No Woman, No Cry ... High Anxieties
The Loneliness of the Early-Season Traveller
If we were unsure of our van’s height before, going through the underpass at Puçol left us with some clue as to what it was. The look on the face of the woman driving towards us from the other end said it all: Don’t attempt to get under anything lower than 3 metres high again. Considering the palaver of the past week or so, it was hardly surprising we’d taken a chance. Religiously following directions to anything marked ‘Camping’ became our mission in life during our time in Spain. During this, our first trip, the prospect of ‘wild’ camping loomed over me like that huge spaceship in the film Independence Day. The word ‘wild’did not appeal at all to my delicate nature. We’d become accustomed to the plethora of campsites vying for our business in France, some of them even open, but the arrangements in Spain at the end of May were less than adequate. Since crossing the border, a visible signpost to such places was a much-prized rarity and something to be remarked upon. Not unusual though was that having spotted such a sign, we could easily travel miles before realising that hoping to find another was futile. About as futile as the UK hoping to win the Eurovision Song Contest everagain. Anyway, by the time we’d realised this, we would probably have reached the outskirts of the next town. The blood-red Spanish sun would be clawing its way down below the distant horizon, remarkably resembling the Catalan flag. Disappearing with it would be my slight bit of confidence that we too would find a place to rest. Let alone what I would deem a safe one.
Our unplanned circumnavigation of the area near the attractively scaffolded and tower-craned town of Puçol near Valencia on the Costa Blanca, eventually resulted in the sighting of a postage stamp weakly proclaiming ‘Camping’ in faded brown letters. It grudgingly pointed straight ahead. All well and good you might think, but our relief was short lived. What lay ahead was not a good prospect: a low underpass under the railway. This railway divided the town, and the underpass was its main through route. We were in no mood to find another way round to get to the campsite, and getting lost again was not an option I wanted to explore.
Harry pulled the van to one side in front of the tunnel entrance. Since the previous owner had added various vents to the roof in such a random manner, it was difficult to tell exactly where and what the highest point was.
“Well what do you think?” I asked my all-knowing Other Half.
“It should be OK…” Harry replied, but I didn’t like the slight tone of doubt in his voice. “…the height restriction SAYS 2.8 metres. Our handbook says the van is 2.7.”
“So what is it?”
“Your guess is as good as...”
I stopped him there.
“I don’t want to guess, I want to know,” I said meaningfully.
With that, he put the engine into gear and I held my breath, as if that would have helped. We plunged into the depths and listened for scraping sounds. That lady in the SEAT driving towards us would certainly have a tale to tell her family when she arrived home: Those stupid English tourists in their camper vans! This unfortunately was only the prologue to another disconcerting episode at Puçol.
Whilst risking the underpass did not entirely solve our problem in getting to our overnight stopping place, eventually we came across a site that we assumed was the one indicated pre-tunnel. It may well have been, but seeing as it resembled a Wild West ghost town, almost down to that bushy stuff blowing around, we realised that it wasn’t open for business. Our appearance on site however attracted the last human alive in Dodge City (the undertaker?) and he directed us along the road to a campsite that was definitelyopen. Well of course the only obvious way to get to this site was along a one-way street, the wrong way, but by this time we were past caring. Again the place looked like Jessie James and his gang had recently paid a visit, but undeterred we cruised around the large, walled site to find an empty pitch to stay on for the night. It may seem a paradox in that an empty site contained few vacant pitches, so for anyone who has never visited any Spanish campsites within a reasonable driving distance from a large town or city such as Barcelona, please let me explain.
Forget idyllic scenes of open fields and rolling countryside with hardy outdoor-types enjoying the fresh air; think more Brazilian shanty-town. These places are for the most part filled with makeshift ‘semi-permanent’ dwellings. Caravans that couldn’t have seen a road since before Franco’s time are cobbled together with tents, awnings and sheds, the antiquity of which made me wonder if they’d served some fearsome purpose during the Spanish Inquisition. Each establishment has scarcely a few inches between it and its neighbour, a sight which would be enough to give a collective heart attack to members of any British camping or caravanning club with their optimistic ‘20-foot-space-between-each-unit’ rule. We might think these cramped Spanish arrangements highly undesirable, but it appears that the Catalans in particular love such communal living. All the family, from the most gnarled ancient to the newest infant, squeeze happily into these modest and haphazard structures, and a jolly time is had by all. At dusk during low-season though, these shuttered and empty dwellings reminded me of those scenes in SciFi movies where some alien has spirited everyone away. But then I’m always getting carried away too.
Back at the deserted maze that was the campsite at Puçol, we were approached by a man who seemed to be something to do with the place, in that he was Spanish and in his overalls looked like some sort of workman. At last here was someone we could speak to about staying on the site. Although I say ‘speak’, this is not quite the description of our communication, my Spanish skills at the time not being much past the ‘¡Hola!’ and ordering a cervezastage.
“Can we stay on the site?” I tried. “Is it open?”
“Oh sure,” was the answer.
He took out his mobile phone and spoke to someone.
“It’s OK is it?” I asked hopefully.
Since his reply was in rapid Spanish, I had to resort to my Spanish dictionary in the hope of making some sense of what he’d just said.
“Se puede?” He took it off of me and searched for a word. The English translation of the word he pointed to was girlfriend.
“Your girlfriend will come to check us in?”
“Si señora. Find place. You stay. Will be here later.”
So his girlfriend would be along later to book us in. Fine. We’d already found a place we wanted to stop on between the ‘permanents’, and soon were established for the night.
When a tall and handsome young black man turned up at our door a little later talking Spanish, the only word of which we understood to be “passport”, we took him to be a fellow traveller enquiring where the office was to take it to. The expected señoritastillhadn’t turned up to register us and collect thesite fee so we tried to explain what we thought was going on.
“Someone will be along later to sort things out?” I ventured, trying not to raise my voice in the English-person-speaking-to-foreigner manner, and illustrating my words with a few appropriate arm gestures.
Not surprisingly, he seemed baffled, but we were determined to be friendly, and I asked where he was from etc, at last, so I thought, getting my money’s worth from the Spanish language classes. He must have thought we were real fruit-cakes, because eventually he shook his head, and in true Continental fashion, shrugged his shoulders and departed.
As I’d still not recovered my nerves entirely from the anxieties of that day’s journey with its fruitless campsite pursuits and low underpasses, it was easy to see why my imagination then decided to go off on one.
Somewhere at the back of my mind I began to recall tabloid scare stories about unsuspecting tourists being murdered for their passports. We were in the perfect situation for the same thing to happen to us. After all, there was no record yet of us being on this site, nobody else appeared to be staying there, and our visitor seemed a bit too interested in passports than was healthy. I voiced these alarming thoughts to Harry.
“I’m sure I heard something about this – tourists being killed for their passports. People on their own, people on the road!”
“Oh for goodness sake, it’s fine here. Don’t worry!”
But I could see that I’d planted a seed of doubt even in his sensible mind as he eyed the large claw hammer he kept inside the cab as insurance. This did nothing for my peace of mind; my heart began to thump and I went weak at the knees. Who would know we were there? We wouldn’t be missed for ages. We were a gift for criminals.
“You’ll feel better after a nice meal and a couple of glasses of wine,” he tried to reassure me yet again. “What would you like me to cook?”
With my stomach doing somersaults, eating was the last thing I wanted to do – apart from click together the heels of some ruby slippers, say, “There’s no place like home,” and be whisked back to the safety of England. I did manage all the wine and a morsel of food however, and after clearing everything away, we decided to take a walk around the camp in an effort to take my mind off of things rather than sit in the van awaiting our fate. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect. My fears were reinforced by the god-forsaken nature of the place and the fast-disappearing light, and even my long-suffering husband may have been spooked in the process. Weighing up the situation, we thought we could always leave, but as we’d already discovered, there was no other site actually open for business nearby. After all, we were ‘lucky’ to find this one, and in the dark the thought of wild camping was even worse to me than our present situation, however terrifying I’d built it up to be. As far as I was concerned, ‘wild campers’ would be the ideal targets for these passport-stealing, tourist-murdering desperados.
Nearing the relative safety of our van once more, imperceptibly at first, a familiar sound began to drift across the warm Spanish twilight: a soft and familiar voice was singing to reassure me.
“No woman, no cry!”
“Ev’rything’s gonna be alright…”
It was a rare thing to hear music on the Costas which neither contained the manic beat of flamenco nor the mind-numbing thud of disco. Almost miraculous as far as I was concerned.
Seeking out the source of this sweet sound, we rounded a corner and there he was chilling out in the doorway of a small wooden chalet. Not the late Bob Marley himself of course, although we could see his iconic image on a poster inside, but our young passport-obsessed visitor. If this had been a cartoon, the bubble over our heads would have contained a large light bulb. He was in charge of the camp during the low season and not the workman’s mysterious girlfriend - as far as we knew.
“I should ditch that useless bloody dictionary,” was one of my first thoughts on the matter.
Both of us waved casually, calling out “¡Hola!” with as much nonchalance as we could muster. I felt really bad about thinking him to be some kind of criminal. He seemed pleased to have some company and it didn’t take long to discover that his first language was French, the only language I don’t feel too much of a fool using, apart of course from English. Though sometimes even that is in doubt. All the previous confusion could now be sorted out.
“We thought you wanted to stay here,” I admitted, “you were asking about passports!”
He laughed heartily at the misunderstanding.
We apologised profusely and arranged to pay at the office the following day.
“Oh and of course we’ll bring our passports!”
“Bob Marley’s great,” I enthused nodding my head towards the poster. That night I thought he was greater than ever.
To say I was walking on air with relief as we said our Bonsoirs would be an understatement, but all this worry only served to reinforce the fact that I was definitely not cut out for our modest adventure. To have a good imagination is fine when you want to write a novel, but I was beginning to think that without mine I’d have a much better time.
During our travels, I formulated this little piece of useless philosophy: Brits travelling around Europe in Springtime are at a big disadvantage. Experience tells us that a few days of sunshine in April could be the only decent spell of weather until September, so as soon as we lose that extra hour heralding lighter evenings, all sense of decency is relinquished. Sane individuals begin appearing in public wearing shorts and sandals despite the North wind, and our beaches are littered with optimistically goose-pimpled sun-worshippers.
Those living in more felicitous climates, such as the Spanish and Italians, refuse to concede that summer has arrived until the local temperature is at least into the high 80s.
A scene on the local bus in the Spanish city of Segovia during early June was enough to confirm this theory. I noticed that fellow passengers, mainly school children and ancient ladies, were all bundled up in sweaters and winter coats. I felt daringly under-dressed in my flimsy summer dress and sandals. As a further precaution to catching a chill, the schoolgirls also wore thick woolly tights. Just looking at them made me feel like fainting.
While we were in Italy, the locals didn’t deem it worth opening their outdoor swimming pools until halfway through July. By this time, we thought the risk of hypothermia might be reduced ever so slightly by temperatures well into the upper 70s Fahrenheit, but we were alone in this. Once the thermometer reached 90 degrees though, they seemed to decide that yes, it might be possible to leave the Versace overcoats at home, and flocked like lemmings to the nearest lido. Here they threw caution to the wind along with most of their clothes, and proceeded to fry themselves on sun-beds. Much better to risk a melanoma than a chill, surely. In England it would only take a couple of days of temperatures above average to find the tabloids plastered with “Phwoar, what a scorcher!” type headlines, accompanied by the usual tacky photo’s of bikini-clad young women cavorting in Hyde Park.
But I suppose those Italians are at least sure that once summer starts, they will actually get one.
These conflicting ideas of what constitutes a hot day led to disappointment on so many occasions. After being cooped up for miles in the un-airconditioned van, often only the thought of plunging into the pool at the next campsite kept the spirits up and stopped us from disintegrating into a bad-tempered, frazzled heap. It was slightly annoying therefore to find the advertised pool empty. Empty that is apart from a Coke can and the inevitable puddle of what you can only hope is merely dirty yellow rainwater rather than something even less desirable.
There was occasionally a dubious advantage in being too early for our ‘summer’ pursuits. When we were well in advance of what the Southern Europeans deem to be the holiday season, actually as late as the end of May, we stayed for free on several unmanned and deserted French ‘municipal’ sites. Unfortunately the cheapness of our stay on these places was far outweighed by my feeling that as the sole occupants, we were vulnerable to all those nasty murderers and robbers taking refuge in the equally deserted-looking local village.
In the end, it made no difference to me that we’d paid for our night on the site in lovely Puçol. Feeling safe anywhere without bricks and mortar is about as unlikely for me as… well the UK winning the Eurovision Song Contest again.
Below: Attractively-scaffolded Puzol