I just returned from an extended two
week trip to Spain and France to cover Madrid Fusión and the Bocuse
D'Or. Both events were incredible experiences, leaving me with much
to write about and show through photos over the upcoming weeks,
however, my travel experiences amounted to an adventure in their own
right, which I will recount here.
The flights to get to Madrid went
without a hitch as did getting around that city. When I planned this
trip, I did not initially fill in the weekend between Madrid Fusión
and The Bocuse D'Or. It would have been fun to check out more of the
Pastry Coupe Du Monde or the World Bread Baking and Cheese Making
Championships going on at SIRHA in Lyon over the weekend, but as it
was, it was nearly impossible to get a hotel room when I did and I did not have the time nor the energy to see if there were any hotel cancellations.
A few days before my flight to Spain, I
received word that I would have a table at Mugaritz in San Sebastian,
a restaurant that I have dearly wished to visit for some time. I went
so far as to book a hotel in San Sebastian before I left the States
figuring that I would be able to find a reasonable way from San
Sebastian to Lyon as I couldn't find anything reasonable from the US
before my trip – the cheapest airfare was around $600 one way,
unfortunately well beyond my budget. Nevertheless, I held out hope.
Once in Spain, though, that hope quickly faded as I discovered no
current cheap airfares from San Sebastian or surrounding airports and
the train seemed difficult at best.
As a result, I started considering
other options. Running into Heston Blumenthal and his press agent,
Monica, I inquired about the possibility of dining at The Fat Duck
over the weekend. I had discovered inexpensive airfares between
Madrid and London and London and Lyon. They said that as of then the
restaurant was fully booked, but they would let me know if a space
opened. This proved to be a difficult and costly dilemma. With that
possibility open – The Fat Duck, like Mugaritz, is one of a handful
of restaurants that somehow I have to find a way to get to – I
couldn't or wouldn't make definitive alternate plans until I had
exhausted that possibility.
An invitation to visit Alicante
once again, was seriously tempting, especially since there appeared
to be reasonable fares to Lyon from there. As the week went along,
that invitation looked more and more enticing as The Fat Duck looked
less and less likely. By Thursday, I had determined to spend the
weekend in Alicante relaxing, writing and dining on seriously good
food. The problem was that the inexpensive tickets from Alicante to
Lyon disappeared. After a nearly sleepless night on Thursday, I
concluded that I simply could not take the chance to go to Alicante.
I decided to spend the weekend in Madrid.
Friday morning I tried to book a flight
on Easy jet for Sunday from Madrid to Lyon. Despite the fact that the
website says they take American Express (at a fee similar to what
they do with Visa), my attempt at booking the flight kept getting
rejected! I had been using Amex almost exclusively and up to that
point without trouble. Frustrated, I determined to explore additional
alternatives, the best of which appeared to be an overnight train
from Madrid to Paris on Saturday night followed by a TGV train from
Paris to Lyon on Sunday morning. Since I would have to pay for a
hotel and dinner anyway, the fairly steep last minute cost of a
booking for a Gran Clase cabin was not a total budget blower.
Besides, the weather throughout Western Europe that weekend was not
supposed to be so great and I felt the train would likely be more
reliable getting me to my destination.
Having been given advice to make the
reservation and purchase the ticket at a travel agent, I went to one
near my hotel. Unfortunately, that agent, who didn't re-open until
5PM, proved to be technologically challenged, taking an inordinate
amount of time to get the information and subsequent reservation. The
first snag occurred when they couldn't process my Amex. The second
occurred when my Visa, previously unused on this trip, was declined.
Time was passing and I started to get an uneasy feeling as I rushed
out of the agency. I called American Express Travel Service, but even
though it was still beyond their usual 24 hour booking limit, they
could not process a ticket for me either! There was nothing left to
do but head on over to the train station and purchase my ticket
directly. Though it took a little while to accomplish this,
everything actually worked. I was able to purchase my tickets with
my Amex and had the tickets in hand. I was relieved and even
still had time (thanks to Madrid's late dining hours) to join a
couple of good Madrileño friends for a tapas crawl.
After a good night's sleep, I awoke to
a beautiful day in Madrid, which I proceeded to enjoy as I awaited my
train. I had really come to look forward to the experience despite
traveling alone and was excited as I set off for the Chamartin Train
Station. I arrived early with plenty of time to spare. As I searched
the monitor for the track assignment, I quickly spotted my train's
designation. Oddly, there was no track assignment associated with the
train. With a sinking feeling, I read the word “suspendido” next
to the listing. I quickly made my way to an information booth to
discover that this train, the one I had now had my heart set on, was,
in fact, canceled! With my jaw and my heart on the floor, I found out
that the reason for the cancellation was a hurricane along the
northern Spanish and southwestern French coastal areas along the
route of the train knocking out power. The train would be unable to
proceed! So much for the train being a better bet than an airplane in
foul weather. Unable to book for the following night, I obtained a
refund and moved on.
I was at my wit's end, not knowing what
I would do. I would need a place to sleep that night as well as
transportation to Lyon if I could get it or to home if I couldn't.
Since the Bocuse D'Or was not scheduled to begin until Tuesday, I
tried to rebook for Sunday night. Unfortunately, that was already
booked up. I did manage to get the last room still available in the
hotel I had been staying at. Returning there, I was able to get back
online. On a whim, I rechecked Easy Jet. They still appeared to have
availability for flights to Lyon on Sunday, though at a slightly
higher but still affordable cost than what appeared on Thursday and
Friday. When I tried Amex again it still did not work. I had earlier
spoken to my wife to inform her of my travails. Fortunately she told
me that Visa had called about suspicious activity in Madrid and that
she had set the record straight for them. As a last ditch effort, I
tried the booking with Visa. This time it worked! I had a confirmed
flight to Lyon on Sunday. I would get to the Bocuse D'Or after all.
By this time I had learned not to
really believe that it would happen until it actually did. Another
dilemma faced me. The weather in Lyon was predicted to be good on
Sunday but not so much on Monday. In the meantime, Sunday in Madrid
was predicted to be rainy and windy. Barcelona was supposed to have
good weather on Sunday. The thought crossed my mind, should I take a
train to Barcelona and fly from there or should I stay in Madrid and
take my chances from there? I opted for the latter choice figuring
that if I couldn't get to Lyon via Madrid at this point it was simply
not meant to be.
As I left for the Madrid airport on
Sunday it was raining. I had trepidation but when I arrived, the
flight was still scheduled and on time. In fact, I managed to get
through the whole process of boarding the airplane relatively
unscathed. I was on the plane! Even this, though did not get off
entirely smoothly. The flight wound up delayed as a passenger decided
to leave the plane. The airline had to find and remove his luggage.
The delay lasted about twenty minutes, but then we were finally off,
ultimately making it to my hotel in Lyon without any other major
hold-ups or hassles.
My “hotel,” Les Carres Pegase near
a campus of the University of Lyon, was the last and only room that I
could find in Lyon for the time I would be there. There is a reason
that they still had availability. The place is a low service, run
down hole in the wall. I was given a studio on the 7th
floor. I was not sure that the elevator would survive the way up to
my floor, but despite my apprehension it did. I did not have great
expectations for this hotel, but my first impression was even lower
than those expectations as the wallpaper throughout the small
apartment was peeling and there were several holes punched in the
walls. I did not relish the idea of staying there and began to
question what I was doing. Fortunately, upon closer inspection,
though the place was in poor repair, it wasn't actually dirty. That
night, the bed even proved more comfortable than I thought.
After a reasonable night's sleep,
things started looking up as I discovered that the location was
actually relatively convenient for me. Other than the fact that the
elevator finally went out of service on Tuesday and did not get back
into service until Wednesday night, the hotel turned out better than
my initial impressions had me believe.
The end of my trip was approaching, but
a smooth uneventful finish was simply not to be. On Tuesday evening
we discovered that a general transportation strike was scheduled
across France for Thursday, my scheduled departure date. With the
strike participation of the air traffic controllers, the likelihood
of my flight's not going or delay was real. Simply getting to the
airport would likely be difficult as well. The likelihood of either
missing my flights because I couldn't get to the airport or getting
stuck at the airport if the flights were canceled was too great to
simply ignore. On Wednesday evening as the strike started to take
hold, I called Continental Airlines to inquire regarding my options.
To their credit, they were able to re-book me for Friday without a
fee. Though I was really looking forward to getting home ASAP, I
weighed the options and figured that changing to Friday represented
my best bet for doing so. I jumped on the change and re-booked.
As it turned out, Thursday was a
beautiful day in Lyon and the only day that I had an opportunity to
see the city during the day. With the help of friends, it turned out
that I made the best of that day. Friday's flights were smooth,
however, there had to be some hitch. Though I made the connection in
Paris, my luggage did not. This time, however, a flight delay in Newark was a good thing as it allowed my bags to make it on to my flight home!