This is how Todd and I planned our trip: “This is when we’re flying home. Here are a handful of cities, let’s make some room reservations and figure it out after BOTN.” The competition, (and the months leading up to it), took up all of our free time and energy. So the fact that this trip turned out to be so magical is, in itself, a miracle. From us pointing to places on a map, making a few reservations, and securing a car, we were flying by the seat of our pants.
I’ll save most of this recap for a separate blog post devoted to Battle of the Nations. However, there are a few things of note for this first stop other than lots of new friends and armored combat events.
The women’s team stayed in a spacious Airbnb that was a 30 min walk from La Monumental and the more touristy side of Barcelona. It was affordable when split between the team, and the host was great to work with.
In terms of food, we ate primarily at an Ecuadorian place around the corner from the Iron Phoenix base camp. They had meat, rice, and beans and we lived off those things for the first four days.
It was a magical time.
Todd and I rented a small car from Gold Car for approx. $300 for ten days. We had decided to focus on the northern national parks of Spain, and while you can reach the by public transit, it would have taken up most of our free days moving between cities.
In the end, it was the right move. Remember when I told you how this trip was planned? Yes, well we didn’t get much farther than booking a place to stay. Turns out, early May is off-season for most of the national parks – and the villages that surround them.
Taüll is part of a collection of villages in the Val de Boí that are connected by an ancient walking path, as well as a more modern road. The dark stones make up most of the buildings, and the gothic churches are the real showstopper.
Our hostel, Alberg Taüll, sat at the top of the valley, right where the mist kissed the mountaintops. Going from the noise of Barcelona to the stillness of Boí was an abrupt change, but a welcome one. I caught a nasty cold from the stress and communal living of the prior week, so slow was just what I needed.
We hiked a six-mile trail in the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park which led to several stunning lakes. I’ve never seen water so clear and blue unless it was geyser water in Yellowstone National Park. The hike was doable, and connects to several other trails, so you can extend your day if you’d like.
Early May is cold and spontaneously rainy in Northern Spain. We did not pack accordingly. While in the sun, we were pulling off layers, the nights and rainy portions of the day required a heavier layer than what we’d packed.
The only downside/adventure to visiting these wonderful towns in the off-season, is the food factor. There was one small supermarket in Taüll, and we did manage to find a pizzeria in the village over that was open for dinner two of the four nights, but we spent some time pulling together cheese-and-cracker dinners and lunches.
Boí is something special, and we want to return for more hiking as soon as possible.
Bilbao was a brief stopping point for us, something to break up the driving. We stayed in this Airbnb which was 10 minute walk from the Guggenheim Museum and with a large city park behind us. It was a great location and allowed us a change of pace from the mountains.
The museums were fun, and while we enjoyed all of our meals and activities, we were ultimately happy to leave Bilbao for the mountains again.
Picos de Europas:
This. This was the highlight of our trip. I’m not sure if it was partly due to us finding a rhythm of traveling in Spain, or the quaint, perfect village of Arenas de Cabrales, but this was one of our favorite sections of the entire trip.
We had originally booked a hostel on the opposite side of the park, but then realized that we wanted to stay in a different village, so we booked a room at the Hotel Picos de Europa last-minute, and found ourselves in Middle Earth. There had been a bike race through the park all weekend long, so the town was filled with cyclists and their families, but once they left, we had the town to ourselves once more. Unlike Boí, this town was home to enough locals to stay open year-round, and we had fun watching the locals show up at each bar and pandaeria we visited.
The Picos are commanding, and the hiking was comparable to Utah hiking; dry, dusty, and little shade on the trail itself. We spent six hours hiking 14.5 miles from one town to the next, following the aqueducts. While it made for a long day, it was a great hike, and not too challenging for the mileage. This town will be first on our list of places to go next trip to Spain.
Side note: It’s also a 40 minute drive from the ocean.
This is probably the most touristed place we stayed our entire trip. It seems to be a getaway for the Spanish, as well as the Americans and Brits. The highlight was the Alcázar de Segovia and the roman aqueducts, but there’s a charm about this city that can’t be denied, which made Todd and I want to come back and explore a bit more.
Segovia was also the place we spent the least amount of time, so there were a few things (like the palace and grounds) that we wish we would have planned for. The food was good, but double the price of anything else due to the clientele.
Barcelona – Take Two:
After driving from Segovia to Madrid to drop off the car (10/10 would not recommend driving in Madrid), we took the bullet train back to Barcelona.
We decided to stay put for our last few nights, rather than lug all my gear to yet another city like we’d originally planned. Todd and I had to quickly become familiar with Barcelona during the competition, and it’s an easy city for tourists to navigate.
Our Airbnb was located in the Gothic District, which is packed with restaurants, shopping, and within walking distance to the beach, as well as the Sagrada Familia (for major reference points).
My teammate had recommend us to try a tapas place called La Pepita, which was so worth the price. The tapas was creative and diverse, with the best gin and tonics I’ve ever had. The entire inside was graffiti, much like SLC’s Pie pizzeria. If you go, don’t skip their patatas bravas with foie gras!
Our second night was a concert at the Palau de la Musica Catalana. I adore Art Nouveau architecture, so this building was a must-see. The concert was Mozart’s piano concertos and “Jupiter.” I’ve yet to be in a more enchanting music hall.
The majority of our time was spent visiting Gaudi’s houses and La Sagrada Familia. If you are in Barcelona, do not pass up the chance to visit the Sagrada, it was by far my favorite experience of the trip.
Our last few days in Spain were spent walking around the city, eating and drinking, and enjoying one another’s company. It’s so cliché to say we fell in love with Spain, but until I find the words to describe how this trip changed and challenged me, clichés must suffice.