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Plans: Spain 2014

By our standards it's been an awfully long time since we've been on holiday. The previous one was last year, when we popped along to Oslo in time to see in the new year. Six months have passed since then and so we're looking at a very different holiday, with no snow in sight. We'll be spending a fortnight in sunny Spain.

Aside from a weekend break in Barcelona a couple of years ago, Clare has never been to Spain. (Our friends in Catalonia would point out that she still has never been to Spain!) I've been a few times on family holidays when I was a child and visited for a few days with some friends shortly after we entered the year 2000, but I really haven't done our style of holiday here.

I'll be on language duty for this one. I've never formally learned Spanish but I did dip my toes into it around 2001 after I'd decided I quite liked languages, having acquired functional fluency in French and done a 20-hour course on Italian at university. I didn't find any difficulties with the language, seeing as it belongs to the same language family as French and Italian and so there aren't really any new concepts to befuddle me, but it's not one that I like, and so I didn't do anything other than read books on the grammar and practise conjugating verbs. When Clare and I visited Barcelona it was about ten years since I'd given a half-thought to learning it, but we didn't experience any problems. We even got special treatment from a pharmacist, who offered me the suncream from behind the counter that only the locals get (which was half the price of all the others that were on display) and then even knocked me a bonus 20% off, all because I was making the effort to speak her language. Multilingualism pays!

Since Clare's been doing such a good job reading novels in Croatian I decided to warm up by following suit and buying some books in Spanish. I chose a couple of translations of books that I already knew; that's a sensible approach because it's never fun slogging through a book when you're not enjoying it, plus I had the original to bail me out in the event that I really couldn't do it. The start wasn't much fun at all because I made a point of stopping every time I didn't know a word to look it up. Ouch. One page was taking ten or fifteen minutes to read, and this book had 500 of them. I soon gave up on that, highlighting the words I didn't know and then looking them up once I'd reached the end of the chapter. Before too long I'd resorted to highlighting the words and only looking them up if they kept on reappearing or seemed to be integral to the plot. Within a few days I was reading at more or less the speed I do in English, French or Esperanto, so that was a good sign. I'm certainly not conversational in Spanish, but my passive knowledge is reasonable enough.

Somebody who has no knowledge of Spanish is Clare. She really doesn't get along with Romance languages at all. Unfortunately for us, she ended up having to have a crash course. The UK is currently undergoing a crisis with issuing passports. Just today the Chief Executive of the Passport Office, Paul Pugh, has had to apologise to the Home Affairs Select Committee because it's emerged that a surge in applications has left a backlog of nearly half a million passports to be issued, and some people have missed their holidays. I was nearly one of them.

My passport was due to expire in December, but since we have a holiday booked for October and often like to take a trip away over Christmas, I thought I'd play it safe and get it updated earlier. I left what I thought was good time, eleven weeks prior to our trip to Spain. With two weeks to go I still hadn't received it, so gave them a call. Because I didn't have the application number the young lady who answered the phone was unable to tell me anything. That was a cause of concern because I've omitted the missing part of the story: I originally heard back from the Passport Office after about a fortnight because the photo booth that I used hadn't produced a photo that was appropriately clear. At the time I thought it looked grainy, but since photos never look clear in passports and it came out of a proper machine, I sent it off anyway. When it was rejected, I used another machine and sent off the photos. And that was my cause for concern when time was running out. Without the application number, the assistant was unable to confirm for me that my replacement photos hadn't been lost in the mail! I gave her my personal details and she sent a message to another department explaining my situation and asking them to provide her with the application number, so that she could investigate further. I had two working days to wait, which meant a long weekend, since I phoned on a Thursday.

Poor Clare was resigned to not going on holiday. Every time she mentioned not going I had to point out to her that there was only one of us without a passport and that it would be silly if she threw away the holiday. She gave Spanish a good go but has no affinity for it whatsoever. How relieved she was, then, when I told her when picking her up on the Monday night that I'd received a text to say that the passport was being printed. Within a couple of days it arrived. Such a near miss!

We planned the details of what we were going to do well in advance. Unfortunately, our plans seemed to go awry owing to the vagaries of the Spanish rail service, whose websites gave the impression that the routes between, say, large university towns and the nation's capital would suddenly stop running. Still, we're built to cope and so we'll stick to our basic plan and adapt as we go. All we have to do is make sure we're in the right cities for our accommodation. What we do in between can be adjusted.

We'll be flying into Bilbao at the very north of the country and leaving from Seville in the south. The map below shows the five places where we've booked accomodation (those are the large icons) plus some other places of interest for day trips (represented by the small icons). If you hover over an icon you'll see its name.

We'll arrive in Bilbao on the Saturday morning, having caught an early flight from the UK. It's the main city of the Basque Country, that area either side of the Pyrennees that is home to Europe's earliest civilisation. The Basque language is unrelated to any other extant tongue and may be the descendant of the cave-dwellers who we know lived in this part of the world during the Stone Age. Basque might be a language project for another day!

Our base at Bilbao puts us within easy reach of San Sebastián and Santander, so we'll definitely be taking day trips there. It wasn't until reading A Basque History of the World (I decided to be optimistic and start reading it over the weekend when it emerged that I might not get my passport) that I even thought about Guernica. It seems so close to Bilbao (its icon and Bilbao's are practically overlapping on the map) that we really must try to get a visit in.

Our next base will be the university town of Salamanca. The travel websites aren't being particularly helpful so we'll decide once we're there what our days out will be. I'd quite like to visit Ciudad Rodrigo because I know it from one of my favourite Sharpe books (it's the opening site of Sharpe's Company, which I love because it's our first introduction to the villainous Obadiah Hakeswill) but I'm not sure how feasible it will be. There's always Valladolid, which is the capital of Salamanca's region, Castilla y León, and is only a short train ride away.

From Salamanca we'll take the bus to Madrid for a few days. We have no days out planned, thinking that the capital of Spain should probably have enough to keep us interested. Besides, this one is supposed to be a relaxing holiday so we'll avoid our customary rushing about.

I'm particularly looking forward to our next location, Córdoba. During the Middle Ages it was the capital of an Islamic caliphate, which is reflected in its architecture. I expect the best photos of the holiday will result from our stay there. I'm not sure where we could visit for day trips. Maybe we can see how others holiday and visit Málaga! Antequera appears to be a perfectly nice town too and I expect will be more to our tastes though.

Our last location will be Seville, right in the south. It's within easy reach of other places for day trips, though we haven't set anything in stone. We might try Cádiz, which is notable because it exists on a narrow strip of land, almost as though it's an island.

So, those are our provisional plans. We're both looking forward to this!

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