Driving in Madrid can be an adventure
Driving in Madrid can be an adventure
Driving in Madrid can be an adventure. Photo by flickr/davidht

My husband is driving at the posted speed limit on Spain’s Autopiste as other cars zoon past.

“No cojones,” I imagine the drivers saying contemptuously. “He’s a foreigner who drives like a little old lady,” or an equivalent Spanish put- down. We’re slightly bleary from the overnight flight from New York to Madrid but, even so, the hundred and twenty kilometers permitted feel like we’re blasting off from Cape Canaveral intent on breaking the sound barrier.

Suddenly, our car veers, smashing into the concrete barrier. We pull to a stop.

I put my hand on the dashboard. “What happened?”

“How the hell do I know? You okay?”

I nod yes. The good news: we’re fine. The bad news: Hertz won’t be very happy.

My husband maneuvers us back onto the road to the right shoulder, a tricky bit of business since the pounding traffic doesn’t yield for so much as a millisecond.

Out of the car to inspect the damage, we see that the front and rear left tires have blown and hang like rubber licorice. Today is the start of our two-week vacation in northern Spain and we’d planned to be at our first stop by lunchtime. Instead, we’re somewhere an hour north of Madrid, without a phone or a clue about what to do.

With terrific presence of mind, my husband removes the tiny warning triangles from the trunk and sets them behind the wounded car. I doubt if the Spaniards racing past will notice these silly little signals but have the sense to keep my mouth shut.  My contribution is ripping a baggage tag from my suitcase, to fashion a white signal for the antenna, creating what’s supposed to be the international signal for distress.

My signal has no effect on the raging traffic so we look around.  About a hundred yards away we spot an orange box marked ‘SOS.’ I walk to it, fantasizing what I would do if a glamorous matador in his suit of lights stops to ask if he can help.

The fifteen-minute walk is scary as the cars are so close I can feel their heat so I focus on hoping the drivers are super-alert and paying attention to the road. At the box, I press the button marked with an American flag assuming I will reach someone speaking English. A loud roar ensues but I have no idea if this means I’ve connected with help. It’s a healthy hike back to the car so I wait by the box, wishing I’d thought of packing the too-dry-to-eat breakfast roll from the plane in my purse as it’s now about ten a.m. and I’m hungry.

Forty-five minutes later, I try the box again. This time the roar is accompanied by a woman’s voice that sounds as though she’s speaking under water. It’s impossible to understand so we still have no idea if anyone knows what’s happened.

Maybe there’s a nearby town? Summoning my inner Girl Scout, I walk along the highway, hugging the shoulder and hoping the speeding traffic misses me. Turning to check how far I’ve gone, I see flashing lights by our car. Yippee! Help has arrived.

Not exactly.  An emergency truck has come but the driver is equipped only with a telephone with which he’s preparing to call the Guardia Civil Traffico.

“We don’t need the police, we need a tow truck,” we try explaining but the driver has his own agenda, phones and drives away. An hour later, two members of the Guardia Civil arrive. One gets busy dotting the road behind us with bigger orange traffic cones. The other calls Hertz, explaining—we think– that this is the procedure for summoning a tow truck.

Two hours later, under the baking midday sun, a flatbed truck arrives with a driver who is not thrilled that his services are needed during what is about to be Saturday afternoon siesta time. The driver winches the car onto the truck, stuffs us into the cab and we end up at a run-down garage on the remote edge of Aranda, a town that seems entirely filled with other garages, bleached beige and gray by the fierce Spanish sun.

Unloading our car, the driver points out that all four tires on our car are bald. No wonder they’d blown. Unable to understand how to use his telephone and frustrated by our limited Spanish, we finally grasp his explanation that Hertz has been contacted and want us to return to Madrid for another car.

“No, nada, impossible,” we say. “Por favor, ask if they can please locate a car nearer to us. We don’t want to drive all the way back.”

With that, our driver disappears, presumably to rescue some other hapless souls. Without a word he leaves us marooned, locked out of the garage which also means we have no access to a toilet. It’s a bad television reality show minus the exotic beach.

An hour later, when the driver returns, we greet him like an old friend and press Euros into his hand. Mollified, he calls Hertz again and this time relays good news. A car has been found at the Valladolid airport and a taxi will come ‘soon’ to take us there.

Soon in Spain is relative. About four in the afternoon, the car shows up and by five we’re en route to Valladolid. We have not had a morsel of food all day but we did make use of the garage’s filthy bathroom. We get to Valladolid at six but the airport is so small that services operate only when a flight is due and the next one will not arrive until seven. There isn’t even a vending machine.

When the Hertz desk opens, we move from reality show into sitcom minus laugh track.

“Where is your car?” the young woman at the desk asks.  When we tell her we don’t exactly know, she eyes us suspiciously. Her expression says that only crazy Americans would rent a car, lose it and then demand another.

“Por favor Seniorita,” we grovel, “telephone your Madrid office. They will explain. “

Grudgingly, she does and we hear a rapid conversation sprinkled with por Dios and other expressions we suspect relate to the unhinged behavior of traveling Americans. Once the situation is untangled, she rolls her eyes and hands over a new set of car keys. This time, we inspect the tires carefully, running our hands over every inch.

Driving north-east through deepening darkness, we get lost several times and stop to ask directions, a small portion of which we understand. Back on the highway, we concentrate on the road. Driving here has become an incredible adventure that takes all our effort. It’s safe to say driving etiquette is slightly different in Spain.

After following numerous suggestions about vuelta a la derecha (go back to the right) and a la izquierda (on the left), we reach the outskirts of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the town of our eponymous parador.

Directed by a group of giggling school kids, we locate the street we need to turn into but can’t get in because of a large metal pole in the center. There are no buttons to push so we start yelling at it, screaming our name and “reservation.” Like magic, this does the trick and the pole sinks into the street. At ten-thirty we pull up to our parador, exhausted and famished.

“The dining room is open,” says the concierge who is unfazed at travelers turning up so late and has thoughtfully helped us bypass check-in. “Perhaps you would like to have dinner?”

“That would be wonderful but what should we do with our car?” Neither of us can face being inside it for another second, even to park.

“No problem, “he says. “We will take care of it for you. Go, enjoy your dinner. “

His graciousness is such a contrast to the day’s frustrations I have to restrain myself from throwing my arms around his neck and kissing his hands.

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