Spain was always set to be a pretty epic adventure, food, sangria, sunshine AND I was seeing my other half Mike again for the first time in four months.
Arriving in Barcelona the day before Mike, I’d booked myself a very cheap hostel in the part of town closest to La Rambla, the famous shopping street. Famous it may be, but for me personally it was my least favourite thing about the city. The crowds of people were insane, and it felt like a ture pick pocketers paradise. Although the La Boqueria market was a delight for the senses, it was hard to enjoy, let alone actually get close enough to any of the stalls to buy anything, with the hordes of tourists packed in like sardines.
It was hard to escape the droves of tourists, especially in that part of town, but my first sunset in Barcelona had me excited for all that Spain had to offer.
Leaving the craziness of La Rambla behind, I set off first thing the next morning to the accommodation Mike had booked for us (a special treat as it was well above my backpacker budget!) and it was beautiful. An apartment right in the middle of all the Gaudi buildings, in an absolutely beautiful part of town. With a sunny courtyard that included hammocks, it was bliss!
Our first day reunited we decided to wander the city by foot, checking out Guadi’s Casa Batllo (probably my favourite of his buildings) and strolled the winding streets and alley ways of Le Ribera and the Gothic area. I was reminded immediately of our travels through Cuba with the streets and buildings, just perhaps a little more up-kept in this part of the world.
After an evening of some serious sangria, and enough tapas to make me feel like I was ready to burst, the next day was all about Guadi. Unfortunately we had left our run a little late to get tickets to get inside the Sagrada Familia, but it was still an impressive sight to behold from the outside.
We did however experience the interior and amazing rooftop of La Pedrera, which was really quite incredible. It’s amazing to see in the flesh just how forward thinking Guadi was for his time, and makes you wonder where in the world he conjured these creations from. It was from the roof top of La Pedrera that I could also grasp the sheer size of the Sagrada Familia, which I didn’t get a real sense of from simply standing next to it. Given La Pedrera isn’t the top Guadi tourist draw card, it was also nice to get to experience the environment with an ever so slightly smaller crowd of people.
From there we packed a lunch of bread, jamon, queso and olives to take out to Guadi Park, somewhere (given the name) I was imagining to be a lush green oasis in which to escape the searing sun. Not however quite the case, the rugged desert like landscape was my first taste of what was the come the further south we headed. The expanse of rugged desert terrain, overlooking Barcelona did provide an escape from the city of a different kind though, and again was a glimpse into the surreal world and mind of a such a fascinating creative.
With Barcelona definitely not the cheapest of places I’ve visited, we made the most of our beautiful sunny terrace, and the delicious fresh produce (and cheap beer!) on offer at the supermarket for the remainder of our stay in the city. A wise option not just for the wallet, by for the taste buds as well!
After filling ourselves to the brim I had asked Mike to take me to a huge fountain show that I had seen advertised, which took place in front of the National Museum, as it was a part of the city we were yet to explore. With the show starting at 9, by 7 there were already thousands of people claiming their spots in the huge outdoor area.
With Mike strangely preoccupied with finding somewhere quiet I followed him through a park on the hillside looking over the city, and as if by magic the crowds melted away until we found ourselves completely alone in a tiny garden, right as the sun was setting over Barcelona. Looking a little nervous and shaky, Mike said he wanted to tell me something, and right at that moment pulled a ring from his pocket and proposed. I was so caught off guard, and even now looking back I can’t find the words to express how that complete feeling of surprise, or being swept off your feet actually feels. And so we watched the fountains in a bubble of bliss and I wondered whether anything would ever be able to top that night again in the rest of my life.
Still buzzing the next day, we decided we had to sample one more thing that the city of Barcelona has to offer, and that’s its beaches! Taking the metro a little further out to escape the craziness of Barceletta beach (the closest to the city), we landed at playa del bogatell, for sun, sand, sea and of course a bunch of boobs. It definitely was strange at first to be amongst something so different to our culture, and I was reminded of how reserved and private we are are as a nation. Yet interestingly given how totally normal this all was, and the huge variety of people getting their gear off, any sexual aspect of the situation completely disappeared, and it just felt completely normal. Watching all the ladies strip off around me, I actually couldn’t help but be a little jealous of that one element of freedom that we haven’t quite taken up back home.
From Barcelona an 8 hour bus ride landed us in Madrid, and for the first time I got a taste of the desert countryside of Spain. I was actually a little (pleasantly) surprised by the expanse of the rugged dry open spaces and for some reason hadn’t quite expected what I was seeing.
Once in Madrid I was instantly in love, it really had a lovely more relaxed pace to it than Barcelona, and there also seemed to be a dramatic drop in tourist numbers. We found a market with the most divine tapas and food I have ever seen or tasted, and spent both our evenings there watching the sun set over an ice cold San Miguel beer, it was bliss. Making the most of the beautiful Spanish weather we hired a row boat, ate ice cream, strolled the parque del buen retiro, and in a bubble of seemingly never ending bliss, did all the things a disgustingly in love newly engaged couple should do.
With our two nights in Madrid over in what felt like a heartbeat, it was onto Granada, the only region in Spain where tapas are still completley free with every drink you buy, everywhere. We only spent two nights in the Southern Spanish city, but didn’t spend a cent on food. In saying that however it’s probably worth noting we did drink A LOT at all hours of the day …..
I didn’t have a lot of expectations for Granada, it had really only become a destination as it was an easy place to get to where we needed to be in the Spanish mountains to meet my brother and his family. But in my experience I’ve found it’s the places you expect the least from that seem to really wow you, and Granada was no exception – becoming one of my absolute favourite places that I’ve visited so far.
I just loved everything about the city, its small town feel, the kind people, the beautiful buildings, the maze of tiny streets winding up the hillside, local musicians filling the warm evening air, and the mix of Arab and Spanish culture, history and heritage. And of course the jewel of the city the Islamic palace fortress Alhambra, which was an absolute joy, and quite the trek to explore.
The architectural beauty, a symbol of 800 years of moorish rule, sits atop a hill filling the skyline of Granada, a turly phenomenal sight by day, and an even more exquisite beauty by night. There are only 6000 tickets available for visitors each day and they sell out FAST, I’m so glad we made it our mission to get one.
As the sun set on our final night in Granada we bar hopped from the busy central bars, up the hill through the local neighbourhoods until eventually we had left all the tourists behind and were enjoying our beer with a phenomenal view of the city, surrounded by local people and of course the many stray cats that are an integral part of these places. Simply put it was lovely, and reminded me so much of the long summer evenings we spent in Cuba, where neighbours sat yacking on front stoops well into the night, and children could evade the stern looks of their mothers and fathers to stay up much later than normal playing. There’s such a feeling of simplicity and contentment in those moments that I wish I could bottle up and carry around with me forever.
Although a little hard to say goodbye so soon, I was consumed with an absolute insane excitement to move on to our next destination, a villa tucked into the Spanish mountains in the Sierra Nevada, where my brother his lovely partner, beautiful daughter, and a weeks worth of R&R, were waiting for us. A winding mountainous bus ride through remote towns and villages finally had us at our destination and it was just perfect. Days spent lounging by the pool, consuming bucket loads of local jamon, bbq’s overlooking the mountains, sangria, beer, siestas. I loved every second and spent my 28th birthday feeling like I was the luckiest person in the world.
Of course being in the Spanish mountains came with its own challenges, there was very little English spoken, the place actually became more deserted than a ghost town during siesta time, and food tended to attract A LOT of wasps, but for the most part these things just added to the experience.
Trying to order chorizo at the butchers went from a 5 min job to one that seemed to lasted an eternity, as the Spanish lady running the shop seemed to require some sort of life update from every customer who came through her door (well at least I think that’s what the conversations were about, I couldn’t understand a word of the very many that were being said in insanely fast succession). This was also my first lesson in the Spanish line etiquette, if you’re not up for chaos, carnage and pushing in, you’re probably going to miss out. Luckily the locals finally took pity on me and asked what it was I was after, with my superior Spanish language skills (haha) of course failing me as I tried to place my order in front of a shop full of non English speakers. But after what seemed like forever, with the most delicious chorizo in hand, I left the shop feeling completely triumphant.
Language barriers caused a few more minor hiccups along the way, when asking for a jug of water to go with our jug of sangria, we ended up with another jug of watered down sangria instead. But for the most part the failure in cross cultural communication simply inspired plenty of laughs.
Our week in the Spanish mountains came and went far too fast, and my heart was literally breaking at the thought of leaving and saying goodbye to my family.
Driving together south to Malaga, we stopped at one of the coastal resort areas for lunch, and wow am I happy we decided to travel inland on our Spanish adventure. While the beaches look beautiful and the sea breeze was a welcome relief, like many of these resort areas, the place felt completely soulless and void of any culture at all. It was a strange feeling given the richness of the past two weeks that we had just experienced.
As my brother and his family flew out of Malaga, we moved further South to Algeciras, our base for a couple of nights to plot our next move across the water to Morocco. While not the most inspiring of destinations (or accommodation for that matter) I do always enjoy being in a place that’s not at all tailored for tourists, where you can experience real people going about their real lives, and Algeciras was about as authentic as you can get in that regard.
However it was here that we once again got to experience more of the wondrous challenges that can come with travelling. Booking ferry tickets from a port 25 mins south of where we were (for a more direct route), we were told to be waiting for shuttle bus to get us to the destination at 2pm the next day (just an hour before the ferry was due to depart). Arriving well ahead of schedule panic started to arise when there was no shuttle to be seen anywhere. Traipsing back to the ferry terminal we were informed that the road was closed and there was no way to get there. Offering us no alternative, and working to the ultimate in laid back Spanish time, it was only when we pushed that we found out we could change our ticket to depart from the port we were at.
Establishing all of this across language barriers and then dealing with extensive delays, and of course more of the chaotic Spanish lines, left me feeling more than frazzled. But of course when travelling it’s hitting the lows that make the highs taste even better. Whilst sitting in the terminal feeling quite deflated Mike and I noticed the distinct kiwi art of Bill Hammond’s bird man on the t shirt of a fellow traveller, I noticed his black and silver passport and when he smiled I said ‘hello’, his grin instantly widening as he said ‘now that accent sounds familiar’. Turns out we had met Sandy McCutcheon, a fascinating kiwi novelist and former broadcaster, now living in the Fez Medina in Morocco. Running an English blog site of news and events in Fez with his writer/photographer/journalist wife, we had a great conversation, took the opportunity to pick his brain, and finished with the promise of a catch up and a coffee as soon as we arrived in Fez, and a lingering feeling of what a small and crazy world this place really is.
And with that it was finally time to board the ferry and set sail for Morocco.