Tarragona. Where Rome and Catalunya collide.

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It used to be a tradition to go to Catalunya every Christmas break, so when I went back to the States in 2012 for my first Christmas with family since 2007, I wanted my flight to be from Barcelona. I was adamant about that, despite living in Madrid. On my way back, I gave myself time to tick another province off my to-do list…Tarragona.

Tarragona is a city of 138,000 people located an hour or so from Barcelona. The province is the southern most of the Catalan provinces, and the capital city is famous for its Roman monuments. Most people think of Salou and Port Aventura when they think of Tarragona, but me being me, I think of the Roman monuments. I love the Roman theatre that is right on the sea.

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I only had one day in Tarragona unfortunately. These things happen when you’re rushed for time and jetlagged from the flight back from the States (like I am writing this entry two years later!). I caught a morning bus from Barcelona, where I was staying. My first impressions were that it was a typical city of the Greatest Peninsula in the World, nothing too exciting. That’s the problem with the areas around the bus and train stations. They’re interchangeable in most cities. When I got to the casco antiguo (historic centre), I fell in love with the city and its history. I bought a combined ticket to visit the most important monuments and had time to see 5 of the 6. I tried to practice my catalán, which at the time I was in my first year of studying; however, they responded in castellano (Castilian Spanish) so I went with the flow. There are also various old houses worth visiting. The day went by fast, and I had gotten the return ticket for too early. I could’ve spent a few more hours or another day exploring. As it is, there are many places in the province I would like to visit one day.

One thing worth mentioning, Tarragona is said to have the most expensive taxis in all of Spain.

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Tarragona Romana

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Known as Tarraco to the Romans, Tarragona still has many Roman ruins that can be visited today. I missed seeing the aqueduct 4 km (2 miles) north of the city and the Tower of the Scipios 6 km (4 miles) away. I also didn’t have time to see the Forum. I was able to see the amphitheatre on the sea, the circus, the capital/citadel, the walls and the Pretorium tower. Tarragona is one of the most important Roman ruins in the peninsula, along with Mérida in Extremadura and Cartegena in Murcia. The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Catedral de Tarragona

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The Cathedral of Tarragona blends Roman and Gothic styles and was declared a national monument 110 years ago in 1905. Construction began in 1154 and the “new” cathedral began in 1331. It was restored in the 1990s. During the restoration, they discovered a temple to Augustus.

Reus (yet to discover)

The city name Reus (population 101,000) is said to come from the Celtic word “red” from “reddis/redis” which meant crossroads, or from the Latin word for prisoners, which meant it was a Roman prison. Choose carefully which tale you believe! At one time, Reus was the second-most important city in Catalunya until Tarragona and Lleida overtook it in the 20th century. Today it is the 9th largest city in Catalunya and has an airport popular with Ryan Air flights, making it a popular tourist destination. One of the sites of interest is a centre for the famous Gaudí.

Castells de Valls (yet to discover)

Catalunya is famous for its “castells” or human towers. The small city of Valls, population 25,000, is famous for both the castells and a green onion known as calçot. Although the castells are a staple of festivals throughout Catalunya, the ones in Valls are rather famous. At a calçotada, you can try recently harvested calçots and maybe see a castell.

Montblanc (yet to discover)

Located close to the Prades mountains, Montblanc is a medieval village of around 7400 people. The village is famous as the Legend of Saint George (known around these parts as Sant Jordi) and the dragon is said to have occurred here. Today Sant Jordi is celebrated in Catalunya by giving books and is connected to Día del Libro (Day of the Book) as it’s also the same day Shakespeare and Cervantes were said to have died. Today you can still see the walls of the village and take a stroll through the medieval streets.

Tortosa (yet to discover) 

Located on the Ebro River, Tortosa, home of 34,000 habitants, is the home of the Castillo de la Suda, an important castle dating back to Roman and Muslim rule. Tortosa was recaptured by the Christians during the Second Crusade. Today it is part of the Camino de Santiago del Ebro, one of the lesser known caminos. It also has a cathedral and magnificent views.

Salou (yet to discover)

 Located 10 kilometres from Reus and Tarragona, Salou is a major vacation destination for much of Spain (especially the Basque Country. I hear you can hear more Euskera (Basque) on the streets than Catalán during peak holiday seasons!) It’s home to many beaches and, most famously, the Port Aventura theme park.

Girona…a Catalán and Dalí experience.

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One of my favourite Christmases was the Christmas I spent in Girona in 2011. Granted, I left for the trip on the 26th, so I had spent Christmas in Madrid, but it’s the spirit of things. Everything was still decorated for Christmas, and Sant Esteve (Saint Stephen) is an important day in Catalunya. For those who haven’t heard of this amahzing (I’ve been watching Happy Endings, so read that in a “Penny voice”) place, it’s the province between Barcelona and France on the Catalán coast, la Costa Brava. Girona is probably most known for its beaches, but it also has some incredible sites in the Pyrenees too that I’m dying to explore.

My first time in Girona (Gerona in Spanish, but officially it’s the Catalán spelling and pronunciation Girona) was actually in 2008 for a connecting flight to Italia. I was still getting a grasp of Spanish geography at that time and thought flying from Girona to Italia would be a good idea when I was living in Andalucía. I still can’t believe I was ever so naïve. I came to the conclusion that it had to be a popular place for tourist in the summer based on this brief time at the airport.

In 2011, I had the chance to return and explore both the capital city and the province. I wanted to ring in the new year in Barcelona in hopes that by being in the city at the stroke of midnight, it would make fate transfer me to Barcelona. No such luck. I digress. This is Girona’s time to shine. I spent a few days in the capital city and making day trips to explore the beautiful province. I arrived via the night train from Madrid going on little sleep. Excitement and café amb llet (café con leche in Catalán) kept me going as I found the hostal in the city centre and began to explore the beautiful city.

The capital city of Girona has some amazing views. It’s located at the heart of four rivers with a ton of bridges (with a lot of locks on the bridges from young couples wanting to demonstrate their forever love, it’s a thing) and you can see the mountains in the distance. I remember walking along the walls and watching the sunset from high upon the old town near the cathedral.

The next day I did the typical trip to Cadaques and Figueres. The Dalí museums were a bit expensive for my budget, but that doesn’t change the fact these places are incredibly beautiful. No wonder they attract so many tourists year round. I walked along the coast for a while before having lunch and catching a bus to Figueres. I’ll be honest, for Dalí’s home town, there is not much else beside his museum. It is well worth checking out, especially for fans of him. (He is the only artist I can truly say I admire. I’m a book, music and film guy, and art goes over my head. However, Dalí seems to have experienced the same weird nightmares I do, so I can at least appreciate him.)

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The last day of my Girona experience, I went to see one of the most beautiful bridges in the Greatest Peninsula in the World. I am a great aficionado of bridges, perhaps because I love being around water so much. The bridge in Besalú is one of the coolest bridges, and the city has a medieval flare.

I have yet to return to Girona, but I am dying for an opportunity. The capital has a distinct northern European vibe going for it, and the sheer beauty of the area makes it a popular vacation destination. With so many interesting places, it’s easy to get off the beaten path. There are a lot more than just seven meravelles, but these are the ones that are sticking with me this morning.

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Girona

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Girona, the capital city of the province with nearly 100,000 habitants, is one of the coolest (as in American English for superchulo and not cold) cities in Spain. Located 99 km or 62 miles from Barcelona, Girona is well worth a visit. There are several churches, including a Gothic cathedral and old Roman walls. The city wall walkway is one of my fave things about the city. Any word of Catalán is more than well-appreciate here, as it is probably the most Catalán of the four provinces of Catalunya.

Cadaqués

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Cadaqués has a population of about 2000 people, but in the summers, the population can be up to 10 more than that. Its location on the Costa Brava and proximity to Barcelona make it a popular tourist destination, and it’s no stranger to tourists. Salvador Dalí visited often as a child, and Pablo Picasso also spent time there. You can visit the Salvador Dalí House and Museum today and walk along the coast. Fun trivia fact: the Catalán spoken here is more similar to the variant found in the Balearic Islands than the rest of Catalunya.

Figueres

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Figueres, home of 45,000 folks, is also the home and birthplace of Salvador Dalí. 40 km or 25 miles from Girona capital, the small city is popular with fans of the surrealist artist. In addition to the Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dalí, the city houses a castle and a Gothic church. It is also home to Spanish and Catalán gay icon Mónica Naranjo.

Besalú

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Besalú may only have 2000 habitants, but it is an awesome place to visit. It’s located 31 km (18 miles) from Girona capital, and its main attraction is the bridge. It is a beautiful medieval pueblo and a step back in time. It could easily be on my own top ten list of beautiful pueblos (villages) in the peninsula.

Puigcerda (to be discovered)

Puigcerdà has been at the top of my bucket lists of villages to visit for quite some time. It’s a three-hour train ride from Barcelona, so I keep saying “próxima vez, próxima vez, propera vegada” (next time, next time, Catalán next time). It’s a village of around 10,000 people located at the very north of Girona, high in the Pyrenees, almost in France. I saw the turn off on my whirlwind trip to Andorra and vowed once again to visit there. It’s supposed to have some of the most beautiful views of the Pyranees. It’s 144 KM (86 miles) from Girona capital.

Olot (to be discovered)

Olot, home of 34,000 people, is one of the rainiest places in Catalunya, so much that there is a saying in Catalán: Si no plou a Olot, no plou enlloc. (If it’s not raining in Olot, it’s not raining anywhere). Perhaps the reason for this is because it’s located in the middle of not one but four volcanos. The last eruption was about 11,000 years ago, so chances are, it’s not going to erupt any time soon. We think.

Costa Brava

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The Wild Coast is one of the most popular tourist places in the Peninsula due to its good weather and natural beauty. Although the North Coast is probably more beautiful, it also rains 379 days a year here. Not an opportune time to swim or sunbathe, eh? Blanes, Tossa del Mar and Llobregat del Mar are just some of the many villages and cities along the spectacular Mediterranean coast.

Impromptu Weekend in Barcelona.

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Your regularly scheduled Set Meravelles entry this week is swapping places with Thursday’s entry (which may be up Friday instead of Thursday, busy week ahead!) to bring you an extra special crossing things off my bucket list report from this weekend.

Back in October, I had bought a Ryan Air flight to go to Belgium this weekend. However, that Spanish proverb is true. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Due to a strike (huelga general) in Belgium on Dec. 15, transport is going to be screwy at best, so I decided to postpone the trip until my week off in February and take off to the city that is calling my name, Barcelona, to celebrate my 33rd birthday in style. (Good thing, as my flight from Santander got delayed several hours and the flight back is all together cancelled, which means I might get the money back. With Ryan Air, it’s always cheaper to just book a new flight than changing the dates. Keep your fingers crossed!)

This weekend was exactly what I needed. On Friday, I visited the Pont de Diable in Martorell, crossing it off my Set Meravelles de Barcelona Provincia to do list. The village was meh, but the bridge was incredible. I crossed it and had a café con leche at a bar that took me back to 1980s Almodóvar films, then recrossed it. The views are incredible, and I could feel the spirit of the cat who gave its soul for the bridge’s original construction in the Roman days. Poor cat, but I am a dog person.

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Friday night, I went out to a great bar called “Museum” to celebrate the event. I so want to move to Barcelona even more now. Amazing ambiance.

Saturday I made a return to Sitges, which I fell in love with all over again. I took the time to pass its quaint streets and absorb the atmosphere. The gays, as usual, have good taste. (Sitges is a gay summer destination for those of you who weren’t aware, but it’s not just for the rainbow crowd. It attracts artists, creative types and tourists from all over.) It was a bit cool to enjoy the beach, but it was still much better weather than Bilbao is offering (at this rate, I think Noah and his arc would drown.)

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I also made it the famous Santa Llucia Christmas market next to the Cathedral of Barcelona. I bought a special present for my uncle, a caganer of Obama. If you don’t know what a caganer is, it’s a Català tradition to include one in your nativity scene. A caganer is a Catalán figure of someone crouched down in the process of using the toilet (number 2). I just hope they don’t confiscate it from me next week when I travel back to the States for Christmas!  The Catalans also have the figure of the Cagatío, who is figure made from wood with a Catalán red hat that “defecates” the presents placed inside him.

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The thing about this weekend is it has rejuvenated me in a way I haven’t been rejuvenated by travels in a long time. I fell in love with Barcelona again. The city is magical at Christmas time, even with temperatures of 18ºC/upper 60s F.

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Barcelona remains my dream. Maybe next year I’ll be celebrating my 34th from the Barri de Gracia…

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)

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mPPmazIzcA

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…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HguzO9KmHBU

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.

Lleida. The undiscovered Catalán province

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When one thinks of Catalunya (no one who actually knows anything about Spain, besides George Orwell, will call it Catalonia), they will probably think of the capital Barcelona, the beaches of Girona, the mountains of Girona, the beaches of Tarragona or Salou and Portaventura in Tarragona (especially if they’re Basque.) They’ll think about the current controversy about their independence or the best football team ever, FC BARCELONA. (I am a bit more for Valencia, but I am also a diehard Barça supporter.) Dali will come to mind. But I doubt Lleida (Lérida in Spanish, but usually known by its Catalan and official name, Lleida) will be in the top 5 places mentioned.

Lleida capital is a city of about 140,000 habitants and can easily be seen in one day. It’s a bit far and expensive to do in a day-trip from Barcelona, but it makes a great pitstop along the way to Bilbao, Zaragoza or Madrid. It has a lot of green and a lot of history to explore.

As I love my undiscovered gems, Lleida had always been on my mind as a place to visit, especially in my quest to visit every province in Spain. In September 2013, I had my opportunity to visit the capital city on my way back from my annual visit to Barcelona. After struggling to find an affordable place to eat on a Sunday afternoon, I checked into a super nice (for the price) pensión. I think it was the Hotel Goya, but I’m not 100% sure. I dropped my stuff and went off exploring.

I first found the Seu Vella, the old Cathedral, which is a cathedral that was also used as a fortress, which is on a hill overlooking the town. The trek up here is worth it as it offers spectacular views of not only the city but also the country surrounding it. They also have the Seu Nova, the new Cathedral, which isn’t “new”, just newer, built in the 18th century. I later made my way through the Casco Viejo and took a stroll along the Riú (River) Segre. I remember watching dogs play and ducks swim in the river. I tried practicing my catalán as I could.

The surrounding province appeals to me, and I know of many places in the province I want to visit in the future. I think most of the Set Meravelles of Lledia have yet to be discovered. One day, when I’m a rich and famous writer, I’ll be able to explore as I wish!

Set Meravelles

1. Lleida

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Lleida capital is a small city with beautiful architecture, a river and tons of history. It is also your best bet to stay to explore the rest of the province.

2. Seu Vella and the Surrounding Hill (Lleida)

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Also known as the Castell (Castle) of Lleida, the old cathedral is a beautiful medieval building that took over two hundred years to build, from 1203 to 1491. It’s located on top of a hill that offers amazing views of the city and surrounding country. It’s part of the Route of 1714 that shows the most important historical sites of the War of Spanish Succession and the most important site of Lleida city (in my humble opinion). Felipe V used it as a fortress when the Seu Nova was commissioned in the 1700s.

3. River Segre and its bridges (Lleida)

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The River Segre is a tributary of one of the most important Iberian rivers, the Ebro, and flows through Spain, Andorra and France. There are many bridges that cross the river in Lleida that connect the two sides of the town. Like most cities with rivers, there are many pathways to walk, run, bike and allow dogs to play, and the river plays an important part in the city’s history.

4. Val d’Aran

The Valley of Aran is the only part of Catalunya located north of the Pyranees and they have their own language, Aranese, which they speak over Catalán and Spanish. It is home of many endangered animals, and the largest village is Viehla with 3000 residents. The entire valley only has about 7000 residents. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to explore (and write about) this valley. The comarca borders France and Aragón and is in the extreme north of the province.

5. Valle de Boi

The Boi Valley is another valley that is located in the northwest part of the province. It is home of nine Romanesque churches and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. It’s also home to the highest ski resort in the Pyranees, It’s not far from the Val d’Aran, but it is smaller in population with only 2000 people in the valley.

6. La Seu d’Urgell

La Seu d’Urgell is a small town of 12,000 people located on two rivers, the Segre and the Gran Valira in the Pyranees. Close to the historic centre is a park built for the 1992 Olympics where you can still canoe and kayak today. It’s one of the biggest towns in this part of the Pyranees.

7. Cervera

Cervera is a small village of nearly 10,000 people located in the south of the province close to Tarragona and Barcelona provinces. It has one a medieval part and was once home to a university that moved to Barcelona in 1833. One of King Felipe’s courtesy titles is “Comte de Cervera.”

The joys of hostels.

Once upon a time, I used to stay in youth hostels as they were a cheap way to travel. I didn’t let that cheesy horror flick from the early 00s deter me. However, as I’ve grown older, I’d prefer to pay a couple of euros more and have the privacy and tranquility of my own room. (And in Spain, it’s not that hard to find a cheap pensión or “hostal” (hostel is “albergue”, false friends) After a couple of horror stories, one can imagine why. As I prepare for the Camino de Santiago del Norte from Santander next summer, I am somewhat apprehensive  about the albergues after some of my experiences.

Most of the time, things are fine and people are somewhat normal. They tend to be young university students who are looking to party or interesting older folks who want to see the world in a cheaper way. One of the better experiences I had was in Santiago where I met a guy about my age (I was 27 at the time) who was traveling to see the world, and we went out and had drinks and enjoyed the night. The same happened a few months later in Madrid with a French guy who spoke flawless English and Spanish. In Mallorca the following year, on my worst holiday ever, I met a Brasilian guy living in London who tried his best to seduce me. I turned him down, but we did go out that night. I was so angry I was the only one in the group who knew Spanish and who wanted to meet, you know, locals. Wherever I travel, I am always wanting to meet locals and learn more about the place than I am other tourists.

This spring, I returned to staying in hostels due to Ireland being super duper expensive and a bunk bed in a shared room is more expensive than a private room with a private bath in most Spanish cities. I met some friendly people, but I was on Spanish time (meaning I woke up way too early despite Ireland only being an hour earlier than peninsular time). The hostel in Cork was located a good 20-minute walk from the centre of town, and being there on a weekday meant there was absolutely nothing going on. In Dublin, I shared a room with someone who worked there and an Indian guy who was awake no matter what the time was and on his laptop even more than me. No big problems.

In Pamplona, there was hardly anyone at the hostel except angry German pilgrims doing the Camino Frances who did not understand the Spanish, English and German on their e-mail stating in bold letters that if you cancel a reservation the day of, you will be charged the full night. This is standard procedure in most places in Spain if not Europe. By failure to cancel, the hotel/albergue/pensión misses out on selling a bed, and they need that money in times of crisis. I tried to help explain what the desk clerk was saying in Spanish, and they went off on ME for taking their side about something that had been previously said. The customer is not always right. Lucky for me, the only other person in the room I was in was a madrileño, who in typical madrileño style, did not understand why I ever left Madrid for Bilbao and slept late, missing his important doctoral class he was in town for in the first place.

Another fun time was when I was in Barcelona and went into the kitchen to fill my water bottle and got screamed at by an American “DON’T DRINK THE WATER!” Apparently she thought as Spain speaks Spanish that the water must be like Mexican water and carries with it Montezuma’s revenge. After asking if there was a boil advisory or something, which can happen anywhere, and the girl shrugging saying “You don’t ever drink water in Spain!” I went ahead and filled it up and drank it in front of her. Another American who, like me, lives in Spain rolled her eyes at the tourist and asked me about Valencia versus Barcelona. By the way, I was fine drinking the water. The water from the Mediterranean cities can be a bit hard so many people prefer bottled water, but it is perfectly safe to drink.

In Amsterdam at the age of 21, I just remember the shower leaking through the entire room and me spending as much time as possible outside the hostel.

My first hostel experience was in Barcelona that same year, at 21. It slept about 20 to a room for 10 Euros or so a night. The desk clerk was horrible and unfriendly, and they still had lock outs. So I slept about 2 hours when I arrived at 7 am, and that second night I was nearly pickpocketed and robbed on the Ramblas. Don’t ever walk alone on the Ramblas at night. Now that I’ve spent more time in Barcelona than any other Iberian city that I have not lived in, I just avoid the Ramblas all together.

The best story, and by best I mean HORRIBLE, DISGUSTING, SO BAD IT HAS BEEN FICTIONALIZED IN MY SECOND NOVEL…happened in Rome when I was 26. It was my first Christmas in Europe, first Christmas away from my mom, and I was traveling through Italia for the occasion. I was staying at a pretty famous hostel in Rome. I believe it was the 26th or 27th, my last night in the city. I had seen all the tourist sites and even saw the Pope give Midnight Mass on the 24th. I was tired and ready to go on to my next destination, Milan. At about 5 in the morning, I was suddenly awoken by a drunk guy stumbling in. A few seconds later, there was screaming from the others in the room. WHAT THE **** ARE YOU DOING??

What was he doing? Why mistaking suitcases and the floor for a urinal, of course!

We all rushed downstairs to complain to the desk clerk, who did her best to calm us down as they sent someone to clean the room. When everything was clean, I considered myself lucky that all my stuff had survived the night dry. However, the guy had absconded with some of my rings and bracelets. A small price to pay.

Of course, this is the one experience that sticks with me most about nights staying in hostels…

As the Spanish say, mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.

What are your most memorable, for better or for worse, hostel/albergue experiences? Are they a nightmare for you, or do you love them?

By the way, if you’re on Facebook, you can like Setmeravelles, and you can also follow me on Twitter, although I will say I do Tweet about more than just travel!