Saturday, July 10, 2010

Stumbling Into Paradise

Trying to recall a 1970 European trip is somewhat of a challenge. I have been emailing Paul, my friend and traveling companion from that trip, attempting to get the facts straight. Some things get straightened out and many don’t. Memory seems to be a creative process anyway.
Paul is a saver of things, all kinds of things. He still has the Steak & Shake salt shakers from when we were teens cruisin’ around looking for action and chicks, which, by the way, we rarely found. I told him I wanted to write about what to me was the most memorable place from our summer in Europe, Port Bou, Spain. I couldn’t remember where we had stayed, so I fired off an email and he sent back an electronic copy of the Hotel Francia brochure and a copy of the actual receipt from our stay there. What more could a researching blog writer ask for?
To understand why Port Bou was so wonderful, I need to give a little background. When we stumbled off the train into that small border town by the bay, we were probably about a month or more into our trip. We definitely had had many wonderful moments up until this time, but there was a  frenzied, pushing ahead and seeking quality about our travels and this lifted after we reached Port Bou. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as being lost in the desert and finally stumbling upon an oasis, but that’s the quality I’m talking about.
Belgium We landed in London, spent a few days, then crossed the English Channel by ferry to Calais, France. We had some idea of the places we wanted to visit, but were dedicated to keeping a certain spontaneity to our travels. We wanted to hold off as long as possible activating our three month Eurail passes. I’m not sure how we got to Belgium but it was there that we decided to try hitchhiking. We spent the better part of a day standing by the side of the road taking turns putting our thumbs out. Other young travelers were attempting to hitch rides as well. Not one vehicle stopped.  Defeated we walked back to town, activated our Eurail passes and hopped a train heading for Amsterdam.
Amsterdam was a beautiful place with old buildings and canals, but for Paul and me, it just wasn’t our scene. It was crawling with young people from all over; most were ecstatic about the abundance of marijuana and hashish.  As a Vietnam Veteran I didn’t feel comfortable  around  groups of people and once it was known I was an ex-soldier, I often didn’t feel  welcomed anyway.  At that time,  Europeans associated Americans with the war.  More than one  young American traveler talked about putting the Canadian flag on their back packs just to reduce the hassles.  In general, however, the locals were gracious to Paul and me. 
We walked around Amsterdam looking at the canals and beautiful buildings, and wandered into the red light district where prostitutes sat in picture windows hiding their boredom by trying to look seductive. We weren’t tempted. I felt sad for the young women who were caught in this lifestyle.
And then an obnoxious guy named Cliff took a liking to us. He decided he wanted us to become a threesome. We couldn’t get rid of  the guy. He was traveling alone, and we were hesitant to hurt his feelings. We felt sorry for him and probably even identified with him a little as well. Sorry or not, we decided he wasn’t our responsibility and wasn’t going to ruin our trip, so one of us had to step up to the plate and confront him. I don’t know whether we flipped a coin or what, but I ended up doing the deed. Cliff got angry and hurt, as expected, but we were glad to be rid of him and the guilt passed quickly. The weather in northern Europe had been overcast and cool much of the time which helped us make our next big decision which was to head straight south for the sunny, warm beaches of the Mediterranean.
We rode the train nonstop to Paris, and only spent one night there. We knew we would be returning at the end of our trip, and besides, we were pushing ahead to the beaches and the bikini clad babes  we knew were on them. The French trains were fast, smooth and comfortable. We were making excellent time, but then we crossed over into Spain, switched to a Spanish train and everything slowed to an excruciating pace. The Spanish trains were not only slow, but PB asleep on train were noisy and uncomfortable. We had planned to go all the way to Portugal, but only made it as far as Alicante, a sea side town about halfway between the French and Portuguese border. We got stuck in Barcelona on the way, spending one night shivering on a park bench. There were absolutely no available accommodations.
Not wanting to extend our time  traveling on  Spanish trains, we turned around and began heading back up the coast. Many of our fellow travelers were going north to Pamplona and the running of the bulls. We could imagine ourselves being trampled. Besides we thought we needed to get out of Spain. We were still in the pushing ahead mode and searching for who knows what. We headed back toward France along the Port Bou, Spainsea coast the train slowly crawling along. When we got to the border, bone weary from  travel, we hefted our back packs, exited the train and wandered down into the Spanish border town of Port Bou.
We checked into the Hotel Francia. It was a totally spontaneous decision, but immediately we knew this place would be special. We had stumbled into our oasis. In the front part of the hotel was an open dining area where guests were served two full meals a day, included in the price. The receipt Paul sent me shows the total cost for our 3 day stay being 16.60 piastas. I think at the time we figured this was about $2.50 a night. I Hotel Francia Port Bou don’t remember what we ate exactly, but it was well prepared and there was plenty of it. And the wine bottle kept being replaced throughout each meal. Our room was large with big windows exposing plants that grew all around. After that first evening meal, we walked down to the bay and sat for awhile gazing out to sea. It felt like we had temporarily left the more frenzied travel mode and were experiencing a vacation within a vacation.
Located in a Spanish town on the border of France, the hotel specifically tried to attract and cater to French travelers. The signs were in French first, then English and then Spanish. Right around the corner from the hotel was a French ice cream cart. We became regular customers, I remember specifically being fond of the glace’ au chocolat.
In the morning we were awakened by the sound of canaries. The locals placed cages out on their patios early in the mornings. The birds seemed to be talking to each other and welcoming the new day. There wasn’t much to do in Port Bou, but after our previous time of dashing about, we allowed ourselves to be seduced into the state of just being. We hiked  the surrounding hills, sat in the hotel reading or hung out at one of the local cafés. On our final evening at dinner, we were joined by two attractive French girls. Neither of them spoke much English and as they struggled to communicate with us, Paul and I were smitten. I knew a little French and we spent the evening eating slowly, sipping wine, laughing and flirting until it was time to turn in--very European. We all knew this one evening in the café courtyard would be the extent of the relationship. In the morning they were headed to Madrid and we were taking off for Nice and the French Riviera, so we savored our evening together.
As Paul and I  continued our travels around Europe, we hoped we would run into them again, but we didn’t. We did, however, run into Cliff again in Rome. 

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