When travelling, I prefer to feel more like a temporary local than a tourist. Group tours, fancy resorts, and chain hotels are not my thing, instead, I like to stay in characteristic rental apartments and wander about at my own pace. And although the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, there are definitely more potential points of failure when you choose to travel this way.
The biggest vulnerabilty involves “transition” days – when you’re moving from one “home” to another. Not being able to catch a taxi, missing a train, losing important documentation, dealing with frayed nerves – all of these things can happen when you leave the comfort of a known location for an unknown one. It was with all of these things swirling in my mind like some kind of stress stew that I woke up on Thursday and prepared to leave Madrid for our oceanfront apartment rental on the Costa de la Luz.
We checked out of our apartment around noon, carrying our suitcases down the five flights of stairs we had carried them up just days before. Walking the short distance to Puerta del Sol (ironically, in the rain), we were concerned that the rain might make it difficult to find a “libre” taxi but one rolled up almost immediately and we hopped in. A few minutes later, we arrived at Atocha station and located the ticket windows to purchase two second-class tickets to Sevilla on the 1pm train. Except we didn’t. Second class (the least expensive option) was sold out until 5pm. After some back and forth, we managed to get two “preferente” class (somewhere between second and first class) tickets on the 3pm train. For some reason, the trains were more full than usual, likely due to some Spring festival happening in Sevilla.
Fortunately, Atocha is a nice train station and we found the nearest wine bar (of course) and passed the time with a couple of glasses of red wine.
We boarded the AVE train for Sevilla and I was super excited. I LOVE the European high speed rail system, how it carries you so quietly and efficiently through the continent. So much more civilized than air travel.
The seats were comfortable and the food was decent, but our experience was dampened by the two people sitting across from us who smelled like they hadn’t had a bath in ages. We were relieved when the train pulled into Sevilla Santa Justa station and we could once again breathe through our noses. We found the Hertz office and I could feel my heart rate quicken as we walked up to the counter. I was nervous about driving in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language that well, with unfamiliar street signs. I also hadn’t driven a stick shift for two years. But I knew a car was necessary to effectively explore the area we were headed to, and so I summoned all my courage and hopped into the waiting Volvo.
I quickly figured out how everything worked, and even felt comfortable immediately with the clutch and shifting again. Except for that all-important reverse gear. More on that later. Somehow we found our way to the A4/E5 highway which would take us to our apartment, except we were headed the wrong way. We stopped at a gas station to buy a map, and some bottled water, and get directions from a guy who spoke no English. I think we were somewhat of a novelty – probably the first Americans that he had encountered in a long time.
We got back on the A4/E5, this time in the right direction, and I started to relax a bit. As I had heard, the highways in Spain were well-maintained and well-signed, and there wasn’t much traffic. As we approached El Puerto de Santa Maria, though, I started to get stressed out again. The signs we were seeing on the road did not match the turn-by-turn directions that I had printed from Google Maps. Mal fired up the GPS on my phone, and somehow between that, the map we had bought at the gas station, and a dose of good luck, we found our way to the apartment with only a couple of wrong turns. Okay, maybe five or six, but I was still amazed that we actually made it. I called the caretaker and told him we were in the area, but there was still the little problem of not knowing how to use the reverse. In every 5-speed car I have driven, the reverse gear was ALWAYS reached by going to the right and down. But in this Volvo, it showed upper left. When I shifted to the upper left, I would only get first gear. I was starting to freak out when we spied a couple in a Volvo nearby, and I ran over to the car and explained my problem to the man. He was so nice, and jumped in our rental and showed me exactly what to do – apparently you have to press DOWN on the gearshift and THEN up and to the left. So easy, but this critical instruction was not anywhere to be found on the car.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief and then promptly almost knocked over a motorcycle behind me – thank goodness I caught myself in time and nothing happened. Our caretaker, Javier, met us and showed us the apartment. We were grimy and tired and wanting to settle in, but we had just 20 minutes until the little market closed, and we needed coffee, water, and something to eat in the morning.
We headed up the street in the Volvo (me a total expert at driving it now – so proud) and bought our needed supplies with minutes to spare. We then stopped in for a bite at the restaurant next door and met Manolo – a delightful man who was both the cook and the waiter that evening. Fortunately, it was just us and one other dude. We split a green salad and a chicken dish with some kind of gravy and fries. It was simple but hearty, but the best part was our interaction with Manolo. Though he barely spoke any English, we made the most of our limited Spanish and managed to communicate surprisingly well. He offered a drink on the house, but we were tired and promised to come back on an “otra dia”. We then drove home and soon collapsed into bed – tired from a day of travel but looking forward to exploring new surroundings.