Beret- Montgarri, a True Alpine Experience

Spain and snow, may seem like an odd combination, especially when there are plenty of areas that have almost never seen the white stuff. But go to the right places, and you’ll see it on a regular basis for at least half the year. The ski resort of Baqueira- Beret is one such place, and you can normally ski there for 5 months of the year. But what this place also offers, is the opportunity to go cross country skiing and to go out on snowshoes, and better still, you can rent them from the resort.

A popular place to trek to at any time of the year, is a tiny settlement called Montgarri. In local guides this place is mentioned quite frequently, but I hadn’t heard much about it until I visited the major town of the area, Vielha. from Beret, the path is marked and you are looking at a 12km round trip more or less. How long it takes you, depends on how good you are with snowshoes. This was my first time and I must admit, it did feel weird to start with, but felt way better on the snow than using boots or crampons. Cross- country skiing is also an option for this route too, but there is some climbing involved, and guides don’t recommend it unless you are Well-versed with them.

This experience wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the teachers I worked with when I lived in Tarragona, Gerard, Francesc, and Gabi. They planned the trip and I was fortunate and grateful to join them. It’s nearly 4 hours drive to get to Baqueira Beret from the coast, so you would need somewhere to stay the night in the Valley. But the journey is something special once you get to the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The starting point is at the highest point of the route, which is Beret car park, from there, you see two marked paths heading into the valley and away from the skiers. You can start at either one of them, just remember the other path will be the exit. Being December, you are practically guaranteed snow for the whole journey, so there’s no need for anything other than warm clothes and adequate protection for this. We got there at around 9:30, which is just before the resort opened, and we took the path on the right.

Weirdly, you start descending for the first half of this route, and without snowshoes, this would have been a nightmare. You also almost immediately leave the open areas for the first hour when you descend into the forest. Views are limited, and you do need to watch out for the occasional skier or snowmobile that frequent the road. There are also occasional tracks that detour from the main path, Avoid following them as they probably won’t take you to Montgarri. Eventually after perhaps an hour and a half of walking, you will find the paths connect again and you should be out of the trees.

Montgarri should be in full view, and you will have noticed that you would have walked past it, rather than going directly. It’s also worth pointing out that there are some ruins about 200m further down the valley, and there are a few places that provide you with a warm meal in this area. the most famous one, the Refugi de Montgarri, next to the church, is where we had a drink. Upon seeing this place, I totally understood why somebody would attempt to get to this place. A rustic slate house, beautiful church and a mountainous winter wonderland totally out in the wild, is this really Spain?!

When we entered the house, the rush of warmth hit us immediately, and you could hear the fire well in use. The people there were very informative, happy to help, and had a dog that I wanted to take home with me. They also offer a very hearty menu which by anyone’s standards for a place like this, is not going to be met with complaint. But it is expensive, a menu is 30€+ depending on what you order, and even a beer will set you back 3€ minimum. I wouldn’t complain though, given how isolated you are, the nearest supermarket is quite a trek away.

I would have loved to have stayed there all day in the warm, but we had to head back. The way back is more challenging due to the climb, but you are rewarded with more unbroken views of the valley. we set off towards another house where the trail became more visible, and you are greeted with the sun. This path is also the one most at risk of snowmelt because of it being on the south face. We followed the trail marked by numerous skis and snowmobiles uphill towards the next house. from there, there is an additional trail that takes you eventually to Bagergue, a village that was declared a pueblo más bonita de España in 2019. In fact, after you cross a stream, 100m down, there’s another trail to the same place, but it’s 20km away. Best leave that one for the summer eh?

The main path is also safe enough to take shortcuts uphill on certain bends, as snowshoes have an adjustment which makes it easier. We did that a couple of times just for fun, but only because one of my friends knew the route well. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. But before we knew it, the valley opened up again, and we could see skiers making their downhill runs in the distance. The experience was coming to an end, which was also the end of our trip. It takes about an hour to get back to Beret from Montgarri, and it’s worth noting that the way we went back was main route through the valley. Before we knew it, the hike was over.

So there you have it. Beret- Montgarri, the perfect place to go if you want to play in the snow, and try using snowshoes. It takes no time at all to lose yourself in this wilderness and disconnect from everything for a few hours. I loved it so much, that I took my parents there a couple of years later. Baqueira- Beret isn’t the easiest place to get to, but if you can handle a four- hour drive from Barcelona to get there, it is well worth it, trust me.

Flamenquín

There’s one question I have about this particular dish: Why is this not everywhere in Spain?! Having moved to Córdoba, the province where this beauty came from, I can totally understand why most restaurants have it on their menus. I have learned how to make them myself and would recommend anyone in Britain to give it a go at home. If you own a chippy in the Reading area, make them, drop me a line, and next time I’m visiting my parents, I’ll be your best customer for the number of weeks I’m there!

There are conflicting ideas on where it actually came from. Some believe it was from Jaén, others from Montilla, but the most common idea is from Bujalance, a village some 40km from Córdoba capital. It looks like a sausage in breadcrumbs, or a very long croquette, but what’s inside, trumps those two ideas. Essentially, it’s quite basic, literally serrano ham wrapped in pork loin, bread crumbed and deep fried. So not for vegetarians, nor somebody looking to keep an eye on their weight, nor for anybody with a small appetite. It’s probably one of the heaviest dishes in the south. Normally they are 15-20cm long, but as a result of competitive restaurants trying to outdo everybody else, flamenquines can be up to half a metre long! Challenge accepted.

And if that’s not enough, the vast majority come with chips and salad to make it a full-on meal. But its entirely down to how you or your friends and family like to go about it. Many people would have it to share, and many restaurants will serve this dish already sliced for that occasion, and prices range from 6-10€ depending on the size. My first experience of a flamenquín was in Tarragona in a tapas competition a few years ago, but the real deal in Córdoba was notably better. And most of the locals tell me that this is their favourite dish from these lands.

Like so many other things, flamenquines come in several varieties, and may be different in other parts of Andalusia. Chicken is sometimes substituted for the pork loin, and the filling is played with most often. A common variant is Roquefort cheese, more common in Sevilla, and I’ve had even weirder fillings like prawns, peppers, French omelet to name a few. All taste great, and even the name changes to flamenca to distinguish the difference from the original. But like Coca Cola, you can’t beat the original in my eyes.

So if you happen to be in the south of Spain and you are looking for a hearty meal to get you through the day, give this one a try. The locals love it, and whether you have it for lunch or dinner, you are not going to look out of place at all. There isn’t a restaurant where I have had a flamenquín and not liked it, and you’ll end up in a heated debate with somebody if you have a favourite place (Don Papa is my favourite, just saying). The best place to have this is Córdoba, and you can find it everywhere there. Maybe share it with everybody the first time, and selfishly have it for yourself the next, sometimes its just too good to share…

Camino de Santiago Day 2: Astorga- Villafranca del Bierzo 81km

Day 2 was the make or break day in my mind. I knew if I was going to struggle as much as the previous day, I would seriously question my ability to complete this. Despite being in a sleeping bag, I slept like a baby, only to lose an hour with the clocks going forward and having to wake up at 6:30. What I did notice, was that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, which gave me a lift, but it was cold, just 3 degrees. Armed with all the information I could find about the next day, I found a chart which I used with a lot of care. It enabled us to plan our stops a little bit better, so we fueled up on pasta and set off.

The Camino takes you through the heart of Astorga, and past a few clubs with people drunkenly wishing you a safe journey, cute. The start is actually very straightforward, as you descend from the old quarter, you follow a main road and the Camino goes alongside it helping us make more ground. You just have to be ready that the yellow arrows will eventually take you off into the next village, which in this case for us, was Murias de Rechivaldo some 4km from the centre of Astorga. Little did I know at the time, but if you stayed on the main road, you connect to the Camino just 3km later and you would have an opportunity to visit a village called Castrillo de los Polvazares, which was listed as a Pueblo Más Bonito de España in 2019. I missed that opportunity, but you don’t have to.

The Camino reconnected to the main road once again, and you don’t need very many navigational skills to work out which direction to go, as the road for the next hour or so was rather straight. We were also climbing, but it didn’t feel that bad, and the views were starting to get better. Two villages, Santa Catalina de Somoza and El Ganso are useful rest stops with Santa Catalina having more views of the landscape and a main street lined with slate houses, which is worth a look. Both have places for a bite if need be. Our first major stop was in the town after El Ganso, called Rabanal, some 22km from our starting point.

From El Ganso, you start entering more alpine woodlands along the route, with occasional views of the snow-capped mountains we had been heading towards for more than a day. The road by this point was still ok, but it was getting steeper and when we arrived at Rabanal del Camino, we took an extended break. It was pretty clear that this place was important for pilgrims as there were plenty of places to stay, and we came across a few unmanned stalls offering things for the journey in return for a donation, like shells and handmade necklaces. That is something you should expect to see when doing this, and Locals may offer things to you in person.

Rabanal was where we also got our first stamp of the day, and where we checked out our next part of the route. Ponferrada was to be our next major rest stop, 37km away, but this was where it started to get technically challenging for the bikes. When we left Rabanal, the climb started to get even steeper, and when we connected to the main road, Astorga was barely visible and notably lower down. The trees started to give way and expose us to more views of the mountains and we were almost on the same level as some snow patches. Progress was slow going, but we were getting there, and Rafael was showing his training by streaking ahead. the last village before the highest point of the road was Foncebadon, some 1400m up.

We didn’t check out Foncebadon itself, just followed the road, but for those attempting the Camino, there are plenty of places for the night, and has quite an amazing setting. My legs were on fire getting to the top of the mountain pass, (which is the also highest point of the entire Camino Frances I might add) and we ended up with some spectacular views of the mountains, and there was a shrine at the top, but we didn’t hang around to enjoy it, and headed downhill. I was a little nervous to see how good my brakes were, and what better to find out than a 900m descent.

With the weather as good as it was, it was hard to focus on staying on the road instead of admiring the views. Now its worth noticing at this point, that the Camino does take a few detours on the way down compared to the main road if you are walking, but you do pass two villages called El Acebo de San Miguel and Riegos de Ambrós. We literally passed straight through them as they were downhill, but for a walker, they were places with a few hostels, similar to Foncebadon. Once we passed those villages, Ponferrada was in sight, and it gave us more motivation, and this part of the journey was the highlight of the day. As a hiker, you probably would take most of the day to get to the bottom if you were starting your day in Foncebadon, for us, it took an hour.

Molinaseca was the village that awaited us at the bottom, and was the last notable village before Ponferrada. I would have liked to spend more time there than we did, but Rafael wanted to push on so we could rest. The village has a famous bridge known as the Puente de los Peregrinos, and left a picturesque scene with the church on the other side. Stop there if you can. It took us about 20 minutes or so to reach Ponferrada, and we took refuge in a hostel to have some more rations, and just in time too as we were caught by a shower. Once it cleared, we set off, and were caught by surprise how nice the city centre was, and the Camino zig-zagged through most of it.

Other than the city being rather deserted, given it was 16:30 on a Sunday, Ponferrada was the 2nd major spot on our journey that would provide everything. The old quarter is worth a visit, having sights such as the Castillo del Templario, Plaza de la Encinas, and Calle Reloj, and the best part is, the Camino passes through all of them. As you leave the city, you are greeted with almost 360 degree views of the mountains, most of which had snow on them. The next 10km of riding once you leave town, were probably the most pleasant of the whole day. You are on mostly tarmac and cars don’t normally pass this way, and it was the warmest time during the whole journey, around 21 degrees, perfect really. Camponaraya was the village that greeted us next, and if there’s one thing I would say about this place, it would be wine. The village is surrounded by vineyards, and when you leave, the Camino takes you within touching distance of the grapevines.

Your break from the hills unfortunately ends at this point to an extent, though it’s nothing compared to earlier in the day. You have just 6km to the next town, Cacabelos, and when you get there, you follow a narrow street from the get go, which leads you to the main church of town and is also full of places to stop if you needed to. When we passed through there, we got caught up in some sort of ceremony taking place, forcing us to hop off and walk for a bit. Your way out of town sees you connect to the main road again, and over the River Cúa, which has a photo-worthy view with mountains in the background.

The final push to Villafranca was only made easier in that we were on tarmac for the rest of the day. The climbs are fairly short, and on a normal day, you wouldn’t have much to huff and puff about, but we already had 70km under our belt, and once again Rafael would surge ahead from time to time. The hamlet of Pieros was the only place left for any rest you may want, and from there you get a good view of where you had been. From there, the road, beautiful though it is, continued to be a challenge and I couldn’t wait to just get to Villafranca. 1km from the village, and we stopped one last time, hopeful that the climbs were over and done with. Rafael even expressed his concern at how I was feeling. I guess he still had some energy left.

The final push was thankfully downhill, and we made it to Villafranca some 11hours after we left Astorga. Slow-going yes, but I was happy with how far we had gone, and we were rewarded with a lovely Hostel called Albergue Avenida Fenix, next to the Iglesia de Santiago and the Castillo de Villafranca practically next door as well. Again, 5€ for the night, just like the previous day, and a completely different feel to the place. This one was rustic, had wooden beams everywhere and an open courtyard. For aesthetics, this was the nicest Hostel of the entire trip.

This time, we couldn’t be bothered to cook, so we walked down into the centre and found a restaurant, that offered a set menu. I had noticed they had special menus for pilgrims at really good prices along the journey, and this one was 10€, and after that experience, I highly recommend doing that at least once while doing the Camino. I had a fish soup big enough to serve 3 people, a large steak, and I can’t remember the name of the pudding, but it made Rafael Jealous when he saw it. We got back to the hostel and immediately afterwards, it started raining, hard. We were a little worried about the weather for the following day, and we knew there were more mountains to climb. Day 2 ended with some anxiety…

City Guides: Sevilla

The South of Spain may now be my home, but my imagination of it was different to what I now know is the reality. I knew I was probably going to see some stereotypes come to play there, with the flamenco, and bullfighting and a classy tapear culture. To some extent, that was true, but I had heard that people in Andalusia had a very relaxing lifestyle, don’t work as hard as they play, and were notably poorer than the north. Sevilla did not give me that impression.

Sevilla is the biggest city in Andalusia and the 4th biggest in Spain, so you are spoilt for choice of what you want to do. The old quarter is also one of the biggest in Europe, making it a nightmare for cars, but great for pedestrians, and trust me, you are going to break some records with your walking. The city has a rather limited public transport infrastructure, especially the further north you go. Flying to Sevilla from London, as well as other major European cities is easy enough, but you don’t have as much choice compared to flying to Malaga, and you are only connected to the city via a bus, which gets full very quickly, so you might be waiting a little while to get out.

The city’s main station, Santa Justa is also not well connected to the centre, so I advise getting a Cercanías service to San Bernardo station, as that’s connected to the metro and tram. if you get there by bus you also may be dropped off at two stations, Prado de San Sebastian, or the Plaza de Armas, the latter of which, requires more walking. I guess the good thing about the metro is that it connects the river, some of the main attractions, the financial centre and the Ramon Sanchez Pízjuan Stadium home to Sevilla FC. I’ll tell you this right now though, when I came here with my brother, and again with my parents, I didn’t need it even once.

I first came here in 2013 with my brother at the end of my university placement, and two things struck me when we left the station, calor and mucho calor. If you go there during the summer months, expect sweltering temperatures. It was the first time I had ever experienced 40 degrees, so be careful with your scheduling. However, there are less crowds so if you can handle the heat, go for it. Do not go there during Easter. The parades might be spectacular, but it gets too crowded, and walking around some parts of town is a nightmare. I’ve heard the Feria de Mayo attracts a similar number, but that’s a different experience I haven’t tried yet. October/ November time may be the best time, as there’re less crowds and the weather is more agreeable. I was there in November and it was still in the low 20’s.

My first stroll around the city centre, the evening I arrived, was one that I fell in love with immediately, and I knew I was in for something special. It was totally different to anything I had seen in the north, and I was taken aback by how vast and unchanged most of the streets were. During the summer, many of the streets were covered by large sun shades which added an element to the experience, you certainly don’t see that in the UK. The magic really happens when you walk down Avenida de la Constitución, which is the most prominent street in the old quarter.

The main attractions are the cathedral, which is the biggest in the world, the Archivo de Indias, the Real Alcazar, the Plaza de España and the Metrosol Parasol, otherwise known as the Setas. You really are wasting your time there if you don’t see at least 2 of these places, and you will probably need more than a day to make the most of these attractions. The Cathedral costs 10€ to enter, and you don’t necessarily need to book in advance depending on when you go. It is worth every cent you pay, and it is so extensive, you probably will miss something. It’s impossible to miss the tower known as the Giralda, which gives you impressive views of the city and uniquely, has virtually no steps to reach the top, just slopes.

The Real Alcazar is right next to the cathedral, and I kid you not, you can easily spend several hours in there without realising it. I would say that only the Alhambra in Granada might be more impressive, but not much more. One visit was not enough, and it is worth the fee, which varies depending on the time of year, from 11- 13€ and you have to pay extra if you want to visit the royal suites. Well worth the money, trust me. The gardens are so extensive, you could easily get lost, and you don’t feel that you are in the centre of a big city. Go there, it might be touristic, but seriously, do it.

The Plaza de España is like none of the other Plaza de Españas around, and better still, it’s free. This comes as a cost however, as you will be pestered by a lot of people chasing a quick buck, by selling their rubbish. I don’t need to describe the place, you’ll know what I mean when I say that there’s nothing like it. But don’t just check that place out, the Parque de Maria Luisa is full of hidden gems, and what’s more, you’ll avoid the tourist traps. It’s also worth checking out that part of town too, as not only are you by the river, you’re also about 15- 20 minute walk from Benito Villamanin stadium, the home of Sevilla FC’s rivals, Real Betis.

Now let’s check out the ‘river’ the most romantic part of Sevilla. your first port of call is the Torre del Oro which is the most iconic building right along the edge. I never went inside it, but at 3€, it might be worth a look. But it’s most impressive from the outside. Then you have the Plaza de Toros which I know, animal activists will have my head when I say this, Is well worth attending a tour and learning about it, even if you are heavily against bullfighting. Head to the other side and you will see things get a lot quieter, and a few upmarket restaurants. If you have a special occasion and you aren’t sure where to go, there’s your potential answer.

Now it’s time to check out the lesser known north part of the old quarter, the part where you’ll see more locals around. The last major attraction, the Setas is the dividing line. This is the newer attraction, built on top of some roman ruins, and I must admit, it doesn’t look out of place. The best part is that it offers the finest views of town after the Giralda, with details of the city dotted on numerous plaques along the top. Keep heading north through the mazy streets and you come across the Alameda a long square full of bars.

This is the place to be for some tapas, and they are about 0.50€- 1€ cheaper than the southern part of the old quarter, and you are spoilt for choice. I heavily recommend Casa Paco, Norte de Andalucía and Piola. I would avoid quite a few of the places nearer the Giralda as they are the most expensive in town and there are some nasty tourist traps, with some places charging nearly 3€ for a cortado (seriously is the coffee made out of gold?!!). In saying that, the quality of the food for the most part is high, and a few places stood out, like La Subasta, and La Casa de Tomate (the latter of which does great breakfasts). It gets even better when you a little out of the way, like El Prado or Macarena neighbourhoods. It might look a little shady, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Typical dishes you’ll find in Sevilla include Gazpacho, Pavia de Bacalao, solomillo al whiskey, espinacas con garbanzos, papas aliñas and el serranito, which is Sevilla’s favourite post party snack and better than a kebab in my opinion. You will certainly never get bored there, if you want a night out, whether it be a few late night cocktails or partying until 6am, the Alameda and surrounding areas again is usually the best place to be, though I heard that the area around Sevilla Este is also a great place to go out. If you’re looking for music or theatre plays, places like the Teatro Maestranza, or Lope de Vega would be your best bets. Flamenco can be seen in the city and there is a museum a few clicks from the Ayuntamiento, but maybe wait until the Ferias for the ultimate experience.

Lastly, the people here are different to other parts of Spain for sure, but they are also notably different compared to other parts of Andalusia. They are generally open and friendly, but they also appear to be the most well-off in the whole of the south if you happen to be in the centre. They are hard-working and may express more passion in doing things than up north. The Sevillano accent is a little tricky to understand at times, but I think people’s opinion about it is a little exaggerated, and I was able to hold a conversation with them even during my first visit. English isn’t spoken that much, but there are more speakers in and around the Giralda, but it is hit and miss.

There are so many more things I could write about, and so many more places in Sevilla I never got the chance to see or experience, and I have returned several times and even had job interviews there, I was that keen. It may be the 3rd most visited city in Spain, but it doesn’t feel like it, providing you avoid Easter. It is a growing cosmopolitan hub of the south, but retains so much tradition and mystery for the visitor to discover. My advice, visit Sevilla before it gets overran by tourists, in summer or autumn and make it at the very least a 2-night trip.

The Culture and Complexity of Catalan

When people think Catalan, they immediately think about the independence movement, and the red and yellow striped flag with the star. But the culture and language is completely overlooked, and to some extent, Catalonia does have a feeling of a separate country. It’s language is widely used across the region for the most part, and there will be many situations where you will see no translation to Castilian Spanish. Many people feel really proud to speak their language and having lived in Catalonia for 5 years, I even had the privilege to learn it to a certain level.

Many people from Britain are very naïve to think that Catalan is a dialect of Spanish, and that if you speak French and Spanish you can pick up Catalan easily. Wrong!! Catalan has similarities to most of the other romance languages, but you can’t just wing it. When I sat down to have lunch for the first time with my first host family since moving to Catalonia, the conversation started flowing in Spanish, and then they flipped to Catalan. Immediately was lost, and it took a long time to pick up some of the repeated phrases they were saying.

It became apparent to me, that most households and friendship groups would speak Catalan to each other and even most services offer that option firsthand. 99% of them would happily speak Spanish to you if that’s all you speak, the other 1% would be rather stubborn, but many would encourage you to learn some important words or phrases. I got the impression that if I was to have a more comfortable life in every aspect, I would have to learn some of it eventually. There are also many residents on the other end of the spectrum however who don’t speak Catalan in their household, being from other parts of Spain, and in some extreme circumstances, refuse to learn or speak it.

If you’ve ever seen the film, Ocho Apellidos Catalanes, it shows the culture and language being forced upon you, and the domestic issues the region experiences regularly. To some extent, there is some truth to it, though for comedic value, it’s overdramatic. The accents are very accurate, and even Dani Rovira’s strong impression of the language, is one that I have heard in real-life situations. A typical village in the countryside will have few people who don’t speak Catalan as their first language, whereas in the Major cities, it’s a lot more diverse.

Even Barcelona retains a lot of it’s Catalan language and heritage around town, all be it less so in the Gothic Quarter. You will find that for the most part, Spanish is principally spoken around town and in most of it’s establishments, but you wouldn’t have to walk around too much to see Catalan. The names of places are the biggest giveaway, such as Plaça Catalunya instead of Plaza Cataluña, and Passeig de Gràcia instead of Paseo de Gracia. The less touristic the neighbourhood, the more likely Catalan is going to be used.

What surprised me when I moved, was how many different accents of this language exist. While there aren’t so many differences between somebody from Barcelona to Tarragona, Lleida and Girona are notably different. It’s said that Girona is the home of the Language, Barcelona is the most common accent, and Lleida the renegade. When I moved from Tarragona to Lleida, I noticed the differences almost straightaway. If you were to learn the language, Lleida might be the best place for you regarding conversation practice. The majority of the materials would be from Barcelona, and Girona is almost total immersion away from the beaches and for when you have reached a higher level.

Catalan is also not exclusively spoken in Catalonia, but it’s influence drops significantly in those regions. The southern most city in mainland France, Perpignan has Catalan Speakers, and the Sardinian city of L’alguer also has Catalan influence, but I’ve been told that most speakers are the older generations, and not so popular. Many of my students were left disappointed when they visited those areas and expected to fit in more with the locals. That idea was dismissed quite quickly as soon as they arrived.

There is however, an invisible buffer zone in Aragon called La Franja, where Catalan is also spoken. I visited various towns along this strip and discovered that was very hit and miss, and most people speak Spanish as their first language. One comarca however, was a little different, and that was the comarca of Matarraña in Teruel province. That changed my perspective of Aragon a little bit after spending a night there, as I thought the language and culture changed instantly as soon as I crossed the border. Definitely not the case.

Everything culturally connected to Catalonia was displayed via their language, and they are very content about that. All local festivals and regional holidays were as yu expect, but they do give information in Spanish at least, though I feel it’s more for tourism than anything else. They can’t cut the cord completely, nor can they do it in their education system. Some subjects are taught in Spanish, but truth be told, if you aren’t a native Catalan speaker, you are going to have a harder time. The system is designed that way, and it’s getting worse. Less Spanish people are crossing the border to study there, because they don’t speak Catalan.

My experience with this language has been one of fascination, and sadness. I’m fascinated by the accent, and that it’s accentuation is easier for a Brit than Spanish is, but saddened that it is sometimes used as a weapon subtly in various ways. Both are very important when living here, depending on what you’re doing. But I don’t like how it’s partially alienated people coming in, whether it be for work, study or sometimes socialising. As the language continues to gain momentum and become more important in Catalonia, so do the potential problems. Catalan, like it or loathe it, is here to Stay, if you’re just visiting, you don’t need it, but if you plan on moving to that region, I would start booking some classes…

Spanish Banks

Banks, no matter which country you’re in, can be a nightmare at the best of times. In Spain, they’re different in their annoying ways compared to England, and as a resident, trying to comprehend everything in a different language, you can feel out of your depth quite quickly. It’s worth noting that like England during the financial crisis, many of the smaller banks disappeared or merged with the bigger ones. But things in Spain were a lot more extreme.

Depending on where you are, you are very likely to find some very localised obscure banks. I noticed that was a major disadvantage for anybody connected with them. There were less branches nationwide, their cards didn’t work with many other banks, and they couldn’t do as many things compared to a larger bank. When I lived in León, I saw a prominent bank called Caja España, which was connected with my student card. However, when I moved to Catalonia, that bank did not exist at all, I didn’t even see one in Barcelona. but I did see other banks like Caixa Guissona and Caixa Catalunya (the latter of which is now part of the BBVA group).

Clearly when I needed a bank, one that was everywhere made sense. So I chose Santander, as it’s everywhere, and had a great reputation. My first year with the bank was with just a booklet which had to be taken to a clerk to withdraw money. I got so fed up of having to do that, I applied for a card after discovering I had a potential long-term future in the country, and the application was surprisingly easy. However, there are fees for the first year. something that usually doesn’t happen in England, 25€ just for the card. I understand that doesn’t always happen in Spain (especially the last couple of years, and it depends on the type of account you’re opening), but it could happen, so just be aware of it.

There are also some difficulties in getting an account depending on which country you’re from. I was lucky that at the time. I had obtained residency in Spain and that, alongside my photo ID and proof of address was what I needed to open one. If you don’t have residency however, many banks will reject you, even if you have a permit to work in the country. One such bank I’m aware that did allow you to open an account in that way was Bankia. I’ve also heard that Kutxa bank also allowed it. Take from it what you will.

Banks here are not nearly as student-friendly as they are in England. They might charge less for things, but generally speaking, an overdraft is not easy to come by. They are quite difficult to deal with when it comes to mortgages as well, but that’s from what friends have told me. I guess the crisis forced banks to make it that way after too many people fell into debt, but it certainly didn’t give me much confidence in them if I needed any financial backing, so don’t get into the red, people!

You also have to know where your local branch is, not just in case you need a member of staff to help you, but because you need your branches’ cash machine to avoid getting charged when making a withdrawal. This is another reason why I would go for a larger bank with branches across the country. Fees range between 0.50€ and 3.50€ per withdrawal, depending on which bank you use, which just doesn’t happen in England. Sometimes I take more out than I need just to avoid any tricky situation of not being able to pay by card. Not ideal if you are living on a shoestring budget.

The worst thing about banks in Spain by a mile, are their opening times. They are without a doubt, the most inconvenient places to try and get what you need done. Most open around 8:30 in the morning, but close at 14:00 or 14:30. Maybe once a week, they open in the afternoon, but unlikely to be after 20:00 and you can forget Saturdays, as they are never open. I was also feeling at times that I was spending half of my day in there when I had just my booklet, as there were often queues during the free hours I had.

Things however, have changed since my first few years in Spain. Most banks, including Santander, have finally updated their software, and things have now become a lot more efficient. my Last experience there was actually very pleasant, and the staff were exceptionally helpful, and I was in and out in just 10 minutes. Some banks can still be rather unhelpful and contradictory, and it just seems to me, that it really depends on which member of staff is having a good day as to how much they will help you. One such example, was that I wanted to sign up for a running race, which meant going to a Cajasur to pay the money into the account. I went to one branch, and they claimed they couldn’t do it because the name wasn’t clear, and wanted to charge me extra to make the transfer. I went to another branch, and they did it without any fuss. Need I say more?

My bank’s customer service has been a great highlight to my experience here. Only once was I not able to solve an issue over the phone, and I’m not hanging around on hold for very long either. Many banks also have an English-speaking service in case you really aren’t following what they are saying at all. It’s also very likely your internet banking app can also be in English, so if you are not confident with your level of Spanish yet, don’t panic. Start panicking if you need to go into a branch though, or have someone come with you, because it’s unlikely the clerks will be able to speak English to you there.

So there you have it. Banks can be just as annoying in Spain like in the rest of the world. But if you are living here, you can’t avoid them, so you have to bite the bullet eventually. But my key advice is to open an account with a bank that has branches everywhere, like Santander, Sabadell, La Caixa, BBVA. Those I know are everywhere. Also, make sure you know where they all are in your town, and most importantly, be patient. Things are more efficient than before, but leave yourself plenty of time nonetheless, as you are probably gonna be hanging around for a while.

Hiking Trips: Riudecanyes- Castell d’Escornabou

Hiking for me, at one point, became an almost weekly activity during my time in Catalonia, and it all started with me joining a gym in Reus. It was January 2015 when I decided to join a new gym and regain some of my fitness I had lost (cycling isn’t enough). Following a recommendation from a colleague, I joined Gimnàs Lindax, a small gym located opposite the bus station of Reus, and there, I was introduced to Lina, the owner. She’s almost the same age as my dad, and very passionate about her gym and makes you feel like family. I owe her so much for making my time in Catalonia so much more enjoyable and was like a foster mother (I gained quite a few over my time there). Immediately after a couple of training sessions, I was invited to go hiking with them one Sunday…

I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation, and we set off on the crack of dawn towards a village called Riudecanyes, some 30km or so from Tarragona, and 16km from Reus. It was sunny, but fairly cold, some 7 degrees or so when we arrived. freezing for a Catalan. The village has a dam and a lake right next to it, and it was from the man-made lake where we set off. I had no idea where we were going, I just sort of went with the flow and followed everyone else. The path is not taxing at all, and you get some lovely views of the lake for about 20 minutes or so, before reaching the next village, Desaigües.

The path connects directly to the main road, and you have the opportunity to have a look around the village, which has an impressive railway bridge overlooking it, and a few narrow streets meeting up with the church, but on this occasion, we didn’t stop there. We continued along the main road before taking a path directing us to the castle, from which we now had a view of. The path crosses a small stream and then leads to a junction, and we ended up going off it, which was tarmacked, and took a smaller dirt path along the river, which led us to the next village, L’Argentera.

It was this village, where it became a bit more challenging, and just like Desaigües, we barely brushed the village. After crossing the stream several times, we started making the ascent. I had kind of forgotten how much the calf muscles get put to work when climbing, but the path was well marked, and it took little more than 20 minutes to be way higher than the village. the Castle by this point had completely disappeared from view, and we had lost the sun, but the higher we got, the steeper it got. The hill was starting to expose us to more sights, and it didn’t take long before the villages at the bottom of the valley started to look quite far below us.

Reaching the castle was more than rewarding, and not only were there views all around, but the castle also accepted visitors. At the time, it was free entry depending on when you went, but it would be worth a couple of euros entry fee none the less. From there, you see the red sandstone walls typical of the region, and are blessed with a view of the coast, including the Delta of the river Ebro. It was a tough half an hour or so of climbing, but it felt great, and a couple of tangerines at the top felt like a great prize.

We must’ve spent half an hour or so, braving the breezy conditions, but nothing you can’t handle, we made the decent back towards Riudecanyes. The path that we turned off an hour ago near Desaigües, turned out to be the route back. Getting down was a lot quicker, and easier, and it took barely 15 minutes to get back to the village. There was nothing new on the way back, except a bar on the way back home which was also a part of these trips which anyone with a right mind would enjoy.

This hike got me back into something that I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. the route is about 11km long, and takes about 3 hours to do it at a reasonable pace. You can get to Riudecanyes by bus and by train, though they are infrequent, so it’s better to go by car. Since it’s just 20 minutes or so drive away from Tarragona, it would make a nice addition to any trip you make there, even if you want to just drive to the castle. The Hike itself is only a little challenging for about 30 minutes or so. We brought dogs up there with us too and they were ok. It’s worth it for the view of the mountains and coast alike. If you’re thinking about taking up hiking, it’s a nice challenge to start with.

Paella

I know it’s a cliché writing about a dish that is known worldwide and stereotypical and emblematic of Spain on my blog, but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s something many Brits would typically do, go down to La Rambla in the centre of Barcelona and have a massive, watered-down glass of sangria, and have a rather plastic- looking plate of paella and feel like they’re living the Spanish dream. Seriously mate, dream on. If you want a paella, do it right, and your wallet and taste buds will thank you for it.

Paella is typical of Valencia, and they love telling you about it, and every paella tried outside of their community is often compared to their own. There have even been other articles posted, stating that you need water from Valencia to make the perfect paella, a theory proven wrong on a program called El Punto de Mira. Brits also may assume that this famous dish is eaten everywhere in Spain, but couldn’t be further from the truth. The further inland and northwest you go in Spain, the less likely you are to see them.

Another common misconception is that Paella is primarily a seafood dish, loaded with king prawns, calamari and mussels. That is a common version, but the authentic version, the valenciana, has no seafood in it at all. Chicken, rabbit, butter beans, runner beans, and optionally duck and snails are the main components to go with the rice. Other regions have their varieties, and they are worth trying, but this is considered the authentic one.

Another key thing to think about, is the way it’s prepared. Paella is cooked on an open fire, and that really does make a difference. You don’t get the same charred taste like that of putting meat on a grill, but the aroma from the wood does get infused in the rice and gives it a different flavour. Saffron also must be used, expensive though it is, and some restaurants either don’t use enough, or cut corners by substituting it so it gets it’s iconic colour. Still prefer that plastic rubbish from that tourist trap you visited the other day?

The preference to how a paella is finished off has divided the nation. Do you prefer the rice to be caldoso or seco? That question is like asking a Brit if they prefer ketchup or brown sauce with their bacon sandwich. Caldoso means soupy, that the rice has a lot of water in it but like a thick sauce whereas seco means dry. The moisture from the paella has mostly gone, but is replaced by an intense flavour especially from the socorrat, the layer of rice that’s roasted at the bottom of the pan, and the best bit in my opinion. I personally love both kinds, but I think the seco version just edges it.

The varieties of this world-famous dish are endless, and I would try as many different kinds as possible. Other notable kinds include ones with lobster, with black rice, vegetable or get the best of both worlds, with the mixta. One ingredient you should never find is chorizo. Jamie Oliver received a huge backlash here in Spain after adding some in his recipe, and rightly so.

A paella might seem quite expensive, but usually they cost around 10€ per person, depending on the quality and location as well as the number of people who are eating it. The more people, the cheaper it gets, so sharing is caring everyone. Also just be aware that a good sign that your Paella is going to be from scratch, is when they take at least 20 mins for it to arrive after you order it. Waiters would normally warn you of how long it takes if you don’t order any starter or dish to share, so a good suggestion, would be something light, like a salad or some sardines. One more thing to take into account, is that many bars and restaurants will have a tacky poster, advertising that they are specialists with paellas with pictures of their varieties. I would generally avoid those places as they usually aren’t great.

To sum up, paellas are an amazing way to give the weekend a huge lift. The varieties are endless, they are perfect for sharing, and they have the most amazing presentation. However, it’s very easy to end up in a tourist trap, eating that fluorescent yellow rice. When you find a place that does it right, you’re on cloud nine, and my advise, is to go to where it all started, Valencia for the paella valenciana. They really are the most authentic, for the most part, the best and they know they are, so they are eager to take care of you. See for yourself.

Camino de Santiago: Day 1 León- Astorga

The Camino de Santiago or Way of St James as us Brits call it, is one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world, and is a major challenge for anyone who takes it on. People usually walk the main route, but cycling has become a lot more popular in recent years. But truth be told, I had never heard of it until I moved to León and saw people passing through the town with an impressive amount of gear. The objective is simple, get to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in northwest Spain. Simple right? That’s what I Thought…

I first developed an interest in doing it when one of my flat mates and a couple of mutual friends attempted it back in October of 2012. But their preparation of drinking beer and Vodka the night before their departure, didn’t seem like a wise decision. I was right. All but one of them actually made it to Santiago, while the others barely completed a third of the journey. I decided there and then that I actually wanted to give it a go myself. However the opportunity didn’t arise until March the following year.

A friend of mine from Brazil called Rafael mentioned during a night out that he was looking to do the Camino by bike during the Easter break. Somehow, this conversation ended up with us pledging to go together and a rough plan was in motion. The problem was he had ordered a brand new bike to do this trip, while I was trying to see if I had a mate who was brave enough to lend me theirs. I managed to get one the day before we set off, but I still felt underprepared. I had done some spin bike training, and we got the booklet you need to get to allow you to stay in the hostels. However, I felt like we hadn’t studied the route well enough, we didn’t know what to expect. We had spent just one day looking online before we set off.

The key advice we were given was to pack light, but with enough for almost any situation. My rucksack had quite simply: a sleeping bag, a rain jacket, a change of clothes or two, a small towel, the most basic toiletries, a small torch, and some rations. Nothing more other than the jacket and gloves that I would be wearing most of the time. We were both really new to this, and at least we knew if we needed more things, there were some key towns along the way that could help us out.

So we finally set off on the 30th March 2013 and we were super excited. Disaster struck just 2km into our trip when my bike broke down in spectacular fashion. Rafael made a desperate dash back to León to see if there was a workshop who could fix it while I waited. Interestingly enough I broke outside a pawn shop, and there I found a decent-looking bike for 40€. What the heck, I had to go for it, and it was certainly a morale booster for us. I also had to applaud Rafael’s patience and calmness during this delay and we continued with same energy as before.

The Camino takes a sharp climb up the hill where you end up passing through the various neighbourhoods before we were finally granted with open countryside near the airport. From there, we had two options, and we had no idea which one was better or shorter, so we took the option on the left, which turned out to be the harder option. From there you follow the descent to Fresno del Camino, a small farmer’s village from which we ended up on dirt tracks for some time. My Bike was not absorbing the bumps very well, so it was a relief to reach some tarmac some 10km later.

After passing through Chozas de Abajo, the Camino, for the most part became a very flat affair with snow- capped mountains in front and to the right of us far in the distance. For most of the day, it was cold and gloomy and we didn’t see many pilgrims around, which suggested that this route wasn’t particularly popular. I could see why. While it was a relief to arrive at a village, the lack of activity and facilities was ever present. It didn’t take long for the discomfort to become commonplace with this bike and I started to realise how much I had underestimated how tough this was going to be.

After 3 hours of riding, we had made it to our major rest stop of that day, Hospital de Orbigo. This was the largest village we had come across so far, and had a large roman bridge crossing the river which makes it worth stopping by for even an hour or so. This village also Had a few hostels, that were open, giving us an opportunity to get a taste of what to expect when we reached Astorga. A kind man called Eugenio allowed us in and was very happy to show us around, and we were really impressed by what we saw. It was like a typical youth hostel with bunk beds and facilities to allow you to do everything you normally can do. But the key difference is that only pilgrims can stay there.

These hostels are also where you get your booklet stamped, which is very important down the line. It works as a way to check your progress, to assure that you haven’t cheated in some way getting to Santiago, and all the stamps are unique, like something you get at immigration on your passport. You need to have it stamped twice a day when you are certain distance from your goal. We got ours stamped there just to be sure.

Upon leaving the village after what felt like five minutes, but was actually an hour, another choice was upon us, left or right. Rafael made the choice this time and it was a kilometer further than the other way, but he believed there would be more to see. I didn’t doubt his logic, and I was sure I wasn’t going to suffer much more. The route temporarily took us off road before reconnecting at Villares. From there, it was off road and with no contact with anyone else for the next hour. This was the hardest part of the day, and I realised that my bike disliked hills even more than I did. It was slow going and difficult to ride on, due to the mud. I fell off a couple of times, struggling to maintain control on these trails. At least only my pride was damaged.

By this point we were digging deep to get to Astorga, and we could feel that we were so close, when all of a sudden, we came across a stone cross and behind it, the valley opened up, where we could see the town! We took some time to admire the view, and finally saw some fellow pilgrims. Was it worth going the more difficult way? Absolutely! You won’t be disappointed. It was plain sailing getting down onto the main road again, and the final few kilometers were the fastest of the whole day.

We checked into the first hostel we could find in the centre of town and took the time to unload everything and check out the sights, for which Astorga has plenty for a small town. Like León, Astorga also has a Gaudi- designed building to see, the aptly named Palacio de Gaudi, which you can visit. The centre is built on top of a hill and is surrounded on most sided with fortifications, our hostel was right on the Edge of it, giving us views of the countryside. Not bad for a fiver a night. We also found more guides and information that was crucial in helping us plan the next few days and where to rest.

My legs by the end of the day felt like lead, but the family-sized portion of pasta that we made that night took the edge off. We also had the chance to talk to other people in the hostel, and you realise that people from all over the world were doing this. I ended up talking to an Australian woman and her boyfriend, who had met other people during the Camino and stuck with them for the last week. Bonds had been made, and I guess the more company, the better the experience. After a good chat with them, my bed for the night beckoned me. Early start tomorrow…

City Guide: León, Castilla y León

It’s only fair to write my first blog about the city where it all began; my Erasmus year in a city that is well off the beaten track for most Brits. I chose to study in León following a conversation I had with my senior lecturer at Uni, and he didn’t take much convincing when he showed me just a taste about what was in store for me. I arrived there in September of 2012 and left in July the following year, but in reality, you don’t need more than 2 days to see the city.

León is a bit of a mission to get to as the nearest international airport is some 160km away in Asturias, which was how I got there. To the north, the city is flanked by the Cantabrian mountains and almost everywhere else, the vast plains of the Meseta Central. Since I moved away from there, the city has been connected to Madrid and Valladolid by AVE and you are 2 hours or so by bus from the coastal city of Gijón. Nevertheless, give yourself plenty of time to travel.

The main sight of León has to be its impressive cathedral set in the centre of town. Voted as one of the most beautiful in Spain, the cathedral has drawn visitors from all over the country, and has unique features, such as the twin towers being a different height to each other (unintentionally), and that a lot of the design and layout is based on Notre Dame in Paris. As impressive as it is inside, it’s outside where its’ charms lie.

Other sights worth visiting are also the Basilica of San Isidro where it’s one the disputed places where the Holy Grail is located, and it’s usually free to enter. León is also one of the few cities in Spain where the architect of the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, left his mark, with the Casa de Los Botines. However, you can’t enter it under normal circumstances. The old quarter of this city is well worth exploring and getting yourself lost, and you know when you reach its limits; when you see the old roman wall of which much of it is still preserved. The most beautiful plaza in the city isn’t the Plaza Mayor in my opinion, but the Plaza del Grano, you’ll understand why.

This Plaza is also home to a monastery which is used by pilgrims for a famous route known as the Camino de Santiago, you may have heard of it. León is a key stop on the main route to get to Santiago and for many (myself included), it’s a starting point. The iconic yellow arrows carve through the old quarter and cross the River Bernesga over a Roman bridge via a monastery called San Marcos, one of the few attractions from outside the centre of town really worth seeing. Pilgrims of the Camino, often choose to sleep here and for them it costs just 5€ a night.

For anyone looking for a normal place for the night, you certainly won’t be ripped off, if anything, its a bargain. A private double room may only set you back 20€, while a bed in a shared bedroom would be only a tenner. The cost of journey to León is paying you back with cheap accommodation for which there are loads of places to choose from, and don’t even get me started on the food.

Eating out in León was definitely one of the major highlights of my time there. Tapas is free with every drink you buy, and more often than not, you get more than your money’s worth. It’s typical to order a corto, a very small beer, like a quarter pint and have a tapa included. Most people do this, especially at dinner time and you would spend around 1€ for a beer at most places, no more than 1.30€ or you’ve spent too much. Barrio Humedo is a well-known area for tapas, and it’s well worth checking out the local dishes, such as: cecina, sopa de trucha, sopa de ajo, morcilla, queso de Valdeón, and botillo just to name a few.

However, there are a couple of areas I think are better value for money than there, such as the shopping district, bar Odin, Seaki and Las Tapas (original name right?) to name a few, and the area near Plaza Cid. You get about 3 or 4 if not more things served for the price of a beer. I guarantee once you’ve visited 3 or 4 bars you will be full and will have only paid a fiver for it. During the day however, you are more likely to have a sit down meal, and again, a good set menu will cost about 8-11€.

The weather in León is quite extreme between day and night. It’s not uncommon even during the summer to have a jacket for the night, even if it was a hot day, as temperature can go below 10 degrees even in July. In winter, if you don’t have a jacket, you’re a maniac as it can snow as late as April there. Also the sun can be very strong there, just a word of warning.

Spanish is the main Language here and even though there exists a leones language, nobody speaks it and this particular dialect is one of the clearest in the whole of Spain, so if you speak a little, you should be ok. English is not very well known there however, and people are hit and miss to you depending on how well you can communicate with them.

To Sum up, León is a fairly small city that’s hard to get to, usually cold, but has so much to offer, not just on your plate, but with an experience that’s difficult to replicate. I would definitely go back as part of a tour, and I did back in 2015.