Road Trip – A Motoring Offence in Spain and the Guardia Civil

The Guardia Civil…

“I had already learned to be wary of the Civil Guard, who were the poison dwarfs of Spain.  They would suddenly ride down upon you on their sleek black horses, far out in the open country and crowd around you all leather and guns and put you through a bullying interrogation.”  – Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning’

There was still a very long way to go so we planned for another very early start.

When we woke in the morning there was no power anywhere in the hotel and we had to pack in pitch darkness so goodness knows how much stuff we left behind.  We met in the car park and then we had our first problem of the day – the car wouldn’t start!

It was wet and miserable and the electrics were damp and it was probably still trying to get over yesterday’s long drive because this journey was one of the sort of improbable things that these days Jeremy Clarkson does on ‘Top Gear’!

We couldn’t bump start it because it was an automatic so Richard, who understood how cars work,  lifted the bonnet and fiddled with the leads and poked around a bit and the rest of us, who didn’t, stood around and kicked the tyres.  We were all impressed when Richard got the poor thing going and we set off on the road for Burgos on the way to France.

Richard was driving and by the time it got light we were making good progress north along a main highway that, because it was Saturday, was not especially busy this morning.  To this day I still dispute the designation ‘motorway’ because it was single carriageway, had no emergency lane, no lights and as it happens no road markings either.  Richard was driving sensibly and only overtaking when it was safe to do so but then, after about sixty kilometres, we had our next problem.

And this was serious!

All of a sudden the interior of the car was flooded with blue flashing lights from behind as though it had been struck by lightning and a Spanish highway patrol vehicle was pulling us over.  Richard complied and we all left the vehicle to be confronted by two Guardia Civil policemen in their olive-green uniforms, black boots, creaking leather belts and straps and those black tricorn hats that they used to wear, getting out of their green and white patrol car and looking very serious and menacing.

We weren’t absolutely sure why they had asked us to stop and when we asked for explanation one of them drew a diagram that seemed to indicate that we had overtaken on a single bold white line.  White lines!  What line?  It may have been there twenty years previously but it certainly wasn’t there now.  There were two of them and the older one started to write out a ticket for a fine for twelve thousand pesetas, which was about £60 (about £300 at today values) and seemed like a lot of money to us, especially bearing in mind that we didn’t have any pesetas left anyway.

Anthony was minded to argue but, although we didn’t know it,  this would have been a very foolish thing to do because these guys were not exactly the friendly village bobby or the laughing policeman.

The Guardia Civil were left overs from the previous fascist regime who on the whole found the transition to democracy and civil liberties difficult to come to terms with.  Everyone in Spain was frightened of them, they patrolled in twos, bullying and picking on people and were mockingly called ‘parejas’ – married couples.  The younger one tapped his fingers on the holster of his pistol and readjusted his cosh in his belt in a threatening sort of way and the rest of us took that as a sign that we should just shut up and pay up.


This didn’t get over the problem of having no cash but the two highwaymen had a solution to that and made us follow them to a garage where they supervised the cashier as he exchanged everything that we had got into pesetas and the policemen gleefully took possession of it.

He took all of our French Francs, UK Sterling and what few Portuguese Escudos we had left, and actually we had more of those between us than we thought because Tony had been holding back on a bit of a stash concealed in the back of his wallet that he hadn’t owned up to and the rest of us were all a bit upset about that.  It turns out that Tony would rather juggle gelignite or jump from an aeroplane without a parachute than spend his cash!

We had been thoroughly mugged and as we waved goodbye to the two policemen Anthony shouted a rather unpleasant accusation of dishonesty and an invitation to thoroughly enjoy our contribution to the Guardia Civil Christmas party fund, which thankfully they didn’t hear.  He may have been closer to the truth than he realised because someone told me later that this was a regular way that the Guardia Civil would supplement their wages.

When we got back home I wrote to the Spanish Embassy in London to complain about this and to request a refund and although they replied and sympathised they explained that they had no authority over the police and therefore couldn’t do anything to help.  It was a nice letter though!

Richard was rather upset about the incident and sulked for the next hour or so while we drove past Burgos and stopped at a little town at just about breakfast time and found a bank where we could get enough cash to buy some fuel to get us out of Spain.  We carried on out of Castilla y León and into the green mountains of the Basque Country, past Bilbaó and San Sebastián and then headed east towards the Pyrenees and then the last Spanish town of Irun at the border with France, which we finally reached about twenty hours behind schedule.

Have you ever been in trouble with the police in a foreign country?

32 responses to “Road Trip – A Motoring Offence in Spain and the Guardia Civil

  1. Andrew, I am enjoying your travels and tales within your blog and learned as a young man in the early ’80’s while traveling into Tokyo that it is better to dress more conservatively rather than a rock star. I was going through customs with my baggy, grey pants a matching padded cotton motorcycle jacket, a teal cotton cowl pullover and a grey fedora. Did I forget the motorcycle chain belt? Oh yes, I was out there and they pulled me aside after going through all of my business files page by page, fingerprinted me with orange ink and off I went with some sort of warning that I assumed wasn’t, “Have fun!” while my boss sat by laughing hysterically. Lesson learned. Blend in and sail through usually works best. Becoming Billy Idol doesn’t do much good for the average Joe, so to speak.


  2. Crikey, what an experience! I chuckled about Richard sulking for a while, he earned the right, I reckon.


  3. The stuff of future memories….you don’t forget incidents like this!


  4. I shall post a story ASAP about those guys in three cornered hats. It’s an old story but that doesn’t matter. Only problem is, I don’t know how to write down the sound that a machine gun makes as it fires over your head. But I’ll try.


  5. Never a dull moment! I think I would have sulked for longer than an hour! We got stopped by police in Kiev and they demanded to see our passports which unbeknown to us foreigners were supposed to carry at all times. They were going to fine us on the spot and asked us where we were staying. We had a night in the posh intercontinental courtesy of my mates loyalty points and when they learned this they turned all polite doffed their caps and wished us a pleasant stay! I have noted that should the need arise again…


    • I forgot my passport when travelling by train from Bratislava to Venice. The border guards thought it was amusing and were very good about it but said that it was a good job that we weren’t Americans but never explained exactly why!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. French police still do the same thing, especially with tour coaches. The trick is to ask for a receipt and when they say they haven’t got one, to insist on going to the gendarmerie with them to get one. They might get them to back down.


  7. We had the same experience in France when pulled out of a convoy of French cars all doing the same low speed, and accused of speeding. I think it was ‘get the English week’. It was Sunday, no banks open, and in the end, we too, had to divest ourselves of all our francs which the police gleefully pocketed. They fell about laughing when we asked for a receipt. Ain’t foreign travel fun!


  8. Great tale. I’ve been stopped by border control—repeatedly—but never the cops.


  9. Where does that troll with ball and chain reside? Priceless.


  10. It is such a helpless feeling, Andrew, and a good reminder of what people who are powerless face. I tell the story in my book (The Bush Devil Ate Sam) about the Liberian soldiers who came into my yard in Gbarnga and tried to arrest me because a dog who hung out at my house, but I didn’t own, had eaten one of the Governor’s Guinea Fowls. It would have been humorous had it not been for all of the guns, and the fact that they were back in the wee hours of the morning pounding on my door with a weapon because the damn dog had eaten another of the Gov’s Guinea Fowls. –Curt


  11. I tend to think of the Southern States as a foreign country. Way back in my younger days, I was stopped for running a hidden stop sign in the middle of the night somewhere in Alabama. I was hit with a fine and given a lecture about hitting small children. I wondered, but didn’t ask, what these ‘children’ were doing out in the wee hours, but figured my best bet was to pay and get the hell out of the state ASAP.


  12. Yikes! Sounds like it could have gone worse than it did Andrew. I have never had any issues but a few years ago Dave ended up in a Mexican police station after a minor fender bender. We were visiting friends who live there and the guys were off to a golf game and got rear ended. At the same time a volcano was erupting and one of the friends was attacked by a rooster in the police station.


  13. I once got hauled off a train at the then Yugoslav border as an 18 year old back packer as I hadn’t got a visa (was travelling on an old British Visitor’s Passport). Very scary – ended up in the police station at the station with many other tourists in the same situation. Didn’t understand a word they were saying but finally got my passport back stamped with a visa and just managed to find my way back to my friends before the train left (badly gashing my right shin as I scrambled up the metal steps of the train). That was a horrible experience but I always make sure I have everything in order now when I travel anywhere!


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