Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It's Amazing How Much Fun You Can Have When Everything's Going Terribly Wrong!

Finding a place to start on this blog post is an overwhelming task. Trying to sum up the past two travel weekends in one post is a challenge. Luckily, there isn’t too much to say about Bilbao, so I can keep that short and sweet.

Two weekends ago Briana and I traveled to Bilbao. It’s in Pais Vasco, in northern Spain. I was excited to venture to a new region to observe the differences from southern Spain. Overall, I think it’s fair to say the people seemed a lot nicer. Everyone was very helpful, minus the strange lady working at the hostel. We noticed a lot of regional differences, which seem to mirror the US and our north versus south rivalries and differences. I enjoyed seeing this new part of the country, but I can’t say there was too much to do there. The Saturday we were there we headed off to San Sebastian. It was beautiful, but pouring and quite cold. We went to the aquarium and I really liked that. Bilbao was also a pretty city. We couldn’t figure out why, but a ton seemed to be closed. It was also freezing. Not only had we not anticipated the cold, but also the city just isn’t equipped for it like you’d expect. Our hostel didn’t have heat so we slept in all of the clothes we’d brought. It was a bit of a rude awakening. The highlight of the trip was visiting the Guggenheim. I had wanted to go there for years, so it was great to make that dream happen.

My favorite exhibit was by Richard Serra. He used giant sculptures to interpret time and space. It was an interactive exhibit because you had to walk through it. Here’s an article I found explaining his work:

I was very ready to leave Bilbao, especially because I had this past weekend to look forward to. It was a whirlwind three days at home until I was off yet again—this time to the United Kingdom. On Friday morning Jan, Julia and I met up at Santa Justa (the train station) to catch a train to Malaga. From the train station we took the metro to the airport. A lot of Europeans (namely Brits and Germans) have vacation homes in Malaga so their airport is much more built up than Sevilla’s. In fact, the city in general seems much more built up. It was easy to find the airport so we just needed to hang around for our flight. The flight was rather seamless, minus the children running around and the clash of cultures (Spanish versus English.) Most importantly, we arrived in one piece. I was really excited to land at John Lennon Airport. We were going to Liverpool to learn about the Beatles and it began at the airport. I was also excited to land and be surrounded by English again. This transition to Spain has been much more difficult than I anticipated and much harder than last time. That being said, having a taste of home was beyond needed. Now we just needed to interpret the accent. Wow, there. You’d think they were speaking another language! We couldn’t understand a word the bus driver said. Luckily, we meet this really nice guy who told us about the city and where to get off the bus.

After a little searching we arrived at our awesome hostel. It looked like it had been a home back in the day, so it had a really nice homey feeling. Additionally, the older man who owns the place and checked us in was great. He gave us another list of suggestions for the night. It was pretty late and the three of us were hungry, so we began our quest for fish and chips. The guy on the bus had recommended a place that wasn’t too far so we figured we’d try to find it. It proved more difficult than anticipated. We found the street, but couldn’t find the joint he recommended. I figured, hey, we’re in the English speaking country, why not ask someone for help? Good idea, in theory. I do not know if this is typical for Liverpool, but everyone was hammered. We asked several people for suggestions and didn’t get anything more than a slur for a response. It was kind of late to be looking for a dinner place, but way too early to be as drunk as the entire city of Liverpool was. Nonetheless, it was quite entertaining. We ended up at this Italian restaurant that served fish and chips. Go figure. Italian or British, it was great. We were beyond satisfied and looking forward to our night out on the town.

When we left the hostel, we left instructions for Briana to meet us at the Cavern Club. The hostel owner said he’d put her in a cab to meet up with us. So, from dinner we headed to the Cavern Club. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s where the Beatles really got their start. There was a great cover band and Strongbow on tap. We were set. We met some pretty crazy cats, but enjoyed the night. After a full day of travel and several hours out we decided to call it a night. We weren’t sure what to do though because Briana never showed up. My piece-of-shit cell phone doesn’t work outside of the country. (I guess I have to make yet another trip to Vodafone.) Jan’s cell was out of battery and Julia couldn’t remember her pin and locked herself out of her phone. With no other choice, we headed back to the hostel. We were both shocked and sadden to hear Briana’s flight had been cancelled! Things had been going so well…(drum roll, please.) The trip must go on, we thought and we planned on meeting her in Edinburgh the next day.

Saturday morning Stevie T, our Beatles tour guide, picked us up at our hostel bright and early. We were all geared up and ready to learn about the Beatles and see some of the sights. We got to see all of the Beatles’ childhood homes, favorite pubs, Penny Lane and Strawberry Field among many other stops. My favorite by far was Strawberry field. Right now it’s just a deserted plot of land. It used to be an orphanage and John would sneak in and play in the yard. Today, it just has a beautiful, red gate and a sign marking where Strawberry field once stood. Despite there not being a physical structure, the place had a magical spirit. It’s hard to describe exactly what it was, but it just felt special.

After the tour we headed to lunch at one of John Lennon’s hangouts, The Philharmonic Dining Room (known at The Phil.) From lunch we needed to head back to the hostel to pick up our bags and begin the trek to Edinburgh. One would think that having a common language would make travel much easier, but when it comes down to it, I think it’s just confusing no matter where you are.

With a bit of luck, we got on train number one with a few minutes to spare. I had a minor freak out when I couldn’t find my passport in the spot I always keep it in. What’s travel without some panic? That quickly subsided when I found my passport in another purse. Phewf. Train number two was great. We were a little surprised to get on the train to see that our seats didn’t exist and were the handicapped area, but we just plopped down somewhere else. The train board said it would be arriving late, both to the station we picked it up at and Glasgow, its final destination. We wanted to go to the bathroom prior to getting off because we didn’t know if we’d have to run to catch the bus. Jan and I headed to the bathroom when we thought we were about 20 minutes away. The majority of the lavatories were broken so we needed to head about 8 cars down.

For all of the stops there had first been a warning when we were approaching the station and then another saying arriving at the station. While I was outside waiting for Jan I saw a bunch of people getting up. I was nervous, but kept reminding myself they had never said now approaching, so we must have time, right? Wrong. I head the conductor over the speaker saying now arriving at Carlisle. Oh shit. I was pounding on the bathroom door to get Jan’s attention. Since a bunch of people were getting off everyone was standing in the aisle. We were still 8 cars away from all of our things and Julia. Again it was nice to be able to just yell out in English. Excuse me! Excuse me! We yelled the whole way. We might have plowed through a couple old ladies, but I’m sure it was nothing more than minor scrapes or bruises. We made it just in time!

The third leg of the trip, the bus ride, continued to get more confusing. Both England and Scotland were experiencing unprecedented snow for this time of year so things were shutting down left and right. Luckily, the bus was still headed to Edinburgh. We were even luckier that it wasn’t going to make any stops along the way due to the weather. The bizarre part of the trip is that we were the only people on the bus. Additionally, I could only understand every third word the bus driver said and at one point we questioned whether or not he’d been hitting the sauce. We arrived in Edinburgh and in record time. This bus driver was flying. I’ve never been prone to motion sickness, but I had to keep my ipod on and my eyes closed the entire ride. This guy wanted to get to Edinburgh even more than we did. A cab ride later we found the hostel and were ready to go to bed!

Sunday morning my bagel prayers were answered. We found this adorable little café called Chocolate Soup. My two loves in life: bagels and chocolate, however we saved the chocolate part for another time. After being reunited with my carb filled friend we were off to see the sights. Last time when I was in Europe I heard about these free tours and went on a couple of them in various cities. They’re in large European cities and at the end they just ask that you tip the guide whatever you think the tour was worth. They’re great, so we were anxious to go on the Edinburgh tour. Our guide, Alan, was a riot. The tour was great, but it was freezing out and our lack of winter boots made the tour feel a little longer than necessary. Apparently, my wallabys aren’t meant for snow. My mom sent me a package two weeks ago, but Thanksgiving combined with several Spanish holidays and the slow Spanish mail system to begin with leaves it MIA. Hopefully the package containing my winter boots and long underwear will make it here before I head off to Switzerland! I’m not comforted by the thought of having to buy snow boots here. Jan bought a pair of rain boots on Thursday for the trip and the first time she wore them, Friday, they already leaked. Soo, after our tour with Alan we went to lunch and did some shopping. Similar to home, the UK is blessed with pharmacies! We spent a long time in one buying some basics we can’t find here. Delightful.

At this point in time it was still just me, Jan and Julia. Briana still hadn’t arrived. We got more details and it turns out the Spanish Air Traffic Control folks were on strike. She was stuck in Malaga for two days and then finally made it to Edinburgh Sunday night. Oh Spain. We were so bummed that Briana didn’t make it out, but also appreciative that we missed the strike by about 5 hours. It was great finally having the four of us together. We celebrated with Thai food and Italian desserts. And sleep.

Monday morning the snow continued. We were told this was not normal for Edinburgh at this time of year. We had pre-purchased tickets for Edinburgh Castle because they’re cheaper online. Monday morning we headed up the Royal Mile to find that the castle was closed due to weather conditions. Oops! Instead, we did the next best thing: the Scotch Whiskey Experience! It was a history lesson and sampling of the Scottish delicacy. Turns out whiskey isn’t exactly my thing, but we were inside in the heat for a few hours. From there we were to the Elephant House for lunch. It might appear like a nice, little café, but in fact it’s where Harry Potter was born. J.K. Rowling wrote several of the books there. From her seat you could see various inspirations like Hogwarts (a fancy private school) and the rock its sits on (the rock the castle sits on.) Additionally, during our tour with Alan he showed us several graves in a graveyard nearby that had names Rowling used. It was really fun to see.

After lunch we attempted to go to the Scottish National Museum, which was also closed due to weather. What’s the next best thing? Go see the new Harry Potter movie, in the city it was born in. I was so excited to see it in English and without subtitles. So fabulous. After the movie, warming up a bit in the hostel and changing into dry socks we searched the city for an open restaurant. After walking around for a while I stopped some people on the street to see if they had any recommendations. They recommended an Italian restaurant they had just walked out of. It ended up being great.

Tuesday morning we were finally allowed to enter the castle! Success! It was pretty, but at this point in time I kind of feel like once you’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen them all. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and we got to see firsthand many of the things Alan talked about on our tour. After the castle, lunch and shopping we figured we should probably be on our way to Glasgow due to the terrible weather conditions and Scotland’s questionable snow clearing tactics. We checked out of the hostel, and said goodbye to the crazy people we met. (Cue the Australian woman living in Britain researching some old astronomical clock in Scotland, with a strange obsession about the slave trade and who kept turning the lights ON in the morning to wake us all up when she left the room.)

We set off with our bags for the Edinburgh bus station. Upon our arrival we quickly learned all buses to Glasgow had been cancelled. Here begins a very troubling 24 hours. Next stop, the train station. With some luck we buy 4:30 tickets to Glasgow. We kept looking at the board for a platform and saw the train was delayed until 4:40. Upon checking it again it just read “delayed.” We figured we’d walk out to the train anyway, where we hoped there would be heat. Turns out they reversed the delay and the train left at 4:30 as planned, but they didn’t alert the passengers. At this point a mild frostbite was setting in. We all literally huddled together for warmth and prayed we could get on the next train.

As soon as the platform came up we booked it for the train…us and about 300 Scots. All I remember is looking behind me while running and seeing a stampede. Thank goodness we got on the train! Sadly, there was no heat, so our limbs continued to freeze. We got off the train in Glasgow so happy to be there and just wanting to get to the hotel. We stood in line for the airport bus and were told most city buses had been cancelled. We decided to move to the cab line, but we were about 6th in line and only one cab was coming every ten minutes. Suddenly, we thought we saw an airport bus rush by so we started to run. Thank Jesus. We got on the bus and I asked the bus driver if he had ever head of our hotel. It was called the Lomond Airport Hotel, so I figured the bus driver must have at least heard of it. This was stage one of being concerned when the bus driver said he hadn’t heard of it and said nothing existed under that name. Once we got to the airport we got in a cab to the hotel. We asked the cab driver if he’d heard of the hotel and he replied, “unfortunately.” Stage two of concern. Stage three began as we got closer to the hotel. We passed boarded up factories and we clearly weren’t in the nice part of town. Stage four: panic begins. We pull up to the hotel. There isn’t even a visible sign. The driveway nor the stairs are shoveled. The doorbell is completely sideways and the place looks like it was the set of a horror movie. Entering the place doesn’t help calm my nerves. The rude man helping us says he only has Jan’s reservation. We should have made a run for it then. “Luckily” he had a room available for Julia, Briana and me. We paid, got our keys and went upstairs. Jan opened her door first, yelled and said she couldn’t go in there because it resembled the horror movie The Ring. We open our door to see a twin bed and a double bed.

We decided we would all sleep in there. Upon further examination, we realize one bed doesn’t have sheets, blankets or a pillow. There’s one towel for the three of us to share, a disturbingly funky stain under the bed, the floor in the bathroom literally sinks when stepped on, there are far too many exposed pipes, the toilet doesn’t flush and there is standing water/urine in the bathtub. After some consideration, we decided we could not stay after all. All we wanted was a warm shower and to sleep. This hotel risked our wellbeing. I have never seen a place as foul as this and I have stayed in my fair share of hostels and hotels throughout the world.

After deciding we couldn’t stay there the group kindly picked me as the group representative. I came up with my speech and we all marched downstairs with our bags to demand our money back. We put up a fight, but failed. We asked him to call a cab and he told us it would take an hour. At this point I was so pissed off, scared for my life and delirious that I said we would walk. So out we went, 20 pounds poorer in the shadiest neighborhood by the airport. Earlier in the day I had commented that it would be a successful trip if no one fell. Unfortunately, on our proud walk out of the hotel, Julia bit the dust and hit the ground pretty hard. Due to adrenaline, she said it didn’t hurt that much.

While we were leaving I was immediately reminded of a scene in the movie Eurotrip when they’re dropped off in the middle of nowhere Europe. Go to 1:47-3:25 for a pretty accurate description of how I felt.

We hit a stroke of luck when we saw someone walking towards us. We asked him which way civilization was. He pointed us towards the train and bus station. All buses to the airport were stopped, so we waited yet again in the cab line. This time we were joined by a Scottish teen with a black eye that had consumed a little too much whiskey. He was shouting god knows what at us and we felt a little better once he got in a cab, which the cab driver made him pay in advance due to his questionable state of being. Ten minutes later a cab arrived and we were off to the Ramada at the airport. Thank the lord they had rooms and an open restaurant. We all slept much better knowing we were not going to be killed and after having taken warm showers with no standing water. On the news we heard a very comforting report saying, “This week marks the collapse of Scotland’s infrastructure.” It’s a miracle we made it back here.

After all of this I learned a very good lesson. Go with your gut. Something didn’t seem right about that hotel and we should have never gotten out of the cab. We might have lost 20 pounds each, but in the end we were much happier staying in a safe hotel. If you think I am exaggerating, please look at the reviews on trip advisor.

We made the mistake of looking at this after the fact. Please tell all of your family and friends to never stay at this hotel! I am going to be contacting the Scottish board of health with my concerns. I’m going to try and make this man wish he’d returned our 80 pounds. Sucker.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been here. Now I’m counting down the days until I leave with Liza for my next adventure.

Hasta pronto,

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