Travel: 24 km of epic mountain wandering

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I awoke bright and early on my last full day of Spain, which was no small feat considering I’d gone to bed fairly late the previous night, having stayed up to purchase my ticket to the MPC event in Scotland (more on that in a later post). I headed downstairs for the simple breakfast provided by the hotel (toast, jam and juice) before loading up my car and making the absurdly short drive to Poncebos just a few minutes away. The plan for the day was to hike the Ruta del Cares (Cares Trail) in the Picos de Europa, and I was pleased to be getting an early-ish start (9 am). The route itself runs about 12 km from one end to the other, connecting the villages of Poncebos and Cain.

IMG_5292I ended up leaving my car in the parking lot of a funicular that I planned to check out if I had time when I returned. Tiny backpack packed, armed with leggings and a Peaker t-shirt, I was ready for the day. Thinking (somewhat delusionally in retrospect) it might be cool in the mountains in the morning, I decided to wear my Lululemon pants over my leggings. I found my way to what I hoped was the right trail and started the uphill climb. There were only a few other people on the trail, which made for a peaceful, if not sweaty, walk. I was briefly worried that I was actually on the wrong trail, as I hadn’t read much about there being a lot of uphill to deal with. My concerns about being cold were disabused within the first 15 minutes of the hike. Despite being 9 am, it didn’t take long for me to strip down to my leggings and eventually my sports bra, as the temperatures were rising fast and any direct sunlight was warm.

Cares Trail, Picos de Europa
Cares Trail, Picos de Europa

The steady upwards incline of the trail was somewhat rocky, and I was soon glistening with sweat. To my dismay, I discovered that my water bottle had fallen off my backpack, likely when I’d set things down to get changed, so I was in for a dry few hours. Undeterred, I ploughed onwards and, after about an hour of uphill, the trail eventually flattened out, changing into more even packed dirt and stone. I was amazed that the trail had largely been carved out of the limestone cliffs, which afforded unbelievable views of the mountains and the Cares Gorge. It also made for some very precipitous drop-offs, which just made the hike all the more fun!

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I remember at one point looking around, somewhat in disbelief that I was able to see these striking vistas, and whispering to myself: “see the world”. I am immensely grateful to have opportunities to explore this world and experience new things, and would so encourage others to do the same, if they can. We can so easily get wrapped up in our own tiny corner of the planet, that we can get a little tunnel-visioned and forget that there is so much out there to see. It was interesting, I also forgot for a moment what country I was in–and that it really didn’t matter, in some sense, as these mountains and rivers belong to the world, indifferent to the political borders imposed on them. It was an oddly comforting thought.

Cares Trail, Picos de Europa
Cares Trail, Picos de Europa

At one point, I passed a small, trickling stream of water collecting in a little pool at the side of the trail, so I stopped and gulped down a drink. An older American woman who was also stopped to wet her hat to keep her cool offered to give me one of her water bottles. As I didn’t want to deprive her of her drinking water for the hike, I politely declined. Her and her husband later passed me on the trail where I’d stopped to rest and offered again, at which point I took them up on their offer (they assured me they had 4 bottles between them). And I was definitely grateful for a drink. While the trail was flat and by no means arduous, my feet and legs were starting to feel a bit fatigued after several hours (and the accumulation of all the walking I’d done over the last 2 weeks). I’d also managed to develop a blister on a pinky toe during the trip from a different pair of shoes, and it was starting to make itself known again. I’d read that the Cares Trail was such that you could do a round trip (24 km), or just go to one end and take a shuttle bus from the village back to the start. I decided the latter might be the best plan.

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I continued onwards, and the trail began to gradually descend closer to river level. I passed through numerous rock tunnels carved into the rock, over small bridges that allowed me to criss-cross the gorge. The last section of the trail involved a longer set of tunnels running along the water side that  emerged to picturesque views of the river and the village of Cain, set against a looming, craggy mountain. After over 3 hours, I felt tired but victorious to have reached the end. I wandered into the village, which was predominantly small restaurants situated to catch trail hikers. I took a poke around but couldn’t seem to spot where the shuttle bus left from, so I decided to grab some water at one of the bars.

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To my dismay, when I asked the bartender about the bus, she said that it no longer ran in June (just July and August now). There was no other way back to Poncebos other than taxi, which she said would run me about 120 Euros. It dawned on my sun-addled brain that I would have to make the walk all the way back. My heart sank, if only because I’d mentally prepared myself that I was coming to the end of my hike, and that all my aches and pains would soon be relieved. I wasn’t entirely sure my body was up for another 3.5 hours, but given that there really wasn’t any other viable option, it would have to be done. I summoned my inner Peaker and set myself to this new challenge. I stripped down further to athletic shorts and my sports bra, got myself a new bottle of water, and headed back to the trail.

goat!
goat!

Because I wasn’t stopping to compulsively take photos every few steps, I managed to make it to the halfway point in decent time, and I was actually feeling pretty good. I had put on some music and was focusing on just moving forward. The latter half of the trek, however, was a bit more of a slog. My legs were really starting to feel the strain, and my feet were increasingly destroyed (I was actually limping at a certain point). The sun and heat were in full force at this point in the day, which helped sap my energy further, and I tried to rest frequently in the shade. At the beginning of the hike, there had been an uphill climb followed by a descent, which I soon remembered would now be an uphill climb and a descent. It wasn’t a particularly steep hill, but there was no shade anywhere–no respite from the blasting sun. I took to wearing my t-shirt draped over my head and back to try and take the edge off, as I slogged up the seemingly never-ending hill. Mercifully, I made it to the top and remembered there was a largish map at the crest, so I huddled in its shadow for a bit to cool off.

uphill slog in the Spanish sun
uphill slog in the Spanish sun

I willed myself to keep moving, knowing it was all downhill from there (heh). I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my knees really started to object to the descent. I gingerly shuffled along the trail, picking my way down the, at times, quite rocky slope. I stopped in the shade of a large tree for a bit, drinking the last of my water and munching on a Cliff bar, which made me the subject of interest to some local mountain goats. I eventually caught sight of the road and parked cars below, at whose sight I gave an unashamed whoop. Home stretch! Buoyed by the knowledge that I’d almost made it, I was able to pick up my pace, half jogging my way down the final bit of trail in relief. I don’t know if I’d ever been so grateful to see a road in my life. I limped towards the car park, stopping in at a little restaurant to grab more water and to sit down fully. I sank into the warm, comfortable embrace of the driver’s seat and headed off to my hotel for the evening, about 1 hour away.

Santillana del Mar
Santillana del Mar

It was an easy, picturesque drive through the verdant countryside, with the last honey-coloured rays of sunlight bathing the mountain tops. I eventually pulled into the small town of Santillana del Mar, rather amusingly named since it is not a saint, flat or by the sea (as implied by the name). Google maps was having a difficult time with the tiny, old streets, and I ended up making several loops around, trying to find the right turn off. The streets were largely dominated by tourists, who looked at me with a mixture of amusement and annoyance, and I worried that I wasn’t actually allowed to be driving in the town (I later found out that cars are allowed only if they are staying somewhere in the city centre, which I was). I eventually found my hotel, Casa Organista, and gratefully collapsed in my room, unable to move for several hours. Driven by hunger, I hauled myself out of bed and made an effort to walk around the town.  It was unfortunate I was so knackered because part of the reason I’d selected Santillana del Mar to stay in is that it was supposed to be a very beautiful, old town. I was able to glimpse some of that in my hobbled wanderings but would have to come back to really appreciate it fully. I settled on the Gran Duque restaurant, enjoying a multi-course meal involving fish paté, mushroom risotto and cheesecake before heading back to my hotel for the night.

Despite all my complaining of the blisters and fatigue, it was a truly amazing hike. I have never really been a hiker, I think in part because I can get bored of the monotonous plodding through endless forest. What I loved about this hike was that the trail was so epically situated, such that there were constant amazing views throughout the duration of the hike. I owe a debt of gratitude to MPC for preparing my body, even somewhat, to endure what was the longest hike I had ever done. It wasn’t my original plan to walk 24 kilometres, but I’m a little bit proud that I managed to face the challenge and survive it (more or less in tact). Indeed, 2017 is my year of challenges, a year to test my limits and learn how much I can do and how strong I can become. And this was a challenge well-worth facing–a fantastic final day to cap off a wonderful two weeks in Spain. Adiós España! Until next time.

Travel: On the road in Cantabria

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After two solid days of conferencing in Bilbao, I was ready for my next adventure. I awoke relatively early and forewent my MPC workout for the day, anticipating that I’d be doing a fairly significant hike later on. It was a cheap and easy bus ride to the airport, and it wasn’t long before I was picking up my rental car, deciding on a whim to upgrade to a BMW (since I’d never driven one before). I had, however, managed to book the rental online with the wrong credit card (my other card includes rental collision insurance), so I ended up paying about as much for insurance as the original rental cost. Annoyed but undeterred, I loaded up my BMW diesel 2 series and was soon blasting along the main motorway, west along the coast. I admit it had initially been a bit of a nerve-wracking prospect to be driving on my own in a foreign country, which I had not yet ever really done (30 minutes in the Scottish highlands notwithstanding, though even there I wasn’t alone), but any concerns I might have had soon melted away. I found myself giddy with excitement, as I glimpsed picturesque views of the cliffs and sea. The roads were in extremely good condition, nary a bump or pothole to be seen. I was also helped immensely by having Google maps at my disposal, as I would definitely not want to be trying to navigate with paper maps while driving.
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I made my way to the town of San Vicente de la Barquera for a spot of lunch. It was a charming seaside town, though it was surprisingly windy and chilly. I popped into one of the many restaurants that lined the main street for a hefty portion of croquetas. I’d read that, on the right days, the town had the rather striking backdrop of the Picos de Europa. As they didn’t seem be visible from within the town, I hopped in the car and drove across a bridge to the beachside of town to see if I could get a better view. As there weren’t any obvious viewpoint spots, I ended up pulling over in rather odd places at the side of the road, and peering over farm fences with my camera (much to the amusement of a passing farmer walking up the road). I drove down to the beach itself, but as it was a sunny Saturday morning, it was packed to the brim, and I couldn’t find a parking spot. I couldn’t really see a good view of the mountains in any case, so I moved on. From there, I thought I’d stop by the nearby Playa de la Franca. It was similarly challenging to find a parking spot, as the lots were brimming with weekend beachgoers, but I eventually snagged one. I made my way across the white sand, walking along the shoreline. It was still quite windy, so I didn’t linger long—just enough time to admire the distant cliffs rising from the sea, relishing the feeling of soft white sand between my toes.
Playa de la Franca
Playa de la Franca
From there, I drove south into Cantabria and towards the Picos de Europa. The roads began to narrow and grew more winding, and it wasn’t long before I felt I was slaloming through the mountains. I certainly appreciated my little BMW’s handling and gutsiness. I was reminded of how much I love the freedom of a rental car, pulling over spontaneously upon catching sight of something interesting or picturesque. I found myself grinning goofily to myself, relishing the perfect weather and discovering new sights unseen before. Eventually, I glimpsed my accommodations for the evening. Hostal Poncebos was one of the more beautifully-situated places I’d  seen, on the bank of a small river with dramatic mountains rising behind it. I checked myself in to the modest single room–clean and comfortable–perfect for my one night stop-over.
winding roads in the Picos de Europa
winding roads in the Picos de Europa

Eager to get on my way, I changed into my hiking gear and packed my tiny backpack, heading back out on the road in search of the Lakes of Covadonga. Unfortunately, cellphone service was spotty in the mountains, so I was relying on signage for the most part to navigate. The drive was gorgeous but increasingly nerve-wracking, as the roads narrowed further to be about 1.85 cars wide, with numerous hairpin turns, winding higher and higher. There were definitely some sheer drop offs, so I soon slowed to a crawl, carefully peering around blind corners and avoiding plummeting to my death as best I could. I eventually pulled into a viewpoint, Mirador de la Reina (‘Queen’s Lookout’) and was treated to a sweeping, panoramic vista. Gorgeous hills, draped with trees and dotted with villages, fading into the blue.

view from Mirador de la Reina
view from Mirador de la Reina

It was only a short drive from there to my final destination, and I wasn’t likely to miss it, as I soon passed a fairly epic view of Lake Enol. I found a car park and was soon on my way, eager to get started on my hike. The path from the car park was cobblestoned, and it was easy walk back to Lake Enol. In addition to the gorgeous lake views, cows were in abundance, aimlessly meandering about, cow bells jangling and munching on grass. I trucked up a hill that afforded me striking views of both Lake Enol and Lake Ercina. I was tickled to be following two selfie-happy nuns on my walk down to the second lake.

Lago Enol
Lago Enol

There were slightly larger groups of people milling about, though certainly not overwhelming, and thankfully the meadow in front of the lake was large enough that it didn’t really matter. I headed down to the lake side and drank in the view (even whipping out my little GorillaPod to take an MPC planking selfie). I waffled about where to go next and headed to the little cafe on the edge of Lake Ercina’s parking lot to grab some much needed sugar in the form of a refreshing ice cream cone.

Lago Ercina
Lago Ercina

After perusing the map, I decided to follow the route along the lakeside, that would theoretically take me around the hill and back to Lake Enol. It was a quite and beautiful path, with progressively fewer people on it as I walked onwards into the shadow of the mountain. Pretty soon the well-trodden path appeared to disappear altogether, and the only way I knew I was still on route was the small sign pointing up the hill. I scampered up the rocks towards a small stone hut (which I later learned housed cows) before rounding the other side and back into the sunlight. The trail was completely deserted, and it was beautifully peaceful to be walking with nothing but clanging of cowbells to keep me company. The path would re-emerge and disappear, and I took to relying on how shiny and worn areas of the rocks were to indicate the route. It did occur to me at one point how alone I really was (as there was really no one else on the trail to my amazement), and my mind paranoidedly flitted to the notion that this might be like the beginning of a horror film–a thought I quickly pushed out of my head as I assured myself that no horror movie would set its scary scenes in bright, shining daylight.

scampering amongst rocks as the trail disappears
scampering amongst rocks as the trail disappears

I eventually came round and caught sight of the mountain that loomed over Lake Enol and was glad to know roughly where I was. I continued down through a large meadow, weaving my way through the ubiquitous cow pats. Once I reached the lake (now on the other side from where I started), I realized I’d have to go the long way round to get back, as what would be a shorter route was fenced off. It was a pleasant walk through some shady trees and past the judgmental stares of numerous cows. I stopped to  take in the stunning views, evolving in the changing sunlight, before heading back.

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I had been walking for about 2 hours at that point (the route is about 5 km in total), and it wasn’t until I descended the steep stairs into the car park that I really started to feel its toll on my body. Nothing too extreme thankfully–just achy legs and back. I was relieved to sit down in the car and make the nearly hour long drive back to my hotel. It was much less nerve-wracking driving back (largely because I was not on the cliffside of the road any longer). The setting sun made for an atmospheric drive, a beautiful end to my first day in the Picos de Europa.

Travel: Hill climbing in San Sebastián

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It was my last day in San Sebastián, and I had deliberately booked a bus ride to Bilbao in the later afternoon so I could use up the day as best I could. I banged out my MPC workout in the morning (gotta say, running along a seaside boardwalk makes for a much nicer run than a treadmill at my local gym, unsurprisingly) and headed out to climb the nearby Monte Urgull. As my hotel was so close to the beach, it was a relatively short walk past the aquarium to the path up the hill. Even though it was only morning, the temperatures were already on the rise, but the shaded paths made for a peaceful climb, a welcome respite from the heat (and other people, for that matter).
climbing up Urgull
climbing up Monte Urgull
I stopped at various breaks in the trees to admire the impressive views of Playa de la Concha and the hills beyond the city. There were a few steep flights of steps, but I eventually made it to the walls of Castillo de la Mota, a reflecting the hill’s history as a defense point. I wandered through the old stronghold and up a steep flight of steps to the top to some commanding views of the city–views I shared with a 12 metre statue of Christ towering above me.
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I walked down the other side of the hill to even more stunning ocean views. There were even fewer people on this side, so I simply enjoyed the tall, spindly trees and rich blue colours, from ocean to sky. It was like magic (or good planning on my part) that I came off the hill and into old town right at one of my favourite pinxto spots, Atari. So naturally, I quenched my thirst with a couple glasses of txakoli and some delicious pinxtos.
looking out at Mt Igueldo
looking out at Mt Igueldo
Still, feeling a bit nibbly, I thought I’d pop into La Cuchara de San Telmo, where I’d eaten the previous evening, and stand at the bar for some pinxtos. Unlike the crazy crush of people that I’d seen the night before, the bar was relatively empty, so I sidled up and ordered a foie gras and cuttlefish ravioli. The food was as delicious as the day before, even in pinxto format.
foie gras pinxto at La Cuchara de San Telmo
foie gras pinxto at La Cuchara de San Telmo
I gradually waddled my way back to my hotel and killed some time sifting through photos and catching up on emails. I grabbed a cab to the bus station, and it wasn’t long before I was trundling along to Bilbao, where I’d be conferencing and working (ha! the point of the whole trip) for several days. As I’d spent a night in Bilbao previously, I had at least worked out the metro and where the relevant stops were, so it was relatively easy for me to find my way to my new AirBnB apartment. My friendly host kindly hauled my luggage up four flights of stairs for me and introduced me to the apartment, a beautifully-decorated haven outfitted with everything I’d need. A perfect spot to unwind after a long day of conferencing.

Travel: Sunshine in San Sebastián

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I spent a day or so transiting from Seville through Bilbao, spending a night feeling nostalgic for my youth at the clean and charming Quartier Bilbao Hostel. Hit a bit of snag the following morning trying to get from Bilbao to San Sebastián. I had assumed that I’d be able to buy a ticket on the bus, but when I turned up, they told me I had to buy one in advance, as the seats were reserved. Unfortunately, the next bus with available seats was three hours later. As I was laden with luggage, I couldn’t go far, so I hunkered down in a nearby bar to read. I was eventually on my way, and it was a relatively short ride to San Sebastián. After checking into my hotel, the modern and stylish Pension Peñaflorida, I spent a quiet evening wandering old town, munching on pinxtos, hoping the clouds would clear the next day (though I was a bit of leery of the forecast that threatened rain).

Thankfully, I awoke to sun shining, so I was excited to get out there and soak it all up. San Sebastián is a beach town (indeed, my hotel was minutes from Playa de la Concha, the main beach), and I fully intended to get my requisite rays in. I took a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk, admiring the ocean views and handsome cityscape bathed in morning sunlight. I eventually popped off onto the beach to grab a croissant for breakfast, enjoying the relative quiet before the throngs of beach-goers arrived.

Playa de la Concha
Playa de la Concha

I soon reached Mount Igueldo, one of the two large hills that bookend San Sebastián’s beaches, and rode its charming little funicular up to the top for some striking views of the town and its surrounds. The funicular actually takes you up to the Parques de Atracciones, a bizarre, slightly tacky little amusement park that apparently dates back to the 1930s.

view from Mt. Igueldo
view from Mt. Igueldo

The clouds were starting to roll in, and I was a bit worried it would actually start raining, so I made my way back down to the beach via the funicular and started walking back to my hotel. I’d planned to get in my MPC workout, and now seemed as good a time as any. The boardwalk was bustling at this point, alive with tourists, beachgoers, runners and cyclists, and the strains of music from busking musicians filled the air. Naturally, when I finally started my workout back at the hotel, the sun returned, so I finished up quickly, got on my bikini and headed back out to the beach. I snagged a quieter spot in the sand and settled in with my book. The cool breeze coming off the ocean made for a very relaxing time, and it wasn’t long before I was thoroughly baked. I did notice upon returning to my hotel that I was developing an odd tan line on my back. The perils of self-applying sunscreen I suppose, though its bizarre shape is still a bit of a mystery.

I did appreciate having a centrally-located hotel, as it was easy to pop back and forth to drop things off and freshen up. I headed back out in search of some pinxtos (I really love how readily available delicious and speedy food is in Spain). After a quick bite, I meandered my way through Parte Vieja (old town) and across the bridge into the Gros district, a primarily residential area, walking along Zurriola beach and watching some fairly impressive surfing. I walked back through the quiet streets, largely devoid of tourists, and wandered along the Urumea Itsasadarra, admiring  the colourful and stately buildings that lined its banks.

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I had at this point fully embraced the siesta, which was sheerly practical as one had to often wait past 7 or 8 pm for restaurants to open for dinner. I wanted to try a particular spot, La Cuchara de San Telmo, that came well-recommended from a variety of sources. I arrived about 10 minutes before it opened and so waited in what soon became a lengthy queue. There were 4 large tables outside, or one could stand inside at the bar, but I was fortunate enough to grab a seat. They turned out to be communal tables, which ended up being a lovely thing, as the English couple and Swedish fellow (pictured below) I found myself sharing the table with became charming dinner companions. We all got to chatting whilst perusing the menu. Because the place had been inundated with people upon first opening, it was unsurprising that it was a bit of wait for our orders to be taken. I was in no particular rush, particularly now that I had people to chat with. It turned out that the Swede, Stephen, was writing a book on Basque wine, and so had spent a fair bit of time in the area. It was interesting to chat about the local wine, txakoli, a slightly sparkling dry white wine which I’d already planned to try that evening. Because we were sitting outside, the dishes were larger portions than the pinxtos one would get at the bar, so I had to make some hard decisions. I eventually settled on veal cheeks and, surprise surprise, the foie gras. I had actually intended to deliberately not order the foie gras, thinking I might try the suckling pig in an effort to diversify, but Stephen had particularly recommended it, and well twist my arm.

IMG_5020The food was superb, and it was nice to be able to linger over the meal for several hours, chatting with people, rather than powering through and heading off. Stephen made sure to have our server pour our txakoli at the table (rather than at the bar), so we could witness its dramatic pouring. Typically, it’s poured from a height, which I learned was to generate bubbles, as its not naturally terribly bubbly. We ended up all sharing a tasty local cheese dessert, topped with a pretty little flower that we “fought” over to try (it was surprisingly delicious). Stephen suggested grabbing another drink, and we were happy to oblige. Funnily enough, he claimed that the gin and tonics at the Whiskey Museum were particularly excellent (not what I would have expected). Being such a fan of gin and tonics, I was obliged to investigate. The bar was small and charming, lined with hundreds of bottles of Scotch, some of which were very very old. Our bartender let us smell several different gins to decide which we wanted. In order to pass the time, he provided us with a series of brain teaser bar games, much to our amusement/consternation.

mind teaser games at the bar
mind teaser games at the bar

The owner, who Stephen knew, was so tickled at seeing our attempts to figure them out, giggling as we turned, prodded, shook, and tried all manner of things. Many of them were distressingly easy, though one would think difficult to actually figure out on one’s own–for example, the wooden game with the toothpick-like stick pictured above required one to remove the red object from its wooden encasement (without just tipping it over). We all of course assumed that the toothpick thing was essential to this process, but it turned out to be a red herring. All you need do is blow on it, and it pops right out. In any case, it made for an entertaining activity. We eventually finished up our tall drinks and parted ways for the night, as they all had relatively early mornings the next day. I headed back to the hotel, pleased at the unexpected turn my evening had taken. One of the joys of travel–you never know who you’re going to meet and where that might take you!

Travel: A Royal Day Out

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It was another sunny, sweltering day in the south when I awoke, and I was glad to have pre-purchased my ticket for Real Alcázar so that I wouldn’t have to be queuing in the heat. I headed over to the Alcázar, which apparently is the oldest royal palace in Europe that is still in use. It’s a striking mudéjar palace and quite unlike any palace I’ve been in. The stone and tile work was ornate and beautiful, with elaborate gold ceilings that I spent much time craning up at. The famed Courtyard of the Maidens, which is perhaps the most representative image you’ll see of the palace, was beautiful–though unsurprisingly well-trafficked by the throngs of tourists. I strolled through the various halls, enjoying the interesting mix of elaborately decorated and striking simplicity. 
Real Alcázar de Sevilla
Real Alcázar de Sevilla

I eventually made my way out to the gardens, which were lovely and relatively peaceful to walk through. I loved how common bougainvillea is here, as it just adds a gorgeous blast of colour. Sara was mentioning that these places are free for Sevillan residents to enter, and that she often comes to just relax in the gardens. I could see that being a nice way to escape from the heat. I wove my way through the well-manicured hedges, past fountains and tour groups, and took one last look through the palace before heading out.

on the grounds of the Real Alcázar de Sevilla
on the grounds of the Real Alcázar de Sevilla

I was just around the corner from the old Jewish quarter, which I had walked through briefly while on my food tour, so I thought I’d take another jaunt through to see if I’d missed anything. By chance, I happened to pass right by another one of the spots on my list, Hospital de los Venerables, which I’d read could be difficult to find and hard to catch when open. I took the opportunity to pop in, paying the rather steep entrance fee (it was only a euro or so less than seeing the Alcázar!). It was blissfully empty, and for a time, I was able to enjoy it in peace. A former residence for priests, the church of Venerables was the real draw, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I don’t think I’d ever seen a church painted with such elaborate, colourful murals. The churches I’m used to are much more like Seville Cathedral, all somber stone and gold leaf. I sat for a time in one of the pews, soaking in the silence, before continuing my explorations. Ultimately, there wasn’t a whole lot more to the place, with the exception of a small Velasquez exhibit, so it wasn’t long before I was on my way in search of lunch.

church at the Hospital de los Venerables
church at the Hospital de los Venerables
My Devour food tour was nice enough to send home with us a little restaurant guide for the city, with a few of their recommended spots, so I decided to head off in search of one of them, ConTenedor. It was about a 25 minute walk from my apartment. I was definitely feeling the heat at this point, so I kept to the shade as much as possible. I did enjoy meandering through the relatively quiet streets, as I got further and further away from the tourist centre of town. I managed to arrive just as the restaurant was opening for lunch (about 1:30 pm!), so I was their first customer of the day. The place was charming–had a kind of hipster, eclectic vibe. They didn’t have menus but portable blackboards with the selection of dishes (which my waiter was kind enough to go through, as it was all in Spanish). I was surprised to learn that they didn’t really do tapas but was more of a traditional style restaurant. I ordered myself some nice Iberian pork with sweet potato and apple puree. These days, I don’t tend to make pork very often at home (not really sure why), so I was relishing all the delicious pork I was eating in Spain. The meal was very good, though I was reminded how much I love the sizing of tapas, as it was a big portion to get through. I ultimately caved and ordered an apple cheesecake dessert, per my waiter’s recommendation, which was also excellent.
Iberian pork with sweet potato at ConTenedor
Iberian pork with sweet potato at ConTenedor
I didn’t have any major plans for the rest of the day, and I was waiting to hear back from Sara as to the possibility of meeting up later in the evening. So I headed back to the AirBnB for yet another blissful siesta. I do sometimes have to remind myself that when on vacation, I don’t actually have to be out on the go all the time. I remember I use to feel guilty if I were just lounging around my hotel, watching movies, doing things I could just as easily do at home, instead of being out and exploring a new place. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to slow down and strike a balance between relaxation and exploration. I eventually heard from Sara who invited me to see a free circus performance around 9 pm on the riverfront, not far from my apartment. Before meeting her, I walked across the river in search of a bite to eat (I’d actually hoped to visit the Mercado de Triana, but they had closed for the afternoon). I downed a split of cava and some croquetas and baked goat cheese before walking down to the Torre del Oro to meet Sara. She eventually came whizzing in on her bike, and I was happy to be re-united with my newly-made friend. It was great to have someone to hang out with for the evening (one does eventually get tired of one’s own company). We managed to snag a couple seats at this circus event, unsure of exactly what to expect. With the sunsetting behind us, we were treated to a avant-garde, Tim Burton-esque performance. It was a bit slow to start, but eventually there were amusing and impressive feats (juggling and balancing and all that good stuff). Certainly enjoyable for being a free show!
free circus performance in front of Torre del Oro
free circus performance in front of Torre del Oro
From there, we grabbed a drink at a nearby outdoor stand, exchanging life stories, tribulations and adventures. We slowly walked towards La Alameda, where we’d be meeting friends of hers and where she lives. I got the impression La Alameda has a kind of Brooklyn feel–young, hip and up-and-coming–with lots of bars and restaurants. It was after 11 at this point, and the square in La Alameda was alive with people. I met her friends, who were lovely and welcoming. I even got to practice the traditional 2-cheek kiss greeting, a practice that is very foreign to me, but I was happy to play my part and make like a local. We stood on the outside patio, enjoying our drinks, people-watching (everyone seemed to know Sara, coming up and greeting her effusively), and conversation, which was a mix of English and Spanish. As the hours passed, Sara talked about wanting to go dancing, and there was some debate amongst her and her friends as to where to go. One place that her friends wanted to go to was relatively close, but Sara was reluctant because she wasn’t a fan of the music. When she asked if I’d come along, I said was game for anything, so she decided that we’d head over to a farther spot (which had music more to her liking).
Sara and I out on the town
Sara and I out on the town

Since she only had the one bike, and it was a bit of a hike, she convinced me to ride on the seat while she pedaled. It was a giggly and rather ridiculous ride (I at one point temporarily lost my shoe), as I was clinging on to her, trying not to slide off the seat. Mercifully, we made it intact. Now, I haven’t gone dancing in a night club in close to a decade, so it was kind of surreal to be entering a darkened club, feeling the music thumping in my chest. But, as anyone who knows me will know, give me music and a dance floor, and I will dance my heart out. It wasn’t super packed when we arrived, much to Sara’s dismay, but it eventually filled up. After a good deal of dancing, it was about 4 am when I decided that sleep would be a good thing. I was amazed at how late a night out typically goes here (apparently the club closes around 6 am), and that at 4 am, things were as lively as ever. Saturday night Spaniards are troopers apparently! But I also had a flight the next day, so Sara kindly found a cab for me, and we made our goodbyes with promises to keep in touch. It was a truly wonderful evening–such a great opportunity to meet new people and get a sense of a place and a culture as it is really lived by locals. A perfect send-off for a fabulous 3 days in Seville!

Travel: Slow, sunny day in Seville

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My apartment was so well-appointed that it even had a stationery bike in one corner, which made my morning MPC workout all the easier. It also had a handy beam to which I could easily affix my resistance band, so I was all set. Workout complete, I freshened up and headed out for the day’s adventures. I’d thought to try and see the famed Alcazar in the morning, but while waiting in the considerably long line, decided to purchase tickets online for the following morning instead. The other sight I was interested in checking out, which had actually not been on my list until Sara my tour guide mentioned it, was the Plaza de Espana. It was a bit farther from the main area in town, but it was a gorgeous day for a walk. I meandered my down the shaded, tree-lined streets until I came to the unobtrusive entrance to the Maria Luisa park. It was just a short walk before coming upon a breathtaking sight.
Plaza de España
Plaza de España
Set on a large square, Plaza de España, the massive red-bricked pavilion building was certainly a sight to behold. Apparently, it was built in 1928 and is a mix of Renaissance Revival, Art Deco and Moorish Revival styles. I couldn’t help just wandering around marvelling at it, and that it was relatively quiet. There were certainly a goodly number of tourists about, but not the crush of people like at Alcazar. I also couldn’t believe that it was free to see! You could go up to the second floor and look out over the square from the balcony. There were even paddle boats available if you wanted to paddle down the little river. The building was lined with beautifully-tiled alcoves, one for each province of Spain. It was a surprisingly peaceful, and I was reluctant to tear myself away.
provincial alcoves at Plaza de España
provincial alcoves at Plaza de España

But it was time for food, and I’d had my eye on one of the best places for tapas in town, Eslava. It would’ve been a considerable walk from where I was, so I figured I’d find a bus. After some confusion with Google maps/bus direction (including me getting off what turned out to be the right bus and waiting for another), I was on my way and soon wandering through the San Lorenzo neighbourhood in search of the restaurant. A quiet, residential area, I liked that it was off-the-beaten tourist path. I managed to snag a seat at the bar, and it wasn’t long before I was perusing the menu, glass of cava in hand. I ordered salmorejo (cold tomato soup), slow-cooked egg on boletus cake with caramelized wine reduction, foie-gras and pork tenderloin with cabrales cheese sauce. Everything was absolutely superb and artfully-arranged. I was surprised at how many tapas places I’d been to where such care was taken in the presentation, even though the item may only have been a couple Euro.

foie gras at Eslava
foie gras at Eslava
Full of deliciousness, I walked back to the AirBnB, through charming, colourful streets. The heat (40 C) mingled with a full belly was sapping my energy considerably, so I enjoyed the luxury of a siesta in the air conditioned confines of my apartment. After a few hours of blissful, cool sleep, I dragged myself out of bed and went in search of a place to eat for dinner. I ended up walking back to Plaza de la Encarnación, where I discovered you could actually go atop the giant mushroom structure for views of the city. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of new and old, looking out over the undulating wooden structure  out at cathedrals and buildings centuries old. The price of admission included a glass of wine (gotta love this country), so I lingered over my wine whilst searching for a dinner spot.
atop the Metropol Parasol
atop the Metropol Parasol
La Brunilda looked to be highly recommended and only a few minutes from my apartment, so I headed back in that direction. I ended up getting there just a few minutes before it opened and waited in the queue of people already lining up for it (a good sign). I grabbed myself a high top table, as I wanted to actually have a back to my chair after all the meals I’d eaten on backless bar stools. Because I seem physically incapable of not ordering them, I grabbed croquetas, as well as mushroom risotto and their roasted chicken with mushrooms and polenta. It was divinely good–especially the risotto, so creamy! That’s what I love about tapas: because the portions are small enough you can sample a variety of things. This is particularly important as a solo traveler, where sharing a couple of things is not an option.   Yet another delicious day in Seville!
mushroom risotto at La Brunilda
mushroom risotto at La Brunilda

Travel: God and gastronomy

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My flight out of Barcelona was relatively early (8:30 am), and I had grand intentions of waking up early enough to take public transit to the airport. I did wake up when I’d planned, but then dozed off again (as I’m wont to do), so taxi it is! I think this was my first flight with Ryanair, and it was, thankfully, uneventful. I arrived in Seville and was pleasantly surprised to find that getting into the city centre was an easy busy ride. It was perhaps a mere 5 seconds after disembarking that I was made very aware of the fact that I was now in the south of Spain. Heat! Mercifully, it was a short walk to my AirBnB, where I met my AirBnB host. She spoke essentially no English, so we rather amusingly communicated via Google translate (though she had several pre-translated pieces of information to what I assume were common questions). The apartment was a charming, well-appointed loft, the perfect size for just me. After I’d settled in, it was time to explore a new city!

My first stop was Seville Cathedral, just a short walk from my apartment. It was certainly not hard to miss it. Holy huge! It was absolutely massive. It is in fact the largest Gothic cathedral (and third largest church) in the world. Something of that scale really takes one’s breath away. The ornately-carved ceilings just soar, and the giant stone pillars stand like redwood trees. The cool, calm respite of the church was welcome, and I made my way through, craning my neck to see everything. I especially loved the beautifully-carved organs that seemed be as tall as the church itself.

Seville Cathedral
Seville Cathedral

I passed the many chapels until I reached a dramatic coffin, which I later learned houses the one and only Christopher Columbus, or at least 200 grams of him. Apparently, his body has been moved around to different countries throughout history, as a result of various wars and conflict, so many have claimed to have his body. Ultimately, they did a DNA test (as they definitely have his son’s body) and determined that he is in fact in Seville Cathedral, but only 200 grams of him.

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Christopher Colombus’ tomb

I felt myself wanting to linger longer, soaking it all in, but I finally made my way out, through the orange orchard. I was a little sad that the Giralda Tower was closed for maintenance, as it’s supposed to afford a beautiful view of the city. Alas, a little something for next time! I strolled through the adjacent plaza, marvelling at its colours and vibrancy. I was also sweltering, but it was thankfully only a short walk to a gelato spot–the perfect respite for a hot summer day. I enjoyed my gelato on what turned out to be a formerly sun-warmed stone bench before wandering down to the riverfront.

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It was certainly a picturesque walk, passing the impressive Torre del Oro and the multi-coloured buildings across the river. The shaded riverside boulevard provided a welcome relief from the sun and heat, which made for a pleasant walk back to the apartment. I definitely now understand the concept of a siesta now, as the heat saps you of your energy (particularly if coupled with a glass or two of wine), so that all you can do upon entering your apartment is flop ungainly into bed and sleep for several hours. I normally abhor daytime naps (I usually feel groggy and headachy afterwards), but evidently this type of nap in the hot Spanish summer is a necessity.

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Since it was my first night in Seville, I thought an excellent way to learn about all the good foods by taking a food tour. I set out to meet my Devour tour guide at the Plaza de la Escarnacion, under the shade of a gigantic modern mushroom-like structure, bizarrely incongruent with the architecture of the square. It wasn’t long before I was met by the lovely and effervescent Sara, who’d be my guide for the evening. We chatted while waiting for the other couple who’d be joining us, and I was happy to learn we’d be a small group. The tour was a combination of history and food, so we first learned about the different groups who had colonized the area and subsequently influenced the food and culture as a result. Our first food stop was Bar El Comercio, a charming old-man bar where we enjoyed slices of Iberian ham and vermouth on ice. I learned that vermouth over ice is a) not at all like the vermouth we use in martinis and the like back home, b) a very common aperitif in Spain, and c) super tasty! From there, we wandered through cozy plazas, learning little nuggets of history, and eventually through the courtyard of El Divino Salvador. Built on the site of a former mosque, it was interesting to see the remnants of Moorish culture still lingering in the architecture and ponder what it means to dominate another culture (either by destroying their sacred places completely or absorbing them).

manchego cheese and Iberian pork belly
manchego cheese and Iberian pork belly

Our next stop was a tiny hole in the wall where we feasted on manchego cheese and Iberian pork belly while sipping on sherry derived from oranges (from a recipe that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years). From there, we meandered our way past the Seville Cathedral and Giralda Tower (another example of a formerly Moorish structure that was taken over by the Christians, whereupon they added additional floors and an Athena-esque statue on top). Another form of dominance, evidently, is just sticking things on top of someone else’s things. We made our way through the Barrio de Santa Cruz (old Jewish quarter), learning about its, unsurprisingly, tortured history, including a rather gruesome, Romeo-and-Juliet tale involving love, betrayal and decapitation. Our next food stop was at a former wine merchant’s shop, which still housed the giant, ceramic vats that used to contain wine. We enjoyed a very dry sherry wine with our tapas–a chorizo-like sausage as well as cod topped with salmorejo (super tasty). We chatted about our travels and where we were from (the American couple lived in New York), and it was nice to spend an evening talking to other human beings–an uncommon feat as a solo traveler.

our guide Sara animatedly showing us her slides
our guide, Sara, animatedly showing us her slides

Sara was a lovely guide, filled with interesting anecdotes and an adorable book of slides that she’d use to illustrate various historical points. The American couple had just come from Morocco, and Nicole had been recovering from some stomach problems. Unfortunately, they came to a head at our fourth stop, and she was not looking happy. They ultimately decided to head back to their hotel, which left me to have essentially a private tour. I enjoyed salmorejo, a Spanish cold tomato soup originating in the south, garnished with ham and hard-boiled egg, as well as fried zucchini stuffed with ham and cheese. I also tried tinto de verano (“red wine of summer”), which is red wine with lemonade, and was suitably light and refreshing. Sara suggested this over sangria, as apparently the latter is not really commonly drunk by locals and has become more of a tourist drink. Our final stop was just next door, where Sara, who seems to know everyone, was greeted effusively by the waitstaff. They brought us many delicious tapas, including lamb with couscous (showing its Moorish history), pork cheeks and cod fritters. I sampled two different types of sherry wine, a sweeter and a drier one, and basked in the warm glow of good food, wine and cheerful company.  It no longer felt like a tour, but just two friends chatting amiably.

sherry and dessert
sherry and dessert

There are advantages to being chummy with the staff, as they slipped in an extra foie gras tapas (it’s like they know me!), and rather endearingly showed me the photo they took with Harrison Ford when he visited. As our night wound down, Sara kindly invited me to join her and her friends for a night out on Saturday, and I was happy to accept the invitation, not willing to pass up the opportunity to not only hang out with a new friend but also experience how locals enjoy their Saturday night. Contact information exchanged, we parted ways, and it was a blissfully short walk by to my AirBnB apartment. A thoroughly successful first day in Seville!

Travel: Gaga for Gaudí

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The weather forecast was threatening rain, which was unfortunate given my intentions to see Park Güell today. Nevertheless, I awoke at a relatively respectable hour, pulled on my running shoes and (somewhat amazingly) completed my MPC workout for the day. It was actually quite interesting to go for a run—made one feel a little closer to being a local. It also was just another chance to see an area of the city I hadn’t been in before. It wasn’t a perfect workout (my distance intervals weren’t super precise), but I was pleased to at least have gotten it in. I borrowed one of the B&B’s umbrellas (just in case) and headed off for the day’s adventures. My first stop was actually the Mercado de la Boqueria, This large covered market has its origins dating back to the 1200s, and had been a pig market and then a straw market and a goat market. I love going to markets–even though I typically don’t have any interest in buying anything. Walking by the stalls, seeing their displays, makes me feel, just for a moment, apart of the city…like I am living there and shopping for my daily food. There were an abundance of colourful candied fruit and meat shops. Unlike most markets I’d been to, many of them very handily had small cones filled with an assortment of their product (be it meat or fish or whatever) for people to take with them and eat, and proved a nice way to sample the product. I grabbed myself a cone of manchego cheese and pata negra, both of which were delicious and hit the spot nicely.
inside Mercat de la Boqueria
inside Mercat de la Boqueria
From there, I transited my way over to Park Güell, which was a little ways away from the city centre.  To my disappointment, I discovered upon arrival that I should have booked tickets in advance to see the “monument zone”, where Gaudí’s sculptures are held, as the next available showing was a good 6 hours later. I would’ve come back but I’d already bought a timed ticket for the Sagrada Familia for around the same time. Thankfully, the rest of the park was open and free to the public, so I meandered my way around. The park afforded some panoramic views of the city, though the cloud cover diminished the view somewhat.
Park Güell
Park Güell
 After I’d had my fill of vegetation, I decided that some tapas was needed. One of my colleagues had recommended a place, Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo, so I hiked on over. The place was still bustling at 3 pm, but I managed to snag a seat at the bar. Requisite glass of cava in hand, I ordered veal carpaccio with foie gras shavings, a melted brie montadito, and (because I physically can’t resist) foie gras on nut bread. All of it was superbly good–the veal carpaccio was especially tasty–and I once again was in my happy place, ensconced in a veritable bear hug of deliciousness. I chatted with my American neighbours for a time (they celebrate their wedding anniversary every year by coming to Barcelona) and capped off my meal with dessert, a giant profiterole drizzled in warm melted chocolate.
veal carpaccio with foie gras shavings at Paco Meralgo
veal carpaccio with foie gras shavings at Paco Meralgo
I walked back to my B&B to relax and pack things up before my appointment at Sagrada Familia. The church was thankfully quite close to my B&B, so it wasn’t long before I was gazing up at the striking insanity that is Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece. When he died in 1926, the building was not even a quarter finished, and the expected finish date is projected to be 2026. Its facade is incredibly ornate, intricate carvings covering its entire surface. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting upon entering, but its interior is no less breathtaking. I’ve always thought that the giant pillars inside cathedrals look something like tree trunks, but apparently Gaudí intended the pillars to really look like trees, branching off dramatically at the ceiling. The rainbow of stained glass windows cast beautiful colours onto the stone. The place was packed, which wasn’t surprising given that it’s apparently the most visited monument in Spain. But the nice thing about its massive size is that you don’t really notice the crowds–that and you’re always craning upwards at the ceiling, so the buzz of the tourists sort of dies away.
Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia
I don’t think I’d ever been in a church quite like this one–something so modern and avant-garde. I loved how different it was to anything I’d ever seen. I had also bought a ticket to go up one of the towers, so I waited in line for the elevator (which you only took up. You had to walk back down the 400 or so steps). You were let out onto a very small bridge area and peered through the metal bars to glimpse at the city and the construction being done on the church. It was actually more interesting going down the spiral staircase, peeking out the windows on the way down. After lingering outside, staring up in awe–there’s just so much going on, it’s hard to take it all in–I made my way to the metro and headed off.
inside Sagrada Familia
inside Sagrada Familia
My sister, being the stained glass aficionado that she is, recommended that I check out the Palau de la Música Catalana, as it apparently has a pretty epic stained glass ceiling. As it was a somewhat spur of the moment stop, I hadn’t done much research on it, so I when I arrived I learned that guided tours of the place ended several hours earlier. I was feeling determined/spontaneous, so I decided what better way to see a theatre hall than to see a show. There was a showing of Gran Gala Flamenco later that evening which seemed like the perfect opportunity, plus music and dance–two of my favourite things! I needed to eat something for dinner, so I checked out one of the recommended spots on my food list, El Xampanayet in the Gothic Quarter, which opened in 1929. The tiny place was packed, and I squeezed my way into a spot at the bar. One definitely had to jostle to maintain one’s position. They’re known for their cava, and I probably downed three delicious glasses in less than an hour (’tis the danger of cava). I enjoyed my tapas–salmon, bacon, Spanish omelette, all good things–before heading back up to the B&B. I didn’t have my glasses on me, which I would need to be able to see the show. I took the opportunity to change into something a little more “going to the theatre” before bolting back out the door.
the theatre at Palau de la Música Catalana
the theatre at Palau de la Música Catalana
I’d read that Palau de la Música Catalana is considered to be one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. I’d have to say I’d concur with that assessment. It is truly breathtaking upon entering–you can’t help but just gape at the gorgeous stained glass ceiling and windows that line the hall, along with dramatic carvings emerging from each corner. I was giddy at the sight, pleased at my spontaneous decision to see a show and the inside of the theatre. The performance itself was great–fantastic dancers and musicians. The show was marred only by the pair of people sitting in front of me who were quite restless (I think because of the heat), and would often make it hard to see. Nevertheless, I’d never seen flamenco dance in person, and I was captivated. Speed and sass! The speed of their footwork, which reminded me a bit of certain moves of tap dancing, was amazing. As I always seem to after seeing a new dance style, I found myself wanting to learn its secrets and try it for myself. Next time I’m in Spain! Gracias Barcelona, you treated me well.

Travel: Eating my way through Barcelona

Given how little sleep I had gotten, it was perhaps not surprising that I slept in the following morning. Thankfully I had not missed breakfast and enjoyed the fresh and healthy breakfast buffet that had been laid out on the terrace. But it wasn’t long before I was out the door and on my way to see the sights. My first stop was Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza) in the Gothic Quarter, which was a beautiful, palm tree-filled square, lined with restaurants and bars housed in historic buildings. From there, it was a pleasant walk through winding, colourful streets over to one of Antoni Gaudí’s fine works, Palau Güell.
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It was one of many commissions he completed for the wealthy industrialist Eusebi Güell. I loved the whimsical nature of the Catalan modernist’s style–curves and colour punctuating the relatively austere interiors (there wasn’t much furniture left in the house, so it was predominantly empty rooms). The stunning receiving room was meant for receiving high class guests and had little windows on the upper floors, which could be used to get a peek at what the guests were wearing when they came in (and allowing them to make any sartorial adjustments as necessary). It wasn’t a huge mansion, so it was relatively easy to get through.
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The rooftop made a particular impression, topped with what looked like bizarre cake pops, with colourful ceramic pillars. I basked in the sun for a bit, admiring the weird little sculptures, before making my way out. I figured it was high time to indulge in some tapas, and I made the walk down to a renowned tapas bar, Quimet & Quimet. It’s tucked in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood and looks like it could actually be a wine shop, at first glance, as its walls are lined with bottles. Opened in 1909, it did originally start out as a place to sell wine. They often served it with a small bite like anchovies or olives, as a selling point for customers. Four generations later, it’s still in the family (I believe I was actually served by the current proprietor, “Quim”).
inside Quimet & Quimet
inside Quimet & Quimet
It’s a tiny, standing room only kind of place, so I grabbed a spot at the bar (one of the pleasures of solo travel is it’s relatively easy to squeeze in and get spots at restaurants, since they only have to accommodate you). I perused the lengthy menu while enjoying a glass of sangria and ordered foie gras and mushrooms (naturally), anchovy and cheese, blue cheese and red pepper, salmon with yoghurt and truffled honey, and mushrooms and cheese. Most of these were montaditos, which are tapas served  on a baguette-like piece of bread. Being at the bar, it was great to watch them prepare each one fresh, and they were all divinely good. I am now fully in love with tapas…relatively cheap and super delicious. I’ve said before when eating out at a restaurant that the appetizer is often my favourite part of the meal, and that I’d be happy to just eat a meal of appetizers. It’s a smaller portion but often packs a bigger flavour wallop than a main course, and a place where chefs can be a bit more inventive and take risks. Tapas is my meal of appetizers! I happily munched on my foods, washing them down with plentiful, inexpensive sangria.
anchovy and cheese at Quimet & Quimet
anchovy and cheese at Quimet & Quimet
From there, I hopped on a bus and made my way over to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. I wasn’t actually planning on seeing the art but rather just admiring the building. I’d spotted it getting off the metro when I first arrived in town, but as I was laden with luggage, didn’t have the chance to really investigate. It’s definitely an imposing building, perched atop Montjuïc hill. Despite the availability of escalators, my MPC training kicked in, and I opted to take the many stairs up the hill (my health app later informed me that I climbed a total of 26 floors throughout the day. Huzzah for working off those tapas!). I wandered around the shaded grounds and admired the stunning views of the city from its promenade.
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
I made my way back to the Gothic Quarter and over to the Basilica de Santa Maria. What I didn’t realize at the time was that there is actually more than one Basilica de Santa Maria. I saw the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi, which was lovely enough, if not fairly simple (by my fairly lofty cathedral standards). The well-known cathedral, however, is Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. Alas, something for the next time I visit!
inside Santa Maria del PI
inside Santa Maria del Pi
Per the recommendation of my host, I’d made reservations at a restaurant just a block away from my B&B, called 9 Nine. My “early” reservation of 7:30 pm meant I was the first diner to arrive. The menu was actually a prix fixe, so I was able to choose 3 tapas, a main and a dessert (that plus 2 glasses of wine and a glass of cava for 33 Euros is pretty good!). Since I seem incapable of not eating croquetas, that was naturally my first choice, along with baked egg with foie gras, and prawns. The prawns thoughtfully came with serviettes to wipe one’s hands off, and I spent a good deal of time cracking and peeling the shells off (handling hot shellfish is not my area of expertise). My main course consisted of grilled Iberian pork with three sauces and actually came with a hot plate (a heated plate-like slab of what could have been cast-iron) so that I could finish the meat off to my taste. It had been cooked rare/medium-rare, so all it took was a few seconds on the hot plate, and it was perfect. It proved to be an entertaining activity to break up all my consumption. To end the evening, my server recommended the chocolate dessert–an excellent recommendation–as it was a heavenly molten chocolate cake. The whole meal was superb, and I had definitely consumed far more than was probably good for me. Mercifully, it was only a short waddle back to the B&B.
molten chocolate cake at 9 Nine
molten chocolate cake at 9 Nine

Travel: Barcelona bound

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I’m not going to lie; one of the biggest joys of my job is the opportunity to travel the world. A language development conference in Bilbao meant visiting a new country for me! My flight with KLM was comfortable and perhaps too entertaining (love when airlines have great movies available), and I didn’t end up getting hardly any sleep as a result. My first order of business in Barcelona was getting a SIM card, which thankfully were available in the airport. 15 Euros seem a small price to pay for the ability to Google map my way around town, particularly considering I’ll be renting a car later in my trip.

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In an effort to not be completely extravagant, I decided to take public transit into town, which consisted of an airport bus and a metro. Ah Europe, with its ever abundant staircases and never-ending tunnels between stations. Normally, this is not a concern, but when hauling around 50-odd pounds of crap, one gets sweaty right quick. I finally emerged from my underground travels and made my way to the bed and breakfast I’d be staying at. I experienced a momentary panic when no one answered the doorbell (only to realize I’d punched in the wrong address in Google maps), and so I was soon met by my warm and friendly host. It was a charming apartment and beautifully-decorated—with a kind of rustic/chic vibe. My room was small but comfortable and tastefully-furnished, with high ceilings and outfitted with all that I would need. While settling in and getting ready for the day, I made the rather unwelcome discovery that one of my main lenses didn’t work with the camera body I’d brought. This is the first time shooting with the Nikon V2, and I have a vague recollection of discovering many months ago some weird glitch that rendered this lens essentially useless. Berating myself for not having checked things out before I left, I thanked my lucky stars that I still at least had one working lens (fixed focal-length). It is not unfortunately a wide-angle lens, so I’ll be supplementing my shooting with my trusty iPhone.

La Rambla
La Rambla

The advantage of a morning-arriving flight is one still has a half-day, which is enough time to cover some ground but a short enough period so as to ease oneself in to full-time travel mode. I decided that I would walk in the general direction of the Gothic Quarter. I made my way down one of the main thoroughfares and marvelled at the wide, tree-lined streets, where vast, centre portions of the road are devoted to bicycles and pedestrians and smaller outer lanes given to cars. The buildings were beautiful, with ornate wrought-iron balconies and often with stained glass turrets. I meandered my way down through the winding, narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter until I came across Barcelona Cathedral, which dates back to the 14th century.

Barcelona Cathedral
Barcelona Cathedral

 

This gorgeous Gothic cathedral had every thing that I love about cathedrals–soaring pillars, ornate woodwork and beautiful stained glass windows. It also provided a welcome respite from the throngs of tourists. I learned from my host that it was a bank holiday, which is why there were relatively few locals on the streets (though there were certainly plenty of tourists to fill them up). I noticed a queue growing at one side of the cathedral and discovered it was for the elevator up to the rooftop. The roof afforded beautiful views from the hills out to the sea, and so I loitered for a time, drinking it in while bemusedly watching the different selfie methods employed by my fellow tourist. I made my way back down and through the secluded Gothic cloister, where 13 geese are kept. One of the patron saints of Barcelona is Eulalia, a martyred Roman Christian virgin entombed in the cathedral, who was 13 when she was martyred (hence the 13 geese).

rooftop view from Barcelona Cathedral
rooftop view from Barcelona Cathedral

From there, I continued my wandering in search of a tapas bar I’d read about, not far from the water, only to discover that they were closed (presumably because of the bank holiday). However, Isla Tortuga, which happened to be next door, was open and so I sidled on up to the bar and ordered me some tapas. Before planning this trip, I knew very little about Spanish food, but made it a point to try a couple Spanish restaurants in Toronto before I left. Of the things I know, cava and croquetas (Spanish croquettes) are some of the best things ever. I am generally a lover of sparking wine, and particularly cava, so I was thrilled to be in cava country. I will often get an amused look at bars in North America when I order sparkling wine, with the bartender often asking if I’m celebrating a special occasion (what, being a Tuesday isn’t enough?), so it’s delightful that I am finally in a city where that is the go-to drink. The mushroom croquetas were super delicious, as were my other tapas.

my first Spanish tapas: naturally, croquettes
my first Spanish tapas: naturally, croquettes

From there, I decided to seek out a nearby spot in the Gothic Quarter, specializing in gin, called Bar Rubí. I read, much to my joy, that the gin and tonic is an especially popular drink in Barcelona (and my drink of choice outside of sparkling wine). As it was relatively early still, the bar wasn’t busy, and I grabbed a seat, admiring the wealth of gin choices on display. I decided to go with one of the house-made infusions, mango gin and tonic (super delicious). Apparently, it’s customary in Barcelona to serve G&Ts in a a large wine glass–a very large one in my case. I nursed my drink and watched the bar fill up, a good mix of foreigners and locals. After I’d had my fill, I made my way to the metro and took the short ride back to the B&B. I discovered I’d walked 18.5 K steps (12 km) during my half day of meandering, so I figured it might be an idea to save my legs.

big glass of mango-infused gin and tonic
big glass of mango-infused gin and tonic