Five great books about Spain

One of the ideal ways to learn about a place you are visiting is to read books about the region you will go. Both fiction and non-fiction can provide valuable insights into a country, and reading about it can enrich your travel experiences.

While we’ve been living and travelling in Spain, we’ve read a number of books about various topics related to the country. This list is by no means exhaustive, there are so many great books out there about Spain, but we obviously haven’t read them all so here are a couple of our favourites that we have enjoyed.

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past

Written by Englishman, Giles Tremlett, who has lived in Spain for a long time, this book provides and intriguing look at the history of Spain and modern day life and how they are interconnected. After reading this book, we looked at Spain in a new light, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. However it brought understanding to a lot of aspects of Spanish living that had previously confounded us. If you want to learn about the intricacies that make Spain what it is today, this is the book for you.

Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago

A great read for the whole family. La Chica especially liked this one, and she was laughing out loud reading it on the train. The title says it all really, Tim Moore decides to walk the Camino de Santiago with a donkey and writes about his hilarious adventures, highlighting all the difficulties that come with travelling with a stubborn donkey.

Don Quixote

I need to admit here that I haven’t read this book for a few years. However the story of Don Quixote is so embedded in Spanish culture, that we are constantly reminded of it as we travel through Spain. Following the misguided Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza travelling through the countryside, this book is a classic Spanish story that cannot be ignored. It’s a book that I intend to read again very soon.

 Homage to Catalonia

Orwell famously joined the Spanish Civil War to fight the fascists. This book gives a vivid account of his time in the battles and the fear that was prevalent in Spain at the time. This is not an easy read, as Orwell refers to so many different interest groups, the majority of them just acronyms, so it is sometimes difficult to understand which group is on which side of the battle. However, it is worth a read, particularly given the current political climate in Spain.

The Tomb in Seville


If you like reading about the Spanish Civil War, this one is the most accessible one I’ve come across. Following the true story of the author, Norman Lewis, and his brother-in-law who set out on a pilgrimage to a tomb in Seville, the two men find themselves stranded amongst the Spanish Civil War. While making their way across Spain (via Portugal), they provide an intense look at what the Spanish Civil war was like for those outside the major cities.

Also…

I’m currently reading La ridicula idea de no volver a verte in Spanish by Rosa Montero and I absolutely love it. The owner of a bookshop in Oviedo recommended this book about Marie Curie and the death of her husband. I haven’t included it in the list above because it isn’t about Spain as such, but if you are looking for a great modern Spanish author, Rosa Montero is one to check out. Many of her books have been translated into English.


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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.

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.

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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 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.

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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.

Running in Asturias (Spain)

Before I was a runner, I was a keen walker. I walked everywhere and would travel for miles to find a good bushwalk. (I think we can now see why I took to trail running so naturally). For many years I had a dream of walking the entire Heysen Trail, or walking the entire coast of Australia. I would plan them in my head, but they never came to fruition because I was working, or having babies, or was out of money. As I’ve become a runner, these dreams have transposed into dreams of running them. I have done sections of the Heysen Trail whenever the opportunity arose, and similarly coastal sections of Australia. Now we’re travelling around the globe, I’ve set my sights on some of the world’s trails.

As a family we have been talking of doing one of the Camino De Santiago routes in northern Spain. It’s high on our list of things to do and the plan is that I’ll run ahead each day and find somewhere to stay and Cass and the kids will walk and meet me. We haven’t set a date yet, but the kids are keen and we talk about it often.

Recently we stayed in Porrua, Asturias, which is not on the Camino, but about 1km from it, and so there were a lot of opportunities to do day trips along it with the kids, and run sections on my own. As I was training for the Riaza Trail Challenge I was after some elevation so did some runs on the Camino, and some side tracks up the mountains.

The Camino in this stretch travels through the coastal towns of Llanes and Poo (yes this name doesn’t translate well into English, but it’s a beautiful town). Peregrinos (as the walkers on the trail are known) can be seen on all parts of the track and they come in various shapes and forms. Some were retirees with very small packs, some were young solo travellers enjoying the disconnect and some were more like tourists with their eyes glued to the map on their phone. The latter were usually the sort to ask you for directions, even though they were the ones with the map.

The trail winds through the rural areas between towns with occasional sweeping views of the sea. All of the towns are close together and the trail often takes the least-direct route and shows you the smaller, interesting laneways along the way as it detours to places of religious significance.

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The Camino De Santiago markers are easy to spot

It’s a pleasure to run the Camino, as the route is well marked so you never have to check your map (unless you are one of the aforementioned tourist types) and it is so picturesque at every turn.

I’m glad I also took some of the side-trails as they also took me to picturesque areas where the dirt road was bordered by stone walls, and the mountains of the Picos De Europa loomed high in front of me. (The Travesera Picos De Europa run is in June for those keen on a brutally difficult mountain run).

There’s so much more of the Camino De Santiago that I want to run, but this trip definitely gave me a taste of it.

Eurail Passes; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fifteen years ago I travelled Europe for two months on a Eurail Pass and it was one of the best ways to get around. I found it so easy to hop on and off, and didn’t need to book ahead. For this trip with the family, we were very unsure about whether it was going to be a good option for us. We wanted some flexibility, but also wanted to be able to get around as easily and as cheaply as possible. A quick Google search brought up a lot of articles bemoaning the cons of the Eurail pass, and TripAdvisor is brimming with reports of negative experiences. We read Nomadic Matt’s article, which weighed up the pros and cons, but mostly looked at it from a single person’s point of view. Given my previous experience with Eurail, I was pushing for it all the way. Cass was a little more wary.

We had promised La Chica that we would take her to Paris for her Birthday, so we knew we would have some expensive travel coming up – we had to explore all our options. The cost of train travel is not necessarily cheap, but it’s a fantastic way to travel. You get to see the countryside, there’s no pressure of negotiating traffic and you can get up and move about when it’s  a long journey.

The Good

fullsizeoutput_1cd0The best feature of a Eurail pass for family travel is that kids under 11 years of age travel free.  That makes family travel cheaper than all other transport options by far.

We also waited for a Eurail sale where they were offering 30% off the usual price. We ended up buying a Three Country Family Pass with 6 days of travel in 2 months. Here’s how the costs worked out (all prices in Australian Dollars):

Usual cost of pass for two adults & two children (under 11) $1182.00
Minus 15% discount for travelling together at all times -$177.30
Minus sale discount of 30% -$301.41
Total cost of Eurail Pass $703.29
Price per trip (6 trips) $117.22

Barcelona to Paris without pass for two adults & two children one way is $724.95 (as at 15 June 2017). So we knew the Eurail pass was going to pay for itself just on this one trip.

The Bad and the Ugly

Hurdle number 1

Our first experience trying to book a Eurail seat reservation (required in Spain) was a challenging one. We were in Guadix wanting to book a trip to Sevilla, and we were staying 4kms from the train station without a car. Cass and Los Chicos walked all the way there, only to be told that they couldn’t make Eurail reservations at that station as it was only a small one: we would need to call or go to a bigger station. We tried calling Renfe (the Spanish train network). We called 10 times. Each time, we were on hold for half an hour. When we finally got through and started asking in broken Spanish for our reservation, the operator would cut us short and put us through to an English-speaking operator. While being transferred, it would hang up. Every time.fullsizeoutput_1cd3

On the eleventh call, after the usual hold time, the first thing I said (in carefully rehearsed Spanish) was ‘Please don’t transfer me, I’ve called 10 times and it hangs up every time. Please help me in Spanish’. He tried to transfer me but I managed to convince him not to. We finally muddled our way through the Eurail reservation in my limited Spanish and his limited patience, and got to the point of payment. My travel debit card wouldn’t work. I tried my credit card. No luck. It turns out that foreign credit cards and debit cards don’t work with Renfe.

So. We ended up paying full fare for a ticket to Sevilla (where we were going anyway) and then booked our next trip at the station there.

Hurdle number 2

After our previous experience, we thought we would get more clever about booking our trip from Spain to France. We did some more research on reserving Eurail tickets on the Eurail website. We even downloaded the app.

It turns out that you have to book more than 7 days in advance if you want to book using the Eurail website or app, and then they will post it to you. Wait…what? We don’t have a fixed address, how will they post it to us? We’re travelling on our Eurail pass!

Ok, so then you can book an e-ticket up to 2 days before your departure. Good. But only for travel within Spain or Italy. France not included. That rules that out.

So. We ended up going back to Sevilla and booked our next two trips in person there. We waited in line for over half an hour but it all got sorted and the Renfe staff were very helpful. It did cost an extra €90 to book all our seats, but financially we were still coming out ahead by a long shot.

Hurdle number 3

So now we realised that the only way to book tickets was going to be to go in person to a big train station. In Paris we went to Montparnasse station to book our departure from Paris and the queue was ENORMOUS! It was a ticket system and they had 5 tables operating, but it took a long time. There were a few chairs but nowhere near enough for the number of people waiting. We waited for over an hour and a half with tired, hungry children. I think that our children have relatively long attention spans, and we entertained them as best we could, but it wasn’t easy as there wasn’t much room to move or muck around. When we finally got our turn, it was all very easy to book. But by then our patience had waned and we weren’t feeling very positive.

Hurdle number 4

We hired a car for a few days in the north of Spain and made a special stop in Burgos to book our next Eurail trip, as it was a big station. The Renfe staff told us that there were no seats left. I couldn’t believe it as we had allowed plenty of days before departure. It turns out our Eurail pass is a first class pass, so automatically pulls up only first class seats. This is the only type of Eurail pass available to people over 28 years. I asked if we could book second class seats with our first class pass? Turns out you can. Thankfully. And there were second class seats available. Good. This was an easy hurdle to jump. Good to remember to ask for second class seats (the difference between first and second is pretty much negligible on Spanish trains anyway).

The Finish Line

Eurail passes are definitely not easy to use. Fifteen years ago they were simple, but that was before online bookings were the easiest option. If you could book online with foreign credit cards, it would be the perfect pass.

We’ve only got 2 more travel days left on our passes now, and we feel like we’ve finally got the system sorted out. There’s been a lot of stress and annoyance at how difficult our Eurail passes have been to use, but they’ve already saved us somewhere around $1000, so ultimately it’s worth the hassle. Hopefully some of you can benefit from our mistakes.

We’d love to hear about other experiences with the Eurail pass. Leave us a comment below.

DISCLAIMER: We were not given this product nor were paid to review this product. We paid for it with our own money and these are our own opinions.


Let the journey begin with Rail Europe

Riaza Trail Challenge – mountain running

I like to do things that scare me. And mountain running definitely falls into that category. While we’re in Spain, I wanted to join a race, and while reading Trail Run magazine I came across the Riaza Trail Challenge. It looked absolutely terrifying. I love running trails which also means running a lot of hills, but ‘mountain running’ just sounded so difficult.

So, I signed up, toying with the idea of doing the 40km, but eventually caving in a little to my fears (thankfully) and signed up for the 20km race.

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Elevation profile for the 20km race.

We booked some accommodation for the weekend, and I set to training. My training was spot on. I was already in good shape, so I set to upping my distance. We’re also travelling and doing a lot of walking in general, so I knew I could easily manage 20km. It was the elevation that was going to be the problem. I had run this sort of elevation before, but not at this altitude, and I hadn’t been training for hills until I signed up. We were staying in a lot of places that didn’t have a hill to be found, so I made sure I included some stairs on each run. In the last week before the race, we stayed in Asturias, which is full of mountains and hills, so I found as many big ones as I could during that week. Unfortunately, something upset my stomach that week too, so my running took a bit of a dive. It still wasn’t good by race day, but I was determined to complete the race, so pushed on, making sure I stayed well hydrated.

We arrived in Riaza on Friday afternoon, and had to wait to check in to our accommodation, so headed into the centre of town to pick up my bib and t-shirt.

On the way, we could see the mountain that I would be running. It looked high. So high. Scarily high. You couldn’t see the very top because it was covered with with a cloud cap, but even then, it looked high. I was now really, really nervous. It wasn’t the distance that made me nervous, only the height. I felt strong in my body, and I knew I could do it. I just knew I’d need to fight my mind the whole way up.

Later that day the cloud cap cleared and we could see the mountain more clearly. Since I knew my body could cope, why was I scared? The more I thought about it rationally, the more I realised that I had done everything I could to prepare and I was going to be able to make it. My goal: to make the 3 hours 30 mins cut off time.

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Preparation

Race morning I felt great. I got up early, did some stretching, ate some toast with peanut butter and banana and headed off to the start line to watch the 40km & the 60km start. Unfortunately I missed it by 5 minutes, but getting there early gave me a chance to soak up the atmosphere and get excited. There’s a real energy around the start of a running event, and it is one of the main reasons I do it. I love solitary running in the wilderness, but running at an event gets the adrenaline pumping like nothing else. I couldn’t believe I was really going to do a mountain run. In Spain!

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20 mins until start time

My husband and kids arrived to see me off at the start line, and I could see my kids were worried. They told me they didn’t want me to get lost on the mountain, and that they were worried I’d come face to face with a bear or a wolf. We assured them that bears and wolves don’t live in these mountains and I gave them a kiss thinking ‘I don’t really want to get lost either’. I had the GPS map with me. I’d be okay.

As the race started, the excitement was palpable as competitors were shouting, cheering and dancing. So much more exuberant than the start of a race in Australia. This continued for the first two kms of the race where people would randomly cheer, or clap. It made it so exciting.

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Everyone lined up in the chute ready for the start

I was armed with a very specific plan of which inclines I was going to walk, and estimates of times at each kilometre. It all went out the window at the very start of the race. Another lesson in the values of plans, but the also the value of being able to abandon them. I had anticipated running the first two kilometres to give me a good starting pace, but there were so many people on the single trail, that it was bottlenecked. Everyone had to walk, and walk at a very slow pace and the trees were so close there was no overtaking to be done. I found this frustrating, but the random cheering and clapping kept me feeling good.

I powered up the first 5 kilometres. I felt really good. I ran where I could and walked with a strong pace where I needed to. I chatted in Spanish to a lady in front of me who was doing the 11km. She told me I was crazy to go as high as the 20km. I felt she was right.

At the 5km drink stop I was right on my target pace, but was already feeling the burn in my legs, and I knew this was the steepest part coming up.

Letting some people pass me, I slowed down. I was feeling the shallower breaths required by the altitude (I was already higher in altitude than I’d ever been before). I took each step carefully and slowly. I am glad I took this approach as it got me to the 7km mark with good spirits. I paused for some breaths on the way up. Each time I did, I knew it would slow my pace down, but I knew there was still a lot of steep climbing to go. I started hearing that voice in my head, ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you’re already exhausted, don’t keep going’, ‘just stop and rest awhile’. I listened to it, and said to myself ‘you can do this’, ‘you’ve done harder things before’, ‘you did everything you could to prepare’ and ‘one step at a time’. I repeated all of these like mantras and slowly made my way up. I had to constantly battle the demons in my mind. As the incline got steeper and the air got thinner, I had more of these mental demons come and face me. I started feeling like this was the hardest thing I had ever done, couldn’t understand why I had signed up, and that mountain running really wasn’t my thing. People overtook me. I kept climbing. The tree line ended and the large rocks appeared. I kept climbing. The air chilled and I kept climbing.

At the first peak, the views opened up and I started to feel truly alive. I stopped to take a couple of pictures. What’s the point of climbing a mountain if you don’t stop to appreciate it for a moment?

The air up there was fresh and clear, the views were spectacular, and I felt like nothing could stop me now. The final ascent was exhilarating and the burn in my legs and the huffing and puffing couldn’t affect me anymore. They were just a part of being, and no longer caused any doubts in my mind.

Finally, right at the top, there was a man, all rugged up agains the wind and the cold. In my limited Spanish, I understood him to say ‘You made it to the top, well done. All you have to do now is go down!’ I thanked him profusely. A quick look at my watch showed that I wouldn’t make the cut off time. I would have to run the last 10kms faster than I had ever run 10kms before. And I was already tired. Knowing that I would miss the cut off time released me from needing to keep a certain pace, however I didn’t want to be there all day, so I started running.

The first part of the descent was a steep technical trail, very rocky, and covered with loose shale. I took it slowly. I wasn’t so hooked up on pace that I needed to injure myself. I picked my way amongst the shale and when the track widened up a little, and the shale was less, I started to pick up the pace. I kept a really fast pace and reduced my average pace so far from 14 min/km to 11min/km. I felt good.

However around the 16km mark I hit a wall. I was feeling really tired. I walked some flat sections and tried to recuperate, and kept eating my snacks at regular intervals. I ran/walked a few kms, keeping a 10min/km pace but feeling really done in. The trail followed a fast flowing river, and even though I was tired, I was able to enjoy its beauty.

Soon, I started being overtaken by the 40km and 60km lead runners. They were all looking strong. I was impressed. They shouted ‘vamos’ – ‘let’s go’ and ‘venga’ – ‘come on’ if any of them saw me walking and it really got me going. I ran the last two kilometres feeling mentally strong (but physically worn out) and I really think it was due to the encouragement from these people who had run so much further (and harder) than me.

As I turned into the village, someone yelled to me ‘ya lo has hecho!’- ‘you have already done it’, and they were the best words I could have heard. With a renewed burst, I sprinted towards the finish line, and my kids joined me in the last few metres to cross with me holding my hands.

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Drinking a beer, looking at the mountain

I didn’t make the cut off time of 3:30, but made it in 3:47, and was really happy. It was the hardest thing I have ever done (let’s leave childbirth out of this) and I was so proud of how I managed it mentally and physically. I’m always telling my kids that bravery is when you are scared of something but do it anyway. I was the definition of brave that day.

Watching the rest of the runners come in while drinking a beer in the sun,I thought to myself, that’s it. I don’t need to do a mountain race again. Good. Tick. Done.

Two days later we went for a walk to the base of the mountain. It doesn’t look so big, I thought, I’d like to do that again.

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A few days later

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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