I’ve been to just about every last corner of Spain but, until recently, I hadn’t really spent a ton of time in Catalonia. Yeah, I’d done Barcelona, and bathed on the beaches of Begur (amazing!), but hauling my culo so far northeast just wasn’t high on my list of Iberian priorities.

But, a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to spend several days traveling around the Catalan countryside like it was my own personal playground. In doing so, I realized it could quite possibly be one of my very favorite regions in Spain (err, or not in Spain, depending on who you talk to).

So let’s take a little journey around Catalonia, shall we?

 

Girona

My excursion to the northeast region began in the city of Girona. The hillside town dazzles new visitors with its houses hanging on the Onyar River’s edge, and vibrantly hued buildings that glow in a slew of faded candy colors. I weaved through the Jewish quarter, made a little lap around the cathedral, and finally into the restaurant Divinum, where I dined on a nine-course meal fit for a queen. It was quite the first stop, and all I could think was “it’s a shame we didn’t save the best for last.”

 

Cadaqués

Uncertain that the visit could get any better, I took a winding journey up and over the hills to the coastal enclave of Cadaqués. Along the pebbled shores of neighboring Port Lligat, I watched the sunrise as fishermen came and went, wrapping myself in the sounds of the breeze as it rustled the rows of olive trees criss-crossing the hills. Even more intriguing than the sun rising in front of me, was the house perched on the shore’s edge behind me. It was the home of Salvador Dalí, which, the day before, I discovered hid all sorts of quirky treasures; a jewelry-wearing polar bear, decked-out mannequins, and precariously balanced egg sculptures.

Despite the area’s fame, the morning beach maintains the quiet rhythm of a pueblo untouched by the outside world. And perhaps this isn’t all that surprising given that until about a century ago, Cadaqués was only reachable by boat. Considering it takes a potentially queasy mountain drive to get there, it’s seems a boat arrival probably made good sense.

 

Besalú

The final stop on my Catalán tour was Besalú, but I was confident that my ability to be impressed had run its course. But I was wrong again. Framed by a massive arched bridge, the pueblo hit me like a pile full of the ancient bricks it was made of. If first impressions were everything, then Besalú’s mission had been accomplished.

But there was so much more to the little town than just the initial wow-factor. Apart from the reliably cozy small streets, the city teased my imagination with peculiar chairs. Yes chairs. One hung dripping from a building wall. Another stood some ten feet tall like a giant’s high-chair. Then there was this two-dimensional one to the left, seated along the banks of the river.  I also visited the oddly awesome Museum of Miniatures, which, to its credit is a whole heck of lot more rad than I can even bring myself to admit (a high-wire walking ant with an umbrella? Wha???).

 

The villas

The highlight of all this gallivanting around Catalonia was that after the days passed trekking around spectacular towns, I spent nights in my own personal villas. Yeah, you read that right. I was brought on this journey by Charming Villas Catalonia, who housed me in a stone countryside mansion, a city center apartment, and a modern beachside paradise.

Essentially, each villa is like a little hotel-meets-palace, but authentic and private, and PERFECT for a decent-sized group of friends (say 6-10 couples, sometimes more) to rent out. Beyond that, they also come equipped with fat kitchens (i.e. nothing like what you’re used to in Madrid) that basically beg you to hit up the market and make yourself a feast full of local fare.

Yes, it’s true, Catalonia may be a pricey AVE-ride away from Madrid, but with Mediterranean beaches, a border with France, and nearby Barcelona, you can’t really go wrong. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait as long as I did to discover what the region has to offer.

*Visit my blog, La Tortuga Viajera, to read about my experiences in Catalonia.

**Disclosure: As mentioned above, I traveled through Catalonia as a guest of Charming Villas Catalonia. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

How to Save Money in Madrid

April 30th, 2012 | Posted by Pierre in Guiri Guest - (0 Comments)
MoneySaverSpain

This is a guest post by Maxine Raynor, a fellow Madrid expat, who launched Money Saver Spain to help us spend less !

For most people being a savvy shopper on their home ground and in their native tongue is second nature. However, moving to another country where you no longer speak the lingo means you often rely on the major department stores for shopping and the advice of well meaning friends regarding which companies to use for phones and utilities contracts.

 

Last year MoneySaverSpain.com was launched in order to help expats and long-term visitors save money in Spain, with info in English updated every week on the latest offers as well as more in-depth articles which give advice on a variety of areas, such as requesting grants from local authorities, how to deal with rogue salespeople and a lot more. Also we try to find new and innovative products or services in Spain that might be of interest, such as a website for creating your own fancy dress costumes – really useful for the many fiestas in Spain.

 

The most popular info is normally on meal deals at major Spanish restaurant chains and fashion and beauty discounts. Most offers are short-lived and so there’s an active presence on Twitter too (@moneysaverspain). Also for those who speak some Spanish we give occasional cheeky tips on how to save a few euros (such as asking for “muestras” in perfume shops – great for when you’re travelling with hand luggage only!)

 

This year saw the introduction of a weekly newsletter, out every Thursday, with a round-up of consumer news in Spain and deals & offers still on. The site is still in its early days, so feedback on what you’d like to see included is appreciated, just drop us an email to contact@moneysaverspain.com.

 

Here are a few tips on how to save in Madrid:

 

-       Most hotel lobbies will have a selection of MiniCards – these are aimed at tourists but some have great discounts for restaurants, leisure activities and more. So just pop into any hotel when you’re around town and pick some up.

-       Before you visit a museum, check out the conditions for free entrance. For example, at the Prado Museum it’s free if you’re a student under 25 years old, unemployed (need proof) or you’re under 31 and have a Youth Card (see the article on the Money Saver Spain website on youth cards and how to get them). And if you don’t fall under any of these categories, Monday to Saturday from 18:00 to 20:00 and Sundays & holidays from 17:00 to 19:00 h it’s free for everyone.

-       Sign up to sites such as oportunista.com, put in your email and you’ll be informed of offers in the Madrid area. No prepayments, only discount coupons mainly for restaurants and beauty treatments.

-       And if you really want to buy something in El Corte Inglés, don’t forget to take your passport and request your 10% tourist discount – it’s available on items in plenty of departments.

 

 

You didn’t think you’d be safe from zombies in Madrid, did you?

If you haven’t heard the rumors, I’m here to tell you right now that they are true: zombies are coming much sooner than you might think. In fact, for the past few years they have freely roamed the streets of Madrid once a year in a great demonstration of zombie strength and solidarity. What’s even worse is that they aren’t even secretive about it:

2012 Marcha Zombi poster

So what can you do?

  • 1. Grab  your camera. Nobody will ever believe you were in the presence of so many zombies at once and survived unscathed. Charge those batteries as full as you can, because you never know how long they’ll keep you on the run…
  • 2. Wear comfortable shoes. I must repeat: you never know how long they’ll keep you on the run…
  • 3. Bring your friends. The 2009 film (or preparatory pseudo-documentary) Zombieland presents us with a set of rules to abide by in order to survive in a zombie-filled world. Rule #29 is simply, “the buddy system.” You don’t want to be caught out there alone.
  • 4. Fool the zombies; disguise yourself. There is little evidence to support that zombies are intelligent beings. They tend to only be out for blood, so if you’re a good actor and makeup artist, get yourself in your best zombie gear and put on your most vacant expression so you can covertly join them at this year’s meet-up.

If all else fails, and you honestly do not think you can survive an onslaught of zombies, I present you with my last suggestion…

  • 5. Enjoy the show. The 2012 ”Marcha Zombi” will take place this Sunday, April 15, in Felipe II (Metro: Goya) at 7pm, with zombies gathering at the “Zombie tree,” or the tree statue in the middle of the plaza. I suggest you do as I did last year (and lived to tell the tale!): find a table at a nearby terraza, order a round of your favorite beverages and snacks, and watch the fun unfold.

Semana Santa – the Holy Week – is the week directly before Easter and is a big deal in Spain. Most businesses give their employees the religious holidays off, while some businesses (like mine) enjoy an entire week of vacation in which many people leave the city, often to travel or to spend it in their pueblo with family. However, if you find yourself staying in Madrid next week, you’re not alone. A recent survey found that about seventy percent of madrileños do not plan to leave during the Easter holidays, due to both personal reasons and because of the economic crisis still crippling many Spanish residents.

So, now you must be wondering, what’s there to do in a place that doesn’t celebrate hunting down candy-filled plastic eggs on the president’s front lawn? Head over to your neighbor’s house and tell them not to fret – together, the two of you can enjoy this year’s Semana Santa in Madrid (1-8 April).

Churches
The majority of the week (Monday-Thursday) will be relatively normal. But in the evenings, stop in nearly any church in town to see beautiful displays made with candles and flowers. Many of these churches will also have these displays brought out in processions to be held during the weekend.

Processions
The first important processions, Cristo de la Fe y el Perdón and Nuestro Padre Jesús de la Salud, will be held on Wednesday, April 4. You can find the latter on the Paseo del Prado and surrounding streets.

The most popular processions will be held on Thursday, April 5. The Nuestro Padre Jesús del Gran Poder y María Santísima de la Esperanza and the Jesús Nazareno y la Virgen de la Soledad will have huge crowds gathering to watch.

On Friday, April 6, you can expect to see three more parades, and on Saturday, April 7, you will see one last parade.

While Madrid doesn’t boast the same level of fame as our Andalusian neighbor Sevilla, you can see a parade very similar to that of Sevilla’s famous (or infamous?) Easter procession. It is called the Procesión del Silencio and it takes place in the early morning hours on Good Friday (April 6). During this procession you will see worshippers dressed in traditional robes and pointed hoods silently walking the streets of Madrid.

Food
Like any other festival in Spain, Easter comes with delicious treats that you must try. First up are torrijas - a sweet bread made with milk and cinnamon, perfect with coffee or for an afternoon snack. You can also enjoy various fish-filled croquetas, as Lent is still upon us. Or try out potaje de garbanzos a la madrileña, a chickpea stew similar to cocido madrileño.

Finally, on Easter Sunday (April 8), the drum band from the Brotherhood of Jesus from Zaragoza’s Villamayor de Gallego will be joined by the instrumental section of Madrid’s Congregación de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad y Desamparo at 12pm in Plaza Mayor.

What are your Semana Santa plans? Will you be staying in the city or traveling?

Want to save some of these?

Living in Madrid can be pricey, despite it being a relatively inexpensive capital city. Groupon, LetsBonus, Planeo. Do these words mean anything to you? If not, they should. These three websites are incredible ways to experience a city for a very low price, and now they are all flourishing in Spain. They all have the same premise – bringing you great deals on everything from meals to classes and new experiences.

Groupon – Through this website, I’ve purchased a watch that I wear almost daily (6€) and a set of ten yoga classes at a center in northern Madrid (19€).

LetsBonus – This site, a partner of LivingSocial, has brought me together with 100 of my favorite photos, printed on paper and shipped to my door, for less than 10€.

Planeo – I just bought a Mexican dinner for two for just 19€, which includes a starter, two courses, dessert, and four drinks. Toma!

At each of their respective websites (in Spanish), you can sign up for daily emails that outline the day’s details. Just specify your preferred city – Madrid, of course – and get ready to start enjoying! Thanks to companies like these, a lot of up-and-coming bars, restaurants, and even some of the well-known theaters are jumping on the discount bandwagon as a way to advertise and keep business coming in. Has a money-saving experience led you to a new favorite spot? Let us know!