Getting around in Europe with lessons learned at every turn
Europe boasts some of the finest architecture and tourists sites in the world, but trying to cram them all into a short space of time can be tricky. Our intrepid traveller shares her experiences of the ups and downs of a whistlestop tour.
Every time we leave the comfort zone of our usual daily routine, we see things differently or meet people who react to things in ways you could never imagine. Feeling comfortable can sometimes get quite boring, but I'm not the type who can travel far and wide by myself. As a popular saying goes: "Travel in pairs, drink tea in threes and drink wine in fours".
"You need to travel with someone else so that you can share a room, the things you see and a meal together," a well-travelled artist friend explained to me.
"When drinking tea, you are more often inspired to debate one or more subjects, so the third opinion always spices the conversation up. Why drink wine in groups of four? Because at the end of the party, you'll always need someone to take the drunken guy home."
So when my childhood friend arranged our trip to Spain last June, we were quite happy we would be travelling as three pairs, so everything should go well.
With the internet and travel blogs to consult and online booking ready to tailor to your needs, planning a trip has never been easier.
You can do almost anything online, from booking flights, hotels and restaurants, to reading reviews about shows or museums you'd like to see.
On one hand, I like my trips to be carefully organized in terms of transport and accommodation, but on the other, I don't want to have
“In eight days, we travelled from Barcelona to Sevilla, Granada, Madrid, Lisbon and back to Barcelona for the second leg of the trip.”
an itinerary so precise that it feels I've already been there and done that by the time we get there. I need to have something unexpected, something spontaneous along the way, something special that you have to make an effort to be there.
In eight days, we travelled from Barcelona to Sevilla, Granada, Madrid, Lisbon and back to Barcelona for the second leg of the trip.
My friend had a Vietnamese friend who's been living and learning Spanish in Barcelona for two months and he was like our anchor in the city. When we met him, he looked at me and asked: "Were you the one who wrote you only want to stand next to famous sites and have your picture taken?"
"Yep, that's me," was my prompt answer.
A well-read and well-travelled guy who had worked for various UN projects in different countries, he found my wish rather easygoing and vapid!
No, seriously. How much time do you have to spend in the museums or cathedrals, or even a neighbourhood that you can get to know it? he asked.
A popular question or even statement you often hear Vietnamese people ask or tell each other is: "Ñi heát chöa?" (Have you gone to all the places), or "Ñi heát roài!" (I've been to all the places).
It sounds very arrogant and somehow superfluous to me. Even if it's your hometown, you can never say you know everything about it or have been to every nook and cranny, let alone in a strange place?
For famous places like La Sagrada Famillia, Gaudi's house and Parc Guell, you can read about them online and you don't have to remember all the details as they are written down somewhere and you can always refer to it later.
For me, a picture of me and my friends who have come a long way to this place is worth more than a thousand words! And we can always cherish them and brag about our trip to our children when we run out of bedtime stories.
So during our intense planning for the five-city eight-day trip, there was a moment I neglected to book my cheap plane ticket from Barcelona to Sevilla. Though the screen showed my booking time and code, I did not receive a confirmation e-mail. I hadn't booked with the carrier before, so I just printed the page to prove my booking and make sure I had a seat on the plane.
Before the trip, my friend sent an email to the whole group telling us to print our boarding passes. I did not follow her advice because I'd
just returned from another trip that I could get on the plane without a pre-printed pass.
So it was a beautiful sunny day in Barca, we visited La Pedrera during the day, had jamón for snack and just sat down for a very nice big lunch on the main street, Rambla.
"Have you printed your boarding passes?" my friend asked, to which I replied no in a very confident voice.
"You'll have to pay a fine," she said.
I thought, "No, I've just got back from another trip, it worked fine for me."
The problem was the check in lady said she did not see our names on the flight list.
"This has never happened to me! I showed my print out copy of the screen, but "No" was still the answer. Our friend in Barca tried his best in Spanish and Catalan to explain the situation, and he'd only been there for two months!
The sangria I'd had for lunch was starting to make my stomach churn, but I couldn't see a toilet sign anywhere! "Come! come!" my friend said, ushering me to a nearby dustbin.
"If you need to throw up, be sick in here."
She had barely finished her sentence when the wonderful seafood salad, tapas, tortillas, paella and sangria which a minute before had been my lunch was in the bottom of the bin.
I had to face reality: The bad news was I couldn't get on the
“Our trip went quite smoothly until we reached Madrid, where our rooms were located along a long common hallway.”
plane with my friends, but the good news was we still had our hotel room to go back to because I was careful enough to book early and get a special deal for two nights.
We get to Sevilla the next morning and joined our group to see the beautiful cathedral and the city's Alcazar, Maria Luisa Park and the Giralda.
Sevilla was the most beautiful city we went to in Spain and if I get to go again, I'd love to stay longer.
As an opera fan, I was reminded of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and was looking for a barber's shop or at least a hairdresser's. I didn't see any, but I saw plenty of orange trees shading the long streets like the longan trees in Höng Yeân Province to the north of Haø Noäi.
The ceramics and colours of the Plaza de Espagna are influenced by Islam, and under the deep blue sky, the contrast of the colours was just beyond description.
Our trip went quite smoothly until we reached Madrid, where our rooms were located along a long common hallway. The guy who gave us the keys said to us we needed to be back at the hotel before 10pm, and we had to share the bathrooms. No towels were provided and when I ventured further down the hallway, the attendant appeared and yelled at me in broken English that I could not go further than my designated room!
It was getting dark and we were very tired. I went out again to fetch towels for us all. I bumped into an elderly man who was on his iPad and he introduced himself as a Catholic priest from Puerto Rico. He was very kind and tried to help me by talking in Spanish at length with another elderly man from the guesthouse. "Please, could you kindly ask this man if we have any towels?" This gentleman here said the towels are looked after by another man and he would get into trouble if he gave them to me!"
The two spoke for another 10 minutes, and eventually, I had to say sorry for interrupting them. "Can I get the towels now?" Then the priest turned to me and said, "It's complicated!"
I couldn't understand why it was so difficult to get something as basic as towels! In Vieät Nam, they are ready and waiting for you in your room, even in the two-star hostels in the Old Quarter.
That experience put me off Madrid, but the worst was still waiting for us in Lisbon.
Another friend had booked three rooms for us at Bela Flor only a minute's walk from the metro station and ten minutes to the cathedral. Sounds great!
Never be fooled by nice sounding names: Bela Flor means beautiful flower, but the apartment was just a desperate effort to turn a totally run down building into an habitable space.
We were taken up four flights of dirty stairs to our rooms by an obese man who said he had never had any Vietnamese guests staying at his property. We were shown our two rooms which were divided by a thin veneer wall that meant we could hear every sound made in the other.
Then he showed us the bathroom which was shared by everyone on the floor, and everytime we wanted to go, we had to pass the big guy at the front desk who stared at us suspiciously. When I asked where the towels were, he said bluntly, " Two and half euros each if you pay by cash, five euros by credit card!"
We thought that our friend who booked the rooms had not checked the price carefully and we thought we were paying 50 euros for one night when it was in fact for two. That night we felt unsafe and couldn't sleep. I chatted on Facebook with my friend who tried to find us another place to stay. She finally found an apartment with three bedrooms that we all could share for slightly higher price. A decision was quickly made and we packed to leave first thing in the morning.
When we got to the new place, which looked and felt more amicable, my first question was, " Do you have towels?"
"Yes, the towels are in the rooms with all the other toilet amenities."
At last we did not feel that people were trying to rip us off and from then, the city of Lisbon seemed a much a nicer place to visit!
Street lamps in Barcelona are truely works of art.
A city view from Granada’s Alcazar, home of three religions in ancient Spain.