City Guide: Santiago De Compostela

Having finished my last blog about the end of the Camino de Santiago, it only makes sense to write the next one about the iconic Galician capital in more detail. There’s always a risk that your destination for any long sporting trip may be a bit of an anticlimax, but Santiago is not one of them. Even though I was destroyed from my cycling, seeing the city after a sneak preview on the bike gave me and friend a lot of energy to see as much of it as we could in the short time we were there.

Santiago may be the capital of Galicia, but it’s not even in the top 3 of cities by size in this autonomous region (all the provincial capitals minus Pontevedra are bigger). The city is however, extremely well-connected with the rest of the region and the country, though it doesn’t have the AVE directly connected to Madrid. You can fly to other parts of the country very easily and even to several destinations in Europe including London via Easy Jet or Ryanair. Buses can connect you to other parts of Galicia as well as Asturias, León and Madrid. There are also many international connections by bus and train to Portugal often with a connection with Vigo, so there’s no excuse not to visit.

One characteristic that is typical with a lot of the west of Galicia is that it is a rather wet city. I didn’t see the sun while I was there, only rain and mild temperatures. It is pot luck whether you get a dry day or not, but it is usually drier in summer compared to winter there and I went in April. If you don’t like excessively hot weather, Santiago may be the place for you as throughout the year its only a few degrees warmer than London. Sorry to disappoint anyone looking for a taste of the Med, this ain’t it. However, You are rewarded by plenty of lush, green, hilly countryside and are only about 30 minutes or so from the rugged Atlantic coast, so you can enjoy the great outdoors, but bring an umbrella or poncho.

Santiago has so many sights that are not like anything else in Mediterranean Spain. The architecture doesn’t bear anything that is white, red or yellow, and features a lot of Romanesque and baroque influences. Many buildings feature weathered dark grey stone which have a similar tone as in England. When you are walking along the narrow streets of the old quarter, you find a few monasteries such as San Martiño and San Francisco which are huge places just around the corner from the cathedral. A little out of the way, you find the monasteries of San Domingos de Bonaval and Santa Maria Do Sar (which is one of the most important and not so well known monastery in the city.). All of these places are usually open to the public and also have exhibitions or museums practically next door.

Despite the old buildings all over town, many of the museums are recent, showing modern art galleries and futuristic buildings, the most notable is the Ciudad de Cultura on the outskirts of town. I was told it was worth a visit, but I didn’t have time to check it out unfortunately, but it has had decent reviews and many of my friends have recommended it, so it must be good. This mixture between old and new is testament to why this city was named as a European Capital of Culture in 2000.

Santiago is also home to one of the most famous universities in Spain and there a number of historical buildings that can been seen by the public in both the north and south campuses. From the Parque de la Alameda where the Igrexa de Santa Susana is, there’s an impressive view of the south campus, and I would highly recommend checking the park and campus out. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world, and they really do love telling you about its 500 year+ history. It reminded me a little of the historic University buildings of Oxford when I was there.

The place that most people visit first is obviously the cathedral which is spectacular from most sides, but especially from the Praza do Obradoiro. Like many cathedrals in spain, there are often newer additions from various styles over the eras, but the façade on Praza do Obradoiro is the most iconic and is opposite the Galician parliament building, the Pazo de Raxoi (which is not named after former primeminster Mariano Rajoy, though ironically, he is from Santiago.). From every angle of the cathderal there is either a really iconic building, museum or street, such as Rua de Villares which is where the Oficina Do Peregrino or pilgrim’s office used to be (now on Rua San Francisco). This is the place where tired pilgrims collect their iconic Compostela or certificate after completing the Camino de Santiago.

Speaking of the Compostela, it comes as no surprise how important Santiago is religiously. Since the city is named after St James and his tomb is reportedly in the location of the cathedral, making it one of only three religious buildings in the world that supposedly bear one of the apostles, Santiago is a destination for Christian pilgrims all over the world. St James is also the patron saint of Spain and it’s no surprise to see the iconic shell and yellow arrows all over the country leading to this city with the Camino de Santiago.

Even in other countries in Europe, including England, trails and routes can be found heading in that very direction. This pilgrimage is the most popular in Europe today, Which means you see hundreds of people completing the journey every day. The number of souvenir shops with trinkets of the Camino are ever present and there’s even a museum dedicated to it. Most pilgrims will take the time to rest here for a couple of days here to celebrate, and it’s no surprise to see a huge number of bars and restaurant on offer for them.

Santiago has a lot of local produce on offer and it’s no surprise to see pulpo gallego (octopus) and empanadas everywhere, a local variant is with lamprea, a type of eel. But there’s a lot more than that, though they are amazing, fish and pork in particular dominate the scene. Aside from the typical cured ham, you can also find lacón a boiled version, and Jamón asado, a roasted version that I tried in a sandwich, and what a memorable sandwich it was. Other notable local dishes include pimientos de padrón, a Russian roulette of mild and spicy green peppers found all over Spain, but from this region, queso de tetilla with its notable breast shape and one of the most iconic cheeses of Spain, and for pudding, tarta de Santiago, a fluffy almond cake.

Despite the historically unfortunate name, Rua de Franco and the adjacent streets is the most iconic area for eating out, and there are loads of bars and restaurants of all price ranges there, many of which specialise in seafood and octopus. Rua Nova and Rua San Pedro, which is on the iconic Camino francés are also noteworthy areas for eating out. The vast majority of the bars here serve free tapas for every drink you buy and it’s hit or miss if you get a choice or not. On my second day here, I received a variety of things when I had a couple of beers before leaving town, including tortilla, lacón and cured meat, couldn’t complain.

Accommodation in Santiago is a little complicated unless you’re a pilgrim. Many of the places listed on comparison sites are designed specifically for them and don’t provide proper bedsheets. You need to make sure your hostel is not like that. The price is usually a bit of a giveaway it must be said, and you’re usually safe if Albergue isn’t in the title, and that you’re paying about 20€ a night. The Hospital de los Reyes Católicos on the Praza do Obradoiro has been convirted into a hotel of the Parador chain, making it one of the most luxurious places to stay in the city. Private single rooms or double rooms are minimum 20€ for the night and are notably cheaper than places on the Mediterranean. I did the Camino de Santiago and if you’re a pilgrim, you would want to stay outside the immediate city centre if you want a rate similar to what you’re used to paying for.

You may be aware when you arrive that Galician culture has it’s differences compared to other parts of Spain, and one of those is the language, Gallego. Here you will see and hear the language used in the city, and most signs display both. People are not expecting you to know the language and don’t throw it in your face, even if you live there. Many Galicians don’t use it on a regular basis and some, don’t at all. If you have survival knowledge of Spanish in Santiago you will get far, and there are a lot of people in the service sector who can speak English to some extent, but they appreciate any effort you make.

There you have it, Santiago de Compostela. A city full of history and character that has it’s Galician charm through and through. It is more than just a destination for pilgrims around the world, it should be the destination for anyone looking for a different experience of Spain and tour the north. Make sure you’re well equipped for some wet weather and expand your understanding of a part of Spain that is on signposts around the country, but rarely explored by brits. Whichever way you decide to get there, by train, plane, walking or cycling, it’s a different experience which I’m sure you won’t regret.

Camino de Santiago Day 5 (final): Palas Do Rei- Santiago 70km

The final day of the trip surprisingly built a lot of tension first thing in the morning for me. I had a lot of energy when I got up, which was a first, but my attention turned to how I was going to get to Santiago. Following the trail though every village and town, or follow the N- 547 and miss some of the villages and tradition were my two choices, and I went for the latter. My companion wanted to go the traditional way, but I was so nervous about potentially crashing, that I decided it was best to follow the main road, so we agreed to meet each other in Santiago and go our separate ways for the day. An unusual idea, but we both felt confident that we would make it to Santiago and have a well deserved beer no matter what.

I Left Palas Do Rei rather quickly, but it is a pleasant town, but not much to see, as it’s more of a market town. The road leaving town was effortless and it’s not long until you are in the English-looking countryside again. Saa is the village where the road climbs for the first time, but the good thing about this road, is that you are descending more on the whole. The Camino which the hikers take, goes south of Saa to Ponte Campana, Casanova, Porto de Bois and A campanilla before reconnecting the main road at O Coto. O Coto is also where the border into the Province of A coruña is, the same province as Santiago, and is guaranteed to give you an extra boost.

Melide is the next major town on route, and for a cyclist, this is worth stopping at. The Camino is always around 500m or so to the left of the main road, but it reconnects for a period here. It’s just 15km from Palas, but it’s a lot bigger and if you take a detour through to the church you won’t be disappointed. It’s also the place where the Camino Primitivo, which Starts in Oviedo, joins the main Camino Francés. The oldest cross in Galicia is also situated here surprisingly according to all the guides. I didn’t stay long and motored onto the next stop, Arzúa.

The Camino can take you south to O Carballal, or to O Cerallo via the N- 537. I chose the latter and Starts to get hilly again through river valleys most of the way to Arzúa. There are also no Hostels until you reach Boente, where the Camino crosses the road into the forest and you get to see the Igrexa de Santiago de Boente. If you stay on the main road, it’s a lot quicker and you miss nothing for when the Camino connects again some 4km later. The next stretch is more suitable for cyclists, but I continued on the main road. According to Rafael, who went the traditional way, if you follow the traditional route via Castañeda, you are on tarmac the entire time up until the routes cross again. I partially regretted not going that way as Rivadiso was a place he highlighted a lot on this stretch.

Arzúa is just another 3km away by this point, and the Camino and the N-547 are side by side for the next hour or so. I stopped here for the stamp, and continued for what seemed like forever on the same street, until finally towards the end, you connect with the old quarter which is tiny, but worth a visit. It’s also the point where the Camino del Norte, which starts in Irun connects to the main Camino. Like Melide, Arzúa is full of hostels and is often the point where walking pilgrims stop in preparation for their final two days. Progress was dependent on whether it was staying dry or not, and as you can tell in my pictures, it was grey all day, and the rain was holding off until 25km to the end.

The Camino Is practically alongside the N-547 until the last 12km with some climbs until Santa Irene. There, as with the whole trip some well wishers were pushing me on up a hill. You are not spoilt by the number of Hostels lining up this stretch of the road every 2 or 3km to make sure you don’t fail. The end of the main road confused me a lot. The yellow arrows disappeared and I ended up at a roundabout which connected to a motorway. However, there is a sign pointing you to the Camino a couple of hundred metres back which takes you onto a beaten tarmac path alongside the main road. You also realise that you are tantalisingly close to Santiago when you realise you are passing its’ airport along the way.

I followed the road around the airport until it diverted to San Paio then I was met with a sharp climb up a small hill and through an underpass up to one of the last parts of the Camino that was a dirt track, or in my case, mud because of the rain. There are a few villages on the way, notably Lavacolla, which has an impressive church leading down the hill, and Vilamaior, the last notable village on the camino which has a Hostel and bar, and beautiful stone houses. By this point, I was getting rather soaked and I couldn’t see any sign of the legendary city just yet. The tension and excitement was just building more and more.

The road lead to San Marcos the last point before Santiago, and annoyingly, the road was still showing some climbs and the valley was opening up, but I still couldn’t see anything. Another couple of kilometres later, you see a large monument on Monte Do Gozo, which had views of the countryside, but the clouds were so low I couldn’t see anything. More importantly, the Camino finally started revealing its prize, Santiago! the more you start descending the hill, the more of the city you started to see. and I knew that I was so nearly there, so without hesitation, I crossed the bridge to the outskirts and followed the signs on foot and entered the city.

The next objective is getting to the cathedral, and the best thing about following the Camino here, is that it that the pavement is very distinct, with cobbled walkways almost the entire time. About 15-20 mins of walking and on the Rua de San Padro, you finally see the spires of the cathedral for the first time. You enter the old quarter once you enter the Porta Do Camino and the city has well and truly transformed into something special by this point. The signs keep directing you though the narrow streets until you see the back of the cathedral, then to the Praza Do Obradoiro Which is the place all pilgrims wither at the knees at. The yellow arrows disappear, the iconic façade of the cathedral bears down on you and the rush of all kinds of emotions hit.

However, there’s still one task left to do, get your Compostela. The Oficina Do Peregrino is your final destination, and it was a little difficult for me to find. I searched all around the square, until I saw a signpost for the place around the other side of the cathedral on Rua Villar. It’s worth noting the the office has since moved to the north of the Praza Do Obradoiro on Rua das Carretas. The old office is now a consigna or storage room, but the feeling and authenticity of receiving the Compostela and final stamp on your booklet is one that put an everlasting smile on my face. My friend Rafael made it to the office 10 minutes after I did, which sweetened the moment.

There are a huge number of places to stay and rest for the best nights sleep of your life, and some people will try and promote their hostel in the centre to stay in. They may try and overcharge you for the night, and people are usually desperate enough to go for it. We found a place about 10 minutes walk from the cathedral for 10€ for the night at the time, called Albergue Acuario, though I understand prices have gone up since our visit. All I can say is that you are more likely to get good price if you are outside the ring road of the old quarter.

Leaving Santiago was a moment where I felt determined to come back and visit. The only ways you can travel with your bike is by bus and not by train, or if you are far enough away, by plane. A bit of a shock that you can’t get a train with your bike given how many people travel here. But people at the bus station are extremely helpful and help you with getting from A to B in the quickest way possible. One thing you will get good at in Spain is wrapping your bike in plastic, because that’s the only way to get it on board.

This was the first ever cycling trip I had done, and it’ll always be the most memorable. Words can’t describe emotionally how I felt, all I can say is, it’s a moment that you will never forget or replicate even if you repeat the Camino de Santiago. You only lose your virginity once. I initially felt like there wouldn’t be more trips as my body was ruined, but I caught a bug, cycling bug that is. The Camino de Santiago, from León has been ticked off the list. 341km in 5 days.

Camino de Santiago Day 4: La Laguna- Palas Do Rei 97km

Day 3 was all about the state of my bike, whereas day 4 was more about the state of my body. I was feeling good that I was able to continue after fearing the worst from breaking my bike, and I knew that this morning would be the last major mountain stage. I Had dried everything from the previous day, had everything in order, and decided to eat light until I had crossed the mountains. My head immediately sunk however, when I drew the curtains and saw that it was pouring with rain and I could see that the snowline in the distance was not much higher than where I was. This day was the longest distance covered during the entire trip, though I had no idea it would be.

La Laguna was completely deserted when I left with all the residents probably looking out of the window shocked at how crazy someone could be going out in that weather. I started cycling along the tarmac until the Camino took a left along a track, climbing all the way. I dismounted and walked this part, as the path was not suitable in the conditions to ride and it was at this point when rain started to turn into sleet, and snow was starting to settle on the ground. There is a major sight that will you a lift no matter what conditions are like, or at least it gave me one, which is the border of Galicia. I certainly felt like Santiago was now actually achievable, though it was still 164km away.

O Cerbreiro is the first village in this new region that you stop at and rejoin the main road. On a clear day you would be greeted with impressive views from both sides of the ridge, but for me, I couldn’t see very far at all, just the village and maybe 500m in all directions. O Cebreiro is a really beautiful village to visit, and the Camino cuts right through it. There are also bars and hostels at this point, and was where I saw other people for the first time. By this point, the snow was well and truly settled on the ground and I was battling to keep dry and warm after just 30 minutes on the road. The Camino has another split in this town, one that directs you to the main road, the other, to a track that takes you to the 3rd highest point of the Camino.

I chose the track because I didn’t see the sign properly, and that I just followed a pilgrim that I could see in the distance. If you are doing this in winter, be extra vigilant with the signs as the snow does cover some of them, but thankfully there aren’t many diversions, and they all reconnect to the main road sooner or later. This track was one of the most enjoyable parts of the day, the snow was getting deeper, but being in the trees did help prevent the snow from getting too deep. Just one km later and you reconnect to the main road and you descend a little towards the next village, Liñares. This village isn’t as picturesque as O Cebreiro, but you also have options to stay as well, and there is a small shop for some basic supplies.

I pretty much blazed through Liñares and rejoined the LU 633 which is the best road of this stretch of the Camino and one that frequently connects it intermittently for the next 80km. There is a climb to the next point, the Alto Do San Roque where I could barely see a thing, but I’m sure if conditions are good, you would see for miles around. Progress was motoring along at this point, though my gloves had soaked through by now and I was in need of getting into warmer setting soon. Hospital de La Condesa is the next point, which I cycled completely past, only to stop and take pictures. This was where my friend Rafael was staying the night, so essentially I was about 10km behind him, following his decision to continue solo the day before.

From Hospital, the Camino does divert from the main road, but if you stay on the road, you won’t miss anything and you are reconnected a few kilometres later. This is the last climb to the 2nd highest point of the whole Camino Francés, the Alto Do Poio. it’s just 2 or so kilometres from Hospital, and there is a hostel at the top. Because of the snow I couldn’t see much more than 100m, and this is where you start to descend. I imagine there are some amazing views from this mountain pass if you attempted this amazing journey.

For a hiker I know the descent would take up a large part of the day, and would be lined with hostels along the way, and it partially diverts from the main road. By bike however, this will take about half an hour. I was just sort of fed up of being wet and cold and suffering by this point, but I completely missed the villages of Ponfría, Fillobal and Pasantes. While there are some hostels and restaurants in these places, they are slim pickings. and the next major village is Triacastela. This road is a lot of fun to ride on, and though it was wet, I was able to maintain control without any problem the entire time. after about 6 km, I was out of the snow, and visibility was ever-improving. The road is still descending when you reach Triacastela, but I needed some nourishment.

I found a supermarket and took advantage of buying a small towel to dry myself the best I could and a using their heating to take the edge off my numb hands, and buy some more rations. Triacastela is a really good rest place after all the climbs, and there are quite a few restaurants and hostels should you need it. Samos is the next notable place on the journey, 10km away. The Camino will follow the main road while occasionally diverting to any village on the way. The road is slowly descending through a small canyon before San Cristóbal Do Real which isn’t worth stopping at, then Lusio which had a hostel just half a kilometre later. There is very little to write about any other place until Samos.

Samos is worth checking out and is the perfect rest stop before Sarria. There’s a huge monastery there which the main road grazes, followed by a notable number of places for a tired pilgrim to put their feet up. By this point, my hands were now back to normal and I was just determined to get to Sarria and enjoy a taste of civilisation. Samos is also the point where you start leaving the higher mountains and start to experience the gentler green hills. The road descends a lot less and there are a few small hill climbs, but not a lot to worry about, and there really wasn’t much that I could see from when the Camino diverted off the main road either, my charts indicated very few hostels on this 11km stretch to Sarria.

The road does get increasingly busier the closer you get to the town, but thankfully the Camino diverts off it when you reach the outskirts, and you see the Río Sarria as well as the older part of town on the hill. Sarria is one of the most well-known Galician towns on the Camino because of it’s history and more importantly, it’s the nearest major town you can start your journey, and receive the Compostela by walking. As rules state, you have to be more than 100km away from Santiago if you are walking, and 200km if you are doing it by bicycle or horseback (Camponaraya). Sarria is 117km away more or less, and you see a notably higher number of pilgrims at this point as a result.

Sarria is well worth a visit, and the old part of town is Camino crazy, with the main church perched on the top of the hill. I also decided to completely recharge my batteries there enjoy a few filling croquetas then hit the road at around 2pm. The Camino directs you to the immediate countryside, off road, and away from the LU 633 and this part often slows the cyclist down in favour of the hiker. You officially leave the town after crossing the Ponte Da Aspera around the corner from the castle, and reconnect to tarmac at a village called Barbadelo of which you are climbing a little.

I stopped there for a stamp in one of the hostels when the typical Gallego weather kicked in again, English April showers, the difference being that they are a bit warmer than England. This part of the Camino really makes you feel like you’re in a different country compared to León, and I couldn’t believe how much this felt like England. The only difference is that you see Spanish and Gallego written everywhere. At A Serra, your cycling goes off-road a little before crossing the main road on several occasions including the LU 633. The Camino then stays on tarmac, passing through the villages of Peruscallo and Brea, where you will see the first of two signs saying you are 100km from Santiago.

This sign brought be a lot of excitement and I was fully pumped to keep going, only to discover that this sign is fake, and the real one is actually a few hundred metres down the road, and why there are two I have no idea. The milestone is adorned by trinkets and some marks and graffiti like the border crossing to Galicia was. It was around the hamlet of Morgade where I was stopped by a resident offering to sell me a shell, which led us to having a conversation along with the whole family. This was my first ever experience hearing Gallego and surprisingly, I could understand most of it. But they were really nice people, and it was yet another highlight to the day I was having.

The Camino continues on and off tarmac for large parts of this period. You pass the lovely village of Mirallos with the Igrexa de Santa Maria and some hostels, then off road after la Rozas, and here it is quite treacherous for the bike, as you are crossing streams on foot and there are some impressive paths which go alongside them in the forest. Then I joined the road at Moimentos which is the first of three hamlets that you pass on the main road, and they offer plenty of rest for any tired legs. It was here that I met some pilgrims on horseback for the first time. They were dressed in the traditional clothing and were in a convoy of about 6 horses and were super friendly, but you see this occur less often as the bicycle replaces it. The views start to open up as the Camino starts to reach Portomarin, the next major town.

This point is also where you start making some sharp descents and the main Camino usually cuts through and goes down some rough tracks which aren’t very suitable for bikes. A Parrocha is one village in particular which springs to mind where I nearly crashed. Then, there’s another village called Vilacha which is a little better and there are more hostels to rest, and is the last village before Portomarin. The Camino then takes two different directions and I chose the one which I thought was safer for the bike. I wasn’t wrong, but I did suffer a major crash. My brakes couldn’t handle a particular turn and I went off it and landed in a field of long grass. amazingly despite falling more than 10′ into the field all I did was wind myself and the bike was unscathed. That lucky shell did it’s job, but it made me feel even more vulnerable on the bike than ever before.

Portomarin was just 1km away, and the road reconnects with the LU 633 and you arrive at a bridge which cuts over a large dammed lake, and on the other side, you see a flight of stairs leading to a gateway into the village. Portomarin is well worth stopping at despite the steep hill getting you there. It has an impressive main plaza with a rather unusual church dominating the scene. You also have everything you can possibly need to continue onto the next stage. Many pilgrims if they started the day in Sarria, would usually stay the night here. My objective however, was Melide, though because of my tiredness and crash, I was prepared to reach Palas Do Rei to end the stage instead.

The last stage of the day is a 25km stretch over more hills to Palas Do Rei and this time the camino is almost entirely on tarmac roads. Just on the outskirts of Portomarin, I bumped into my mate Rafael again, which meant I caught up with him and that we were a team once again! We actually had no idea where either of us were, as signal back then was rather shocking, but it gave me a boost, and I needed it, because the road climbed once again. For a cyclist, it’d take about 20mins- half an hour to get to the end of the road O Alto Do Hospital, though there are hostels in Gonzar and Castromaior just in case. Annoyingly the Camino kept climbing up to about 700m in altitude which pushed my body to the point where I was starting to struggle.

Airexe was the last notable village I remember that stood out before our bed for the night, though there were a couple of hostels just before that village and the Igrexa de Ligonde surrounded by old slate houses. However, I remember it more for all the cows lined up on the road, something I was told was a common sight in many of the local villages here. There were also quite a few hostels when leaving Airexe and the temptation to duck into one of the bars was high by this point. about 20 minutes later and we made it to A Brea, which connected to the N-537, which is the Main road to Santiago, and I knew that I was so close to Palas.

Just 2km later, and at the first sight of the first of many hostels in Palas Do Rei just gave me the biggest sigh of relief and I was not in great shape. I was totally not fussed what the beds or conditions were like, I wanted to get off the bike and sit on something soft for a change. The Hostel was on the outskirts of town and cost 5€ for the night and was essentially a warehouse with several rooms with about 100 beds inside of it. It was quite modern, but it was the busiest and worst hostel of the trip, and I would recommend one that’s a little closer to the town centre. I was just too tired to care. What helped us get to that point, was that it was sunny and quite warm but being Galicia, it usually doesn’t stay that way for long. All that was for sure, is that Santiago was about 70km away, and that we had just one final push.

Renting a flat in Spain: Do’s and Don’ts

Being a foreigner living in Spain, finding a place to live is understandably quite an ordeal, especially when all the agreements are in a language that isn’t your first. It’s very easy to be discriminated against, or taken advantage of, and unfortunately, there are more than your fair share of dodgy landlords/landladies in Spain. Just like a tourist trap, a foreign worker or student is an easy target, but even Spanish people moving into the area can fall victim to the same things. No tip I am providing is totally full proof, but I have had some of the best and worst landlords/ landladies since moving here, and I want to share the experience so you have an idea about what you’re looking for.

Location Location Location?

First of all, you need to consider the area and price. Almost everyone when they move into a new city, wants to live somewhere in and around the centre. If you’re in a bigger city, that option could be too expensive for you. Smaller cities in most areas are a lot more affordable. But just how much more are you prepared to spend if there are notably cheaper options just 10 minutes walk away? in Major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, you’re likely to pay minimum 500€ a month to get near the centre. whereas other cities like Zaragoza and Toledo are more like 300€. True, these prices are a steal compared to England, but you are probably earning less, so you do the math.

Do some research about the neighbourhoods so that you know that you are in a comfortable and safe environment. The difference between these areas can be really drastic in the space of a couple of blocks. I live in Córdoba, and in a respectable neighbourhood which is easily affordable, but just 10- 15 minutes walk away are some real dives. I’m pretty sure you won’t have moved all the way here to be the Spanish equivalent of Hackney or Southwark, have you?

If you find a place that is in the city centre and is notably cheaper than other properties, there’re probably is a catch. Your room is probably a box, has no balcony, no air conditioning, is in a bad state, and so on. The number of potential flaws are endless. I would check it out first, and I would be careful if you see a place that’s notably marked up and the owner says it’s a really good deal for this neighbourhood. It usually isn’t, so see what you get for yourself.

Estate Agent, or App?

I’ve done both during my time here, and there are reasons to choose and not to choose each option. The estate agents are usually very professional and very helpful with your search. It’s also very unlikely that there is any illegal business taking place, and that it’s all by the books. The downsides are that the flats are almost certainly rented as a complete package, and not per room. There’s also an agency fee you would have to pay if a sale is agreed, usually equivalent of one month’s rent. Lastly, you are not guaranteed to have the flat furnished, so make sure you know what you are getting. If you are a group and are looking for a whole place to share , this isn’t a bad option.

Apps are usually cheaper, and you get so many more options at the tip of your finger, but the risks are tenfold. The most common apps I used were Badi, Idealista, and Fotocasa. I ditched Milanuncios when I was looking for my latest home, though there are some good places on that site, there were also a load of rubbish and unreliable ones. Badi is used almost entirely for flat sharing and It is really popular for students, and you’ll find most of the available rooms in neighbourhoods where students tend to prefer to live (Ciudad Jardín in Córdoba, Cappont in Lleida, and San Mamés in León are good examples.).

The other two are on par with each other, and I actually got my latest home via Fotocasa (which works better on a computer by the way). You need to be aware that many of flats will be advertised on more than one app and you might get a feeling of Deja Vu. You will also notice that a lot of the properties will have some sort of advertisement with another estate agent’s logo. I would avoid them unless you don’t mind paying for agency fees. The most frustrating thing about the apps is that you might express interest, but the room or flat is taken and they have forgotten to take the advert down. That happened to me so many times. The other downside is that many landlords may take advantage of you, and the legal disputes come in. The same places appear online year after year for a reason.

There are some surprising difficulties for you if you are looking to share a flat and you are a man and a worker like me. There were so many places that froze me out straight away for not being a student, and some that only wanted women to stay. It may be that male workers in Spain have more of a reputation of being more likely to be unreliable or difficult to work with, but it was rather frustrating trying to find somewhere. There are some places for that profile though, you are just more limited for choices, and couples looking to flat share have it even harder still. If you’re renting a flat outright for yourself, the gender gap closes dramatically and you are way more likely to find the ideal place, especially if you are a couple. Both estate agents and apps are usually very clear, and the Coronavirus crisis has forced many owners to not be so picky with who rent’s their property.

Read the contract carefully!

If you are completely new to a city, you might just accept the first place that looks semi- decent, but do you understand all their terms? or did you sign without even looking at it? You need to know every detail of the place before signing anything here in Spain, and Landlords show themselves in the worst light over things like this. I have experienced a lot of things, and it’s never too late to back out of an agreement if their tone is suspicious. The chances are your level of Spanish isn’t high enough to completely understand, so it’s very advisable to have someone who can help you out in that situation.

Two experiences spring to mind, the first in León when the landlady refused to give us our deposit back over non-existent damage, then proceeded to knock a wall through and take all our things to the free flat below, which had no hot water or a working kitchen. The second was in Lleida, when the landlady continually entered our place without warning and removed the internet after a few months into our stay claiming it was never part of the agreement and that it was our responsibility, then refused to return the deposit despite giving the required notice. Be careful.

Other things that some crooked landlords do, is charge different rates for rent depending on the person, or just before the agreement is made, so make sure you know that figure above everything else. You also need to be aware what is included in the rent. Is gas and electricity included? Internet? Water? Comunidad (council tax)? you need to know these things, then you’ll know if you’re being ripped off or not. Just remember, you might be a student or immigrant, but you have legal rights like everyone else, just make sure you have the evidence before taking it further if it’s worth it.

The Legal Technicalities

Just like in England, Spain has a number of rules in place to protect both parties involved. Many are the same, but there are some things you need to know:

In Spain, it is very rare for the tenant to be required to provide a guarantor in order to rent a property (even the estate agents), and I have never been asked to provide one.

In England, it’s normal to pay one month’s rent as a deposit, whereas in Spain, it can be two months. My current place costs 500€ a month in rent, but I had to pay a 1000€ deposit or fianza.

In Spain, the Landlord/landlady cannot enter your property under any circumstances unless permitted by a tenant. Even if they want to show someone a free room they can’t unless the tenants have been informed and asked permission. It’s not quite the same in England.

In Spain, the tenant may change the lock without reason, but it’s common courtesy to tell the owner and provide him/ her with a key, and the tenant must return all keys at the end of their contract or face prosecution. In England, the laws favour the landlord in this position, and unless there are special circumstances, tenants can’t do it.

In Spain, any modifications to the property, including having fibre optic internet installed, needs to be approved by the president of the building/ community as well as the landlord/ landlady. In England this responsibility is more often or not down to the owner and the legal entities of the council.

Things landlords/ landladies are really good at here in Spain.

While you might be thinking ‘This guy doesn’t like property owners at all does he?!’, There are some really amazing things the owners may do to make a tenant feel at home here in Spain. They can be very helpful and often leave a lot of things in the property for maintenance, including cleaning products for when you start out. Many will also help you out with some basic information to help you start your life here, such as giving you some local advice. My current Landlady has offered us her support for anything we need and it is reassuring. I know that some owners have even provided homecooked meals on the odd occasion for some of my friends here.

One thing for sure is that your landlord/ landlady usually lives locally and will usually resolve any issue with the property fairly swiftly or give you the number to resolve it yourself while they foot the bill. They usually respect your privacy on the same level as England, despite the odd exception of course. All that’s necessary is that anything that breaks and that isn’t your fault is well documented and that you are protected for that sort of thing. The last thing you want to be doing is fighting to get your deposit back.

Your guide about renting a flat as a summary:

Sharing a flat in good areas in most cities will set you back around 200-250€ rent for a good deal per month. in bigger cities or more expensive areas, expect to pay quite a bit more.

Ibiza, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Barcelona and Madrid are the most expensive places to rent in the country, just be aware of that.

Renting a flat for yourself will generally cost more, so maybe consider sharing before moving into a place of your own, get some perspective. In the aforementioned areas, you may find yourself paying way too much.

Read your contract carefully, and make sure you know what you are paying for and make sure the owner is legit.

Lastly, know your rights. It’s very easy to just abandon certain issues with owners because it’s not worth it. But sometimes you need to show them that you cannot be taken advantage of.

If you follow those tips, you’re a lot more likely to stay out of trouble and build the Spanish dream the way you want to. Happy hunting!

L’Hospitalet d’infant- L’Ametlla del mar, The Hills and Coves of the Costa Daurada.

The coast of Tarragona in northeast of Spain is a very underrated part of the country. People might only know of Salou when the costa Daurada springs to mind. but hop several clicks in either direction, and you’ll find a different scene altogether. You don’t see as many tourists, and head west from Salou, there are places which Spanish people like to go. One such place is L’hospitalet d’infant which is practically on the edge of the mountains as well as the coast, giving you impressive views of both. The route is about 23km long, and will take about 6-7 hours. I’m pretty sure that you will spend plenty of time chilling out on the many beaches this route takes you.

To get to Hospitalet, there is a fairly regular train service between Barcelona, Tortosa and Valencia. You’re most likely to take the R16, or Regional Exprés to get there. I lived in Lleida at the time, and I got a bus with 2 of my friends that went there without having to make any changes, using the company Hife. Getting back from L’Ametlla is on the same line. The route is available on Wikiloc, but you don’t need to follow it, as the route is clearly marked the whole way. This route is part of the GR-92 trail, which runs through most of the Catalan coast, so you just need to follow the red and white markers and you’ll be fine.

The first place you start, is the Passeig Maritim, where you follow the entire beach and then leave the road and walk on the beach itself. You start entering some of the coves, which are popular nudists areas along this stretch, but the path actually turns off these coves fairly quickly up the hill, where you reconnect with a road for a short time, passing a campsite. This is where you enter the wilder part of the hike, and it’s well signposted up to this point.

The route takes you on a dirt track climbing up the hill, away from everything. From here, you can start to get some really nice views of the sea and surrounding area, and you follow the ridge up to a point just over 150m high called Vertex del Llop. Here, there are plenty of places which you can go just off the path and enjoy the views in total peace. There’s a descent to a road that cuts through the hill to get to the beach, but steps have been built in some parts to help you. The last ridge you cross allows you to see the Ebro Delta, but also rather unfortunately, the nuclear power plant of Vandellos.

The descent from this point, is the hardest of the whole hike, and you do have to be careful, especially if conditions aren’t great. You pass some old bunkers where you get some great vantage points. You will eventually connect to a road and this is where you end up in a part of the hike you just have to get through. The power plant is now in view and you are on a road that heads further inland. Just before you end up at a junction for the N- 340, the arrows take you left, and you eventually end up at a river bed calld Barranc de Lleiría. This makes this part a lot more enjoyable and you don’t see any ugly buildings for the time being.

The path will then twist a little until you are walking parallel to the AP-7 for about 30 minutes, and we started wondering if we were ever going to get to see the beach again. Patience is a virtue and you will be rewarded soon, trust me. The path reconnects to a road under the autopista to the neighbourhood of L’Almadrava, and you finally reach the coast again. This is where you start crossing a number of coves and neighbourhoods. The town is called Calafat, and it’s mostly residential, but you cut through some of these areas before you reach the beach and port, but you’re greeted with the Cala Llobeta, which is a quite a hard rocky cove, but if you are prepared to wait another 10 minutes and continue along the coast to the next cove, Cala Calafato, you’ll end up at a very pretty little sandy beach.

The next part cuts through to the next cove, Cala Lo Riballet, where the short cliffs have no path along them, and at this point, we noticed the next village was a little more lively, and there are more opportunities to find somewhere to eat if you needed to. Sant Jordi d’Alfama is the village you enter, and this place is one of the major highlights of the hike. We were a little confused about where the route was taking us, as it zig-zagged a little, but it left us on the marina, which had a narrow strip of water that went far inland and full of small private boats and yachts. It reminded me of Portocristo in Mallorca, but not nearly as busy.

5 minutes later and one of the larger coves comes into view, Cala d’Sant Jordi where there’s a castle on the other side. We were also greeted with the best views of the mountains that we had been on the other side of a few hours earlier. The castle is small and has views of the sea from most angles, and when we were there, there were no entry fees of any kind and was open all day. Once you get to this point, the route will follow along the coast for almost the entire way to L’Ametlla, and you cross the beaches of Cala Vidre and Cala Forn with mostly unbroken views of the sea.

The part to Cala Mosques has a very narrow path at times and you are near some short cliffs, so be careful. The cove itself is the last one in a housing estate, but here you are shaded by trees a lot on this part, especially by now, as it will be well into the afternoon. You’ll notice a lot less people around this point, and the coastline is really spectacular, and you pass through some woodlands until you reach Cala de Torrent de Pi, one of the larger and unspoilt coves. You now get to enjoy the coast in its most natural way, and some of the cliffs with the sound of the waves crashing into them, will be the only thing you hear for the time being.

Sandwiched between the next two coves is the private neighbourhood of Cala Nova and this is the very least settlement of any kind you see before L’Ametlla, and these two coves are the last reasonable sized beaches before you reach the town. Olive farms dominate this part of the journey, along the rugged coastline, Cala Nova is just 2km from L’ametlla, and took us about 30 minutes to finally get there. When we arrived we enjoyed a well- earned beer in one of the many bars that occupy the centre and from there, it’s just 10 minutes more to the train station.

So there you have it, 23km of a very interesting and unknown part of the Med. It isn’t particularly technically difficult, but the distance, and walking in sand at times makes it a little draining. I wouldn’t recommend this hike if you only want to walk for a couple of hours, because this one will take most of the day to complete, and you need to make sure your travel arrangements are on point here. And as I said before, the easiest way to get to L’Hospitalet is the R16 from Barcelona/ Tarragona/ Salou, towards Tortosa, or the Regional Exprés towards Castellón/ Valencia. It’s worth the journey for sure.

City Guide: Pamplona/ Iruña

The first thing anyone thinks about Pamplona, is the scene of bulls running wild, chasing adrenaline junkies through the old streets during San Fermin. However, this city is so much more than that, and you can really delve into a part of Spain that isn’t really well known at all. I learned so much about Pamplona during the few visits I made there, and I was bowled over by many of the things I saw. No wonder why Ernest Hemmingway loved this place so much.

Pamplona is the Capital and largest city of the Navarra region in the north of Spain, and getting there isn’t particularly straightforward. The city has an Airport in the town of Noain on the outskirts, but they don’t operate flights to the UK. you have to either fly to Bilbao or Zaragoza and then catch a bus or train to get to Pamplona. For sure, its at least an hour and a half from those airports. There is also no AVE connection, but there are trains to most of the major cities around Spain, and buses are very infrequent, offering reasonable connection to neighbouring cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Logroño and Zaragoza. Alsa and Burundesa are the main bus companies to get you there.

Pamplona lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees which in turn, offers some amazing views from certain parts of the city, so expect a few hills, especially around the old quarter. Local buses are very limited to where they can take you in the old quarter as well, the closest you can get to all the attractions, is if you stop at the Plaza de Toros. in all honesty though, even from the train station, you can walk to most areas fairly comfortably. Pamplona isn’t that big, so you should be ok to walk almost everywhere.

Despite being in the north of the country, Pamplona has a very reasonable climate by British standards. Winters are marginally warmer than in England, but it can snow, and does regularly in the surrounding mountains. I first visited in April 2016, and there was some snow on some of the mountains, but in the city it was light jacket weather for most of the day. Summers are fairly hot, but nothing compared to nearby cities like Zaragoza, I ran a half marathon there, and it was around 32 degrees which was warmer than usual according to the race organisers. My advice, winter jackets in winter are essential, and be prepared for any occasion any other time of the year. An umbrella would also be handy, even though it’s not nearly as rainy as it is on the northern coast.

The first place you’re probably going to see in this city, especially if you arrive by bus, is the Ciutadela. Pamplona is full of fortifications from the 16th and 17th century, but this one is the most iconic. This fort, is enormous, and helps separate the newer neighbourhoods in the west, to the older ones in the east. You can access almost everywhere, and there are local exhibitions that often take place within the walls. It’s well worth checking out, and the whole place is free and open all day. Better still, cross the road and you end up in another park called Taconera and next to that, Antoniutti.

Parque Antoniutti is smaller, but has areas full of animals and birds that you can see from above, completely free. Parque Taconera however, is a lot bigger, and has a walkway where you can walk along some of the fortifications of the city centre. from there, you can cross over the main gateway and you are now in the old quarter or Casco Viejo (Alde Zaharra in Basque). From this walkway, you have unbroken views of some of the Pyrenees, and the River Arga, and this only gets broken at the end when you descend to a point, that everyone knows about…

This point is the bull pen where the bull run or Encierro begins during San Fermin. During this time this is where the chaos begins and then ends just 300m later in the Plaza de Toros at the end. If you follow follow the route, it takes you past the museum of Navarra, then the Ayuntamiento and tourism office, Calle Mercaderes, one of the liveliest streets in the Casco Viejo, and finally Calle de la Estafeta before arriving at the Plaza de Toros. I was a bit shocked when I saw the Plaza de Toros actually, as it’s not the prettiest building to look at, but the seating area inside is a bit better. You think with such a famous tradition like San Fermin, and the Plaza de Toros being the centre of attention, that it would look really emblematic, but it didn’t to me, but inside it does.

If you cross the Encierro and continue along the old fort walls (after crossing a car park), you would encounter the Archivo de Navarra, which often offers local exhibitions. Then you will end up at the Portal de Zumalacarregui which if you exit the city walls there are several parks just outside the neighbourhood of Arrotxapea, but stay on the walls and you find the best views in my opinion. Here, you’re at the corner, and you can see the highest mountains from there, and is one of my favourite parts of the city. There’s also an amazing bar there called Meson del Caballo Blanco, which is perfect to unwind and enjoy the scenes.

The Cathedral of Pamplona is just a stones throw away from this viewpoint, and has a a museum inside, which cost me 5€ to enter. It’s worth checking out, and you will spend quite a long time in there. From the cathedral, I noticed quite a few hostels for pilgrims dotted around, and then yellow arrows everywhere. Yep it’s the Camino de Santiago. Pamplona is actually a very important city for the Camino, and is the first major city on it’s route, so you see a lot of pilgrims resting here.

Head deeper into the beautiful streets of the old quarter, and you will sooner or later end up in the most iconic part of town, the Plaza del Castillo. It’s the biggest square in town and surrounded by typical architecture you see in the Basque region. It’s the typical meeting point in this city, and it’s surrounded on most sides by plenty of bars and restaurants. to the south of the square, you find the main shopping neighbourhood of Ensanche, which has a grid pattern based on that of Barcelona. This is the 2nd oldest part of Pamplona, and you find many of the high street brands around here. Back to the Plaza del Castillo, you will see a place called Café Iruña, which you must stop by for breakfast, as it was Hemmingway’s favourite café and there’s a statue of him inside.

This leads on to one of the best parts of Pamplona, the food. One thing you will see in pretty much every bar, are pintxos, essentially the Basque version of tapas, but with cocktail sticks often sticking out of it and bread is often the base. The whole bar is lined with various plates of things that you can just ask for, and the staff will pick how ever many you want and serve it to you. They then normally charge you afterwards, something you wouldn’t be able to do in the UK. you can also find plenty of restaurants that offer set menus for about 15-25€, making it a bit more expensive than other parts of Spain. Pintxos themselves aren’t that big, and it’s common to go to more than one bar to eat, and you can easily spend 25€ per person, but it’s worth it.

Typical things you will find in these bars, are bomba de patatas (just try it), angulas (mini eels), guindillas (green chilli), trout, pimientos de piquillo (stuffed red pepper), and various soups and dishes made with beef (which have a protected status known as Nafarrakoa Aratxea). But the two most common things by a mile, are chistorra, which is like a softer version of chorizo served hot, and the classic Spanish omelette or tortilla. Tortillas are actually from this and are so popular, that you will see several varieties in many bars, even sandwiches where the bread is replaced by two tortillas or a large one split in half. What a time to be alive, eh?

While you’ll probably find decent bars in the newer neighbourhoods that are cheaper, the difference isn’t that much, and the the streets surrounding the Plaza del Castillo are the most famous for pintxos, especially Calle San Gregorio, San Nicolas, and Comedias. The streets on the other side of the square, also have a notable gastronomy scene. Essentially, you don’t have to go very far in the Casco Viejo to find a decent bar for pintxos, and a lot of places double up as places to go for a night out and after midnight, the pintxos start disappearing in the vast majority of places and the music starts.

What are the people like here? First of all, you will have noticed that there are two languages here, Castilian Spanish and Basque. Navarra had their own language, Navarrense, but that disappeared completely about 500 years ago, and there’s very little evidence of it around. Basque is understood by most people here, but not everyone, and Pamplona is on the border on where a prominence of speakers begin. Being the capital of the region, it acts as a melting pot, so Spanish is widely used by comparison. There aren’t very many people who can speak English here, but many do make an effort.

People do generally tend to be a little serious there, but they are also very helpful and accommodating if you need it. You’re not going to make friends immediately there, but there’s always some curious faces around, and some bar staff are exceptionally friendly, which is always a nice touch. When it’s time to party, they let their hair down and if there’s any major event taking place, they are going to support it, which leads me to San Fermin. I haven’t personally attended the event, but I understand that it’s an unforgettable experience, and that the Encierro is just one part of it. There is some negative press about this event now, compared to years ago, and not just because of animal cruelty issues, but also sexual assault cases and antisocial behaviour.

From the people I know who have been there however, they have said the experience was memorable in a positive way, and the bigger concern is finding a spot at the bar and finding a place to stay. There’s also so much more going on than just the Encierro. Talking about accommodation, Pamplona offers plenty of places of all requirements and luxuries. You can still find good deals if you don’t mind sharing a room. Typically, you’re going to pay 15- 30€ for a bed, and about 35€+ for double rooms per night. I stayed in Aloha Hostel and that was really good value for money. During festivals such as San Fermin, you are going to be paying a lot more however, and don’t expect to be near the centre. Also be careful of certain places you might find online, as some of them are for the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago, and may lack certain things or even not allow you to stay.

So there you have it, Pamplona. Quite possibly the greenest city I have visited in Spain with all it’s parks, and one with so much of a mixture between modern trends vs traditions. I have visited this place several times, and I can happily say that I would visit it again. If you are looking for a gastronomic experience, Pamplona should be high on your list. When you go there, don’t just think about the bulls, this city has so much to offer and many pamploneses will be happy to show you.

Churros, Porras and Buñuelos, the ultimate Spanish breakfast treat.

Let’s face it, if you have never tried a churro, what have you been doing with your life?! I know you can get them in the UK, but they aren’t easy to find, and were a bit of a rip-off when I last had them there. Here in Spain however, you’re pretty much tripping over them, and better still, you can have them for breakfast and not feel guilty about it!

The origins of them are unclear, but what’s for certain is that the recipe doesn’t change very much, even in neighbours Portugal and France. Essentially, churros are long fried doughnuts that come by the dozen or half dozen, usually sprinkled with sugar, and there’s no way you are just going to have one. However, in Spain, things get complicated with a variety of names and other fried dough goodness that makes this country unique. You might see other names of churros such as xurros, tallos, jeringos, tejeringos or simply masa frita. But one thing for sure, is that churros is the universal name.

Churros don’t just come plain with sugar. If you happen to be around a festival, or certain churrerías, you can get larger ones, filled with various things like chocolate, dulce de leche, cream and white chocolate, all of which can be subsequently covered in chocolate. You can also get regular churros completely submerged in chocolate, Which is sold individually like the filled variety.

But what else can a churrería offer you beside the original?

Porras

This is often mistaken for a churro, but they are different. Churros are usually cut immediately as they are being fried and the tube that feeds them into the fryer is the iconic star shape. Porras are usually fatter, and are fried completely intact in a huge spiral of batter, (which sometimes gets the name churro de redonda or round churro in English), then cut into manageable pieces, like a churro.

The taste is pretty much exactly the same, but the ingredients are slightly different as well as the texture, and many bars will make churros and they end up like these, especially in Andalusia. Some parts of Spain call these churros de patatas, even though they very rarely have any potato inside them. Just be careful with the word, as English people can get confused with the words porro, puro and puerro. A porro is a cannabis joint, a puro is a cigar, and a puerro is a leek. Quite embarrassing if you mix those words up isn’t it?

Buñuelos

This is a combination of a porra and a doughnut, and these can be savoury as well as sweet. Valencia is the part of Spain where these are most iconic, but various varieties of them are popular in other parts of the country too. They are often eaten during various holidays and can be notably more expensive when compared with churros. It usually depends on the filling, sweet ones have cream and fruit in them, while savoury kinds can have cod, tuna, cheese and potato in them.

Cod Buñuelos are my favourite out of all of them, and it gives me the impression of something like a battered fish cake. The sweet ones dominate the scene though and you actually see these in most parts of Spain around Lent, eaten instead of pancakes for Shrove Tuesday. In Andalusia, they are like mini doughnuts, notably smaller, and you see them being made in a rather impressive conveyor-fryer-like contraption. Where there’s a holiday, buñuelo stands will probably appear.

What typically comes with churros, porras and buñuelos? That’s right, chocolate! It’s a match made in heaven, and you see it everywhere. It’s not a hot chocolate that people are familiar with in England or the States, rather a thick dipping chocolate that is one step away from being pure melted chocolate, but a little more runny. You’re not paying much for this either, around 2.50€- 3.50€ for one of these combos. Coffee is also a typical thing to have with these fried delights, and I would say it’s half and half in popularity with the locals. Some cafés may give you a complementary churro to go with your coffee which you can’t turn down. God bless every food outlet that gives away free churros.

There you have it. Whether you’re in A Coruña, or Almería, Churros, porras, and buñuelos in their many different forms or names are going to be close by. They aren’t healthy, but then most good food isn’t. Whether it be at a festival, the local café, or a little kiosk, it’s very rare you aren’t going to enjoy them, nor are you just having one. What a great way to start the day!

Camino de Santiago Day 3: Villafranca- La Laguna 39km

Day 3 of the Camino de Santiago was the day where it all went wrong. Me and my Brazilian friend Rafael had a rough night in the hostel we were in, because of the heavy rain making a load of noise for most of the night. This place offered a good breakfast to start us off, and we were keen to get information about conditions. We got chatting to another pilgrim, called Anders a Dutchman who expressed similar concerns. Together we checked the news on TV, and there was some rain forecast, but intermittent showers. One thing you need to know when doing the Camino, is that Galicia is the wettest part of Spain, and April is one of the wettest months.

We set off at around 9 in the morning this time, knowing that we had another day of climbing looming over us. The first leg is a descent through the Village of Villafranca del Bierzo itself where Camino then splits into two directions. From there, it is very important to know the differences between the 2 ways, and it is not clear when you get to the junction if you’re a cyclist. The route on the left, takes you along the river and for a bike, is a lot easier, whereas the route on the right, takes you up the mountain, is hard for cyclists and walkers alike. Unknowingly, we took the harder option, and immediately, I felt that the information I was armed with, was actually not accurate.

We soldiered on, hoping that the route would get easier at some point, and from a cycling point of view, there are parts where you need to dismount and just walk. We were rewarded by some spectacular views of the mountains again, and it looked rather endless, but since we’re crossing one the largest mountain chains in the country, that hardly seemed surprising. The weather was also threatening to rain at times, then cleared away and was a feature of this particular stretch. After about 7km of climbing, the path levels out for a while, but any descent with the bike is risky especially after any rain.

Pradela is a small village that greets you at the highest point and is purely an option for any pilgrim that passes through this way, and there is a hostel there in case you want to stay the night. The path reaches a junction which has tarmac, and you turn right for the village, but left to rejoin the main Camino. This for us is where it all went wrong. The descent is steep, with a few hairpin bends, and my bike had serious issues stopping. My friend was shouting at me, telling me to stop, and when I eventually did, I realised the back wheel was broken. The brake pads somehow broke through the metal frame of the wheel and clogged up the inner tube. The next town, Trabadelo, was at the bottom of this road.

Trabadelo was a village which we felt was slim pickings if we were going to find someone who could help us fix the bike. We checked out a couple of places for information, including a hostel and the local mini market. They both indicated that there was a service station and hotel further along the Camino that could have helped us. The problem was, with a bike that can’t move properly, 4km is quite far. Rafael came up with an idea to straddle a long piece of wood between us and carry the bike, while taking it in turns to wheel his bike along the ground. The wood did eventually snap, but it carried us most of the distance. After that, we just took it in turns to wheel the broken bike through the soft earth. One positive about this part of the Camino, was that was at least relatively flat.

The service station was in a place called La Portela del Valcarce, and they had a garage there, and a hotel, which gave us more disappointing news. There was nothing they could do to fix the bike there, and this dampened my belief that I would be able to continue. I was left with just 2 options; take a taxi to Sarria further along the camino, or take a taxi back to Villafranca. I chose the latter, and it was this service station where Rafael wanted to continue solo for which I didn’t blame him as I didn’t know if my trip was going to continue. We said our goodbyes believing we would probably see each other in León. This wait for the taxi gave me time to reflect on what had happened and to work out the next plan of attack.

The station also had a nice shop full of local produce and trinkets for the Camino de Santiago. Since I didn’t have anything of the iconic shell, I bought a necklace with one on. The most common reason for the shell people told me during my time on the road was that it represented good luck, though it bears other meanings too. At this point, the Taxi arrived, to take me back to Villafranca, and together we discussed the possible ways of getting back on track. This driver was super helpful, taking me straight to the workshop and made sure they were able to fix it before he left to pick up another customer. I was lucky enough that they were able to fix it, but I had to wait 2 hours until the shop reopened again at 5.

This gave me time to chill out and check out the rest of Villafranca and in all honesty, get a bit bored. None of the major sights to this village were open, and even the tourist office, being a Monday, was closed for the whole day. I was able to check out the Iglesia de San Francisco which was a little higher up compared to the rest of the village, had some of the best views of town and surrounding mountains. The Plaza Mayor was where I spent most of my time though, sheltering from the odd sharp shower that headed my way. Some bars remain open, but in reality, you are rather alone in this village during the late afternoon.

The bike was finally ready and I was charged more than I originally paid for the bike, but at least I had a new wheel with a good tread on my tyre and new brakes, but they did warn me about avoiding sharp descents (like I know when I’m going to come across one of them). 5:30, and time to go, this time via the valley floor. This route is the one that most of the guides lead you to, and you can see why. The main road had the camino to the side of it, and the climbs are very minimal as you’re following the Río Valcarce. Pereje is the first village you come across just 4km in, and is a potential stop for Pilgrims as there is a bar and a Hostel. As a cyclist, you also avoid the busier N-VI for about 1km. It took me just 15 minutes to reach Trabadelo from Pereje, which again, is rather flat, and there I decided to get my booklet stamped.

Trabadelo has notably more hostels and things for the pilgrim compared to Pereje, with a couple of shops for groceries, and the valley opens up a little more, allowing you to see more mountains. A word of warning though, most of the hostels are at the start of the village, and after the ayuntamiento, there’s very little on offer. I continued along the camino, rejoined the main road, rather than taking the camino and another 20 minutes or so, I had passed the service station where Rafael and I parted ways, some 4 hours before. It took barely an hour to get from Villafranca to this spot, compared to the 3 1/2 hours via Pradela. Just how adventurous are you feeling?

I had an idea in my head, that if I just continued on the N-VI towards Lugo, that would be easier, and I would avoid the mountains, I was just so nervous of the bike breaking down on me and having a serious accident because of the brakes. I decided to stick to the main route, given that I knew there would be more support along the way. Plus if you’re going to do something, do it right. The next town is Albamestas and this is important for many pilgrims as there are quite a few Hostels there, and is for many, where some people from Villafranca, stop for a rest. It’s also where I bumped into the same Taxi driver who helped me before, small world eh?

The road then stays by the river as you cycle just 1km to Vega del Valcarce which is the last major village before you start climbing the mountains. This place is worth staying for a little while as there are plenty of places to wind down, but it’s worth noting that progress on the bike started to slow down at times, as the road is slowly climbing. You rejoin the N-VI at Ruitelán, a much smaller village, which I literally just passed through, and rest points became more limited. The last village before the climb up the mountain, is a little confusing, because on some charts they call it Hospital, which is a neighbourhood of a village called Las Herrerías, so don’t expect to see Hospital on many signs. and I didn’t see any shop to stock up on, but there are a couple of bars and hostels so you won’t go hungry.

This is the part where it gets really tricky, I felt like I needed to push for progress up the mountain before I could rest for the night, but time was slipping away, by this point it was 7, and I just wanted to make the next village. By this point, the rain was becoming a bit more persistent and colder, and the climb was becoming a bit of a struggle. some of the mountains had snow on them and clouds were constantly dark and I was starting to hit another low point in the journey. I had no idea how far away the next village was or where it would be and I missed a turn to it which was La Faba, and I was questioning why I was putting myself through this, I was just desperate to get to somewhere warm and dry. I was by this point too tired to cycle up the road and was walking up instead. I saw a couple of houses in the distance, and then a sign spray-painted on the floor, Albergue 1km, and then another for 500m and that extra energy pushed me there.

Thankfully the place was open and to my luck it was also a bar which had food. it was 8pm by that point, and I was super relieved. La Laguna was the hamlet I ended up staying at, and the hostel, Albergue La Escuela, was the only business there, and cost me 8€ at the time for the night. This particular place is on booking.com and it looks like the price has gone up, but it’s still really great value. I happened to be the only person in the entire hostel that was staying there the night, and It was extremely comfortable. I tried to get as many things as dry as possible, and had another 3- course meal, which again was amazing, and even managed to try tarta de Santiago for the first time.

By the time I got myself ready for bed, Rafael had messaged me, warning me about the following conditions, he had no idea where I was, nor did he know about what had happened. I couldn’t message him, because I had no signal whatsoever on both my phones, but his message warned me of difficulties of snow on the Camino. Given that I hadn’t made it to the top of the mountain yet, I had an interesting day ahead of me…

Murciano: Is this the hardest Spanish accent on the peninsula?

If you go for a holiday on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, you would probably overlook the Costa Cálida, in the southeast of Spain. Alicante is nearby, so most Brits prefer to go there, so I can understand why it’s not so well-known. But this coastline is part of the Region de Murcia, and when you meet the people there, you are in for quite a difficult time. Are they unfriendly? Not at all. I didn’t feel like an alien in that regard, but my years of learning Spanish were heavily put to the test once a local opened their mouth and started talking (though some parts of Huelva and Sevilla are a close 2nd and 3rd).

My experience with the accent started when I checked into my hostel in Murcia capital. I was a little taken aback by the difference in the receptionist’s accent, but I powered through and got everything sorted. I was unsure as to whether that was a one-off, but I went into various bars for some tapas and the experience was of a similar degree. By the end of my stay, I certainly felt like I had had an intensive Spanish listening exam.

But what makes this accent so difficult?

  1. Murcians speak really quickly, or at least quicker than many other Spanish speakers around the country in my experience. Seriously, I would never get into an argument with someone from there as it would just get messy and I’d probably lose even if I’m 100% right.
  2. /s/ are extremely soft. Plural words will lose the /s/ dos turns to do. It is used at the start of the word at least, and a ‘c’ might sound like an /s/ but that’s generally a southern thing anyway. /x/ might sound like an /s/.
  3. Hard consonants are very relaxed which makes the words sound quicker, because there’s no semi pause for pronunciation for example: Iglesia may sound like Ilesia. They do this with so many letters where syllables are cut short.
  4. facial expressions when you pay attention to somebody don’t give that much away either, so any lipreading skills you have, may be futile.

Murcia’s accent is sometimes displayed in Spanish popular culture, with various films making fun of it and allowing the region to be the butt of all jokes. It reminds me of the Geordie accent in English culture (I’m a southerner, don’t hate). So many Spanish people that I know will make fun of Murcia because of the accent, but most of them make good humour of it.

The big questions are: can you get used to it? And does everybody speak like this? If you live in Murcia, you most certainly can get used to it, but it will take a lot longer, especially if you don’t have a high level to begin with. I was only there for 2 days and I survived ok, but was still rather shocked by the differences. And of course, not everybody speaks like this, but the vast majority do, as well as in surrounding provinces of Albacete, Almería and Alicante. Even people who work in public places may be difficult to understand. I went to the tourist office in Murcia and they were clearer than most people, but still quite a challenge to understand everything.

So there you have it, Murciano. Not a language in it’s own right, but some people might say differently when they experience hearing it. I think while it’s an obstacle that doesn’t make much sense, It shouldn’t put you off from checking this region out. If anything, this is one of the biggest learning curves you could experience if Spanish isn’t your first language. Expect a conversation that has a mumbling and lack of hard consonant element to it and see how far you can go. The further you go, the better the experience and the more likely you are of discovering some hidden gems. Good luck!

The Regional Nature of Beer in Spain

Let’s be honest, beer is life. Us brits love a pint or five, and if you come to Spain, like every other European country, they love it too. However, to the common eye, a bar in England compared to Spain, the first question often springs to mind in a Spanish bar; Why is there only one beer on tap?! I must admit, I was totally perplexed by that too. In England it’s customary to order the size and brand, whereas in Spain, the brand 9/10 times is not necessary.

What you get is de la casa, and that’s the brand you may had seen outside the front door before you walked in. The only cases I know where they ask you what brand or type you want, is if you’re in an English-speaking bar, or a bar which sells lots of craft beer. Even bars that say cervecería on the outside, will probably give you the standard one. But not to worry, if you don’t like the particular brand they have on tap, they will provide other brands in bottles or cans. You just have to ask, and even then, it’s likely they only have one brand but with variants, like stout, amber, IPA and so on. Seriously, there’re more than 10 types of San Miguel on offer here.

The regional touch about beer, is that a typical bar will serve the locally made brew, and the change when you cross each border is notable. Not many places will be divided, and it looks like Amstel and Heineken are the only foreign beers that have any popularity here. Guess the Spaniards like a bit of Dutch courage. Like England, the standard beer is a lager, or pilsner though you might find some variants. Supermarkets are not particularly biased, and they will sell anything from almost every region, especially Carrefour.

This is what you will find:

Estrella Galicia: Galicia

No brownie points to where this beer comes from, but this is one of the better beers of the country, and if you’re in any city of a reasonable size, you can find it. It has a full flavour, and a soft aftertaste. It is a great contender, it’s popularity in Spain is growing rapidly and you can find it in England without too much trouble.

Mahou Clasica/ 5 estrellas: Castilla y León, Castilla La Mancha, Madrid, La Rioja

A major powerhouse in Spain. When I first moved to León, this beer was everywhere, and I wasn’t complaining. There’s nothing about this beer that thrills you, it just goes well with tapas and you don’t think twice when consuming it. The 5 estrellas version is a Pilsner that is a little stronger, but again it’s pretty inoffensive. Its not easy to find in England, but not impossible.

El Águila: Madrid

This beer has a lot of history, but disappeared for years before being relaunched in 2019. Its popularity in bars has started to grow, and it’s very refreshing. I’ll be unhappy to see this one disappear again.

San Miguel: Asturias, Cantabria, País Vasco, Madrid, Parts of Catalonia, Baleares

Now here is a beer that has a very different taste in my opinion when you drink it here in Spain compared to England. Here, it tastes so much better than in England! I don’t know what they do to it, but there you have it. This might originally be from the Philippines, but it was created by Spaniards there, and was brought back to where it belongs. They have a brewery in Lleida, which is one of it’s patron saints and is hugely popular in that part of Catalonia. You will find it in every city in the country without fail.

Turia: Comunidad Valenciana

Named after the river that flows through Valencia, Turia has a distinct taste, and is in my opinion, my favourite beer that’s widely available. It’s a little darker, but not as strong as other beers of that nature. It’s pretty easy to find in the region, but outside this place, it’s a little harder. But I have seen a fair few bars in Catalonia that sell it. This may be the least known beer on this list based on my discussion about it with friends.

Ambar: Aragon

Ambar and Aragon go together like Valencia and Paella. Its amazing how the transformation is when you cross it’s borders. The colour certainly reflects the name, and has a nice smooth taste that you can drink over long periods of time. I’d go for this over a San Miguel, nine times out of ten.

Damm (Estrella): Catalonia

Damm has loads of varieties, but Estrella is the most common one, and I must admit, it has the typical lager taste. It has a little more fizz than San Miguel, but makes up for it in taste. You find this in most bars around Catalonia although in Lleida, it is a bit less common. Try the many varieties this has, I liked every single one of them.

Victoria: Andalusia

Specifically from Malaga, this beer takes the Costa del Sol by storm. However, it tastes extremely similar to Estrella Damm. If you were to blindfold me, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Try it and see for yourself.

Keler: País Vasco, Navarre

This beer has a character to it. I first saw it in Pamplona, but it’s actually from San Sebastian. It’s striking yellow label also strikes your mouth with a strong flavour. The aftertaste is a little worse compared to other beers and at 6%, its one of the stronger beers on tap in Spain.

Cruzcampo: Andalucia, Extremadura

This is the downside to living in Andalusia. Cruzcampo is probably the worst beer in Spain in my opinion, and though I drink it, it would never be my first choice. My head partially drops when I enter a bar and see this is being served to me. It’s fairly refreshing, but the last dreg is not nice. But at the end of the day, beer is beer.

Alhambra: Andalusia

Now this is a beer that should be winning the people of Andalusia over, certainly won me over. The taste and aftertaste of this beer makes it worth coming back for again and again. This contribution from Granada goes great with a tapa or two.

Dorada: Canarias

I tried this beer once and I thought it was nothing special, but nothing particularly bad to write home about. Then again, I’ve only had this in a can, so I can’t say much more about it other than that the Canaries love drinking it, and you barely see it on the peninsula.

Estrella de Levante: Murcia, Castilla la Mancha, Comunidad Valenciana

I had never heard of this beer before until I visited the Alicante Province, and by the time I got to Murcia, it was everywhere. I would say it was comparable to Alhambra, but a little bit milder. There’s nothing special to it, but I wouldn’t complain about being served it at all.

Moritz: Catalonia

Moritz is a fierce rival of Estrella Damm in the Catalan region, and the flavour is a bit more intense to start with. I found this to be a drink more linked to gastronomy rather than sinking a few in a bar, whereas Estrella was easier to do that with.

So the choice is yours, your palette might not agree with mine, but wherever you go, be prepared to be stuck with little choice other than the local favourite. At the very least, should you not like the draught option, you will have bottled or canned options. During the summer I often go for the draught option with lemon or gaseosa, as it’s more refreshing, but that’s a different experience altogether. whichever region you visit, you’re guaranteed at least one change… Salud!