For the past nine years we have traveled to Europe as a family on February vacation. Most trips have been to Ireland and many times we have included other countries. Out of all the experiences we have had, it seems the simple task of getting in to our accommodations is always the biggest adventure.
Here are some background points to keep in mind. We rarely stay in hotels, therefore there is no front desk for check in. The flights to Europe leave in the early evening. With the time change, you arrive first thing in the morning. As a result, you have little if any sleep when you arrive. You want to go to sleep just at the time when everyone is waking up. Finally and most importantly, we are always on a tight budget so the circumstances involving the accommodations can vary broadly.
We have many stories about all the crazy things we have had to do just to get settled. For example:
- In Rome, we stayed in a convent / guest house at the Vatican. The nun who took our reservation returned to Guatemala and no one could speak English when we arrived. It took a very expensive international cell phone call from a waiter down the street to Mother Superior to get her to open the massive convent gates for us.
- In Barcelona I had to meet a total stranger in a cafe and hand over an envelope full of cash as payment in advance before I got the keys. A little nerve wracking to say the least but the apartment turned out to be beautiful and exactly as advertised.
- In Paris, we got the keys mailed to us in advance but we had to enter the apartment through a pitch dark ancient courtyard using our cell phones like miners to navigate through the narrow and windy halls and steps.
However the downright silliest and most emblematic of our annual trips was the time we stayed in Bunratty, Ireland.
I selected a nice bed and breakfast located very near Shannon Airport. It was located within a 3 minute walk from the famous Bunratty Castle and the nearly as famous and nearly as old, Durty Nellie's Pub.
Our flight was expected to land at 6:30 AM Irish time (1:30 AM Boston time). The innkeeper said we could get in to our rooms as early as 8:00 AM but no earlier. Her husband worked long shifts at the airport and his morning sleep couldn't be disturbed by trudging through the house at dawn. Since check in is usually in the afternoon, I felt this was a reasonable compromise on her part. She said if the light above the door was open then it was safe to ring the bell. I figured between collecting our luggage and going through the always torturous car rental process the timing would be perfect. Well, not exactly.
It turns out we flew across the Atlantic like we were on the Concorde. We had our luggage at 5:15 and we were in our car by 5:30. At quarter of six we were staring at a still dark Bunratty Castle, 2 blocks from our B&B. An entire country slept as six of us were crammed in the world's smallest minivan, luggage and all.
I drove around for about 15 minutes hoping for the impossible, a coffee shop. No chance. We were all exhausted. I couldn't drive any more. I decided we would see if the light above the door of the B&B was open. Nope. My mother was asleep, my 3 very young kids were asleep, my wife was hanging on by a thread. I did the only thing I could think of, I shut off the car and fell asleep, in the B&B driveway.
What a great way to start vacation. 3,000 miles from home, entombed in a micro minivan. We think it's bedtime, the sun and the cows think just the opposite. Meanwhile our innkeepers are 30 feet away nestled in their beds like the Van Winkle family.
I woke up probably after about 25 minutes. It can be described as the most uncomfortable nap in the history of slumber. The windows were all steamy. The car was quite cold (it was February) and the vehicle was starting to take on the atmospheric climate of an NHL locker room. A submarine would have been an upgrade.
I spent the next 45 minutes staring at that light above the door. It was like watching popcorn in the microwave. Well sort of except there was no timer, no spinning glass plate, and no popcorn. Actually it wasn't like anything, it was just me staring at that bulb.
Finally the light flipped on and the sardines were released from the can. Our hosts were quite nice and we were shown to our rooms. I would like to tell you we slept happily ever after. I wish.
Just a little more background. This particular B&B was "purpose built" which means that one side of the house is built specifically for the family and the other side is set up to host vacationers or "holiday makers". Throughout Europe heating oil is very expensive. The purchase and consumption of fuel is tightly managed. Each room has radiators that can be turned off and on as needed. It was cold outside and inside (our half of the house at least).
The innkeeper turned on the radiators in each of the three rooms and said we would be toasty warm in no time. We dropped our bags and jumped into bed. Usually a three hour power slumber gets us on track for the rest of the trip. Something didn't seem right. I was sleeping because my body demanded it but I was still freezing cold. I touched my nose, it was like ice. My wife had put on socks and extra layers. I followed suit. I was too wiped out to go downstairs to complain.
We agreed to reconvene at noon. I knocked on my mother's door. She greeted me in her a hat, gloves, and her winter coat (over her robe).
We went downstairs and our host apologized. They ran out of oil. I didn't have the heart or energy to put up a fuss. We would be gone the next morning anyway. My mother stepped in and asked to speak with the proprietor in the parlor. My mother is from Ireland so I think she felt as though she held the moral high ground on this one. She delivered what used to be called a diatribe but I believe is now called a Rant. I couldn't hear the exact words through the walls but it went something like:
"Blah blah never... blah blah hospitality... blah blah grandchildren... blah blah reputation ... blah blah pride... blah blah when we get back... blah blah tropical sauna."
Whatever my mother said accomplished the desired result. Everything else from that point on went great. We went out and had a beautiful day of touring. When we returned we could have cooked dinner on our radiators. We slept like kings.
The next morning we were gone, back in the microvan with another fond travel memory of just trying to get our foot in the door.