Don’t men­tion the menagerie

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - GRAHAM ER­BACHER

What do you reckon about a statute of lim­i­ta­tions on travel yarns: say, if you haven’t been to a place for a long, long time you for­feit the right to talk about it. No, it would never work — and why should it?

I am re­minded of the prob­lems of time at a so­cial gath­er­ing at which two of our num­ber are just back from Madrid. Talk is about a Pi­casso ex­hi­bi­tion at the Prado. The in­evitable ques­tion: Have you ever been to Madrid? I an­swer, yes, but then qual­ify, “A long time ago.” When? I can’t com­pute quickly, but “20 or so years ago” seems safely dis­tant.

I later Google. My visit was just af­ter Gen­eral Fran­cisco Franco died (late 1975, I learn). That would make the visit 1976, which is, tot ’em up, nearly 40 years ago. The truth is, I re­mem­ber the Prado was big, the Royal Palace was grand, and I bought aero­grams at the point of a ma­chine-gun (sol­diers were ev­ery­where as Spain “tran­si­tioned” from dic­ta­tor­ship to a re­stored monar­chy and democ­racy).

But there is one vivid rec­ol­lec­tion I can roll out as my Madrid mo­ment. We are search­ing out, on the ad­vice of a dog-eared guide­book, a ho­tel that oc­cu­pies the rooftop of an art nouveau apart­ment block, six floors up with­out a lift (won­der­fully or­nate stair­case, but its charm pales as we lug heavy bags up the steps).

I check a dis­creet name plate on a door and press the buzzer, to be greeted un­ex­pect­edly by a chim­panzee, in bell­hop uni­form, who es­corts us in­side. The whole Noah’s ark is re­vealed. Mon­keys scat­ter; there are ex­otic birds ga­lore, some free-rang­ing, oth­ers in an open-air avi- ary; a dog of­fers a paw of welcome; cats, some larger than do­mes­tic, flash a grin; there’s a four-legged an­i­mal of a species I don’t recog­nise but which seems to know me.

The hu­man not in charge says, with­out a word of ex­pla­na­tion, “Welcome to our lit­tle home.” He looks partFranco, part-Peter Sellers and would not be out of place on the cover of Sgt. Pep­per’s in a mil­i­tary jacket com­plete with medals. Not fa­mil­iar with Span­ish ser­vice hon­ours, they may well be coloured milk-bot­tle tops, for all I know.

The chimp is al­ways there to usher us to our room. Sleep is er­ratic: some of these an­i­mals are noc­tur­nal, and ev­ery liv­ing be­ing is awake at first light. How­ever, the thing that I still marvel about four decades on is not the fab­u­lous fauna, but who the heck wrote the guide­book. Why was ev­ery de­tail in­cluded of prox­im­ity to mu­se­ums, trans­port and cafes, but not a men­tion of the menagerie? Who could be so non­cha­lant about a check-in chimp to not even note it? David At­ten­bor­ough, or one of the Hath­aways (for those who re­mem­ber their 60s TV) or maybe Ron­ald Rea­gan (ref. Bed­time for Bonzo)?

To­day we are pre­pared by web searches for ev­ery­thing we are likely to en­counter on a trip, down to how our gue­stroom will look when di­shev­elled. Maybe such sur­prises will never await us again. I’d love to re­turn to Madrid but in Satchmo’s words, It’s a Won­der­ful World … so many places, so lit­tle time. If I do, I’ll be equipped to dis­cuss mod­ern Madrid. In the mean­time, it’s a tale with whiskers. But isn’t that what travel’s all about?

Su­san Kuro­sawa is on as­sign­ment.

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