Catalonia, A Historic Nationality and a Car Hire Scam

Girona Catalonia Post Card

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.”  –   George Orwell – ‘Homage to Catalonia’

The Ryanair flight was delayed for almost an hour due to a baggage handlers dispute at Barcelona airport so it was already early afternoon when the plane landed and we descended down the steps to the tarmac and into the Province of Girona where we would be spending most of our time on this visit.

It was hot, it was humid, it was bright and I could smell Spain or to be precise I should perhaps say Catalonia or Catalunya as many of the local population would prefer because this is a region of Spain, one of the seventeen Autonomous Communities, that is fiercely nationalist and has growing aspirations of independence from Spain and Madrid.

I had been to Catalonia before but on that occasion without knowing as much as I do now; that within the Spanish Constitution it is defined as a ‘Nationality’ and enjoys significant regional autonomy (as are the Basque Country and Galicia), it has its own distinct language and is culturally very different to the Spain of Castile.  There is no mention here of El Cid or Don Quixote but rather of Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali and in 2012 the Catalan parliament even banned the Spanish sport of bull fighting.

Antoni Gaudi Comillas Cantabria SpainSalvador Dali Surrealist Artist with Sea Shell

A bit of quick history – Catalonia was created by Charlemagne as a buffer state to protect the northern Frankish Empire from the threat of expansion by the Moors of Iberia and like all buffer states that has meant a turbulent history, squeezed between more powerful neighbours, its borders frequently rearranged, dismantled, absorbed and passed back and forth like a serving plate at a banquet depending upon the prevailing balance of power.

In 1492 Catholic Spain was united through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the new power based in Madrid favoured Seville and Cadiz over Catalonia for monopoly of the New World trade routes and sea power gradually declined; later there was conflict with Madrid again during the Thirty Year’s War and then The War of The Spanish Succession when the region seemed to have an unfortunate tendency to back the losing side and then suffer the inevitable consequences when it came to peace and settlement.

The most recent conflict came during and after the Spanish Civil War when Catalonia was one of the last Republican and Socialist areas to fall to the Nationalists of General Franco and then paid the price through years of recriminations, subjugation and suppression of its language and culture as the fascist government in Madrid set out to stamp the authority of Castile on its troublesome region.

Catalonia 2

I was hoping to learn more about this during our travels but before we could begin the journey we had to pick up the hire car.

I had booked with Solmar before and had always been pleased with them but this time there were some complications.  I had booked a small car group C vehicle but there were none available so I was told that we were being upgraded to a group B which on the face of it didn’t seem to be something to complain about but the upgraded vehicle turned out to be a Volkswagen Cabby which is a seven seater van rather than a compact car which was much bigger than we needed.

Even worse was that although it had seven seats it had no boot so there was nowhere to put our bags and coats out of sight of thieves and there was a big sticker in the window telling us not to leave bags and personal items on show – which was impossible.  We were planning to travel around of course which meant that we had an itinerary that involved stopping off now and again on route with our bags so the first thing that had to be done was a complete revision of the planned schedule.

The next thing that annoyed me was that Solmar have now introduced a ‘pick it up full, return it empty’ policy regarding fuel which means that they charge for sixty litres of fuel at an inflated price with about a 25% mark-up on the average pump price and hope that you don’t use it all so that they can then make a dishonest additional profit when charging for sixty litres of overpriced fuel to the next renter.

Actually, this is worse than dishonest – it is bordering on fraud or even theft because if they only have to put in thirty litres they charge for the full tank and in my opinion is bare-faced deception because they are billing for something they haven’t provided or incurred a cost for.  I was immediately determined that I would bring the car back with a tank so empty that I would be driving on fumes!

We weren’t going to use a lot of fuel today however because we were staying only a few kilometres from the airport at the Spa town of Caldes de Malavella just south of Girona and we arrived there quickly and without incident and as we pulled into the car park we were pleased with our choice of hotel, The Balneari Prats, which from the outside looked smart and grand.

At reception we completed the check-in formalities and then were given keys to room 101 and as we approached it down a worn out corridor I began to worry that this could just be a nightmare room.  And I wasn’t wrong because it was old and tired with heavy wooden shutters at the windows with vegetation creeping through which looked horribly like a certain home for dozens of mosquitoes.  I imagine that this could well have been a room that Orwell himself may have stayed in when on leave from fighting with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

There are some things that English people are not good at which include not complaining about a disappointing meal, not getting angry when people push in front at queues and not asking for a change of hotel room when it doesn’t live up to the description in the brochure.  I am exactly like this but I could tell from Kim’s demeanour that on this occasional I would have to act out of national character and ask for alternative accommodation.

Actually the hotel had an old part and a new part and getting changed was absolutely painless and simple and within ten minutes we had a modern room with a balcony for only €10 extra a night.

Balneari Prats Caldes de Malavella Catalonia

18 responses to “Catalonia, A Historic Nationality and a Car Hire Scam

  1. Hola! Andrew – welcome back. Hope you had a lovely holiday!

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  2. Thanks Andrew, for a nice piece. But if only you or Kim would read the Daigressing I send you most months!
    In the past 15 months I have flagged-up my car hire specials to cover a month long hire in April 2012 (2 weeks in Boston, Mass, and 2 weeks in Seattle, Wash); a month long hire in Washington, DC to drive down to Daytona Beach, Fla, last August); a week’s hire in Murcia, Spain, last November; and a week’s hire in Faro, Portugal in March 2013. I have told you that I did the following:
    1. Took out FULL worldwide car rental insurance for £80 a year.
    2. Hired the car via an Irish agent who took a tiny 5 euros for each booking.
    3. Collected the car of my choice from the relevant airport each time. At ridiculously cheap prices.
    (To give you an idea:on the last trip we got a nearly new gutsy Fiat quite capable of carrying a huge fatso like me up the steep hills of old Lisbon!) and paid the guy at Faro airport, an astonishing 29 euros for 7 full days!!
    So that is a TOTAL of 34 euros (about £30) INCLUDING the Irish agent’s commission!
    And also you will get the car you want, plus the way you want it (collect full/return full).
    Do a selling-job on my Daigressing please Andrew, even if you don’t read it yourself. (I am a confirmed, non blogger, so people will not find my Daigressing up there online in perpetuity! My very TRANSIENCE is my USP.)
    Last year I met twelve of my readers in the USA, from Jacksonville, Fla, to Seattle, Wash, via Lyme, N.H. All your readers need to is write me at DaiW@gmx.com and I will mail them a regular free copy.
    Do a plugging job for me and I will forgive you missing THREE references to the best value car hire in the WORLD.
    And you can vindicate yourself further by waxing lyrical in your next mailing from Girona, on the virtually unknown ALBANY PARK by Patrice Chaplin. This is a book that for the past 30 years I have made it my mission in life to bang a drum for. It is a masterpiece that has long been shamefully out of print. I have been plugging this in my Daigressing for years. It is what took me to Girona in the first place. And Girona is my favourite Spanish town/city: even over the wonderful San Sebastian and the 24/7 Madrid.
    A writer of true genius. Far from trading off the Chaplin name, Charlie should have been HONOURED to have this South London girl marry into his Swiss family!
    Before signing off: nice to see maps with your words. Keep both coming!
    Dai Woosnam
    Grimsby.

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    • Seems as though I need to pay more attention!
      Including the maps was mostly in response to your earlier suggestion.
      I am glad that I read Albany Park before going to Girona – it certainly enhanced the experience. I will write about that later. It’s rather odd I think that Patrice Chaplain doesn’t get a page on Wikipedia! Have you read any more of her work? What about ‘City of Secrets’?

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  3. I guess there are times when it is useful to not be such a gentleman, Andrew.

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  4. I’m also a non-complainer, Andrew, but I think that car hire rip-off would have had me checking out the company at the office next door.

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    • Thanks Richard. The truth of course is that the rental was still cheaper than most of the competitors even with the tank of overpriced fuel. A lot of hire companies have adopted the Ryanair pricing model – start with a rock-bottom price and then charge the earth for extras. I did manage to take it back empty!

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  5. Did your van also have a bigger fuel tank than the car you had originally booked too? I often find that hoteliers will try to palm people off with their worst rooms when they arrive (particularly if you are on a late flight) We always complain if we think this is the case and will get either relocated free of charge or a discount (in Prague we got both, but then that’s a long story involving Laterooms.com, two hotels and having to listen to the goth receptionist’s poetry).

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    • That too of course – a 60 litre tank!
      I can’t complain about the hotel because I did actually book one of the cheaper rooms in the first place so I have no complaint about the original allocation.

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      • The petrol scam was featured on Your Money, their Tricks last night 67p per litre more than a filling station and to cap that the rental company (Goldcar) lied about the tank capacity of a Renault clio saying it was 62 litres when it was 55. How are they allowed to get away with it?

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      • Solmar charged about 25 cents above the pump price. Insurance is another scam but the list of exclusions is getting longer. This time it didn’t include the roof, the floor, the tyres, the glass or the clutch!

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      • yes they highlighted the compulsory extra insurance too, you had to either pay up or leave a 600 euro deposit, which I’d bet you wouold have trouble getting back

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  6. CITY OF SECRETS? Isn’t that a Holy Grail novel? I am allergic to the Holy Grail, which may explain why I avoided it…even though I seem to recall she worked Girona in.
    I did read her follow-up to ALBANY PARK, and indeed still have it here on my bookshelves. ANOTHER CITY is the title. Very fulfilling, but not quite hitting the heights of the extraordinary ALBANY PARK. I read the latter the month it was published in the 80s. It had virtually no proper reviews.
    That tells you all you need to know about Literary Editors in our national newspapers.
    I have ANOTHER CITY for you to borrow when next you call at my house. (But remember to first give me back my copy of ALBANY PARK that I loaned you! Ha!)
    I have never read any of her novels. Since I gave up reviewing novels for literary journals, I have stopped reading them.
    I did borrow her biog of Oona Chaplin from my local library. Gave up halfway through.
    No … ALBANY PARK was her high water mark all right. She was possessed of a rare lyricism and inspiration when she wrote it. That sort of Muse does not stay faithful to any writer.

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  7. The gas in the rental car setup certainly sounds like highway robbery. Now I’m on the hunt for these books. Hope I am lucky to find them.

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  8. Did you take the VW without the boot? Is the next installation to this series going to tell us that all of your belongings were stolen from the car? I guess I’ll just have to keep reading to find out.

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    • Yes we took it – no other option really. We didn’t get broken into and robbed but we had to make sure that we didn’t leave it anywhere with our bags and belongings on show which meant rearranging our itinerary. Being robbed can spoil a holiday, I was pick pocketed in Barcelona once and Kim had a camera stolen on the Athens metro. The camera wasn’t important it was the memory card inside!

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  9. Switch to Nova car hire and save a fortune.
    They do not own a single car, yet this Irish agency will get you the cheapest car hire worldwide.
    But avoid their insurance like the Plague. Get annual wordwide excess insurance for as little as £50. They want £75 for ten days!

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