Traveling Spain in July
Spain has been at the top of my travel wish list for quite some time, especially since marrying Micah. His last name, Ybarrola (prounced E-bah-row-la), hails from the Spanish Basque country, and when he was four years old, Micah's family moved to San Sebastian for a little over a year while his dad completed research for this doctorate. Now that I'm also an Ybarrola, I wanted to experience the food and culture I have heard so much about.
I'll be honest: I didn't want to go to Pamplona. When we began planning for our trip, Micah was very interested in participating in the Running of the Bulls Festival, which is held annually the first two weeks of July. After reading about the festival in Rick Steve's guidebook and several other websites, I was concerned (to say the least). I was worried about Micah getting gored or trampled during the actual running of the bulls, and I read that the festival itself was nothing but a mob of sloppy, drunk people who would likely rob or intentionally spill their drink on you. Not exactly enticing.
But Pamplona is part of the Basque country, and Micah wanted to at least give this famous Basque tradition a try. Thankfully, after understanding how nervous I was about him getting hurt, he agreed that he would be content with watching the running of the bulls from the sidelines.
The day after we arrived in Barcelona, we hopped on a train and took the nearly four-hour ride up to Pamplona. The moment we stepped off the train, we were surrounded by men, women, and children dressed in all white with red scarves tied around their necks. We headed straight for the hotel to change into a white shirt and made a plan to buy a red scarf immediately.
Once appropriately dressed, we stopped for a bocadillo jamon (ham sandwich) and sangria.
The rest of the afternoon we strolled the historic city and scoped out the route the bulls would run the next morning.
As we meandered through the streets, we were engulfed by a sea of red and white simultaneously belting out a Basque tune, smiling, clapping, and bouncing to the beat.
Later that evening, while we were having dinner, a nice gentleman with his family struck up a conversation with us. He explained that the crests on the red kerchiefs indicate which part of the Basque country that person is from. He also told us that all of the Basque country attends this festival each year. What a beautiful way to unite a culture year after year, almost like a huge family reunion.
The next morning, we were up at 6:00 a.m. for the running of the bulls, but the crowd had already beat us. It was nearly impossible to find a spot to watch the event--Micah was able to stand on some fencing to get a little bit of a view, and I chose to crouch low so I could watch the runners' feet.
I'm glad Micah didn't run because a man was trampled by a bull right where we were standing. Fortunately he was able to walk away with the help of medics.
We enjoyed the rest of the morning and afternoon in Pamplona before boarding the train for the rest of our trip in Barcelona.
Resting within the Catalonian country is beautiful Barcelona, a place where many natives speak three languages: Spanish, Catalan, and English. This city has a rich history and a complex culture. Catalonians wish to separate from Spain, and many natives speak in Catalan more often than Spanish. The divide can be sensed by flags and signs of resistance throughout the city, but despite the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface, there is a vibrancy and authenticity that is unlike any other city I've visited.
When we arrived from Pamplona, it was getting dark and we were hungry. We happened upon a tapas restaurant that was nearly empty. We ordered several plates, including cultured ham, olives, bread, and tortilla. Tortilla in Spain is nothing like tortillas Americans eat. It is actually something like a quiche--an egg dish filled with thinly sliced potatoes and onion. You can slice and eat it alone, or you can place it between two slices of bread rubbed with grated tomato for a delicious sandwich. Spanish food is simple, flavorful, and quality.
Before turning in for the night, we did one of our favorite things when traveling, which is wandering the streets of a new city at night.
We spent a total of 10 days in Spain, so rather than go into the specific details of each day, I will give you the highlights.
Museu Picasso and 4 Gats
You all know by now that I love Picasso's work, which I gushed about in my last Paris post, so of course, when in Spain, we had to visit his museum. This one housed mostly his early works, which always blows my mind. At the age of 14 he was producing the most beautiful pieces that rivaled reality--it was in his twenties that he began to branch out into abstract work. The museum also had pieces from the latest years of his life, which included a series of pigeon roost paintings that I loved. Before we left, we purchased a print of his "Columbus Avenue", which is an image of Barcelona's Columbus statue that points out to the sea.
After we left the museum, we went to 4 Gats for lunch, which is a bar that Picasso frequented when he lived in Barcelona--he actually designed the cover of their menu. The food is delicious and I loved imagining Picasso sipping a glass of wine in that same spot.
Gaudi's La Pedrera
We took a tour of this famous apartment in Barcelona designed by Antoni Gaudi, a famous Spanish architect in the late 1800's and early 1900's. This apartment building is completely surreal with walls that bend like waves and a set of chimneys on the roof that mimic soldiers as if to ward off evil spirits. Although controversial when it was first built due to its unique design, some of the most prominent families in Barcelona lived here. This was a tour worth taking.
Gaudi's Sagrada Familia
While we are on the topic of Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia cannot go unmentioned. Gaudi began the design and construction of this catholic church in the 1880's and continued working on it (and even living in the structure at one point) for the last forty years of his life. To this day, the Sagrada Familia is still unfinished. The projected date for completion is 2026, just in time to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi's death. Can you even imagine?
I'll be honest, I don't love touring churches, but this is something different. It is truly spectacular and unparalleled. If you enjoy art at all, you must come here.
We opted for a tower access ticket, which takes you up in an elevator and you descend the spiraling staircase. The views of Barcelona were incredible.
Les Quinze Nits
If you want a restaurant recommendation, Les Quinze Nits is it. Located in an adorable square, this restaurant has incredible paella (we tried both the seafood and the mixed--loved both), sangria, potatoes, seafood--it's all so good! In fact, we ate there three nights in a row. We are a little ridiculous, but we didn't want to go anywhere else and potentially not have as good of a dinner. This is a must visit.
I'm not sure what else to call it, but there was an opera performance every evening from 9:00-11:00 behind the Cathedral of Barcelona. After dinner each night at Les Quinze Nits, we would pick up a gelato and head for the show. The singers perform professionally, and I admit I was moved to tears.
Girona and Costa Brava
As I mentioned earlier, Micah lived in Spain when he was a little boy, and he happened to recently reconnect with a friend from those days, Ismael.
They hadn't seen each other in nearly twenty years, but as soon as he picked us up from the airport, it was as if no time had passed at all. Ismael was so good to us, opening up his home and taking us on day trips. One morning he picked us up and drove us to Girona.
Spain in July is hot and humid, but on this day it was drizzling rain and just chilly enough to make it uncomfortable to go without a jacket. And, of course, I dressed completely inappropriately in a sundress, slick sandals, and no coat or umbrella.
Girona is such a beautiful old city. In fact, parts of Game of Thrones was filmed in Girona, including the steps naked Queen Cersei descended, as well as the streets she hobbled through in her walk of shame.
I endured my own walk of shame for not dressing as I should have for the day.
Ismael then whisked us off to Costa Brava, where the sun broke through the clouds and beaconed us to the beach. The rest of the afternoon we lay on the smooth pebble sand and soaked in the warmth.
This was the kind of place I would want to come back to vacation. A quiet, beautiful coastal town.
This was another day trip we took that was so worth it. Less than a three-hour train ride away from Barcelona, Montserrat is a breathtaking mountain range with an 11th century monastery built strategically into the mountainside. You have to take a cable car up to the monastery, which leaves me to wonder--how did monks ever get up there to build a monastery in the first place?
As I mentioned before, churches aren't really my thing, but the views from the monastery are magnificent. From the monastery you can take a second cable car up to the very top of the mountain and then hike back down (or hike up if you dare--it's crazy steep for miles).
Looking out into the vast mountain range gave me that feeling of insignificance that I love--a reminder that we are only a speck in the grand scheme of things. It may sound weird, but I always find comfort in that--if I'm small, then so are my problems.
Regrettably I didn't get any photos here because we wanted to swim in the ocean without worrying about a phone or camera on the beach, but trust me when I say that if you want to go to the beach, then go to Sitges.
The dirty, overly congested beach in Barcelona is less than ideal, so on our final day in Spain we took the hour-long train ride to Sitges. This posh beach town is quiet, not crowded, has a long beach that is great for strolling, and the water is warm and calm. It was the perfect, relaxing way to end an incredible adventure.
We plan to visit Spain again next summer, so this is certainly not our last Spanish jaunt. I can't wait to see how my relationship with this beautiful country continues to evolve.