Sunday, 7 April 2013

Portaventura, Salou Spain 2013

As the hotel rooms were half price, and we got cheap flights at good times, my friend Rich and I thought we would head to Spain and leave our other halves in the snow. Our destination was Portaventura, the sixth largest theme park in Europe and home to lots of cool Universal characters like Woody Woodpecker, Betty Boop and my favourite: Elmo from Sesame Street

Things didn't get off to a fantastic start due to the amount of snow thrown down in Luton though The car Parking for our hotel was on the 5th floor of a multi-story and the lift was broken.

For over 18 months apparently.

I complained but still got charged £4.50 for it. As Rich was driving I couldn't complain too much and the room was nice. Rich decided on a second room at about 2am for some reason and he didn't get charged :-) Honestly I don't snore.

Despite the snow the flight was only delayed an hour, which was fine except they had boarded us. Hate it when that happens as we could have spent more time eating breakfast and wine. As I've said before, it's great that nobody bats an eyelid if you have a glass of wine at 6am in an airport.

Ryanair wasn't too bad this time. The odd queues at the gates were largely a product of the publics stupidity so we nipped down the side into the correct area.

The real problems started in Spain.

The hire company decided we had to pay for a full tank of fuel regardless of what we used. It seems the hire company have a policy whereby you get charged for a tank of petrol, regardless. Even if after you've driven to the hotel the needle hadn't moved off full. We thought we were smart getting cheap hire rather than the often expensive taxi fares. It also meant we could nip out on trips. But no, it doubled the price.

As you will read later they will come to regret this next time they service the car, or anyone wants smooth ride between now and then.

After basically being told to take it or leave it we quickly found our Dodge Crappy, and loading our two hand luggage bags into the boot filled it. Next fight was for elbow room in the front but I had to capitulate as I wasn't driving.

Hotel check in was quick and easy, you have to pick a 15 minute arrival spot for breakfast which seemed reasonable until we realised there was only a dozen guests in a hotel that can hold 400. One coffee later and our room was ready, which again is odd but they seemed to insist on check-in time, but we came to understand there are lots of odd protocols like this even off season.

Heading into the park our passes didn't work so they just let us in anyway. As mine didn't have any dates on it I can consider it an annual pass then obviously.

Passing some closed shops and kiosks we hit the first coaster inside the park which annoyingly wasn't quite open the last time we were here. It shoots you out the gate at 84mph in just 3.9 seconds, whilst seated either side of the track so you can't see it below you wherever you sit on the ride.

After heading by a few more closed shops, kiosks and shows we came to the next big coaster and jumped in the short queue. This is one of the tallest coasters in the world and can be seen from miles around the area. As we got to the front I realised it only had a lap bar and a small bucket seat, and not liking heights at the best of times I left Rich to go on it and a further 4 more times over our visit.

Apparently you get a major feeling of weightlessness at the top of the second peak. If it had been a shoulder harness like most coasters I would have been fine, as for some reason this overcomes my fear as I'm trapped in a small cage.

We trudged on round for a while seeing more things and then decided to head into town for some food.

we parked in the town, in a "Blue Zone" which is really unclear and unmarked. It means you have to get a ticket from a machine that could be on the next street. Essentially a pay and display.

Unpaid and undisplayed we walked along the sea front past a myriad of closed shops, restaurants, kiosks and bars (getting the idea about Salou in May yet?) looking for somewhere to eat. After a couple of restaurants that were not doing food we found a delightful place that served up Tapas of major proportions relative to the money and we thoroughly chowed down.

Off back to the car we went, which took about two hours, some data use, a phone all and more walking than my legs were happy with in new shoes... a 30 euro parking ticket. It reallly wasn't clear.

Getting back to the hotel we asked what we had done, and how we solve it before the hire company got its nasty mittons on us and starting adding administration charges and what-not. We were told we could go and pay at the meter it will be mich cheaper depndning on how long we had stayed (an hour for food, two hours finding the car.) So back into town we went and eventually located one. After a couple of aborted attempts of reading Spanish by flashlight from our phones we eventually asked a girl who seemed to be doing the same. She explained the buttons we needed to press in order to achieve the aim but we were one Euro short of the €7 fine, late at night with no shops in sight to get change.

The girl then flagged down some locals and asked them in Spanish if they had change for a €5 note we were short. They didn't, but were happy to donate one Euro to our cause. Happy days, and she pressed all the buttons and put the ticket and receipt for the fine in an envelope which gets inserted in the machine. This hardly inspires confidence but we hope it's worked.

God bless that girl of course.

Back to the hotel, some more wine, a picture with Elmo and we were set for bed. Rich deployed his new ear plugs and didn't have to get a second room.


Morning comes and I can barely walk.

I hobble down to the free breakfast at our allotted time and it was quite reasonable. They had all the usual continental fare which was nice and fresh and bacon, beans and eggs if you want to keep your calorie intake up. The juices were lovely, and the coffee wasn't bad, and as its often included in the room rate it's a great idea. Saying that, if you didn't take that up its fries and burgers in the park as there are no other options. Or a drive into town of course but, but judging by the car park at the hotel few hire a car and largely the buffet and park have a captive audiance and charge accordingly.

I apologise to Rich after breakfast and say I need some downtime to sort my legs out and he happily heads into the park without me and I sit reading a book with my feet up. The situation doesn't improve much, and by the time it starts raining Rich is back, happy with his beer sampler he tried (four different Spanish beers including a very nice lemon one) and we discuss dinner options.

Given the choice between the cafe with a very limited choice and the buffet, we choose the buffet. At €24 plus your drinks they really are milking the captive audience and it seemed most took up this option as it was fairly busy. I ordered a Fanta Orange as I was avoiding alcohol to let my legs get better without me being numb to any pain I may be causing them, and a beer turned up. I said I had ordered Fanta and the waiter actually tutted and sighed at me. No tip for you then kiddo. I had even pointed to it on the menu.

The food was again not bad, but according to Rich only the salad parts. I just ate lots of salad including some very yummy bacon coleslaw, cheese and fruits. If you didn't want pizza, nuggets and chips for your hot food the choices are very limited. To pork or fish.

Tuesday morning we wake up and I said I'll get walking come hell or high water. Mel had told me to do various exercises and then basically walk it off. This worked to an extent, but I still had to sit down from time to time. More trains, coasters and shows were seen and then we decided to head off exploring.

This could have been fatal, and if it wasn't for Rich's skill in driving I would have been a bigger bag of nerves than I already was. Let me explain.

We headed randomly out of Solou through a few towns, seeing even more closed shops even though it was 3pm. Siesta I thought at first, but as time went Into the day it seems everything is closed at most times. Maybe I'm missing something.

We eventually arrived at a town which was beautiful but only had twisty turny one way streets. We got to the edge of town and Rich decided the sea was "over there" so we should head in that direction.

Through a river bed.

Up dirt tracks.

Up dirt tracks in a mountain that grounds the car out, TomTom hadn't a clue at this point. We were randomly deciding which roads to take, sometimes through Jude plantations.

Up single dirt tracks on the side of shear 100m drops with no barriers in a shaky class A car. I am not exaggerating when I say if someone came the other way it would be a half mile reverse for one of us. I was having a heart attack.

Using TomTom to get a rough idea of where the nearest town was, we made route choices based on that. Every now and then we would hit a small area of concrete road and I'd cheer in my head. I think we spent an hour on these treacherous roads - and I mean that literally - and yet from time to time we'd come across a very nice house and wonder how the hell these people live out here! But I guess the land is cheap, and the miles and miles of fruit trees planted in neat little rows is the answer.

We were both glad when we got back to civilisation, and could breath a sigh of relief. It really was a drive I couldn't have done in a 4x4 let alone a little front wheel drive car. If you ground out and have to adjust your route your own a dodgy road.

Back to the hotel, then a trip back out to the same restaurant which we parked outside this time, then bed. The food was again cheap and cost the same as one head at the buffet. Perhaps we did get value out of the hire car after all!

Final day and Rich was all set to head off into the park but then decided he wanted another adventure. I was hoping not last the last one.

We headed to Carrefore at first to see what prices are like. Dont bother looking for bargains here in Spain. I grabbed some fruit and Rich considered some Chirros until told they were €7 for half what we got for €2 Euros in Salou from a nice lady in a van the other night.

Due to that Rich decided to try a place called Buffalo Ranch to get a chilli cheese dog, and I got a Ceasor Salad. Good food, and I understand it's a chain so if you bump into it and you like that sort of food it's a good bet. €24 down again, but was well worth the money and again the price of one of the buffets at the hotel. Not 15 minutes from the Portaventura hotel near Taragona I recommend it if you have a car.

After some more random driving we came to the conclusion that the economic situation in Spain is largely due to the fact everything is almost always closed. We struggled to find anywhere that was open at times to get food. We went through one town and only saw 3 people on the streets, and all the shops were closed and shuttered at 11am.

Popping into a Carrafore Planet super market, which is essentially a Tesco Extra and owned by same, we found they had the exact same English speaking self service tills. What you do have to do if you wanted to have a healthy breakfast is get your fruit barcoded in the fruite section before you head to the checkout though.

As you can imagine from some of the above, most of the locals load up in a big way before heading down the many miles of mud tracks to their beautiful houses on acres of land. Turning up with a couple of apples and one orange was obviously odd and I got a strange look.

Flight back was easy but humorous. We got to the airport 3 hours early so we could eat and possibly argue with The hirEabout all the dents and scratches on the hire car caused by honest driving on Spanish roads, and the idiots parking at practically right angles in the hotel car park (I kid you not.)

The situation in the seat behind us is hilarious, and Rich and I have been crying with laughter. Lady was talking about very intimate things, clearly drunk, but called her husband crude for wanting a slightly dodgy beach towel. She was asking if the hostess took "Great British Pounds, you know, UK Money?" to which the English hostess calmly answered yes. I lost it laughing.

She is now talking to a 12 year old about swearing in French, her toy boy, her imprisoned son in law and other issues he clearly has no clue about. Then finally chucked her drink on him by mistake, followed up with trying to get a free one out of Ryanair to replace it.

Really finished the holiday on a high note.