19 Nov SPAIN: FIESTAS AND SIESTAS!
What’s with all the siestas?!
So it turns out that Spaniards aren’t at all the sleepyheads which the rest of Western Europe likes to make out – there is reason for this ‘loco’ timing of waking, sleeping and eating. Can you imagine that it is exactly the same time in Spain as it is in Eastern European Zagreb over 2000 kilometres away? Thanks to having Central Europe time which covers most of the continent, the sun comes up and stays up alot later than in other parts of Europe! Add this to the hot, sunny days and it makes perfect logical sense that you would have a siesta (and main meal) from 1- 5pm, then work again from 5 – 8 and have a late dinner well after 9!
Españaaaaah! This is more of a work in progress than a reflection of a time gone by. We write this as we housesit a stunning permaculture farm with alpacas, olives and almonds right near the border of Aragon and Catalunya. We are currently gazing at the pink-hued mountains which overshadow the Ebro River which draws the border between the two states. With another 6 or so months ahead of us, we’ll keep adding to our highlights and memories. For now, the amount of time which we have had the fortune of soaking in this Sangria haven, we would be satisfied even if we had to leave tomorrow (luckily, we don’t have to just yet)!
After spending a lot of time travelling through Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, we always dreamt of taking a year to really explore the motherland itself. Both fairly confident in our Spanish skills (Gabriel making up much more of that confidence, with his Argentinian family upbringing), we wanted to take a year to live in a European country (where I have a Polish Passport, which allows me to live freely in the European Union) so after not much deliberation – Spain was the obvious choice.
We love the long, hot and sunny days we are so used to back at home – the idea of Scandinavia seemed very romantic, but we wouldn’t survive the winter (we already struggled in the Swedish summer). We also love the culture of Spain – vibrant, loud, colourful, social and full of passion. We love the language – a chance to be immersed in order to really polish up our conversation and reading skills. We love the coastline and rugged beaches, the mountains and even the desert. We love the fact that Spain is so diverse culturally – within, the states and landscapes vary significantly as you travel across; and from outside, Spain is welcoming to foreigners from Europe, the UK, Africa and the Middle East. This huge paella sized melting pot of language, culture, history and environments drew us in, so Gabriel applied for his Youth Mobility Visa as an Australian, and once we (finally) got approved, we drove our Daisy across Europe to start exploring.
We crossed in through the Basque region, as we had driven from Poland through Germany and France. We had a few hints about the uniqueness of the Basque language from a few road signs we saw in French Basque, but it really hit home once we made our way into Bilbao. Fascinating. For those who don’t know – Basque or Euskara Language, is made up of a lot of t’s, z’s and x’s, and has no connection to the Spanish language, or any other European language for that matter. Pintxos for example is Basque for ‘tapas’, Kaixo is ‘hello’, Urte askotarako is ‘pleased to meet you’ and ‘bat, bi, hiru, lau, bost, sei, zazpi, zortzi, bederatzi, hamar’ is counting from one to ten (don’t worry, you don’t have to remember all of this, almost everyone spoke Spanish (‘Castellano’) or even English perfectly! Bilbao is known as a huge international success story – it is an old industrial port city, revitalised in tourism from the simple addition of the famous, shining metal architectural gem, the Guggenheim. The Basque region is known for its apple cider, sheep cheese and of course pintxos, as well as delicious glasses of local txakoli (wine).
After spending time through this lush green, mountainous part of Spain, we drove further through Cantabria, where we visited Comillas – the home of Gaudi’s less known but first commission on a private home (it is stunning!).
Though the peak of this part of Northern Spain has got to be the Picos de Europa. These stunning granite mountains shoot out from almost nowhere, with summits of above 2500m scattered throughout. You can spot wild Iberian wolves, ibex and eagles across this natural wonderland. We did some of the most popular hikes through the mountains including the Garganta Del Cares, which takes you on a 20km return hike along a sheer cliff path carved straight into the walls, and even on occasions through them. The old hydroelectric maintenance route spoils hikers with vistas of the path weaving through the mountains ahead, with a lush green valley to the river below. Although not incredibly challenging, this one is definitely not one for the faint hearted – there isn’t a single handrail or rope to help you past the narrow sections, but a stick you pick up along the way should do enough of a job to stabilise your shaky limbs! You can also take a cable car up the popular Teleferico Fuente De, to access some heart palpitating views of the earth below you, plus some incredible hikes which take you through a rocky moonscape. You can also hike back down (and even up in the first place), which takes 4 hours and soaks in the change of scenery even more. Wild camping was super easy with our camper, there was a fantastic free parking site with water, toilets and wifi next to the cute little town of Lebena, as well as in numerous other spots. We headed back toward Basque via the coast, making pitstops along secluded beaches along the way.
We both love wine. I mean, who doesn’t? We spent our summer gulping down carafes of red with our pasta in Italy, and sampling local drops from across Beaujolais and Bordeaux in France, so it was only a given that we should taste Spain’s finest in La Rioja. This DOP (Denomination de Origen Protegida) region ie. formally recognised and protected local product, has a reputation for incredible Tempranillos and other grapes grown in the area. For Gabriel’s 30th birthday, I had organised a surprise trip to La Rioja – we stayed at a bodega-organic winery-boutique hotel, where we (for the first time in months!) had a bed with ironed linens, bathrobes and all the good things in life. We did a tour of the vineyard and winery, learnt about and more importantly, tasted the wines. Once we were done with all of the learning and drinking, we had to keep our appointment at the onsite spa – obviously, to wash the day’s stress away (ha! Tough life) and then tuck into a farm-to-table meal prepared for us by a chef who spent most of his career under the wing of by none other than Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli). We continued through La Rioja to a cute medieval town of Briones, home to Vivanco – a winery and world’s largest wine culture museum. To be honest, we were sceptical at first but this 4,000 square metre museum truly deserves its 2017 National Prize of Gastronomy. Finally, to wrap it all up – we stayed in Haro – another small town, home to endless bodegas and wineries. We woke up in the early hours of the morning and Gabriel got his final birthday surprise as we ascended into the sky at sunrise in a hot air balloon over the vineyards and mountains of the region, toasting with a glass of cava mid-flight. Perfect!
Up and over the vineyard hills, we discovered a whole new landscape. Did you know that there is a desert in Spain? I mean one with sand, boulders and rock formations. One which really transports you to the Nevada desert in the United States? In the state of Navarra, you can find the Bardenas Reales, these desert formations strewn across the sand appear to be the homes of extra-terrestrials. You can self-drive across the park on the one-way gravel road which takes you about an hour and a half, and as a bonus you can fill up on dust, gravel and test your suspension (ours turned out ok, but we did need to spend the next day clearing out and dusting every nook and cranny of our mobile home). But it was worth it. This place has spots to pull over every few hundred metres, and for good reason – we kept stopping to take it all in and attempt to capture some of this unique beauty in photos.
Dried up and tired out, we headed to the Pyrenees in Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, to get some fresh air and tire ourselves out some more. We hiked to, and through, waterfalls and we were again spoilt with vistas of sheer cliffs and snow-capped peaks in the distance. We stayed in a town named Torla, which although small enough to have only one main street, has a castle and cathedral to boast of, which shines elegantly lit up in the dark mountain evenings. As we woke up and stepped onto the dew drenched grass outside, we could hear the clinking of the bells of the sheep grazing in the valley around and sat out in the warming sun with our mugs of fresh coffee until we were defrosted enough to get our hiking gear on for the day. Even just the drive to and from Torla was an adventure in itself, with narrow bridges and winding mountain roads lined with trees shifting through their autumnal tones of greens, to yellows to the odd reds throughout.
These were definitely the highlights so far, and yet we plan to continue our time through Aragon, Catalunya, Madrid and then Andalucia for the new year. We plan to keep exploring through the beautiful sunny south and then up to the wild west of Galicia. For now, we are taking each day as it joyfully comes, and each siesta as it eases its way into our new Spanish life.