We had always talked about moving abroad, and circumstances over recent years only strengthened our resolve. Events in the workplace and in our personal life, as well as the ever-increasing cost of living in Britain, convinced us that there was a better (and warmer) life for us somewhere else in the world. We both adore Glasgow and are very proud to call ourselves Glaswegian but it can be a grey, cold city where they often forget to switch off the rain and turn on the sun and sometimes summer can come and go without so much as a barbecue. We yearned for a life where we could have some kind of an outdoor life that didn’t always involve umbrellas and wellies. Plus we wanted to broaden our minds, to experience a different culture and a different way of life and we wanted our children to experience it too.
We decided on Spain. Actually, truth be told, I kind of pushed for Spain because I thought it would be a livelier place for the girls with its resorts and festivals and I had always loved visiting the country for holidays. Stewart, on the other hand, had always pictured himself living in France. Well, who knows – maybe next time…
So, Spain it was but where in Spain? After a lot of online (and on-TV) research we shortlisted two areas based on location and affordability. We didn’t want a ‘”little Britain” tourist hotspot but we also didn’t want to be perched on a remote hillside, thirty miles inland with no wifi. The first area for consideration was the Axarquia region of the Costa del Sol and the second was the Costa Azahar on the country’s east coast. The plan was to visit both before deciding but, in the end, we only visited Axarquia because it just felt right.
Finally came the question of “when?” We had been talking about this move for almost three years but there had to come a time when the planets aligned, the finances were right and we could actually make the move. We predicted that that would happen mid-2017 and, while incredibly exciting, it was also a very scary prospect. For years I had dreamed of quitting my job (I had worked for local government for 3 billion years in a variety of roles, the most recent being digital marketing) but the thought of being salary-less and starting again in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language was daunting to say the least. However, there was a very important person that we had to consider – our youngest daughter was still in school and was about to enter an important phase in her education. If we didn’t make the move before the end of summer, she would be starting a new school midway through a term. Because of exams, this was a bad idea and could really upset her studies. On the other hand, if we waited a year, she would be halfway through the exam process in Scotland and, taking her out of the system then could be equally damaging. Put simply, it was now or never. We chose ‘now.’
After some difficulty, it was the height of summer after all, we found a house to rent in Torrox pueblo. We secured the house via an estate agent online – an agent who turned out to be a Godsend and without who the first few months of our new life in the sun would have been so much more challenging – and we were crossing our fingers that it was as pretty as it looked in the photographs.
Now that we had somewhere to live we could establish a proper timeline and start thinking about packing up our life in Scotland, quitting jobs, informing the school, telling the landlord, visiting the vet and organising farewell parties. We gave ourselves just six weeks to pull everything together and the last task was the removal of the furniture. My friend questioned whether it would be easier and more cost-effective to sell all our furniture and start anew in Spain but it’s not quite as straight-forward as that. It’s amazing how much stuff you accumulate over time and the way your inner hoarder surfaces when you try to pack 20 years of family life into three little storage containers (in the end it was actually four containers due to a screw-up by the movers but that is another story!) And it’s not just furniture – there are pots and pans and glasses and cutlery and towels and bedding and garden tools and books and vases and photo frames and paintings and curtains and laundry baskets and bikes and mattresses…well you get the picture. They say moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do. Trust me, moving country is even more so. You can’t just make a couple of car journeys back and forth to the new house with the valuables and breakables and soft furnishings so you have to be much more strategic in your packing. You could pay the removal firm to pack for you, like we did, but after our experience I wouldn’t recommend it (as I said, that is another story!) Anyhoo, our furniture was eventually loaded up and off it went on the van. Then, after a night eating takeaway food out of the carton and sleeping on an old mattress on the floor, we locked up our rented house, dropped the key through the front door and headed to my mum’s to deposit the children and begin our adventure.
Our route was planned meticulously and it would take us just short of five full days to reach our destination. Emma and Charlotte were staying with my mother before flying out to join us as we figured it was hard enough keeping two teenagers amused in a car for five minutes let alone five days. Five days seems like a long time for any trip but the ferry crossing accounted for two nights and, besides, we wanted to make the journey part of the experience rather than just a means to an end. Plus, we were travelling with the pooch and she didn’t have the comfiest of seats so it was only fair that we kept the car sections of the journey as short as possible.
Day one: first stop – Walsall
The drive from the south of Glasgow to the north of Birmingham took us slightly less than 5 hours and we checked in to the pet-friendly Fairlawns Hotel and Spa in Aldridge, Walsall for our first overnight stay. This turned out to be a good choice of accommodation but (and don’t tell Marley this) I would have enjoyed it better without the dog. You see, our dog isn’t a very good dog. Don’t get me wrong, I love her to bits and wouldn’t swap her for the world and if she likes you she really likes you but she’s a nervous wee girl who dislikes other dogs, strange people and public places so it makes staying in hotels that bit more difficult. Plus, the room we were given was on the second floor which had a separate entrance and staircase for pet owners which was fine but which meant pulling on clothes and shoes and heading two floors down, passing the laundry room and car park every time we thought Marley needed a wee. What a a pain that was. But the hotel was really lovely, had great gardens and did provide a helpful welcome pack for our furry friend.
Day two: Onboard bound….
From Walsall we headed to Portsmouth and the ferry terminal. The boat was due to leave at 10.30pm but, in our eagerness to get moving, we totally miscalculated how short the journey to Portsmouth would be and ended up trying to fill about six hours before boarding. Looking for somewhere to have a late lunch that allowed dogs, we ended up at a picnic table in the gardens of a large seafront hotel. Popular choice judging by the amount of people inhabiting the other tables. And turns out entertainment was provided too! So there we were, in the middle of the afternoon, in the sunshine, beside the seaside, sharing a really tasty seafood platter and listening to a club-singer-cum-broadway-star-wannabe with a tape deck perform every song from every musical known to man in front of a makeshift dancefloor that was packed with couples and groups of women giving it their best moves. It felt like we gatecrashing a wedding (maybe we were!) Probably the most surreal lunch I’ve ever had but one I won’t forget in a hurry!
After lunch and after taking the dog on a long walk and after an ice cream (and after taking the dog on another long walk) and after watching the boats for a while (and after taking the dog on yet another long walk), we admitted defeat and headed to the terminal. Surprisingly, we were not the first in the queue which made us wonder if the process would actually be quite speedy. Not so much. Being at the front of the queue simply meant you got to wait even longer than those at the back.
At check in, all dogs have to be muzzled (poor things) and their passports checked to ensure they have been correctly vaccinated. That was a tense time – everything was in order but you couldn’t help worrying that perhaps you had missed something, you would be refused access and sent on your way back up north. Everything was fine of course and eventually, when darkness fell, we were allowed to board. Ferry day was a loooong day.
Day three: ferry ‘cross the Bay of Biscay…
The ferry itself was comfortable but the dog-friendly cabins are very small – no room to swing a cat(!) We had a window but there wasn’t much to see – water mostly – and there is no free wifi in the cabins so make sure you have a good book. The in-room leaflet suggested that if we looked hard enough we might even see a Blue Whale (or was it a dolphin) but if there were any, they were unwilling to show themselves. There were nice eating and drinking areas, a shop, a beauty salon, an observation deck and even a swimming pool for those few souls (mostly children) willing to brave the elements. I imagine this would be akin to a low budget cruise – not that I’ve ever been on a cruise and, after this, still have no huge desire to try one.
The big nightmare for us was the “dog exercise area”. Obviously designed for real dogs, this was a tiny area on the deck above us which was cordoned off with a fence and where everyone with dogs had to ‘walk’ their pets and let them do their business. How do you think the dog-hating, people-wary Marley coped with that one? Ever seen a spaniel cross its legs for two days? Besides which, she couldn’t even negotiate the open staircase up to the deck so I ended up having to carry her for each and every unsuccessful trip. And she ain’t light. We were all glad when we arrived in Bilbao – although Marley, not so much at first, because she had to be locked in our car on the car deck while we waited on the passenger deck as the boat docked. Thankfully she was nice and calm when we were reunited but it was a stressful half hour, for me anyway.
Then we were off the boat, through passport control and on towards Madrid!
Day four: onwards to magical Madrid!
One of the most memorable parts of the journey for me was seeing the landscape change the further down the map we travelled. I had never been in northern Spain and, with it’s green hills and fields, I was amazed at how similar in places it was to Scotland. However, unlike Scotland, the further south we drove the warmer it became. While Stewart concentrated on the hard part – the driving – I played at spotting El Toro – a.k.a. the Osborne Bull – which wasn’t exactly difficult considering there are about 90 dotted throughout Spain. According to my friend Alison (who resides next door to El Toro when she visits Spain) you must say hola whenever you see him. So I did. Every time. Stewart found that funny….the first time!
This part of the journey also included our first ever Spanish toll road. Something to remember if you are considering taking your right-hand-drive car to Spain – make sure you have an agile and affable passenger in the seat beside you because it is them who will be stretching for tickets at car parks and toll roads, paying at drive through windows and keeping you right when you overtake on the Autovia. We stumbled across the toll road quite by chance and, before we realised it, we were in what looked like a giant car wash with multiple ticket slots all over the place. And before we could say “not sure what we’re supposed to do here..” there was a queue behind us and an impatient little man in a hat honking his horn while I got out to frantically look for the instructions. In the end it was really easy – you press a button and a wee ticket comes out of the slot allowing the barrier to rise. The reason there were so many slots – I figured out later – was because of all the different size vehicles that go through, duh!! Easy peasy when you know how. You then drive for what seems like forever down the road and, eventually, you come to a similar type set up only this time there are some staffed booths. Once you’ve handed over your arm and your leg as payment, you can carry on your merry way. I now avoid toll-roads whenever possible.
We arrived in Madrid on 1 August 2017. Our sat-nav was set for the UK only so once we had left the ferry, it was redundant. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the GPS on my very-smart-phone more than made up for our loss and we easily found the city. Finding the hotel, however, was not quite so straightforward. We could see it, it was situated right next to the bull ring, but locating and entering the hotel’s underground car park took more than one circuit of the one-way system. When we finally found the entrance and persuaded the receptionist to open the door, we discovered that the car park itself had either been designed for teensy-weensy Smart cars or for bikes and not for hulking big saloon-type beasties. Although at that point what we didn’t realise was that, if we thought negotiating the pencil thin, helter-skelter slope down was hard, going back up was going to be white knuckle scary.
The hotel itself – the IBIS Madrid Centro las Ventas – was very comfortable, delightfully cool thanks to the air-conditioning, and we had a lovely balcony overlooking the Plaza de Toros on which to enjoy a refreshing glass of Albariño (while I find bull-fighting totally abhorrent, the architecture of the Plaza was breathtaking.) Leaving Marley snoozing in the hotel room, we found a great little bar / restaurant round the corner from us where we had some lovely tapas and a well-deserved cerveza. I also picked up some delicious Manchego and some Iberico ham from a beautiful little deli on the road back to the hotel, trying and failing to impress by ordering it all in Spanglish.
Unfortunately I don’t have much else to say about Madrid because, worn out from the journey and feeling guilty about Marley being stuck in a strange room, we didn’t venture far. However, from what we did see it looked like an amazing city and we will definitely be returning in the future.
Day five: the last leg
Back into the car for the final part of our journey. The temperature continued to rise as we travelled south. The heatwave from Hell was affecting most of southern Europe, earning itself the nickname Lucifer, and Spain was seeing the mercury hit highs of around 40 degrees Celsius. We were feeling (and probably looking) like two rotisserie chickens as we struggled to get any cool air to circulate through the car. Our car is a convertible but we had so much baggage with us there was no way of getting the roof off and the air conditioning wasn’t hitting the mark. At least Marley managed to stay quite cool and comfortable in the footwell – in fact, if there had been enough room I might have joined her.
Five and a half hours of Autovia and two pit stops later, we reached our final destination – Torrox, Málaga. It was exactly as we remembered from our trip three months earlier and looked even prettier in the sunshine. The estate agent we had been liaising with and who had secured us our rental house met us in the car park. After exchanging pleasantries and bemoaning the blistering heat she took us to the rental house that was to become our new home for the next few months….