The 50th post!

Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s already been 50 posts since I started this thing back in June.

El tiempo vuele cuando estás pasándolo bien. Ya he escrito 50 posts (entradas) desde empezar este blog en junio.

Thanks to all my readers and all the people who supported me and encouraged me during this time.

Gracias a todos los lectores y toda la gente quien me apoyó y me animaron durante este tiempo.

I spent months toying around with the idea of a travel blog after reading a lot of travel books. I know it’s a big world out there with a lot of bloggers, and it took me a while to figure out how I wanted to go about it. My Twitter handle was based on Stevie Nicks’ performance of “Seven Wonders” from American Horror Story: Coven. As I love Catalán, I went with the Catalán name. Then as I was setting this up, trying to think of a name and a purpose, I remembered my goal of visiting every Spanish province. Surely there are at least Seven Wonders in each province, right? And then this thing was born.

Me tardó meses pensando en la idea de crear un blog de viajes después de leer muchos libros de viaje. Sé que es un mundo grande con muchos bloggers, y me tardó un rato largo para pensar en como quería hacerlo. Mi nombre de Twitter era basada en la actuación de Stevie Nicks en American Horror Story cuando cantó “Seven Wonders” (Siete Maravellas en inglés). Como me encanta el catalán (tanto como me encanta el csatellano, ¡tranquilos!), decidí en “Seven Wonders” en catalán. Cuando estaba haciendo este blog, intentando pensar en un nombre y un objetivo del blog, recordé mi reto de visitar todos las provincias de España. Seguramente hay al menos Siete Maravillas en cada provincia, ¿no? Y desde allí, nació este blog.

My future goals are to continue with looking for the Set Meravelles in each province, translating every entry into Spanish (I am trying to find a native speaker or two to help me proofread, as while I have that Hispanic Studies degree, I’m still bound to make a mistake (especialy with “por y para”).

Mis objetivos ahora son para seguir con buscar los Set Meravelles en cada provincia y traducir todas las entradas al castellano (estoy buscando un nativo para ayudarme editar…aunque hiciera la carerra Estudios Hispánicas (filologia castellana), ¡voy a hacer errores de vez en cuando! (Especialmente con “por” y “para”).

I’m also going to a new page reviewing the works of important Spanish directors and how they present The Greatest Peninsula in the World, probably starting in January. The first is going to be Victor Erice, then Alex de la Iglesia (putting off my personal fave and the most popular outside Spain, Pedro Almódovar).

También voy a empezar una página nueva para criticar las obras de directores importantes de España y como se presenta La Mejor Península del Mundo, probablemente para empezar en enero. El primer director será Victor Erice, y después Alex de la Iglesia (posponiendo mi director preferido y el director más popular fuera de España, Pedro Almódovar.

I have a lot of blog ideas running around in my head about travelling around this great country of at least 17 nations. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me for the next 50 entries!

Tengo muchas ideas para el blog en la cabeza sobre viajar en este gran país de al menos 17 naciones. Gracias por leer, y espero que sigas leyendo para los próximos 50 entradas!

Muchas gracias, moltes gracies, moltes mercis, eskerrik asko, mila esker, graças, obrigado, grazie mille, mahalo, ευχαριστίες, merci beaucoup, many thanks!

PS: It’s a total coincidence that this is posting on Thanksgiving!
PD: ¡Es una casualidad total que este está publicándose el Día de Acción de Gracias! Jaja.

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Sevilla…mi arma.

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For many people, Sevilla (or Seville for those English purists, but I’m calling it by its proper name) is the city they think of when they think of things that are typically Spanish. Full of Andaluz flair, passion and heat, Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city (after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia) at around 800,000 people. Flamenco was presumably born here (although the people of Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz feel differently and insist flamenco was born there). There is something enchanting about the streets where at any moment you could come across flamenco or a gitano (gypsy), the city of the Guadalquiver, the only river port of Spain (80 km or 50 miles from the Atlantic), the city that bakes in the summer with temperatures averaging above 40ºC/104ºF. While I personally feel Granada and Córdoba (Sevilla’s rivals) have more to offer, Sevilla sparks the souls (alma in Spanish) of many people. Most of Spain will joke “Sevilla, mi arma” due to the Andaluz dialect of Spanish, which the Sevillanos have even a harder to understand version with ceseo and seseo and cutting off most consonantes when they speak.

During the years of Franco, most of what was presented to the public at large was Andalucía. Sevilla is the capital of Andalucía. When many outsiders of Spain visit the country, they expect long, hot days, flamenco music, toreros (matadores/bullfighters), fiesta and siesta. This is due to the use of the Andalucía lifestyle to market Spain as Different. I think some Spanish still resent this marketing strategy nearly 40 years after his date. Who wants the world to think they’re lazy? And it’s not that the andaluces are lazy. They have created some of the most brilliant writers and artists (Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca and Pablo Picasso are just a few of the men who hail from Andalucía.) There’s a time for work, and there’s a time for play. In Andalucía, there’s always time for a cup of coffee with someone. This can be seen in Sevilla’s many bars and cafés, overflowing with people every night. And yes, the shops will close down for three hours between 2 and 5. While most of the biggest cities in Spain are losing any concept of the siesta due to tourists (a country should NEVER lose itself and cater to tourists no matter what country it is), the siesta is alive and well in Spain. After all, who wants to be out and about in 40ºC heat?

However, it took me three visits in Sevilla to find anything even closely resembling heat. My first journey to Sevilla was during my study abroad semester in Toledo in 2003. I had a friend studying in Sevilla, so I caught the AVE from Madrid to Sevilla and was there in about 2 hours. It was November, and I was greeted with a downpour. It rained the entire weekend I was there. I was also fighting a cold, and the rain did not help matters much. I didn’t let that deter me. I was only 21, and a little bit of rain was not going to keep me from seeing the Alcázar. This was the time Lorenzo Alcazar was providing alternatives to mobsters shooting wives in the head during labour on General Hospital, so I had to see this fortress, which today remains my favourite thing about Sevilla.

Sevilla was one of the last places I returned to on account of this. When I was toying with my second novel taking place in Sevilla, I went back to visit in February 2012. It’d be a good escape from Madrid, right? Wrong. It was the coldest weekend in 50 years in the Greatest Peninsula in the World. The pensión I was staying in didn’t have heating. The streets were empty, like a ghost town. Sevilla was just not equipped for cold weather. I returned to Madrid with my fourth case of farangitis (throat infection) of the school year.

I gave Sevilla a third chance on my way back from the Portuguese Algarve and Huelva in 2013. I’m glad I did, as this is the memory that stays with me. It was a pleasant upper 20ºs C in May, and the city was finally bursting at the seams with life and energy.

Sevilla is most definitely the heart of Andalucía, even if I will forever prefer Córdoba and Granada. Many people say Sevilla is the best of the province and are hard pressed to tell me “un pueblo con encanto” (a charming village) to visit, so I’m going to focus on sites in the city. If anyone has any meravelles from the rest of the province, by all means let me know! Also, apologies for not having better photos. I remember now my camera was broken during the 2012 trip, the 2013 trip was rushed, and 2003 was all film, not digital. (What’s film?) I’ll do what I can!

Set Meravelles

1. Alcázar    

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The Alcázar of Sevilla is much more beautiful than this picture shows. The Alcázar is the oldest royal palace still in use in Spain, and it is one of the most beautiful with spectacular gardens. It’s located next to the Cathedral and was developed from the old Moorish palace. Construction began in 1181 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I loved running around here in the rain in 2003, but 9 years later, I wasn’t feeling paying the hefty entry price (probably around 12€). I’m so Catalán with money!

2. Plaza de España

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Located in the Parque de Santa María, the Plaza de España was designed by Aníbal González for the 1929 Exposición Ibero-América. I thought I had seen anything Sevilla had to offer, but I had missed this beauty. It was my first stop on that brief 2013 trip. And it turned out to be a fave. Each one of the 50 provinces of Spain is represented with its own alcove. I immediately looked for my Spanish home Valencia and the province I had just discovered I was moving to two days before, Vizcaya. I was living in Madrid at the time and totally ignored it. It’s a crazy mix of styles that somehow works.

3. La Giralda y Catedral de Santa María de la Sede

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The Cathedral of Sevilla is the largest Gothic and third-largest cathedral in the entire world. The Catholics went BIG when they designed this beauty. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cathedral and it’s towering Giralda is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Spain.The Giralda comes from the old mosque but was conserved and is named for the weathervane on the top that turns (girar in Spanish). Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón) was buried here.

4. Guadalquivir

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I have fond memories of reading about this mighty river in my uni Medieval and Early Modern Spanish literature course. The Guadalquivir is the fifth largest in the peninsula at 657 kilometres long (394,2 miles) and starts in Jaén before ending in the Atlantic Ocean in Cádiz. The river plays an important part in Sevilla’s history.

5. Flamenco

Flamenco is the so-called traditional music of Spain. It plays an important part of the history and culture of Sevilla and grew out of the streets of the gitanos (gypsies). It was first mentioned in literature in 1774 but was around well before that. Dancing, guitar and the applause Lady Gaga would kill for making up this popular genre. Fun trivia fact: In Spanish, flamenco also means flame-coloured, flamingo or the name for the Flemish.

6. Torre de Oro

Built in the 13th Century, the “Golden Tower” is a watchtower on the Guadalquivir. It also served as a prison in the Middle Ages.It was nearly demolished after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, but the Sevillanos persisted in their complaints and the king at the time stopped the full demolition. It was rebuilt, and in 1992, made a sister tower of that awesome Torre de Belem in Portugal. It is now a museum.

7. Barrios de Triana y Macarena

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I’m not sure this is the neighbourhood, but is a great example of the streets in general of Sevilla. These two neighbourhoods are where you can find the real Sevilla, away from the Cathedral and Alcázar. The Triana is one of the most famous barrios in all of Spain on the other side of the Guadalquivir. Both are well worth the time to spend a while absorbing la vida sevillana.

Gorbeia, the Basque Everest. (1)

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Gorbea (Gorbeia in Basque/Euskera), is the highest mountain in the provinces of Vizcaya/Bizcaia and Álava/Araba in the Basque Country at 1482 metres high (4862 feet). It is one of the most important mountains for the Basques, who traditionally climb it the last day and/or first day of the year. I’ve heard many tales of its beauty and wonder since arriving in Bilbao last year, but I’ve never had the opportunity to go. It’s been on my list, but something else always got in the way. When you live in an area so rich in culture, history and natural beauty, it’s kind of hard to decide where to go when.

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On my quest to find some beautiful fall foliage, I finally decided to check out Gorbeia. I originally was going to take the bus from Bilbao to Vitoria-Gasteiz that stops in the villages, but rain here and according to Apple Weather in Zeanuri (a village of Gorbeia) gave me pause. I waited an hour, missing the bus but finishing an excellent Spanish film about two friends hiking in Aragón, Viaje a Surtsy, while waiting. The film inspired me to go ahead and just do it.

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By the time I arrived, the sun was coming out like Ty Herndon. Instead of getting off in Zeanuri, I was inspired to hop off the bus last-minute in the beautiful village of Areatza. This was what I was expecting Santa María de Cayón to look like last week (only non-Basque architecture.)  Santa María was beautiful, but Areatza was more special for me. Although it was hard to find a place with a decent tortilla de patata (potato omelette, I’ve lived in Bilbao for so long now that I cannot translate that as Spanish omelette, barkatu!)  I explored the village a bit before setting out on a paved trail. As it was my first time, I wanted to stick to the main roads as I knew it would be easy to get lost.

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I was met with amazing beauty and the last of the autumn foilage. I walked for about two hours before turning around to try to find something to eat back in Areatza. The place has no good pintxo bars for being so Basque, unfortunately. I had just missed the bus back to Bilbao, but the bus to Zeanuri came along, so I took it and explored Zeanuri a bit. It was nice, but Areatza was more visually appealing. Zeanuri, however, is the best place to explore Gorbeia if you have to rely on public transport from Bilbao.

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When I go back this winter, I will definitely catch the bus that stops in the villages along the way to Vitoria-Gasteiz and get off in Barazar. It’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to reaching the metal cross at the top of the mountain that spans two provinces.

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Gora Gorbeia! 

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Fitness. We keep fit in Spain, too.

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Me with Body Combat guru Dan Cohen in Nov. 2012

Once upon a time, I weighed 265 pounds, or 120 kilos.

Yep, you read that right. Between the years 2005 and 2007, I lost 100 pounds (45,5 kilos) by walking a lot, situps and pushups and giving up pop/soda/refrescos/fizzy drinks/etc. During my six years in Spain, I’ve weighed as little as 65 kilo (145 pounds) and as much as 78 kilo (171 pounds), but I’ve never gained much more than 20 kilos back. I would much rather be drinking Coke than water, but I know it’s not good for me and one Coke is a slippery road, so I just abstain all together.

2010 was about as rocky of a road as 2014 has been, and at the end of the year, I was at that 78 kilo edge. By no means fat, but I sure felt fat. After reading A 3 Metros Sobre Cielo by Federico Moccia and reading about the main character’s obsession with the gym and then seeing Mario Casas’ abs in the film that December, I made a New Year’s resolution of joining the gym. I was in Valencia at the time, and when I finally got paid for January, I went ahead and signed up for the gym.

My first gym was Abastos in Valencia, and it is one of my favourites. It has an incredible price (I think now it is about 35€) with top-notch instructors and top of the line facilities. What’s more impressive is it’s not a private gym but a polideportivo, a city-sponsered gym. The price is high for a polideportivo but you get so much more than many private gyms here.

That first week was tough. I started going every day, hitting the elliptical hard. The hottie monitor told me to try a bunch of classes and come back to him with which ones were working and which ones weren’t. I was nervous, but I did what he said. Body Balance, a mix of yoga and pilates, was kinda boring. The monitor laughed at my ineptitude of never having lifted weights before at the age of 29 when I tried Body Pump. But Body Combat was just right. The best monitor, Sergio, motivated us warriors to be the best we could be and also worked hard to make sure the class was boring (something my current gym would be keen to learn. We’ll get there in a moment.) I was only here for a few months, but I have fond memories. I got back down to 65 kilos extremely quickly, although I was still super scared of lifting weights. Alas, my destiny then was not Valencia and I found myself in Madrid.

I was in Madrid for two years, and when I had to move halfway through that period, my main thing was that it had to be close to Fisico. I think now the gym has changed hands and Oscar Peiro, the BEST COMBAT MONITOR EVER and his wife Sara Rodríguez (congrats to them on their new baby) are owners of the new Smart Club. I’m pretty sure they kept the awesomeness of Fisico. Oscar is friends and has trained with Dan Cohen, the guy in charge of Les Mills Body Combat and who choreographs the class. Cohen is responsible for a new release every three months and has visited the gym on occasion. I still am excited about that class I had with him in November 2012. It might have been the highlight of two hellish years in Madriz.

In addition to awesomely led group classes (shot out to Mario’s Combat and Pump classes, as he’s the only one who doesn’t make me feel ashamed to go to the Pump classes!) , Fisico/Smart Club has state-of-the-art equipment and is at the forefront of any fitness trend in the world. I began to build muscle thanks to Nieves and her awesome tablas she made for me, and I kept around 70 kilos during my time there. I have to admit the stress of my job made it harder for me to stay away from the sweets, but 70 kilo is a good weight for me.

While Bilbao is an amazing city, the “Capital of the World” you might say, it has yet to show me a gym that I truly have loved. I have been spoiled by Fisico I guess. My first month, I went to the polideportivo at the Alhóndiga, a truly fantastic achievement of a building I have to admit. However, their lack of Combat meant it was not to stay. I signed up for a new gym just opening, iFitness, at 29,99 a month. I’m not a fan. Being a cheaper club meant that everyone and their brother and their brother’s ex girlfriend’s ex boyfriend’s boyfriend joins. It’s always crowded, and their classes left much to be desired. The sound system, ever so important for motivation in a Combat class, was worse than my own personal one. I stayed there the three months I had paid for and left. I haven’t been at TwentyFit, another popular low-cost gym in Bilbao, but from what I hear, they are better organized. However, it’s even more crowded. Also, partly due to the medication I was on and partly due to my lack of motivation to go to iFitness, I found myself back at 78 kilos.

At the moment, I am at Metropolitan. It’s about 80€ a month, but the accommodations are incredible. You get what you pay for. However, I feel that I am always being sold some product or something. I sprained my ankle this year at the time I was taking advantage of two free sessions with a personal trainer (it was on my off day between the two sessions), and I feel the personal trainer was more concerned about landing me as a client than the recovery of ankle. He never was able to tell me how much regular sessions would cost, but I’m sure as much as a month at the gym itself. Their schedule also conflicts a lot with mine, and I am only able to make it to one Combat class a week. The Combat class is severely comprised because the Zumba people are impatient and don’t want to give us the needed wind-down time. They also keep the same Les Mills choreography for three months at a time instead of switching it up, and switching it up is what keeps us Combaters motivated to come back. Despite this, I am relatively content with the gym due to the facilities. I hear the new one in Begoña is even nicer and has a better schedule, but this one is just five minutes from my house and the one in Begoña is a good 20 minutes’ walk.

While traveling around the Greatest Peninsula in the World, I tend to wake up with situps and pushups, and I’m now throwing in some squats and lunges too. I’m currently 68 kilo and am learning to make healthier eating designs. I do miss those doner kebabs though…but a Menú del día is healthier and keeps me energetic for the afternoon of seeing the world.

How do you keep fit while on the road?

Barcelona. There is a province too.

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Whenever I travel to one of Spain’s province capitals and am able to stay the night, I try to ensure that I have adequate time to visit one of the villages of the province. One of the writers from the important literary movement Generación de ’98 (I believe it was Ortega and Gasset, but I am not 100% sure on this. I don’t want to attribute it to the wrong writer, but I do know it comes from the awesome Gen 98 writers.) said the True Spain can only be found in the villages. This is so true, not only in Spain but anywhere you go. I am a hardcore left-wing liberal guy, but I know all the Republicans and even most of us lefties would agree that would agree that New York City has very little to do with the rest of the state of New York, let alone the country. Barcelona is an incredible city, but there are so many more treasures to be found outside the hustle and bustle of the city. Some of the places I’ve already discovered. Others require a car and/or more time, money and patience with public transport (IE spending the night in the village as there is only one bus a day!) than I have. At any rate, without having actually LIVED in Barcelona, I have to say I’ve done a bang-up job of discovering the Set Meravelles. 

Set Meravelles

1. Montserrat

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The mountain, abbey and sanctuary have become as popular of a destination as the city of Barcelona itself. For those who want to be in touch with nature and avoid the tourists, this is not the place to go. However, it really is worth the hour train ride and the massive packs of people setting out to see this incredible place. Montserrat, Catalán for “saw” due to the edges that appear to have been sawed into the rock, is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range and actually has three peaks, so it could be possible to go hiking and find solitude. Nevertheless, it is the abbey and sanctuary of the Virgin of Montserrat, reached by a funicular or the Montserrat Rack Railway. The train from Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona will leave you near the funicular. For me, despite the tourists (we know I like my solitude to get in touch with nature!), it is perhaps one of the Set Meravelles of the entire Greatest Peninsula in the World.

2. Sitges

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Sitges, 35 kilometres (21 miles) from Barcelona, has a reputation of being a gay and lesbian vacation destination, but there is so much more than the nightlife here. It’s a picturesque village on the sea with white buildings and cobblestone streets that could actually find itself at home in Andalucía. However, the natives would much prefer to speak Catalán than here “Sevilla mi arma”. It has 17 beaches, and it is said that 35% of its 26.000 permanent residents come from outside the Greatest Peninsula in the World. I found myself here by coincidence during a Carnival parade in 2011. There are a few museums, and for me, it is easily to imagine artistic and creative types finding themselves a home here.

3. Vic

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Vic is a city of 41,000 people located 69 kilometres (41 miles) north of Barcelona and 60 kilometres (36 miles) from Girona. It is a crossroads of sorts in Catalunya. The Catalán film (and the first film in Catalán to be considered for the Best Foreign Film Oscar) Pa negre takes place here, and it was an important focus during the beginning of the War of Spanish Succession. It offers a glimpse of the Real Catalunya and is a quaint place worth exploring. It also has a lot of old Roman ruins as it was an important Roman city back in the day.

4. Arenys de Mar y su mar

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A small town of 15,000 people, Arenys de Mar is a small city on the sea. “Arenys” is Catalán for Sand (arena in Spanish), and “Mar” is sea in both of the official languages here. The woman in the tourist agency was impressed with my Catalán, and this town is a place to practice your Catalán. For me, the best part was the hike along the coast. The tide was coming in, and at one point I had a choice of taking the boring sidewalk/pavement along the train tunnel or jump across the rocks. The tide won, so I had a very wet trip back to Barcelona.

5. Cardona (to be discovered)

Cardona was almost my village daytrip destination during my November 2014 trip to Barcelona. Located 90 km/51 miles northwest of Barcelona, it has a castle and a Parador. It is also home of a major salt deposit. Located in the mountains, the town of 5000 people seems to be a perfect place for nature and to practice Catalán. One day, one day…

6. Rupit i Pruit (to be discovered)

Rupit was another major consideration for the recent trip. 98 km or 59 miles north of Barcelona, the village of 300 people is located 800 metres above sea level. It’s one of the northernmost villages of the provinces and is extremely hard to arrive without a car. It would be worth the effort due to its natural beauty, medieval streets and incredible views. The best places are often hard to get to!

7. Puente de Diablo/Pont de Diable de Martorell (to be discovered)

The bridge between Martorell and Castellbisbal over the Riu Llobregat is an old Roman bridge originally constructed around the year 10 BC. Destroyed by a river in the 12th century, it was reconstructed with Gothic architecture soon after and restored in the 18th century. The Republicans of the Spanish Civil War destroyed it in their retreat from the fascists, but it was reconstructed in 1963 with the Gothic design of 1283. According to a local legend, the Devil himself offered to build the bridge overnight for an elderly Señora who crossed the river by wading daily. Of course, the Devil being who he is, would do it only in exchange for the soul of the first person to cross the bridge. The bridge was built overnight, and Satan awaited the Señora to cross the bridge. She came around with her bucket to fetch the water, but instead of crossing the bridge right away, she let a cat cross it first. The Devil had to be satisfied with the cat’s soul, and to this day, the cat’s soul accompanies whoever crosses the bridge. I knew I was a dog person for a reason! (Meaning…the Devil has cat’s souls? The soulless creatures once had souls? xD)

Santa María de Cayón. Cantabria Infinita.

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Ever since this quaint rural village came on my radar this summer, I have been obsessed with seeing it. It looked so beautiful on Google photos, so rustic, so me. Now that I have finally been paid and found myself with an unexpected day off that coincided with a rather sunny day, I hit the road to neighbouring province and comunidad autónoma Cantabria, hoping to find some beautiful autumn foliage that is still somehow eluding me mid-November. Spoiler alert: I still haven’t found it. I think I’m wanting too much colour!

I previously wrote about Cantabria this summer, but I am always up to discover new places and possibly a new meravella. Unfortunately, today was not the case. I had built up Santa María de Cayón wayyyy too much in my head beforehand, and while beautiful, it was not what I had expected.

I caught the 9:30 bus this morning from Bilbao with no problem, and the bus actually left and arrived on time. Congratulations, ALSA! I was planning on chilling a few hours in Santander, but I saw there was a bus to Sarón, two kilometres from my ultimate destination of Santa María de Cayón at 11:30. I figured I could catch that bus and hike into Sta. María de Cayón, have lunch and return to Santander on the 16:38 bus to catch a 18.00 bus back to Bilbao.

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Sarón is a small village without much to see, but it was happening for being small and rural. I had my café con leche before setting on my hike, noting a restaurant in town. The two kilometres to Sta. María de Cayón have some beautiful scenery but follow the main road. I’m sure there are many more beautiful trails, but this was a “I need an escape” last-minute sort of trip, so I did what I knew wouldn’t get me lost. I played with some nice burros (donkeys) and saw lots of cows and sheep and even a duck on the way to the village.

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As people are prone to do on short 2 km hikes, I arrived at my destintation in short time. Santa María de Cayón has a nice town hall (ayuntamiento) and an old Roman Church, but there is little more to see.

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What it does have in plenty is beautiful scenery of the mountains and the River Pisueño. It’s worth a stop if it’s along the way to other destinations, and the natural park nearby has got to be amazingly beautiful. Still, I would have been better off if I had a car to make a series of stops in this beautiful area, or to have gotten up earlier in the morning to go hiking from village to village.

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You live, you learn. I spent some time contemplating the small river before heading back to Sarón.

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Sarón had a variety of restaurants, and I found a Menú del día for only 8,50 at Mesón Alquilara, which had a great decor and great food.

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Melón con jamón, pollo asado (roast chicken) con patatas and tarta de whiskey for dessert. I’ll be headed to the gym for sure tomorrow.

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In the end, I managed to catch an early bus back to the Capital of the World, Bilbao to reflect on a gorgeous day and a much-needed escape. Even if I thought it would be more, it was still a beautiful, remote place, which I find I am falling in love with more and more every day.

Cantabria Infinita indeed.

Barcelona. You are a dream.

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At the Lady Gaga concert in Barcelona at Palau Sant Jordi this Saturday evening (Nov. 8), the diva said something very true that hit home when taking a break from dancing and singing her hits.

You are a dream, Barcelona. A f****** dream.

It was in 2003 when I first visited Barcelona, and I have been there ten times now. I have had a lot of close calls with almost being able to live there, but so far nothing has panned out. I now have a B1 certificate in Catalán and am preparing the B2 next year. (My degree is in Hispanic Studies (Spanish), but I’d probably have a C2 if I had money to take the DELE). Everything about Barcelona is a dream. Despite being a city of over a million people, Barcelona has incredible mountains like Tibedabo and Montjuïc, and it has an awesome beach in Barceloneta (just don’t go there alone at night.) It is more international than the Spanish capital Madrid, as you can find any language being spoken here. I’ve read that Barcelona is the second most visited European city now after either Paris or London. It’s overtaken Rome (and the other city) for good reason. It is at once an extremely modern city with a very close connection to its past.

This trip wasn’t the best trip I’ve experienced. As so many other creative types are, I am prone to anxiety and depression, and I’ve been fighting a major bout with both for the past several months. This trip also coincided with the news that back in the States, my aunt (who is only 45) is in the hospital after a stroke. (Her prognosis for recovery is super good, but it’s still scary and worrying). It rained Saturday morning, the time I had set aside to explore La Ruta de les Aïgues close to Tibedabo. And there were problems with the pensión I was staying in. Great location in Plaza Urquinaona, but when it’s cheap, you get what you pay for. Runners who don’t speak Spanish, Catalán or even English. Yet they can find a job there, and me who is an English teacher bilingual in Spanish and halfway to being trilingual in Catalán can’t get jack? Yeah, it’s a bit infuriating.

However, I made the most of the situation. I got to visit a beautiful village (look for its write-up next week as I look for the Set Meravelles in Barcelona province outside the capital) called Arenys de Mar. I found a great new gay bar called Museum decorated like a Renaissance Art Museum (hence the name). I successfully avoided Les Rambles, that all-too busy street which can be overwhelming at the best of times. I did miss out on some of my favourite neighbourhoods like Gràcia, Barri Gotic and Born. But I’ll be back soon, I know.

Barcelona is a city that has something for everyone, even bitter, jaded, travelers like me! It’s hard to decide on only Set Meravelles for this incredible city. But I’m going to try! Try by cheating on how I write it up. Plaça de Espanya can be Montjuïc, right? I am dying to visit Poble Espanyol, but I haven’t yet, so it doesn’t make the list.

Set Meravelles de Barcelona Ciutat

1. Montjuïc

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Montjuïc is the mountain (or hill) right next to the port. There is a funicular that will take you halfway, and you can walk or take a skylift the rest of the way. It has a castle that was a prison during the Civil War where many atrocities took place. It offers stunning views of the city and Mediterranean. And it is also the home of Palau Sant Jordi, where I have seen Lady Gaga twice, the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic flame. It also is the home of an impressive (from the outside at least) art museum and if you climb the steps from Plaça de Espanya, you can see more incredible views of the city. I found out this trip that there is a water fountain show to the tune of Freddie Mercury’s “Barcelona”.

2. Tibidabo

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Joey Tribbani may not have actually hiked here, but it does exist. There are more incredible views, plus that Ruta de les Aïgues I’m dying to hike. There is also an old amusement park still in operation (but don’t expect Port Aventura!)

3. Sagrada Familia i Parc Güell (Gaudi)

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The Architecture of Gaudi is present all through the city, but these are the two most famous places. I’m lucky that I had already visited Parc Güell twice before as now I hear it comes with an entrance fee. I know Spain and Catalunya are in crisis and need the tourism money, but it is still sad that they will make a Euro when and where they can. The Sagrada Familia remains impressive and unfinished. I haven’t ever entered, but it is on my bucket list.

4. Les Rambles del Mar

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Barcelona built a cool shopping centre and a cool wooden drawbridge right on the sea. I usually indulge in a Starbucks and sit and people watch or sunset watch and daydream of a life in Barcelona with a decent job and a great husband and two golden retrievers. One of my fave places to visit.

5.  Barça y Camp Nou

Més que un club, Barça is a great football team. They have a great stadium I have yet to visit as tickets are about half of my monthly paycheque. Força Barça!

6. Barri Gotic i Barri Born

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These two neighbourhoods on the right side of Les Rambles are a fantastic place to lose oneself in. You can find the Cathedral of Barcelona, the Cathedral of the Sea (the one that Falcones book was written about), town hall and tons of chill bars to hang. There’s a reason why the tourists love it. I have to give these barris credit where credit is due. Picasso has a museum here too.

7. El Cementerio de Libros Olviados

One of my top 10 reads ever is La Sombra del Viento/The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. While I’d rather forget the third book ever happened, the Cemetary of Forgotten Books inspired me when I first read the book in English in 2007. I read the sequel in Spanish in 2008 (El Juego de Ángel) and was once again transported to the cemetary of Forgotten Books. On one of my 10 trips, I found a bookshop designed to be the cemetery (I like to think it is as real as Hogwarts (Hogwarts is real, right? I hate being a muggle!) in el Barri Gotic. However, I have only found it once. I regret never buying anything there. And I hope to find it again one day.

Note: I have so many much better photos of BCN, but they have been lost over the years. Darn.

Barcelona Part 3. Els viatjes 6-9.

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I will be returning to my favourite stomping ground for the amazing 10th visit from November 6-9 to see the indescribable Lady Gaga in concert for the third time. Barcelona is an incredible city with the world’s best fútbol team (Més que un club!) with a ton of history and culture and places to be discovered. To commemorate this remarkable occasion, I’ll be doing a series of blogs this week about my third favourite city in the world.

In the autumn of 2011, I was gung-ho on making Barcelona my home at anyway possible. They say that whatever you’re doing at midnight when the new year rings in will be what you’re doing for the first year. So I went to eat my grapes per the Spanish tradition of eating a grape for the first 12 chimes of the bell in the New Year in Plaça de Catalunya. You can’t get more Catalan than that.

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It didn’t work. I was sentenced to another year at a great school in a horrible (for me) city, Madrid. It was one of my best holidays, though, having experienced the beauty that is the province of Girona beforehand.

I tried booking a flight to Italia for my Semana Santa 2012 in Italia, il bel paese, from Barcelona. I had my AVE (High-speed train) booked to and from Madrid to arrive in plenty of time to catch the flight.

Guess what? There was a huge general strike in Spain the day my plane arrived, and by taking the bus after work, I would not be able to arrive in time to catch my flight. I was able to get my money refunded from RENFE, for the most part, but the plane was gone. I went ahead and went to Barcelona, somehow finding a pensión (though not one I’d recommend) with a free room that was at a decent price to spend a few days in Barcelona. I hiked Tibedabo and tried to avoid the massive hordes of tourists everywhere. Massive hordes of people give me panic attacks. It wa this trip when I began to realise that as much as I love Barcelona, perhaps it would not be the place for me.

I went back to the States for the first time in three years, catching a flight from Barcelona-Prat instead of Madrid so I could continue with the Christmas holiday tradition of going to Barcelona. I was sad I couldn’t find any “calendari de bombers” like Bilbao has and Valencia used to have. The trip to the States was uneventful, and I had my first of many last Starbucks EVER when I got back to Barcelona in 2013.

The next trip was to see Lady Gaga in concert in 2012. Lady Gaga is always amazing, even if at this show she was coming down with the flu and unbeknownst to spectators, was vomiting behind the stage.

Trip #9 was in September 2013. I remember finding myself at an event for Catalán literature near the Cathedral in Barri Gotic. They were so impressed with my Catalán abilities. This trip too was filled with too many tourists and not enough Catalans as my pensión was unfortuantely near the Rambles. Les Rambles is an awesome site and there’s a reason for the tourists, but when you’re wanting to practice your Catalán, Les Rambles is NOT the place to be. I was even greeted in ENGLISH when I entered a bar in the Barri Gotic. I then left the bar and found another close by that glared at people who spoke English or Spanish and was pretty damn Catalán-Only. I understand the need for English speakers in touristy places, but there are many tourists who are wanting to learn about YOUR culture and YOUR language.

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While there were some good parts of that trip, it was not one of my better trips to Barna. The city is changing quickly and I remember reading somehwere that it is currently the second most visited city in Europe after Paris, I believe. While the tourists provide a steady income to a country in crisis, this is creating quite a controversy amongst the citizens. While the rest of the comunidad autonoma is trying to find a way to make peace with Spain and become more autonomous and/or independent, Barcelona is in its own fight with itself. Should they welcome tourists and try to show their hospitable side, or do they withdraw to protect their strong culture and pride? It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future, especially as they put some finishing touches on the Sagrada Familia. The tourists aren’t going to stop any time soon barring an ebola outbreak (One thing Madrid can boast is that they had ebola before Barcelona. Barcelona still has yet to have their first case of ebola! There should be a sarcasm font there for those who can’t detect it :))

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I’m excited to see how Trip Number 10 unfolds. Coming soon, the unfolding of this adventure, 7 Meravelles of Barcelona City and 7 Meravelles of Barcelona Province. Stay tuned!

Barcelona, Part 2. Els viatges 2-5.

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I will be returning to my favourite stomping ground for the amazing 10th visit from November 6-9 to see the indescribable Lady Gaga in concert for the third time. Barcelona is an incredible city with the world’s best fútbol team (Més que un club!) with a ton of history and culture and places to be discovered. To commemorate this remarkable occasion, I’ll be doing a series of blogs this week about my third favourite city in the world.

After being brainwashed and manipulated for so many years by the madrileños that Catalunya was evil and the devil and all things bad, when I returned to the Greatest Peninsula in the World in 2008 after a five-year absence, the goal was Madrid. I would be able to feel free to be me and finally live in a big city with all kinds of opportunities. I thought I would prefer Valencia though, being on the beach and the gay web series Lo que Surja making it look like an amazing place to live.

They gave me Linares, a small city in Jaén instead.

So it was my first trip to Italy when I thought it would be a good idea to fly out of Girona into Pisa, not really realising that despite being in the same country, Barcelona was an extremely long bus ride from Andalucía. 12 hours. I had a couple of hours to kill in Barcelona when I didn’t see anything of interest outside the Arc of Triomf close to the bus station. I had Starbucks and tried ordering in Catalán (mocca blanc). I felt overwhelmed, but I was going on maybe 3 hours sleep from that night bus trip. On the way back from Italia, I had a night, which I spent mostly sleeping after going for a bocadillo de jamón. I was back in “Spain” and had missed jamón. I also made a quick trip to the arguably most well-known tourist attraction in Barcelona, la Sagrada Familia. I didn’t enter but remained impressed by its awesomeness. I left Barcelona not enjoying the city.

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A year later when my partner-in-crime-in-not-being-ex-pat-but-actually-eSpanish Ashley talked me into going back for a Christmas jaunt, I was first reluctant. I was unsure of how long I would be in Spain and wasn’t left with a good impression of just being in Barcelona for maybe 20 hours, 8 of them sleeping, when I had no money whatsoever. I wanted to see other places and work on my goal of seeing all 17 comunidades autonomas de España. She talked me into it, and on 25 December 2009, I boarded an AVE (high-speed train) destined for Barcelona.

Hace seis años hice el mismo trayecto, pero al revés, de Barcelona a Madrid.

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Over the four-day vacation, I fell in love with Barcelona. I was standing on the beach on Christmas Day! How cool was that? Ohio was under a foot of snow. I didn’t make it back to Arena that trip, but I did go to the Disco of the Moment, Metro, near Plaça Urquiona (more of a Basque name than Catalán, oi?) We had a lot of fun watching the gays, even if her vest went missing at the bar. We went to Montserrat and met with a rain storm. We were able to sneak on the train for free and somehow got away with it by playing dumb guiri.

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I had Basque pintxos for the first time at a chain restaurant near Plaça de Catalunya. She showed me Parc Güell, which back then was free. Pluto also used to be a planet, but things change for the worse and we just have to deal. We also went to the Sagrada Familia but didn’t enter. I still haven’t actually been inside because paying money for an unfinished cathedral and still having to wait in line/queue for hours despite having bought tickets beforehand online isn’t my bag.

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I wanted a chance to explore the city on my own, so in March 2011, I went back. This trip, I explored the area of Gracia, which is less touristy and a hipster-bohemian-posh vibe. Only the Catalans could manage to be all three at once. I stayed near Poble-Sec and went out both nights, making my way back to Arena. During the 1950s and 60s, Barça had a lot of Polish players, and as the Catalans have a reputation of not wanting to be called Spanish, they are called “polacas” by some right-wingers who refuse to ever step foot in Catalunya. Leave it to me to meet a cute Polish boy who I am still friends with today. This trip I also crossed Tibidabo off my list of places to see.

I was just outside of Barcelona, hiking in the foothills of Mount Ti-bi-dah-bo…

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Anyone who has seen Friends will recognise this quote. While I found my way up to the funicular and the old amusement park, it just wasn’t the same as Joey and Rachel made it out to be. It does offer spectacular views of the city. Once again, I explored the parks of Montjuic and fell in love with the city all over again.

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Trip 5 came a few months later. I was having visa issues, and as I was planning on attending the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.) They were helpful at the Univeristat, but as I wouldn’t have paid the matricula by the date the visa expired, I would have to wait. They told me not to fear as I would have three months in which I could still apply.

This trip was quick, less than 24 hours due to a lack of funds to stay longer. I do remember exploring Parc Ciutadella and daydreaming once again at Rambles del Mar.

It would be a full 9 months before I returned to Barcelona...to be continued.

Oh yeah, one word of advice. Barça is the name for the best fútbol club in the world (Més que un club!). Do NOT ever call the city or province Barça. It is BCN, its airport code, or for a term of endearment, Barna. The Barceloneses feel as strongly about this as they do their opinion about whether they’re Spanish or not. Visca Barna i Força Barça!

Barcelona, Part 1: La mevas primeras impressions de Barcelona.

I will be returning to my favourite stomping ground for the amazing 10th visit from November 6-9 to see the indescribable Lady Gaga in concert for the third time. Barcelona is an incredible city with the world’s best fútbol team (Més que un club!) with a ton of history and culture and places to be discovered. To commemorate this remarkable occasion, I’ll be doing a series of blogs this week about my third favourite city in the world.

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It was in 2003 when I traveled to Barcelona for the first time. I was a very young and naïve 21-year-old, about to have the first hostel experience of his life, traveling alone for the first time in his life, and exploring the streets of a foreign city on his own for the first time in his life. My Spanish level was a lot lower than I thought it was (I don’t even want to read any Spanish I wrote from that time in my life!) The memories I have from this first trip? I took a boat cruise along the harbour, climbed the Statue of Christopher Columbus, went to the Museu de Picasso and walked along the streets of Barceloneta. I fell in love with the Mare Magnum and spent a lot of time people (and hot boy) watching on the Pont Les Rambles del Mar. I walked a whole kilometre from Mare Magum to Plaça de Catalunya. I explored  the Olympic Stadium on Montjuic. At night, I went to my very first gay disco, Arena. I stayed up all night two nights in a row and barely slept.

As the sun was setting over Montjuic, I realised something.

I wanted to live in Spain. More specifically, I wanted to live in Barcelona. I loved everything about this city. It was love at first sight. And CATALÁN WAS THE COOLEST THING EVER.

As I was studying Spanish for a semester in Toledo, I would later be convinced that it was Madrid that I wanted to live in, the Catalán language was evil and the Cataláns were even more evil, and Madrid was where I needed to be.

They were totally wrong, and my Spanish dream became converted into Madrid. That Spanish dream turned into a nightmare for so many reasons.

11 years later, I am returning to Barcelona for the 10th time on the weekend some sort of something about something that I don’t think anyone in Catalunya can explain is going to take place on 9N (November 9) about whether they want to stay in Spain. The whole thing is illegal, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what is actually happening as it changes hour to hour. I’ll be on the bus back to Bilbao as the whole thing unravels.

The hostel I stayed in that trip is no longer in business (no big surprise there), and Barcelona has changed tremendously in the past 10 years as now you are more likely to hear English than Catalán or even Spanish in the streets. I find it offensive to enter a bar and be greeted in English when I want to practice el meu català. The city feels less Spanish and Catalán than ever and more international-could-be-anywhere do to the hordes of tourists.

I have never quite been able to make Barcelona my home. I now speak Catalán, I support FC Barcelona with all my heart, despite their treatment of David Villa grrrrr, and along with Madrid and Valencia, it is one of the cities I can say I have been to every year that I’ve lived in the Greatest Peninsula of the World. Who knows what the future has in store for me? However, thanks to the fact its new just-like any-European-city-due-to-more-tourists-than-residents vibe (I’m so anti-globalization and so KEEP YOUR CULTURE), if I ever to migrate to Catalunya, I’ll be more like to be in Girona.

I just did a look back on my private, for myself blog, which I’ve kept since 2001, and I found something I want to share. I’d like to believe my writing has improved some in the past 11 years. I know my Spanish and my travel skills have.

From Oct. 26, 2003…my first impressions on the capital of the Catalán world.

Last night, I was sitting at a gay bar in Barcelona, sipping my Barcardi Breezer Sandia (watermelon) that the bartender recommended. And I saw him. My dream boy. The guy I could spend the rest of my life with. There were sexier boys there, but sexiness is not the main quality I want in a boy. He was cute, definitely. He had the brown hair brown eyes (¡Era un morenito!) that is “my type” of boy. The more I watched him, the more I could tell he was what I wanted in my dream boy. Just the way he talked to his friends, his mannerisms, etc. You could tell he was quiet, intelligent, spoke Spanish (obviously), and had the qualities I would want in a guy.

I left without talking to him. Of course, what did you expect from me? Do I regret it? Not really. I would’ve loved to have talked to him, but he was in major conversation with his friends. (An excuse). Although I want a relationship really bad, I don’t want the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with to walk into my life right this second. I’m not ready for it.

Yet it would be wonderful to have him in it.

And Barcelona, you ask? It has replaced London as my favourite European city, and yes, after a nine-year ride at the top, has probably knocked Seattle as my all time favourite city. It was just amazing. Except for the prostitutes trying to pick me up on Las Ramblas. I could definitely live without that. I saw so many beautiful things while there, and I had a blast. I could and probably should go into details, but I don’t really have time and that sort of stuff goes into my travel journal.

I got to see a hot Canadian shirtless this weekend. Hostels aren’t all that bad.

I went out to the gay bars and discotecas both Friday and Saturday night. The gay salsa discoteca was probably the best one. I even danced there. If you paid 5€, you got a free drink and could go to any of the four Arena discos all located on the same block. The one Arena left a bad taste in my mouth both nights. I spent about 40 minutes crying in the corner last night for reasons I’m not getting into at this moment in time.

And this afternoon I woke up to a chico guapo de España next to me. Oh, don’t get excited. I took a nap on the train back.

The more things change….the more the stay the same.