Most of our travel is in France, and particularly Paris, where we spend time every year on research to ensure that our online travel resource, Paris Insiders Guide, stays up to date. Even though it is next door to France, we had never been to Spain. But, this year, following the advice of travel friends, we took the plunge and booked some time south of the Pyrenées. In fact, just about as far south of the Pyrenées you can get and still be in Spain – the southern coast at Málaga, as well as Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada. Little did we suspect that it would be the absolute worst time to visit the country.
It was in Seville, during lunch in a historic restaurant that's been in the same building since the 17th century, that we heard the dire news.
"We are closing," the maitre-d told us, "this is our last service. All restaurants in Spain are being forced to close by government decree." That was when we knew our idyll was over. When restaurants close, we leave.
"Yesterday," our informant Alejandro continued, "we had 110 cancellations. That's over €6,000 in business – gone, poof!"
We had been vacillating day by day about what we should do. Carry on with the balance of our European travel for another six weeks? Cut short our time in Spain and hunker down in our favourite Provençal town of Vaison-la-Romaine? Just give up and go home? Back and forth we went in our deliberation: first one idea, then another. But now, at least, we had a course of action – head for home.
It was on Friday the thirteenth when we learned a state of emergency was coming into effect in Spain, with all the restrictions that decree brought with it. Within a few hours after that lunch we had devised a plan you might call Escape from Europe.
Escape Day 1 (the next day) – take the train from Seville to Granada. Overnight at a hotel there.
Day 2 – Fly from the Granada airport to Paris, which would involve a transfer in Barcelona, one of the centres of the outbreak in Spain.
Day 2 to Day 5 – stay at Hotel Monge in Paris for five days, waiting there to catch the earliest flight out of France we had been able able to rebook.
Day 1 – Granada
At the end of 2½-hour train journey through the rolling, olive-green countryside of Andalusia, one of the other five passengers in our coach stood up and began talking to his fellow spanglophones. He was listening to Spanish news on his earbuds and was updating those passengers who could understand him. Luckily, an Asian-American bilingual young woman translated for us – among other containment measures, trains were being shut down. We might be on the Last Train to Granada.
The train station in Seville had been nearly deserted that morning when we arrived to catch our train. The rail system was immaculate, the platforms were spotless, the coaches shone like new. All that was missing were passengers – there were only a handful in our coach.
In Granada it was even more desolate. The station was pretty much shut down, lights off, with armed guards barring us from entering other parts of the station, which were divided off with quickly-hung plastic sheeting . Inside, as we passed through the station, nobody was waiting to board. We were only allowed to move to the exit.
Two sets of couples from our train were ahead of us as we scurried towards the only two taxis waiting in the designated cab area. Luckily for us, another taxi pulled up just then to drop off some passengers (we wondered at the time where they could be going?) and we were able to snag it.
On the drive to our hotel every business we passed was closed, with the exception of one or two sidewalk cafes. Traffic was very, very light and few people were on the streets. We could only imagine what the northern cities of Madrid and Barcelona were like, being the centres of the virus in Spain. Here in the Andalusian region of southern Spain there had been relatively few cases. But, still.
Our hotel occupied a couple of older haciendas (or is that Mexican?) and perhaps part of an abbey from the 17th century (if we understood correctly) and it was lovely... and very uncrowded. We got a free upgrade to a prestige suite because, well, who the hell else was going to be using it? We were only booked for one night, scheduled to fly from Granada to Barcelona to Paris the next day, leaving at noon. The only place to eat, or even to buy food, was at the hotel's restaurant.
Evening of Day 1 – Last Meal in Granada
“This is the one I’d recommend for the jamón ibérico.” Clarisse, our wine sommelier, had us taste two dry sherries to make sure the 12-month barrel oak vintage wasn’t too assertive.
The hotel, like the streets, was nearly deserted, with only a handful of travellers staying the night. In the dining room of the inviting restaurant we were the only guests. The Titanic might have been going down, but we, at least, tried to maintain standards.
Javier, our server, presented the scant items available for dinner, scribbled on a piece of paper; there were two portions of cod, one of sea bass, and a few portions of carne that he called "cow loin". When we opined that we might prefer to choose something from the printed menu, Javier politely informed us that, lo siento, the piece of paper in his hand was the only menu available.
The fish was grilled to perfection; Mark’s sea bass had a boost of cumin and other North African spices while Diane’s cod was an artful blend of tomatoes, green peppers, and Andalusian flavours.
“Clarisse,” we challenged the young sommelier, “can you find a red wine to match the cod?”
“Yes,” she quickly replied, “I have a red from the north. The wines from the south, full of the sun, are often high in alcohol and are too powerful for fish. I recommend this northern wine, light and perfect for the cod.” She was so right.
Our final challenge for Clarisse was to find a dessert wine to pair with both the chocolate mousse and a mango cream dessert.
“Try this,” she returned with a gleaming bottle of white muscat. “Only 2,000 bottles per year are produced. Like all the best muscat, this comes from Málaga." Tasting of the Spanish sun, the white muscat had notes of citrus, mango, and honey.
“Oh, one last gift for you.” Clarisse returned with a special bottle of sun-ripened sweet sherry to go perfectly with the chocolate.
Checking out the next morning we learned that the night's multi course feast, including numerous wines, had cost only 86€. If this was lockdown, we communicated to each other with a nod, could we get this every night?
Covid Chronicles: Escape from Europe – Day 2
–Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft