We awoke early to begin our journey to Barcelona, Spain, from Glasgow, Scotland. The flights to Barcelona were uneventful; however when we landed at HeGatwick airport in London, we were annoyed to learn we had to go exit and return through security. We had a healthy layover planned but others weren’t as lucky. We also learned that the tax-free, tax-return opportunity in the UK wasn't worth the hassle and the paperwork.
Immediately upon entering the jet bridge at the airport in Barcelona, we were slammed by a wall of humidity. Air you can wear? Indeed. Oh those cool days and evenings in Ireland and Scotland were now just a faint memory. We acclimated ourselves to our hotel, Hotel HCC MontBlanc, and the neighborhood, and struck off on foot to find dinner. Sidenote: The hotel had a small air conditioning unit which was better than nothing, but breakfast was not complimentary. Our friends for the evening were travelers from India at the bar/restaurant combo, Stoke. We watched the FIFA soccer match and indulged in Spanish cuisine before taking a stroll down Las Ramblas. It was good fit for us this first Barcelonian night.
The following morning our friends from Texas were joining us. We don’t typically travel with companions and were happy at the prospect of sharing our adventures. While searching for a nice breakfast spot, we realized that most people in Barcelona regard bread as the breakfast staple. We needed something a little more substantial (think protein) and a little less starchy (think bread). In our quest for an American-style breakfast, we came across Santa Anna de Barcelona (Church of Saint Anna). Built in 1141, this Gothic-styled building with Romanesque windows was a sight to see. We stepped inside the compound and were surprised to see lots of people so early. Adam noticed there was a food buffet and was honing in on the prize when I stopped him in his tracks. The food line was for the poor! I ushered him outside as quickly as we arrived! Of course we eventually found a nice breakfast spot.
That morning we visited Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia and Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy which were both very old but very beautiful Catholic Cathedrals. Adam and I lit our prayer candles as always. We continued our walk and visited the statue of Columbus, who explored for the country of Spain. As midday approached, the temperature was in the low 90s (F). The humidity, however, added an oppressive component. We learned to do as the locals – slip into air conditioned shops and venues during this hot part of the day.
By the time we were refreshed, our friends joined us. The Hills (our friends) spent a little time resting as they were traveling with a toddler. They met us at Taller de Tapas. The wait staff was exceptionally good – patient with the toddler-dynamic and offering food and wine recommendations which were well suited to us. They even surprised us with a complementary bottle of champagne!
We found a local market, Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, that was enormous! It was a terrific opportunity to sample all the different types of foods grown, raised or caught locally as well as some exotic options that were imported via the vast shipping trade of the region. We tried different meats including kangaroo and ostrich.
We visited the Museu d’Historie de Barcelona (Museum of History of Barcelona). The sprawling museum includes the Palu Reial and Placa del Rei – the place where the rulers lived. It included a storied staircase of which people such as Christopher Columbus would ascend to give a report to the monarchs. The curators shared that choirs in the Royal Chapel would sing as visitors such as Columbus arrived and gave thanks for the great miracle of the voyage (crossing the sea).
We visited an outdoor antique market before heading back to the hotel to cool off and relax before dinner. It was good that we rested because our dinner location – as we’d already experienced – was absorbed in all things World Cup. We watched the match between England and Croatia – the very long match, while we feasted on numerous dishes, trying as many as possible.
Sidenote: While it seemed like all of Barcelona was watching a futbol game, a different crowd was conducting a peaceful, protest march. The residents of the Spanish area called Catalonia wants to secede from Spain. This region includes Barcelona. Many people have been jailed in or exiled from the country; this march was in their honor. Participants shouted support for democracy over fascism. Since the Catalonia region is what keeps the economy of Spain afloat it is doubtful the rest of the country will allow the split to happen. As a social studies and government teacher, I was fascinated to be on the sidelines of a movement in another country; I am eager to add this experience into my lessons.
After a long World Cup match and some ice cream it was time to call it quits for the night.
The following morning, we enjoyed breakfast before visiting the Naval Museum, learning about the history of the ships that explored the new world. There was a to-scale replica of a sailing ship and we could picture the horrid conditions and the smells on these vessels. Sidenote: The ships smelled so bad of human waste and putrid food that none could pull off a surprise attack as the enemy knew they were coming!
At the museum there was a team hard at work on a replica of a frigate, the largest of the merchant sailing ships. They were busy sewing the sails and studying the design details of the frigates.
While Missie and I filled our bellies at the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, the fellas headed to the airport to pick up our rental car for our road trip to Pamplona. Sidenote: It took them over an hour, waiting in line as the workers were unorganized and arguing with one another. Always arrive early just in case! But alas, they got the car, picked up us ladies, and we headed to Pamplona. We didn’t realize it at the time but we took a toll road and spent 50 euros (43 in US dollars)! The scenery wasn't that exciting either as it was dry and lacked scenery. We did, however, cross the prime meridian and saw numerous large nests, home to the storks in the area atop the electric poles. We passed a couple random castles along the route, too. One of which was Castillo de Alfajarin built by Muslims in the 11th century. It fell under Christian rule, then back to Muslim rule throughout the century. It was then home to different families until it was abandoned.
After several hours we arrived in Pamplona. Our friends accidentally purchased two hotel rooms at the Blanca de Navarra Hotel, while we rented a room in an apartment with Gestion de Alojamientos down the street. We considered this a godsend as our apartment room had zero air and was very stuffy. We were happy to spend our nights at the hotel which had the best air conditioning on the entire trip. Sidenote: Breakfast is not complimentary.
That evening we spent some time searching for dinner other than sandwiches which was a difficult feat. After 30 minutes or so, we found a nice spot for dinner. We had our first helping of paella, a Spanish dish. There was a language barrier here and rather than the men each drinking a glass of beer, they enjoyed a bottle of wine and a pitcher of beer. Sidenote: Spanish in Spain is different than Spanish in Mexico which is the dialect to which we are accustomed.
Promptly at 5 a.m. the following morning Adam was wide awake. This was the day he would run with the bulls. He was so excited. We dressed in white clothing with our red bandanas and sashes, hopped the bus, and headed toward Old Town.
The streets were already full of locals and tourists alike ready to partake in or watch the action. Missie, Ethan, and I had a balcony rented to us so we could have a clear view. She and I were so nervous. We watched as the men took their places, stretched, and jumped around to loosen up. We heard the first rocket, then the second, and the bull run began. When watching the bulls, it appeared as though they were trotting along but when watching the people sprinting you knew it was intense. As the bulls approached, our guys started their run. We witnessed one man fall but thankfully the bulls ran right past him. At this point the road curved and we could no longer see the excitement but instead awaited for a text from our beaus.
Thankfully "safe" appeared on my phone within minutes while we were watching the replay from the apartment. One man was gored, another thrown up against a wall, several were trampled over. It was pretty brutal. Luckily, yet also unfortunately, only the man who was gored was badly injured.
Once we were all reunited the guys told us about their adventurous morning. Jason wasn't about to wait for the bulls to get closer and just ran straight to the arena while Adam had to venture as close to the bulls as possible without getting hurt. Near the end Adam looked back to see a bull three people behind him. It trotted closer and closer, and Adam reached out with his newspaper and tapped the bull for good luck. About that time someone tripped him and he went down. He then rolled himself out of the danger zone, losing both his phone and his shoe.
Someone handed both to him and he snuck back in so he could run into the arena. Once in the arena different bulls were released for people to run around and tease. Both guys got some photos and got out. They knew we would be anxious.
Adam was excited to show off his battle wounds from his fall, however, the daredevil said he would never run again. Thank goodness!
We walked around Old Town enjoying the revelry. We found a nice place to enjoy lunch and people watch. After buying souvenirs the high from that morning had sucked out all the energy from all of us so we decided we needed a nap.
Sidenote: Those who run with the bulls drink a mix of cognac and chocolate milk once the run concludes. The guys were skeptical at first but actually enjoyed it!
On the bus ride back to the hotel an older woman got on and stood awkwardly close to me. I ignored the awkward closeness but then she started quietly talking. I didn’t understand her due to the language barrier so continued to ignore for her. Suddenly she started poking me repeatedly until I got up. I walked maybe ten paces to a different seat, annoyed. She picked on no one but me and the time she stood there waiting for my seat she could've walked to the one I ended up sitting in. That is what I get for looking much younger than I am. It is a curse!
Sidenote: In one of our many little diversions, Adam stopped in a bar to ask for details about the upcoming bullfights scheduled for later in the day. Some policia especial (special police) who were in Pamplona for additional security were inside but off-duty for the day. Adam bought them a round of drinks and, yes, you know the rest by now, they all became fast friends. In return for his American hospitality, the officers gave Adam two rubber bullets, provided him with complete tour of their police van, and even discussed weapons. Adam reported feeling giddy listening to their stories and seeing their wares.
After a short afternoon slumber, we decided we couldn’t stomach the idea of attending the bullfights. After all, Adam had bonded with these magnificent creatures, his bovine running compadres and to cheer them on in a slow death wasn’t for us. We opted to stroll the streets of Old Town. I was surprised at the vast number of migrants and refugees selling merchandise on the streets – everything imaginable including shoes, jerseys, purses, toys, decor, you name it. I wondered how their cut-rate specials affected the merchants. We listed to Basque music and watched as locals danced the traditional Spanish Raiu-Raiu dance while curiosity got the best of us as some were wearing blue sash and bandana rather than red. After some research I am still uncertain for this deviation.
We then settled for dinner under a tent outside of the Txoco, and within minutes the heavy clouds overhead released a deluge. Talk about timing! We enjoyed more paella and souvenir shopping before it started pouring again. We waited for quite a while for the intensity to subside and then made our way towards a bus stop as Missie, Ethan, and I were ready to call it a night. As we passed a bar packed with rowdy inebriated Spaniards, we heard a boisterous rendition of the American classic, Sweet Caroline. Oh, ‘Merica!
The guys decided they’d see us off and then continue with their merry-making. The heavy rain began again leaving us with no place to duck for cover. We got to the bus, gave our fellows besos y abrzos, and hopped on board. Google Maps had been accurate for most of our travels so we plugged in our hotel location and settled in for our soggy ride to the hotel. We were cold though it was a bit stuffy; and we watched with curiosity and then alarm as the bus completed stop after stop inching further and further away from the direction of our hotel. Time and again we contemplated hoping off until finally the bus reached the end of the route. The end of the road. The bus. The driver. And us. Two rain-soaked American women with a toddler. He looked at us, and then pointed and told us we had to get off la guagua. We showed him the phone with our hotel's location on the map. He responded by pointing at the bus we should have taken. Oh querido!
We switched buses, paying once more, and promptly got seated. We sat and we sat and we sat some more until the bus's engine finally revved up and we were off. Stop after stop. A reversal of the ride we’d taken just an hour earlier. Though the ride was painfully long, we were grateful to know that we were on the right bus and headed to our hotel – until a very intoxicated man hopped on along with his hidden beer. He sat beside us and tried to hold a conversation. We politely relied, "No habla espanola," but this did not stop him. He would go from a nice tone to a mean tone. We picked up on different words while our nerves were on high alert. The people on board stared at him, some laughing. A sweet woman turned to us and told us to pay him no mind. We got off of that bus as soon as we could and made sure he didn't follow.
We hopped off just in time to watch the firework show that occurs each night of the Saint Fermin Festival. Yes, it was a reflection of our joy at arriving at our hotel! We paused only momentarily to soak in the cheerfulness and then hurried inside. Our clothes were stuck to us. We were tired. Our toddler was a Rockstar. Once inside, it occurred to us that our men had forgotten to give us the room keys! What, after all that we’d encountered we now had no keys! We asked the front desk receptionist who kindly trusted us and handed us keys. Like dutiful children, we traipsed to our rooms and opened the doors to our rooms. Except, they were NOT our rooms! Missie was greeted in her room by a consumed Spanish woman who shrieked; Missie earns an award for swift apology and self-extraction from the room! We then realized that we were entering rooms 404 and 405 rather than 704 and 705. The receptionist shouldn’t have trusted us after all! That the durn elevator doors would not close fast enough to hide our embarrassment! When we finally arrived at our proper rooms, the showers and dry clothes were our newest favorite creature comforts.
Sidenote: The men made it home by their 2 am curfew but not before having contracted with some of the migrants and refugees in Old Town to add a colored braid to their hair. Our men looked hideous! Adam's braid framed his face curling down below his jaw. Jason’s hideous braid ran down his shoulders and onto back like a rat tail. Those guys – two peas in a pod....
The next morning we headed to Andorra, the tiny country in the Pyrenees Mountains wedged between Spain and France. We assumed it would be another boring drive, but to our surprise it was stunningly beautiful with stately Portuguese oaks, beech and pine! We chose to take the scenic route as opposed to the expensive toll road, and it was so worth it! We saw the snowcapped Pyrenees mountains, and Lake Yesa were the prettiest glacial turquoise blue. We saw more castles to the point that they no longer excited us. We saw an old, abandoned town named Esco and wildlife crossing structures so they could avoid being struck by vehicles. Our fascination with the region prompted many stops and extended considerably the travel time to Andorra.
On the way to Andorra, Missie saw a slug bug and gave us all a precious punch. She was saddened when I told her we don't play while Adam is driving in other countries. Due to this reason, no one won the slug bug game in Andorra. I secretly knew, however, that I would dominate the rest of the trip!
Locating our hotel, Hotel de L'isard, in la Vella, Andorra, took great patience because of extensive road construction and the terrain. Wifi was sporadic and apparently adversely impacted by construction as well. We spent the afternoon exploring the little city in the little Catholic country of about 75,000. Sidenote: If you enjoy hiking or skiing along with shop tax free shopping this is the place to visit! And if you want refreshing air conditioning Hotel de L'isard is for you! However, breakfast is not complimentary.
We noted a rather eclectic bar scene and souvenir shops were tax-free. The weather was perfect for dining outside and especially smart since the buildings had no air conditioning. However, seating outside was by reservation only so inside we went! Our dinner stop at EXIMI exceeded our expectations but the indoor air was a little too muggy to be perfect. We noticed an a/c unit and asked for it to be turned on. Although the hosts accommodated our request, it didn’t effect any change in temperature; we realized that’s probably why it wasn’t on to begin with. The stereo system serenaded us with Michael Buble’s Christmas tunes. Perhaps it was intended to provide the illusion of cooler temperatures.
As we left the tiny principality the next morning, we decided to pop over to France for lunch at Bistrot de Pays. We visited the little town of Ur. We gawked at the adorable neighborhoods, enjoyed fresh pastries, and ate a hearty lunch before moving on. We had Beauty and the Beast's opening song stuck on our head's the rest of the trip. "Bonjour!" We were then en route to Barcelona. The ride was just as lovely returning as it was going to Andorra. The only unexpected surprise was seeing firsthand a hawk swoop down and pluck an animal from the road right in front of us.
Our primary goal for this day in Barcelona was a tour of the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família which has been under construction since its beginning in 1852. In 1883 the construction project was assumed by Antoni Gaudí who continued as the architect for 43 years until his untimely death after being struck by a streetcar. As for the structure itself, it is garish – “gaudy” if you may. The inside is a stark contrast but every component of the Basilica is crafted in excess and exaggeration.
Three in our little traveling party were Catholic and disappointed at the absence of key components such as holy water fonts and prayer candles. We noticed a window to an older section of church in which a choir was performing. In a rare moment of “I wish”, the three of us wish we’d had more time to explore as permission was required to enter that area.
We spent the better portion of the evening watching the final match of the World Cup. Our last Spanish meal at Cafe Tuscania was delicious although Adam was given a beer from Halloween (It had a Halloween label!) which threw him off. We ended the night viewing the Casa Batlló an interesting building built also designed by Antoni Gaudí. For whatever reason, the structure reminded me of the Cheesecake Factory which is fine for any ole building, but in my opinion, not for a church. I wish we’d had time to tour the personal apartment of Antoni Gaudí or some other structures he designed as he’s one of the most revered Spanish architects and beloved the world over.
Our adventure in Spain ended the next morning. We’d enjoyed immensely exploring the side streets, consuming three-course meals, and trying every imaginable croquette we could find. But we were itching to advance to another country.
Sidenote: Using the My Taxi app was cheaper than Uber in Ireland and Spain. Always check both to save you some money!