“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.
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.
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.