly, I really grew to like that car. If I lived in Europe, I might actually consider buying one. Just a word to the wise, book your rental car well ahead of your journey, you won’t be disappointed.
After an absolutely necessary stop at McDonald’s, in middle of some unknown Madrid neighbourhood to quench my daughter’s hunger pangs, we made our way down toward Valdepenas. All I could think was, “you wanted to get acquainted with driving in Spain, you got it.” Holy crap, talk about neve-wracking, driving through incredibly narrow streets, in some unknown neighbourhood in Madrid – a totally foreign city to me – after a sleepless transcontinental flight. Thank God it was a Sunday afternoon so there was much less traffic than usual.
A nearly three-hour drive brought us to Valdepenas, a non-descript village in the middle of Spain. The speed limit on the highway leading to Valdepenas is 120 KM, which is pretty cool. Not that I drove at the speed very much, mind you. I was still shaking from driving in Madrid and trying desperately to get used to driving in Spain, in a manual diesel, after not having driven manual for close to five years. It took me about an hour of highway driving to figure out that this car had a sixth gear, after noticing a little number 6 with an arrow pointing up on my dashboard. I gingerly shifted into sixth gear, while almost closing my eyes. Phew, nothing happened. I soon got used to using six manual gears, but it took a bit of effort to get somewhat proficient at doing it.
I honestly didn’t expect much from our overnight rest in Valdepenas, but after a close to two-hour stroll around this charming little village, seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages, I could not be more wrong. Old World magic in spades. I just absolutely loved our first stop in Spain and found this to be one of the cutest little towns I had ever seen. And our hotel, the Hotel Veracruz Plaza & Spa, was quite nice, with an awesome complementary breakfast the next morning.
I was completely enthralled, and very happy I had my camera with me. I didn’t want to be too weighed down, so I left my full frame camera at home in Canada and brought my micro four thirds, Lumix G95 with me – a very capable and versatile camera. I was not at all disappointed with the pictures I took in Valdepenas, or anywhere else in Spain for that matter. Valdepenas was a great place for street photography, a style of photography that I like very much.
I enjoyed my walk through Valdepenas. I was struck by its sense of community and how old world meets the modern era, and how easily the two coexist. It really did seem like a tightly knit community, where everyone knew everyone. I loved how ancient buildings blended with modern art, through recent mural paintings and modern art in the centre of town, in the middle of traffic circles. I just felt so at ease walking through this little hamlet, a seldom seen tourist amongst locals.
While standing on a street corner, I overheard two teenage girls gossiping and uttering a very vulgar phrase in Spanish. My immediate internal response being, “I know what that means, because I watch Netflix!!!”
The next morning, we headed south toward Andalucía, using my daughter’s iPhone plugged into the dash of our rental car as our guide.
As we crossed into the Andalucía region, I found it remarkable how quickly the landscape and vegetation changed. Andalucía truly is wonderful place. Crossing into the Sierra Morena mountains is a breathtaking and somewhat terrifying experience if you’re not used to driving through mountain ranges. The highways are superb, as are the numerous tunnels and bridges we crossed. Tunnels through mountainsides and bridges over dizzyingly high ravines, valleys, and ravines. The amount of engineering and construction prowess and skill that went into making these passageways is incredible to think about. They are very well-built and very well maintained, considering how high up they are.
The road toward Malaga felt like a rollercoaster. I was amazed at the six plus lanes snaking up and down this hilly terrain, around this mid-sized city. By the time we made it past Malaga, I knew we were within about 90 minutes of our destination.
At first, I cursed my decision to fly in and out of Madrid because of all the driving it entailed, but looking back, I no longer regret it. We wouldn’t have experienced the magnificent Spanish countryside in such a dramatic fashion had we traveled any other way. That drive was remarkable as it revealed a rugged and beautiful land that we had never seen before. It was quite an arduous drive, but well worth it after all.
Below is a link to the first article in this series.