Charles C. Milliken: The lessons travel teaches

Charles Milliken
Charles Milliken

Last week I gave you an overview of the tour Bonnie and I made in the Iberian peninsula. This week I’ll share a couple lessons we learned.

One: be careful of assumptions. This was the sixth time we’ve flown to a European destination and rented a car. Two reasons: Our budget is limited and alternative forms of travel – buying tours, or traveling by train, are much more expensive. We did 34 nights for under $300/night, including air and all costs – including $500 for the pick-pocket. Second, having our own car maximizes flexibility. There are numerous times when, driving to our next planned destination, we spot something along the road which turns out to be an unplanned delight.

The first five times we did this, in about a dozen countries, we had little trouble getting around or finding last minute accommodations. We could reserve all our stops in advance, but that destroys flexibility. Iberia was a different kettle of fish. Language was a big problem. English is not commonly spoken in Spain, unlike what we’ve experienced in the rest of Europe. About a quarter of the hotels we stayed at had no one on staff who spoke a word of English. In addition, our accommodations were much harder to find than what we had become accustomed to. Five times, out of 17, we could not find where we were staying without outside help.

Having found the evening’s accommodations, there were frequently complex instructions of what to do. Pointing and body language aren't a big help dealing with complexity, especially over the phone. The most egregious example occurred in Montserrat, outside Barcelona. It is a supremely beautiful monastery which sits atop a rock formation thousands of feet above the valley below, where the town of Montserrat is located. Google delivered us to the center of town, but no hotel was visible. To get a chance at help, I had to get the car off the road so I could get out and walk the neighborhood. Also, we learned to rely on prayer for God’s help. Did I mention that city parking was nearly impossible in Spain? After circling around, I found a tight unoccupied space and, with Bonnie's help, tried to shoehorn my Kia into it. The road was extremely narrow, so I was blocking traffic in my struggles.

A car pulled up behind us, the driver got out, and mentioned the car to the rear of the space belonged to a friend of his, and would I please not scratch it. My stomach was in a knot. Then he asked, in English, if I needed help. Long story short, he quickly parked the car – they are used to the challenges of parking – told me there was no such hotel in the town, and asked for my phone so he could call the hotel – in Spanish – to find out where it was. It was on top of the mountain, 10 kilometers away and 2,000 feet up from where Google had sent me. Then he sent his wife home in his car, got in mine, and drove us to the hotel, and handled the complexities (including parking, again) once we got there. Then, when I offered to pay him for his hour’s worth of time and trouble, he refused. An absolute angel, and answered prayer if I ever saw it.

The several cathedrals we saw pointed out another lesson: Once upon a time faith drove the construction of almost unbelievable temples to the glory of God. They have to be seen to be appreciated. Words just don’t cut it, and pictures only hint at what it’s like to stand in the midst of such awesome majesty and superb art and artistry. Now they are tourist attractions, 8 euros admission for an adult, maybe 4 (or even free if you’re old like us.) Perhaps 7% of Spaniards attend church, except Easter, which is a big deal.

Faith has declined precipitously in the West, and nothing drives that point home like a Spanish cathedral – empty save for picture-taking tourists.

Charles Milliken is a professor emeritus after 22 years of teaching economics and related subjects at Siena Heights University. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared on The Monroe News: Charles Milliken: Lessons travel teaches