The gradual descent over the Pyrenees was something to behold. Still, even though I had a window seat, it turned out the other side had the best view (according to the pilot). Anyway the flight from Gatwick at just under £50 seemed like a bargain. Pressure-based earache, though, distracted me on the final descent – maybe too steep. Then the inevitable infant expressing its suffering. The kid had my sympathy!


As often, at the airport my ears had that flu bunged-up feeling, and curious popping. Then my typical mild disorientation, having to really make an effort on focusing where I’m getting. Passport control has an automated option, but curiously a fingerprint sensor, which, on reflection, is slightly concerning. My fingerprints have never been stored anywhere except my phone, and now do the Spanish authorities possess it? It was taken again at near gate. Maybe this explained why so many people opted for a human checker.

Finding the train station wasn’t really a problem (certainly nothing like the questing journey in Madrid Barajas). A relatively short journey to Bar Sants. The city centre is reasonably easy to navigate but I’ve got so much in the habit of using my phone even to find a hotel that’s a 5 minute walk. Being near and at a budget will always feel like a comprise: small single room, in darkness until I found the slot for the key card (how they stop people wasting power). Hardly bothered with the invariably no-English TV. But free wifi felt like the saviour of my sanity. Even if you don’t have BBC Sounds there’s a world radio app (on android so not quite sure of its legality) that surely covers all your radio needs.

The first day often that feeling of trepidation – that if I make a plan it will go wrong. (Well, I always make a plan for the night, but more of that later.) Estacio de Franca: the obvious tourist destination. What could be simpler? I had my train map, so hardly needed to bother with the info at the station. Nicely numbered and colour-coded. Simple? No. Somehow I’d missed the display giving the platform number and instead went with corresponding R2, dark green. But none went there, and so I had a dilemma: do I risk exiting and losing my ticket or hope I can get off at a near station. Eventually I risked, and managed to get through the correct platform barrier. I often think there’s some logic that’s obvious to the locals and that somehow I’d missed. But actually I was make an even more grievous error the following morning.


But this day I got to Estacio de Franca, and in the sun it’s a lovely district – a circuitous park, stunning architecture amid trees in blossom. Abundant art installations that don’t have to mean anything beyond their aesthetic appeal. And people soaking up the joys of spring, making me wish I could too.


Barcelona is a city steeped in culture. Or maybe many. Not one I can fully grasp. Still, the night-time was sure to offer a different understanding.


Despite the number of road crossings I was determined to get to the coast. Even in late March it seemed very tourist heavy. I began to feel self-conscious and slightly overdressed in trousers, casual, bordering on smart and long sleeve top even though the temp was no more than 18c, and most others were in long sleeves. I’m reluctant to reduce to T-shirt level unless it goes above 20c. But the sun made it feel more like UK summer. The beach was everything I could expect, soft sand bordered by palm trees and a gentle lapping white-frothed dark blue sea. But there was no way I was venturing onto it. Most of the people looked under thirty, one on his own taking a selfie; something i’d never do. (I wish the selfie camera was an optional extra rather than feeling that, because it’s there, I should use it.) Others, I guess locals, wearing clothes that seemed too warm for a Brit.


Train back to Barcelona Sants; too early, really, for the hotel. But it turned out there was a problem with my ticket: the barrier machine rejected it. I only wanted to exit; I had a valid return ticket. A staff member told me I was supposed to stamp it at the destination! Stamp it where exactly – what machine? I was so irritated I didn’t even bother to ask, though she did seem surprised I was able to exit at de Franca. I’m sure there’s no puzzle at all for the regular traveller, but given this is a popular tourist area you shouldn’t have to figure out those quirks. UK stations only use ticket/barrier systems, the occasional inspector, and only one type of automated ticket vendor. So Britain’s system is not fare-dodge proof but at least it’s less likely to leave the foreign traveller irritated, and thus more likely to return.

Finally, she told me, “So you’ll remember to stamp it next time.”
Me: “There won’t be a next time!” Which I had meant at that moment. And it gave me a mild jolt of pleasure to see her dismay – whether or not it was genuine.

Shaking off my irritation, I had to think of the shopping mission, which involved a 2km walk to Lidl for something strong to drink. OK, mission sounds hyperbolic; it should be simple, but it wasn’t quite, not helped by a misleading offline map. It takes me a while to get used to crossing roads where motorists feel that stopping at a green crossing is not mandatory. I’d fear the driver with dark obsessive thoughts just as much as the distracted. The shop is far enough away from the tourist hub that staff are never going to bother speaking English – if they were able, but normally that isn’t a problem, until they are trying to tell you to do something (such as “can you move along so I can put the barrier across”). Spirits are so much cheaper than in the UK it seems like a no-brainer. We get to pay majority sin tax, which actually feels someway absolving. Never mind that it might one day kill me. My ideal checkout cashier is someone who’s disinterested enough in their job not to care that I’m a Brit alone wanting to get through a bottle of vodka.

Back in the hotel I contemplated the night ahead…

Read more… Sin Cities (Amazon UK)



Madrid, pt 2

The next morning I awoke early after a sleep-deprived night. The heat perhaps. Still tonight was going to be The Night regardless of how tired I felt, as it would be the last. I ventured onto the train to Principe Pio. A bewildering, bustling town to my tired and slightly hungover eyes. Not just me feeling disorientated: got asked for directions for which I was, unsurprisingly, no help.

There were vast walking trails through Casa de Campo. Needed to cross some busy roads to get to it.

First: lunch. A public garden – the vast grounds of a palace. I sat facing a large fountain surrounded by vivid floral colours. Very few people about. Perfect.

VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

Afterwards I looked for a way out that was nearest the de Campo walk. Going back through the way I entered meant a circuitous route. My map showed what looked like an exit. So I made for that end of the grounds. Unfortunately the only exit gate was locked. So back to the main entrance. And there stood what I would describe as local security personnel. The guy called me over. He spoke in Spanish, gesturing towards my bag – a flimsy little rucksack. I played incredulous, which didn’t take much acting. He jabbed at my bag still on my shoulder. Me: genuinely astonished. And making that clear. The language barrier didn’t matter now that his suspicions were made obvious. But if he really wanted to see what was in my bag but not speak English he’d have to be really explicit about it. OK, so I was tired and a bit cranky now. This security guy was becoming especially miffed, as I was voicing my astonishment that he could believe I could possibly be concealing something that would be harmful to – well, I had to give this some careful thought, as I was not (nor had any intention) of entering the central building but was heading for the exit. Had there been a report of my suspicious behaviour. Anyway, as his sign language became exaggerated to the absurd, I finally opened my bag to reveal what bit of lunch I’d saved for later and a bottle and a half (I think) of drinks. What I carried clearly wasn’t heavy or bulky. I was quite angry by this point, and he gestured for me to calm down. But that was not going to happened. It seemed as if I’d been suspected of carry explosives. And so as he led me out, his colleague arrived, who also didn’t speak a word of English. Imagine the number of English-speaking visitors to the capital of Spain, and those employed to deal with them… The British have, perhaps rightly, garnered a reputation for bad behaviour on Mediterranean holidays. Then what would be topping the list of abilities an applicant needs for the job of protecting important tourist sites? OK, so I’m labouring the point. But I was annoyed. Of course terrorists come in all shapes, sizes and colours. And maybe I do look young for my age, or I dress more as a young person. But it was odd to feel discriminated, and singled out as a suspect. Fine to be subject to that in an airport, or even upon entering a museum. You’d normally grin and bear it, right?

After explaining (pointlessly) I only wanted to get to Casa de Campo, that’s where I headed. I entered via a car park, and couldn’t seem to find an easy way to get to its tourist centre so ended up sliding down an embankment. My near-white shorts slightly tarnished, I reached the visitor centre. It was everything most people would expect: a sprinkling of cafés, fast food stands, all surrounding a large lake. Very warm, bordering on hot, there was an air of serenity. It was a separate thing from what I currently felt: still wound up, a quiet anger bubbling away. Perhaps I had been feeling somewhat keyed-up if not stressed, keeping in mind what I planned for that night. Of course there was no reason I had to have that as a plan, but it became an obsession – the thing that had to be got out of my system. Well, I guess most people have an itinerary on holiday; they set themselves a list of activities, which, if any are not achieved results in a sense of failure. Holidays have a way of making people uniquely miserable because of this. They arrive with their expectations of enhanced pleasure, where even the familiar activities – eating, going for a walk, sunbathing – have to be better there on holiday (especially anywhere more exotic than the UK, some fantasy of an idyll. Then it just takes one thing to go wrong. None such hell as paradise tainted – didn’t some wise traveller once say?). For many, so much depends on those few days, or however long; it is the escape from the banality of normal life. For me there is one unfamiliar activity that becomes the focus. And if it goes badly then I carry with me the failure until the next chance – which is often months.

After sitting facing the lake, eating the remainder of my lunch I headed out on one of the walking trails, but as I approached a sign to a metro station it seemed the sensible thing to make my way back.

I was, after all, tired. And there’d likely be plenty more walking that night.
Back at the hotel I tried to sleep. Needed to sleep. But sleep would not come. Maybe I hadn’t shed the residual anger from earlier, or some kind of apprehension about my intention for the night. Or simply the heat.

Finally after about two hours of no sleep, I resolved to go through my exercise routine, and then eat and start on the vodka.

Read the full version: SC US   SC UK

Part 1 below…


Madrid, part 1

Taken from Sin Cities, daytime in Spain’s capital.

Part 1:

Next morning I had to get out by 10:30 (or 9:30 UK) for the room to be cleaned. It really didn’t need cleaning, or any towels changing. But I’m British so I just accept the protocol. Got a suspicion they just wanted me out; maybe to check the room, to check I’m not in there – alive or dead. I’d already heard the busying sounds of other rooms being cleaned, anticipating a knock on my door at any moment. No surprise then, on my way out I had a slightly awkward encounter with the girl as she was pulling all her cleaning paraphernalia out of a room. I always feel lazy and mildly embarrassed in not having vacated my room before their arrival on the floor. In Hamburg that embarrassment was intensified by the mere fact of my being there.

In the local supermarket I felt again like the conspicuous tourist, struggling to find what I needed (anything vegetarian and nutritious). Too early for buying the vodka (which would have been conspicuous!) or for lugging it about, as I’d not be going back to the hotel for a while.

VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

I went for a walk into the hot dusty scrub-land beyond the city’s suburb. Actually there was a park near the stadium, swathes of lovely violet flowers. The sun and heat can make a lot of unexceptional things beautiful. Few people about too – and I consider that a good thing, unless I’m in the city. Here you can play spot the single lady. Only that involves no more than a furtive glance. In the city such an activity brings with it connotations of a structured mate selection with all its parameters. What I mean is you are more bound by the well-established rules of the urban environment. There is no idle glance in a shopping precinct; less so on a train. It is simply more intense, more significant, perhaps because it’s more likely to be observed by others. Here, where few pass my path, I am probably more acutely aware of being alone. Even though they say you can feel more lonely in a crowd, I think that’s only true if you visit the busy places you used to with others. As traveller in a tourist hub, I don’t allow myself the chance to feel lonely, despite being alone. There is far too much sensory information, coupled with one’s own thoughts about where to go and what to do in the next few seconds. Ah, yes, the constant planning. I hardly ever structure my day in a new city beyond finding a place to eat lunch, find the right shop to buy that bottle of vodka.

VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

So really I only ended up on this walk, occasionally glancing at my phone map. With so much time, you can allow yourself to become lost. Well, I ended up leaving the park trail after it became increasingly desolate and found myself on a main road near an industrial estate. Still way too early to think about heading back, I eventually found a safe place to cross over and headed towards the station I considered alighting from the previous night. This may sound silly but I wanted to prove to myself that it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had, that I could’ve walked from there to the hotel with ease (allowing for the extra weight in luggage). And it was a relatively easy journey. But of course it was daylight, I had plenty of time, with no heavy load on my back.

My memory of that evening is patchy and probably not worth recalling. Suffice to say, I bought the obligatory 70cl bottle of vodka, drank about a third of it, and stayed in my room.

Part 2 to follow soon.