Tag Archives: Spain car hire

Travels in Spain, Car Hire and Trouble with Maps

postcard-map-andalucia

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries.  How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell – ‘Homage to Catalonia’

In the summer a cheap flight opportunity to Seville and Andalusia in November provided the perfect opportunity to continue the quest to discover the real Spain.  A visit to the South and the part of the peninsula with which, thanks to the travel brochures I suppose, we are all familiar, the Spain of flamenco, Moorish architecture, sherry, tapas bars and bull fighting.

The first task after arrival at Seville airport was to pick up the hire car and the lady at the desk took me step by step through the formalities and then showed me a diagram that identified all of the previous damage that the car had suffered.  This took some considerable time because it turned out to be practically every single panel, front back and sides and when we collected it from the car park it was in a real mess and looking quite sorry for itself and my first reaction was to be a bit annoyed that we had been allocated such a tatty vehicle.

I was soon to discover however that this was quite normal for cars in this part of Spain!  The interior was clean but there was an overpowering smell of industrial strength air freshener that was so unpleasant that we had to drive with the windows down and we began to worry about what sort of previous smell the deodoriser was covering up.

Carmona 02

Instead of staying in the city of Seville, where the hotels seemed to be a little expensive and beyond our budget, we had chosen instead to book a cheaper alternative in the nearby town of Carmona that was about twenty miles away.  The first part of the journey along the Autovia du Sur was pleasant and without incident and then we left at the junction for the town and things started to unravel.  We didn’t have a proper town map, only something from the multimap website and this didn’t prove to be especially helpful.

We (I) became confused and did a couple of circuits of the town looking for street names that we could identify but these proved to be illusive and of little assistance because they didn’t seem to correspond in any way to the map.  Eventually, on third time around the main town square I found a bar that was still open and asked (pleaded)  for help.

The man was just as confused by multimap as we were and it took him some time to interpret it for himself before he could even begin to draw the route that we needed through what looked like a tangled web of streets with a baffling one way system.  Finally he provided comprehensive instructions but in rapid fire Spanish that made it difficult to follow but it was helpful just to discover that we were in the new part of the town and what we really needed was the centro historico, which was a few hundred yards away.

Confident now of directions we set off again and this time took the correct turning through an imposing medieval fortress gate and into a labyrinth of confusing narrow streets.  At a fork in the road we were presented with two options.  We were staying at a hotel in San Fernando Square and there was a sign that seemed to suggest that we should turn left but I overruled Micky who pointed this out and foolishly decided to ignore the sensible thing to do and took the right fork instead.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

This was a very big mistake because the road climbed up a narrow cobbled street barely wide enough for the car to pass through and then seemed to abruptly stop at what looked like a pedestrian alleyway.  There was an elderly Spanish couple out strolling so we asked for help and after they had studied the map seemed to suggest to us that we should carry on down this narrow path.  We were not entirely convinced about this and asked for clarification several times and the man, who spoke no English and was not terribly useful, was determined not to let his wife, who could speak a little English and was a lot more helpful, have her turn with the map.

Maps and men must be the same everywhere, let me explain, it’s a macho sort of thing that drives us to take control and this is based on years of experience of being sent in the wrong direction.  Women generally are as hopeless with maps and town plans as men are with knitting patterns.  Anyway, while we were debating the situation another car pulled up behind and seemed to be heading in the direction of the alleyway so this was a clue that this was indeed the correct way to go.  As we pulled away the woman looked into the car and in a genuinely caring sort of way said ‘Be careful, good luck’ and this parting comment filled my cup of confidence full to the brim and overflowing.

We set off and it soon became clear why we needed both precision and good fortune because if we had thought that the previous street had been narrow this one made it look like a six lane highway.  First of all it was necessary to negotiate a dog leg gate that was barely wider than the car and we all had to collectively breathe in so that we could squeeze through and after that the street narrowed down still further and I needed delicate keyhole surgery skills to manoeuvre through 90º bends and past carelessly parked cars and iron bollards strategically placed to impede progress at every turn.

It was like threading a needle blindfolded and we now understood why the car was covered in dents and scratches and probably why the air freshener was so strong; the previous hirer had possibly driven down the same street and had an unfortunate bowel incident in the process!

Going forward was tricky and we were making slow progress but what really concerned me was the possibility of reaching a – and having to reverse all the way back because that would have been impossible.  Finally however we came out into a square (that was actually a circle) and by luck we had found our hotel.  After three circuits of the square it was obvious that there was nowhere to park however so we had to settle for a side street and a hundred yard walk back to the Hotel Posada San Fernando where a lady on reception was waiting to check us in.

Carmona 07

Catalonia, An Empty Fuel Tank and some Car Hire Tips

Catalonia Ceramic Tile Map

This was our final day in Catalonia and the original plan was to pack our bags into the boot (trunk) of the car and drive to Girona and put it in a car park for the day but as I told you earlier the car we had been allocated didn’t have a boot (trunk), so still fearful of being robbed, we changed our plans and drove directly to our final hotel at Girona airport to leave our bags and to return the vehicle.

I was still annoyed by the car hire scam of selling me an overpriced tank of fuel and challenging me to bring it back empty so I was determined that I would do exactly that.  When we left Besalú the trip computer told me that we had enough fuel for about sixty kilometres and I calculated that the airport was just slightly less than that so with a feather like foot on the accelerator (gas) pedal and with the air-conditioning system turned off we tip-toed our way sedately to Girona.

Our walking pace drive irritated local drivers now and again and once I was almost tempted to visit a fuel station and buy a thimble full of diesel but I resisted the moment of temporary self doubt and just kept going trying to shut out the nagging reminder from the dashboard controls that I should urgently refuel.

This reminded me of a holiday in Lanzarote in 1982 when six of us hired a Daihatsu jeep and when we collected it the fuel tank was practically empty.  My brother Richard was really annoyed and determined to take it back in the same state so towards the end of the hire period we pulled into a filling station:

‘Si Seňor?’

‘two hundred por favor’

‘two hondred?’ the man scratched his head and looked confused and then turning to us said, ‘two hondred – not enough room in tank!’

We looked confused but then after a short debate we realised what he meant and Richard was rather more specific –  ‘no, not litres – pesetas!’

Now this was the equivalent of about seventy-five pence so this required great precision on his part to deliver only just the required miniscule amount into the tank.  We handed him two one hundred peseta notes and he walked away shaking his head and in apparently total disbelief repeating over and over to himself ‘two hondred, two hondred…’ ‘two hondred, two hondred…’ and we fell about  and almost wet ourselves laughing.

As we got closer to the airport the fuel indicator needle dropped off of the dashboard gauge all together, the digital display said only enough fuel for ten kilometres and the refuel warning light was flashing madly like in a James Bond movie indicating only ten seconds to Armageddon but we were very close now and I was certain that I could do it so eased off the throttle even more and coasted towards the hotel.  At one stage I took a wrong turning which could have been disastrous but I quickly corrected that and gratefully pulled into the hotel car park.

We were too early to check in but the staff locked our bags away and then, as there was an hour to wait for the next bus into Girona we sat and had a beer before returning the car. When I got back into the driving seat to my horror the computer still said ten kilometres of fuel left so I took it for a ride around the airport circuit road  a couple of times until it had dropped to five and then satisfied with this achievement I took it back to the Solmar rental office and smugly handed back the keys.

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At this point I am tempted to offer some car hire advice but I cannot do better than include here a comment recently received from my friend Dai Woosnam from Grimsby:

“In the past fifteen 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, Washington); a month long hire in Washington, DC to drive down to Daytona Beach, Florida, 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).”

Dai writes an excellent eclectic monthly digest including great tips like these.  If you want to subscribe then write to him at DaiW@gmx.com and he will mail a regular copy.

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So, mission accomplished and feeling rather pleased with ourselves we had a second beer on the terrace of the hotel and waited the final few minutes before the scheduled time of our bus into the city of Girona.

River Houses of Gorona

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

Northern Spain – Car Hire and Madrid to Sigüenza

Sigüenza sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce

Despite the ambition to visit as much of Spain as possible this was the first visit to the peninsular in nearly two years since the previous trip to Extremadura in May 2011.  Our destination this time was Castilla-La Mancha and the medieval town of Sigüenza in the Province of Guadalajara halfway between Madrid and the capital city of the Autonomous Community of Aragon – Zaragoza.

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Galicia Reflection

Galicia Cathedral

On account of the party and the dancing, we went to bed much later than we had planned, which was rather reckless because we had an early start the next day back to the airport for a late morning flight home.  We woke early and hung around for breakfast, not because we wanted cake or bread but because we really needed a cup of tea.  Eventually at half past eight the kitchen opened and the breakfast lady obliged us with the drink and food and it was most welcome.  Then we said goodbye and set off on the twenty-five kilometre journey back to the airport.

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Mountain drive to Madrid and a Fuel Crisis

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After we had walked through the gardens we left the Palace and then the town and we drove south again towards our next intended destination, the fortress town of Manzanares El Real where we planned to see our final castle.  To get there we had to drive across the top of the mountain and shortly after leaving San Ildefonso we began to steadily climb the northern face of the peaks.

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