Published on August 21st, 2013 | by Ann Rickard0
Many years ago when we started travelling in Europe by hire car, we were…to put it honestly… terrified. The right-hand side of the road, the fast drivers, the automatic toll booths on the highways, the narrow roads inside the old cities – they all conspired to flood us with fear and to intimidate us to a stage where we were happy to leave the car in a difficult-to-flnd parking space and take public transport. But not now, now that we are flve times experienced in driving in Europe. Not now that we drive like the locals …well, almost.
ln the world-heritage listed walled-city of Toledo (a place famous for its steel sword making) on a busy Sunday, we almost gave in to old fears as we searched for a frustrating two hours for our hotel in a jumble of evocgfue streers, some of them so narrow our side mirrors scraped the walls on both sides.
We had made good driving time during the 70 kilometre drive from Madrid and arrived on the outskirts of Toledo congratulating ourselves on our new driving skills. Foolish of course.
Once we drove through Toledo’s handsome city walls into the congestion of tight one-way streets, our smugness quickly evaporated. Romantic and redolent with history these old walled towns might be, but they are an enormous challenge if you are driving anything bigger than a matchbox car. How could we possibly find our hotel that could well be nothing more than a small door in the wall in any one of one of these impossibly narrow streets?
Every one of the winding streets was filled with people and sword souvenir shops. Each street led to tiny church-filled squares overflowing with parked cars and tourists. How could we traverse such tight spaces without knocking over post-card stands, sword displays, or crushing the legs of tourists? How could we possibly make a turn when cars and congregating old men with walking-sticks jammed every corner? Yet, somehow we did. Where once we would have stopped the car and wept without shame, now our European driving experience saw us through impossibly tight situations.
Around and around we went this afternoon, often shooting unexpeciedly out of the old city and into new part of town. Back in we had to go. Our hotel was in the middle of the old town, next to the cathedral, the second biggest and most extravagant cathedral in Spain and there were signs a plenty leading to the cathedral. However, a cathedral of such size and magnificence has many sides, various entries, a variety of wings.
“ls the hotel supposed to be by the south wing because I think we just passed that ’10 minutes ago?” one of us said. “No, idea,” was the reply. “Let’s do another circuit.” So off we went again, bravely back into the constricted streets. There were fpur.of us in the car. One got out, deciding it might be easier to find the hotel on foot while the rest of us did another circuit or three and looked out for him, hopefully jubilantly waving his hotel discoveryto us from the nearest street corner.
Adding to the congestion in the narrow streets, was the occasional considerate man who decides to park his car on the side of the street, put his hazard lights on and disappear into a shop, for. . ..who knows?This man just abandons his car and will come back if and when he feels like it. We sat behind one such parked car, its hazard lights blinking menily, for many bewildering minutes. There was no way forward and absolutely no way back. These were all one way streets and reversing out of the question, especially when a line up of cars forms behind you.
“We could be here until nextweek,” we said, just before a cacophony of blaring horns began behind us. We were as stuck as a sailing ship in a bottle. “Surely, they don’t think we could pass this parked car,” we said, and in answer, more horns blasted us. “They do. Let’s give it a go.” And so one of us got out and with much arm signalling, wild gesturing and a tremendous amount of terror, the impossible happened. We actually squeezed through. This little triumph gave us courage and filled us with false bravery. ln the next street we stopped, put our own hazard lights on and one of us rushed into a shop for directions. Cars squeezed past us, the shopkeeper came out and in the most rapid of speedy Spanish, gave us instructions that indicated how close we Were to our hotel. But unfortunately we were in a one way street. We must leave the walled city and return up the right street running parallel. “Come in the car with us, and show us,” I said. “l’ll mind your shop while you do.” He understood, but declined.
It was a good half hour, two more trips in and out of the walled city, and another dozen tight corners before we found our man left on foot again -and he still hadn’t discovered the hotel. So, four of us back in the car, stopping constantly, asking, seeking, scraping our way down roads we had traversed four times already, recognising shops, cafes, people. . . but making progress by the minute. Help was given at every shop, on every corner – and given cheerfully even if it was in machine-gun bullet Spanish delivery.
We eventually made it … and the surprise? We had our insanity intact. lt made the sanctuary of our hotel all the more appreciated. And on this sunny Sunday in Spain in the romantic walled city of Toledo, we even found a car space right outside out hotel. “Leave the car there for the night,” we said, despite the menacing tow-away sign above. “We’re not getiing back in it again to search for garage space. lt’s Sunday, there are not going to tow us away today.” And they didn’t.