It was probably only forty-five minutes from our last French stop to our first city in Spain, San Sebastian. Yet in crossing the border it seemed like we had entered a whole other climate. The sun beat down on us, and we all began shedding layers as we exited the bus. At our hostel we shared our first Spanish communal dinner, where we mistook the pasta appetizer as the main course, only to be surprised as a whole other plate of chicken was placed in front of us.
Unfortunately, my time in San Sebastian began with a bit of a bang. I went to use the bathroom, and upon trying to exit the stall, realized I couldn’t open the door. I tried pushing, pulling, sliding, but nothing was working. It was funny at first, until I realized how many layers there were between me and the outside world. See, the stall was one room, in another room, in a glass hall that connected to the lobby. I realized if the exterior door had automatically locked as well, it might be nearly impossible for someone to hear me. Without my phone to call for help, I began to yell and pound on the walls and door. Do I attempt to kick down the door? If I succeed, am I responsible for the cost of repairing the door? Am I even strong enough to do that? What happens if I’m trapped for an extended period of time? Do I live off of toilet water? Luckily none of these ponderings came to fruition, as our bus driver Barry heard my yelling and banging and freed me after about ten minutes. But our tour guide confirmed some of my fears. She had literally been on the other side of the wall in the lobby and had not heard me at all. Thank goodness for Barry, but unfortunately I think from then on I was known to him as the girl who got locked in bathroom.
Luckily after this unfortunate incident we continued our exploration of San Sebastian, including checking out the nightlife, which featured absolutely stunning views by the water.
This continued the next day when a group of us took a cable car up to one of the nearby high points where you could see the whole city laid out below you. The area appeared to feature an amusement park, so a few people tried out a small roller coaster and flume ride (which included a strange interior portion with Disney characters).
We then grabbed lunch where I had a chance to try my first croquette. They’re similar to tater tots but with the size of a hush puppy, filled with warm mashed potato and small pieces of meat.
We then spent a fair amount of time relaxing at the beach. While the water was too cold to swim in, its picturesque beauty was breathtaking. We could just sit in the sand and contemplate the horizon. It was nice to slow down and take a breather from our travels. San Sebastian was easily the most beautiful place we visited during our tour.
After some peaceful relaxation and some goofing off where Becca and Maddie did some fun stretches, we did some more exploring around the beach. Probably the most interesting thing we found were some stairs to nowhere, that literally just dumped you into the sea. Were they more useful during low tide? Or had the landscape changed since they were made?
After returning to our hostel the bus took us to a place where we could find tapas characteristic of the area, known as pintxos. These resemble appetizers, and you can sample a few different types to get a feel for the cuisine in the area. Unfortunately portion sizes are much smaller in Spanish restaurants, and pintxos are rather expensive. However, we did find some relatively inexpensive gelato, which we ate while viewing a sunset over the water so breathtaking that it looked like it was taken straight from a painting.
The next day we continued our travels by bus, where even the views from the window were majestic.
We stopped by a town that I believe was called Zaragoza, which featured religious buildings with amazing architecture, clearly influenced by the historic Moors. As we continued our journey, we saw stunning views even from rest stops. We had Anne-Elyse and Barry’s meticulous planning to thank for this. They worked incredibly hard to improve all aspects of our experience, including travel that easily could have been boring, but instead gave us a feel for the countryside.
Upon reaching Barcelona we took another bus tour around the city to give us a taste of the sights and our options for activities the following day. We concluded this with a stop outside la Sagrada Familia, an unfinished church that has been in construction for over one hundred years. The architecture is something else. I described it as an ugly Christmas sweater personified. While this may seem harsh, those that actually visited the interior of the church said that it was absolutely incredible, and it sounds like it’s the work of a genius. The idea of the place is also fascinating, as the construction means each viewing is different.
In the evening we were taken to a flamenco dance and dinner. The food was amazing, as numerous plates of tapas and other dishes were placed before us. Meat, kabobs, pane con tomate, sangria, and more. One dish in particular apparently consisted of some form of eggplant, and I honestly never knew that eggplant could taste so good. Once again we mistook the feast of appetizers for the main course, and I could barely manage to even taste my beef stew and rice when it was presented to me.
Then the actual show began. An expert guitar player was accompanied by two singers who provided the live music for the dancing. There was such intensity and passion in the dances, with footwork that reminded me of Irish dancing and hand clapping and movements that reminded me of step teams. This was complimented by the serving of crema catalona, which is best described as a more liquid version of creme brulee.
We began our exploration of Barcelona the next day escorted by Anne-Elyse, who took us by a rather crowded metro to a few of the sights before dropping us off at La Boqueria, a huge historic market with fruits, meats, and fish of every variety. The members of our little group each grabbed a smoothie, before making our way to Park Guelle, a beautiful area with great views of the city. Unfortunately on the way up we were told that tickets for the day had already been sold out. Having hiked a fair distance we were determined to finish our quest to at least get pictures out front. Much to our surprise, a fair portion of the park was free, and it seemed that only the sculpture section (where it looked like construction was going on anyway) required payment. We meandered through surrounded by flowers of all different shapes and colors, palm trees, and wonderful views. We saw all sorts of fascinating sights, from a band playing a cover of Viva La Vida, to a headless street performer seemingly sitting on nothing.
A few of us then continued on to a cable car up to heights at the outskirts of the city where you could see all the buildings laid out below you and the Mediterranean in the distance. We could then walk down while taking in the beauty around us. We’ve become professionals at finding ways to hike in cities.
We passed by an Olympic stadium from the 90s, now essentially a monument for tourism.
We then made our way to the font magic, a fountain specifically created for the international exhibition, finding churros and drinking chocolate along the way, which we ate while giving our legs a break from the huge amount of walking we had completed (this was another 25,000+ step day for us).
As we took the metro performer back to our hostel, we were greeted by street performers who began playing music for the underground travelers.
This was our last night with our Contiki tour group, which we ended with karaoke and friends.
After saying our goodbyes the next morning, we headed to the airbnb that Becca, myself, and Maddie had booked for the night. The location was ideal, as it was much closer to the markets and sea than our previous hostel had been. We were able to spend a fair amount of time on La Rambla, the main shopping street. From there we were able to more thoroughly explore La Boqueria. It was so big that we got overwhelmed before reaching the end of it, but we exited with spectacular chocolate banana coconut smoothies.
After grabbing lunch we made our way to the beach, making a way along a pathway where either side featured a row of vendors selling all sorts of wares. The salesmanship continued at the beach, where a lady immediately offered me a massage, giving my shoulders a short demonstration. It was quite surprising, but I must admit she was good and I was half tempted.
We made our way to the shore, which was filled with the most diverse assortment of rocks, already smoothly polished from the sea.
After this we simply took a seat in the sand. Here we were, gazing at the Mediterranean Sea. It was hard to believe.
We took a stroll along the shore, where we discovered that we may have inadvertently been on a nude beach, as Becca and Maddie apparently saw a naked man. Whoops. We eventually headed back to town, and I picked up some drinking chocolate along the way.
For dinner we found an incredible deal for three tapas and paella. This was a true communal meal. Our paella was served in one giant dish that we all took portions from, we split our pina colada, and we even traded some of our tapas. From there we went back to the font magic in the hopes of seeing the famous light show. Unfortunately we had traveled in vain, as it we seemed to have missed it. However, it was nice to sit perched on a wall and just chat.
For our last day we slept in till around 9:30 (during the bus tour we had been accustomed to waking up in the 6 or 7 oclock hour) before heading to the fairy cafe recommended to us by Anne-Elyse. The interior resembled a forest filled with trees with faces, and occasional “thunderstorms” would roll through, complete with lightning.
From there we made our way to the remains of some ancient Roman columns (they really got around in their time) before making it back La Boqueria for two more smoothies. They were so rich and flavorful, and were probably the best smoothies I’ve ever had. Anything with coconut was absolutely amazing.
We then began our trip back to the U.K. We had allotted ourselves three and a half hours to get to our plane, but the metro ate up much more time than we had anticipated. This, coupled with an unbearably slow boarding pass line made for a stressful race against time (which was not a race at all because we were making such slow progress). Almost thankfully, our plane was delayed by French air strikes. But this posed another problem, as we had ordered bus tickets in advance to get us back from our UK airport to Bath. Luckily we had built in over an hour buffer to account for travel delays such as this. Even so it was tight, and we arrived at the airport with only 20 minutes to spare, and still had to have our non-EU passports checked. Thankfully we encountered very nice border control officers who allowed us to proceed to the front of the line in order to catch our bus back home.
I didn’t know what to expect with Spain. As someone who had taken French, I knew very little about the culture, language, or landscape. But the experience was incredible. Compared to England, the weather was practically balmy. Aspects of our trip resembled a beach vacation, yet we were only in March/April. The food was so delicious (I am now a huge fan of croquettes), and I loved the communal approach to meals. The experience of being in a situation where I didn’t speak any of the native language was also very informing. We largely relied on Maddie’s high school and college Spanish classes to navigate us through the country. I ultimately came back to the U.K. refreshed with a new perspective on travel and culture.