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As we board the train in Barcelona and begin the journey back to France (along the south coast this time), I can say with a certainty that we’ll be back. We’ll be back because of the things we’ve seen and done, but we’ll also return because there was so much we didn’t get to. We can say to ourselves that these European countries are small compared to Canada and thus relatively easy to plow through given five weeks of vacation. Once you’re here, in the thick of things, it becomes obvious that thousands of years of history has enriched each nook and cranny of every village, town, and city. Tyler’s grandparents offered some sage advice which we have taken to heart: “Rome and Paris weren’t built in a day. Don’t think you can see them in a day either”.  Just as we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the language(s) here, perfecting our pronunciations of hola (hello) and por favour (please), we’ve also only gone skin deep in terms of experiencing Spain and thus have reason to return. Without further ado, here are my highs and lows of Spain:

The highs:

Tapas: If I could bring one thing back to me apart from a souvenir, it would be tapas style dining, as experienced in Spain. Specifically, the “Basque” style tapas, found chiefly in San Sebastian and Barcelona, where a restaurant will pile their multi-tiered bar with plates and plates of colorful bite sized flavour explosions. Cheeses, seafood, Iberian ham, bread – we have all these ingredients in Canada, but when the bread was made that morning, the crab caught mid-afternoon, and the pork shaved off the cured leg right in front of you – well it just doesn’t get any fresher than that. That said, I think I’ll miss the tapas so much I’ll have to try my hand at them when I get home. Issuing my first call for taste testers!

Bull Fights: While in Seville, our planned itinerary included a tour of one of Spain’s oldest bull rings: the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla. Instead, we found ourselves clutching a couple of nosebleed tickets for that evening’s bull fight. While I had never given serious consideration to the sport, its traditions, or to related allegations of animal cruelty, I was curious and interested. For any newbie, I would recommend reading about it prior to attending. We made the mistake of knowing nothing, but the rituals and traditions were obvious as well as the succinct stages that lent form and function to the flow of the fight. For example during the first stage, when the bull is released into the ring, the torero’s (aka matador’s) assistants (called banderilleros) will induce the bull to charge towards them using their magenta and gold capes. As Wikipedia informed us after the fact, the reason is so the torero can get a sense of the animal’s temperament and personality quirks. Each stage was fascinating and at the end of it, I’m glad we went. As a result, I can begin to understand why Spanish bull fighting is considered a sport, a tradition, and an art form.

Good Company: After nearly a week in Spain, it became apparent that if I wanted to speak in full English sentences and have someone respond with words I understood, my travel partner and husband Tyler was going to be my sole source of conversation. Not a bad thing by any means, but being together 24/7 since September 1st meant that the well of conversation was running a bit dry. That’s why, when we arrived in Valencia, we were excited to meet up with a couple of familiar faces: our friends Ryan and Jana. I didn’t realize until we sat down for dinner that first night that conversation is something I definitely took for granted: a luxury that money can’t buy. Swapping travel stories and gossip from home over several plates of tapas and many rounds of sangria in Valencia, and later while in Barcelona was fantastic. It certainly gave us the boost of genuine human interaction we needed to continue on our way.

Beaches: A couple of weeks to Halloween and the beaches in San Sebastian, Valencia, and Barcelona welcomed our pasty Canadian legs with sunshine, sand, and salty waves. We also heard rumours of snow in Calgary, so we felt somewhat obligated to soak up the October rays on behalf of our freezing friends and colleagues. We could have definitely spent more time at the beach and they will likely draw us back to Spain one day, but with one month in Thailand and one in Costa Rica in our near future, we thought it best to experience the rest of these cities (you know, the history, culture, art and stuff). The beach bum “do nothing” lifestyle will come soon enough.

Gaudi: When we arrived in Barcelona, we booked a couple of walking tours to get acquainted with the city. The first was a paid tour ($26 euros each), that advertised exploring the old town and “hidden” gems of the area. It was fine, but in retrospect, not worth the money. While we were the only two on the tour, our guide was lacking on two fronts: language ability (he was from Germany and unfortunately wasn’t completely fluent in English) and storytelling (the tour ended up being “this is a roman column”, “here is the old roman wall”, “look at this church”, and so on). The second tour was advertised as “free” and would take us to a few of the well-known buildings completed by the famous architect and artist Antoni Gaudi. As a “free” tour, it was very busy – probably twenty of us, but the guide explained clearly from the start, “We earn our money by offering you an excellent tour. At the end, you pay us only what you feel the tour was worth which means if you think the tour is crap you don’t have to pay me”. Needless to say, it was excellent. With so many of us, she made sure her microphone was turned up all the way and proceeded to provide 2.5 hours of interesting and informative commentary.

Our 5 foot nothing Australian guide was even brave enough to take our motley group of twenty on the city metro where we arrived to the last stop of the tour: the Sagrada Familia. This materpiece in-the-works is a Basilica over 130 years in the making, with estimates that it has at least 30 more to go. In a word: stunning. It’s under construction. It’s busy. Some would say it’s expensive ($17 euros per person including audio guide). I would say it’s worth it. It was also, by far, my favorite space that we’ve visited so far. Gaudi’s work was famously inspired by nature and nowhere is it more apparent as you walk through the forest-like columns branching up and out in the vast interior space. The stained glass casts rainbows of vibrant color in some aisles, sharp crystal clear rays in others, and as you continue along, a greenish glow diffuses the daylight as if the sun is shining down through semi-transparent foliage. If you are in Barcelona, go here. If you are in Spain, go here. If you are in the south of France, make an effort to go here. It’s colorful, inspiring, spiritual, and most of all, worth it.

The Lows

I’ll keep these brief, but in the interest of being true to our experiences, I’ve got to tell about the bad stuff too (it’s not all beaches and sangria!) With every high comes a low, we can’t appreciate the good without the bad, the sun without the rain…so here they are:

Service: The behaviour of individuals working in jobs that are clearly service-oriented (ie. Selling tickets at the train station) has been, at times, appalling. Audible groans as we approach the ticket counter, Oscar-worthy eye rolling when we don’t understand the language, general unhelpfulness when we are, in fact, a paying customer. I certainly won’t generalize to say “Spanish people are rude”, however, we’ve experienced some “disservice” here that should get someone working in the service industry fired in a flash. Needless to say, our skin is getting thicker.

Sailing Lessons: We decided to sign up for an evening sailing lesson that would take us along the beautiful architectural-studded shores of Barcelona. The first thing we learned is that our guide did not speak English. We did not speak Spanish (or Catalan for that matter). In any case, the “lesson” quickly became a glorified boat ride without commentary (we did make an effort but soon found she wasn’t that interested in reciprocating). The second thing we learned is that neither of us have sea legs. Ten minutes in and we were both feeling and looking fairly green in the gills. Probably best that we weren’t instructed to do much more than keep our heads clear of the swaying boom and pull a rope here and there. At least one lesson was learned from that experience: our seafaring days are over.

Trains: In my last post, I threatened to write about our poor experiences with the rail system.  The train rides are fine. The condition of the cars has been great too. But buying a Eurail pass and trying to be spontaneous (ie. NOT booking every ride months ahead) has been a bit of a nightmare, and has also been more costly than anticipated. To date, we’ve spent nearly $400 on train reservations and have learned the most common word is “no” (fortunately the same in Spanish and English) so that the prospect of having to deal with the rail system induces a Pavlovian response of cold sweats and elevated heart rate.

The little things: No hot water for the showers. Can’t get our bank card to work at the ATMs. The ten-ride ticket I purchased at the metro is spit out after six uses. Can’t figure out how to use the laundry machines and end up blowing 10 more euros than I meant to. The simple setbacks that normally wouldn’t be a big deal at home all of a sudden become the cause of a minor emotional breakdown. I take some time to have my moment, try to put the whole situation in perspective, and soon realize that my behaviour was irrational and ridiculous. Hopefully the mountains I make out of molehills will soon be easier to summit.  In the meantime, thank goodness for my patient, understanding, problem-solving travel partner who has been a key witness of my behaviour and has not yet left me on the train platform. Thank goodness for Tyler.

Five more days in France, then Italy! Stay tuned…