The Loneliness of the Short Distance Skier.

Are you someone who is comfortable to travel alone? Are you confident in crossing borders, boarding planes, boats or trains, or solo driving? Are you happy eating meals alone at a table in a restaurant, nobody to share your day’s experiences or make plans with? Many people are fine with single holidays. There can be benefits. You can please yourself, eat where you want, stay or go, choose to have company or not. But it takes nerve to dine alone, to travel with an empty seat next to you, to explain to a tour guide that you are not with anyone else.

During the 90s I took two lone holidays, both in the same year. The first was an experiment, prompted by a big change in my life and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious after booking it. In fact, as the departure day approached I became increasingly stressed at the idea, waking at night at the thought that I’d be alone, that I would be an object of pity or derision.

My decision to try skiing turned out to be a sensible one. As I dithered and wondered whether to cancel the trip, a friend convinced me to view it as if I were on a course and since I was used to undertaking training for work this idea gave me more confidence. Skiing has never been a budget holiday option, but this was 1996 and I’d found a week’s trip to Borovets in Bulgaria, including flights, hotel, lift passes, ski hire, boot hire and tuition, for the princely sum of £500. I’d also borrowed a ski suit and was good to go.

You have to remember, however, that this was Bulgaria. Seasoned skiers would baulk at the idea of Bulgarian slopes, which are considered ‘easy’. Easy was fine for me; the easier the better!

The fact that I don’t recall the flight out indicates that it was no problem. I arrived to the airport at Sofia and found the ‘courier’ waiting at the barrier. Then I got my first experience of singleton stigma.

‘Which party are you with?’ asked the young man.

‘I’m not with a party’, I replied. This confused him. It was several minutes before he gave up the question and indicated the coach I was to board. I slunk to the back of the bus and sank down into the seat, where I stared out of the window until we arrived at the hotel.

I checked in and found my room, after which I was to get a second wave of humiliation in the restaurant. Armed with a book, I made my way to a table laid for four. It took some time for a waiter to approach, presumably due to my solitude. The tables around me began to fill up with chattering ‘parties’ until the only remaining spare seats were at my table. A couple entered the room and surveyed the scene, in which there were no remaining empty tables, then slowly made their way to mine-and sat down. I thanked them for sitting at my table.

Next week: The transformative power of shared activity…

The Rain in Spain

Comillas is a small, pretty town, a stone’s throw from the Northern Spanish coast and home to architect Antonio Gaudi’s ‘El Capricho’, a typically wacky house commissioned by a wealthy lawyer. It is one of Gaudi’s first works and one of only three buildings of his outside Catalonia.

On Good Friday of Semana Santa, Comillas is seething with day trippers and we are glad to have caught the bus here from our site. We join the queue for El Capricho and once we’ve bought tickets we have to run the gauntlet of hordes of visitors and guided tours throughout the rooms and on the balconies. But it is worth it. The villa is a joyous, colourful creation bedecked in sunflower glazed and vibrant green tiles, odd terraces and tiny windows giving on to views of the town’s terracotta roofs or of the surrounding parkland.

The rooms are beautiful, restful spaces with examples of quirky furniture and clever technology like slatted blinds that roll up sideways to open. This would be a wonderful home-and I hope it was enjoyed by the inhabitants!

Comillas is choc-a-bloc with market stalls, the cafes and restaurants full to bursting. We content ourselves with an ice cream in the square while we watch the stallholders pack up-then head to our bus stop for the ride back.

Next day we set off to Cudillero, an authentic fishing village akin to a Cornish coastal settlement. There is enough time for a walk down into the town, although it is a steep and treacherous one, the pavement horribly narrow and winding. En route the street is lined with buildings in various stages of decline and later exploration reveals a town of quaint charm but shocking decadence. Here and there are pockets of redevelopment-tricky given that the sides of the ravine are impossibly steep and homes are accessed by a tracery of stone steps, slopes and pathways in a higgledy-piggledy web.

Down at sea level the street is lined with bars and fish restaurants, everyone drinking until about 8.00pm, [by which time we are famished] and at last there are a few diners and we can sit down to peruse the menu. We choose a prawn salad and a seared octopus dish to share and a hake dish each. It is all delicious.

After lunch the next day we find an off-road footpath leading down to the town. We walk down-and up-and down-and up, by which time my knees are wobbly as jelly from steps and slopes.

Time to leave Cudillero. We make for Louro, just beyond Muras and rain sets in with a vengeance. The small town is nondescript but has a good beach along an attractive bay. It rains in a relentless deluge so that by next morning we feel it necessary to hunker down and ride it out.

Then we head off to Santiago de Compostelo, renowned for its rainfall, justified on this occasion as it rains en route, rains when we arrive, rains throughout the visit and continues to rain as we leave. But that, reader is another story…

Spanish Nights and Gourmet Delights

We are sitting outside at a restaurant table in Caceres, central Spain. It is 9.30pm. The balmy evening sky is a clear cobalt blue and I pause in my perusal of the incomprehensible menu to zoom my camera lens up to the summit of a church steeple where two storks have mounted guard over their mountainous nest. It is a pleasing shot-mostly silhouette. At any rate-I am pleased.

Meandering up from Portugal through central Spain has become an unexpected pleasure and explains why this kind of travel is such a joy. You happen across places you’ve barely, or never heard of and yet they may be tourist magnets [underlining your ignorance] or simply unpretentious, lovely and little known.

Caceres is evidently well known, judging by the thronging masses clogging up the centre on this Tuesday evening, although it is Holy Week-only the most important week of the world in the entire Christian world, which explains the crowds waiting outside the cathedral, lining the roads and blocking our access to any likely-looking restaurants. From the grand cathedral doors some elaborately got-up figures have emerged. They are dressed in white habits with purple capes and some sport alarming pointy headgear a la Klu-Klux-Klan. One is trudging along with a black timber cross slung over his shoulder, for all the world as if he is off to complete some roofing work.

We perform some lengthy manoeuvres in order to access the square offering up most of the restaurants which takes up enough time for Husband to become vociferously grumpy, such are his hunger pangs. He has expressed a desire for steak and nothing else will do.

Having accomplished the mission and found a table by virtue of being only two rather than a family of eight we enter a period of confusion involving several waiters until someone is found who can explain the list of delights. The attention of a Spanish diner at the neighbouring table is captured. My schoolgirl Spanish fails beyond ‘carne’. Earlier I’d thought myself accomplished when asking ‘Hay aseos aqui?’ in the tourist office but my understanding of the rapid stream that issued as reply let me down. Fortunately the toilets were next door.

We finish our starters-enormous plates of salad-and some small plates are brought, plus steak knives-we are evidently to get a shared dish. A large area of table is cleared. A waiter emerges bearing aloft a platter the size of a tray which spits and sizzles like a cornered alley cat then lowers into the cleared space something that may be the pieces of half a cow. Full of salad we stare speechless at the mountain of sputtering ribs before dissolving into semi-hysterical laughter, which is vastly entertaining for the neighbouring Spaniard.

We do our best, struggling through as much as we can before admitting defeat. Would we like desert? Er…

When I ask Husband why they are taking so long with the bill he tells me they are in the kitchen chewing on the returned ribs. He mimes this, using his hands, prompting a loud explosion of laughter from me and causing the Spaniard’s face to crease into mirth despite having no knowledge of the cause. I mop my tears with the napkin, we pay up and leave, only to discover we’ve missed the last bus back. Ho hum.