I made my way to the airport in an almost fugue state. A 6.20am flight meant arrival at the airport at 4.30am – not the time of day that I want to live, laugh or love. After I made my way through the security screening I realised that I had lost my ring – between the metal detector / X-ray machine and the point when I was on my way to the gate. My father’s wedding ring had slipped off my little finger. Perhaps it was when I removed my belt and jacket, or took the liquids and laptop from my bag for screening. This was unfortunate. I have worn the ring intermittently over the past twenty years. I received it after my father died in January 2003, while I was on holiday in Melbourne. Having noticed that the ring was slipping off my finger more easily in recent months I had made a vague commitment to being more careful with it. Fully awake now I went back to the screening area. The guards re-Xrayed my bags and in an apologetic but firm manner told me that they could do no more, and gave me a card to report it to Lost and Found, who updated their website with missing items daily. I was peeved. I am not somebody who is sentimental over physical things, so I wouldn’t be weeping into my pillows over the missing ring. Save for the ring though, and a brown leather box, these were the only items I possessed that belonged to my father.
There was no point in stressing. It had happened, it couldn’t be undone, and I’d have to get on with my trip (after an email to Lost and Found). My first ever journey to the cradle of western civilisation – Athens. I’d been to Greece’s second city Thessaloniki a few times previously with work, and to the beautiful island of Mykonos, but this would be my first trip to Athens. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew there would be magnificent, ancient ruins for sure, but had been told by various people – Greeks included – to be careful, as it was a fairly grungy city where petty crime was sometimes a feature.
Travelling on Friday 3rd March, four days earlier Greece had experienced its worst ever train disaster when a packed, passenger train travelling at full speed from Athens to Thessaloniki had a head on collision with a freight train coming in the opposite direction. Fifty seven people (at the most recent count) had been killed. Greece was a county in mourning, while also seeking answers from the government who had privatised the rail network without securing the rail infrastructure’s safety.
The flight to Tenerife was chaotic. It was a sold out flight, and the passengers were a youthful demographic. I am not saying they were all feral but there was a sizable number who seem to have been dragged up. After a spot of turbulence I decided to avail of the facilities. The agitated, young man in front of me in the queue starting banging the toilet door shouting ‘Will you hurry up, I’m dying for a slash!’. I recoiled in horror. The occupant was a companion of his and the expletive laden response burned my ears. Everybody seemed to order multiple mini bottles of hard liquor for the flight. Being far classier, I demurely sipped my bottle of flat warm Diet Coke, while reading ‘Enduring Love’ by Ian McEwan. I ordered pasta for lunch estimating a twenty minutes delivery time. I took my insulin injection at what I thought was a reasonable time before food would arrive. One hour later there was no sign of it, and the food trolley was still far away. I was starting to feel poorly so I invoked the help of the lovely Clondalkin girls beside me who fed me a Kit Kat. ‘Are you alright love? My sister’s s diabetic. It’s a SCOORGE.’
My friends collected me in the rental car and we made our way to the villa in Adeje on the south west of the island, which was to be our home for the next five nights. Four days before our arrival I had received an email from booking.com informing me that due to an ‘electrical fault’ at the property our reservation had been cancelled. No alternative was offered – leaving us without a place to stay mere days before departure. With four of us in the group I was stressed – booking rooms had been my job. Thankfully AirBNB offered a few alternatives. Several were managed by a character named Oksana however – the same charlatan who had cancelled our booking.com reservation. Avoiding all properties managed by her, I located a beautiful house with a pool, only marginally more expensive than the previous place. That evening we dined on steak – mine as always, rare – and met a Scottish couple. They had been a couple for a few years – she’d been widowed three years earlier and this was her first subsequent relatrionship. We consumed a few beverages with them.
Bucharest was a city about which I knew little. I knew that the fictional character of Count Dracula hailed from Transylvania in the north of Romania. The city of Sibiu was a beautiful location when I visited the week before Christmas in 2021. The Romanian capital city was a mystery to me. I’d heard grim murmurings about how the city was polluted and crime-ridden. However when Ryanair had a flash sale last month I noticed that a return flight to Bucharest would cost 60eur for a four night stay in January. I purchased my ticket, invited my friend and departed last Friday morning. A dive into the unknown.
From Dublin the flight takes 3.5 hours. We landed in Otopeni Airport (located twenty kilometres north of the city) at 5pm. It was already dark. Purchasing a seven day public transport pass we took the number 783 bus to the Old Town Centre – called Lipscani. The rain was heavy but the forecast for the coming days was encouraging. Upon arrival we encountered a friendly gentleman who attempted to assist us in entering my friend’s apartment (we were staying a five minute walk from each other). His motives were mercenary, his assistance was unnecessary but he wasn’t threatening. That evening we dined in the pub downstairs from my flat before heading to a bar called the Storage Room for a few sociables. It was quite plush in its décor. What was that smell though? Indoors? It was very retro. There were ashtrays on every table and people were happily puffing on cigarettes and shisha pipes. Smoking is banned in bars in Romania – but I guess this venue never got the email.
The 18.50 train left Colbert Station in Limerick on time yesterday evening – the coldest night of the year. I ate my ham, cheese and tomato sandwich contentedly. I would be changing to the Cork train in the armpit of Ireland – Limerick Junction – from whence I would be transported to Dublin Heuston. Estimated time of arrival 21.05. I was planning an early night in preparation for the big Christnas dinner at work the following day (my company has a tradition of laying on a full Christmas spread for all employees in the staff canteen about a week before Christmas). The Cork to Dublin train was waiting for me at Limerick Junction. Try as I might I will never love Limerick Junction – bleak and desolate it is the place that dreams go to die. As such it has a micro-climate – it is always cold and wet, with a biting wind at the Junction. For once the rest of the country was in perfect synchronicity with that godforsaken place.
I shivered in relief as we pulled out of the Junction. Onwards to Dublin. Through Thurles, Templemore and Port Laoise – our final stop of the night before reaching Dublin Heuston. Just outside Portarlington in County Laois the train stopped. This was no cause for alarm. Irish Rail has issues with trains passing each other in opposite directions, at the same time. It is quite routine for a train to stop, while waiting for a train to pass, before continuing. It was 20.35. At 21.00 it was getting annoying. Some information would be appreciated. Finally the train host announced over the intercom that there was engine trouble but that a tow train was on its way from Heuston which would pull us into Dublin. It would arrive ‘shortly’. Apologies for any inconvenience were issued. At 21.30 the same announcement was made. And again at 22.00. There was never an estimate offered as to when we would get moving.
My first visit to Madrid was in 2007. The memories are hazy, but there was a sense that it was a city that I would revisit one day. It was too vast a place to absorb in a solitary trip. I felt joy when Aer Lingus had a sale in September – a return journey cost a hundred euros. As I was still on my post pandemic travel binge, I booked my flight and accommodation. I would be making my triumphant return to the capital of Spain between the 9th and 13th December.
Along the way I acquired some travel companions. I am comfortable as a solitary traveller but am amenable to some company on the way. I will book my trips in the expectation that I will be a sole wanderer and if I acquire some companions en route then this is a bonus. In the end it was a group of four – two who were travelling on Ryanair at 9.30am and two (myself included) who were taking Aer Lingus flight EI0594 at 17.30 that evening.
In the days pre departure, the forecast from Madrid looked ominous – it was an unseasonably wet December in Spain- with persistent rain forecast for the duration of our stay. The temperatures were mild, but the rain promised to be constant. So much so that a few days before take-off our travel numbers were reduced to three. Disappointing but it was still going to be exciting. Among us we have agreed that the Saturday would be spent exploring the ancient city of Toledo. Located about an hour by train from Madrid, this was a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most historically significant towns in Spain. I had almost visited back in 2007, but the shenanigans the night before rendered me unfit for purpose on the day of travel. It was finally time to rectify this. A return visit to the Prado Museum was also on the cards. This was a ‘must see’ for both my travel companions and as such I was willing to participate.
There was an air traffic controllers’ strike in France on the Friday I travelled. My airline informed me that unless I had received an email telling me that my flight was cancelled, then it was proceeding as scheduled. This was a relief. This was my first trip to Paris in approximately a decade, and it would also be my first foreign trip from my new local airport – Shannon, in County Clare. Paris is a city that I have visited several times over the years, but never really as a tourist. My trips tended to be overnight trips on the high-speed train from Amsterdam for nights out. This time I was going to explore it properly. My co-conspirator for this journey was my friend from England (via Limerick) who’d be arriving on the Eurostar from London.
The flight was at 19.25. My bus to Shannon Airport was meant to be at 17.24 from Limerick Station, with arrival at the airport at 17.53. The bus arrived in Limerick Station at a leisurely 17.45 and reached airport at 18.15. At security check-in I was told the Vueling boarding pass on my phone wasn’t valid. Back to check in desk I trotted, got new pass and back through security. I went to the lav, bought a Coke, and strolled to the departure gate. Gadzooks. Where was my bag? It certainly wasn’t with me. The clock now read 18.55. Back to the toilet I went – no bag there. Back to security. No bag. The kindly airport policeman checked cameras. ‘You brought it through security’ he informed me. That was all very well I thought to myself, but where was it now. I had my insulin packed in that bag.
The announcement over the intercom ominously declared ‘Flight to Paris closing’.
Thousands of years ago (meaning February 2020) before the hated Plague had restricted our lives so drastically, I visited Rome for the first time. While I was there, I took the FrecciaRossa hi-speed train service to Naples so I could travel to the outer edges of that city to see the archaeological site of Pompeii. This had been a dream of mine since the age of nine years old when I was taught about it in school. It fascinated me – the idea that a town was frozen in time after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius two thousand years ago. It exceeded my expectations. However, my regret was that it was a day trip – there was so much to see and do in Rome that I didn’t have time to explore the rest of Italy’s third largest city Naples. When my friend suggested an early autumn jaunt back to Naples, I was all over the idea like eczema. Flights were booked, accommodation sorted and on the 7th of October we travelled from Limerick to Dublin to begin our journey.
I felt very responsible. This being my twenty second foreign trip since the start of the pandemic meant that international travel was quite routine for me. My friend hadn’t travelled abroad since late 2019 (when we visited Ukraine) so was understandably nervous. I tried to place myself in her shoes. We’d work it out.
As I sat in Dublin Airport waiting to board my plane to Bergamo, I had a thought. If I’d checked travel dates when booking my foreign trips six months earlier, I wouldn’t have travelled to Naples one weekend, returned home, only to go back to southern Italy the following weekend. I’d have stayed in Italy. Sadly, this was only a thought, so there I was again – sitting in Departures, waiting to board a Ryanair flight.
Upon arrival in Bergamo I realised why my hotel was so cheap – it was out in the countryside – and as my flight landed at 10.30pm I had to take a taxi there – there being no public transport at that hour. The driver was a sleazy grifter. He didn’t look like one, but he changed forty euros for a five-kilometre trip. In these situations, it’s not worth arguing. I paid the money and swore not to take another taxi this holiday. Arising at 7.30 I started planning my return journey to Bergamo Airport for my 11.50am flight. Sipping a strong coffee, an awkward fact presented itself. It would be quicker to walk from my rural B&B than to take a bus. Also 40 euro cheaper than Uber was telling me the 5km journey would cost. It seems like I had misjudged by driver from the night before. This is after all the most expensive part of Italy. The early morning stroll to the airport was scenic and rustic until I reached the motorway. I could see the airport in the distance, but how to safely traverse six lanes of traffic. A kindly Italian farmer pointed me in the direction of an underpass (he saw me looking bewildered from his tractor). Onwards to Lecce.
Over the weekend I travelled to the West of Ireland for a cabaret show. On Friday afternoon I took the tram out to the Red Cow. The Red Cow is on the outskirts of Dublin and marks the point where country people know they have arrived in the Big Smoke. I was being collected there from where we would drive to our ultimate destination – Galway city. The tram journey was surreal – firstly a very polite sixteen year old offered me his seat. I know that my hair is white, but surely I retain some semblance of youthful effervescence, remaining as I am, in my forties. A few stops further a woman boarded with nine children. All were hers it would appear. Some of the older children were carrying cooked chickens in brown paper bags. The chicken grease leaked all over the floor. I offered her a plastic Marks and Spencer bag which she gratefully accepted. When the ticket inspectors boarded the tram, it was discovered that none of the party of ten had a valid ticket. I have no idea what happened, as the next stop was the Red Cow where I disembarked.
We weren’t travelling to Galway that night. We were spending it in the midlands just outside Athlone – a town on the River Shannon that I had heretofore never visited. We had a drink in Sean’s Bar overlooking the river. This is one of the many bars in the land that claims to be the nation’s oldest. I was impressed by the sight of Linda Gray and Larry Hagman (Sue-Ellen and JR Ewing) in a photograph taken of them sometime in the 1980s, standing outside the bar. We each gave our impression of a drunken Sue-Ellen. Our AirBnB was located on the Roscommon side of the town, and was a very lovely old farmer’s cottage. The following morning I opened my curtains to the sight of a grey horse who had wandered into the garden overnight. The cottage owner knew who owned the beast so we bid farewell to our breakfast companion when his owner collected him.
As the years go by, realisation is dawning on me that Spain is one of my favourite countries in the world to visit. From the buzz of Madrid to the barrios of Barcelona; to the beauty of Granada; the seaside of Malaga and the Yumbo Centre of Maspalomas, it is a country of vast variety and culture; incredible food and scenery and with lovely people. And it’s hot. The proviso I would apply to my love of Spain is that I cannot visit between the months of June to September, not being built to tolerate such intense heat. Last weekend for the 6th time in three years I boarded a plane for Espana. My destination was the Spanish Atlantic – the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao in the Basque Country – a region located in the western Pyrenees, straddling the border between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Euskal Herria is the Basque name for the area.
It’s an area I have long known about, but never visited. Upon moving to Amsterdam in the year 2000 I was friends with a woman from the area who described a region of enormous beauty. Aer Lingus offers direct flight to the area’s capital Bilbao. The time to visit was finally here.