Hello travel, my old friend. On balance, I missed you

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Don’t you love travel? In your dreams, it’s all strolling through romantic medieval laneways, taking selfies at spectacular ancient ruins and eating out every night.

In reality, you get gastro, spend half the day queuing to get into a historic site, and fend off hawkers flogging you tatty souvenirs.

People queue to get into the Louvre in Paris.Credit: Shutterstock.com

Still, it was rather glorious being able to spend three weeks in Spain and Portugal, escaping Melbourne’s cold and rain, and instead enjoy warm and sunny weather (sorry) pretty well every day.

Three years ago, my trip was cancelled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was good to reacquaint myself with the joys, and pains, of travel, including:

Long-haul flights.

Anyone who says it’s fun or even nice trying to sleep in cramped economy airline seats for over 20 hours is lying.

Special mention to whoever passed on the flu to me. That was a surprise bonus.

Anyone who says it’s fun or even nice trying to sleep in cramped economy airline seats for over 20 hours is lying.Credit: Andresr

There were consolations. The plane’s toilets were fairly clean and they worked. The food was OK. I binge-watched two seasons, laughing out loud sometimes, of the satirical drama The White Lotus, and sobbed through the Tom Hanks movie A Man Called Otto (did anyone on the plane ask if I was OK? No way! This is international travel – it’s “toughen up, sunshine”).

Entire neighbourhoods in Lisbon, Portugal, are full of steep steps.

On the upside, I now have calves of steel and could finish a skyscraper stair climb race in record time.

Mind your step: a steep street in Lisbon, Portugal.

Some roads and footpaths were paved with smooth stones, designed to break the legs, and the will, of the most diligent walker.

Sometimes a tram or a taxi, or a silent electric tuktuk would hurtle down a narrow lane. Giving you just enough time, if you happened to glance around as it approached, to leap onto said slippery footpath. And break your leg.

(Lisbon is actually a beautiful city – with amazing food, people, beaches and history – that rose from a catastrophic 1755 earthquake.)


Yes, I was one of them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suck. To cater for us – the hordes hungry for home-style meals – in some European cities, at dinner time, you see entire streets of overpriced restaurants that offered US-style French fries and burger-and-pizza-heavy menus in English. Aggressive waiters block your path to coerce you to sit at their eateries.

Baroque church blues.

This style of over-the-top monstrosity common to European cathedrals admittedly can have a certain grotesque allure. For the first one or two churches you enter.

After that, you tend to want to run, screaming, from those cherubs and saints bulging out in faux silver and bronze from 1000 overblown altar pieces.

Within a day or two, you tire of traipsing through churches and museums. Instead, you spend entire afternoons drinking sangria at outdoor cafes, people-watching. That’s a rich cultural experience, too, you tell yourself.

Time to relax: A cafe in Seville, Spain.Credit: Carolyn Webb

Public toilets.

Their existence, or not, tends to become an obsession. Hours of your days become a frantic hunt for cafes, museums, or shopping centres with even grotty loos where you can relieve your bursting bladder.

Actually, I am incredibly grateful and fortunate to be able to travel. It is rather lovely to take in gawky storks nesting on power poles, a Roman temple in a market town, neolithic stone circles amid cork trees, peacocks in palaces and flamenco at an intimate Spanish theatre.

I strolled around the former Islamic palace and fortress of Alhambra in Granada, in southern Spain.

I walked 18 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route into the northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. (Yeah, 18 kilometres in four hours is cheating. But I didn’t have a spare few months to trek from central France on my knees. So sue me.)

Carolyn Webb on the Camino de Santiago trail in northern Spain.

In a Lisbon museum, set in a former jail for political prisoners, I learned about the brutal Salazar dictatorship, from the 1930s to the 1970s. A sobering dose of perspective.

I love Melbourne, but it’s healthy to go away. If only to appreciate what we have here. The specific clatter of trams turning into Spring Street from Bourke Street, the squeal of coffee machines firing up perfect lattes, the roar of a crowd watching our own sport, Australian Rules football.

Not so many killer stairs, fewer footpaths likely to break your leg and no baroque church decorations (please God, I hope not) to ba-reak your spirit.

It’s good to be home.

Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.

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