I walked off a fully loaded plane to avoid another UK lockdown
Toward the end of 2020, here in the U.K., clouds on the travel horizon started to rumble again.
After a relatively "normal" summer with restaurants and hotels open -- though with restrictions -- and trips to some parts of Europe possible, the autumn and winter were beginning to look bleak.
More and more countries were being removed from the U.K.'s travel corridor (countries that allowed people to visit and not quarantine on their return). Then, the imminent cold weather heralded an inevitable "second wave" of coronavirus infections and there was a general feeling of malaise creeping in.
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The options of where to go, legally, were ever dwindling and since I had so much annual leave left to take, I decided to pay my aunt in Valencia, Spain, a visit.
The trip would still require a 14-day quarantine on my return but since there were whispers of another national lockdown due for November, I thought it wouldn't be too arduous.
I spent a pleasant week indeed with family in the Barxeta region of Valencia. There was a heatwave, the hour's time difference meant I got well ahead work-wise and, guess what? A bottle of wine in Spain costs 2 euros ($2.40). Viva!
My newly retired aunt was also in the process of buying her dream home in Spain, so I was on hand to poke around potential properties with her, which as someone who is very nosy, was ideal.
Dreading the return to London
As the week drew to a close, I mentally prepared to return to London. As we watched the news the night before I was due to fly, Boris Johnson announced that the U.K. would resume another national lockdown for a month, back to the very strict measures we faced in March. Grim, relentless monotony.
The next day, I got the train to Valencia Airport feeling glum but resigned. Valencia is such a vibrant, bohemian place and during my time there, the feeling was cautiously hopeful. And the whole place smells of fresh oranges. A strict midnight curfew was in place, which everyone respected, but the Valencian spirit is strong. I was sad to be leaving.
The airport was busy, everyone be-masked and I sailed through security with no problems. I had already phoned my husband to tell him my flight was on time and that I'd see him in a few hours. I had quite a bit of time to kill, so I found a lounge and settled in to look at some of my photos with a glass of cava.
As I sat there feeling sorry for myself and picturing the heaving-full flight back, then a late-night and stressful journey back from London Stansted to my home, a little voice started whispering: "Do you have to get on that plane? What if you perhaps 'missed' it?"
Now, I know that the rest of the U.K. was in the same boat as me (not literally though, as I actually live in a houseboat off the River Thames), but I was in the fairly unique position that I was already in another, but fairly close, European country two days before lockdown commenced.
The more I thought about it, the more I started to hyperventilate about going home. Again, without sounding feeble, I live on a very compact houseboat on a marina. In the summer, it can be dreamy. But in the winter, it's a damp, tantrum-inducing slog -- and that's when we have the freedom to leave. I work remotely, my husband is boat bound, things leak all the time, it can get bone-achingly cold, I get very annoyed...you get the picture.
Plus, a few friends had started to voice similar sentiments: "Um, I definitely wouldn't be in a rush to come back.."
As the clock ticked, the more I started to dread weeks and more weeks of queuing for the supermarket, arguing with my furloughed husband and boat things going wrong with no one around to fix them. I'm not ashamed to say, I may have started to get a bit emotional. Less bratty, more desperate.
The glass or two of cava may also have made me feel a bit weepy about my "spiritual home" of Spain -- after six days. All very dramatic.
I -- and there's no better way to describe it -- trudged to the gate. My prediction was correct -- the flight was absolutely full, so no chance of a nice row to myself to have a sleep (and another cry). As I walked down the jet bridge, I started to think "now or never" -- whatever lunacy possessed me, I don't think I could be that person who actually asked to de-plane once the engines started.
I made a decision. I wasn't sure where I would stay that night, what my husband was going to say or how much this would cost me but the pull of staying somewhere warm, cheap, new and exciting was too much. And I kept telling myself that I was here already. I hadn't broken any rules and once the choice was made, I felt instantly lighter.
Deplaning a fully loaded flight
Being escorted off a plane once everyone has boarded is a weird experience. Luckily, I only had carry-on so I could just scurry off into the night. I was walked back through security with a bemused security guard via the Ryanair ticket desk. I made a cursory inquiry about changing my ticket but they basically laughed at me and minutes later I was in a cab back into the city.
After I found a last-minute, cheapish hotel on Booking.com in the city center -- that was pleasingly mad and very apt considering the night's events -- a fairly fraught conversation followed with my husband but I was exhausted so decided to deal with it all in the morning.
The morning work meeting the following day was interesting but I think my teammates were (kind of) impressed at my...intrepidity.
My husband flew to Spain to avoid the lockdown, too
My cranky husband was talked round and he flew out later that day to join me, just before lockdown came into effect. He had been furloughed again so nothing was stopping him. Despite employment woes, we still felt lucky to avoid another lockdown in favor of staying in Spain. I know not everyone has the ability or schedule flexibility to do the same thing.
As someone who can be slightly obsessive about TripAdvisor and researching places to stay and eat, the almost nomadic existence we embraced really pushed me out of my comfort zone.
For five weeks we stayed between Valencia city, Xativa and Alicante and generally, not in one place for more than a few nights. I wanted to stay everywhere.
In early autumn, the city would usually be teeming with visitors, especially Brits. This year, not so much. Our foreignness definitely stood out -- especially as we insisted on wearing shorts all the time to suck every last bit of Vitamin D out of the day -- as did our very basic Spanish. My husband just walked around beaming "muy!" (very) or "mucho!" (a lot) at people. I think they felt sorry for him. We tried though and couldn't have felt more welcome, really.
We stayed at the Hotel Vinci Mercat in the old part of the city for a few nights and the manager told us how sad they were to not have any tourists and their excitement for next season.
Though availability at every hotel was wide open and the prices were great -- we paid 45 euros ($54) a night for the four-star Hotel Vinci -- the experience was a bit lacking, due to COVID rules. Hotel breakfast was very basic, there were no glasses or cups in the rooms, and in the evenings, delivery was the only dining option.
One hotel we stayed at, the OTTOH Charm, had a completely contactless check-in, which was fabulous as we were able to have our room a 9 a.m. and communicated with the very friendly manager via Whatsapp.
Masks in Spain are mandatory everywhere and unlike parts of the U.K., especially London, it's very strictly enforced. Spaniards will tell you to put on a mask if you forget.
If you're not familiar with Valencia it's on the eastern coast of Spain. It's the home of paella and unlike the more "resort" or party areas like Marbella or Benidorm, it's got an arty, cultural vibe. The old town is full of windy little streets, packed with 2,000 years of history. By day I worked at TPG and by eve, we explored.
Valencia has lots to see and in true Mediterranean spirit, everything is open late. The Parroquia de San Nicolás de Bari is a gorgeous Gothic church with a ceiling that could rival the Sistine Chapel and is near Valencia Cathedral, equally spectacular.
Valencia has a thriving street art scene, too and you can easily while away a few hours admiring it -- for free! To keep costs down, even more, we took advantage of Spain's "menu del dia" -- a set lunch menu from about 1 to 4 p.m. that normally includes four courses, including coffee and dessert, for about 10 euros ($12). This concept was said to have been introduced in the '60s by Franco's government so that all Spaniards -- including workers -- could afford a decent meal.
If you have that for a late lunch, then you probably won't need to buy dinner as every drink comes with a snack of nuts, olives or chips.
Even though eating out in Spain isn't terribly pricey, we were there for five weeks in total, so the pennies were starting to add up. Buying fresh produce at the famous Central Market of Valencia was another way to save.
You need to see it to believe it. It's a vast, domed 8,000-square-meter food hall built in the Valencian Art Nouveau style. You can buy a feast of olives, oranges, jamón, bread and, of course, aioli for less than 10 euros ($12) and sit and eat it in one of the city's many fragrant gardens.
My aunt was incredulous that I had stayed and didn't believe me until I sent her a screenshot of my live location on a Valencian street. With families split up all over the world right now, I took this opportunity to spend more time with her and my uncle, too.
We feared that we might be a bit unwelcome during the pandemic, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Making sure we kept our masks on, speaking Spanish where we could and just smiling and being polite went a long way. Spain relies heavily on tourism -- 12.5% of its GDP depends on it -- so I hope that the money we spent while there -- however meager -- helped.
One of the most famous things to see in Valencia is the Turia Gardens, one of the largest urban parks in Spain. The former riverbed meanders for nine kilometers from Cabecera Park to the City of Arts and Sciences and is a magnet for runners, cyclists, outdoor exercise classes and smooching couples. Again, a fabulously free place to entertain yourself. After all, five weeks is a long time to spend money in "holiday mode."
Valencia is also unique in that it's a city with a beach. About five kilometers from the center is La Malvarrosa -- largely underdeveloped, very clean and safe, and easily accessible by the metro. While in November the weather and water were a bit too fresh for locals, that didn't stop this pair of hardy boat dwellers. Easy.
After a few weeks of living within our means, we decided to treat ourselves to a last fancy lunch before returning to the U.K. I can't recommend Marina Beach Club Valencia enough. Right next to the ocean, it's a chic, upmarket restaurant and bar that's highly Instagrammable. The food was incredible and the staff were amazing -- even letting us change in their restrooms as we turned up looking a bit feral from the beach.
We spent the whole afternoon eating and drinking, lunch lasted about five hours -- there's never any rush in Spain.
Staying in Spain was the right choice
At this point, flights back to London were diminishing so we booked a return flight to Stansted from Alicante and according to Google Flights, it would be the last one for a while. It was time to get back to reality. My six-day jaunt had turned into a five-week epic adventure.
I never regretted my decision to stay. Friends and family back home, mid-lockdown, didn't begrudge us. They were more jokingly envious. I'm very aware that I am not unique in finding lockdown a struggle -- but my living situation on a houseboat is, I think, and so was my location when the dreaded news was announced. Having the chance to explore this city I now adore, make some new friends and live spontaneously in Spain are memories I'll have forever.
We were lucky that our flexible schedules and affordable Spain prices allowed us this experience.
Managing to swerve a lot of November's restrictions has made facing the current ones more bearable. Quite a drastic measure I know -- I did end up spending a considerable amount on hotels, flights and food and being away from home for so long unplanned isn't ideal. Let's just say our attitude toward clean pants had to be revised and we also came home to a very hefty parking fine.
But I carpe diem-ed. And I'm still sane. And I haven't sank my boat -- yet.
Feature photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images