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Richard E Grant

Holidays in Hell: My Misery in Other People's Cheap Holidays

A Spanish break plucked from the backwaters of Teletext plunged Fiona Russell Powell into hell

The Idler: August-September 1998

Earlier this year, I went on my very first package holiday to the Costa Brava. Yes, I know it's the sort of thing most people do with a bunch of mates when they're eighteen, but I've always been perverse. What's more, it was only when I hit my thirties that I grew the metaphorical balls necessary for a single woman to go abroad alone. God knows, I needed a break; it had been a hellish start to the year and I was sick of waiting around for my boyfriend to return from the States. Loneliness, lack of work, a subsequent depression and the lure of a drug relapse yawned wide waiting to gobble me up -I had to get out of London PDQ.

After serving jury duty, I used my compensation cheque to book the cheapest and most immediately available holiday possible. After trawling Teletext, I chose Airtours -a name to strike terror into the bravest heart -the UK's number one package holiday operator for poor people and lager louts. But I couldn't afford to be either a snob or choosy and they did provide me with an absolute bargain: all the sun, sea and Sangria I could handle in a fortnight for just three hundred quid. Who could grumble at that? Naturally, I was under no illusions. One doesn't expect Cap Ferat for that sort of money and one didn't get it.

Four days later, I waved goodbye to a grizzly Gatwick afternoon as an Airtours hand-me-down jet pointed its nose in the general direction of Lloret de Mar on the North East coast of Spain. I had done my homework and knew I was flying to a resort with the highest concentration of discos in Europe and with, after Benidorm, the second highest amount of hotels. Well, I love a challenge. I anticipated a surreal experience but probably quite an interesting, anthropological one. I even sniffed the faint whiff of a story to make the holiday pay for itself; after all, you could be sure that no travel writer had deigned to set foot in the place for years. It had the potential to swing either way: it could be a nightmare or a hoot. I expected to stick out like a sore thumb, so I planned to keep a low profile, or even change it and have some fun pretending to be someone completely different. I realised travelling alone could pose problems. Every cocksmith in town would think I'd gone over desperate for a shag, but I didn't intend standing still long enough for anyone to get any ideas. My plan was to use the hotel as a base and explore the surrounding area, especially Barcelona. Lloret de Mar is in the autonomous region of Catalonia, birthplace of Dali and Gaudi and where Orwell took a bullet in the neck from Franco.

Things did not begin auspiciously. Even though spring had officially arrived, it was nippy cardigan weather when we landed at Gerona airport -a concrete box with a stained runway built solely for receiving chartered flights and closed during low season. Most of my fellow travellers were fairly scary but one stood out in particular, an obese middle-aged man in nylon slacks and a Neanderthal brow who was obviously travelling alone. He looked like he'd spent a lot of time living in places where the windows don't open more than two inches. I prayed he wasn't staying at my hotel. An Airtours rep with bad skin and larded-on make-up contemptuously herded us towards the coach bound for our hotel. Quietly, I took my place along with the fat matrons from Manchester and the brace of wags from Wigan who all looked like Colin Welland. Last to lumber aboard was Reggie Rampton, reeking of mothballs and chlorpromazine. Of course, he sat next to me. He really was incredibly creepy and I had disturbing visions of him lurking round the kiddies' pool while having a surreptitious wank beneath the Tesco carrier bag he was currently clutching to his breasts. I stopped myself short to scold myself internally: who was I to be so judgmental? Hey, child molesters need holidays too.

If you ever wondered what Europe would have been like had Germany won the war, go to Lloret de Mar. After Spanish, German is the first language in the resort and all the shop signs and menus are written in their glorious Muttersprache. As the coach swung down a steep hill then lurched up a sharp incline towards our hotel, we passed a disorientating row of bierkellers and hofbrauhauses. Finally, we parked outside a Tyrolean cafe next door to the Hotel Don Juan, which turned out to be the largest in Europe with over 800 rooms. The battle-worn reception area was an agitated sea of suitcases, varicose veins and bluerinses -there seemed to be an inordinate amount of old people there, more than I'd noticed on the plane. It turned out that another lot from Manchester had just arrived too. The travel agent's reassurance that Lloret would not be "too lively" was the understatement of the year. Meanwhile, assorted sex offenders hovered near the entrance eyeing up a large group of freshly disembarked care-in-the-community patients being rounded up by their social worker. Oh dear.

The lift stopped short of my floor -the top floor -and I lugged -my bags up the remaining flight of stairs. At least my room wasn't bad; a double due to a late cancellation, and, as the hotel management didn't bother to change the name on the register to mine, my idle fantasy about assuming a new identity came true. Henceforth I was Senorita Sullivan. The room was basic but clean and with all the comfort and aesthetics of a barracks. There was a surprising proliferation of loose coat hangers. Everything else was nailed down. In true Mediterranean Gerry-building tradition, the walls were paper-thin and you could hear every cough, fart, twanging bedspring, orgasmic groan or death rattle floating through on either side. It was a dump. It's only distinction being that it was the largest dump in Europe.

My first meal was a terrifying neardeath experience. The "dining room" really a euphemism for a canteen -was more like a vast fluorescent-lit antechamber to a chapel of rest: wall-to-wall liver spots and clicking dentures. A bit of research established that the mean age of the 1500 guests that week was seventy five. It was immediately clear that most of them had become institutionalised and rarely left the hotel. At mealtimes, they could be found scratching around outside the dining room waiting for the doors to open like psychiatric inmates waiting for the medicine cabinet to be wheeled on to the ward. There were two sittings and everyone was allocated their own seat from which you couldn't budge for the entire holiday; then you had 45 minutes to get the congealed self-service mush down your neck. Catalonia is famous as a gourmet region but the hotel food was spectacularly dreadful, almost inedible and I'm not known as a fussy eater.There was a silver lining: at least I wouldn't put on weight. The four Cheshire octogenarians sharing my table were very sweet and took the young 'un under their withered wings to grumble about the hotel and Lloret. Apparently, many of them had been stuck there for months; Airtours had just started a winter package of seventeen weeks for £950 all-inclusive and next year was already fully booked. I could see the attraction: even with all its shortcomings, surely it was marginally better than a miserable winter eked out on a pension in foggy Bolton? The oldsters did not agree, compared to Benidorm, they said, Lloret was the pits. But I suppose a sandpit is preferable to a coalpit.

We adjourned somewhat arthritically to the enormous bar-cum-ballroom where the joint was really jumping. The dance floor was packed with widows strutting their stuff as a local band belted out a tango version of "Spanish Eyes". I sat with my new friends -who said they were past the paso doble -and surveyed the room. It transpired that the British were in the minority; the Don Juan was a veritable League of Nations. As well as Germans and Spanish, we also had French and Moroccans. I was surprised to see a group of Russian women, gimleteyed babushkas plastered in gaudy eyeshadow being marshalled around by a fat man in a greasy baseball cap and Seventies Crimplene suit that was not being worn out of retro irony, believe me. It turned out they were prostitutes, working from my landing actually. They blended in well with the other guests crawling around the dance floor; it was like an audition for a Diane Arbus shoot. I half wondered if someone had spiked my cup of terrible coffee. So this was where the peasants of Europe came for their holiday These people were the living result of generations of poverty; poor genes,food and poor clothes. My social tourism was going pear-shaped. It wasn't fun at all but rather depressing. I didn't think I was better than they were, just utterly different. I couldn't have been more alienated if I'd gone on holiday to a colony. As I watched them enjoying themselves and steadily growing tipsy courtesy of the subsidised bar, I couldn't but feel that not only did I not belong here, but I had no right to be there. It seemed wrong that, after a life of hard work and struggle, this was best Airtours and the other companies could provide. They deserved more. But then, I have been to Cap Ferat.

I needed some fresh air and took a latestroll around the resort. My attack of middle-class guilt soon dissipated and I vered why Spaniards call the Costa Brava the Costa del Mierde. The main strip was seething with fat drunken pigs in shell suits and shifty greeters dragging into the discos that line the route, pumping out Nena's "99 Luft Balloons". Souvenir shops were still open, offering cards of Sam Fox and Madonna circa Like a Virgin. Somehow, I'd walked into a 1985 timewarp. The fast food joints sold frankfurters rather than tortillas, every man I passed looked either like a pimp a smelly john. They blocked my path and propositioned with seedy intent, the "schone Madchen" adding insult to injury -they thought I was a Kraut bird! It was far far worse than I had ever imagined. All I could think of was the line from Taxi Driver: "All the animals come out at night... some day a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets." Now I knew what I'd done. I'd come to hell for my holidays. This was a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life and I was stuck in the middle of it.

The following day dawned hot and sunny, a relief. After gingerly exposing my TV tan to the elements, I declined the hectic schedule of free social activities to explore Lloret instead. Not because being middle-class means one is genetically programmed to seek out Culture, but because I could not resist the sheer challenge of finding some in a place that makes Blackpool look like Pompeii. The main strip was deserted, Siesta time. A few lone idiots like myself wandered around in the baking heat. Only mad cows and Englishwomen go out in the midday sun; same difference, some might say. After photographing the church and hiking for miles to find a lump of Roman rock marking an ancient burial ground, I began to feel ill and returned to the hotel. At dinner with the OAPs, they remarked that I looked as white as a sheet. I thought it was probably a touch of sunstroke and retired early, waking up delirious in the middle of the night with a fever. By the morning, I knew it was serious. So weak I could barely move, I struggled downstairs to find the wheyfaced rep who was completely uninterested. She informed me that I must have caught the vicious flu bug currently rampaging around the resort. Visiting a doctor would take up most of my escape money to Madrid so I chose to tough it out and wobbled back to bed.

I sweated, vomited and shat half-a-stone while the kind couple next door took care of me, bringing me medicine and fruit. By the time I began to recover, the demographics of the hotel had completely changed from eightysomethings to under-eighteens. The resort pulsated until Sam with pumping techno. The braying of packs of roaming German students echoed around the streets. I needed earplugs to sleep and developed an ear infection that caused me to lose my voice. It was never-ending and I knew I wouldn't get properly well until I left.

On the day I was supposed to fly back to Gatwick, I mustered every ounce of strength I had to drag my bags down to Lloret's bus station and climbed aboard the first coach bound for Madrid. We took the scenic route, no doubt thoughtfully chosen so that we could take one last regretful backward glance as we left, trundling along the promenade that lines the beach. The sand was swamped with hoardes of near-naked fat people, their acres of goosefat flesh frying in the sun. An obese women in an obscene pair of skin-coloured leggings held up the coach as she waddled across the road. I machine-gunned her down to the ground. For a mad moment, I saw myself as Lt Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, striding around a now beautifully empty beach, yelling hoarsely about the smell of napalm in the morning. What a glorious smell that would be, compared to the stench of cheap sun-tan lotion, chips and stale beer farts. And so it was that I exited Lloret de Mar, shithole of the universe -on a misanthropic genocidal high. Imagine what a different holiday I might have had had I entered on one.