Welcome welcome one and all to my account of one of the most eventful, exhausting, and outgoing trips of my entire life – my journey to SPAIN!
I came to the realization on day 8 that it would be an insane amount of effort to write about every little detail that occurred during each day like I normally do; so, for my sake, I will list the major events for each day and then jot down my thoughts about them. Following that I will talk about each city for a bit, as well as how my thoughts progressed throughout the trip. A few of the best photos for each day will accompany each section, and there will be links to the full albums on my Facebook page as well. To conclude I will reflect on the journey and how I felt coming out of it.
There is a lot to get to, and I feel like an overly long introduction may just be a redundancy, so, without further ado, let´s jump right in.
Day by Day
Day 1 – Arrival/Barcelona
In Spain – After dragging myself out of bed at 3:15 a.m. I hauled my body over to the airport to catch my flight. There I met up with Jes, and within a few hours we were touching down in Barcelona. The temperature was mild and pleasant which made figuring out our way into town that much more tolerable. Luckily, finding the airport transfer bus was easy enough, for we were soon in Catalonia Square; which, for all intents and purposes, is the center of the city.
Black Swan – Only a 15 minute walk from Catalonia Square sat our hostel for Barcelona: Black Swan. It was a little bit of a hole in the wall, but nonetheless a nice establishment. Since we were a little early they let us drop our bags so we could walk around town. We grabbed lunch at a burger joint which was where I learned that my Spanish was not up to par with reading menus. Still, I managed to figure out how a bacon cheeseburger read, so I did not go hungry. After dipping our toes into Barca we made our way back to the hostel where we checked into our room. Having a balcony was nice, and while the room was a little cramped for its 6 person occupancy I didn’t feel so claustrophobic. The mattresses were comfortable and that was all that mattered to me. Our roommates were Canadians and Germans. I ended up being the only guy in the room during our stay here, which was fine with me.
Gothic Quarter – Once we recovered from flying/settling in Jes and I made our way to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. Essentially the old town, this area housed numerous buildings with small courtyards, overhangs, and cathedrals. In particular, El Catedral de Barcelona was the most impressive sight. The crypt inside was spectacular, and having it all nestled in and around 13th and 14th century architecture made the ambiance that much more effective. Our unguided tour led us around this quadrant of the city until we found ourselves in front of the Arc de Triomf. Here we sat and talked about this was the start to a wonderful adventure. Oh how right we were.
Day 2 – Barcelona
Rejected – Jes and I decided right quick that out of all the sights to see in Barcelona the one we could not miss was the Sagrada Familia. Naught but a twenty minute walk from Black Swan and we were in the shadow of the grandest cathedral in all the world. The spires were towering, and the architecture was unlike everything I had ever seen. In a city where Gaudi’s influence is prevalent around every corner this location is the most spectacular. We had to get inside. Imagine our sorrow, then, when the ticket office showed that the next available timetable was at 6:15. It was a popular attraction indeed. Upset, but nonetheless determined, we swallowed our pride and vowed to return at a later time.
We came back at 5:30, but were again turned away. The time where tickets could be purchased had long since expired. We were out of luck for that day. Then it hit me. Why not buy them online? It was too easy, and with Reagan coming into Barcelona the next day we agreed that the best course of action was to simply buy tickets in advance on the web. The third time would have to be the charm.
Park Guell – Following our first attempt at Sagrada we decided to hike up town to get to Park Guell. Here too was another area with monuments in Gaudi’s fashion, and again if we were to get into the monument area we would have to pay. Tickets here were sold out as well and we were left to our own devices to wander around the free section of the park. There were musicians and small marketers galore throughout the area. It was quite amusing to see them pack up in a flash and book it onto a side road when the police rolled through; apparently merchants are banned in some sections of the city.
It was here where my legs finally realized that they would need to kick into high gear for the next week and a half. The hike up to the top of the park was a hefty task to ask my non-adjusted quads, but with a grimace and a healthy dosage of water underneath the beating Spanish sun I clamored my way to the top of the park. The view was incredible, and beneath me Barcelona glimmered through the mid-afternoon haze, the Mediterranean sparkling in the background. With the thousands of trees lining each road and alley throughout the city, and the cathedrals dotting the cityscape, it really was a magnificent sight to behold.
Waterfront – In the afternoon we wandered down La Rambla (Barca’s main shopping/eating street) to the Columbus monument and the Barcelona pier. Here we took in the nice weather and chatted about life in general. It was a pleasant moment to have, just sitting on the docks. We explored the little marketplace just off the pier. Here I found an original German edition of The Brothers Grimm. In retrospect I really wish I had purchased it, as it is not often you find such an old version of a historic text, regardless of the language.
From the pier we made our way back to the hostel. Along the way we passed the Arc di Triumf and were able to grab some nice daytime shots of the landmark. The avenue reminded me very much of Rome and the street that passed between the Colosseum and the Altar of the Fatherland. This was mainly do to the amount of performers on either side of the street. It is nice to see some artistical talent anywhere, though I will admit I do not like feeling the pressure of having to walk by performers and not pay them. Nonetheless, some were entertaining, especially the hula-hooping acrobat.
Bobby the Paella Guy – For dinner I signed up to watch how paella was made and eat some as well. Every other day Black Swan has Bobby “the paella guy” come in and do a hands on demonstration showing how to make the stuff while also giving a history lesson on the dish as well as proper cooking techniques. He was awesome. A Virginia Beach native, Bobby has been living in Spain for the past few years with one simple goal: make amazing, affordable paella for large groups and cause havoc for the industry which has lost touch with the dish. It was evident to me that the man really cared about the process, meticulously and purposefully noting the significance of every ingredient as it went into the large pan before me. I will admit, I was a little apprehensive to eat a seafood dish; for I have never had the likes of calamari, prawns, or mussels. My fears were dashed though, as it looked just so damn good.
It was that damn good.
For €5 I got a bowl of paella and a glass of some true Spanish sangria to compliment it. Bobby is a masterful technician when it comes to making the dish. It truly was a treat to see him go to work, and I wish him nothing but the best in leading the paella renaissance in Barcelona. Check out his Facebook here.
Day 3 – Barcelona
Mojito Dudes and Topless Women – Sometimes the best way to start a hectic day is not to do anything at all. For the morning of the third day Jes and I decided to spend some time at the beach getting some color and enjoying the Mediterranean. Along the way we stopped by La Boqueria Marketplace off of La Rambla. It was awesome to see so many fresh food stands in such an enclosed space. We were not only able to grab lunch but oggle at the massive amount of fantastic looking food on every corner. Seafood, meats, spices, sandwiches, vegetables, fruits… It went on and on. Considering I highly enjoy food and markets, this was a real highlight of the day.
From the market we made our way to the beach and kicked back in the warm sand. I noticed two things right off of the bat: 1) there were people everywhere trying to sell mojitos, beer, water, massages, and henna tattoos. I decided just to enjoy my coconut, since it was only noon. 2) It was a beach where many topless women decided to hang out. It didn’t make anything uncomfortable, but I have to say it was unexpected and a little touch of culture shock kicked in. You do you, Spain.
The Mediterranean was much colder than I expected it to be, but the water was clear and the sun was bright, so for the next few hours I lay in the sand and relaxed, letting the heat wash over my pale body. I made an extra effort not to get too badly burned, and thankfully I succeeded. This would end up being the most exposure to the sun I would have all trip, so I gladly soaked it up.
Getting Cultured – A little while later Jes and I made our way to the Picasso museum where we were going to meet up with my friend Reagan from API Stirling and her friend Allison. It was good to see another familiar face, if only for an afternoon.
The museum was nothing to special, as it highlighted some of the works of the famed artist from throughout his life. My favorite pieces would have to the his “pigeons” collection. Look, I’m not much of an art snob, but it was nice to get a little culture and see why Picasso had such a big claim to fame. I could not take photos in the museum, so it’s quite difficult to explain how I felt about the pieces without a visual representation. Much of it was quite dark and a little disturbing. Picasso must’ve had some demons at one point or another, though his work is beautiful.
3rd Time’s the Charm – From the museum our group made our way to the Sagrada Familia for the third and final time. Once there we went into the wrong entrance, though we did get a change to explore the crypt underneath the cathedral where we would later figure out was the location of Gaudi’s tomb.
But, the main attraction lay on the surface, and not underneath. Once making our way around to the proper entrance we finally got into the cathedral.
There are no words to describe just how beautiful it truly is.
Some see it as a testament to nature’s beauty and the glory of God. Personally, I see it as a testament to the creativity of man and our ability to construct on a grand scale. I won’t even try to attempt to record too much of the detail of the place, so I’ll utilize pictures instead to do the talking for me. All I will say is that I was profoundly moved by the epic grandeur of the place. I am not religious, but I could not help but feel a deep movement within my body. In my mind, I think my inner being was moved a bit, but I cannot be sure. It was a good feeling nonetheless.
API Edinburgh and Stirling: United – It really was a treat to hang out with Reagan and Allison for the afternoon. Reagan and I became friends in Stromeferry on the API trip to the highlands. For some reason, the two API groups seemed to avoid one another. I’d like to think that Reagan (and Isla) and mine’s efforts to get to know one another helped to mend that relationship. In any event, experiences are best shared in the company of friends. The more the merrier after all. Between the Picasso museum, the Sagrada Familia, and having a good dinner off of La Rambla, our group made some pretty wonderful memories together. Ones that I will not forget for a lifetime. It may have been just a coincidence that we were in Barca at the same time, but it was truly a welcome experience to share. Thanks for hanging out Reagan and Allison – until the next time.
Day 4 – Barcelona-Madrid
Arriving in Style – Getting out of Barcelona went very smoothly, and before long Jes and I were touching down in Madrid. Before we left I had booked transportation for us to get to our hostel as it was in the center of the city. It was really, really cool seeing someone in a suit with a placard of my name waiting for us at the airport! The gentleman’s name was Miguel, and he was a nice chap who talked with us in Spanish on the way to our hostel: Mola! I understood a bit of what he said, but not all. Likewise, he understood a bit of my English, but not all. We made it work though. Once at the hostel we settled the fare and made it too our rooms. Mola! worked more like a hotel than a hostel. We had our own bathroom and shower for the 6 person dorm, and breakfast was provided for a fee. It was a little loud considering it was in the center of town, but was comfortable nonetheless. Somehow we managed to have the suite to ourselves for the night which was a welcome change of pace as we had not to worry about late night arrivals for at least one evening.
Scorched Earth – My first impressions of Madrid were not particularly the most positive. I say this because I did not expect the surrounding countryside to be so, well, scorched. Madrid is also set in a dead heat. While there is some shade throughout the city I always found myself wondering how oppressive it must be here in the summer. Yes, the sights were beautiful, but I could not figure out why Spaniards had decided to settle here in the first place. I guess I’m too much of a green mountain boy to appreciate this type of climate. Then again, I don’t think I would prefer to.
When in Spain… – The highlight of day four had to be me doing something absolutely controversial, but nonetheless something I’ve always wanted to do: experience a bullfight.
Jes politely declined to go with me, and I understood and respected her reservations as to why. So, on my own, I trekked across Madrid for an hour to get to the arena. The folks at the ticket office were excited for the event that day, as it was the first time where they would be using the “big bulls” this season. There was even a classical poster made for the event. This was the real thing, and I began to grow very excited for the coming spectacle.
I hung out in front of the arena and waited for the doors to open. All around me were vendors selling snacks and souvenirs. I read online that you could bring your own food into the arena, and it is common for folks to pass wine skins from one to another. Sadly, no one offered me any wine when I got into the arena. I grabbed some sunflower seeds and a €9 beer and waited for the show to begin. My seat was smack dab in the middle of the sun, so I was to get no reprieve from the heat. In order to combat my skin getting fried I popped my collar on my shirt and hunched over to prevent exposure. I also hid my beer behind my legs… priorities and all that.
After about an hour of waiting in the stands the show began. I had no idea what to expect; no concept of how these things even worked.
I quickly found out.
Essentially a typical bullfight goes like this. The matador and his three sub-matadors(?) will get the bull riled up after he leaves the pen. Then, the picadors will ride out on their armored horses and taunt the bull, who will then ram into the horse as the picador sends his lance into the shoulder muscles of the bull. The bull will then rush the matadors again. Daggermen then take the stage and deliver three sets of them into the haunches of the animal. Following this the main matador brings out the red cape and sword and wears down the bull until he can get close enough to deliver the final strike through the shoulders of the bull into the midsection. At this point the bull will die and be dragged off by horses. The process then repeats itself for each fight.
I witnessed seven fights, six of them culminating in the death of the bull. The one exception was when the daggermen could not get the daggers to stick in one bull, and the crowd booed them for it. Keep in mind, the crowd is supposed to want the humans to win the fight. Booing them is a key sign that they have messed up very badly. Thus, this one bull was spared as the crowd had turned against the matadors.
So, the question is: did I enjoy it?
Yes, I did.
However, over the course of the evening, by roughly the third bull, I started to have a change of heart. I am not against bullfighting, as it is one of the great cultural cornerstones of Spain. Yet, putting on a show just to kill an animal, seems, well, wasteful. I don’t really know how to describe my exact feelings, but I think it’s telling that at the start of the fights I was rooting for the matadors, and by the end I was rooting for the bulls. I think Hemingway said it best in TSAR:
“We had that disturbed emotional feeling that always comes after a bullfight, and the feeling of elation that comes after a good bullfight.” (p. 142)
If given the choice to go again I would in a second. It was a fantastic experience, and I got to see something that very few people on this earth do throughout their lives. In a very real sense it was a bucket-list event, and one that I will remember. Though I did turn out to be somewhat hesitant on its controversial nature, I think that seeing some of the more primal, let’s call them, aspects of life are important to one’s psyche. Understanding that humans are capable of great creation (Sagrada Familia) and great barbarity (bullfights) gives credence to the idea that there is a fragile balance to our nature. Therefore, we must consider who we are and our actions carefully in the light of this discrepancy lest the line between what is considered “good” and “bad” become blurred.
By Dark of Night – Walking back from the ring gave me time to reflect on the experience. It was at this point where I truly considered how I felt, and how little it mattered in the grand scheme of things. I ended up shaking off my apprehensions and grabbed a beer and a sandwich at a local shop. Along the way I took some great nighttime shots of the city. In the dark the air was much less heavy than its counterpart in the afternoon sun. With buildings bathed in the evening light it was a nice time going on a small Instagram mission.
Day 5 – Madrid
Impromptu Cathedral Tour – Jes and I spent day five by exploring the western side of the city. It quickly turned into an impromptu cathedral tour. I gotta say, the Spaniards take their religion seriously, and with Easter right around the corner it was clear each church was preparing for the holiday. Each one had their own float – grand designs in honor of the Virgin Mary or Jesus which take 30+ people to carry. Personally, I don’t much understand it, but it is deeply ingrained in Spanish culture, so I decided to push aside my personal thoughts and just be an observer to history.
Parks and Recreation – We spent the early hours of the afternoon wandering around the Parque del Oeste. It was a pleasant sight to see a good amount of greenery in an otherwise urban city. We laid down under some pines and chatted for a while, and took a walk by the river than ran through the park. There really isn’t much to say here, but just know we had already walked many km’s that day, and the rest was welcome.
Roses Are… Many Different Colors – There is a rose garden in the Paque del Oeste. I was a little disappointing that most of the flowers were not in bloom, but I expect that in the summer the colors are quite stunning. Following the garden we walked up to the Templo de Debod: a temple mimicked after Egyptian design. While it looked out of place it was a neat little landmark to spot. Sadly, we were there when it was closed, but it nonetheless provided a good spot to photograph.
Jesus Christ… – If you like thousands upon thousands of paintings from all different eras depicting the persecution of Jesus, then El Prado museum is for you. If not, well, then you are like me and struggled to get through each room of violent depictions of crucifixion and religious scenes. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of it was beautiful, but El Prado is MASSIVE. Since we arrived for the last hour and a half of the day (entry is free during the last two hours) we expected to just do a quick walk through.
It’s not possible.
Within five minutes I felt very dehydrated, and with each new portrait of Christ I lost more and more of my sanity. It’s such a daunting task to get through art museums normally. This one just felt like overkill. I saw some beautiful things … but I just did not care. My body wanted to shut down. My mind had gone numb from too much Christianity. I was burnt.
It was with great relief then that the museum sounded the tones for closing. I needed a beer after all that, which I got, and promptly passed out soon after we returned to Mola!.
Day 6 – Madrid
Scenes From High School – Day six brought us to El Retiro park in the Central-Eastern part of the city. Between the ponds, the trees, and the crystal palace I distinctly remember calling back to one of my Spanish classes that I had in high school. Why the hell was I thinking about high school? Then I remembered: for one reason or another we were watching an instructional video on grammar or something of the like. It was set in Spain; specifically it was set in this exact park where I now stood. It was a simple remembrance, but I do know it was the inspiration behind me wanting to get to Madrid sometime in my life in the first place. For some reason, this video had prompted an image inside my mind that Madrid was this glorious city on the other side of the world, thus I made it a goal to get there someday… and here I was.
It wasn’t quite as I pictured it, but it did the trick. In fact, I don’t think the significance of this moment had anything to do with the park itself, but more so the truth that I was single-handedly fulfilling promises to myself that I had made years early. It was a pleasant few seconds of reflection, and between the trees I managed to find a little larger of a smile than I had been having for the past few days.
Flower Power – From one park to another, Jes and I decided to visit the Madrid botanical gardens. As one may imagine, there’s not too much to say about the cluster of various plants that surrounded us – it was merely a pleasant way to kill some time and enjoy a beautiful day in Madrid.
Briga-freakin’-deiros – This one also harkens back to my high school days. I remember going to a world showcase event or something like that up in Burlington/Essex for a student council/class trip. Once there I found this little side station serving this Latin dessert: brigadeiros. In essence, they are little balls of chocolate cream covered by chocolate sprinkles, AND THEY TASTE SO FUCKING GOOD.
Sorry, got a little ahead of myself there. Long story short, for lunch we stopped at this little cafe, and they were serving this little balls of goodness for dessert. I couldn’t help myself… it was just as good as I remember!
(For shame, I forgot to take a picture! Click here to see what they are.)
Now THIS I Can Appreciate – The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza was a MUCH better art museum than El Prado in my honest opinion. Not only were the works not singularly devoted to Christianity, they housed a vast rage of works from different countries, styles, and eras. I even got to see some more Picasso, as well as even a few pieces by Van Gogh, da Vinci, and Monet. Now those are four very big names! Of course, it wasn’t some of their masterpieces, but there was a Mona Lisa, painted by one of da Vinci’s students concurrently with da Vinci’s own.
Of all the works, the pieces I enjoyed the most were from the Hudson River School of Art. Not only were the pieces simply aesthetically beautiful (the school as a whole is about very detailed imagery of nature), but they were created in the vision of New England and Northeast America – my home. Portraits of the Adirondacks gave me the biggest twinge of homesickness that I have had during my entire time abroad. I longed to be back at Hogtown II (The Pratt Family Hunting Camp), yet I smiled at all the happy memories that came flooding back. Truly, the Hudson School is the epicenter of modern natural masterpieces. Hell, they moved me, and I don’t really get art. It was very unexpected to see visages of home, but they were welcome and boosted my spirits for the day.
Dirty Work – Since I only packed 6-7 days worth of clothes I did laundry in the afternoon; I signed up for my Fall 2017 semester classes in the meantime… senior year!
When in Spain… Part II – As a final event in Madrid Jes and I bought tickets to a live Flamenco show. We had no idea what to expect, and were very surprised to see just how intimate the stage setting was. There were room for barely 30 people, and the stage was no bigger than a small kitchen area.
We sipped on our complimentary sangria as the performers came out. There were six in total: two dancers, one vocalist, one guitarist, one flutist(?), and one percussionist. Between each group set each of the instrument players had time for a long solo section as the rest of the group recovered/changed uniforms. The flutist, percussionist, and guitarist rocked the house! I have never seen any group of performers play such intricate pieces on a solo, and it was a delight to watch. These folks were working HARD.
It’s hard to describe just how awesome this show was, so I would definitely check out the vlog near the end of the post! But let me say this: the beats made me feel good. I was in awe at some of the detail, and very impressed with the rhythm of it all. These were pro’s pros, and it was a joy to watch such dedicated performers work their craft like others have done in eras long past. As with the bullfight it was a unique, truly Spanish experience that would have made my trip incomplete had I not done it. Oh how happy I am that I did!
Day 7 – Madrid-Pamplona
Here I Go Again(?) On My Own – Day 7 was the day where Jes and I went our separate ways – she went South to Seville while I journeyed North to Pamplona. For the first time in my life I was alone without a guide. Everything I did was hereby on me. Was I ready? I did not know. One way or the other, I was about to find out.
The train ride from Madrid to Pamplona took approximately three hours or so. It was remarkable to see how much the landscape changed from Central to Northern Spain: an arid and dusty climate gradually changed into a hilly green region. This was more my speed, and upon departure into Pamplona I could instantly tell that, yes, this weather better suited what I’ve been adapted to throughout my life.
I made the 45 minute trek into the center of town. Along the way I took in the sites and sounds of Pamplona during siesta time. By the way, the siesta is real all throughout Spain. Quite literally most shops shut down from roughly 2 until 4:30. It’s a time for folks to go home, nap, and eat lunch with their families. Quite a nice system if you ask me. In any event, I arrived during this time, and had a bit of difficulty finding my hostel: Hemingway House. Thankfully, some older folks who happened to cross my path helped me find the right building. We barely understood one another other than me saying I was from “Los Estados Unidos”. Of all the things I learned in Spain I think that the realization language is not much of a barrier between people was the most important one. While I know enough Spanish to get by I had to communicate using points, facial gestures, and thumbs-ups more often than I care to admit. The world is a big place, but not so big that humans can’t still exchange basic primal forms of communication. It all works out, one way or the other.
West Side Story – Once I was settled in I took the free map provided by the hostel and set out on a self guided map tour. As it happened I could effectively divide the city into East and West. For the first day I decided to hit the Western half, and so I did.
Because History – Near the end of the day I ended up at the Museo de Navarra. As with most museums I could not take pictures, but there was some incredible Gothic, Roman, and Neolithic artifacts housed here. Civilization in Spain is pretty damn old after all. The most interesting artifacts were an Ivory Casket that belonged to a Muslim prince, Roman columns depicting the story of Job, and a caveman-era map carved into a rock (I could not make it out at all).
I love history, and this was a nice way to immerse myself into the bygone eras of the country I was presently exploring. It never hurts to dig a little deeper, ya know.
Stags and Peacocks – If you ever find yourself in Pamplona consider stopping by the Jardines de la Taconera. Not only is it a beautiful park on its own, but the central section is home to a number of fauna, including peacocks, various chickens, and even a cluster of deer, of whom I was not expecting to see.
Humbled – After making my way through the park, I sat on the Northern city walls and really sunk into a moment of anxiety.
I was alone.
I had it in the back of my mind throughout the day, but when I finally stopped moving for a moment it sunk deep into me. Everything I did from here on out was completely on me and myself alone. If I fucked up it would be bad. No one could come to my aid.
Overcoming this anxiety would not be an easy thing, but I took a deep breath. I knew I was capable of doing this. After all I had been living independently in Edinburgh for months at this point. How difficult could 4 days alone in Spain be?
My apprehension will show in the day 7 vlog; I admit I was a little scared.
Yet, that is exactly what I wanted to feel.
I was texting my folks on the train to Pamplona. I told them that this trip was all about making myself comfortable with being uncomfortable. What better way to do that than by throwing yourself right into an uncomfortable position?
In retrospect I aced this test of humanity. I’m here writing this blog after all. Still, there was a moment where a small shred of doubt crept into my mind. I’m happy to say that I dominated that doubt, and have come out a more complete person because of it. 🙂
Day 8 – Pamplona
Siege the Day – While the day before constituted of the West side, day 8 would focus primarily on the East. In particular, my goal was to start by walking the battlements and walls of the city. I did make it back over Westward to the Ciudadella, which is the fort near the center of the city. Supposedly one of the grandest forms of Spanish military architecture, it has long since turned into a public park. Still, I could see that this place meant business, as it was complete with enough interior space to fit a small town, five points of defense on the exterior, and a legitimate moat area which surrounded the whole.
The rest of the walls were nothing too special, just some battlements defending all sides of the city. I truly was not expecting that the city would have been as walled in and well defended as it was. I suppose, considering its mountainous terrain and proximity to France, that it was a strategic location to hold. Based on the defenses, this place could have withstood a siege for quite a long while.
Running (Walking) of the Bulls – Pamplona is home to the running of the bulls. If you do not know what that is, well, I truly don’t know how you don’t know. In truth, it started out as the Pamplonans simply running bulls through the city down to the bullring. Some fools decided that it would be a good idea to run in front of the bulls, and thus the tradition was born. Numerous times the practice of the run has been outlawed, but still masochistic folks tempted fate and hopped the fence. Eventually the authorities gave in, and now every year thousands descend on Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin in early July to witness, and participate in, the week of daily runnings and bullfights. Every year someone gets injured, and the occasional deaths do occur. Still, it is one of the most primal and adrenaline-inducing events in all the world to this day.
While I was not there for the festival period, I decided that I would be remiss if I did not at least walk the path while I was there. I walked to the pen area on the North side of the city, passing by the small statue of San Fermin locked into a small wall. This is where the runners gather and sing to San Fermin three times to earn favor and basically pray to live.
I waited for the noon bell, and upon its tolling I began to walk the path. In total, the whole route only took 15 minutes of travel, but it brought me through the center of the old town: past city hall, and down the alley where hundreds cram into the windows to witness the show.
Rounding the final turn to the bullring my pace quickened. I cared not for the looks of the passers-by, and I lifted my legs into a run as I neared the end of the line. As I reached the door to the arena my heart swelled with a sense of accomplishment.
I had run the route of the running of the bulls.
Yes, it was not the real thing, but I like living, so this was good enough for me. As my feet took each step I could practically hear and feel the chaos of the event coursing through my body. It invigorated me; positive energy coursing through my veins. Talk about a bucket-list event! I was profoundly happy with what I had just done, as only a small portion of humanity can claim to have done the same.
When in Spain…
The Sun Also Rose – If you have been following my blogs you know that I have been reading Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
This book is the reason why I came to Pamplona.
Somewhere in my mind I decided to pay homage to my love of this book by finishing it in the city where Hemingway got his inspiration from. Regarding that, there was very much a twinge of his influence all throughout the city. Calle de Hemingway is the street where the bullring is on, and there is a statue of him outside the arena. There are bars and shops named after him, and I stayed in the aptly named “Hostel Hemingway”. I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to say that Pamplona is THE city of Hemingway.
In any event, I had a book to finish. The weather was very pleasant, but I still wanted to find some shade. I wandered North, over the Arga to El Parque de la Runa. Walking along the edge of the river I found a little nook where I could lay back against a tree and have the sound of rushing water drown out all other thoughts so I could read in peace.
Roughly an hour and a half later I closed the final page on the novel. As with the bull run I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. Who can say that they traveled to a city in a faraway land just to finish a book? It is a simple thing, I admit, but I am very glad that this was the course of action that I took. Just the concept of the story excites.
“Yeah, I went to Pamplona to finish my book. What of it?”
What of it indeed – it was a fantastic experience.
At least, Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Beer and Ice Cream – Since I was by my lonesome finding dinner proved to be a little more difficult than I anticipated. For the last few days I ended up eating tapas and pintxos at the bar, or grabbing a sandwich or burger on the fly. After all, meals are best when shared. Thus, it did not feel right to eat a big meal alone.
It was all good though, each night I had a beer or two with my food, and later I would try to find some dessert, usually in the form of ice cream, and wander into the square. There I would people watch and just enjoy the moment. By turning off my camera and soaking it all in I allowed myself to relax and be part of the energy around me.
Not a bad way to spend one’s evening.
Day 9 – Pamplona-San Sebastián
Over the Hill – I had to catch the bus from Pamplona to Donostia/San Seb in the morning. It only took about an hour, but wow the journey was beautiful. The Northern mountains of Spain are glorious visages of geography, and we weaved through tunnels and over hills; through thick fog, to come down into the next city. Sadly, no pictures were taken, but it was a marvelous way to start the day.
Where the Hell am I? – My phone told me that San Sebastian was 82 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. This was supposed to be my point of R&R after all. I even put on shorts before boarding the bus.
Imagine my surprise when I got off it to a city covered by clouds under a ripe temp of 58 degrees.
WHAT IS GOING ON?!
I checked my phone: San Sebastian: 82 degrees.
I turned on location services: Donostia: 58 degrees.
After some frantic searching online I realized what had happened. There is a San Sebastian in Spain near Valencia, South of Barcelona. There is also a San Sebastián, also known as Donostia, to the North on the Atlantic. I was at the latter.
It was where I had booked everything yes, so I was in the right place, but for the month leading up to the journey I was under the impression that this location was all sun and heat.
I mean, it is in the summer, but for the two days that I was to be there the forecast was nothing but cloudy and 60. Awesome.
I was quite bummed out about the weather, as these days were supposed to be spent tanning on the beach. However, after my moment of lamentation I swallowed my pride and vowed to make the most of it. Oh how I did.
I Could Get Used to This – A Room in the City was the hostel I stayed at. I splurged a little on this place as I wanted a nice place to stay for my final days.
It did not disappoint.
The staff was extremely friendly and laughed with me about my city mix up. There was a rooftop terrace where I could hang out if I wanted to. The showers were in the same room as the toilets. The rooms were set up the same as Mola!, but instead of a keycard I had a waterproof wristband that acted as my room and locker key. Oh, and the bunks had curtains, which is a SUPER nice and rare touch in a hostel. My roommates were nice too. The first night it was all Spanish ladies; older, but not disruptive. The second night I made friends with an Australian couple, late-twenties or so, and talked about travel with them. I slept well both nights.
Spontaneous Me – The goal for the first day in SS was just like any other of the cities: explore. After changing into my kuhls I wandered up to the Playa la Zurriola and did my souvenir shopping. I bought my shot glass(es) and my magnet that I got for each city. I did not get a tshirt from anywhere. I’m not sure why. Nor did I get a Spanish flag or tapestry like I wanted to; I simply could not find one I liked. I got other things though: a red handkerchief from Pamplona (it’s customary to where them in the bullrun), a small wineskin, and a little box with the Basque logo from SS, and a deck of cards from Madrid. I got enough stuff, I’ll say that.
In any case, I wandered over to the Western side of town and just walked about. There is a vibrant shopping section right in the center of the city, and the bay area is simply stunning. My walks led me past the Iglesia de Santa Maria and eventually around the Vista del Monte Urgul. I kept walking, and eventually the incline started to rise. Before I knew it I was in a full blown hike up Monte Urgul. “Why not?”, I thought to myself.
A huff and a puff later and I reached the summit: the Castillo de La Mota. Here was where I got my first taste of why folks flock to San Seb. In a word, it looks like paradise.
Is This Even Spain? – This place certainly felt different. It was much more temperate and lush than Madrid, much more active than Pamplona, and much more accessible than Barcelona. The mountains in the background, the ocean in the foreground, the thriving shopping district, the visible monuments, the pier, and the architecture made San Seb totally unique. Hell, it even had a different language: that of the Basques.
Regarding that, the four cities I went to felt like four different countries.
There’s a lot of geo-political reasons for this, but each city was in a different region. Barcelona: Catalonia; Madrid: Madrid/Capitol Region; Pamplona: Navarra; San Seb: Basque Country.
Navarran flags few in Pamplona; Catalan ones dominated Barca, and Basque flags were very prominent in San Seb. The only true Spanish flags I saw were in Madrid. The languages were much different in each region as well, and the climates changed drastically. Had I not know it beforehand I would have guessed that I would have been in four different countries. Again, there’s a lot of political reasons for this, but I have never seen such an internal divide of culture within one single country. Yes, the states differ across the board, but by an large we all fly the same flag and all identify as American. In Spain they identify by region. The only folks that would call themselves “Spanish” would be near Madrid I figure. Basques, Catalans, Navarrans: those are the terms of identification. Then again, I call myself a Vermonter, so I suppose I somewhat understand. Yet, I don’t fly the Vermont flag over the American one, and that I think is the difference.
Back to the matter at hand though, San Seb is gorgeous. I called it paradise, and truly it was one of, if not the most, naturally beautiful locations that I had ever laid eyes upon. The beauty lies in the images, not my words, so I’ll let them do the talking.
Day 10 – San Sebastián
Hey Look, Art?! – The Haizearen Orrazia, or “Wind Comb”, is the premier artistic point of San Seb. As it happens I was to pass by these sculptures set into stone while I tried to make my way up Monte Igueldo. Why not stop for a photo op?
Admitting Defeat – The original plan was to walk up Monte Igueldo, but this being day ten my legs were shot. Averaging 20 km a day had finally taken its toll. If I wanted to I’m sure I could have forced myself up the hill, but thankfully there was a cable car that climbed the side of the mountain instead. I gladly paid the few euros for a round trip, and enjoyed the pleasant ride up by taking in the views and talking broken Spanish with a couple of nice folks. My legs thanked me greatly.
#VIEWS – I didn’t realize that Monte Igueldo was also a small amusement park. That seems to be a common theme among most hills in Spain. No, I didn’t ride any of the rides; my goal was the view at the top of the tower at the summit. The last upward climb of my journey, the view I was rewarded with at the top drove the wind from my chest. I had seen the postcards and the google images, but seeing the classical San Seb view for myself was quite the treat on my final day of exploration.
I took in a small birds of prey exposition, and then made my way back to the cable car. I had other plans for the day.
Rain, Rain, GO AWAY! – For nine days I had seen nothing but sun and felt its warmth on my neck. How fitting then, that on my last day, the day I was supposed to relax on the beach, the sky opened up and a downpour came through town. It figured as much… I hid under a tree for a while, and eventually booked it to the bus station where I not only got shelter but printed my bus ticket for the next day. I figured that I might as well be somewhat productive. The rain quickly passed though, and I retreated to the hostel to relax for a few hours to wait for the clouds to pass.
I watched the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer. Hyped is too weak of a word to describe how excited I am for this film.
Anxious Optimism – After fanboying out over Star Wars I mustered the strength to make it to the beach. By this time the clouds had cleared a bit and the sand was back to being, well, sandy. It was in the 60’s and there was a light breeze, which proved to be a perfect temp to just lay down for a while.
I really did try to relax.
Yet, after buying my bus ticket earlier my mind had officially shifted from exploration mode to travel mode. I had multiple flights the next day and had to check in for them. Also, I had quick layovers at each airport and I was admittedly anxious about making it through each place on time. I couldn’t even meditate in the sand since my mind was running too fast. The sun didn’t poke through the clouds much either, so I couldn’t let its rays bake away my apprehensions.
I gave up after an hour or so. My mind just was not having the beach. A shame really, but I think the message was loud and clear:
I was ready to go home.
Killing Time – Though my mind was set on GO I still had an afternoon to kill in San Seb. I aimlessly wandered about town, stopping into random shops, eating a longer lunch, and packing up for the next day. Eventually I found myself at the aquarium. Another “Why not?” stop, I enjoyed the change of pace. While I am not a particular fan of the sea, my curiosity always gets the better of me. For an hour or so I was engaged to the few exhibits available. Not a bad way to wrap up my afternoon.
For the evening I sat in a crowded bar and wolfed down some pintxos and drank some cerveza. I love the concept. Basically, every bar just puts out plates of food from you to pick from, and you eat and pay for as much as you want. It’s a social event as much as a culinary one, and something I will miss dearly about Spain on the whole.
I walked down the pier in the bay area as the sun set. The clouds lay just above the horizon, and for the first time in my life I witnessed a sun, the intensity lesser enough to look at, descend as a blood orange-red orb over the water.
It was intensely beautiful.
I had left my camera back at the hostel, but it did not matter. This moment was for me, and me alone.
How fitting an end to 10 days of adventure; of growth, and experiences I will never forget.
I breathed in the ocean air one last time once the last glimmer of light vanished over the horizon. With one final look outward I turned and retreated to my accommodation for one last night’s sleep in Spain.
It was time to leave.
Day 11 – San Sebastián-Bilbao-Madrid-London-Edinburgh
Stage 1 – I had to take the bus to Bilbao airport since it was a much cheaper option to fly out of there than San Seb. Really, the mountains of Northern Spain are quite the sight. I highly recommend you see them someday.
Bilbao airport is smaller than Albany Int’l, so I moved through easily to my terminal. The first leg took me to Madrid, and so I did leave.
Bookin’ It – I knew I was landing in Terminal 4, and I new I had to get to Terminal 4S. I also knew that I only had roughly 45 minutes to do so, and go through exit customs.
I went from fast-walking to a jog as I followed the signs for the Terminal. I literally sprinted onto the connection tram as the doors closed. Quick turnarounds be damned.
I arrived at my gate just as boarding started, but no one was boarding.
Technical difficulties… my flight was delayed.
My heart dropped. I had just as quick of a connection in Heathrow for my flight to Edinburgh, and with this delay I figured I was going to miss my final flight. I began to search skyscanner for alternatives, but the delay only ended up being 20 minutes long.
There was hope.
I watched Doctor Strange for my in-flight movie for the 2 and a half hour flight to London. I knew I was going to have to book it again, and I readied myself for the craziness to come.
Sweet-talkin’ – I rushed off the plane with one hour until my final flight departed. I knew four key things: 1) I was in Terminal 5. 2) My connection was in Terminal 5. 3) I needed my boarding pass still (British Airways wouldn’t let me check in online). 4) I had to get through customs and security.
Here we go.
I checked the board for Terminal 5 connections. Terminal 5 has three sub-terminals: A, B, and C. There was no board for A, and my flight did not show on the B or C boards, so without knowing exactly where my flight was I took a leap of faith and took the tram to Terminal 5A.
I was in the same area where I first arrived back in January, so luckily I knew my way around. Just before customs I found the British Airways desk and checked-in. The folks working were very understanding and helped me out quite a bit, reassuring me that I had ample time.
I was not convinced.
I swore internally upon seeing that the main customs line was massive. Luckily, the BA attendants pointed me to the UK connection line, which only had 2 people in it! What a lucky break.
The guy at customs was very friendly to me, asking me all about school and if I enjoyed British girls. I don’t think he understood I was in a rush, but I didn’t want to rush him. If there was any place I shouldn’t mess around in, it was customs. So, I humored him and made conversation. After he finally stamped my new visa I booked it up to security.
To my surprise security was quite empty, to which I was ecstatic. A gentleman in front of me saw that I was in a rush and kindly let me cut in front of him. Cheers to you my friend! At this point of the day I was already a pro at stripping for security, having done it twice already, and I thought I would breeze right on through.
I forgot about my water bottle in my backpack.
I’ve done this a few times, and I have a go-to line when I see my bag get pulled aside: “Well, I know what’s wrong!”. I was very cooperative with the security lady, but she had to toss my water bottle, and dig through my backpack, in which I had put all my souvenirs, which, when I bought them, had been wrapped in wrapping paper. Because of this, she had to take everything out and send it back through the x-ray machine. This hesitation was stressful, but it gave me time to repack my bags and get ready to run to my gate. As it turns out I was not a terrorist (who would’ve thought?) and I got my stuff back. Ten minutes later I was at gate A19 with 20 minutes to spare. I did it.
A Promise Kept – When I woke up in San Seb I made a promise to myself that the next place I slept in would be my bed in Edinburgh. As I landed in Edinburgh and got on the Airlink bus I took a deep breath and sighed in relief. I was back, and would sleep in my own bed that night. I left San Seb at 10, and got off the bus at Waverley at 9. My stressful day of travel had come to an end.
So Good to Be Home – The cool evening Edinburgh air never smelled so good. I had successfully gone to Spain and had come back alive and well. I reveled in the last walk back I had to take to Hermit’s Croft. When I got to my room I opened the door, dropped my bags, and collapsed on my bed. I was home, and so happy to be so. It was an amazing journey, but I was running on fumes, very ready to recover and reflect upon it all.
Photo Album (Click day for link)
I may or may not be almost out of my allowed space for pictures that wordpress is giving me (unless I pay), which is why there may seem to be a lacking of photos. Fret not though, as I have posted them all on my Facebook page. Have at ’em!
My Favorite Things
I was originally going to rank the days, but after further thinking about it I don’t think that’s a very fair thing to do. Each day had it’s own ups and downs, so I’ll just list my top five favorite things that I did, in no particular order.
- Sagrada Familia: Yeah, no question this is on the list. Such gorgeous and moving architecture cannot be ignored. Plus, I was with a full squad; the more the merrier after all.
- Flamenco Show: Such a great way to relax and take in some Spanish culture. It was a hell of a show, and the intimate setting of it made that much more of an impact on me.
- The Bullfight: This was an extremely moving event. While I don’t lean one way or the other on the controversial nature of the event as a whole I definitely respect the tradition and history of it. That, paired with the energy and bucket-list effect of it all, made it one of the most memorable moments, and one of my favorites.
- Walking the Running of the Bulls/Finishing TSAR: I grouped these together because they go hand-in-hand really. I was able to live out a specific event in the book, one which is world-reknowned, and was able to fulfill a goal years in the making. Considering they were back to back events, they culminated in a very fulfilling feeling within my psyche. That feeling is what makes these moments some of my favorites.
- Exploring San Sebastián: Okay, yeah, it’s not a specific event, but I think I got my best photos in San Seb. I know I definitely was astonished that such a beautiful place could even exist. Frankly, I knew not how to handle the feelings of wanderlust that enveloped my body in the two days I spent there. For that reason, my entirety of my time in San Seb makes the list.
- Paella at Black Swan: Did I say five? Well, call this an honorable mention. Seeing a true master make paella right in front of my eyes, learning about the culture and history of it, as well as Bobby’s vision, was not only inspiring but very, very fulfilling. Tasty, too! A really neat moment in a unique setting that I couldn’t get anywhere else. Because of that, I had to mention it.
Barcelona is an absolutely gorgeous city. The streets are flooded with trees, the skyline is gorgeous, the beach was incredible, and there are plenty of sights to see. My one complaint is that Barcelona is HUGE, and most of Jes and mine’s time was spent simply walking from place to place. Yes, they have a good system of public transportation, but I preferred to walk. I did want to badly go to an FC Barcelona game, but hey, now I have an excuse to return in the future!
Madrid is stuck in a dead heat, but it has its charms. The capitol city has a lot of very cool architecture and historical locations. The art museums, especially the Thyssen, are a must see. The parks and monuments also provide a nice retreat out of the midday sun, and there are enough cathedrals to take up as much time as you need them to. Shows like the bullfight and flamenco event are can’t miss opportunities, and I am sure there are plenty of other things to experience as well.
The walled city doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but there are a lot of tucked away spots to see that are a must visit. I wish I could have gotten into the bullring, but just doing the touristy stuff like walking the walls and doing the walking of the bull run were enough for me. The Arga is a very beautiful river, and if you ever want to do a book pilgrimage I highly recommend taking a copy of TSAR with you. You won’t regret it.
Also known as paradise, I already long to get back to this place when it is warmer. Intensely beautiful, it is a true resort town with the undeniable fact that you are in Basque Country. The pintxos are fantastic, as are the views and the architecture. Go for a hike; go for a surf; go for a boat tour; go for just laying on the beach. Just go. Trust me, you will have no regrets.
Power Rankings – Cities
Madrid was hot, and while the bullfight and flamenco show were awesome there wasn’t much to do other than explore cathedrals, parks, and art museums. Being last on the list doesn’t mean that I did not enjoy Madrid, it just didn’t grab my love as much as the other places. Above all, the climate is what sits Madrid here. The outlying areas look scorched, and I can imagine it to be oppressive in the Summer months.
A small city, I can only imagine what the festival of San Fermin brings. Nevertheless, the culture resonates throughout the city, and the walled in nature of it gives the place a unique feel. The Arga and the surrounding countryside are beautiful in their own right, but you just can’t spend more than a couple of days here. Quite simply, you will run out of things to do.
What an awesome introduction to Spain, or should I say Catalonia? While I lament over not being able to see an FC Barcelona game, there are plenty of other reasons that I can celebrate the city over. The trees lining every street makes it pleasant to walk even in midday. The Gaudi architecture dominates everywhere, and gives the place an artistic feel like no other. Moreover, La Rambla, La Boqueria, and the little stands throughout the city make it an awesome place to eat and shop. Also, the beach is pretty damn nice too.
1. Donostia/San Sebastián
San Seb takes the top spot for one simple reason: its natural beauty. I have repeatedly called it paradise, and for good reason. While it may be the quintessential resort town, it separates itself with a vibrant food scene and incredible sense of place within Basque country. It also had the best hostel of all the cities (Black Swan in Barcelona being a close second), and was the easiest to get around. Nothing was too far, and gorgeous architecture effortlessly blended in around every turn. My goal was to grab some much needed R&R here, and while the weather wasn’t perfect, San Seb accommodated me perfectly.
As of this writing I am in the process of editing and posting the rest of the vlogs, but you can access them all from this playlist here, or you can hop from video to video by clicking on the finished ones below! I think they give a great visual to more parts of my trip that I may not have mentioned above. As such, I recommend you give them a look. 🙂
I was in Spain for ten days.
Barcelona, Madrid, Pamplona, San Sebastián.
Beaches, Bull Fights, Bull Runs, and Beauty.
What a hell of a ride.
Much like with Rome, I am proud that I was able to plan and execute this trip all on my own. For the first time in my life I got to do some solo traveling as well, which was a great learning experience. While alone I was able to look inward and do some reflection on who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming. That, if nothing else, is very valuable to me.
I broke language barriers. I threw myself into cultural events. I allowed myself to acknowledge art and architecture. I was wowed by man’s creation, and humbled by nature’s beauty. I saw how one nation can be divided into many. I ate new foods, and immersed myself into the ongoings of locals. I fulfilled promises to myself, made new ones, and paid respect to those who have inspired me.
Now that, I think, signifies a successful trip.
I took 1484 photos and videos. I walked 279,385 steps, equivalent to 199.88 kilometers. I burnt 9068 calories along the way. I have memories to last a lifetime. Through these words, the vlogs I create, and the pictures I edit I can share this journey with my friends, family, and eventually my children.
It still does not feel real, the last two and a half weeks. Already Barcelona seems so far away, and yet I have so much to remember from it.
In time I think I will go back; yet, not for a while, for I have so much more of the world to see and experience. Though, in retrospect I do not think another 10 day trip is in order anytime soon. Likely, one city at a time for a couple of days will suffice, at least for the rest of my time abroad.
I was not sure if I could do it, honestly. The prospect of forging my own path around a nation I had never been to seemed daunting and I had no idea if I was truly prepared or not. Having Jes for the first 6 days helped, but upon her departure the feeling of adventure heightened simultaneously with that of anxiety.
I remember specifically two moments on the third and the eighth day.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
The words echoed inside my mind for hours on end. All of a sudden it made sense.
I had the power to determine how these trips would go. I forge my own path.
And so I did.
I went as far as writing the quote on my arm for the last few days as a constant reminder that it was up to me to make the most of my travels in lieu of succumbing to the fear of the unknown. I believed in the mantra, and it strengthened my convictions to new levels. It made me a profoundly happy and determined person.
I learned that life is good, and only gets better with the more people you meet and places you go. I also realized that sometimes it is O.K. to sit for a few hours by a river and read a book instead of sightseeing, and that the little things sometimes have the biggest impact on us. Moreover, I saw that mankind’s creativity can sometimes rival nature’s beauty. The Sagrada Familia was the purest example of this. That being said, sometimes things need no explanation, as San Seb awed me in ways urban life could not.
Ten days anywhere can do a lot to a person as long as they fully give in to the journey and pull away everything that they can from the experience. In Spain I firmly believe that I did indeed do this, and as such have grown into a much more complete person as a whole. For that I am grateful, and look forward to do it all over again on the next adventure.
Until then, I will remember:
All I have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to me.