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!