A few months back I had read an article on some mountains in northern Spain called the Picos De Europa. I was immediately interested as I had never heard of them, and the pictures of the hiking trails looked amazing. There was not a great wealth of knowledge available, so I did the best I could. I planned 5 days of hiking in the area and combined the trip with a sightseeing journey I could bring Amy along on.
Our plan was to fly into Barcelona, rent a car and work our way West along the northern border of Spain. When we reached the intended mountain range, Amy would fly home from Bilboa, I would continue on, then drive back to Barcelona, return the car and fly back to the US.
In preparation for this trip a read a few books about Spain, specifically the regions I would be driving through. One was George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”. It gave both a good account of the region and also the turbulent times during the Spanish Civil War in the earlier part of the 20th Century. The 2nd book was a history of the Basque people. This was the region just West of Catalonia. So, in essence, I would be visiting 3 countries (If you asked the people of Northern Spain), each with their own language and customs. And possibly in the future they would gain their independence from Spain.
The history of Spain, especially during the Spanish Civil War, is quite complex. You have multiple ideologies all fighting against each other at the same time. Fascism, Communism, Socialism, and Republicanism all trying to end up with control over the Iberian Peninsula. A summary by me would not due the events justice, so if interested, please watch this short video I found that I believe does a great job of dumbing it down for kindergarten minds like mine.
Or you can dumb it down even further to just a general history of Spain
We began our trip by flying through Dulles airport in DC. For some reason I think this was my first time in this airport. It is quite the crazy setup. To get between terminals they shuttle you around in mobile homes on wheels. Easily the largest vehicle I have ever been in. It seems very inefficient, but I am sure there is a method to their madness. Due to a delay we ended up spending 6 hours in this airport. I think I ended up taking a 2 hour nap at some point. I do like a good midday nap. With all the cancellations and delays running rampant across the globe, we were just happy we got on a flight that day, even with the long layover.
We arrived in Barcelona at 8am and decided to catch a bus into the city, drop our bags at the hotel and hit the tourist spots. We were definitely dragging as we took in the sights.
We wandered through church and government district
Followed that up with a walk through a market
Lots of cured meats. It seems to be the topping for everything. Meat on bread, meat on fries, or just meat rolled up with a toothpick.
It was hot, not the scorching 100+ I would experience the next week, but hot enough to slow us down and have us seeking the shady side of street as we walked from one Gaudi exhibit to the next.
It was finally time to check into the hotel. Fortunately for us, everything kinda goes into hibernation from 4-8pm, affording us time for an afternoon nap. Recharged we walked a bit more before heading to the beach. There was a park right outside our hotel and we were impressed by all the going-ons. People taking dance classes, musicians joining into impromptu jams, group exercises, and people just relaxing on blankets with friends
The beach was only another ¼ mile walk. We walked along it until we found a restaurant that looked interesting. When I go to beach towns I always hope to find a bar or restaurant that is literally right on the beach. So often I am disappointed that they are either on the other side of street our raised up. I want to feel the sand while enjoying the meal. Barcelona succeed where so many others had failed
We enjoyed local sea bass and Calamari. We finished around 10pm and it was just starting to get dark. It was amazing how long it stayed light here, but that also turned out to be a curse when the extreme temperatures rolled in.
The next morning we checked out and walked about 30 minutes to find our rental car in the city. Barcelona is a very chaotic city. It also smelled rough as they have large trash bins throughout the city (dumpsters), but there basically are no back alleys in this crowded town, so they are everywhere. I was not looking forward to driving this car in this mess of people and novel traffic laws. We eventually found the car after the Avis people sent us on a scavenger hunt around the area looking for a specific underground lot. When I emerged from the parking garage into the city I felt like I had just arrived in Kabul and was outside of any “Green Zone”. It was just pure mayhem. I was trying to get the google maps to work, and sync with the car display, my Asian navigator was yelling gibberish at me, cabs and buses honking at me, people Jaywalking everywhere. There was definitely no warm up lap where I get to zig zag with the car and get use to the controls and the shifting.
I eventually got outside the city without wrecking or killing a pedestrian. I already was not looking forward to bringing the rental car back in 3 weeks and trying to locate the entrance to that garage (The entrance and exit are in 2 different spots) that just drops down off the road with little warning or signage.
Our first stop was Montserrat. Basically a retreat of sorts for “Men of the Cloth”. It was up in the mountains about an hour outside the city. We had planned on hiking in the region, but the heat was intense and we still had over 3 hours drive to get to our lodging for the night.
After leaving Montserrat we head NW towards the town of Taull. Before getting there we stopped in a tiny town to get something to drink and eat. Not a sole spoke English. We were in Catalonia, so it was a variation of Spanish. I had not reviewed Spanish before we left, like I should have, so I was pretty much useless. We resorted to just pointing at things and basically saying yes to almost everything they said, praying they would not look at us in confusion as it was not a yes/no question. When they brought out our food, we ended up with a large salad covered in yellow mustard. Amy thought it was a honey mustard, but no this was French’s Yellow Mustard. I kept feeling like they were hiding behind the counter laughing as they watch us, “They are eating it! They are eating the mustard salad”. It tasted terrible, but we made the best of it.
Taull is a tiny village in the mountains. I think it is popular for skiing in the winter, but was fairly quiet in the summer. Most of the buildings were designed in an old-fashioned style, but looked like relatively new construction.
We walked down the hill and found a bar open during the quiet hours of 4-7pm. We sat and had drinks while watching the day unfold at the Mallador Restaurant.
We were right across from the main church landmark in town, so there were a few tourists that straggled in.
The owner seated us at a stone table outdoors and served us one of our best meals of the trip, Pork Cheek Stew. After our meal we did not see the owner and wanted to pay so we ambled inside. There we found him playing guitar with a buddy of his. He asked me what artists I liked, and after mentioning Neil Young, they laughed as it was the music sheet they had out and happened to be their favorite artist. His buddy spoke very little English, but he did give us a drunken lecture, when I accidentally said that I was enjoying Spain thus far. “You are not in Spain! You are in Catalonia!” I cringed as I knew better than to make that rookie mistake. I took the Diatribe in step and after weathering the storm he broke out in song. I was amazed at how someone who spoke almost no English was not only singing Neil Young but had mastered his accent so well.
These are the moments I travel for. The spontaneous cultural windows into the lives of locals. You won’t find these on a tour bus or in the big cities. We finally said our goodnights and struggled the ¼ mile up the hill, winding through the cobblestone streets and getting lost in a forest before locating our hostal.