The Best Bites from the Devour Barcelona Tour

Food in Barcelona has always made me skeptical, despite a rich culinary history and the production of several globally recognized chefs. I’ve been to La Ciutat Comptal half a dozen times, but couldn’t recall being impressed by much, save a seafood paella in Barceloneta before I’d tried the real thing.

The Best Part on the Barcelona Food Tour

So I left it up to the experts – my friends at Devour Barcelona Food Tour. I’d taken their pilot tour in Madrid and knew that founders Lauren, Alejandro and James appreciated not just the food itself, but the person behind the dishes, making the tour a perfect mix of cultural, gastronomical and historical.

Renée met us on a blustery January morning on Passeig de Gràcia. Like me, she’d left the US for a year but found herself in Spain years later. Being the force behind Devour Barcelona is her dream job. She immediately gave us a hand out that detailed what we’d be eating on the four-hour tour, but I preferred to be surprised.

walking tours in Spain

The tour seemed to get off to a slow start. Apart from walking about ten minutes towards the Grácia neighborhood, we began with a pastry. Admittedly delicious, it didn’t tell me much about Spanish cuisine, much less Catalan. And once we reached Gràcia, a neighborhood that feels like a small city itself, our trip to the market yielded two more Spanish staples. 

We hit the 10am mark and Gràcia began to wake up – and we got a real taste for Catalan gastronomy.

Botifarra sausage sandwich with cava

Bar Pagés welcomed us into a shabby chic bar with round wooden tables, comfortable arm chairs and a smashing wine selection. The family behind Casa Pagés, a family restaurant in the same neighborhood, opened this smaller snack bar, which looks like the hybrid of a wine bar and coffee shop.

barcelona cava

Renée told us about cava, the “confused cousin” of champagne. Made mostly in the Penedès region of Catalonia, cava uses grapes native to Spain like Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada. And the reason it’s so cheap? Cava is the region is largely produced by machines! And it’s also a standard morning drink, the way anisette is in Andalucía, so bubbly for breakfast didn’t feel strange.

butifarra and cava on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

After we’d been poured a glass and toast, our second breakfast was served: a simple botifarra sausage sandwich with roasted green pepper and crushed tomatoes. Simple, hearty and crazy delicious. 

Bomba de Barcelona and Pam amb Tomaquet at La Anxoveta

Like many, Carlos and his wife found themselves out of work when the crisis hit. They decided to take over a neighborhood bar called La Anxoveta and breathe life into catalan cuisine staples. Here we’d be sampling two more heavyweights of local gastronomy: pa amb tomàquet and bomba de Barcelona.

Carlos came out with his hands practically talking for him as he rattled off questions to us. He explained the pa amb tomàquet as Renée translated that this simple dish that was once a poor man’s breakfast has become one of the region’s most beloved foods. He cut two slices of pan de cristal, a thin, rustic piece of bread, then showed us how to add the tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt so we could do it on our own.

Next out came the bomba, one of Barcelona’s signature tapas. Born out of a bored cook with a revolutionary streak, María Pla invented the bomba in the 20s as a response to the anarchist violence playing out in the street. The weapon of choice was a cast iron ball with explosives inside that had to be lit with a fuse. Pla’s neighborhood of Barceloneta was a hotbed of activity, and her playful take on food and history has endured.

Bomba de Barcelona Madrid Food Tour

Renée claims the bomba at La Anxoveta is the best in the city – it’s like a glorified croqueta with potato and ground beef, sitting on a bed of spicy tomato sauce and topped with a garlicky alioli sauce. In short, perfect!

Almond pastry at Syrian bakery Príncipe

barcelona storefront

Our walk continued through Gràcia. This part of the city was once a separate village and home to holiday villas; with the industrial revolution, the city’s population surged, and L’Eixample was born. Gràcia was swallowed up by the city, but the barri is like a whole different city surrounded by a city, much like my Triana. 

Gràcia has also opened its arms to foreigners, both domestic and international, and the streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, snack bars and pastry shops with international fare. Mustafa is one of Gràcia’s business owners, a Syrian national who came to Barcelona on holiday and decided to set up shop. He was a man who spoke very little on his visit, but I left wanted to give him a hug.

Baklava in Barcelona

Mustafa’s pastry shops is simple – it is clean, smells faintly of honey and offers only the Syrian pastries to patrons and to Middle Eastern restaurants around the city. We could choose one, and given how perfect each one of them looked, it wasn’t easy. I watched as the other four chose chocolate or honey confections, but I took a small one with almond. Growing up across the street from a Greek family, I’d loved baklava from a young age, and the almonds coated in honey and the flaky pastry layers had me back on Silverthorn Drive.

Vermouth at C’al Pepe with boquerones en vinagre

It’s almost inevitable – at 1pm on a Saturday, my body needs a cerveza. When Renée suggested going for a drink in the sun-drenched Plaza de la Virreina, I knew she’d take us somewhere great. Up the hill towards Gràcia, she confessed that finding C’al Pepe – or Joe’s House – was a totally lucky find. 

Vermout bar on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

Catherine and I were psyched – Joe’s Place is the de facto Old Man Bar of our college town – and C’al Pep did not disappoint. There was no bar, no menu, no other guiris in sight. Rafa had taken over from the original Pep and strove to maintain the bar’s ambience. It truly had the hallmarks of an old man bar: old vermouth posters hung on the walls, yellowing at the edges. Siphones and old Westerns on the TV. We even had the requisite Spanish abuelos at the end of our table.

Devour Barcelona food tour

We were served a glass of sweet vermouth with fuet sausage and pickled anchovies. Between the bar, the company and the snacks, I had fallen in love with Cal’s bar, Gràcia and perhaps even softened my hard feelings for Barcelona’s food scene. 

After one last dessert and a coffee, we did as the Spaniards did – lay down for a nap and let the food coma pass.

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Devour Spain food tours graciously let me chow down for free, but all opinions and calories consumed are my own! I also invited Catherine along as part of the Typical NonSpanish program with Caser Expat.

Have you ever eaten well in Barcelona? Check out my other recommendations for food and a chance to win an eBook from Eat Guides Barcelona!

Where to Eat in Barcelona and Not Be Ripped Off, Disappointed or Still Hungry

To say that Barcelona (as a city) underwhelms me is an understatement. And its food? Ugh, I don’t even want to go there. In my half a dozen previous trips to Catalonia, a place renowned for being avant garde – in food and otherwise – I’d never really had a decent food experience. From the overpriced paella on Las Ramblas to reheated pintxos in El Born, I was decebut.

tapas in barcelona

That’s where Eat Guides came in. Written by Regina Winkle-Bryan, an transplant from foodie haven Portland to the Ciudad Condal, and Adrián Benítez Martos, a born and bred barcelonés, did my homework for me. I was thrilled to have Reg send me a copy of the ebook she and Adri had penned to help tourists like me understand catalan cuisine and where to find it.

Using my hotel near La Rambla and the Boquería as a starting point, I had a few hours to kill before meeting a friend and wanted to dive headfirst into real catalan cuisine. The 123-paged book lists food joints by both neighborhood and proximity to big sites, but I was interested in seeing if there was real food amidst the tourist traps in the old city. My rules – I had to be able to reach it on foot, wouldn’t order from a menu translated into English and would try four places over the course of the day.

Granja La Pallaresa

I had already zeroed in on my first stop of the day before touching down in Barcelona. After taking the first flight out in the morning, I was starving by the time I checked into the hotel, so I quickly dropped my bags and walked into the Barri Gòtic. Granja La Pallaresa as literally 30 meters off Las Ramblas, but you would have never known.

Pastry shop in Barcelona

La pallaresa Bakery

ensaimada pastries

This is lo mío: Castillian and catalan blended into one incomprehensible buzz in the wood-paneled bar manned by a portly woman and her husband, who sported a black satin bow tie. I didn’t ask to see a menu, but ordered what Regina suggested: an ensaimada pastry and a cup of French chocolate.

I watched as the other patrons read newspapers in catalan and picked at their churros. My flaky ensaimada arrived with so much powdeed sugar that it left a ring on the table as I paid my 4,15€ and drank down the chocolate.

Carrer Petrixol, 11. Open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 1pm and 4pm to 9pm, and Sundays from 9am to 1pm and 5pm to 9pm.

Bodega

When Catherine and I went to Barcelona a decade ago, we stayed in El Raval. It’s gritty, it’s long been considered seedy and unsafe, and it’s full of old man bars.

I wanted to take the long way to my next stop, but the long way meant passing a whole slew of old man bars, and I always get sucked into them. Just two blocks down, I found that these so-called ‘bodegas’ are staples in working neighborhoods. Much more than just a bar, the bodegas also sell drinks and snacks, as well as canned goods, and locals have their preferred place. I ordered a vemouth at 1,85€, which came with four mussels. 

Vermouth Bodegas in Barcelona

This place was one of the good ones – there was no bar, just coolers in its place. No dishwasher. No cell service. Two adorable grandpas who called the wairess nena. Rock FM on the stereo. Everyone in the neighborhood in the time it took me to drink a vermouth and scribble down some notes on pieces of paper I’d hastily ripped out of a notebook. A woman walked in with a crumpled water bottle and contemplated the taps on the wall. “Pues, moscatel quiero hoy.”

I took Catherine back the next day.

Carrer del Pintor Fortuny, 26. Open daily, though I could never tell you when.

Cervecería Moritz

I knew Barcelona produced Estrella Damm beer, but Moritz is served on tap at many bars in the region. Its namesake was the brewery’s founder, Louis Moritz. Barcelona has long been a haven for foreigners, and Moritz left his native France for the ciudad condal in the 1850s, setting up a small brewery in El Raval.

Cerveceria Moritz

Moritz Beer Barcelona

visiting Cerveceria Moritz in Barcelona

More than 160 years later, Moritz is the only beer in the world whose marketing is done entirely in Catalan, and their swanky headquarters is part museum, part brewery and part gastrobar. Though beer is no longer mass-produced on Ronda Sant Antoni, they do serve two types of unpasteurized beer that’s been made in-house. I had two – one of each flavor – for 3,80€.

Ronda de Sant Antoni, 41 (Universitat or Sant Antoni). Open daily from noon to 2am. Accepts credit cards.

Onofre

My hunger had sometime dissipated by the time I got to Onofre, a tapas bar located just inside the Barri Gótic’s old city walls. Part restaurant, part wine shop, I was actually asked to get up from my seat when a patron wanted to snag a bottle of wine from right behind me. The place felt intimate – there was another lone diner and a group of business people chatting quietly at a table in the corner.

Provolone tapa

Without thinking much, I blindly ordered the menú del día without even checking out the tapas menu. As Adri points out in Eat Guides, quality tapas bars in the center of town are hard to come by, but Onofre does regional tapas and does them well. The menu featured three dishes: a creamy lentil purée, over-roasted provolone with red berries and a spicy carnitas burrito, followed up with a slice of cake. Overall, they were probably the best tapas I’ve had in Barcelona, but nothing terribly special. The four dishes and a beer cost 10,75€.

Carrer de Magdalen, 19 (Jaume I). Open Monday to Saturday from 10am – 5pm and 7:30pm – midnight.

The Take Away

Good food isn’t completely absent of the Barcelona cuisine scene, though you have to know where to look. Any place on the Ramblas and Barri Gòtic (as well as near a touristic monument) is more or less off-limits, though Gràcia, Poblesec and Poblenou are said to be up-and-coming gastronomic hot spots.

Using what I’d read in Eat Guides, Saturday night would be a time to venture out on our own and see if we could find something good. We headed to Sant Antoni on foot to see the neighborhood’s Correfoc, a rain of sparks and firecrackers in the street. Even after a food tour in the morning, we were stuffed. 

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Casa Lucio spilled light onto the dark street. The place felt like a cave, with a small bar, seating downstairs and racks of wine on the wall. We ordered a few glass of Habla del Silencio and asked to see a menu. But there was none, so Lucio, a moody old dog with glasses and a thick white beard, listed what they had orally. The only other person who spoke English in the whole place was the waiter, Patrick.We ordered more than our fill, mainly pintxos of meats and cheeses, as well as a bottle of wine to take with us, for around 60€. 

Carrer de Vildomat, 59. Open for lunch and dinner.

Eat Guides Barcelona

Having shared a meal with Regina as part of the Spain Scoop team, I knew that eats are important to her. It’s no surprise, then, that the Eat Guides ebook is a fun read and more than just a guide on where to eat – each listing has anecdotes, recommendations on what to order and drink from both vegetarian Regina and her carnivore co-author, plus a rough estimate on price for a meal for two.

Eat-Guides-Cover-Barcelona-2014

The guide is also easy to use – there are numbered maps, guides by type of food and neighborhood, as well as a handy translation guide to catalan words that a Castillian speaker likely doesn’t know. And then, of course, there are plenty of listings for watering holes, along with tips for markets and gastro-themed side trips. If you like to eat, this book is a multi-course meal, served simply but that will leave you stuffed.

Regina and Adri are happy to give away one copy of Eat Guides to a SandS reader. If you’re planning a trip to Barcelona in the near future, this guide should be packed (digitally) in your carry-on!

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And if you don’t win, the guide is $4.99 on Amazon, iBooks and Google Play – a small price to pay for a big guide!

One winner will be notified by email on or after February 6th. 

One thing you absolutely must do: tell me your favorite Spanish dish – catalan or otherwise!

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Cataluña

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collage

Ask any American if he or she has traveled to Spain. If you receive a positive response, it’s highly likely that that person has only been to Barcelona. Thanks to a large international airport, it seems to be on every European itinerary, and its parties and politics have made it a European capital of cool.

In case you didn’t know, I’m not a fan of Barcelona, its capital city. But, at the time I’m writing, Cataluña is still part of Spain and deserves a spot in this Autonomous Communities project. Love it or not, Catalonia is in the news and reaches far beyond Barcelona, from the cradle of catalán in the Val de Aran and the Roman ruins at Tarragona to the whitewashed coastal villages and mountaintop monasteries bordering the Pyrenees – and visiting Barcelona should include visiting Catalonia

Name: Cataluña, or Catalunya in local tongue.

Population: 7.5 million (roughly 16% of Spain’s population)

catalonia

Provinces: Four; Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona

When: July 2005, 7th of 17

About Cataluña: Cataluña boasts a large and diverse population, mostly thanks to economic factors and a degree of  stubbornness.

Given its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea, it had been populated by Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians before forming part of the Holy Roman Empire. Traces of this culture are still present in Tarracó, in present-day Tarragona. The region was wrestled between Visigoths and Muslims, and then came under the power of the Frankish Empire after the battle of Roussillon. 

The Monastery of Monserrat

This change of events would be the origin of Catalonia.

At the end of the 10th Century, Wilifred the Hairy, then count of Barcelona, refused to recognize the king as his own, effectively making all of his successors free from being ruled over. The 1258 Treaty of Corbeil saw the count, along with those of Mallorca, Valencia and Aragón, declare the King of France as their ruler, though the king formally renounced this, and the Crown of Aragón was put in charge of the coastal zone.

Even with the advent of the Catholic Kings’s marriage and the union of the Castillian and Aragonese Crown, Catalonia was able to rule under its own constitution, and a large part of the battle for secession can be pinned on this. Increased tension between the Spanish Crown and Catalonia, the outcome of the Treaty of Utrecht and an industrial boom – which brought workers from all over Spain and Europe – caused the rift to deepen.

catalan flags independence barcelona

After the Second Republic and Francisco Franco’s rise to power in 1939, all catalonian symbols were banned, including language, in an attempt to stifle independence and promote Spain as a unified front after a devastating civil war. It wasn’t until the 1978 Constitution that catalanes recovered some of their political, economical and cultural power. To this day, the question about splitting from Spain is plastered all over the news and spearheaded by the Generalitat president, Artur Mas. A recent referendum was deemed a success by Mas, but a huge failure by mainstream media, as a small number of voters turned out.

Cataluña is petitioning to become a fully-fledged member state under the European Union, though the central Spanish government has quashed any official referendum voting rights.

This post is not about whether or not Cataluña should separate from Spain. I think you can imagine where I stand on the subject, though I ask that you be respectful in comments below.

Must-sees: Nestled between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, the region offers everything from ski to surf, and it’s a colorful place with deep-rooted tradition.

parc guell barcelona5

Your trip will likely include Barecelona, the bustling Catalan capital city known for Gaudí and the 1992 Olympics. On my first visit to the city as a study abroad student, I found a region so unlike Castilla or Andalucía, that it had me wondering if I was still in Spain or not.

Haha, I guess that’s the point.

parc guell barcelona8

In Barcelona, don’t miss the colorful markets and neighborhoods – I loved Gràcia and El Born – , Gaudí highlights like the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell, or the views from Tibidaboo or Montjüíc. Walk the wide avenues and tuck into funky boutiques and hole-in-the-wall bars. Like Madrid, Barcelona is as old school as it is avant-garde.

While I’m not head-over-heels for the cosmopolitan capital, I really do think the region offers many bright spots.

daytrips barcelona

To start with, catalán cuisine is often touted as being one of the best in Europe, thanks to renowned chefs like Fernan Adrià and the Hermanos Can Roca and several Michelin stars. Fuet is a delicious hard, boiled sausage, and springtime brings grilled shallots with romescu sauce. The region is also home to several protected wine regions, as well as Spanish champagne, called cava

Starting from north to South, the Pyrenees are home to several ski resorts, charming villages and monasteries, while the coastal villages on the Costa Dorada like Cadaqués and Tossa del Mar are said to be breathtaking. Apart from Barcelona’s many museums and cultural significance, Tarragona hosts Roman ruins and several wine regions produce whites and sparkling champagne.

My take: Is Barcelona worth a visit? Absolutely. I am in the minority by admitting that the city does very little for me, even though I go gaga when I see Gaudí and love Joan Miró, have read the book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ multiple times and am proud to have a degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. 

Spanish abuelos in Barcelona

Eso, sí, but be aware that Barcelona is one of Europe’s most-visited cities, so you’ll be rubbing elbows with tons of other tourists from around the world. This makes Barcelona what it is – about as much of a melting pot as Spain gets – but means that prices are higher, on the whole, and that pick pockets abound. Yes, this happens in other cities in Spain, as well,  but I’ve felt less secure in Barcelona than anywhere else.

If you have the chance, visit the jaw-dropping Monserrat monastery via cable car and cafe-hop in Girona. Take in the small fishing villages and drink cava or white wine in Penedès. Hike in Montseny and the Pyrenees. There is a wealth of small villages

Just don’t make it all about Barcelona!

Have you ever been to Cataluña? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha

Top Tips for Visiting Catalonia

Catalonia is without a doubt one of Spain’s most beautiful regions, home to the splendid Pyrenees mountain range, striking medieval villages, breathtaking scenery and of course vibrant and culturally rich cities such as Barcelona, Girona, and Tarragona. With this in mind, here are some top tips to help you make up your mind whilst visiting this delightful Spanish region.

Visit the city of Barcelona


When visiting Catalonia a visit to Spain’s second largest city is a must. You will have the chance to explore this visually stunning and incredibly exciting city, admire Gaudi’s impressive architecture and enjoy attractions such as Montjuïc’s Magic Fountain and Port Vell. Spend a few days here to truly experience the vibe of the city, you will be able to find your room in Barcelona through this page.

Admire the Costa Brava


The beautiful Costa Brava begins in Blanes and stretches for miles on end before reaching the French Coast. Visitors are able to explore quaint Catalan villages such as Begur and Tossa del Mar before taking a dip in the crystal clear waters or relaxing on the beach. The Costa Brava is also lined by delightful restaurants and bars making it a wonderful place to enjoy a little Spanish nightlife.

Explore medieval Montblanc

Montblanc is located in the Catalan region just one hour’s drive from the city of Barcelona. Legend tells that it was here where St. Jordi killed the ferocious dragon back in the medieval times. The medieval village itself is well worth a visit due to its spectacular ancient defences, splendid architecture, colourful past and extraordinary Catalan panoramas.

Marvel at Tarragona’s Poblet Monastery


If you are passionate about architecture you will almost certainly want to visit Bargués’ fabulous monastery. The monastery has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for more than two decades and attracts a staggering number of visitors each year. This is one of Spain’s most historically significant buildings as it was once the royal pantheon of the almighty kings of Aragón.

Discover the Delta de l’Ebre


This spectacular nature reserve is also home to Spain’s rice growing plantations. If you are a keen bird watcher you will be delighted to admire the region’s many migratory species from the specially constructed birding stations. Nearby visitors are able to visit a number of museums dedicated to the Battle of the Ebro, the longest battle of the dramatic Spanish Civil War.

Catalonia not only boasts awe-inspiring architecture, natural beauty and a fascinating history, but this Spanish region is also celebrated for its divine cuisine, exquisite shopping and vivacious nightlife meaning that there really is something for everybody!

Check back in a few months when I delve even deeper into Cataluña (a region I really like, despite not clicking with Barcelona) as a part of my 17 Spanish Regions series! For the first two installments, click here.

What are your top tips for Catalonia? Looking to learn Spanish in Barcelona? Contact me!

My Travel Round Up from the First Six Months of 2013

My parents, upon my high school graduation (10 years ago…thank you, Atlantic Ocean, for existing and putting distance between me and my fellow Tigers just this once!) gave me a heartfelt speech about how I was always the child who never learned how to walk. I went from spitting up on myself to running, just like I went from college to globetrotter four years later.

There was no better way to start my year than ringing in 2013 with my familia and cousin Christyn in Puerta del Sol. The first six months of the year have been busy (but the good kind), fruitful and happy. I’ve been able to sneak in some travel, my 30th country and finish a master’s in the process.

January

After a trip to Barcelona with my parents and taking various day trips around Catalonia, I returned to work absolutely pooped and with zero ganas to move forward. The chilly weather and the extra responsibility of becoming a training Director of Studies was a lot of work, but the great people at Almohalla 51, Myles and David, allowed Hayley and I to come stay with them at their newly-opened boutique hotel in Archidona.

I also looked forward to having the Novio home from his duty abroad. As a late anniversary present, I took him to eat our way through Florence and Bologna. In between bites, we checked out the sites along the Arno, drank copious amounts of espresso and Moretti beer and befriended a Venetian named Peppino. Buona manggia, sí señor!

February

February was quiet, though Angela and Ryan of Jets Like Taxis joined me on a colorful trip to Cordoba. I chalk it up to being a short month.

March

As the trimester wound down, I began to get geared up for my Semana Santa trip to Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Hayley, my Spanish media naranja, and I walked the impressive city walls in Dubrovnik while refueling on cevapi, a spiced sausage sandwich and drinking in the views and local beers at Buza Bar (despite its obnoxious advertising).

After a few days in the Pearl of the Adriatic, we took a bus across the border to Montenegro, which was my 30th country. While  the weather wasn’t stellar, we were charmed by Europe’s youngest country. The friendly people, the free wi-fi and the views of our roadtrip around the Bay of Kotor made for a rejuvenating week.

April

April showers seemed to have brought Feria heat – we sweated right through our flamenco dresses, and I think my right bicep is now twice as large as its twin from all of that fan flicking. I even broke some of my own rules when it came to stalking around the Real!

Just the week before, I had gone up to Madrid (if only I had a euro for every maldito trip I’ve made to la Capital…) to visit my sister-in-law, Nathàlia, and pick up my new car, Pequeño Monty. Nath is Brasilian but did her degree in Alcalá de Henares, city of Miguel de Cervantes fame, so she showed me around her town known for its university and free tapas.

May

Luckily for this guiri, the usual May weather was nowhere to be found, so we got some respite from the heat. Meg and I drank rebujito at the Feria de Jerez, a lite version of Sevile’s famous fête where you don’t get trampled by horses, and we bounced between a Mexican-themed caseta and a biker bar. Toto, We’re not in Sevilla anymore. The following day, I continued the fiesta in the Novio’s village at their Romeria de San Diego, a booze-soaked picnic in the middle of the dehesa.

A week later, I attended my first blog trip to Calpe, a small fishing village that has capitalized on the tourism boom from nearby Benidorm. Despite the hotels popping up along the beach, Calpe is laid-back yet bursting with energy. We were treated to tons of water-related activities, including paddle surfing and betting on our lunch at the Lonja de Pescado.

June

During the first weekend of June, I had to make a trip to Madrid for mandatory camp meetings and Camino dealings. I met with Pablo, Fernando and Alex of Caser Expat Insurance, who are helping me make my Camino For the Kids a reality. I even got my feet checked out by the team at Podoactiva, the same people who outfit professional athletes with their shoes.

The Novio and I snuck in a day at the beach, and my mom came to stay for a week in the last sweltering week of June. I was extremely busy with my master’s and preparing for summer camp. Apart from showing her my favorite restaurants and rincones of Seville, we also made it to Jerez to see the horse show, to Doñana for a horse ride through Mazagón, and San Nicolás del Puerto, where she got to meet the Novio’s mother and ride their prized mare, Orgiva.

I am happy to say that I have very few travel plans at the moment for the second half of the year, save slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina with Kelly in August and Oktoberfest with my cousins in late September – I need a break after a year of turning my blog into a business, completing a master’s in a second language and starting a new job. Sunshine? Yes. Siesta? POR FAVOR. 

Don’t forget that I’ll be back at camp in July, and then walking close to 320km to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer patients back home on the Camino de Santiago. Please follow #CaminoFTK on twitter or instagram for more information. Sunshine and Siestas is also accepting guest posts during this time, so please send your stories and photos from Spain!

What were your travel highlights of the first six months of the year?

Three Great Day Trips from Barcelona

I’ve said recently that I don’t like Barcelona (and it sparked a big debate on my blog and Facebook page. Turns out even people who love the city think it has a dark side and that its people can be unfriendly at first, though many were shocked with my confession). So when my parents suggested it as our Christmas travel destination, I was initially disappointed, but figured a seven-night stay would guarantee we’d use Barcino as a springboard into a region that many other bloggers tout as gorgeous and cultural.

Thankfully, Barcelona is capital to a region with multiple encantos, even if I’m not a fan of its capital city or politics. During our stay, we were able to break out of the city thrice, discovering the beauty of Catalonia in its interior.

Montserrat

Upon my family’s last visit to Spain in 2007, the holidays presented us with the problem of what to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hiked a mountain, attended mass in English (Thank you, Costa del Sol and your guiri enclaves!) and had dinner at the hotel. This year, we were in a heavily touristed area, but had three days of festivals to counter.

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”? We became Creasters cum Holy Rollers on the day of Jesus Christ’s birth by driving to the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in the mountains of the same name.

My mom and I made the last cable car for the day and were its only occupants, affording unparalleled vistas of the strange mountain range that the monastery and its various hermitages can be found in – it jutted up from the plains like an upside-down saw. My dad and sister drove the car up, snaking through alien rock formations and curbside offerings. Because it was Christmas, the parking was free, but the cable car ran my mother 6€ and me 5€ with a carnet joven.

The monastery, apart from its surroundings, is also known as the home of the Montserrat virgin, whose face is black, earning her the local nickname of La Moreneta. The place was crawling with tourists, similar to my experiences at Covadonga and Santiago de Compostela, but we were in for a treat: the all-boys choir, L’Escolonia, would be singing at the noon mass.

The whole place was opulent, lined in limestone with marble floors, statues of saints and an impressive art museum. I could barely see anything but on my tiptoes once inside the church, but the slight breeze and commanding views of the area were all I needed to consider myself holy on that day.

If you go: Montserrat can be reached by car, bus or train from central Barcelona. I used this page to plan our trip. The basilica itself was free, and many pilgrims choose to bring picnic lunches and enjoy the views, rather than picking over sandwiches in the cafeteria.

Girona and Besalu

For ages, Girona to me was little more than a Ryanair hub with a direct flight from Seville. On my way back from Karnaval in Cologne, Germany a few years back, I had a seven-hour layover. Not willing to sit in an airport, I hopped a bus to the city about an hour north of Barcelona and explored it on a sleepy Sunday.

It surprised me, quite honestly. Humbling beautiful, historic and lively – even on a Sunday!

I told my parents it was a must-see, and my dad’s love of medieval architecture (c’mon, we’re American and never see old stuff like Jewish ghettos or castle ruins) made a trip to nearby Besalú to see the famous stone bridge. The town is teeny, cut through with cobblestone medieval roads and small, family-run shops.

We stopped in the tourism office, which was open but unmanned, and found that practically all roads led to the river Fluvià and the magnificent bridge. Many of the people we met told us that they were from elsewhere in Spain and had fallen under the charm of its Romanesque streets and history.

Girona was a quick drive away, and I remembered the city well – the soaring spires of the churches, the cobblestones under our feet, the street life. The clear day shone over the city perched along a river and its bright buildings, and merchants reopened after a few sleepy, glutton-filled days. We stopped for cupcakes on the main shopping street, beers in sun-drenched plazas, pintxo moruno in a bustling restaurant. Sadly, the smack-in-the-face Independence flags and signs got in the way of the beautiful buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

Even a horrible tummyache (I later got sick) couldn’t prevent my sweettooth from getting the best of me. I took my parents to Rocambolesc, the brainchild of the Hermanos Roca, famous Catalan chefs. The whimsical interior of the small place, which is a Catalan word for fantastical, was something like out of Willy Wonka, from a wall display of the six types of ice cream, a cotton candy machine and pinstripes.

I have to say that the hype, much like Barcelona’s, didn’t live up to my expectations. I let the attentive and sweet (ha!) shopkeeper chose baked apple ice cream with butter cookie crumbles and sweet apples, but could barely plow through half of it – it wasn’t sweet or even that tasteful! I agonized over the orange sherbet the guy parked on the bench next to me.

If you go: Girona and Besalu can be reached by car or bus from Barcelona, though there is a toll on the C-33. Rocambolesc is right near the red iron Eiffel bridge (Santa Clara, 50). The walk along the ramparts above the city are also not to be missed.

Andorra

This miniscule principality wedged in between mountain peaks of the Pyrenees range separating Spain from France welcomed me with a text message from my phone company. If Vodafone thinks it’s another country, it is in my book, too.

We snaked our rental car up through the Montseny and Costa Brava area of Catalonia before reaching the border. The signs were only in Catalan, but from the looks of it, we’d need to take just one road into the small country’s capital, Andorra la Vella. Upon parking, I felt like we were in a glamorous ski town – all mountains, clear skies and ski bunnies bustling up and down the city’s main shopping streets. Christmas sales had already begun, so we took our time browsing duty-free stores and brand name shops.

The day was leisurely, with the only hiccups being stops for a coffee or lunch. The city doesn’t offer much by way of culture, and our tour of the historic part of town – stretching back 800 years – took a mere five minutes. The tourism office claimed that hot springs, ski resorts and outdoor activities keep the country’s economy afloat, but I have a feeling it’s tax-free cigarettes and perfume.

Andorra is a three-hour car trip from Barcelona, or a four-hour bus journey via ALSA bus lines. Part of the highway has tolls. Don’t miss the breathtaking mountain views and the duty free shops!

Have you ever taken any day trips outside of Barcelona? Where do you recommend visiting?

If you’re looking for a guided tour or discount tickets for attractions, check out TicketBar. Or if you’d like to take a Spanish course while in Barcelona, I’ve got top tips and language schools – get in touch!

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