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.
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 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