The Man Who Pays His Way

Dull moments and Lisbon are mutually exclusive. One or two of the debates at the Association of British Travel Agents' annual convention in the Portuguese city last weekend sought to disprove that theory. But Europe's most wayward capital remains a glorious study in transience – and is full of intrigue and surprises.

Hardly had I arrived in the city centre when three rascals set upon me and stole my mobile phone. (Why they didn't bother with the laptop, wallet or passport escapes me.) The officers at both the police stations at which I tried to report the incident could not have been more polite nor less useful.

Next evening, I found a more salubrious place to stay than the rooms-by-the-hour residence where I ended up after the mugging.

The proprietor of the splendid Residencial Londrina (quiet, comfortable, £20 a night) spoke excellent English. Over breakfast and several jet propulsion-grade coffees, I explained I was in Portugal for a travel agents' conference.

Perhaps the residual grime from my botched attempt to fix a bike puncture inspired him to guess my occupation: "Ah!" he said, triumphantly. "You drive touristic bus, yes?"

* Monday evening's flight from Lisbon to Heathrow bore home the great and the good of the nation's travel industry, plus the odd touristic bus driver. What it did not carry, though, was my luggage. If someone in Portugal tries to flog you a folding bike, please give me a call. But not on the mobile.

* By way of a replacement bicycle, I am tempted to enter the competition being run by Midland Mainline, in which you can win a mountain bike. The trouble is that, unlike my loved-and-lost folding Bromption, the train company will demand £3 from you every time you try to take the shiny speedster on board. And then there is Midland Mainline's version of Catch 22: a rule that says on some trains you must book in advance, but on others you can't reserve a space even if you try. And nowhere in the 2,000-plus pages of the National Rail Timetable can you tell which is which.

* Leeds cannot match Lisbon for decaying grandeur, especially since the Yorkshire city has tragically lost one of the world's most memorable Victorian hotels: the Wellesley. Although its roots are in the 19th century, this bulky residence, perched forlornly at one end of the city centre, turned into a frozen embodiment of tourism circa 1975 – even as the 20th century reached a conclusion. The hotel's philosophy was summed up by a conversation I overheard between two employees in the bar: "If you were at the Thistle in Luton, you wouldn't last two weeks."

I don't know the Luton Thistle, but it cannot be as magnificent a shambles as the Wellesley. In an unconsciously retro manner, the paisley patterns of the fabrics took you directly back to the days of Abba and abysmal haircuts for footballers. The pine veneer that topped the bedside table was pocked with ancient cigarette burns, as was the orange polyester carpet. Every surface was smeared with age.

Luckily, prices were a quarter-century out of date, too; I paid £25 for an uncommonly large bed, with breakfast to match. The Wellesley is being converted to the City Central apartments, and from what I could tell the pine veneer has been ripped out along with the heart of the hotel.

* Last and final call for Buzz flight 2430 to Berlin. All remaining passengers must proceed immediately to gate 37, where your aircraft is fully boarded and awaiting your arrival." Two things puzzle me about the departure announcements at Stansted: in the ultimacy stakes, what exactly is the difference between "last" and "final"? And if the aircraft is fully boarded, why doesn't it just go?

The problem for Ryanair was a gentleman who had checked in for the flight to Kerry. "Final call for Mr Fleming. You have one minute to get to the gate before we unload your bags." No messing about there, then. Except that a few minutes later, another threat was thrust at the tardy traveller. "Final call for Mr Fleming. You have two minutes to get to the gate." Altogether he received five final calls, the last (or is that final?) two of which carried even more dire warnings. Initially, that he would be refused travel for the rest of the afternoon; next, that the ban would apply for the remainder of the day.

If you are Mr Fleming, the passenger to Kerry – what happened next?

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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