Surfing the Severn Bore

In August 2017 my family and a group of complete strangers helped me to fulfilled a childhood dream and rode the Severn Bore. A huge thank you goes out to Stuart Matthews for his excellent and detailed advice on surfing the Bore, and to Matt Hammersley, who generously lent me his Bore-log and booties and gave me all the information I’d need to successfully achieve this bucket-list item. Thanks also to Josh and Ollie at Phrenix Surfboards in Somerset.

To read more about this adventure, check out my article on Swellnet: To ride a tidal wave.

Advertisements

Cycling Towards the Horizon

Traversing mountains, swimming in oceans, and getting lost in forests has increased our deep commitment to travel with  minimal impact. In an attempt to take it to the next level, our new favourite method of transport is cycling. We now travel with some cycling gear and hire bikes in every town possible.

It all began when we were given the opportunity to housesit on a farm in England, we decided not to hire a car. This was a major decision because our farm was four kilometres from the nearest village and 24 kilometres from the closest town, Taunton . It was a chance to stretch our pedalling legs, so without thinking it through, we made the decision to cycle there from Taunton and use bikes as our primary transport for the next four weeks.

Cass did a lot of research and found a bike shop, On Your Bike in Taunton, who fix up old bikes and sell them for charity. They also train and employ disadvantaged people (people with disabilities, ex-services personnel and homeless) to be bike mechanics. We loved their values, and they agreed to hire bikes for us and the kids.

There were a number of obstacles we needed to overcome. The biggest was working out how to carry our luggage. We travel light (see What’s in our luggage?) with approximately 40kg between four of us, but our bags are not pannier bags and it was too much to ask the kids to ride that far with extra weight. Cass and I would need to carry it all.

On Your Bike had a trailer for hire, but it wouldn’t fit everything, so we decided to buy an additional new trailer to put the rest of the luggage in. After researching all of our options, we decided to buy a 2-Child Steel Bicycle Trailer for our luggage (we successfully sold it afterwards on Gumtree).

We arrived in Taunton the day before our ride, so we could prepare the bikes, buy helmets and some lights and just get organised. We are so glad we did, because it took us the whole day to get everything together and go for a little test ride.

On the morning of our ride, we had a tight schedule. The people we were housesitting for had to leave in the middle of the day, and we needed enough time to learn about looking after their animals. We really needed to arrive by 11:30 am so we got up at 5:30 ate a buffet breakfast, and headed off.

There was a misty rain as we set off but it kept us cool as we rode. Cass had one trailer with half our luggage, and I had the new trailer with the other half, and a bag with all our snacks on my back. The trailer was hard to pull. Hills I could usually ride up with ease were very difficult, and I had to walk up many more than I would have liked.

The first half went well, we rode at a good pace and were enjoying ourselves. Cass and I were nervous about the ride and whether the kids would make it, but being in the open air and seeing the English countryside was a good antidote.

12 kms in and feeling hungry (but good)

After a snack break at the halfway point, the rain set in. The temperature dropped dramatically, and our raincoats were only keeping our top half dry. The hills started increasing (as we expected from our meticulous route planning) and the kids were tiring. We started questioning ourselves. Had we made a terrible mistake?

After a lot of hard pushing, under the dark clouds and heavy rain, we finally reached the last kilometre. We knew this was a continuous uphill climb to our housesit, and we very slowly trudged up feeling tired, uncomfortable and not really enjoying it anymore. We had no choice but to keep going, and much to our incredulity, we finally made it. The kids were amazing, remained positive and were so relieved when we arrived. They nicknamed the last hill ‘Giant’s Hill’ and called it that every time we saw it after that. I told them they were my heroes.

For the time we were away, we only took the kids to the nearest town once as their faith in riding was a bit diminished by the ride up Giant’s Hill in the rain. Cass and I did the trips over the hill to the closest supermarket. With the kids we did small rides down to the creek, or to the nature reserve for a bushwalk, but kept the rides small so they could renew their love of riding.

img_1416

You can find secret swings when riding a bike.

When we returned to Taunton it was all downhill without any rain and the kids absolutely loved the ride. We stopped to pick blackberries, look at horses and eat our snacks with beautiful vistas.

When we returned the bikes, the kids were sad to see them go. They lamented it for the next few days. We kept our helmets and other paraphernalia and then hired some more bikes in Cambridge.

We were treated to some lovely weather in Cambridge and cycling was the perfect way to get around (no hills either!). We saw so much more of Cambridge than we would have otherwise, and we were able to ride to the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester, where we drank tea under the apple trees.

A few of my favourite things – tea, apple orchards, sunshine – after a beautiful bike ride.

Now the kids want to ride everywhere, and we hire bikes often. It can be difficult navigating the traffic, and making it all work, so here are some lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • A strong peloton goes a long way – We ride in single file with one adult up front and one at the back. There’s a number of reasons this works; we are more visible to drivers, the kids feel safe sandwiched between us and we can adjust our speed based on how the kids are going. The one at the front has to navigate and watch for traffic for themselves and the first child, while the one at the back can stay in pace with the slower ones.
  • Teach the kids the road rules while on the road – This seems obvious, but our kids knew the rules in theory before we started. We constantly go over them before we set out, but it is a different thing when they are on the road thinking about steering, pedalling, changing gears and dealing with traffic. It is like everything they know goes out the window. El Chico constantly heads straight into a roundabout without looking for cars, or sometimes even noticing that it is a roundabout. We stop at every corner and wait for everyone to catch up, talk about what we need to do at the corner, then go across in pairs so that we aren’t holding up traffic.
  • It isn’t a money saving venture – For four bikes it sometimes costs more than hiring a car. We don’t have to pay for petrol so it probably comes out even. The benefits outweigh the costs though, as it’s a beautiful way to travel. You are out in the world on a bike, rather than being removed from it inside a car. And your impact on the places you are visiting is diminished.
  • Check your maps – A lot of places have dedicated bike lanes and paths. These are invaluable with the kids because you don’t have to worry about the traffic, you can stop and smell the flowers and go your own pace. Galileo Maps are very accurate when it comes to cycle paths and footpaths, (and can be used offline) and Google Maps has a function where you can show a layer of the dedicated cycle lanes and paths.
  • Gears are best – The kids always find it easier when they have gears. They don’t always use them, and we find it frustrating, but when they have fixies they struggle up the hills.
  • Think about your equipment – Some bike hire shops provide you with lights and locks, but not all of them, so we now travel with lights, locks, helmets and some occy straps.
  • Fuel up – Riding makes the kids hungry (this is good for us because our kids are usually fussy eaters), so we need to have a big stash of healthy snacks in our backpack
  • Bikes + trains = more fun – In our experience, you can take bikes on trains in both England and Spain at no extra cost. This means you can go more places and take your bike with you to ride around at the other end. Many of the Spanish trains have a carriage where you can chain your bike to a dedicated rail. Although a word of caution, we did get in trouble once for trying to take bikes on a long distance train (we were only going to the next stop and didn’t realise it was any different).
  • Water is your elixir – Don’t underestimate how much water you need, especially in hot climates. A good rule of thumb is to have one litre per person per hour of riding.
  • Enjoy it – Riding is such fun so relax, enjoy and explore!
DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free bikes, tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. Some of the links to in this article are affiliate links. 

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.

IMG_1622

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.

IMG_1015

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.

fullsizeoutput_1cdf

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.

IMG_5574

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.

fullsizeoutput_1e10

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.

IMG_5399

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.

IMG_5552

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.

An introvert’s guide to meeting people while travelling

So we’ve been in Spain for two months now, and all of us are increasing in language confidence, discovering many new places, and investigating the ins and outs of life in a foreign country.

We’ve slowed down our travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in each place and really delve into new experiences. This has led to some incredible moments, from a farmer asking us to come and see his baby goats (which the kids got to hold), to the kids being invited to an English Language school for an end of year class party.

All of these experiences have been invaluable. The kids have made some very close friends and it has been hard for them to leave them when we do. Last night ended up in a pile of tears as we left some of their favourite new friends.

What we have found, however, is that we were constantly pushing the kids to step past their comfort limits, when Cass and I were not. ‘Go on, say hello to those kids on the playground’ we urged, however when faced with another adult, we would say ‘hello’ and then just go about our transaction without pushing any further.

It dawned on us one day that we were pushing the kids, and they were having some genuinely profound interactions, while Cass and I were missing out.

At home Cass and I truly value our strong friendships with a few close friends, however we have never needed a lot of social interaction. Both of us always got what we needed socially from work and those close friendships. We are naturally introverts who like the company of a small dedicated group. This doesn’t work when travelling, when expanding horizons is what it is all about.

We’re not new to travel, we’ve both travelled before, but as solo backpackers, where it is easy to make conversation with a similar vagabonding type over a meal in a hostel or a drink in a bar. Now we travel as a pack of four, stay in Airbnb type accomodation, and interact with each other in our own little bubble – it is so easy to get by without meeting anyone at all.

Cass and I have had to develop strategies and games to really push ourselves to have more meaningful interactions with people around us and it has really paid off; Cass met a fellow surfer taxi driver who told him all about the local conditions and explained some new Spanish surfing terms; we met a shop owner whose best friend is a coach with the Adelaide Soccer team; and we’ve made friends with the owners of a local tapas bar, who gave us an impromptu round of free Spanish liqueurs to try. These strategies have extended our experience to be so much more rewarding than before we tried them.

Here’s some little games and strategies we use daily:

1. Say something unnecessary

Every time you have an interaction with someone (buying something, riding in a taxi, asking for something) you try to say something that is completely unnecessary to the transaction. For example; when buying bread, ask if there’s been much rain lately, when at the bar, ask who is playing the football on the television, when in a taxi ask for a good place to eat. It’s amazing how often such a simple statement or question can lead to a larger conversation about something very interesting.

2. Go to the same place regularly

If you find somewhere good, go there often. We found a tapería where we really loved the food. It was cheap, near our accommodation and is owned by two brothers that were very friendly. We went back three times and by our third visit we were chatting about all sorts of things (they were the ones that gave us the free selection of Spanish liqueurs and even put some non-alcoholic colourful ones in similar glasses for the kids).

3. Say where you are from

If you tell people early on where you are from, it will often launch a conversation. It’s easier to drop in than you might think. If you don’t understand what someone says you can easily say in the local language, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I’m Australian’. If you are feeling a bit more confident you can say ‘I’m sorry, can you please say that again, I’m Australian but would like to practice my Spanish’. Usually this turns into a further conversation, perhaps they will ask where in Australia you are from, or tell you that they’ve been there, or know someone from there. It’s a good starting point.

4. Ask for help

This seems obvious but I’m not very good at this. It works in so many situations. I don’t eat much meat and we used to walk around looking at menus hoping that we would find something herbivorous. Recently we’ve learned to ask the waiter if there are any vegetarian options. This has led to finding better options for all of us, as the waiters often recommend something that is especially good on the menu, or offer a suggestion for what the kids might like. This can then give you a chance to ask more, such as what ingredients are in it, where does the fish come from, how is it cooked, for example.

5. Say yes (when you can).

It can be scary, especially when you are always thinking about the safety of the kids, to say yes to things. I was terrified of letting the kids go to an English Language school party without us in a foreign country, but it turned out to be an excellent experience for them. Of course sometimes you have to listen to your instinct and say no to something that isn’t a good idea, but generally, saying yes is going to find you in some unexpected places.

Have you got any other fun strategies or games for getting more our of your experience in a new country? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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.

Photo Essay #2 – Animals

So when Aunty Lucy heard we were composing photo essays on a certain theme as a means to get the kids to engage in the world around them, she made a request that we spend one day looking for and photographing animals. She’s a zoologist, so it wasn’t out of character at all for her to make such a request which, incidentally, the kids loved.

Ever since, whenever they see something that’s even vaguely animate and has a pulse, they ask if they can take a photo for Aunty Lucy. It’s taken about three weeks, six stops and two international border crossings, but we’ve finally taken a moment to put together our (heavily curated) animalian photo essay, with shots from Cadiz, San Fernando, Barcelona, Paris, Saint-Jean de Luz and Porrua. This is for you Tia Lucia!

Saving Nature – a guest post by La Chica

We live in a beautiful world but we are endangering all the animals and plants. Every day millions of people contribute to global warming by driving cars, riding motorbikes and many more. All this makes the polar ice caps melt more which means polar bears and Arctic and Antarctic animals will have no where to live.

If the animals die out there will be no plants, no insects, no us, and no more lovely planet Earth. There are so many more reasons that I cannot write about them all.

The Sierra Nevada from Guadix

But we need to look after our planet because our lives depend on it.

Thank you for reading.

I hope you all think this through very carefully because our environment is our life.

Cave House with eroded hills