Our Top 5 Spanish Museums

We love a good museum. It’s a chance to connect with the area you are in, to see what matters to the people who live there, to learn about history and to understand something new.

We try to go to a museum of some sort in every place we visit. Sometimes they can be highly political, sometimes they can be completely awful, and sometimes they can be about chocolate. (Honourable mention here to the Museu Xocolata in Barcelona where even your entry ticket is a piece of chocolate). We’ve seen museums that make us feel uneasy – one museum we visited was proud that it held some Indigenous Australian artefacts and even the display commented that ‘Indigenous Australians’ want these items returned, without any suggestion that a return was imminent. We’ve seen religious museums and revolutionary museums and everything in between. And recently, the Museo de la Inquisicion even made me feel physically ill.

But of all the museums in the many countries we’ve visited, Spain has a particularly high incidence of excellent examples. The Spaniards just know how to do them well. They know how to mix information with theatricality. They know how to keep the kids engaged. They know what information to include and what to leave out. So we thought we’d pay homage to our five favourite museums in Spain. For the purposes of this article, I’ve left out art galleries, they are a category all on their own. Maybe a post for another day.

1. Museo de la Evolución Humana – Burgos

This one is number one because it is the best museum. Full stop. No other museum we have ever seen, in either hemisphere, beats this one. We arrived in the last hour of the day to make use of the free entry, but wished we’d come so much earlier as one hour was really not sufficient to explore this wonderland of being human.

What is so special about it? Taking you on a journey through the evolution of humans, civilisation and evolution theory, this museum really has the x-factor when it comes to presentation. You can walk inside a human brain, step into Charles Darwin’s study and examine full-size models of our evolutionary ancestors. While this could all come off as cheesy if done the wrong way, the Museo de la Evolución Humana does it with flair. Each exhibit was stunning and engaging, both visually and experientially. The kids didn’t know where to go next. They were so excited by every display and what it was going to show us.

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Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

2. Museo de León – Leon

This unassuming museum gets a mention in this list because it is a great example of a smaller museum that doesn’t try to do too much. It had a plenitude of information that we hadn’t previously seen elsewhere and it was very well presented.

We particularly like the rooms dedicated to the Camino de Santiago (the kids are infatuated with the Camino and this gave them a better understanding).

Another highlight here is the area that shows the history of the settlement of Leon from the times of Caesar Augustus’ Roman Legion encampment through wars, takeovers and kingdoms to today’s bustling city. After scrutinising the models and visual representations of the changes over time, you could then go to the other end of the room and see modern León through the window.

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Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

3. Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir

When I mentioned theatricality earlier, this archeological dig in Cadiz knew how to do it the best. I’ve mentioned the Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir in another post about the Costa de la Luz, but after visiting a number of other archeological digs, this is still a stand-out. When we first entered I felt like we were stepping into a theme park amusement, like the lab scene in Jurassic Park (the original of course). A well-produced short film sets the scene and context for the archeology we were about to witness.

The dig itself was excellent, showing different areas of the Phoenician settlement that was discovered under the Tia Norica Theatre. The lighting in the dark room was perfect to highlight the most interesting parts of the ruins. There were plenty of interactive screens to give you information, but we were also very impressed at our tour-guide who tailored her guiding to our group. She guided us in Spanish, English and German and then translated her answers into each language so we could all participate.

We’ve seen quite a few archaeological digs and ruins, and this one is fantastic for the provided context of Phoenician life, being able to walk around at your own pace and interaction that was available.

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Yacimiento Arqueologico, Cádiz

4. Museu d’História de Catalunya – Barcelona

With the current climate in Catalunya, this museum would seem political, but it was already political when we visited before recent tensions flared. It is very pro-Catalunya, as can be expected, as it aims to tell the Catalan side of history, but it is choc-a-block with information about Catalunya and greater Spain. Although the information is sometimes a little too dense, you can pick and choose which bits to read and it can be very informative. The kids loved that many of the exhibits were life-sized. They loved walking into the trenches and many of the hands-on activities.

Unfortunately my family missed what I thought was the best floor. While they all rushed down to the ground floor to see a temporary exhibition on the Templar Knights before the museum closed, I stepped further back into history and found some excellent displays on how people lived in this fertile region over the last few hundred years. Nearly life-sized cross-sections of villages, scale models of houses and farms gave you a real sense of what life had been like in Catalunya hundreds of years ago and I felt it gave me a deeper understanding of who the Catalan people are today.

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A life-sized displays of early life in the Museu d’História de Catalunya

5. Cueva de la Pileta – Andalucia

Okay so this is not technically a museum, it’s a cave, but it still counts in my book. As much as we love to hunt down museums, we also hunt down caves as we just love them, but this one is the best so far. Our guide at the Cueva de la Pileta warned us that this cave was so good that any other cave experience would pale into insignificance. Big call. But yesterday we visited the famous Cuevas del Altamira, and he was right. The cave you can visit at Altamira is a replica to preserve the original, and the guided tour is nothing compared to what you get at the Cueva de la Pileta.

This cave is an absolute treasure. Entering through a tiny door, the cave continues deeper and deeper, even when you think it can’t go any further. It has its fair share of impressive stalactites and stalagmites, rock drawings and hidden pools, but what really makes it impressive is the context. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and passionate and told us stories of discovery and history incredibly well (while also translating into a few languages for our group).

Each equipped with a lamp, we were able to shine the light on specific areas we wanted to see, as there is no electricity inside. Our kids were a little terrified when he asked us to turn off the lamps for a moment so we could experience what it would have been like to live in that cave. It was so dark you couldn’t even make out an outline of anything, we were so far from the entrance. It really made us realise the importance of fire to the people that lived in this cave 30,000 years ago. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough.


As the kids aren’t in school while we travel, museums are an important way for them to relate to history and culture. We’ve discovered that museums have a tricky balance – to be engaging while educating. And it’s not easy. Most museums achieve it quite well, but we believe that these five excel in delivering both.

Travellers’ tip – many Spanish museums are free for the last hour of the day, or on particular days of the week. This can be a good option if you are budget conscious – see our post on how to travel Europe for €25 per person per day.

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Treasures of the Costa de la Luz

The beauty of the coast and hinterland along the Costa de la Luz is rugged and harsh, but not without its treasures. The passing of time is evident – the ruins of ancient aqueducts sit alongside modern wind turbines and solar farms. People have inhabited this part of the Spanish coastline for over 3000 years. This lesser known costa of Spain has been our home-base for some months, and has started to reveal itself in ways that weren’t immediately apparent.

The Costa de la Luz – coast of light – refers to the clear blue skies reflected in the turquoise oceans of the region that stretches between Cádiz and Tarifa. It is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, so is less popular with tourists who prefer Spain’s more sheltered Mediterranean coasts.

This stretch is full of Parques Naturales, incredible bird life, long sandy beaches and visible history that dates back to 1100 BC. We have loved exploring this region, so here are some of our favourites treasures in a region abundant with surprises.

Cádiz

Known as the ‘oldest town in Spain’, Cádiz was settled by the Phoenicians, who used it as a trading port called ‘Gadir’ from around 1100 BC. Since then it has been occupied by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and modern Spaniards. It was one of the few places to hold against Napoleon and is the where the first Spanish Constitution was declared in 1812. This long history is evident everywhere in Cádiz.

Entering the old part of town, you pass through the 18th century walls. Following the western coast, you can visit the Teatro Romano, a large Roman amphitheatre open to the sky, and hidden under the Tia Norica theatre  you can visit Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir, an excellent presentation of an archeological discovery of Phoenician and Roman times in Cádiz. From the top of the Torre Tavira you can see this history written in the city’s various buildings dating from 17th century settlement to now.

The colour of the ocean in Cádiz is an iridescent turquoise that is matched by the clear blue sky. While summer here can be oppressively hot, now it is September the weather is just perfect. Sitting on one of Cádiz’s many beaches with the cool breeze blowing amongst the coloured umbrellas, looking up towards the shiny dome of the cathedral, is a magical experience.

San Fernando

Rarely visited by tourists from outside of Spain, San Fernando seemed at first not to have much to offer. However the longer we stayed here, the more we found.

San Fernando, also known as La Isla de Leon, is most famous as the birthplace of Camarón de la Isla, arguably one of the most popular Flamenco singers of the 20th Century. In English his stage name, bestowed on him by his uncle, translates literally to ‘Shrimp of the Island’. He popularised recorded Flamenco and brought together new styles and interpretations, collaborating with Blues artists and adding electric bass to some of his recordings (see video of his work here).

The Venta de Vargas, a restaurant where he found the beginnings of fame, is a monument to Camarón, with a museum for those wanting to pay homage to the singer. Many people still pay respects at his grave in San Fernando. We were in town for the 25th anniversary of his death and there were a large number of events held throughout the town to celebrate his life, including fiestas, competitions and flamenco in the bustling thoroughfare Calle Real.

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Venta de Vargas, San Fernando

Writer Giles Tremlett described San Fernando in his book, Ghosts of Spain thus: ‘[it] overlooks the salt flats, muddy wetlands and still waters on the Bay of Cádiz.’ These marismas – marshes – have winding tracks open to the public that were once the paths used by las saliñeras – salt farmers – who formed narrow canals separated by small wooden locks and farmed salt on these lands for hundreds of years. Over the centuries these canals have created a symbiotic relationship between nature and humans, and have become the home and breeding grounds of an incredible array of bird life and shellfish.

Flamingoes can often be seen here at morning or evening during the summer months, visiting to feed from their breeding ground near Malaga, 160km to the east (as the flamingo flies). A number of times on an early morning run I was able to see them in large flocks with their legs in the water, or flying overhead with their pink feathers glowing in the dawn light.

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Cantina del TiTi, San Fernando

On the northern end of San Fernando sits a fish-lover’s delight. At the Cantina del TiTi we were served some of the freshest and most delicious fish I have eaten in years. My fisherman Grandfather would have raved about this place and he had higher standards than anyone I’ve ever met when it came to seafood. While eating our fish at an outdoor table, the tide lapped in around our toes and the kids played in the sand. I recommend booking to get a table here. It’s very busy and only open for lunch.

If you love beaches, San Fernando’s Camposoto beach is one to check out. A long expanse of sand forming part of the nature reserve, it is remarkably less busy than we expected (except during the school vacation months, when it is just as busy as the rest of Spain’s beaches). If it gets too hot, you can have a beer or ice cream (or even an excellent cheap meal) at one of the four chiringuitos – beach bars – where sandy feet and swimsuit are standard attire. Surfing is also popular here at the far end of the beach, where there are a number of surf schools and local grommets enjoying the waves.

San Fernando also has its fair share of notable historical facts. It holds Spain’s atomic clock, where Spain’s time is kept precise, and it was once the point from which the whole world’s time was measured (it has since been replaced by Greenwich in England). San Fernando and Cádiz successfully resisted Napoleon’s 19th Century invasion, and it is where the Spanish Constitutional Court first took their oaths in 1810. It is worth a visit if you like to find unusual places when travelling.

Chiclana de la Frontera

We go to a lot of museums. The kids love them and it is a great way to learn about the region we’re visiting. One of the better ones on the Costa de la Luz is the Museo Chiclana. For a small museum, it contained a surprising amount of interesting information about the region and its history, with excellent displays. Our kids were completely engaged throughout our visit. The displays about modern artists and writers from the region are very informative and contained information that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.

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Getting the best view of the ceiling exhibit at the Museo Chiclana

If you are game for an uphill walk, the Ermita de Santa Ana is worth the climb. The small chapel on top of the hill is very pretty and once at the top there are spectacular views of the Costa de la Luz, and of the mountains further inland.

Conil de la Frontera

Conil is one of the many ‘de la frontera’ towns that formed King Ferdinand’s front against the Moors during the 13th century . It gets a mention here, not for it’s history or landmarks, but for the beaches. Here you will find a number of stunning playas with long stretches of sand. We particularly enjoyed a day at El Roqueo, where the cliffs give way to a beach and rocky outcrops good for the kids to rock hop. The locals here can often be seen covering themselves head to toe in a grey mud, formed by pulverising lumps of this rock. It is used as a beauty treatment for the skin. Watching people pass us by walking along the beach covered in the drying mud was too much for the kids to resist, so they stockpiled their own patch of this mud, guarded it with their lives, and proceeded to paint themselves all over.

Vejer de la Frontera

Vejer de la Frontera is a ‘must-see’ for  those visiting the region. It sits atop a hill along the coastline south of Conil, with views in all directions from its high promenades. The views are amazing, both day and night, and on a clear day you can see Africa. It follows the tradition of the other Pueblos Blancos – white villages – in the mountains to the north-east, with its white walls shining in the afternoon sun. We followed the narrow streets up and down the hill to find different views.

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Vejer de la Frontera at sunset

Our meandering took us to the Castillo de Vejer where we were taken on a guided tour by a young Scout (she was perhaps 9 or 10 years old). The tour was in Spanish, but we were able to understand enough of what she told us. It wasn’t the best tour in the world, but it was fun to walk around the castle. We enjoyed watching the group in front of us, whose Scout guide was only about 6 years old. He was very entertaining and full of energy. Great to see these kids engaging with their local history.

Also a city steeped in visible history, the Puerta Cerrada – the closed gate – still stands, separating the Jewish quarter from the area around the castle. It was always closed to keep out pirates that may have climbed up the gully of the river Barbate. Many of the ancient structures have fallen to ruin, or been damaged by earthquake and invasions. However, the keen eye can still find many ancient treasures, particularly in the old walled part of the town.

The restaurants surrounding the Plaza España and its picturesque fountain are all excellent, although getting a table can require a combination of patience, hustling and good timing. Many serve the local tuna that have been traditionally caught here using a 2000 year old net and boat system unique to the region. We also had an excellent ice-cream at the Heladeria Artesanal Italiana. The kids are always on the hunt for good ice-cream.

Tarifa

Self-proclaimed as the ‘Adventure Capital of Europe’, our first sight of Tarifa was the kites of the kite-surfers along the beach. Hundreds of them, of all different colours, lined the coast. As the southern-most point of Spain at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, the wind here is remarkable and apparently makes for great kite-surfing.

I came here to see Africa, and saw it we did. It stands only 16 kilometres away and the mountains look beautiful looming on the horizon, growing out of the sea mist. Africa is on my bucket list and, for now, this is the closest I’m going to get.

The Castillo de Guzman Bueno provides a great view of Africa, and for a very modest entry fee (kids under 12 free) we were able to spend a good hour walking along the top of the ramparts and investigating the different sections of the castle. The story of Guzman is an interesting one, and his tale traverses a large part of the Costa de la Luz. He is famous for throwing his dagger down from the castle to the Moors who held his son, sacrificing his offspring to stop the invaders taking the town. However, his complicated backstory is just as interesting and the castle’s displays give a good account.

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Castillo de Guzman Bueno

The Costa de la Luz has many hidden treasures, but the dark history of war and invasions is always present. It is a harsh landscape reaching down to beautiful beaches and incredible views. If you have some time in Spain, it is well worth a look and I assure you it won’t disappoint.

How to get around:

Cádiz is easily reached by train from Jerez or Sevilla (both with airports) and is serviced by many bus lines. I wouldn’t suggest having a car in Cádiz, as it is easily walkable, and well serviced by public transport. Towards the end of our stay in the region we hired bikes from Las Bicis Naranjas. They were a great way to get around, see the sights and explore the region. They can be taken on the trains, which extends the reach of your travels if you don’t have a car.

San Fernando is also easily accessible by train, bus and bike. A car or bike is a good idea here if you want to visit Camposoto. Avis usually have some good deals in Spain. A tramline is currently being built between Chiclana, San Fernando and Cádiz, but will not be in operation for a few years yet.

Chiclana is well serviced by Comes and ALSA buses. We find ALSA much more comfortable and easier to book, so we usually go with those. Comes buses are difficult to book using international credit cards.

Conil is also accessible by bus, but if you want to head to the beaches, I would suggest a car is your best option.

Vejer de la Frontera is well serviced by Comes buses, but you’ll have to walk up the hill from the bus stop.

Tarifa is well serviced by a number of bus lines including Comes and ALSA buses.

DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. The links to Amazon, Avis and advertisements are affiliate links as per our Affiliates page. 

Spain travel guide, 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

Spain travel guide, 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

Reflections on Barcelona

I originally wrote this piece on Barcelona following our most recent visit in July 2017. I felt compelled to write it because of the genuine internal conflict that this visit, and our previous journey there in May, provoked in me. I loved visiting Barcelona, but by visiting, am I perpetuating a cycle that is slowly destroying the city and the quality of life of its residents?

I was in the process of trying to sell this article to various publications when events in Barcelona overtook my efforts, making the issues touched on in my piece less immediately relevant and, therefore, the article less newsworthy. However, they’re issues that are still very much affecting the city and will continue to do so when the news cycle rolls on and the attacks in Las Ramblas join the ever-growing archive of terrorist acts. 

Our hearts go out to the people of Barcelona and anyone else who was caught up in, or affected by this senseless act of violence. We know that the city, accustomed as it is to turmoil, political unrest and the occasional outbreak of violence, will bounce back. For now, we add our voices to the multitude calling for peace, love and understanding to be prioritised above greed, violence and retribution. 

T’enviem el nostre amor Barcelona!


Now that my family and I have finished our second stint in Barcelona, I think we are in agreement that its reputation as one of the world’s great cities is indeed well-deserved. There’s an vibrancy about the town, particularly in neighbourhoods like El Born or Vila de Gràcia, that fairly oozes possibility and an attitude of industry and creativity that leaves one energised, inspired and grasping for more at every turn.

But the capital of Catalunya is also a city that is fundamentally conflicted about its popularity and is in many ways is struggling, both conceptually and physically, to find a balance between opening itself up to the world, while retaining the strength and character and unique cultural identity that is so compelling to both its residents and the millions of transient visitors who fill its streets every year.

As a travelling family, we were captivated by everything this wonderful city had to offer. There was something – a multitude of things really – to delight, intrigue and ignite the imagination in each of us. We loved the adventure of exploring the various neighbourhoods, never knowing what to expect around the next corner. Even the obvious attractions – Gaudi’s remarkable architectural creations, Las Ramblas, La Mercat de la Boqueria, for example – are of such undeniable quality and international significance that even the most cynical “anti-tourist” traveller would be forced to concede that they’re worth visiting (even if clandestinely, to avoid losing their hardcore traveller’s credentials).

But to describe Barcelona as a single, homogenous entity would be misleading and overlooks a fundamental contributing factor as to why it is universally recognised as being one of the world’s great cities. In actuality it is the agglomeration of a number of discrete towns, districts and neighbourhoods barris, each with their own unique character, history and traditions, brought together into one sprawling urban metropolis by the industrialisation and inexorable population increases throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

On our first visit we stayed in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, which in theory is a separate city with its own municipal identity and administrative structures. However, other than the wording and colours of official street signage, there are now few physical identifiers to separate it from greater Barcelona – the urban sprawl continues unimpeded from one street to the next. The second time around our digs were at the opposite end of town in el Clot, a fiercely proud tight-knit working class barri in the Santi Marti District, which has a history dating back to mediaeval times and a reputation for artistic production and strongly held political beliefs, which has more than once in its history resulted in violent uprising and revolution.

 

Each of these districts, and all those between and further afield, has its own distinct personality, proud history and secret corners waiting to be discovered by the adventurous visitor. When out exploring the city on foot, we instinctively recognised when we’d moved into the next barri, simply because between one block and the next everything around us changed – the shops, housing and even the people. It wasn’t overt, but we crossed a street and the polished modern storefronts, linen tablewear and neatly dressed denizens of Eixample were traded in for the small neighbourhood fruterías, plastic chairs and tracksuits of Ciutat Vella. The atmosphere became somehow more relaxed too, as if a layer of formality and pretension had been stripped away.

And each barri has its own set of crusted-on local communities whose sense of identity is as solid and self-assured as the very bricks of the buildings that form their few thousand square metres of real estate. Indeed, the residents’ fealty to their barri often seems stronger than their loyalty to Catalunya, and much, much more so than any allegiance they may have to the greater Spanish state.

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The Catalans are a fiercely proud people with a considerable legacy of achievement – intellectual, artistic, commercial and industrial. They have, for generations, argued, struggled and often taken up arms to assert their independence from external rule, whether from Spain or other powers to the north. Many times throughout their history they have tasted self-determination on some level, only to have it snatched away violently by whomever happens to be seeking dominion over them at the time, be it the Bourbon kings of Castilla, the armies of Napoleon or the fascist junta of General Francisco Franco.

Today this struggle continues, with a debate currently underway to instigate a referendum process which could, in theory, see Catalunya become an autonomous member of the European community. Signs of support for autonomy can be seen all over Barcelona – the Catalunyan flag hangs from countless balconies in every neighbourhood, alongside banners simply stating “Si!”. Pro-Spanish flags can also be seen, but they are very much in the minority. There is considerable cynicism in the community about the likelihood for success, due in large part, perhaps, to the region’s interdependent, yet chequered historic relationship with the rest of Spain.

It is a testament to the inclusive atmosphere that currently pervades Barcelona that these dissenting views can be openly displayed. Past experience shows that people with differing viewpoints have not always coexisted peacefully within the city limits (read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for an example). Given the parlous state of the Spanish economy, rising unemployment and external pressures such as immigration and an increasingly unpredictable climate, it is not inconceivable that tensions could rise again as the current march towards autonomy progresses.

Barcelona is an incredible place to visit, but despite the overwhelmingly positive reports you’ll read all across the internet, I would issue a word of caution about wandering blithely into town without recognising that it’s a city feeling the pressure of this reputation. The sheer weight of numbers of people visiting the city, while fuelling the economy, is having some significant and increasingly negative consequences, both physically and socially, that were obvious even to the first (and second) time visitor. Barcelona’s civic infrastructure is ageing and, if the regular whiffs of raw sewage are any indication, struggling to cope with the load being forced upon them by the estimated 30+ million annual visitors. And in a great many of the traditionally working class inner-city barris, el Clot included, you can find evidence that the residents’ patience is thinning.

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The share economy, particularly in the realm of accommodation, has fundamentally changed the nature of tourism and travelling. Platforms like Airbnb allow travellers like us to have access to a much wider variety of accommodation options and, to a certain extent, the opportunity to embed ourselves within the communities that we’re visiting. Since we started our adventure we have sourced the vast majority of our stays through Airbnb and for the most part they’ve been excellent experiences.

However, there is a flip side to this, one that is having increasingly negative consequences on local communities in Barcelona and other tourist-heavy European cities. Low cost housing is becoming increasingly difficult to find for the inhabitants of Barcelona. People who have historically rented cheap housing and whose families may have lived in the same neighbourhood for generations, are being priced out of their homes by the demand from affluent short-term visitors. In 2017 the government of Catalunya introduced laws seeking to impose restrictions on short term rentals in an effort to stem the tide, but they’re fighting an uphill battle as more and more people have chosen this route to supplement their income. Realistically, what choice would the owner of an apartment make when the opportunity is placed before them to make in a night through Airbnb what they would normally get from rent in a week?

I was aware that there were problems the first time we visited Barcelona, but we were only there for a couple of days and it didn’t really impact on our stay at all. But this time, perhaps because we were staying in el Clot, where this has had a greater impact (or the local community is more politically active), there were signs everywhere that resistance to both rampant tourism and real estate speculation was building. In many places I noted graffiti opposing development at the expense of local communities. On many balconies, alongside the ubiquitous Catalunyan flags, hung banners with a clear warning for wealthy real estate speculators (either foreign or domestic), and in one or two places I saw painted slogans with a direct suggestion for us and other visitors to the city, the words of which I won’t publish here – I’m sure you can guess the gist of the message.

I love Barcelona. It’s a beacon of intellectual, artistic, political and philosophical experimentation and it’s just erupting with creativity. More so than just about any other place we’ve visited, I feel like creative, socially-progressive folk have a strong influence and are carving out a space where this kind of activity can continue to flourish. I felt like it’s the kind of city where, if you had a creative idea and the will and means to turn it into something tangible, you’d be able to carve out a space and be accepted within one of Barcelona’s many thriving neighbourhoods. It was a compelling and energising sensation and I must admit that I was very attracted by it. But as a visitor and an increasingly intensive user of Airbnb and other share accommodation platforms, I’m forced to recognise that I’m actually part of the problem, and this left me feeling seriously conflicted during our stay in Barcelona.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile these two opposing drivers. On the one hand, I could recognise my role in perpetuating the cycle that’s destabilising this wonderful city and choose to stay away. Selfishly, I don’t feel that I’m ready to adopt this course of action, because then my family and I would miss out on visiting one of Europe’s and the world’s great cities, thereby diminishing our own travelling experience and depriving our children of an opportunity to engage with this spirit of creativity and industry, and limiting their development as active, thinking human beings. Besides, it’s too late for that now – we’ve already visited. Twice.

Another alternative, and one that sits more comfortably with me, is to find a way to give something back to the city; some kind of positive, meaningful contribution to reinforce one or more of the elements that make Barcelona such an amazing place, and that helps to support the local community in some way. Then maybe, just maybe, we can offset the harm caused by us and the millions like us who, day in, day out, continue to flock to this marvellous, embattled city.

Five things to do with your kids in Burgos

It was not without regret that we boarded our train this morning and left Burgos. The ancient capital of the kingdom of Castille fairly oozes history – from being home to one of Spain’s most popular folk heroes, El Cid, to more recently having the dubious honour of being the capital for General Franco’s ultimately successful 20th century fascist rebellion. It’s a wonderful city and, for a variety of reasons, a fantastic place to visit with kids.

We found the people of Burgos to be overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, and lightheartedly tolerant of our bumbling attempts to communicate in their mother tongue (Castellano, better known outside of Spain as “Spanish”, originated in the lands of Castilla – Leon and La Mancha). Eating out in Burgos was a particularly pleasant experience, and there were plenty of things we could do with the kids that kept them engaged, enthusiastic and wanting to see, do and know more.

Because of this positive experience, we thought we’d share some of our highlights from Burgos for those of you who might consider bringing your children to visit this wonderful city in the future.


1. Museums
It might sound like I’m taking the easy option by mentioning museums, but there are a couple of truly exceptional ones in Burgos that more than justify their inclusion at the top of this list.

The first one we visited was El Museo del Libro (The Museum of the Book). This small, unassuming institution, laid out over four levels just off the Plaza Mayor, ambitiously seeks to chart the entire history of writing and books – although I noted that there was little mention of anywhere east of Mesopotamia or west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Following the story from Sumerian clay tablets through to the 21st Century and the Kindle, you’ll find a range of examples of how humanity has recorded its thoughts and the influence that books have had on the rise and reformation of western civilisation throughout history. The Museo uses a variety of multimedia and multilingual resources to inform and engage visitors of all ages.

To be honest, I was surprised by just how interesting the kids found the Museo Del Libro, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been, given La Chica’s obsession with reading. We were the only people in the Museo the day we visited, which was both a shame – because it would be great to see such an important subject more well recognised – but also great, because it meant we were able to take our time and discuss the exhibits as loudly and for as long as we wanted. We recommend this museum to anyone wanting to fill an hour or so in Burgos

Museo del Libro Fadrique de Basilea
Travesía del Mercado 3, Burgos
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday,10:00-14:00 & 16:30-20:00
Entry: Adults: 3€, Children <14: Free

The Second museum we visited was a definite highlight – not just of our time in Burgos, but of our trip to Europe so far. El Museo de la Evolucíon Humana (The Museum of Human Evolution) is one of the best natural history museums that we have ever visited, anywhere. Using a range of innovative and highly engaging technologies and storytelling devices, the museum’s installations guide the visitor through the galleries and display spaces outlining the scientific disciplines and techniques used over the years to trace the evolution of the human species.

We all loved it, but it was particularly engaging for the kids, who literally sprinted from one display to the next, impatient to find out more about this fascinating area of scientific investigation.

The Museum was built to underpin the incredible archaeological work done at the nearby World Heritage Listed dig in the Atapuerca Mountains. This is one of the world’s most important sites, in terms of an archaeological record of ancient humans, and it has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolution of ours and other closely related hominid species. But the museum covers much more than just this one site, with sections on Darwin, the role of fire and much much more to engage and fascinate visitors of all ages.

No trip to Burgos is complete without a visit to this museum. Full. Stop.

Hint: we arrived at 6.45pm and discovered that entry was free after 7pm. Because the museum closes at 8, this only left us an hour to explore the entire institution, which was nowhere near enough time. If you’re thinking of taking advantage of this little work-around, we’d advise you to plan to come to the museum on two, or even better, three consecutive days, so you can take in everything that this incredible place has to offer.

El Museo de la Evolución Humana
Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos
Opening Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:00-14:30 PM & 16:30-20:00. Saturdays, Sundays, public holidays & July, August & September 10:00-20:00
Entry: General Admission: 6 €
Children <8: free. Other benefits and concessions are available for a range of visitors – see website for more details.

2. Eating out
We had some great eating experiences in Burgos. The city is renowned in particular for its soft, white sheeps’ milk cheese and morcilla (rice-filled blood pudding), but there’s so much more to this city to justify its title as Spain’s gastronomic capital for 2013. Here are just two suggestions for places to eat:

Acuarium – We discovered this awesome little bar quite by accident one evening while enjoying a paseo through the city centre. Located down a laneway just off the Plaza Mayor, Acuarium drew us in with its sign promising “Free Tapas”. The croquetas that came with our first round of drinks were pretty good, but a couple of minutes later a delivery of food to a neighbouring table really caught our attention. On enquiry, we discovered that they were having piparra en tempura, crispy tempura baby peppers, and we couldn’t resist ordering a plate for ourselves. The tapa was huge, and mouthwateringly delicious, but unfortunately it didn’t suit our kids’ frustratingly conventional tastes. Thankfully, the alitas de pollo (chicken wings), that came soon afterwards brought about a minor miracle, at least in our little circle – zero complaints, even effusive praise, for a meal ordered out in Spain!

Acuarium

This might not sound like much, but we’ve had an incredibly frustrating time with food here in Spain – well, the food hasn’t been frustrating, it’s our children’s unwillingness to try new or “different” foods that’s been doing our heads in. But since Acuarium, we’ve found that they’re beginning to demonstrate a bit more enthusiasm for trying new things (even if chicken wings aren’t all that new).

The service here was also really friendly and professional, and their willingness to tolerate our poorly framed questions about the food was greatly appreciated.

Acuarium
Travesia del Mercado, 9, Burgos (right opposite the entrance to El Museo del Libro, coincidentally)

Another of our memorable eating experiences was had at Viva la Pepa. Mem led us to this cool little bar//cafe, having found it on the vegetarian/vegan search portal Happy Cow. As a non-meat-eater most of the time, she’s been finding eating out in Spain particularly difficult, given this country’s strong focus on the cooking of flesh of every conceivable variety. We’ve found Happy Cow indispensable in finding places that offer a less meat-heavy menu, particularly in larger towns and cities. Viva la Pepa, which backs onto the Plaza outside the Catedral de Burgos, was one of these finds. Mem’s falafel burger was a winner, while they also satisfied my carnivorous inclinations with a meatier offering, and were able to keep the kids happy with their menu infantil and a pair of generous fruit smoothies.

Viva la Pepa
Paseo del Espolón, Nº4 Plaza del Rey San Fernando, Nº6
Burgos

3. Exploring & playing outdoors
If we were to write a book about our current nomadic adventure (and we may well do just that at some point), it could quite justifiably be titled “A Guide to the Parks and Playgrounds of Europe”. If we were to do that, Burgos would warrant almost a whole chapter to itself.

One activity we all thoroughly enjoyed was the walk up to El Castillo (the castle), which sits atop a knoll overlooking the old city. The ridge behind the Castillo is interlaced with a network of paths winding in and out of the pine forests and undergrowth, which proved a real adventure land for the kids. When we got there, the Castillo was unfortunately closed, despite opening hours which would seem to state otherwise. However, just nearby we discovered – wait for it – a playground, next to which was a bar that served cold beer and patatas bravas (amongst other things), so everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Also great fun for these visiting Antipodeans was discovering the numerous storks’ nests – massive structures built on many of the city’s highest towers with no respect for history or eminence.

Storks

Another highlight, from an outdoors perspective, was the Parque de la Isla, which we discovered by following the Camino de Santiago markers along the river, and which also had an “awesome” playground.

4. Eating in
Eating out and discovering new and interesting dishes is one of the most exciting and energising things about travelling. But sometimes, whether it’s because you want to save a few euros, or you can’t face another plate of fried whatevers, you just want to cook something for yourself and have complete control of what’s going into your body, and those of your family.

Up until Burgos, we’d been pretty underwhelmed by the quality of produce available in Spain, particularly in the south. It was all just a bit tired looking and there wasn’t a great deal of variety. Paris, by comparison, was awash with beautiful fruit, vegetables and a thousand other high quality ingredients (the wine, the cheese, the… well, you get the point) – but that’s another story for another time.

Thankfully, in Burgos we rented an Airbnb flat with a functional kitchen (and good knives – the owners also owned a restaurant) and we were able to find some excellent quality ingredients. This meant that Burgos now also carries the title of “Best Homecooked Meal by the Selwoods”. The benefits, for both your physical and mental wellbeing, gained from good quality, fresh vegetables should never be underestimated, and their availability definitely influenced how much we enjoyed our time in Burgos.

One place we chanced upon and which we recommend to anyone visiting Burgos and looking for good quality organic produce (amongst other ingredients) was:
La Tienda Organica (the organic shop)
C/ Antonio Valdés y Basan 1

5. El Camino de Santiago
No post on Burgos would be complete without a mention of the Camino de Santiago. This pilgrim trail, which winds its way from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, dominates Burgos, which is one of the major towns along the route. One gets the impression that the bulk of Burgos’ tourism trade is centred on catering for the needs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who attempt the Camino every year, and it gives the town much more of a cosmopolitan, international feel than many of its counterparts in other regions of Spain. Shops are filled with paraphernalia, including walking sticks, clothing and other souvenirs marked with scallop shells (the symbol of Santiago – St James the Apostle), while restaurants and hostels advertise special rates for peregrinos (pilgrims).

The camino itself splits into two as it passes through Burgos, and we had a great time looking out for the trail markers – tiles with the scallop shell insignia – that lead the pilgrim through town. Although we’ve only done very small sections so far, the Camino is high on our bucket list of things we want to do before leaving Spain. While you’re in Burgos, however, we recommend a day’s walk out and back along the Camino. You’ll soon find yourself out in the beautiful countryside that surrounds the city, sharing the route with people from every corner of the globe. There’s a real collegial feel to the Camino and you and the kids are bound to meet some interesting characters along the way.

Check out the Wise Pilgrim Guides for some more really good information on the Camino and Burgos.


So that’s just about all we have to say about Burgos. The city treated us incredibly well – we felt welcomed, entertained and well fed, and came away wanting to return to finish off some experiences and find time to check out a number of things we’d wanted to do, but just didn’t get time to this time around.

Logistics

Getting there: Burgos is 2.5 hours from Madrid and 3 hours from San Sebastian by train. If you book far enough in advance it’s a surprisingly cheap journey. Our favourite portal for booking trains in Spain is Trainline.

You can try it through the Renfe website, but we’ve had no luck on that front because they don’t accept payment via Australian (and possibly other nationalities) credit cards, not even our travel money cards (WTF Renfe, I mean seriously!?)

Accommodation: We stayed in a terrific little family apartment sourced through Airbnb.


Have you travelled to Burgos with your family? Have any other hints, tips or general comments on travelling with kids? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s have a conversation.

For more details on the area see the Lonely Planet guide below (affiliate link):
Spain travel guide - Castilla Y Leon (2.936Mb), 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet
Digital version of Spain travel guide – Castilla Y Leon, 11th Edn Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

The Rhythm of a Spanish Day

A friend asked me the other day, ‘what do you do all day’? I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose when you no longer have a traditional work schedule, it might seem a bit daunting to have no structure, no particular plan, and nothing to occupy oneself.

However that is misleading. There is a structure to our days, and it has been said by many people, many times, kids need structure. However the structures of our days have to fit with the rhythms of a Spanish day which are very different from those we had in our Australian life.

In Australia, our daily and weekly schedules were shaped by school and work. Here, we have none of those constraints, but we do have siesta, longer daylight hours, and different eating times to contend with.

It took us a while to settle into the rhythm of a Spanish day. With most shops and businesses closing for siesta in the early afternoon, the errands and important matters need to be done early in the day. This can provide a real sense of accomplishment in the day. When all the nitty gritty has been taken care of early, you can enjoy the rest of the day for living.

Siesta means different things to us on different days. Sometimes we try and have a sleep, sometimes we relax in a park, sometimes we sit and read, sometimes we ignore it completely. Days where we take the time to relax in the afternoon are definitely the best. We can recharge, and it makes one day seem like two. Sometimes we laugh as we think we did something yesterday, when really it was just before siesta.

After siesta, I love the slow crescendo of the noise outside as people re-emerge from their dwellings. Around 5pm is one of the most bustling times here, and it is full of energy and excitement. Kids run to the football field, grandparents stroll along the streets, friends meet at a bar. It reminds me that we are really living, and I enjoy the importance placed on this social time of the day. It is a time that is focussed on family and friends. I think we as a family have been missing this in Australia and it is something I want to hold on to.

Spaniards eat much later in the day than we are used to. We find most people here eat a very minimal breakfast, have a snack mid-morning to tide them over, and then eat the main meal of the day around 1 or 2pm. Then there’s another light snack (often accompanied by a small beer, a caña), and then a late small meal after 8 to 9pm or later. In our first month here, we struggled with this schedule. We were wanting our main meal in the evening, usually too early for anyone to serve us, and on the odd occasion we found somewhere to eat at an hour that suited us, it was a touristy place with less interesting food, and a higher price tag.

Slowly, we adapted our eating patterns to fit our surroundings. We have the odd day where we are out exploring where it’s easier to fall into our Australian patterns and have a sandwich for lunch, then eat a bigger meal late in the day, but we’re now eating much later than we ever would have at home. The biggest impact this has had on us, is that we’re no longer trying to cook a main meal at the end of the day when we’re all tired and worn down. We’re now able to spend the evenings doing fun things together, such as going for a paseo, playing a game or sitting in a bar having a drink and discussing our day. This family time in the evening brings us together at the end of each day, and it feels good to go to bed this way.

Bedtime has disappeared since we arrived. It used to always be a time of stress at home when we were tired from work and school. The kids would want to stay up, we would want them to go to bed and that difference in opinion would result in arguments. Now, the kids are allowed to stay up until we’re all too tired, and we flop into bed. Some nights it is earlier than others, and it isn’t always without argument, but it is much simpler than it used to be. It helps that we don’t have commitments early in the morning unless we have a train to catch, so the kids sleep later in the morning than before. The wind down that we get in the evenings without having to cook a meal or stress about bedtime makes for a more joyful and relaxing evening, and I really value this time I get with the kids.

And to answer that question, what do we do all day? We explore, we ask questions, we talk in jumbled Spanish with people we meet, we teach the kids about the world, we find hidden pockets of places, we look for secret paths, we eat, and we enjoy each others’ company. Sometimes we split up so one of us can get some work done, sometimes we stick together. Sometimes we just relax, sometimes we walk all day. Sometimes I bring a book and sit at a playground soaking up some sunshine, sometimes we go for a long lunch in a mountain town. It is fulfilment driven by curiosity, and the rhythm of a Spanish day is what makes it work.

Our First Week in Spain as a Nomadic Family

We’ve been in Spain for a week now, and it feels like a month. Each day stretches out before us as we fill it with experiences.

We have watched hot air balloons hover over our mountain-cave home, danced at a local charity fiesta, watched locals create incredibly simple but delicious foods, climbed to lookouts to see the vista, explored hidden alleyways full of surprises, eaten a variety of tapas and run through hedge mazes in the middle of one of the world’s great cities. It feels impossible that we could have done all this (and more) in just one week.

Between our two nights in Madrid we managed to see a large proportion of the city. We spent the morning in the Parque del Retiro  and then in the evening we explored around Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Sol, Palacio and Almudena Cathedral. There’s still a lot to discover next time we come to Madrid, but we had a good overview of the city.

Since then we have been living in a cave (Cueva Balcón) in Guadix that we found on Airbnb (click here to get a free travel credit for your first stay on Airbnb). While it is a little cool in the mornings and evenings, the ambience is incredible, as is the view from our balcony. We can see the snow on top of the Sierra Nevada, the cave houses nestled into the pointy and jagged hills, the white lines of the Church at Ermita Nueva, the rugged Moorish Alcazabar, the deep green orchards on the plains, and the tall bell tower of the Cathedral.

During our ten day stay, we are coming to know some people around our local area, and finding some amazing places that are a little off the tourist track. Local butchers, bakeries and bars are very accommodating of our stilted Spanish and always enjoy finding out that we’re not the usual Spanish or English visitors to Guadix.

The kids have been starting to pick up Spanish words here and there. Walking down the street, they’ll sometimes ask us about a word they have heard from someone we’ve passed, or they’ll read something in a shop window. Occasionally we hear them practicing the sounds, which sound like a Spanish gibberish, but is all part of them training their muscles. They each bought a Spanish kids’ magazine yesterday. While looking at them together, it was clear that they were understanding more than just the pictures were describing. If they can pick up this much in one week, it will be amazing to watch how their language progresses over the next month. Hopefully when they start interacting with Spanish kids their confidence will increase.

Some valuable travel lessons have been learned in the last week too:
* Australian credit cards (including travel cards) cannot purchase train tickets online. We’ve had to buy them all at the train stations so far.
* When looking up something online, the price will go up if you go back and look at it a second time. A good work-around is to use ‘incognito’ or ‘private’ mode on your browser.
* Atocha railway station in Madrid is not easy to navigate, nor were the staff very helpful. Arrive with more than 30 minutes before your scheduled departure to try and find your platform. We only just made our train.
* Getting a Spanish sim card was one of the easiest things we’ve done so far. The man in the phone store was very helpful, and the SIM cost us €10. For €20 credit we get 2GB of internet and €20 of calls. SMS between us is free as we are on the same network.

We’re living exactly the life we wanted to create. I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.

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