Discovering Costa Brava Spain in a rental car

Adventures with a GPS in Costa Brava, Spain

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Everyone told me I wouldn’t need a map. Rental cars these days, they insisted, are equipped with GPS systems that would carry me right to the doorstep of my destination; I just needed to request a car with English language GPS. Argus Rental Car was more than happy to oblige. On the appointed day, I met the Argus representative in his office at the train station in Girona, Spain.

He walked me to to the parking garage and pointed to a brand new, sleek black sedan. “It’s huge,” I thought, then dismissed my concern a split second later as he placed my luggage in the rear seat and began demonstrating how to operate the air conditioning, wipers, blinkers, and various other systems.

“I’m afraid I’ve never used a GPS. Can you show me how it works?” I asked.

“Sure. What’s your destination?” I handed him the address of my hotel in Palau-Saverdera and he scrolled through the settings until he figured out how to add it. “You’re good to go. All you have to do is hit the start button when you leave the garage,” he explained.

“Would you mind entering the return journey for me as well?”

His brow furrowed as he punched buttons, moving between options and screen displays. “All the destination slots are full and I don’t know how to delete an entry to make room for yours,” he admitted.

“No worries,” I said, waving him off and climbing into the driver’s seat. “I’ll figure it out.”

The metallic voice of the GPS directed me to turn left out of the lot and continue straight for several kilometers until I came to the entry ramp for the northbound highway. I tooled along the highway for half an hour before receiving my next instruction: “In 150 meters, turn left.” Huh? My destination was to the northeast and turning left would take me west. “Maybe it’s a cloverleaf,” I thought. I slowed down, looking for the turnoff, but the only possibility was a one-lane dirt road. “That can’t be right,” I mused. “I’ll just keep going north.” The GPS readjusted. “Make a U-turn at the next possibility.” Round and round I went, unable to find the correct road. Frustrated, I took the exit for Figueres and pulled into a gas station, where the man behind the counter drew me a map on a scrap of paper.

Hand written instruction from Figueres to Palau-Saverdera

Hand written instruction from Figueres to Palau-Saverdera

Back in the car, I easily followed the attendant’s map but the GPS was not happy. In addition to repeatedly insisting I turn around, it suddenly developed a second voice that spoke half-a-beat later than the original audio. I considered turning it off but didn’t know how, so I soldiered on, trying to tune out the unintelligible gibberish. Finally, I found the turn-off for Palau-Saverdera and, a few blocks up the hill on the main street, my hotel. With my luggage unloaded, I parked in a nearby lot and aimed the clicker at the car; never before had the sound of a door lock engendered such satisfaction. I turned and walked away, intending to completely ignore the vehicle for a while.

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Main street of sleepy little town of Palau-Saverdera, Spain

For the next two days I contented myself with walks around the sleepy little town of Palau-Saverdera, which is close enough to the Mediterranean coastline to offer gorgeous views of the hilly countryside leading down to the waterfront town of Roses. When not wandering, I soaked up sun during warmish afternoons on the rooftop of my hotel, where I was treated to gorgeous sunsets and a double rainbow that had me believing in pots of gold.

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Double rainbow welcomes me on my first night at Niu de Sol Rural Hotel in Palau-Savardera

By the time day three rolled around I was was itching to explore, so I climbed back into the beast and headed for Cadaqués, a coastal town about 40 minutes away, to see the cottage where the painter Salvador Dalí lived. I deftly maneuvered Black Beauty around the serpentine mountain roads, congratulating myself on negotiating the rural traffic circles with ease. I’d been informed that police prefer tourists not choke up traffic in Cadaqués, so I pulled into the city parking lot at the top of the hill. Round and round I went, trying to find a spot big enough. Finally, I squeezed into one that barely left enough room to get out of the car. Under darkening skies I headed toward the center of town, struggling to see through eyeglasses misted by a persistent drizzle. Cold, miserable, and unable to find the cottage, I flagged down a local policeman for directions and learned that the Dalí cottage was a couple of miles outside of town in a village named Portlligat.

Back at the lot I paid my parking ticket and climbed into the car. Getting into the space was one thing, but getting out was quite another. The aisle was too narrow to allow my front bumper to clear the car next to me. An exasperating 15 minutes of jockeying later, I was able to squeeze out of the spot and make my way to Portllight. A few hours of exploring Dalí’s cottage calmed my frazzled nerves and the return trip to my hotel, thankfully, was uneventful. But as I turned my back on the behemoth, I couldn’t shake the gnawing fear in the pit of my belly about the drive back to Girona the next day.

A good night’s sleep put things into perspective. Luxuriating in the sunshine that streamed through the window onto my big, soft bed, I yawned and stretched and considered my silly fears. “You’ve driven all over the U.S. alone. Surely you can handle an hour’s ride back to Girona.” I carted my luggage down to the lobby and brought the car around to the hotel entrance, but try as I might, I could not figure out how to open the trunk. There was no button on the remote, nor could I find any button inside, and the auto manual was useless as it was in Spanish. “No worries,” I thought calmly as rain began to fall again. “I’ll just put it in the back seat.” I fiddled with the GPS until I figured out how to disable it and set off, following one-way streets downhill.

Halfway down to the main road, the narrow cobblestone lane I had chosen curved sharply to the right, then doglegged left at a 90 degree angle. I braked to a halt and considered my options. Since I’d barely made the curve on the way in, backing up was not an option; I had no choice but to try to go forward. I pulled to the right as far as possible and turned the wheel all the way to the left, inching forward. As I approached the stone wall to my right, the car’s alarm system activated: beep, Beep, BeeP, BEEP, BEEP! BEEP!! I cut the wheel and slowly backed up: beep, Beep, BeeP, BEEP, BEEP! BEEP!! For a quarter of an hour I wrangled with the monster until, with cold sweat running down my forehead, I made the turn. “God help me, just let me get this thing back to Girona and drop it off.”

With no map I again had to rely on directions from strangers. On the highway near Girona I pulled into a gas station to fuel up and begged help from maintenance workers who were happy to draw me another map.

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Highway maintenance workers drew me a map to the train station in Girona

The instructions were perfect but I missed the last turn. A half mile further on I confidently wheeled around a traffic circle to reverse direction, but a stoplight in the middle of the roundabout threw me into confusion. All the other traffic circles I’d negotiated had no stoplights. Unsure what to do, I braked to a quick stop, barely avoiding a collision with traffic entering from my right. Rattled, I crossed back under the railroad tracks and found the train station, breathing a huge sigh of relief as I pulled into the garage. I shouldered my heavy backpack and rolled my suitcase through the rain toward the rental office, where I stopped in my tracks. No lights shone through the plate glass walls. I grabbed the door handle and tugged but it was locked tight and a sign on door indicated the office was only open until noon on Saturdays. The heavy glass precluded slipping the keys under the door and there was no dropbox in sight. I walked back to a small office I’d seen inside the parking garage but my knocks brought no reply, so I retraced my steps and hunted down a security guard inside the train station.

“Rental cars have to be dropped off at the airport on weekends,” he explained. With no map and no reliable GPS I had no way to find the airport. And there was absolutely no way I was getting back in that car. At a nearby Internet shop I called the rental company and was instructed to drop off the keys at a second office located in a plaza within easy walking distance. Relentless rain pelted me as I circumnavigated the plaza but the only car rental agency in sight belonged to a competitor. For a split second, I thought about dropping the keys in their dropbox but dismissed the idea when I considered the potential for my credit card to be charged for a lost vehicle. Soggy and chilled to the bone, I turned back toward the train station.

“Can I help you with something?” asked a man standing in a cafe doorway. My distress must have been obvious. I explained the situation and he dragged me inside, sat me down at a table, gave me a cup of coffee and handed me his cell phone. We sifted through my paperwork and discovered an emergency phone number; a representative at Argus headquarters informed that there was a “buzon” – a dropbox – in the parking lot, so once again I trudged back to the garage. I glared at the black sedan as I wrung rainwater out of my hair and looked around for a place to deposit the key. Suddenly, an employee walked out of a small office tucked into the rear of the garage and I threw myself on his mercy. He walked me back to the office where I had begun the hunt and pointed to the corner furthest from the door, where a small rectangle had been cut into the plate glass. With no sign and no one to direct me, I never would have found it. I nearly wept as I shoved the keys through the slot.

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Rental car office at the Girona Train station

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The “dropbox” for keys was unsigned and virtually hidden in the corner furthest from the front entrance of the rental agency

Though I had planned to take the train to Barcelona that Saturday afternoon, I was thoroughly exhausted and decided to stay overnight in Girona. Fortunately, traveling without reservations allows me the flexibility to revise my plans at a moment’s notice; being able to roll with the punches is a crucial skill for perpetual travelers. Throughout the ordeal, I was acutely aware that the worst case scenario would have required me to stay until Monday morning, when I could drop off the keys.

In the ensuing weeks, the situation morphed from frustrating to amusing, providing me with an entertaining story for the blog. Though I was quite happy with Argus Rental Cars and would use their services again, next time I’ll do things differently. First, when using the GPS I’ll plug in quickest route versus shortest, as I now know that the shortest route can include smaller arterial roads, while the quickest focuses on highways and avoids detours and low speed areas. Second, I’ll specify a smaller car that will be more maneuverable in the narrow streets in these ancient villages. Third, I’ll buy a back-up map. And next time I’ll confirm the opening hours of the rental office before I hit the road.

My rental car was provided courtesy of Argus Car Hire, however, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

18 Comments on “Adventures with a GPS in Costa Brava, Spain

  1. OH! I can only imagine myself in your shoes and then going a step further (pun intended) by abandoning the monstrous car and hoofing it. Stoplight in a roundabout?? Yikes! Reminded me a little of being in the Sevilla train station trying to rent a locker for my bag. Those little machines, in Spanish, prompted great confusion as well as a small crowd to help me. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers in our travels.

    • Absolutely true about the kindness of strangers, Vivian. I am constantly amazed how gracious and helpful people are to me when traveling in foreign countries.

  2. what I like about your post here is it is very transparent. I am also into travel and I always like the idea of sharing my honest experience about a particular place..good one!

  3. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m sure you could manage any type of car. Additionally, without a GPS you interacted more with locals which is a big plus to any trip… Therefore, it’s good that you couldn’t use the GPS and you didn’t have a map :)

    • I’m with you Izzy – there’s always a silver lining in every situation.

  4. This story is almost like a parable teaching good habits (perserverance, helping others…). Sometimes the simple way is best…scrap of paper with a map beats an electronic genius…

  5. Oh my goodness, I was stressed out just reading about that trip! It’s a shame the GPS was so problematic because the Costa Brava and Girona are really lovely. I might be sticking to trains and buses the next time I go now ;)

    • Hi Jessica: I’d do it all over again. Despite the problems, the area is so beautiful and there is just no way to see most of it without a car.

  6. @Nathan Hershley:You are right i have been also suffering GPS system so through this also i am prefer pack backup maps during travel & transportation.

  7. I know there would be many times when a rental car would be most beneficial while traveling in Europe, but I have to say…I am happy without them! I caught a lift from a fellow traveler to make my way from Bilbao in Spain to Biarritz in France. He was traveling on business and had a rental car to get around. I know the advantages of having a car were many as we explored different towns en route, and I benefited from his generosity, but we seemed to suffer a similar GPS fate as we did circles for an hour as we tried to make our way to France. It was an exercise in frustration! Taking so much longer than planned on our little adventure, I ended up missing my train to the start of the Camino de Santiago (my destination after Biarritz!!) That being said – I guess after the fact, you can sit back and laugh at the events….isn’t that a fun part of travel!?

    • Hi Anita: I usually prefer to take public transportation myself but there are places that just are not easily reached without a car and Catalonia was one of those places. But next time I’ll have a back-up map for sure.

  8. I know GPS alone is definitely not perfect. We took the kids to Arkansas a few years ago and our GPS had us driving through creeks and everything else, not to mention not getting us where we needed to go. I always pack backup maps, either bought or printed from Google Maps.

    Sounds like quite an adventure you had, I’d have been a wreck dealing with that lol

    • Hi Nathan: I was a wreck, but came through it OK. Now it’s just a fun story to tell.

  9. absolutely you are right your blog is more much informative related to to travel and transportation i would like to prefer it.

  10. Now that’s a funny/scary/ and totally believable travel tale, but ultimately it illustrates that if you persevere and don’t panic, most of these situations will work themselves out and, later, with enough hindsight and distance, you can not only laugh about it but it will provide you with some great story material.

    • Hi Greg: It was frustrating but as you said, with a little distance the whole experience morphed into a very amusing tale. I love when that happens.

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