When a senior citizen couple on the wrong side of sixty decides to travel on their own with the barest of planning, there are bound to be experiences to be shared.
The adventure began with the attendance in a small town some 90 kilometres south of Madrid, Spain at the first wedding in the new generation – my nephew was getting married to a lovely Spanish senora (it is no longer politically correct to address unmarried ladies as senorita). The initial planning was meticulous, the air tickets purchased months ahead at bargain prices, the nitty-gritty of a sangeet oversees worked out to the minutest detail, even a preliminary round of packing attempted and necessary purchases made, though I firmly drew the line at my niece’s suggestion that I first make a round of the best sari shops in town and take photographs of the best possible selections, post them on the net to allow them to choose, then visit the shops again for the actual buying.
Now, having decided on this major expenditure, it would not suffice to restrict ourselves to this little corner of Spain, when the rest of Europe beckoned. There were still several countries we had not visited, and much of Spain that we had yet to cover. Then my niece from Amsterdam suggested we return with her after the wedding and continue our onward travels in a clock-wise direction back to Spain. So we did just that, booking ourselves on-line on a no frills European airline, carrying only hand baggage. As for the hotel booking, someone back home had assured us that inexpensive pensiones or family-run boarding places were easy to find, till we realized, once in Amsterdam and nearing the beginning of having to `go it alone’, that precious hours would be frittered away in every city we touched upon while we set about locating that suitable pensione. That is when niece and her fiancé took it upon themselves to see us safely, cheaply and centrally ensconced in just the right kind of hotel. Our needs were not unreasonable: just that it be centrally located, have an attached bath and toilet, and be easy on the pocket! No easy task this; both spent hours trawling the travel sites, evaluating the feedback, googling the hotel’s location vis-à-vis the most happening and visit-worthy places in the city, and in every case they came up trumps.
In every case but one actually, but this also ended happily, only because there are very nice people in this world.
Our first stop after Amsterdam was Rome where the hotel turned out to be located far from the city centre and its historic sites. Our discomfort was evident when we telephoned the hotel, Emily House, trying to find our way there. But on our arrival and before being ushered into a very well-appointed room the charming manager told us that she would move us the next morning to their branch hotel in the heart of the city and at the tariff applicable here (which was half the rate applicable at their city branch)! That was one heartwarming introduction to the people of Roma.
We had changed our minds about overnight stops and had decided to make Rome our base so we still had to find a decent pensione for another five days. Pulling out a calling card of a nearby hotel handed to me by a tout at the Central station (Termini) on the day of our arrival, we proceeded to Hotel Pelliccione , a five-minute walk away, on via Cavour. Imagine our gratification when the manager airily waived the deposit and said the spacious room with a well-appointed bath and toilet which he showed us would be waiting for us. When I pointed out the prominent notice asking for full payment in advance he merely said he knew when to insist on that. Indeed a wonderful start to our holiday!
What we saw and did in Italy (Rome, Vatican City, Naples, Pompey and Florence) would be enough material for a separate article. What struck me very forcibly was that ignorance of the language on our part or that of the local person notwithstanding, just a small gesture of help or kindness was enough to make pleasurable our entire visit to that place. Take Barcelona, for instance, our next halt after Rome. Here too the hotel had been booked on-line, at rates easy on the pocket. Helpful emails followed from the manager of Sleepy Beds, just off the famous walkway Las Ramblas, telling us how to get to the hotel, which bus to take from the airport and which metro to reach the point nearest the hotel, how much the fare would be if we took a taxi instead of the metro. Meanwhile, the volcanic ash was moving southward delaying flights, including our own and we eventually reached the hotel at 1 a.m. Yet despite the late hour the manager responded to our call and drove down from her home on her motorbike to check us in and explain the workings of the utilities in the apartment. Since we were the only inmates during our entire stay of two and a half days we had the whole apartment to ourselves.
Our next stop was Seville, in the Andalusian region of southern Spain, and one-time capital of Spain jointly with the Moorish stronghold of Granada. Here again instructions from the manager of Hostal Florida were clear, from taking the airport bus to the central bus station and how to reach the hotel thereafter. But in terms of distance where exactly were we, and in which direction should we turn? Should we just take a taxi or should we trust blindly to luck – there must be someone around who could understand us? I turned to this man walking past and asked if he could speak English. He smiled and said ’a leetle’. When I asked him where the Jardines des Murillos was, he flung his hand out in front triumphantly; when I showed him the name of the road our hotel was on, he indicated that the road began here, gestured to an imposing building at the side which read ‘no. 3’, and our hotel was at no. 27. I mimed ‘go by taxi?’ and he shook his head, moving 2 fingers rapidly in a walking motion as he said ‘ten, fifteen minioots’. We thanked him profusely and marched off happily to yet another conveniently situated hotel and into a room covered from floor to ceiling with beautiful tiles that both Spain and Portugal are famous for. To say that we loved Seville and all that it had to offer, including their lively and vibrant flamenco dancing, would be an understatement.
Our final stop before returning to Madrid was Granada, under Moorish control for over 700 years, and its famed Alhambra palaces. Three hours by bus from Seville to this city’s central bus station and then from there another bus into the city centre. But how to know when the bus had reached our stop? Plaza Carmen near the hotel, the street, Calle Navas, off which the hotel lay, the bus stop at Puerto Real, these were only names to us. I decided to ask the lady seated behind us. No English here either but lots of smiles and a helpful attitude. By now I liked to think I could catch on to some words and gestures and indeed I did get the hang of her one-sided conversation: that she was getting off one stop earlier and we could too. We did; she walked to the end of the road with us pointing to the left and kissing her fingers as if to say the walking and the views were splendid there, then indicating the right where we would find the Plaza Carmen and our hotel in ten minutes. This lovely person then wished us a very good trip and walked back and away. And once again a lovely Hotel Niza, run by a French lady who was thrilled to have Indian guests in her hotel for the first time. Our street also happened to be the busiest and liveliest in the area, lined with shops and tavernas and restaurants, busy and noisy till the wee hours. Had we not been so tired that we would fall into a dead sleep once we got in, all that noise and larking might have been annoying; as it was, we heard and saw only as long as we wanted to and then, oblivion.
This holiday has taught me that we need not fear the unknown, that there will always be someone out there who will come forward to help. I am ready for more adventure, to go like Tennyson’s Ulysses towards that arch ‘wherethro gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades forever and forever as I move’.