Friday, 6 July 2007

One of Life's Disastrous Journeys

Not disastrous in the general scheme of things, nobody was hurt and we survived, but………..I would not want to do it again. This journey takes place in 1961 before mass travel had really begun.

It is July and we are about to embark on a journey from our home in London to the Costa Brava in Spain, about an hour’s drive north of Barcelona. We had chosen this particular spot for our holiday, Callela-de-la-Costa, to meet up with one of my bridesmaids who was holidaying there with friends.

We were unable to find a travel agent in London who could help us. We found out later that this was because Callela was a new resort and the German travel agents had the monopoly. No internet booking in those days! I eventually contacted the Youth Travel Bureau who said they could help us with arrangements to get there. They had a group of young people travelling to Majorca in the Mediterranean, via. Barcelona, and they could arrange for us to travel with them. We readily accepted this offer and they also booked a hotel for us. The youth group were crossing the Channel by boat and we did not want to do that, so instead we chose the option of flying and then meeting up with the group at the train station in Paris on Saturday evening.

Our journey begins when the taxi arrives at our flat at 6.30 am Saturday morning. It is our first time out of the UK since we returned from our life on the ocean the previous year. The taxi driver drops us off at Victoria Coach Station to catch a coach to the airport. At this point we are following an itinerary that has been arranged for us. We board the coach knowing only that we are going to a small airport somewhere near the South coast. On the way to the airport the coach breaks down. Eventually a replacement coach arrives and we continue our journey. We arrive at the airport and board a small prop plane – no jets in those days. I had not flown before but as we taxied away from the airport building I began to realise that we did not have a runway. Alan thought I was mad suggesting this, but several minutes later, bumping up and down like crazy, we took off from a field. We duly crossed the channel assuming that we would soon be in Paris, but not so. After only a fairly short flight we landed at Beauvais another small airport near the Coast of France. This airport did at least have a runway!

After immigration and customs checks we were soon boarding another coach and unbelievably half way into this part of the journey this second coach developed a mechanical fault and we had another long wait for a replacement coach. Our train was due to leave Gare D’Austerlitz Station in the South of the City at 8.0 pm and we were really beginning to panic when the coach reached its final destination at Gare Du Nord Station in the North of the City at 7.30 pm. We managed to hail a taxi and drove several miles across Paris arriving on the station platform just as the train was beginning to move away. Fortunately there was a rep. calling out our names. We were hustled onto the moving train (can you imagine that happening in today’s health and safety climate) puffing and panting and literally dragging our luggage.

This was going to be an overnight journey so we were led to a small, narrow carriage containing 6 couchettes, 3 on each side and one above the other. For anyone not knowing what a couchette is, it is a sleeping bunk that pulls out of the wall. Arriving so late we did not have a choice and a top bunk on either side had been left for us. At the time I did not like this choice as we had to climb up over 2 other bunks to get to ours. It was only on the return journey when we had been assigned the 2 bottom bunks that we realised that in effect we had the best deal at the top. The bottom bunks were bouncy, very noisy and far more claustrophobic than those at the top. The movement at the top was more of a swaying sensation which was a little more conducive to resting; I won’t go so far as to say sleeping. My main memory of this part of the journey was the announcements over the loud speaker systems at every stop we made between the North and South of France.

We had thought that we were travelling to Barcelona by train, but at 6.30 am the following morning we arrived in Perpignon in the South of France where the train terminated. We were then told that we had to be at the Coach Station by 7.30 am – oh! no, not another coach. We had just enough time to sample 2 new experiences, the first being a demi-tasse cup of the thickest and strongest coffee I had ever tasted. It was almost like treacle. The second being French public lavatories at the time, namely a hole in the ground. I had been almost a year at sea, travelled into the interior of rural Mexico, but this was the first time that I had seen a “hole in the ground”.

We were soon waiting in a queue to board our next coach. The reps. collected everyone’s Passport to make it easier when we came to crossing the border from France into Spain in the Pyrenees. We settled onto the coach after finding ourselves the seats of our choice and prepared for a long drive. Just as the coach was about to leave another rep. boarded the bus and called out our names. They had realised that another coach was actually going to be passing through Callela and there were 2 seats left so it was suggested that we change coaches. This we did and took up the only 2 seats at the back of the coach. It soon became evident that we were the only English speaking passengers on this coach, everyone else was French. My husband Alan loves languages and always studies some of the language of the country that we are going to so he had spruced up a little on his rough Spanish but ended up relying on his schoolboy French.

We duly arrived at the Spanish border late morning to find a 3 mile queue of vehicles snaking up the mountains waiting their turn to cross. It took everyone a while to realise that our Passports were still with the rep. on the other bus. What would we do, would we be left behind? As it happens, we had to wait so long that eventually the rep. on our bus was able to contact the other rep. and collect our Passports. A great sigh of relief, we were able to cross the border and once out of the mountains we stopped for lunch in a charming Spanish town.

About 5.0 pm we were told that we would soon be arriving in Callela, Alan and I being the only 2 passengers to be leaving the coach. We alighted from the bus and stood in disbelief as we watched it disappear into the distance. We were standing in a small square with not a person or hotel in sight. Just a few old buildings and a lot of scrubland and a couple of old cars.

I was by this time exhausted and very emotional and even regretting leaving the familiarity of London. I sat down on the ground and cried my eyes out. Eventually a man, seeing me crying, walked across the square and asked if he could help us. We told him our dilemma and gave him the name of our hotel. He knew where it was and offered to take us there in what looked like an abandoned car sitting on the road. We were a little inland at this point and our hotel was on the Coast, almost on the beach. We got into the car, (again would one do this today?) and he very kindly drove us to our hotel. He came in with us fortunately because at the desk we were told that they did not have a reservation for us and added to that the hotel was still being built so was not finished. They insisted that we go to their sister hotel in the centre of town. Up to that point we had not even realised that we were anywhere near a town.

Our very kind driver duly drove us into town. We tried to check in at this town hotel only to be told that it was impossible, they did not have a single room free and said that we must go back to our original hotel. This we did and they very reluctantly gave us a large, unfinished room on the 6th floor. This turned out to our advantage in that it was quiet, and being so high up we did not need shutters or curtains and the stone floor and plastered walls meant that it was nice and cool. We had a large en-suite bathroom, which we had not paid for and was quite rare back in 1961 anyhow, and 2 brand new beds and bedding. Alan gave the chamber maid a large tip and for the rest of the 2 weeks we were there she washed whatever clothes we left in the large bedroom basin.

We soon found out however that this was a German hotel, run by Germans, and every other guest was from Germany. It is worth remembering that 1961 was only 15 years after the end of World War 2 and in some quarters there was still a lot of hard feeling between our countries. It was certainly not a problem for us but the hotel staff made it clear that it was a problem for them. They always served us last in the dining room and often made out that they could not understand us. Not so good on the days that we were served a bowl of soup with a fried egg floating in it.

Added to this when we went on our first day to meet up with my bridesmaid, it became immediately obvious that in the intervening months our lives had changed and that we had nothing in common. The group that she was holidaying with were wanting to spend a lot of time hanging out in bars and that was not our idea of a holiday. So we parted company and decided to go our own ways. For Alan and I we wanted to travel and see the local sights and spend the rest of our time on the beach. So we decided to make the best of what we had and get on with our holiday. A few days later a single Canadian guy booked into the hotel. He was touring and following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemmingway. He had come to this resort to chill out for a while and we very quickly built up quite a friendship with him and really enjoyed his company and he ours. All in all we had a wonderful holiday and were soon able to put the horrendous 36 hour journey out of our minds. If it had been today, we could have gone to Australia in that time.

There is just one outing that I will relate here and you will soon see why. We took a coach trip into the Hinterland to visit the Monastery at Monseratt. We had a wonderful day and on the return journey, just as we were coming down the lower mountain, the brakes seized up on the coach. The driver managed to control the coach until we came to a straight flat road where he was able to bring the coach to a standstill. Just imagine how it might have been in today’s climate of busy holiday traffic. So again, we had to wait for a replacement coach.

In the end I have to say it all comes down to the wonderful tapestry of the experiences of life.
Boarding the Plane (me on the left) - See the field!!

Queuing at the Spanish border - our bus

On the Beach - our hotel is somewhere behind those trees
I am 22 and Alan is 29

View from the back of our hotel

Me at the Monastery up in the mountains
Just visible in the centre of the picture

Our bus that managed to skid to a standstill at the bottom of the mountains


Dianne said...

Wow, you have some stories to tell. I don't know how I came across your blog but am certainly enjoying it. I love English cottage gardens!

Beach Girl said...

What a great story; thank you (as always) for sharing.


Linda said...

I enjoyed your story. Times have really changed, haven't they. Of course now we wait forever in airport terminals or on the plane itself. I hope you will write some about the boat trip and visiting Mexico. I love Mexico, being from Texas.

Anonymous said...

Now that's what I call a memorable holiday, fantastic.

Suzie Sews At DOTTY RED said...

Great story
Suzie Sews

Lorrie said...

What a great story! Not so comfortable at the time, but one that's memorable because of the things that went wrong. I'm sure you and your husband have reminisced about this many times.

smilnsigh said...

What a trip! But what a cutie you were in those days. Then again, weren't we all -- in *those days*? ,-)

And you too, can't comment in 'smilnsigh.' -sigh-

I have used Firefox for a long time and I can access your blog, so it isn't a Firefox firewall issue with me. But thank you for the thought. I'm certainly grasping at any straw. But PEA says she knows others who are having the same problem!!! So this does make me feel better. Well, better in a way.


Jeanne said...

Fabulous and thanks for sharing.
I love your photographs as well.
Love Jeanne

la bellina mammina said...

What an adventure and an experience...and you looked gorgeous Barbara in that photo with Alan.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you're right - your journey was definitely worse than ours! Glad you survived to tell the tale.

Sue Seibert said...

Oh, Barbara, what a trip! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks so much for sharing and for the photos. Yours is the kind of blog I enjoy so much!