The problem with travel is that every now and then, a city will break your heart. You’ll have to leave. You’ll have no idea when you can go back. You’ll add it to the list of other cities that have likewise broken your heart, and realize that this might be it. This might be the last time you’ll walk these streets. In your mind, there’s a private map, where you can walk from one cherished locale to another, even though they are thousands of miles apart and some of them haven’t existed in that form for decades. That a place of this caliber might exist in reality, rather than in dreams or isolated fragments, is part of what propels the travel fantasy.
We had to leave Barcelona. We had to go if we wanted to see any other part of Spain. Of course we also had to leave if we ever wanted to see our pets again, or when our travel visas expired, but this is a matter of the heart, not of pragmatism. We had a magnificent lunch in La Rambla, at Teresa Carles, which is the last thing you want to do if you intend to board a train with any sense of complacency or a casual air of practicality. Dammit, Barcelona, you gorgeous bitch. Why is there only one of you?
Then we got to Valencia and all was forgotten.
Let’s step back a bit. There’s a lot of reality in the blank wall between canvases. We got up in the morning and had to break camp. We stopped by the front office to check out and discovered that we’d lost track of time and overstayed by a day. We wouldn’t have found out (and neither would they) if we’d just walked away and boarded the bus, a trusting manner that is not universal in campings. We paid our arrears. We took the bus downtown, and the first two places we had intended to eat lunch weren’t open yet. When we hit the road again, we had to rush through the many Escherian staircases of the Metro, with our packs on, and we were sweaty and flustered when we got to the train station. Then we stood in line before realizing that our first-class tickets entitled us to cut through.
Probably the major reason why modern rail travel is not more prevalent in the US is that we have no idea what we’re missing. Our experience with train travel in Spain was that its punctuality was impeccable, its amenities were far nicer than what is offered by airlines, and it was safe, clean, and comfortable. Even as non-native speakers, we had no trouble figuring out how to use the system.
We pulled into Valencia with a feeling of success. All the travel arrangements we had made on our trip so far had been successful. There had been no delays, nothing had been sold out, we hadn’t lost anything or had anything stolen, and we hadn’t even been deported. We were in the place of uncertainty, only without the usual sense of discomfort. We went straight to the Tourist Information booth at the train station, and I got completely intelligible Spanish directions to a grocery store. The agent was fluent in English, so he checked with me afterward to make sure I understood. I thought that was tactful. We ventured out in the sunshine and caught a shuttle bus downtown.
Where Barcelona is magnetically cool and atmospheric, Valencia is fall-down pretty. It’s prettier than the pastel parts of San Francisco. It’s prettier than Victoria. It’s almost impossible to find a single view that isn’t photogenic. The question is how people get any work done at all in a place like this. How do you learn to tune it out?
The first thing we found was an “Herbolario.” It had the look of a high-end health food store, and we went in, despite our unwieldy packs. The place turned out to be ginormous. It had the widest selection of dairy alternatives and veggie convenience foods that I have ever seen, and I say that as a Portland native who lives in Southern California. We set ourselves up for dinner and breakfast, although we had yet to figure out where we would cook or eat these supposed meals, nor where we would sleep. I wished I had known to look for herbolarios in Barcelona, and I added the term to my Spanish lexicon.
We had a little time afterward – not enough to do any sightseeing, which we wouldn’t want to do with our full packs anyway. The priority was to get to a Starbucks, get on wi-fi, and find a camping for the night. I had gotten a message while we were in Barcelona that we had already used half the wi-fi allotment from our passport; it turned out that I had been on data part of the time when I thought I was on camp wi-fi, due to my phone settings. I’ve been using the same OS for over four years and I didn’t know about the ‘data roaming’ setting. This got more annoying when I couldn’t pay to extend our plan, got no error message, and found out only after we got home that it was all due to an expiration date on my debit card. Hopefully this digression can help a fellow traveler who hasn’t yet hit dumb stumbling blocks like this. To add another, the Starbucks we sought was in the process of relocation. We found another only a few minutes up the street. In Spain, if there are any Starbucks locations at all, they tend to cluster in a small area.
We found three campings in Valencia, all in a row on the same road and the same bus line. That was settled. We did have to watch out, though, because that bus quit running two hours earlier than the bus to the camping in Barcelona. (8 PM instead of 10). Cab fare can add up quickly, so we had to watch it. NEVER ASSUME that a bus will run on a particular day of the week, to a particular area, on a weekend or holiday, during particular hours, or on a predictable schedule of any kind. Also don’t assume that it runs the same route in both directions, that one coach will remain on the same route after a transfer point, or that every run will cover the same route, because detours happen for all sorts of reasons. Confirm, confirm, confirm. We knew this from using buses at home, so we did our homework.
Our next goal was to organize the rest of our trip. When I had chosen cities that looked interesting, I hadn’t factored in travel time; part of my assumption with the wing-it method was that we would plan as we went. I had given no thought whatsoever to how many hours it took to get from one city to another, or what time of day we would arrive. Essentially, any day of transition will be eaten up entirely by that transition. Between breaking and setting up camp, getting to and from bus or train stations, waiting for connections, making the trip itself, finding stores, buying supplies, and checking in at various desks, not much is left. I use physical travel time to catch up with my travel journal, which is usually at least a day behind, but otherwise it’s a wash. I realized I had chosen too many places and that our pace would be too rapid. We settled down to do some serious research and planning and make some decisions.
Our first step was to check travel times between cities. A cursory once-over of the rail map had led us to believe that we could take the train around the southeastern perimeter of Spain, seeing one city after another. Next on our planned itinerary was Granada. In point of fact, a trip from Valencia to Granada would take so long that we dropped it from consideration. We looked at shuffling the order of the cities we had chosen, tried approaches from other cities, and finally decided it would be easier to drop it from this trip entirely. There! Cutting a city freed up the three days we had allocated, and we felt we had breathing room. During the process, I reintroduced Madrid as a possible transfer point, and that stuck.
Over the two hours we bogarted our table, enjoying our steamy beverages, we spread out the guidebook, the index cards, and our phones. We had the bright idea that we could take a day trip to Tangier. We would be so close to Africa as we explored Gibraltar, how could we not take advantage of the opportunity? Thus we unthinkingly reversed ourselves, adding more rapid city changes and increasing our pace again. If we hadn’t had to leave for the bus, we might have gone through another revision, but we felt satisfied. We were winging it, after all.
We took off in a hurry. My husband was looking at the map and comparing it to street signs, which can be challenging to find and identify, as they are often nothing more than ceramic plaques attached to building fronts. He thought we were getting off track because the names didn’t match. This was when I realized I had already started decoding Catalan by comparing it to Spanish signs. I know a bit of French, Spanish, and Latin, and while I wouldn’t claim to understand Catalan, in the limited context of signs, advertisements, and public service announcements, I was getting by.
We took the bus to the camping and got there just after it had technically closed. The camp manager was friendly and brought us in. One of us (me) had to leave a passport as collateral, which hadn’t happened in Barcelona. We learned that the exact process of check-in varies depending on where you stay. I received a gate key to use if we came back late the next day. He walked us to our spot, a gravel rectangle between RVs, and bid us goodnight. We set up camp and had a nice dinner. We looked forward to a day of fine weather and exploration of the lovely town we had glimpsed, one mysterious due to its complete omission from our guidebook. We had no idea the night would lead to an unfortunate event that would color our experience of the next few days.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.