HOW TO AVOID THIS SPANISH TOLL ROAD MISERY...
I was very tired. A night that had gone on for too long at one of Valencia's many wonderful bars had taken away several layers of brain power. And so, the next morning, when I set off for the 6 hour drive from Valencia up to see my friend in Pamplona, I stupidly departed with only just over 8 Euros in my pocket.
The first 3 hours of the journey between Valenica and Zaragoza is dual carriageway and, crucially, toll free. Just north of Zaragoza, just over half way, I came to my first toll station, spread across several lanes. I pulled up and, as my car was a right hand drive, got out and walked round to the pay machine.
I confidently slipped my debit card into the slot but, instead of a ticket being spat out, and the barrier easing up to release me back onto the motorway, a message in Spanish was displayed that clearly indicated my card wasn't accepted.
I tried again, and again, unable to accept the horrible reality unfolding before me. I had no other card and, due to me not getting any money out in Valencia, I was 13 cents short of what I needed to allow me to escape.
I counted my coins like a child learning to count, I even counted them in a different order hoping that would magically create extra money, and a frantic search under every seat in the car produced not a bean more.
Just then a car pulled up at the booth next to me. This was no time for pride so I called out "Do you speak English?" to which, blissfully, the man said "Yes". I explained my situation - and I hope his children are forever blessed with good health and happiness for this - he handed over 20 cents. I didn't even have to sing.
Never had the sound of coins jangling down a chute been so sweet and I yelped with joy as the barrier lifted.
"it may as well have been a clown's gun firing a flag during a bank raid..."
Back on the motorway, feeling like fugitive fleeing jail, I started to consider my options. My bank confirmed that the account was in credit, and there was no security block on the card. It had to be, therefore, that toll booths in Spain simply didn't take debit cards.
I needed to find a service station with a cashpoint and, after another 15 miles, I saw one, pulled up and shoved my card into the machine.
But all that happened was a short film began to play, featuring a smiling family on holiday, followed by a flashing red button.
For all the use it was, it may as well have been a clown's gun firing a flag during a bank raid.
I dashed into the station and, in front of a queue of bemused Spanish men, enacted a mime to the cashier that involved me pointing at my card, and doing bendy arm movements in the direction of the ATM.
The young man behind the counter slowly raised an eyebrow before saying, in perfect English, that the ATM was broken.
He then, sensing British embarrassment and therefore an opportunity, offered me a crate of locally produced red wine.
"Spanish had never sounded more impenetrable..."
After another 30 minutes it was clear that I wasn't going to find a service station before I came to another toll booth, and so I decided I to take the next exit and join a free National route for the rest of the journey.
Joyously, screaming "I'm saved", I zoomed down the slip road and round a sharp bend - and arrived at a toll booth.
I was dumbstruck. I couldn't reverse, my exit was blocked and I was in the middle of nowhere.
There were a few buildings just across the opposite carriageway so I wandered towards them calling out "Hello" as loudly as I could.
A surly, moustachioed man in a hi-vis jacket emerged. I did another mime ( he definitely spoke no English) which resulted in him mumbling something that featured the word "police" and demanding to see my passport.
I phoned my mate in Pamplona and for the next twenty minutes I sat in my car watching the man get increasingly shoulder shrugging. Spanish had never sounded more impenetrable.
Finally the phone was grumpily handed back to me and my friend explained that I would be allowed through, but only after he'd promised to pay the bill of E2.75
"What?" I said."You've just had to spend over 20 minutes arguing for me to be released, with the threat of police, for just 2 quid?"
The man gestured for me to get into my car and then simply bent forward, pressed a button and up went the barrier. It was all he had to do.
I looked at him in my rear view mirror as I drove to the freedom of an N road. He was shaking his head and clearly felt that I'd got away with a major heist.
Maybe in his world I had, and I certainly will never travel through Spain again without either enough cash or a credit card, which are the only cards that work at toll booths. And neither should you.
WE TRAVELLED TO SPAIN WITH BRITTANY FERRIES ON THE PLYMOUTH TO SANTANDER ROUTE.
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