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.

Outlook - - TRAVELLER’S TALES - By Nguyeãn Myõ Haø

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.

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