When I was an undergraduate at UCD studying French, I used to dream of travelling to the land of liberty, equality, fraternity and force-fed geese.
There was no real possibility of my going to France. I had no money and had to work all summer to pay my college fees. But dreams were free, and my imagined natives were probably friendlier than the real thing.
One evening, a friend and I stuck a pin in a large map of France. It landed in a tiny commune in the Lot area called Bretenoux, which lay close to the Dordogne river. Even imaginary journeys need a destination, and this was ours.
Our notional road trip to Bretenoux became a frequent topic of pub conversation. We’d have to get some French francs, of course, and put yellow paint over our headlights, and get an IRL sticker for the bumper.
I happened to have an old Michelin Guide to France, so we were able to have imaginary meals in fancy chateaux and auberges along the way. By the end of that summer, we could almost convince ourselves that we had actually been there.
Around the same time, my father began to suggest a family trip to Cadiz, a naval port south of Seville in southern Spain.
Planning foreign travel is my forte. I’m just not that good at the actual travelling
He had been there in the 1950s, and the trip had a magical hold over him ever since. He went with a few friends from Sandymount and apparently it’s still talked about in those parts (and probably in Cadiz too).
The organisation took years. It was so long in the planning that one of the party, Ned Browne, had time to learn Spanish specially for the trip. It was Ned who dealt with Thomas Cook travel agents about trains and ferries.
Part of the journey involved an over-night train journey from Madrid. After a few drinks in the restaurant, Ned and my father felt their way along the corridor to their sleeping car.
Ned was in the top bunk. There had clearly been some mix-up over carriage numbers because, when he climbed the ladder, he found his berth occupied by a young Spanish woman.
He looked back over his shoulder and whispered to my father: “You have to hand it to Thomas Cook. They think of everything.”
Of course, we never made it to Cadiz. Yet every summer, the expedition was mooted, and the stories of that mythical 1950s trip were told and retold.
For me and my brother, the place began to take on a fabled air. My father, into whose mind the Christian Brothers had drilled the standard works of English Literature, was fond of quoting Keats’s lines about “stout Cortéz” when he first saw the Pacific Ocean.
It may have been as simple as the fact that Cadiz and Cortés sound vaguely similar, but in our minds, the town became bound up with images of Imperial Spain and the Age of Exploration.
Columbus sailed from Cadiz, and indeed Cortés spent time in its seedy quayside tavernas. In our minds, the harbour – which Sir Francis Drake once attacked – was filled will masts, rigging and bowsprits.
The real Cadiz, with its joint Spanish-US naval base, could never live up to the bustling port of our imaginations.
This week, my wife decided what we were going to do next summer. We were going on a European road trip before we were too old and stuck in our ways.
Next summer, our daughter would be eight, the perfect age to enjoy the journey, she said. Her plan was to make our way south, to Greece, and there rent a house by the sea on a small island, where the lapping of the waves would lull us to sleep every night.
Right, I said, leave it to me. Planning foreign travel is my forte. I’m just not that good at the actual travelling, I told her.
Since then, I have spent many pleasant hours in picaresque reverie. We could go south via London, Paris and Venice, I thought, and then return along the Croatian coast and up into Germany.
I weighed up the relative merits of driving over travel by train. Or a mixture of plane and train, with the odd ferry here and there?
A couple of days later, I made an announcement: “Right. I have it all sorted.” I handed her a typed itinerary running to two pages.
“That looks great,” she said. “I have just one question. Why are we going to Bretenoux?”