Weekend in Catalonia

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.

How to Save Money in Madrid

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.

So, until you learn the Spanish language, 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. 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.

 

 

Spain sin Espanol

There are many ways to learn Spanish once you get to Spain.

The biggest reason I have heard for not moving to Spain has been “I don’t speak Spanish!” At first, I thought that was an acceptable reason to avoid the country, given how difficult language barriers can make communication in the most ordinary of interactions. However, I have come around to the point of view that, if you are a person with a chance to move to Madrid, it doesn’t matter all that much whether you know Spanish initially and here’s why!

  1. You’ll start learning as soon as you get here: if you have to start work before taking any Spanish classes, you will still start to pick things up instantly. That said, Madrid is home to a lot of high quality Spanish academies, so the opportunity to learn is right here waiting for you! Our favorite is AIL Madrid, since you’ll also start to build an immediate sense of community and a friend group as a newcomer to the city. I spent years in the United States learning “donde está la biblioteca?” type phrases, but the Spanish you learn here will be more applicable and instantly fire-tested because you will be really trying to buy groceries or tell the taxi driver where you are going, not just practicing with a classroom partner.
  2. You are probably prized for your English speaking skills: whether you are here as an English teacher or as a business person in another field, knowing English will be a helpful if not essential element of your job, and there’s a good chance that (as long as you let them know ahead of time) Spanish won’t be. Every day there are more people who speak English in this country, and even those who don’t speak it really well often can understand you. If you’d like to take advantage of this, try getting your TEFL certification with TTMadrid and they will link you in to the network of English teachers here in Madrid.
  3. Living in a country where you don’t know the language does something special to you: Everyday life is more of an adventure when you are constantly trying to understand and express yourself in a non-native language. You will learn unforgettable lessons, laugh at yourself, and be frustrated, but you will not cruise through your days without any memorable experiences. I know this is true because, even though I came to Spain with a reasonable level of Spanish for someone who had never been immersed in the language, I myself have experienced it. I feel more alive here because every conversation has to be a little more intentional and, in the middle of a conversation, I get to ask what a word means and learn something totally new.

Don’t let the reason why you don’t come to Spain be lack of knowledge of Spanish; while it won’t be an easy life at first, the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks!

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

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.

Discovering the Beach in Malasana

Our food at Ojalá

If you want amazing Spanish food, you need look no further than your neighborhood bar or restaurant: while there’s a chance of a dud here or there, you can usually count on a sparsely furnished bar with plenty of tortilla, croquetas, fish, sausage, and beer to wash it all down. You’ll probably even be treated to the ambiance of pig haunches hung up on the walls and maybe a mural depicting a famous piece of art or scene in Spanish history. However, if you are looking for something entirely different in Madrid, you might want to try Ojalá Awareness Club in Malasaña.

 

You’ll notice the difference immediately when you arrive; the upstairs is entirely lit with neon green lights and full of vintage, funky decor. In a neighborhood already somewhat set apart for bars and cafes, this one still stands out. People will often be getting drinks or something light to eat upstairs, but if you have the option, definitely opt to take your meal downstairs.

 

After you are led down the windy staircase, you will arrive in a cave-like basement full of… sand. It is the closest thing to a beach that Malasaña has to offer. What’s more, you should leave the high heels at home because you will be seated on the floor on the wide array of fluffy cushions that surround the low tables. The room is lit with undulating red and yellow neon and old cartoons are silently projected on the wall while music of many varieties plays.

 

The menu contained both Spanish and more American style food, with many items in the 6-10 euros range. I went with a friend and we were both not too hungry so we split two dishes: the first was a salad with aged cheese and thinly sliced apples and a hazelnut vinaigrette on top, which was delicious and, while not large, hearty. The second was their tasting tray of appetizers: it had both pita and tortilla chips along with surprisingly good hummus and guacamole, as well as a fish/shrimp wrap. Together, they were delicious, light, and a nice departure from the basic Spanish tapas and raciones; I’ve missed thick guacamole in a country where it is often served more like a sauce than in the chunky style I’m accustomed to.

 

We arrived early (around 8:30 in the evening) so we got a great spot, but the place was packed by the time we left, so consider getting there early if you want a spot in the downstairs beach. Later evening drinks and breakfast are also served; check it out any time of day.

Ojalá Awareness Club

San Andrés 1

Malasaña neighborhood