Twelve months earlier we had travelled to the small town of Sigüenza about one hundred kilometres north east of Madrid on the road to Zaragoza and Barcelona and we liked it so much we decided to return for a second visit.
As usual I made preparations well in advance and made a reservation at the same hotel, the Casa Rural Posada los Cuatro Canos, organised overnight accommodation at Luton Airport on account of the early morning flight, booked a car park reservation and made arrangements for a hire car.
I wanted to use the same company as last time, Firefox, because they had been both reasonably priced and efficient but they had no small car availability that matched our travel dates so I looked around elsewhere and came across a cheap site who happily accepted my booking and sent me a confirmation email telling me that my arrangement was with the car rental company Goldstar and I went to bed happy that everything was organised.
In the early hours of the morning I woke in a panic when I suddenly remembered reading a number of poor customer reviews about Goldstar and in the dark silence this weighed upon me like a tonne weight, crushing the satisfaction out of me like a wine press. So I went downstairs, turned on the computer and did a search. I was right – there were pages and pages of bad reviews about poor customer service, aggressive insurance selling and then additional charges after returning the car, the full tank of petrol scam and the fact that the rental company is based some distance away from the airport. All of the advice was not to use them and I cursed myself for not checking this out before making the booking.
I worried about this for the next couple of weeks and kept looking at the review sites to see if I could find something encouraging but there was nothing and so after another couple of unscheduled wake ups during the night I decided to cancel and risk losing the money.
So I did just that. I followed the cancellation procedure and was promised a refund within seven days and then I booked an alternative with someone I consider more reliable – Sixt. Sixt are by no means perfect I have to say but I do have a platinum customer card which does have some benefits including a small discount, the promise of a fast track pick up and a possible upgrade and so despite the fact that I had criticised them when I last used them in Iceland I felt a lot more relaxed after that.
When we landed at Barajas airport mid-morning there was a blue sky and a very respectable temperature which took us by surprise and required an immediate change of clothes into something more appropriate before we passed through security and into the arrivals hall to find the Sixt office.
Now, you are probably expecting me to tell you about some car hire disaster story and I usually like to start with a tale of things going wrong but I’m afraid that on this occasion I cannot because everything about the experience was perfect, no queue, no insurance sales pitch and no full tank of petrol scam and in just ten minutes I had signed the paperwork and had the keys to a brand new ruby red Citroën C3 and minutes later we were motoring effortlessly on the Autovia del Nordeste.
I was very pleased with my car hire company selection and just to complete the good story I received my Goldstar refund as promised just a few days later.
We didn’t drive very far as our first destination was the city of Alcalá de Henares because on a previous visit it had rained heavily so we were keen to see the UNESCO World Heritage site in better weather conditions.
Modern day Alcalá de Henares is a busy sprawling industrial suburb of Madrid but at its heart is the world’s first planned university city founded in 1293 by King Sancho IV of Castile. It was the original model for the Civitas Dei (City of God), the ideal urban community which Spanish missionaries exported to the New World and it also served as a model for universities in Europe and elsewhere. Alcalá de Henares is Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale but I wouldn’t have guessed this as we drove towards the city centre through grimy streets, clogged with growling traffic and with unattractive high rise apartment blocks and small industrial units lining the road.
Alcalá de Henares is however packed with two thousand years of history. It was settled by Romans, Moors and the reconquering Christians. As a former royal residence it is where Columbus met Queen Isabella for the first time. In 1547, it was the birthplace of Spain’s greatest literary genius, Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. It achieved UNESCO world heritage status in 1998 thanks to this venerated university which has produced a steady supply of saints and generations of powerful Catholic bishops.
I was fairly confident that I knew where I was going so to avoid an argument with technology I declined the assistance of the Satnav and headed for the centre. Something however went seriously wrong. Normally I am pretty good at avoiding shopping centres but on this occasion I mistakenly followed signs to the commercial centre and ended up in an edge of town shopping mall. I reversed out quickly and made a mental note to organise a brain scan when I got back home to get my normally reliable inbuilt anti-shops radar tracking system thoroughly checked over for faults.
After I had corrected the mistake and apologised to my female passengers for giving them false hope we found the correct directions and parked the car in an underground car park we made directly for the Centro Historico.
It was almost lunch time now and having missed breakfast judged it about time to eat so we found a place in the sun and asked for a menu. We were travelling with our friends Sue and Christine who, they won’t mind me telling you this, can be rather fussy eaters so ordering food is always a bit of a challenge but we made our way down the menu and placed our order with the waiter.
When I said it was almost lunch time I meant that it was about eleven-thirty and this proved to be a bit of a problem because most of the things we selected weren’t quite ready so we tried again and most of the things on our second selection attempt weren’t ready either so we settled for a bocadillo and a glass of beer before setting off into the centre of the city for sightseeing.