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La Aventura de España: The Adventure of Spain!

An impromptu trip that lends lasting memories

Spain was never on the top of my list of places to go next. But when my boyfriend—who is from Colombia but traces his roots to Spain—asked me to join him for two weeks on the Iberian peninsula, I wasn’t going to say no. Spend April in the fitful cold of Missoula or take a cheap flight ($550) to the Mediterranean? It was a no-brainer. We decided to fly into Madrid, rent a car, drive south along the Costa del Sol and eventually end up in Barcelona before flying back to Madrid. As with any travel experience, there were surprises. Along the way we learned a few lessons and tricks worth sharing.

Rich history, driving lessons

We took a couple days in Madrid to get ourselves oriented. It was worth seeing the Prado museum, which has the largest holdings of El Greco and Goya, among many other famous artists. I was extremely thankful for Spain’s siesta, however, after a couple hours of art appreciation. Jet lag is brutal. We rented our car and drove south, landing in the town of Trujllo where we had booked a hostel for the night inside the Castillo—a medieval stone fortress atop the hill. Problem was, Google maps took us up the hill into narrower and narrower streets until we realized the car would not fit. The streets were pedestrian-only.  A weathered old man smoking a cigarette came out of his apartment. “No puede pasar,” he said, and kindly indicated we needed to park a couple blocks down. (He must deal with tourists constantly making this mistake). The stick-shift car was stuck against the medieval stone wall and on a steep slope, but eventually we drove backwards down the hill and walked back up to the Castillo. That night, we drank Rioja wine and ate Iberian ham with potato croquettes, a perfect reward.

The next day, we arrived in Córdoba where the elaborate architecture reveals the town’s layers of history. Córdoba was an important Roman city, and a major Islamic center during the Middle Ages. It is famous for La Mezquita, a mosque dating back to 784 AD. This time, we abandoned Google maps and found a large parking lot outside the old part of town and took a taxi.

If you haven’t taken a taxi in Europe, well, you’ll be impressed at how lawless it feels to barrel down narrow medieval cobblestone filled with people. The dance between pedestrians and cars feels precarious but seems to work. Whereas in the U.S., the car is king, Europe shares its roads. It likes its walkable streets and squares where guitar-playing buskers, dancers, and opera singers entertain from morning to night.

Secret eats and Easter madness

Our road trip eventually took us to Granada, a charming city an hour from the coast. It’s most famous for the Alhambra, an ancient citadel and palace that showcases Islamic architecture. Getting in proved impossible. It was Holy Week in Spain, and people had come from all over to visit, and tickets were booked. Instead, we wandered the streets—some Gypsy neighborhoods and high-walled passages filled with street artists and a hookah bar where we smoked apple tobacco and drank glorious rich teas on a velvety red couch in a cozy, dimly lit room.

We had eaten at what turned out to be more touristy outdoor restaurants—nice, but unmemorable. I knew we were missing the secret good restaurants. I’d read about a place called Bar Poë, so we found our way down the winding stone streets to the hole-in-the-wall entrance. The restaurant is owned by a London couple who serve tapas—small-plate fare. There are plenty of amazing traditional Spain tapas in Granada, but Bar Poë serves international food: Portuguese salt cod, Brazilian black bean and pork stew, spicy chicken in Thai sauce. And you get it essentially for free. This is the beauty of Spain. Order a drink and you get a small bowl of rich food to go along with it. After three drinks, you’ve had dinner. The next night we went to a Moroccan bar where we ordered a $18 bottle of wine and were graced with eight—eight!—small plates of rich Moroccan food. In Spain, not everything must be for sale. Food is often offered gratis. It’s a different mindset. On our way back to our hotel we encountered the Semana Santa celebration—the Catholic Easter week procession featuring women in black veils, float-sized candles and religious icons, men in robes, and pointed hats. The streets were swimming with people and the procession marched up and down through the city until 1 in the morning playing minor-key hymns on trumpets like something out of a gothic Tim Burton movie. A true experience!

Cats, soccer mania, and beach lyfe

Have you ever stayed in a party hostel? My advice is: Don’t. Unless you don’t want to sleep. In Barcelona we spent the first night in a 22-person room of bunk beds in which people wandered in and out. Germany and Barcelona were playing each other in a big soccer game. Europe’s seriousness about soccer became apparent when 30,000 Germans showed up in town wreaking havoc in the streets. It was an invasion. In the square of the city’s famous Gothic Quarter we met one of the young Indian boys who sells beers to tourists. He is one of many immigrants and refugees in Spain. When he learned we were from the U.S. his eyes lit up. His brother lives in New Jersey. He hadn’t seen him in two years. This is the dark side of the city—but it’s important to know it. Life isn’t easy for everyone there.

Locals eat dinner late in Spain, and we had adapted to that schedule. One night, at 11 PM,  we wandered deep into the city and found a wrought-iron framed doorway with the words Els 4 Gats (The Four Cats, in Catalan). We learned this Art Nouveau restaurant decked in incredible tile was a popular haunt for modernist and bohemian artists in the 1890s through the early 1900s. Picasso had his first solo show there at the age of 17. We ordered Cava—the sparkling wine of Catalonia—and I had paella, the famous rice and seafood dish of Spain. At midnight, the alley-side door of the restaurant was nosed open by a dog, who scuttled through and hid behind his owner—a man who seemed to be in charge of the restaurant. That dog was followed by three more dogs—a boxer, a golden retriever, and a basset hound. Four dogs in the four cats cafe—seems like there’s a joke in there somewhere.

The next day we hit the sprawling beaches where roller-skaters danced in unison on the boardwalk, the lively beats of reggaetón filled the air. Under the sun, we ate rustic bread with manchego and Iberian ham—which I I couldn’t get enough of—looking out onto the dappled Mediterranean waves. It was snowing in Montana, but we were—for the moment—in paradise.

  • Alahambra Granada
  • Barcelona Beach
  • Barcelona Market
  • Cordoba Streets
  • 4 Cats
  • Garden Cordoba
  • Gothic Quarter, Barcelona
  • Erika with Granada Alahambra in the distance
  • Iberian ham, Madrid
  • Trujillo Castillo
  • Semana Santa
  • Pinchos Tapas