Beware in Barcelona

This item appears on page 58 of the May 2008 issue.

My husband, my sister and I decided to spend the 2007 Christmas holidays in Europe, and to that end we booked a 14-day “Christmas Markets” riverboat trip with Vantage Deluxe World Travel (Boston, MA; 800/322-6677). Following that, we would have a rental car and a Christmas week timeshare in southern France, then spend New Year’s in a small Bavarian country inn in which my husband and I had stayed for New Year’s a number of years before.

The riverboat trip was wonderful, as have been the other trips I’ve taken with Vantage, particularly the Southern Africa one, which was an inspiring mix of education, culture and nature.

We are all in our 70s and have traveled independently for many years, primarily in Western and Eastern Europe but also in Russia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Canada and, of course, our 50 states. We had a lovely drive to the time-share resort and a very pleasant Christmas there, but then our luck changed.

On the day after Christmas we decided to take a day trip to Barcelona, an itinerary we had followed several years before from the same timeshare resort. At noon on that day, while driving down the main artery into the city, we experienced a very traumatic series of events.

My husband and sister were in the front seat and I was curled up in the backseat enjoying the sights. We stopped for a red light, amidst many cars, very heavy traffic, and a small motorcycle pulled up to the right rear where I was seated. The two young people on the bike looked into the car, then immediately sped away as the light changed.

As we pulled away, I remarked to my husband that the car was making a strange noise in the rear. We traveled less than half a block before having to stop for the next light, and while rolling to a stop a young man approached from the middle of the street, opened the left rear door, said, “Problema,” and grabbed my purse, which was immediately next to me.

I did a foolish thing, in my stocking feet jumping out to give chase after the thief. My sister followed me, leaving my poor husband in very heavy traffic, horns honking, doors wide open, not knowing what had happened.

I immediately realized it was a futile chase, but my hope was that the thief would take the wallet and toss the purse aside, so I went down a narrow side street to look into dumpsters.

As I did this, my sister observed two people approach on a motorcycle. One got off as if to enter a building, and when my sister got closer to them the young man on the motorcycle said, “Señora?” as if offering assistance. At that point the two people grabbed my sister, punctured her hand, cut both straps on her purse and wrested it away from her. It was obviously the same people who had punctured the tire, though she was unaware of that.

This happened immediately in front of a nice hotel, with hundreds of people on the street. A taxi driver witnessed the events, as did another gentleman, both of whom stayed around to offer information to the police, as best we could tell what with the language barrier.

My husband had managed to get the car up onto the sidewalk so as not to further impede traffic, and my sister and I went into the hotel to ask them to call the police and for some first aid for my sister’s hand. They were very accommodating, and shortly two police officers arrived. The cab driver had left by then, however the police did not even take the name of the remaining witness.

They did take statements from us and called for two additional traffic officers to assist in changing the tire, for which we were very grateful. Once the tire was changed, we followed them to the police station and spent the afternoon giving our statements.

We have a 4-page police report, written in Catalan, of course, but documented nevertheless. This was very helpful when it came to returning the rental car with the snow tire which turned out to be unrepairable and for the embassy in obtaining temporary replacement passports for the two of us.

But we found the police to be largely unsympathetic, indicating that this type of incident was an everyday occurrence and there was nothing they could do about it. They did say that had the car doors been locked, the thieves very likely would have broken a window. We were targeted because we had foreign (German) plates and were obviously three senior citizens traveling alone.

When we took the punctured tire to a shop in Perpignan, France, to be repaired, the repairman took one look, said, “Ah, Barcelone,” and went on to describe a motorcycle and two people — the entire scenario.

We spent that evening and the next day canceling credit cards and bank ATM cards, obtaining replacement travelers’ checks, etc., and attempting to reach the embassy to make an appointment for obtaining passports.

The embassy in Toulouse, where we had been advised to seek help, never returned our calls over the course of two days, but when I last renewed my passport I had been given a card with phone numbers on it, one of which was that of the State Department in Washington, D.C. It was that number that finally put us in touch with the embassy in Marseilles, which was where we had to go for our passports.

Fortunately, we both had taken the precaution of separately carrying photocopies of our passports plus duplicate photos. This plus downloading the required forms saved considerable time at the embassy.

We did manage to continue with our plans and had a very enjoyable few days at the Landhotel Alte Post (Lamprechts 3, 87534 Obserstaufen, Germany; phone 0-83-25/92-50, fax 0-83-25/9-25-25 or e-mail hotel., where we were royally treated by proprietors Albert and Christine Lutz. Located between Oberstaufen and Immenstadt and fairly isolated, this inn is small, quiet and very comfortable. The food is wonderful; Albert is the chef.

We had made our initial contact via e-mail and subsequent contacts by telephone; Albert speaks English adequately. Our rate for their only suite of two rooms (three beds) was €140 (near $207) a night, including breakfast.

Preceding our arrival, we advised them of the fact that we were without funds, credit cards, etc. They were very helpful. I had one credit card express-mailed to the inn, then learned that they no longer take credit cards. Thankfully, I was able to get a cash advance from American Express and a cash replacement for stolen travelers’ checks. All of our meals there were put on our final bill.

There is a ski lift directly across the road from the inn, so one can watch the downhill skiers during meals and from some rooms. New Year’s Eve was a marvel, with fireworks displays throughout the entire valley and on the mountaintops. We celebrated with the Lutzes.

Upon arriving home we began the tedious business of replacing credit cards, driver’s licenses and health insurance cards. That process, as of this writing, is nearly complete.

I have always considered us to be fairly savvy travelers, and we are cautious when on the streets. It just did not occur to us that, driving down a busy street in broad daylight, we could be so taken advantage of. The police told us this is a common occurrence all over Southern Europe, particularly in any Mediterranean port city.

Watsonville, CA