no Spain, no gain

For most of my trip I didn’t think I was going to make it to Spain- I thought I’d run out of Schengen days. But I couldn’t let that happen- everyone raves about Spain with its many cultures and great people- I have to experience it. Well, it turned out that ten days in Croatia (and out of the Schengen) made it possible. Plus, I was really excited to actually use my tiny bit of foreign language skills for once in Europe.

I had about a whole day in Spain to myself, but as I had yet to find accommodation, it made for a rather stressful day of McWireless. I got off the early plane in Barcelona and took a train to the city’s main station where I thought I was meeting Keith. The first thing the internet told me was that our meet up was actually for the PM- glad the meet spot had wifi. But I still had to find us a place to stay, so I sent out bunch of requests and posted on the last-minute group, hoping another Mr. Honzo-type might get word of our needing a place.

There wasn’t much I could do at that point- the requests were sent and I made sure there were hostel vacancies as a last resort. So I ventured out into Spain I went, eager to get a taste of the new country. Unfortunately, all I really had energy for was a one-man picnic and a few naps in the park (duvet cover, comin’ in big, yet again!) between studying the map of the city and trying to figure out what was worth doing and seeing. Before long I was back with wifi, anxious to see if any of my requests had been accepted. Nothing. All I got was the terrible news that Keith had started this day out puking and collapsing uncontrollably. He wasn’t sure if he’d even make his evening flight. Then I really didn’t know what to do, feeling helpless towards my sick friend still across the continent.

It turned out that Keith got himself well enough at least to fly, perhaps thanks to a kind internet café owner who helped him get back on his feet. Keith made it to Sants station to meet me, but I still had nothing in the way of accommodation. There were a couple prospects I hadn’t heard from, but rather than wait on those we opted to get a still-far-from-100% Keith a bed to sleep in.

So it was the first hostel of the trip for me, and it made me glad of that- it cost quite a bit more than surfing a couch. But it was a cool place, in the middle of an awesome city and filled with tons of travelers to chat-it-up with. We got our much-needed rest and the next day headed back to the airport we’d both landed at to surprise Robin, who hadn’t seen her great friend Keith in months.

Since we had talked a bit about renting a car to see Spain, we popped into the airport’s Eurocar rental office, just to get an idea. By the time we left we had sealed ourselves a sweet deal on the economy sized rental for 6 days. Seeing as we’d want to take full advantage of our car rental starting the next day, we got on with experiencing Barcelona the right way-on bike. We hit the beautiful and insanely populated beach, a few awesome parks with stunning monuments, some under-construction churches, and all the while becoming familiar with Señor Don Simon- producer of the nation’s finest, cheapest Sangria. Delicious. We even got Calum, a British friend of a friend, to take us on a tour of the city’s most prominent street art. Turns out Barcelona is a rather important city when it comes to the history and evolution of street art. It made for a very interesting tour.

There were a few more things to do and see before we headed out, but by the time we were ready to do so, Keith had made a friend. Andrew- a Chiacgo native, off traveling in Spain after living and studying here, was on his way to France in no hurry at all. Since he and Keith hit it off, and our plan was to head north, towards France, we invited him along. It would make the drive cheaper and everything more interesting, so we were glad when he accepted.

Obviously a place like Barcelona cannot be adequately explored in a matter of days. Hell, that might not even be possible in years, but we did what we could with our time there. I found it to be one of the more awesome metropolises that I’ve been to and have every intention to go back some day and give it more time. There is so much to see in Spain- as it was we were only going to get a small taste, and we didn’t want the taste to be all big city. So away we went- 4 Americans in the surprisingly 4-door Volkswagen Polo.

First we went north, along the coast, staying off the toll roads and as close to the sea as we could to enjoy the beautiful views of the Mediterranean bays. The first night we just kept driving, passing through little beach towns and always saying “oh, we’ll stop in the next one and find a place to crash”. Finally it was getting dark and the ocean views weren’t so visible. We ended up in a place called San Feliu de Guixols, staying with a funny old lady running a hotel who was willing to cut a deal with 4 Americans who would share a room. It was perfect, especially since it was a 2 minute walk to the beach.

The next day we explored San Feliu for a bit and enjoyed the beach with what we learned were mostly Barcelona natives on holiday. We did meet one American guy though who had lived in the area a while back. He told us to make it to the small town of Cadaques if we could. Seeing as we didn’t have plans for that night, that’s exactly what we did.

Cadaques is a sweet little town, jutting out into the sea on its own little peninsula. It’s surrounded by Cap de Creus Nature Park which is basically a number of rocky hills covered in low vegetation. It does make for a cool, long road through nothing, towards the ocean, which finally drops you right into the little beach community. We explored the place just enough to know that it would have been great fun to spend some time in.

Unfortunately all the accommodations were full (again with Barcelona natives mostly) and we were forced to fend for ourselves. We weren’t about to just drive out of there, so we went looking for a camp spot. What we found was a residential beach on the edge of town where no one would care if we played cards and drank our beer late into the night and then fell asleep to the sound of the tiny sea waves lapping up onto the shore. So that’s exactly what we did. Although, some people might have been annoyed when we started yelling in excitement of Keith’s discovery of the most incredible bioluminescence I have ever witnessed. We ended up swimming in it, with every swish of an arm making the water glow a bright green- incredible. You don’t get experiences like that with the glow of the city around.

Spain’s Mediterranean Costa Brava and the wonderfully strong Catalonian culture there  had done us well, but it was time to check out the mountains. We drove west off the coast and started gaining altitude quickly. It’s not without good cause that legends of the Pyrenees Mountains travel far and wide. The sheer size of them is what’s so amazing. From what we saw, it didn’t seem like many specific peaks were particularly impressive, but the actual size of the mountains in the range- the way they would start up from a valley, rather gradually, but then just never seem to stop climbing. Very cool, and fun to go from the coast to the mountains in a day’s drive.

We actually crossed into France for a couple nights. The border is so open and zig-zagged along the mountain peaks that we couldn’t really be sure whether we were in Spain or France half the time, but we stayed with a cool French Couple running a hostel-type place in the tiny mountain town of Targassonne, France. We had beds, a kitchen, and a spectacular view of the mountains- which made for nice sleep, a chance to have real cooked meals, and do some fun mountain hiking. We explored a couple towns that felt like out-of-season winter wonderlands. The weather was hot and arid for us, but the area must transform completely when the snow comes.

It was at the place in the mountains where we said goodbye to Andrew. He was hoping to find a rideshare into France, and we were continuing west to reach Spain’s Atlantic coast. It had been fun, but I know we were excited to have some time to travel as a group of 3 close friends, as I’m sure Andrew was excited to move on and have some time to himself. Andrew, it was a pleasure to meet you my friend- I’m glad it worked out and you could tag along with us. I wish you all the best.

We took a full day of driving out of the mountains and all the way to the Atlantic coast. We passed through the tiny country of Andorra, nestled in the Pyrenees. It seemed like people went there for 2 reasons: for winter sports when there was snow, and to shop all year round. We stopped in the capital, Andorra la Vella, to have a look around and buy some motion sickness pills to help with the mountain roads. We gathered that everything in the whole country is duty free, and people were shopping like there was no tomorrow.

It was a long day of driving through some amazing mountains on the Spanish countryside. There were a couple times we were tempted to just pull off into one of the many podunk towns and sort out a place to stay the night. We even made a couple inquiries. But instead it was on to San Sebastian, with it’s famous Atlantic beaches. San Sebastian was a bit bigger than I had in mind when I thought surf town- it was more like a surf city, but crazy cool none the less. Two fantastic beaches, a beautiful old town, happening nightlife- San Sebastian had it all.

But of course, with it being Spanish holiday season, accommodations were scarce. We split up and all inquired at a few places, but the majority of it was booked solid and the rest we couldn’t afford. However, in waiting to meet back with the others, I watched two very out-of-place guys walk past- shoes with no socks, gym shorts, no shirts, one had a big, full backpack on and the other had a couple beers in hand- I could tell they were hard trekkers. At first I just watched them pass by. When Robin approached, shaking her head at finding any sort of vacancies, I said damn, I should’ve asked those guys where to stay- they’re trekkin’ hard.
So… go ask them!

I ran down the street and addressed them in Spanish, quickly swapping over to English. They were two Germans with a couple weeks of holiday who packed up sleeping bags and hitchhiked wherever they could. They were sleeping outside everywhere they went, and had especially nice things to say about the hill they had found in San Sebastian, turning and pointing at it as they spoke. Apparently they had found some stairs sets and a trail up to the road up there. It made it easy for them to get to town and back (this time to do laundry). Oh… cool. Well thanks. Maybe we’ll see you up there.

After driving around for a while, getting a little lost, looking for wifi to somehow figure out our options we just got frustrated and said head towards the hill and we’ll see what we can see on the way there. A couple turns later and we were on a winding road headed right up the hill. At the top we found some kind of a park with a parking lot where it looked like quite a few people were planning on car-camping. In fact we asked one of the gentlemen and he said as far as he knew it was not a problem. He had read about that very parking lot on a good-places-to-sleep-in-your-van website. That was good enough for us. We parked next to him, filled up a water bottle with one of our duty-free Andorra purchases, and started to hike down towards the beach.

On the way to the beach we quite literally stumbled upon a hostel. Not sure how we hadn’t heard about it before, but it seemed like a cool enough place and had an amazing view of the bay. It was too late to score a place that night, but at least a potential alternative existed for the next night. On the way down we also bumped into our German friends again, enjoying the view. Then at the street level we got to a few bars for tapas and beer before places closed and we had to hit the beach for and incredible night swim. I wish I could say we were so tired by the time we got back the the car that we all slept well despite the lack of comfort. I can’t.

We jumped at the chance to pay for hostel beds the next morning and could hardly wait for the sheets to be changed before napping in them. We spent the rest of the day exploring the cool city and it’s sites to see- with our friend Don Simon never too far away of course. We ended up making a friend and seeing him perform at an open mic in an English Bar- not exactly where I though we’d end up, but definitely a cool place to be.

Yet again, time had been far too short for a place so awesome, but the next morning we had to get up and go. The car was due back to the Madrid airport by mid-afternoon and we had a ways to drive before we’d be there. Really not much to see on a drive through central Spain. We had plans to stop and check a random place out, but time was too short and all the towns we found ourselves in seemed totally dead- I’m sure it was because of the heat.

We made it to turn in the car right on time. From there we had directions to a guy’s place I found on airbnb.com (a website I have mixed feelings about- sort of like a couch surfing but you pay to surf couches, but it worked out for us a couple times). I was a little mislead because I thought the place was a lot closer to actual Madrid than it was. In following the directions to his place we took about a 40 minute bus from Madrid to the suburb of Alcala.

At first I was rather disappointed- I was expecting to be in the infamously fun capital of Spain. But very soon after we made it to Alcala’s very charming town center I was convinced we were in the right place. It turned out that the historical center of Alcala has been deemed an UNESCO world heritage site due to the fact that it was the birth place of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. We were mostly stoked on the few rounds of tapas we had in a perfectly trashy place. Followed, of course, by the fine Spanish sangria among a most wonderful and sincere Spanish crowd- people of all ages out in the center of town at 11 pm, having a good time with family and friends. So things just worked out to be awesome, once again.

Since we weren’t staying in Madrid we only had one proper day there. The streets of the capital were surprisingly quiet- apparently everyone from Madrid was vacationing in Barcelona and San Sebastian. Anyway, we saw and did as much as we could- strolling around the royal palace before heading down Calle Mayor and Gran Via with their many plazas and buildings featuring stunning architecture. Throw in a few markets and add the heat (though the breeze was nice) and you’ve got a pretty tiring day. It was a good thing we’d discovered Tinto del Verano (a sort of sweet soda-wine mixture) to keep us going and had the duvet cover along when we finally did a group grass nap.

I expected to not think much of Madrid. Technically speaking it was just another big European capital, but something about it was really appealing to me. Maybe it was that it didn’t seem like a big city with such quiet streets, or maybe the way the breeze made the heat so enjoyable. Whatever it was, the time there was again too short. I’ll just have to make it back someday.

It was back to Alcala for another enjoyable evening with my two great friends and the fun-loving Spanish people before our host helped us with a ride to the airport early the next morning. It was time to split ways once again. My Schengen days were all but up, so I was headed back to the UK to try to figure out how to make it home. Robin and Keith were off to Portugal- one place I regrettably didn’t make it, to see what was in store there. But it wouldn’t be long before we were meeting up once again to visit some of Robin’s family in England together.

The end of another epic adventure still to come.
Thanks for reading.
-willrl

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