IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 14 > Vila Real de Santo António - Ayamonte - Seville

Vila Real de Santo António - Ayamonte

I awoke in my quaint wood-furnished room at the hostel, had a wash and some breakfast, and there was still no sign of the mystery Dutch girl who had inhabited the place the night before. I wondered if she had been some kind of mirage after a day spent in the heat seeking some respite, or whether the old charm of the hostel with its creaky floors, period furniture and frilly curtains and tablecloths held a secret in the form of a ghost. Surely I hadn't been lured and duped by a beautiful lady of a bygone age? I envisaged signing a logbook and becoming the latest in a long line of men who had fallen prey to a famous spook. I was only able to dismiss this possibility once I recalled her bright reddish hair, which was not concurrent with the average phantom. They generally opted either for deranged baldness or a nice little hooded cloak number in white.

I couldn't quite decide upon the day's agenda. I still needed to press on towards Morocco, but realistically I could only hope to reach either Seville or Córdoba by the end of the day, due to the insufficient rail network in the south-west corner of Spain. I had a couple of other plans too, it was laundry day, and I fancied a spell at the beach seeing as there might not be many other opportunities during the trip. In my brief acquaintance with the female apparition, she had told me of a very quiet beach in the corner of the town where she had spent the previous three days developing a tan, although I thought that the idea of most ghosts was to turn pale. It was apparently far better than the busy beach on the other side, and although never much of a beach bum myself, I desperately wanted a few hours to just relax, soak up the sun and listen to the sounds of waves lapping at my feet.

Coming from the coastal resort of Brighton and Hove, it could have seemed unnecessary for me to need beach therapy, but like so many other Brightonians, I rarely actually visited the shores there except to take the dog for a run. It had always been a nice enough place, but its very location on the doorstep caused it to be overlooked by many locals who casually regarded it as a factor of everyday life, whilst legions of holiday-makers from all over the country would converge there in desperation each summer, astonished at our indifference to the facility.

I tried to ring the hostels in Seville and Córdoba but all morning neither was answering the phone, and I had to know which, if any, might have a space for the evening before bothering to travel to either city. If it wasn't for my restrictive budget I could have been a little more carefree in my approach to accommodation, but youth hostels were not only usually the cheapest option, for single travellers like myself they could also be the best place to meet people. I stood frustrated in the hostel lobby for two hours, trying all kinds of combinations of telephone numbers, aware that attempting to ring Spain from across the short waters in Portugal was reason enough to incur all kinds of grief. The woman at reception had her husband and baby waiting around, and whilst trying to listen for a voice at the other end of the line I endured endless screaming in my earhole, and that was just from the husband. It was fruitless, and I left defeated having wasted most of the morning getting nowhere.

Finding a laundrette was also no easy task. I sought help from local people who pointed me in the direction of several blocks this way and that way. The layout of this district was like a toytown New York, all the roads looked the same and it became hard to fathom out where I was. Upon arrival at the laundrette to which everybody had been referring, it was unsurprisingly closed, and I was told that it was the only one in the neighbourhood. My clothes were scrunched up in the bag marked dirty, and all I had left to wear were the items I was dressed in, which after another day in the sweltering heat would not be worth contemplating the use of, and I might as well travel naked.

Such thoughts would probably cause others more anxiety than myself, and I tried to put them to the back of my mind, hoping my destination in the evening might provide a solution. I finally got a response from the hostel in Seville, although the man on the phone sounded distinctly unpleasant and resentful at taking my booking. I wandered across the town in search of the secret beach, but it eluded me. Every café I passed seemed to sell nothing but ham baguettes and cakes, and I sat at a table outside one watching nothing happening in a seemingly dead town. There was no traffic, few shops were open and the locals just sat around the cafés doing very little. I consoled myself with a refresco and a tart containing a ring of pineapple - one of those cakes that would forever belong in the 'wish with every bite that you'd chosen something else' category.

I was gazing across at Spain on the other side of the river estuary and considering my options. I'd spent so much time faffing about during the morning, that I didn't really have time anymore to go the beach even if I could find it. There were only two or three buses each day which took the drive north across the bridge and over the border, so I walked to the deserted ferry terminal. Nobody was around and any hope of reaching Spain seemed to be limited to my backstroke ability. Eventually, with a small crowd of equally bemused tourists gathering, the boat limbered across and rescued us. We chugged across the surprisingly wide River Guadiana (below) and arrived on Spanish soil which seemed a little livelier. No sooner had I navigated a few streets than I found a tapas bar - hoorah! No cakes here - oh no, this was civilization! (Apart from the cockroach on the floor).

Crossing the River Guadiana, marking the border between Portugal (left) and Spain (right)

Ayamonte - Seville

Whether or not the insect I had discovered was considered a delicacy in these parts was probably best not discussed with the proprietors of the bar, so I followed in its tiny footsteps and escaped the place after I had consumed my lunch. I walked through the town of Ayamonte in fair haste for the bus station, and booked my seat on board the next departure for Seville. On both sides of the coach I was surrounded by a distinctly Andalucian landscape of orange groves stretching to each horizon, with vast never-ending fields striped by small trees spawning enough orange balls to feed every last person on Earth. Having passed through Huelva and increased the number of passengers tenfold, we continued to Seville, which unfolded as a very attractive city set in the plains, where even the huge industrial power station had a certain beauty.

It had been a pleasant change to sit on a coach and ride the highways, rather than the steady rhythmic charge of the trains. Rolling down a boulevard into the city confirmed that Seville was one of the most glorious cities to look at so far, along with Paris and San Sebastián. Palm trees lined the roads, which were also furnished at regular intervals with electronic time and temperature displays. Alighting the air-conditioned coach at the station was like stepping out of a fridge, and I had reason to believe that the invisible man was running alongside me holding open an oven on full power. However, knowing for certain that any such transparent being would have doubtless satisified themselves by loitering in the female showers of a swimming baths, I'm not sure what would cause an invisible man to be so vindictive.

The roadside display showed that even at 7pm, it was thirty-nine degrees celsius, enough to metamorphose me into charcoal if I found a secluded spot and lay motionless for some time. I walked the excessively long distance to the hostel, happily passing another Renault 4 along the way (below). I may have ended my R4 activities in Lisbon but I was still determined enough to leave my calling card on the windscreens of a few more.

A green Renault 4 parked on one of the main streets in Seville

Across the road from the Renault 4 was a building which I later found out to be the Maestranza, a decorative eighteenth century bullring. There had been crowds gathering outside and I read that bullfights were held there every Thursday, as was today. Thankfully I didn't realize at the time, as my love of all animals didn't stir any passion within me to view such an event, and it would have made me feel queasy just to have walked past.

The hostel was a lot further from the bus station than the two kilometres my guide had suggested. I was shattered upon arrival there, and not particularly pleased to be greeted by a man with a chip on his shoulder so large that it bore more resemblance to a jacket potato. He really didn't like me, and I presumed him to be the same person who had spoken on the phone earlier. My attempts to repair this situation by speaking in my best Spanish were only met with disdain, and I wondered what I had done to deserve his scorn. I suppose he could have been networking with Mr Grumps in Bordeaux, or have matched a police photofit on television of 'the man who swore at an American on the Eiffel Tower'. But such paranoid suspicions were erased when my room-mates confessed to the same treatment. They were an English couple from Newcastle who had been travelling for three months all over Europe, and who had experienced many of the same things as myself, including the problems with the French rail strikes.

In fact most of the people I had met in hostels were travelling with Interrail or Eurail tickets, and it was a surprise to come across so many. The majority of them had been good people, which didn't necessarily mean that they were fine upstanding moral citizens of society, but the fact that they had chosen to freely travel in such a way exploring different cultures and environments usually put them in the class of 'dare to be different', and tended to make them a better conversation partner than the average air-head who might be encountered on a Friday night in Ibiza.

Our relaxed conversation was soon interrupted, however, by the entrance of a sprightly chap bursting through the door and bouncing onto his bed. The final room-mate had arrived, and he was certainly going to let us know it. This diminutive Ecuadorian had spent some time living in Mexico, and his impish personality and strong, high-pitched Spanish accent lent him the persona of a circus act's sidekick on cocaine. Any private dialogues between the rest of us were instantly drowned out by the tales of his trek across from Central America, which at first were an amusing diversion just for the sound of his crazed voice, but soon we were all desperate for him to just SHUT UP! With the hostel offering a dubious menu for the evening dinner, I decided to go walkabout in the area and search out an alternative, which was probably the last thing my feet needed, but I had to get away from the eccentric stage performer in my room before his fuse burnt out and he exploded.

I strolled around the streets of the locality, with the final glimmers of sunlight passing over this furnace of a city. I was convinced that it wouldn't be long before I found a mini-market or similar store. I wanted to not only find some dinner but stock up on general provisions for the next day, including vast amounts of water, necessary because the agua mineral vending machine at the hostel was broken and I'd heard many warnings about dodgy tap water in southern Spain.

I passed several stores, all of which were shut, and I walked so far that I may just as well have gone all the way back to the city centre. I was accosted by a couple of prostitutes near the large football stadium and shouted at by the odd idiot outside some of the bars. There were endless restaurants and bars full of Spanish people and students of the nearby university, but reasonable as many of them were, I wasn't intending to sit inside one alone requesting some cheap take-away groceries from the waiter. Again I found at least twenty-two chemists within a square mile, but not so much as a stick of bread or a bottle of drink. I passed the city's giant hospital in which there was a visitor canteen, and I stupidly avoided it in my determination to find a standard shop and some water.

What I had not realized all day long was that it was Corpus Christi, not only in Spain but also in Portugal, including the humdrum town of Vila Real de Santo António where nothing was happening. It explained everything. People were sat around not opening facilities because it was a national holiday and I hadn't known. Having exhausted an entire district in Seville, I gave up and returned to the hostel unsure of how I was going to feed myself. For the first time on my travels my legs were now starting to tremble, threatening to give way after so much walking in such high temperatures, and in a pair of treacherous trainers.

It had been necessary thus far to be so cruel to my feet in order to cut out any extra expenses such as bus fares, but this time I was defeated. My room-mates took great pity on me, and despite having only two oranges between them as provisions, they kindly offered me them as a last salvation. I had one last place to try - the snack machine in the reception, my ultimate saviour.

Things suddenly didn't seem so bad after all. On display in the front sample panel of the machine were bags of nuts and potato snacks, drinks and bars of chocolate - I would have a feast of junk food and enjoy every bit of it. Alas, all the options I pressed displayed the message 'out of stock, try another selection.' The only item in the whole machine which was, not unexpectedly, still available, consisted of stale pastry, cream, sickly chocolate and general goo wound up into a sort of nightmare cake that the Portuguese would have been proud of. It didn't represent any logical shape or structure whatsoever, and it tasted revolting. I had acquired three of these damned things in desperation, and my room-mates almost cried for me when I returned. It was by far the most sorry dinner I'd had to endure, even beating the Celeriac Remoulade in Paris and the crisps and cakes in Poitiers. I was a silly boy.

Thankfully, the Ecuadorian egoist wore himself out and began snoring, which was a major improvement over his earlier deliberate noises. The hostel had air-conditioning, which was essential because opening the balcony door in our room was akin to releasing the seal on a direct pipeline into an active volcano. Downstairs, a collection of elderly folk from the vicinity were attending a night of dancing in the hall. It was tempting to join them for a laugh, but it would have been necessary to have danced on my hands to spare any more pain. I doubt they'd have noticed, and my steps would probably have been less shaky than their own. Whatever my disgusting snackfood had contained, it had filled me up and I lay on my bed bloated, exchanging tales from the rails with the other two Interrailing guests in my room. I just hoped that tomorrow wouldn't be so exhausting.

HOSTEL REPORT: Albergue Juvenil Sevilla, Isaac Peral 2, 41012 Sevilla
This place was amongst other hostels in southern Spain renowned for having little atmosphere and resembling a hospital. The building was modern and enormous, housing plenty of guests, but it lacked any intimacy or character. Staff were not always particularly friendly and most of the vending machines were out of service or stock. Facilities included a dining area with evening meals, a laundrette and an Internet kiosk which again was not functioning. A sign stuck to the main door advised drivers to park in any other street nearby, just not this one, which had many residents intrigued as to what unruly activities might take place outside. The area was a fair distance out from the city centre, but contained a lot of facilities and many students. The breakfast was good but was spoilt by the bad attitude of some canteen staff who treated guests like children. My dormitory was clean, airy, and had a toilet and shower adjacent which was shared only by the room next door. Overall, this hostel could have been impressive but let itself down on too many counts. Score: 5/10

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