Simon Calder: Reeling in the years on a homage to Catalonia

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

As you probably weren't around in 1961, let me mention that it was a good year for Private Eye (which was born) and numerologists (it being the last year until 8008 that reads the same when turned upside-down). It was also a great year for British travellers: anyone undeterred by the Franco dictatorship could travel to Spain's Costa Brava and stay at the Playa Sol Hotel, which opened 50 years ago this week.

Intriguingly, to reach this splendid three-star today you must revert to the way we travelled. Last weekend, the final flights to Bournemouth, Bristol and Stansted were waved off from the Costa Brava's local airport south of Girona. As Europe's economies decay like autumn leaves, and airlines scythe their schedules to staunch winter losses, the Catalan airport has been disconnected from Britain.

With Ryanair moving its links from the UK to Barcelona's real airport, you will have to find an alternative homage to Catalonia's lovely coast. The best option, beginning next March, involves a flight to Perpignan, across the border in France – just as the early pioneers did.

The old propeller planes landed at the airfield outside France's southernmost city. Package tourists were met by a wheezing old bus and Gauloises-smoking driver for the journey onwards to the Spanish border – where they were met by a demand for 50 pesetas for a visa to a nation out of step with the rest of Europe. The bus link has since been stubbed out along with the Gauloises. But the rail journey is even better, starting as it does at the Centre of the Universe.

Salvador Dalí, who defined this cosmic location to be Perpignan station, might be dismayed by the building work that has swathed his galactic gare in scaffolding. But every southbound train rattles along the Côte Vermeille, the crimson coast as corrugated as Cornwall's.

After half-an-hour of watching the tail-end of the Pyrenees tussle beautifully with the Med, you burrow into a mile-long tunnel and arrive at the station serving the fishing village of Portbou. The population last year totalled 1,302, making its vast station all the more surreal – like London St Pancras transplanted to St Ives. A vast canopy shields the platforms from the skies. Imposed between the tracks is a large complex where once immigrations and customs officials inspected would-be visitors to Spain. The Schengen treaty, of course, stripped away frontier controls. Or did it? When I went through last week, Spanish officials insisted politely on checking the papers of each passenger arriving from France before they were allowed into the echoing booking hall and the onward train along the Costa Brava.

I took the Barcelona train only as far as another fishing port, Llanca, where the road to Cadaqués begins. The only bus of the day had long gone. The clientele in the station bar volunteered to solve the problem. As I waited for a taxi they had conjured out of the night, and sipped a €1 glass of rosé, I reflected on Orwell's assertion that, in Spain, "nothing, from a meal to a battle, happens at the appointed time". All the better to savour the joy of a journey through the years.

In the pink: maps that spell out travel dangers

Nineteen sixty-one was also notable for Britain granting independence to Tanganyika (now united with Zanzibar, as Tanzania) and Sierra Leone.

These African states formerly appeared in scarlet on the world map. Today, UK domination is limited to a handful of Imperial offcuts, such as Pitcairn and South Georgia.

Happily, the Foreign Office has found a new use for this evocative shade of red. The FCO has just begun to add maps to its official travel advice – and deploys the colour on which the sun never used to set to signify "no-go" zones.

"After listening to feedback from our users we are adding maps to around 50 of our country travel advice pages," says the FCO. Targets include Kenya, Russia and Turkey. Until now, anyone who consulted the advice on, say, Afghanistan (pictured above) has been confronted by a long list of areas that Brits should never go, or were off-limits to all-but-essential travel.

Today, anyone tempted to follow the Hippie Trail (see related links) need only look at the FCO map at bit.ly/afghanmap to distinguish between dangerous and very dangerous zones.

travel@independent.co.uk

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