Autonomous Community Spotlight: Cantabria

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.

When I sat down to write this month’s post about Cantabria, I didn’t feel inspired. I made it a point to get to Northern Spain one summer between summer camp in Galicia and summer camp in Castilla-La Mancha, but my trip left me far less than impressed. In fact, I called a post ‘Santandisappointed.’ Looking back, it may have been the crowds, it may have been traveling alone, it may have been my timing.

That’s why I’m offering the floor to my friend Liz Ferry, who has not only studied in the capital of Cantabria, but has also work their as an auxiliar. In fact, she loves the region so much, she left Andalucía to head back to a place where surf and turf exist together.

Cantabria and I go way back – back to the American crisis of 2008, when I studied abroad in Santander, Cantabria, and literally spent every penny I had, thanks to the exchange rate at the time. But apart from losing all my money, I fell in love for the first time in my life, and it was with a place. I later moved here in 2011, and with the exception of a one-year fling with Seville, I have stayed here ever since.

This tiny region is often considered by other Spaniards as cold, rainy, windy, and full of boring, sosa people. Our semi-Irish winters, however, make for an incredible landscape, with views of the Bay of Biscay, the Cantabrian Mountains, and the Picos de Europa.

 

 

 

 
Name: Cantabria

Population: 592,000

Provinces: Only one (Cantabria), but there are 10 comarcas: Asón-Agüera, Besaya, Campoo-Los Valles, Costa Occidental, Costa Oriental, Liébana, Saja-Nansa, Santander, Trasmiera, and Valles Pasiegos

When: May 2008 (Cat: 14/17, August 2010)

About Cantabria: Cantabria is a little-known region of Spain, which climate and landscape-wise is more similar to Ireland than it is to the interior and south of Spain. It’s known for its cold, rainy, and windy winters, and its mild summers, in which we hope to get enough good beach days to enjoy all the hidden corners of the region. Cantabria is also a Celtic region – along with Asturias, it was one of the last regions to hold off the Roman Empire from invasion.

Must-sees: The capital, Santander, is a small city of about 180,000 people. It’s home to one of the vacation palaces of the royal family, the Palacio de la Magdalena. There are great walking paths on the grounds of the palace that offer some of the city’s best views. From the palace, continue to the Sardinero beaches, Santander’s famed beaches that offer lots of activities nearby, such as a luxury casino. Continue walking along the coast to arrive at the cliffs, Cabo Menor and Cabo Mayor. Cabo Mayor is home to the main lighthouse, and provides the city’s best sunset views.

Santander also holds a Semana Grande festival every summer, the week leading up to the Day of St. James (July 25). The atmosphere of the city does a 180 – people are eating pinchos and drinking wine or cañas in the streets and at casetas, and there are free (and not-free concerts) every day, tons of activities for people of all ages, fireworks over the sea, bullfights, and typical fair rides.

For seaside enthusiasts who prefer a quieter scene, Cantabria is full of beautiful, natural beaches and coves. San Vicente is a fishing village with sea and mountain views, and the beautiful Playa de Oyambre is right next door. Suances is a tourist hot-spot in summer, with its plentiful beaches and mountainous landscape (it’s also where I work!). Liencres is my personal favorite, home to the Dunes of Liencres and a hidden, rocky cove beach called Portio. Castro Urdiales is a popular beach town near the border of País Vasco, which makes for a quick commute to Bilbao for a night on the town.

For mountain lovers, Potes is a must, with its cobblestone streets, cider, and proximity to the Picos de Europa. Fuente Dé is nearby, where you can catch a cable car into the Picos de Europa. San Roque de Riomiera, further off to the east, has breathtaking mountain views, as does Vega de Pas, a small town in the Valles Pasiegos.

For a historical visit, head to Santillana del Mar, the town of the three lies (if you break apart it’s name in Spanish, it means Holy Flat Land of the Sea, but it’s not holy, it’s not flat, and it isn’t on the sea). This well-preserved medieval village has become quite touristy, but for good reason – it’s like you walked into the Middle Ages. The famous Altamira caves are nearby, although most people are only allowed to see the replicas. For other caves with cave drawings (that are even older than those of Altamira), go to Puente Viesgo, a small village also famous for its churros con chocolate.

No Cantabrian experience is complete without a gastronomic tour. Cantabria is famous for its seafood and fish. Fresh-caught fish and seafood from the rough waters of the Bay of Biscay are served up daily throughout the region. Santander even has a whole barrio full of such restaurants, the Barrio Pesquero, where you can get a menu del día for 12 euros. Foods specific to Cantabria include cocido montañés, a typical bean dish, sobaos, a light breakfast pastry, and quesada, a cold, dairy-based dessert. After a weekend lunch, you can see scores of cántabros taking a shot of orujo, a liquor made in Cantabria.

My take: I’ll take an Irish-like winter any day in order to have the beautiful green views intertwined with the Bay of Biscay. If you’re lucky enough to see Cantabria on a sunny day, you too will fall in love. While we do prefer to keep it relatively unknown and to ourselves, I am proud to boast about my tierra Cantabria. Once a Yankee, always a Yankee.

Have you been to Cantabria? What are your thoughts? Check back at the beginning of October for the next installment, Castilla y León.

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias 

Autonomous Community Spotlight: The Principality of Asturias

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to 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 spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

Asturias and I have a special relationship – the Novio’s mother was born in Pola do Siero, making him as asturiano as he is andaluz. By the time we made the long drive to Asturias during my spring break in 2009, I was already in love with the region nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the Picos de Europa.

The small region is one of Spain’s wettest and, in my opinion, its most naturally beautiful, and the only autonomía considered a principality. Asturies, as its called in the local gable language, was also the starting point of my Camino de Santiago – Hayley and I walked from the industrial port of Avilés.

And it goes without mention that I love fabada and cidra.

Name: Asturias

Population: 1 million

Provinces: Just one, though Asturias has eight comarcas: Avilés, Caudal, Eo-Navia, Gijón, Nalón, Narcea, Oriente and Oviedo.

When: 12th of 17 regions, March 2009

About Asturias: It’s believed that the area has been inhabited for millennia by the Celts, but Asturias rose to fame in 722 during the Muslim Reconquest of Spain. Hiding in the caves at Covadonga, Don Pelayo is believed to have had the Virgen Mary appear to him, and she told him to rally and fight the Moors. He became the first king of Asturias and the region became a refuge for nobility until the Peninsula was once again under Christian rule.

The Novio tells me Asturians are 100% Spanish because the Picos de Europa blocked the peninsular conquest of the Moors. Considering it’s still a reino, it still has its rulers – Prince Felipe and Princess Leticia are next in line to the Spanish throne.

Must sees: Like Andalucía, I don’t even know where to begin, except for saying that your best bet for traveling in Asturias is by car. There are buses and FEVE trains across Asturias, but the service is infrequent, and there’s tons of encanto in many of the small towns that you shouldn’t miss.

The capital of Asturias is Oviedo, a small city with a huge cidra scene. Calle Gascona is known as La Ruta de la Cidra, and has cider bars lining the streets. There are also pleasant pockets throughout – the plazas, the old man bars, the green spaces, the old Romanesque churches. I highly recommend the bar Platero y Yo for their cachopo – the north’s answer to a flamenquín – and excellent wine list.

Gijón is a pleasant, seaside city with colorful buildings and a bustling port, and nearby, industrial Avilés has a well-kept old town. But Asturias’s best is in its small towns, many of which we passed through on the Camino del Norte – Cudillero, Luarca, Tapa de Casariego, Ballota.

East of Gijón, there are other hamlets worth exploring, as well. After visiting family friends in misty Infiesto, we spent two nights in Cangas de Onís and used it as a base to make it to Ribadasella, Poo, the caves and cathedral of Covadonga.

The beauty of Asturias is astounding, as well. When packing for the Camino, I made sure to bring a swimsuit for the untouched beaches we hugged as we walked for five days along the coast. You can’t miss the Lagos de Covadonga, one of Spain’s highest chain of lakes, nestled in the Picos de Europa. If you love the outdoors, Asturias couldn’t be any more perfect. 

Asturian culture is based largely in its celtic origins, including bagpipes! It’s also a literary region that takes art and theatre very seriously, and sports greats Fernando Alonso and David Villa are from Asturias – must be all of that milk. Asturias is also home to bable, a language that changes its vowels around. Case in point, the greatest youtube video of all time:

My take: Asturias is exactly like all of those Leche Asturiana ads – rolling green hills, tons of dairy cows and virgen beaches. If you couldn’t already tell, I love its paraíso natural, its jovial and grounded people (my mother-in-law included!) as well as its food.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for May is the Balearic Islands.

Read more about Andalucía and Aragón

Have you been to Asturias? What do you like (or not) about the region?

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 2)

Where we last left off, I had literally just climbed a mountain, but I had also scaled a mountain of self-doubt that told me my body was not strong enough to continue. We were halfway there, distance-wise, but coming to grips with the impending end of the journey.

Day Eight // Monday, August 5th, 2013 // Gontán – Vilalba //20km

Money can buy you happiness, it turns out, and we left Abadín before dawn after a few beers the night before and a sound sleep in a comforable bed to the tune of 19€ each. At this point, I’d only opened my sleeping bag once.

We didn’t speak much on the way to Vilalba, a once-powerful city that hosts a Parador. All of the sudden, there were more pilgrims on the trail who we’d never seen before, and we felt rushed to get to the next inn on time with Croissanthead (our so-named mascot for an earlier Xacobeo celebration). We had wine at the parador and met the cook, a man who had walked 15 Caminos in his life. I’d read somewhere that those who live along the trail are obligated by law to protect pilgrims and not do anything to ruin or impede their Camino. Written or not, pilgrims are respected by these townspeople, and not just for the tourism dollars they bring in. We were treated to a snack, courtesy of this fellow peregrino.

Even the local Proteccion Civil officer who ran the large albergue locked up 15 minutes later than normal because we invited him to a shot of orujo.

Day Nine // Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 // Vilalba – Baamonde // 20km

The reality of passing the halfway point in our journey was starting to weigh on me. The simplicity of pilgrim life was so inviting after a year of many changes and transitions for me, and knowing that I’d be finished in just five days got me a little depressed. I no longer befriended pilgrims, knowing I’d have to say goodbye to them once we reached Santiago. José was an exception. Sharing 20 kilometers with him into Baamonde was a treat.

The road that day was littered with small towns, dairy farms and leafy groves of trees and rudimentary stone structures. José is a secondary teacher in Valencia, so Hayley and I immediately had a connection with him and his outlook on life. Almost immediately after meeting another pilgrim, you exchanged the, ‘So what brings you on the Camino?’ question. José’s was simple, and it made me think of my own reasons.

The say the Camino always provides, and it does – from new friendships to a bit of clarity to a stronger body, or even a hot plate of food after a long trek.

That afternoon when we rolled into Baamonde, just 103 kilometers from Santiago, and we had ample time to enjoy the 94 others who were there sharing four showers with us. Afternoon beers, a large and tasty meal in a table that was far too small for us and our food, jam sessions in the patio as we waited out a rain cloud. When you only have one thing in common and nothing else matters, it’s easy to make friends. Besides, that’s what Facebook is for!

Day Ten // Wednesaday, August 7th, 2013 // Baamonde – Miraz // 14.5km

“Be careful of the Santa Campana,” Fernando warned us before retiring to bed. Our walk from the sprawling pilgrim’s inn at Baamonde to the rumored ‘nicest albergue on the Norte’ was a short one, but we’d have to rush – there were just 26 beds in Miraz.

We woke at 5am. It would be dark until nearly 7:30 a.m., but we didn’t have any time to waste. My guidebook told me that we’d walk three kilometers out of Baaaaaaaaaaamonde before turning left over the train tracks. Our flashlights bounced off trees, searching desperately before we got off-track and lost a bed.

Then it began raining. We thankfully didn’t see the witches of the Santa Campana, said to lure pilgrims into sorcery by handing them candles when it’s dark and rainy along the trail.

By the time we got to Miraz around 9:30 that morning, there were already six or eight other pilgrims in line. We set our bags down under the overhang, respecting the pre-established order for beds and joined the others in the town’s only bar. We considered continuing on to Sobrado, but I’m glad we didn’t – apart from a warm bed and blanket and other English speakers (the small albergue is run by the British Cofraternity of Saint James volunteers), we spent hours in the bar, warming up over beers and sandwiches. The rain and the fact that we had to wait forever was made better by the fact that there was a bit of cerveciña to make the time pass quicker.

Day Eleven // Thursday, August 8th, 2013 // Miraz – Sobrado dos Monxes // 25.5km

We took our time walking into Sobrado dos Monxes the following day, knowing that we were nearing the end of the road. It was a perfect day, with puffy clouds within reach and enough solitude to hash out issues and just talk about nothing in between.

The albergue is housed in a 10th Century monastery, and Hayley and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to our weeks working in a haunted monastery in Uclés, Cuenca. The pilgrim hysteria was high, as a Jesuit group was also there, taking up nearly half the beds. After checking in and getting our stamp from the monks who lived on site and raised dogs and cows (which Carmela and I got to see!), Hayley and I escaped to a bar further outside of town. When we finished, half a bottle of wine each later, a stray dog who I’d tripped over earlier in the day was waiting for us, his broken chain dangling from his neck as he drooled over the hot pavement. We tried to lose him, and the poor pup kept getting shooed out of the monastery.

I honestly would have loved wasting hours petting him in the interior lawn of the sprawling, gorgeous palace, but he was not allowed to enter.

Long live Blacky. That is, if he stops tripping pilgrims.

Day Twelve // Friday, August 9th, 2013 // Sobrado dos Monxes – Arzúa // 22km

Fernando gave us a pep talk as we headed out of Sobrado towards Arzúa, the last major stop on the Francés and where our route would hook up with the main pilgrim trail. We’d lose most of our friends on this day who favored a shorter route that skipped the pilgrim town. Many bikers making their way to Santiago passed us, and we knew they’d reach Santiago in time for Pilgrim’s Mass that morning while we still had more than 50km to go.

Reaching Arzúa was a bit strange – there was already a long line outside the municipal inn when we arrived, despite making good time. Most of the private inns were booked up, too. In the end, a hotel offered us a good price for a street side room right near the central plaza.

‘You’ll need these,’ he said, handing us a pair of earplugs. I already had some, courtesy of the Novio, but I shrugged and took them anyway. We took long showers, ate a filling lunch and caught up on the news for the first time in days. Here in Arzúa, pilgrims are kings and there are loads of facilities for them. We had ample choices of where to eat, had special deals on laundry services and massages, and found ourselves feeling alone in a booming town – it took us ages to find familiar pilgrims.

Pilgrim culture shock at its finest.

Our second to last sleep was interrupted early the next morning by a bagpipe. The town had some sort of festival, hence the lack of private inns, and its last revelers were playing bagpipes to signal the end of the party. So that’s what the earplugs were for.

Day Thirteen // Saturday, August 10th, 2013 // Arzúa – O Pedrouzo // 19km

We wizened up and book a private pension again, not willing to hurry our penultimate day for sake of a cheap bed. This meant we could take our time walking, stop more often and really soak up the last few kilometers. By now, we were 41km away from the Plaza do Obradoiro, which we decided to split into two days.

This day was among the most enjoyable – frequently stopping for a beer, running into familiar faces, realizing we’d done 300 kilometers and were all but finished. Joining us were loads of bikers (we nearly got plowed into!), many families and scout groups, and even people pushing strollers! We saw the turigrinos - those who sent their packs ahead and just walked with little weight. I felt lighter than on any other day, and even the purge I’d do later that day of things I wouldn’t need or hadn’t used in two weeks seemed to lighten the load tremendously.

I realized that I’d done everything I intended to do on the Way, save arrive in one piece to Santiago.

Hayley stopped just ahead of me and pointed - didn’t you want to leave something at this mile marker? Once in Galicia, it’s easy to see how many kilometers are left until the cathedral because they’re all marked with the distance down to the thousandth. Exactly at 21,0km I left a purple and orange ribbon for Kelsey. I’d scatter several more the following day, too – at the Lavacolla airport, at Monte do Gozo and at Saint James’s tomb.

Day Fourteen // Sunday, August 11th, 2013 // O Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compostela // 21km

I slept terribly. Maybe I was anxious, but it could be because a homeless man walked into the albergue and took a shower, and then an obnoxious family who hadn’t walked much all took showers after 11pm, turning on lights and hair dryers after I’d already drifted into dreamland. I tried to read Shirley McClain’s The Camino, but it was full of weird mystical dreams and meeting random dead Scottish men who give her a locket and then there’s a big black dog that chases her and she sends him a big red heart of love in her bind of some shit.

Anyway.

I was grumpy, but we didn’t have time for it. Every step meant one second less of our journey, one second closer to the end. Memorials and statues were around every corner, and I felt like we were racing to get to the finish line (we did want to arrive by mass at noon). I made sure to stop in the chapel of Santa Lucia, following my protocol to always leave her a donation as my Catholic aunt told me I was to do if I took her name for my confirmation. I was emotional, about ready to burst at any moment.

It finally happened after reaching Monte do Gozo. After leaving a ribbon on the memorial to Pope John Paul II and stamping our passport for one of the last times, we started the trek downhill. I teared up, wiping away my emotion as Hayley warned me to get it together, or we’d never make it.

We stalled as much as possible without losing track of the time, which included shooting last-minute footage, splitting an Aquarius, stopping to admire a part of the city we hadn’t seen on previous visits. It was ending.

As we arrived to the old town, I was overcome with emotion – for the struggles, for Kelsey, for knowing that tomorrow meant Seville and life and the school year and social media. The bagpipe that I’d heard several times on previous visits rang out and I tripped over my feet. Within moments, we’d passed under the arch and into the morning sunlight. The lichen-covered church towered before us, and even though I’d seen it many times, it was more striking and more beautiful and just plain bigger than ever before. We laid down immediately, taking it all in, happy for the journey and the fact that our legs didn’t fall off.

We had 36 hours or so in Santiago, in which we drank beer, ate international food and paid out respects to Saint James. Hayley decided to shop for other clothes to wear on the plane, but I wore my smelly clothes home, concha attached to my bag. I was proud of it, and I wanted to it last until I was back home.

The thing is, the fact that I’ve seen and done something I’ve always dreamed about doing means that it’s going to last forever in my heart and my memories and my photos.

Yes, even this one: creepy doll heads in Lavacolla, just one of the weird things we saw in 325 kilometers.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

Spain Snapshots: The Romanesque Churches of Oviedo

There is little I don’t love about Oviedo, the capital of the Principality of Asturias, nestled between the Picos de Europa and the Cantabrian Sea – the enormous cachopos, the spontaneous rainpours, the colorful plazas with cidra bars and the raucous Calle Gascona.

Gran amigo of Oviedo is the American director Woody Allen. Uvieu has been front and center in a few of his films, and there’s even a statue of Allen in the central part of town.

Claudia assured me I would recognize this famous monument of Oviedo:

Recognize these churches? Perhaps from the film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona when Juan Antonio takes the women to Oviedo for the weekend to meet his father?

We spent a lazy Sunday morning hiking to the pre-Romanesque churches that rest just outside the city on Mount Naranco. There’s a small visitors center just off the parking lot, but the beauty is really in the details of the two churches – completed in the late 9th Century. Santa María del Naranco was built as part of a large palace complex to the Virgin Mary, with San Miguel de Lillo, 100 meters downhill, though both were converted into worship places.

It’s easy to see why – the views from Monte Naranco of the picos are incredible. Clau and I spent easily an hour there, looking out over the capital.

If you go: You can drive to Monte Naranco by following signs leading away from the train and bus stations in Oviedo, or you can also take the local bus numbered 10 from the city center, getting off at the stop marked ‘Cruce.’ Follow the signs uphill until you reach San Miguel. Santa María is just 100 meters on. There are a number of bars in the area with great views and sandwiches.

San Miguel is currently not open, though guided tours will take you to Santa María to explain its history, construction and patrimony every morning but Monday. The structures can be visited year-round.

What’s your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site, either in Spain or beyond?

CaminoFTK: Meet my Sponsors, Podoactiva

I’ve been thinking a lot about passion these last few weeks as I wrap up my master’s and mentally prepare for walking over 200 miles on the Camino de Santiago. Many of you have never met me face to face, but it’s clear that my passions are Spain, blogging, and photography. Add with that a love for helping people and connecting, and challenging myself, and you’ve essentially got my reasons for wanting to do the Camino de Santiago.

Pursing my passion led me to Spain in the first place: a passion for Spanish language, a passion for traveling and a passion to do something different while pushing my personal limits. I’m never one to drag my feet when it comes to making a decision and sticking to it – evident by my fight with bureaucracy, my fight against the Spanish private school system and my fight to make a meaningful life in Seville while dealing with my guiri complex.

My parents claim I ran before walking, and have been the first to tell me I’d always have the world at my feet so long as I stayed true to myself and what I wanted out of life. Thanks, padres. This led to a near-obsession with walking the Camino de Santiago, and for carrying something more than a 6kilo backpack for more than 200 miles.

When looking around for sponsors, I had very few criteria. For one, they had to be on board with my reasons for walking and support Dance Marathon and my passion for it. Secondly, they had to be people who personified passion themselves. When Caser Expat Insurance contacted me not three days after my post on why I’m walking went live and shared their interest in me and my story, I was floored.

A few weeks later, I was on a Madrid-bound train to meet Pablo, the director of Caser Expat Insurance, and his team. Their biggest focuses are on health and well-being, so they took me to have a physical…for my feet. Talk about putting your best foot forward!

Pulling up to the Podoactiva clinic near Paseo de la Castellana, it was clear that these people were passionate about feet. Despite having a clientele that ranges from the players of Real Madrid to Shakira, the office was welcoming and calming (it even quelled my nerves about baring my feet to a bunch of strangers).

Carlos got me set up in one of the consults, which was stacked wall-to-wall with machines. Podoactiva uses biomechanics to measure your feet’s resistance, strength, weight distribution and more, which is why they specialize in sports performance. Having been a gymnast my whole childhood, I would have loved to know all of these fators growing up, especially because my body now feels like an abuelita‘s.

After the customary round of questions – birthdate, weight, shoe size – I was made to lay down on a cot while Carlos tested the flexibility and strength of my ankles. He guessed I was a dancer because even the slightest touch or twist meant my ankle bent. “I hope you got boots that cover your ankles” was Carlos’s response.

Oops. They looked funny!

Once finished, I stood still for 30 seconds upon a mat so that the pressure I put on each foot could be properly measured. Carlos and his colleague, Jaime, then fed these images into a computer so that I could see the results. As it turns out, the knee injury I got from gymnastics ten years ago has greatly affected the way I walk and stand – I overcompensate with the right side of my body, particularly in the toes.

Asking me to walk back and forth on the pressure mat, Jaime and Carlos watched closely (and took a video) to see how I walked and how much support my ankles got when doing so. It was evident that my feet turned in, and the effect than four years of marching band had on the “roll-down” way in which I walk. This, Carlos explained, was causing the bones in my feet to become impacted and lose the natural arch (in other words, I have juanetes. Go look up that word, lest it show up in a search engine in English!).

I also walked on a treadmill, both barefoot and in my running shoes before sticking my foot into the patented Podoactiva 3-D scanner. Jaime helped me to Keep my foot still on the soft silicon hammock as each foot got scanned, creating a virtual image of what my custom insoles should look like. The scans are sent to the company’s manufacturing plant in Huesca, where they use lasers and robots to cut the insoles.

In about two weeks, I’ll have custom-made plantillas delivered to Podoactiva’s office in Los Remedios to start breaking in, along with my boots. Since the whole two-week trek won’t exactly be a walk in the park, knowing I have the passion for foot care and a healthy lifestyle behind me and someone to walk in memory of, I’m excited. I’m elated, actually. And dreading how my feet will look afterwards!

Don’t forget to follow my Camino story through my blog and through the hashtag #CaminoFTK. Awareness is key, so please spare a moment to share any posts via social media if you see fit. I couldn’t do all of this without the support of people like you all, Kelsey’s family, Caser Expat Insurance, Walk and Talk Chiclana, Books4Spain, Your Spain Hostel and Dance Marathon.

Podoactiva will be with me literally every step of the way: they graciously picked up the tab for both my consultation and the lime-green insoles I’ll be getting for my hiking boots. I’m still a bit cross that their client Xabi Alonso didn’t come watch me run barefoot on a treadmill, but you can’t always get what you want. 

 

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 great place to stay, check out Barcelona-Home!

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