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VACATION MEMORIES : Their Early Arrival Opened Up an Andorra’s Box

<i> Schambacher is a free-lance writer living in Whittier. </i>

Whoever made the first observation that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, had to be a sadder but wiser soul who had taken a lot of lumps.

To get the best out of the travel part, and thereby soften the trauma of the arrival experience, it’s good to plan carefully. What this does is give you hope that everything will work out. Hope is the ticket; you don’t want to leave home without it.

One of my finest hours in the planning field is marked by the day I made reservations for our trip to Andorra, that miniature and astonishing country tucked in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.

Neither my husband nor I knew much about it (neither did anyone else of our acquaintance), but a poster we had seen years earlier in a travel agency had captured our imaginations. We drew a circle on our map of Europe. It meant here we come.

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Before we left home, largely because of our ignorance about Andorra I figured I’d better make some arrangements. I managed to find literature provided by the Andorran tourist office in Los Angeles.

Mind-Boggling Scenes

The pictures in the brochures were mind-boggling. Mountains reached for the heavens, dwarfing the storybook villages scattered along a valley the color of emeralds. We were sold all over again.

Included in the packet was a list of hotels, and this is where my efficiency zeroed in on its nadir. I chose what was described as a venerable inn in the village of Les Escaldes, and wrote for reservations.

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In due time an answer arrived from the proprietor, along with a request for a first-night’s deposit. By return mail I sent off an international money order and confirmed what I thought would be the date of our introduction to Andorra.

So far, so good.

Travel to Andorra involved taking a bus from Barcelona, Spain, a journey of about six hours. In itself, this presented no particular problem, but somewhere along the line both my husband and I had picked up a nasty virus.

Huddled in Misery

We spent most of the trip huddled together in mutual misery. Our throats were raw, our heads were aching; we were chilled to the bone. The one brief stop had been at a cafe so jammed with bodies that it had been impossible to buy so much as a bottle of something to wash down our aspirin tablets.

The scenery, which had grown more spectacular with every mile, slowly vanished behind a curtain of rain that fogged the bus windows and brought a premature darkness.

Hacking in counterpoint, we thumbed through our brochures and found intestinal fortitude in the photo of the picturesque inn where warmth and hospitality waited.

We knew that our bus ended its run in Andorra la Vella, the capital, but how we were going to get from there to Les Escaldes wasn’t too clear. Still, the brochures spoke of public transport, and as the map indicated the distance wasn’t more than a few miles, we weren’t overly concerned. Our virus had dumped enough trouble on our heads as it was.

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Stuck in the Rain

By the time our driver pulled into the terminal, darkness had arrived in earnest. The rain fell in icy sheets, driven by a wind howling from the peaks of the Pyrenees. One by one our fellow passengers vanished into the night, and soon we were standing alone at the curb, surrounded by 50 pounds of luggage.

It had become a tossup between the arrival of despair and something on wheels when the headlights of a bus bored through the murk. The sign on the front read Les Escaldes. We climbed in and told the driver the name of our hotel.

A short time later he stopped and pointed across the road. There it stood, our picturesque inn--peaked roof, gingerbread trim, flower-filled window boxes and all. We’d made it.

Drenched to the Socks

Dragging our suitcases, drenched to our collective socks and possibly more dead than alive, we burst through the door, dripping and beaming.

Modest in size, lacking any suggestion of Alpine cute, the dimly lighted anteroom was paneled in wood and equipped with furnishings that had seen better times. One wall was taken up by the desk, only there was no one behind it. I tapped the bell.

The summons produced the parting of a green curtain and the emergence of my correspondent, the proprietor. Tall and gaunt, he wore a three-piece black outfit that was greenish with age and hanging on him as loosely as a suit on a clothes rack.

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Militant Posture

His bristling eyebrows, which matched a shock of white hair, met over his eyes in inverted V-shapes, giving him a somewhat demonic look. Although he was well up in years, his posture was military. It was also militant. He glared at us balefully. He did not speak.

I could feel my smile fading. I looked at my husband, who had developed laryngitis and croaked out something unintelligible. Clearly it was up to me.

I announced our names. “We have reservations. You have my letter.”

Our innkeeper strode behind the desk and pulled an envelope from a pigeon hole. He tore out the letter and thrust it at me.

No Room at the Inn

“You have not reserved tonight! You are not due until tomorrow! Do you see this?” He shook the paper under my nose. “Do you see the date you requested? Can you read?”

The letter was mine and the date was the next day. Mea culpa . I had indeed erred, but the assault was so unexpected, so much the reverse of what we had expected that, for one wild moment I thought we had chanced upon a stand-up comedian, an Andorran Don Rickles.

I grasped for a straw of sanity and managed to inquire, nicely, if a room were available.

“I have no room!” he shouted. “Can you hear?”

Cold Reality

By then I wondered if this guy was for real. Somehow we had managed to rattle his cage, and we were in trouble. My husband was making strangling sounds, which I translated as advice concerning our host’s anatomical disposition of all the rooms in his inn. But someone had to hang onto reality. I produced a scrap of dignity.

“Would it inconvenience you to keep our luggage until we can find another hotel?”

For some reason, best known to himself, after more scowling silence he offered a crumb.

“There is one room,” he barked. “Not a good one. But a room. Well?”

The storm outside had picked up a full head of steam and under the circumstances it would have been folly to refuse any kind of shelter. Meekly, we followed the innkeeper, whom we thereafter referred to as Senor Dracula, up a narrow, creaking stairway to a chamber lighted by a bulb dangling from the ceiling.

Room With No View

The room had no window except for one in a closetlike recess that held a table. The view was of an outside wall where the hotel angled into an annex.

“You will take this room?”

Miserably we nodded, and Senor D. turned on his heels and slammed the door. There was nothing else to be done so we undressed, swallowed aspirin and crawled into the cold and lumpy bed.

My husband recovered the power of speech long enough to deliver one acid observation before he reached for the chain to douse the light.

“You and your picturesque!”

The next morning the sun was shining and if our dispositions were no better, they were at least no worse. We wasted no time in removing ourselves from the inn, and easily found suitable lodging elsewhere in the village.

Country of Wonder

Andorra is a 17-mile wonder of a country, its few villages strung out like beads along the main highway from the Spanish to the French frontiers. A co-principality of Spain and France, it has two official languages and two postal systems.

The bucolic life is not evident in Andorra la Vella, a mini-metropolis dropped in an Alpine cup. Traffic is fearsome, noise is horrendous and duty-free merchandise of everything under the sun draws joyous hordes of tourists, mostly European. Peace and serenity are in the back country, where we spent most of our time.

We saw Senor D. once more before we left. He was standing in front of his inn. As we passed I averted my head to avoid being zapped by the evil eye. Less cautious, my husband risked a glare, and in a stage whisper offered an unflattering comment about our erstwhile host and all venerable establishments.

Because his voice was not fully recovered, it was unlikely that the remarks were picked up by Senor D. It was better that way, though, because the old boy might have put the double whammy on us and we were a long way from home.

The way I see it, if you plan carefully, it automatically sets you up with hope as a traveling companion. After that, figure you’ve done all you can. The arrival takes care of itself.


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