Our destination on this courier run is Bilbao, Spain’s famous Basque city. This is our farthest run so far and our first visit to Bilbao as well as our first trip to Spain together. We have known for several days that the trip was on, allowing us to make arrangements and book our tickets. Because the document would not be ready until late Tuesday for delivery on Wednesday, the only solution was to fly, though we avoid this normally.
The only company flying scheduled flights to Bilbao direct from the London area is easyJet, running a service from Stanstead. There are very few flights, and for our purposes we needed to take the 06:55 departure. As no trains or buses run from Islington to Stanstead at that time of the morning, we have to take a cab. The company is paying for this, of course.
Everything seemed fine until Tuesday when a couple of clouds appeared on the horizon. The first concerned the size of the package.
Normally, the package is contained in a large envelope and can range from, say, a quarter of an inch to 3 or 4 inches thick. We were expecting something in this range and booked "no luggage" flights. On Tuesday afternoon, we learned we would in fact be carrying a large cardboard box! Although we haven’t seen it yet, we know it’s too big to go as hand-baggage. I am not sure at this juncture (3 am, waiting for the cab) how we will sort this out.
The second problem is that the document was not ready, as promised, by 4 pm on Tuesday when Tigger left work. Instead, we were told it would be delivered to us later in the evening. Somehow, we missed a phone call and when Tigger rang back, none of the team members could be located, so we could not find out when the document would be sent. In any case, we wanted to get a few hours sleep and not sit up to all hours waiting for the courier.
Tigger was able to call the cab company and reschedule the pick-up: they will now go to her company first at 3 am to pick up the box, and then come here to take us – and the box – to Stanstead.
It is now 3:15, and I had better get ready for the ring on the doorbell!
When the cab arrived, our first question was "Have you got the box?" Yes, he had.
The drive to Stanstead was uneventful. We passed through dark, nearly empty city streets and a dark but moonlit countryside. A nearly full moon was riding high and, above it to the left, a planet shone searing white. These were the only objects visible in the sky until we approached the airport and the flashing lights of aircraft could be seen.
When the cab pulled up, we had our first opportunity to see the box. I gulped. It was a foot wide and high and a little more than a foot long. It had a lid fixed with parcel tape and at each end, a hand hole to lift it by.
Inside, the terminal building was already crowded. People, singly or in groups were milling about and there were queues at the check-ins. In every corner slightly off the beaten track, recumbent figures were catching a nap.
At the check-in, we were told that the box could not go into the cabin as hand-luggage. It would have to go into the baggage hold at a cost £18. We then had to take it to the baggage handlers ourselves. We worried that security might want to open it and breach confidentiality but they made us wait while they scanned it and then let us go. The box rolled away, still intact.
At security, despite removing my rings and belt and emptying my pockets, I still managed to trigger the gate alarm and had to be hand searched. I have no idea what caused the alarm but as a foil packet of Fisherman’s friend once did so, I know how sensitive these machines are.
We bought a breakfast of croissants and coffee and settled down to wait. I checked the time: 5:19; over an hour and a half to flight-time. Not that it mattered: everything was done and dusted and we could relax until we arrived at Bilbao and reclaimed the box. Let’s hope it makes the flight and doesn’t go astray.
I woke up this morning at 2 am, after a few hours of fitful sleep, and I doubt whether we will be home much before midnight, so it’s going to be a long day! Then again, we have Thursday to recuperate.
The flight was slightly delayed by strike action by air controllers in France, apparently, and we were late departing. The flight itself was uneventful and we left the airport in Bilbao to find it was a warm sunny day.
It was a relief to discover that our box had accompanied us on the flight and to see it plop out onto the baggage reclaim belt. Following the signs, we found and boarded a taxi. The driver merely glanced at the address without a word and set off. We had to trust that he knew where to go.
The airport is quite some way out of town – something to remember when we come back this evening.
The taxi deposited us at the client’s address and we went in. The security spoke to us in English, having seen the writing on the package. He phoned through and then asked us for proof of identity, so we showed him our passports. I was curious as to what would happen next because even if Tigger was listed as a legitimate agent, I would not be. However, having checked each passport on the computer and handing them back to us, he directed us upstairs.
We were again addressed in English and given a receipt. We returned to the street and Tigger phoned the office: job done!
We then went on a walking tour of the town and were hit by the "Glasgow Effect". This is what we call the sensation of being surrounded on all sides by beautiful buildings and impressive sights all jostling to be photographed.
Bilbao appears to be a rich and well endowed city and, apart from the slightly enclosed feel it has from the surrounding mountains, made us think of Paris.
For lunch we went to the tapas bar at the Bilbao Guggenheim. We had a light repast but it was enough, especially as the weather was hot. Even I, without more ado, took off my jacket and jumper and folded them in my bag.
After lunch we went across the road to a tourist information office and asked if they had any bus maps. They said there were no bus maps: shades of Norwich. When will cities realize that they need to integrate their transport systems so that visitors can get about and spend their lovely money? There is a certain lack of imagination evident here.
We enquired how to get to Las Arenas at Getxo, as Tigger fancied a stroll by the estuary, thinking it would be cooler there. Moreover, there is a transporter bridge there – the Puente de Vizcaya – that might be interesting to see.
We were told that the easiest way was by metro, so found our way to the nearest station, worked out what tickets we needed and bought them from a machine.
The metro provides a fast and efficient service but when you stand on the platform, the trains are hideously noisy.
On arrival, we walked down to the estuary where we watched the little ferry crossing and the Puente de Vizcaya transporter bridge carrying people and vehicles across the water.
Las Arenas is less grand than the centre of Bilbao. In a way, it is more like the suburbs of London or other European cities. It is grubbier but has a more lived-in feel.
We went to cafe and sat outside. Then we visited a supermarket – which could been in Hackney or Willesden, if you didn’t look too closely at the brands – and bought a couple of items.
From Las Arenas, we took the metro back to town. I think we were both beginning to suffer from the effects of the heat because it was 30 deg C. If that’s the temperature in September, what must it be like in high summer?
Nearby was the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts and we retired to its cafe for a drink and a respite in air conditioned surroundings.
We sat for a while on a bench beside the Parque de Doña Casilda and watched the people and the sparrows. The handsome drinking fountain actually worked and many people stopped by to take a drink or fill their water bottles.
By now, around 4 pm, we would have been content to go home but this was not possible. There was only one flight back to Stanstead, the 22:45, and we were booked on to it. We had to be careful not to miss it, taking into consideration the need to get to the airport from town, to check in, etc and the difference of an hour between Bilbao time and London time. With all this in mind, we decided to go back to the airport now, even though it was early.
We did think of taking the bus back but as the firm was prepared to pay the cab fare, we might as well take a taxi. How to get one, though? The only ones we saw in the street already had passengers aboard. So we kept walking and looking for taxis. More or less by chance we came upon a taxi rank and asked to be taken to the airport.
Once there, we had about 3 hours until easyJet’s check-in counters opened. We thought to use up some of this time by having an early supper and followed the knife-and-fork signs to the sole restaurant (Bilbao airport is quite small), only to find that it had closed at 4 pm. There was a cafeteria open but we managed to find very little there to eat.
We went out for a walk but there wasn’t really anywhere to walk as it was obvious that the airport had been designed for vehicular access only. Check-in for our flight opened at about 9 pm local time, and we joined the queue, checked in, and went through security. On the departures side, everything seemed to closed but then, to our relief, we found a cafe still open and could have a snack and a drink.
The joy of this was tarnished by the news that our flight was delayed. Instead of departure at 22:45, it was now expected for 23:50 (local times). We hope that the cab company which is supposed to pick us up at Stanstead is keeping an eye on the arrivals board and will be aware of the situation.
At the moment, it is looking as if we will be getting home something like 24 hours after we left!
The board showed that our flight would board at 23:20 and depart at 23:55 but boarding time came and passed without any announcements. There was a flutter of relief and excitement when we were at last summoned to gate 7.
We waited there for a long time without anything happening and then came the bombshell: our flight had been cancelled! You can imagine the shock and the outrage. Staff were kept busy dealing with complaints and questions but there was little or nothing they could do to pacify us.
After a while we were told we would be taken to a hotel for the night, then collected and put on a flight at 1 pm (local). I won’t try to describe the various responses of the other passengers but there was nothing we could do but accept the inevitable. I would have regarded it as an adventure but for the fact that I was worried about Freya.
We were marshalled in front of the closed terminal where a couple of coaches drew up. Again, nothing happened for a long while and we were left standing without any information.
Finally we allowed to board and were taken to the four-star Hotel Gran Bilbao. It is obviously a quality hotel, outside our usual league, but our room unfortunately reeks of damp. We arrived here at 2:09 am local time. We have a room on the 7th floor with a tremendous, if scary, view.
I slept until my alarm woke me at 6 am (UK time). I managed to make the shower work, which made me feel better, but that would have to do as we had none of the usual toiletries. Tigger persuaded me to go down to Reception and ask what they could supply. The result was a pair of toothbrushes. Nothing else was available.
We went down to breakfast and found a buffet with an impressive range of food. Then all we could do was sit in the hotel lobby to await developments.
Today so far, the sky is overcast and the temperature is much cooler, which is a relief in the circumstances. The heat in the airport yesterday certainly added to the discomfort of the situation.
We are supposed to be meeting my son in town this evening and of course, I have been out of touch. Finally I was able to log onto the hotel’s WiFi and receive emails from my son and to reply, letting him know the situation. If one needed the lesson, this shows how things go awry when we are deprived of the services that we take for granted when they are working normally.
Surprisingly, the coach arrived on the dot of 10 am. After the usual toing and froing consequent on marshalling a crowd of people and their baggage, we were off.
On arrival at the airport, Tigger asked when we would be able to check in and was told "In one hour". So we went to the cafe. On emerging we found the check-in already open and a long queue. Why am I not surprised? Here, they either give you no information or incorrect information.
This reminds me forcibly of our experience with Eurostar and the fire in the Tunnel: these big companies have no contingency planning and go to pieces in a crisis. They leave their frontline staff to deal with public frustration and anger but without giving them the information and the means to do a proper job. They claim afterwards that “Lessons will be learned” but these lessons never are learned. Next time, it is as much of a fiasco as the time before.
Once again we were told our flight would be delayed, so we settled down to wait. Then suddenly, it was “last call” for our flight! I don’t think they had passed through the normal sequence but had gone straight to “last call”.
Having hurried us onto the plane, they now informed us that there would be a wait for of least two hours! Apparently, we were supposed to sit cooped up on the plane for two hours, just in case a take-off slot should become available sooner. I will leave you to imagine the mood.
The plane finally took off and the mood in the cabin lifted in consequence. The hour and a half of the flight passed slowly but perhaps not as slowly as the hours we had spent waiting yesterday evening and this morning.
We at last arrived at Stanstead and made straight for one of the cab offices and we were soon on our way back to Islington. The nightmare was becoming a bad memory.
Once home, we had very little time to get ready and go out again to meet my son in town but we made it and could relax at last over an Indian meal.
The run produced several superlatives: it was our longest trip, both in terms of distance and time, and involved the largest package we have so far carried. It was the most uncomfortable and nerve-racking and the most annoying because of the incompetent level of customer service to which we were treated.
On the other hand, we did the job and on time. We enjoyed a free night and breakfast in an expensive hotel, and were treated to expensive cab rides (the journey from Stanstead to Islington alone cost £90 – more than the return air fare). We made the acquaintance of a new city and saw at least some of its sights. I got a chance to practise my rusty Spanish. Looking back, if I had seen in a crystal ball how it was going to turn out, I think I would still have gone.