Category Archives: Spain

A Travelers Life…

Sorry… no interesting pictures, amusing stories, or fancy travel advice today.  This post is all about me!…kind of, it’s actually more about my life on the road.  Where I go, where I stay, how I get there, etc.

Earlier this week I hit the four-month mark on the road and started thinking about all the places I’d been.  That thought grew into a whole list of things, places, people, etc. and eventually into this post.  So as of Sunday August 4th I had traveled/done/seen/visited/met…you get the idea.

I’ve watched bull fights in Spain, major championship golf in Scotland, and live Fado in Portugal.

I’ve been to the top of Cathedral bell towers in three countries, the top of mountains in two countries, and the top of the 199 Steps in Whitby, England.

I’ve dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, swam in the Caribbean, and surfed in the North Atlantic.

I’ve drunk cheap and awesome local wine in Spain and France, four different brands of Irish stout in Ireland, whisky and whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, respectively, Real Ale in England, a Belfast Bomber in Belfast, and moonshine adega wine in a Portuguese Adega.

I’ve slept in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and buses.

I’ve learned to think in Celsius, Euro’s, British Pounds, kilometers, and the 24 hour clock.

I’ve randomly been in cities that had some of their biggest yearly festivals and events when I was there but also been to places that had absolutely nothing interesting going on.  Both situations have been great experiences.

I’ve been on walking tours, bus tours, museum tours, castle tours, and pub tours (pub crawls).

Travel by numbers:

Time Away

  • .345 Years
  • 18 Weeks
  • 126 Days

Places Visited

  • 8 Castles/Palaces
  • 10 Countries
  • 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • 47 Cities/Towns/Villages

Places Slept

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Hotel
  • 1 Surflodge
  • 10 Houses
  • 24 Hostels
  • 37 Different Beds

Transport

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Cable Car
  • 1 Gondola
  • 2 Taxis
  • 2 Funiculars
  • 3 Airplanes
  • 6 Subway Systems
  • 9 Cars
  • 14 Trains (plus a few I’ve forgotten about)
  • 22 Buses (plus several I’ve forgotten about)

Met and Talked With People From

  • 47 Countries

Events

  • 2 Sporting Events
  • 4 Concerts
  • 6 Festivals

…and this is just the stuff off the top of my head.  I’ve seen and done all of this in only four months….and I’m just getting started!

One Drawback of Traveling Unmapped

If you followed the Unmapped Travels Facebook page back in mid May, you may have known about the first Unmapped Travels Postcard Contest when I asked for suggestions of where to travel on my way to Brittany, France for my second Workaway gig.  It turned out my brother Matt had the lone dissenting opinion of all the comments and his reasons were solid so he won the contest.  His intended prize was a postcard from Bordeaux.

From the beginning of my travels I knew one drawback to the way I’m traveling (on the cheap while not planning routes and accommodations far in advance) could be occasionally hitting a situation that doesn’t fit into my budget.  It’s a risk I’m willing to take to allow more room for spontaneity.   I ran into such a situation on my way to Brittany through Bordeaux (Matt’s suggestion).  I was in San Sebastián, Spain looking for a place to stay in Bordeaux, France and to my surprise, there are next to zero budget accommodations in Bordeaux, and zero hostels.  So I went to the train station in San Sebastian and instead of buying a ticket to Bordeaux found a decent priced ticket to Paris.  So the drawback led to me SPONTANEOUSLY going to Paris.  For me, a nice consolation to Bordeaux, and for my Postcard Contest winning brother a nice consolation Brittany postcard.

Spain in Pictures!

So, There I Was…

So, there I was…eating breakfast and typing a message on the Unmapped Travels Facebook page when my new friend Jessica from British Columbia, Canada sat down to beside me.  Staying in the same room at a Barcelona hostel, we had met the day before and along with our other new friends Troy, from Arkansas, and Kamil, also from B.C. went out for a few drinks the night before.  Jessica looked as if she was planning her sightseeing day so I asked what was on the agenda.  She mentioned Montserrat and since I wanted to visit there while in Barcelona I jumped at the chance to go with someone.

Online that morning I read it was difficult to find where the R5  train, which goes from Barcelona to Montserrat, departed from….and they were right.  Come on Barcelona metro….how about some more signage!?!  We had to ask a security guard at a nearby shopping mall who kindly pointed us in the right direction.  After finding the R5 we bought combo tickets to take us the 45 minutes each way along with the cable car ride up to the top of Montserrat and back (19 euro, not bad).  Montserrat tip #1 if you go there, the extra 1.25 euro for the cable car ride is worth it, very cool!!

So, there I was…unloading from the cable car and seeing what looked like a village perched on the slope of this mountain.  There were a lot more buildings than I anticipated.  It’s amazing what people can build in places other people wouldn’t even want to visit.

I didn’t learn this until after visiting Montserrat but its been a religious site since at least the late 9th century AD when there were a few chapels on the mountain.  The original monastery, built-in 1026, got destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the 1800’s.  It was quickly rebuilt since it is such an important religious site in Spain.  Historically it’s been, and continues to be, a pilgrimage destination for people from all over Spain and beyond and it’s been a must see stop for travelers since before 1930 when the cable car was built.  My guess is all monasteries built on mountain slopes come chalk full of breathtaking views but since this is my first mountainside monastery I will declare it the most picturesque in the world!

At this point I realized I knew nothing about Montserrat (Iike I said, I didn’t learn all that stuff in the last paragraph until after visiting).  Before leaving I’d read it was a nice day trip from Barcelona and that is a monastery on a mountain.  And anyone who personally knows me, knows I like hiking in the mountains.  That’s all I knew.  So when I got there I really didn’t know what there was to do, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Some places you travel to need a little preexisting knowledge to understand.  This does not:

View from Monserrat near Barcelona
View from Montserrat near Barcelona

My travel partner and I found a local map and saw there was a museum at the monastery, a lot of little touristy shops and cafeterias/restaurants, and several hiking trails.  We started off walking toward the monastery/museum and a few minutes later, after realizing we had passed it, we were on a trail passing, on one side dozens of little monuments to the Black Madonna (the patron saint of Catalonia and the reason Montserrat became a religious site some 1200 years ago) and on the other, great landscape views.  We made it back to the main tourist area and stopped at one of the cafeterias for lunch.  Nineteen euro for transportation there and back wasn’t bad but they really stick it to you with the cost of lunch.  Montserrat tip #2, take snacks and avoid the big lunch bill!  Doing this allows for less guilt if you buy some of the artisan cheeses sold at one of many tents along the main street.

Jessica and I decided to hike to the top after lunch to see the other main attractions at Montserrat (the chapels and of course more views from the peaks above) we found another map to get our bearings, then set off.  The wide trails, made of ancient pavers, looked like an old Barcelona alleyway…but in the woods!  Jessica and I wondered aloud several times how old these trails must be.  Some portions looked as old as the chapels.  We hiked to all but one of the major stops I think, getting higher on the peaks than the funicular takes the less energetic visitors.  Along the trail we came across two chapels, one Latin cross perched far out on a cliff and a centuries old hermitage built into a cliff face.  It was really a nice hike and we were there on a perfect day.  The wind was blowing clouds quickly so we moved from sun to shade, never getting to cool at the high elevation or to hot when struggling up hill.

So there I was…

Unmapped Travels at Montserrat
Unmapped Travels at Montserrat

5 Things I Learned in Spain

Barcelona Bikes
Barcelona Bikes
  1. Sometimes in Barcelona bicycles get parked in the street and motorcycles get parked on the sidewalk.
  2. The Spanish landscape is beautiful, even on the AVE train from Madrid to Barcelona at 300 km/hr (186 mph).
  3. The cathedrals/churches/basilicas I visited, old and new, are amazing demonstrations of architecture.  Everyone knows that.  What I learned is you don’t need to be Catholic or Christian or a religious person of any faith to get a special feeling while inside.  To me it’s very calming and while I’m not a deeply religious it feels very spiritual.  It’s a good feeling whether you think it has to do with religion or just being in such an impressive space.
  4. There is a lot of free stuff  for budget travelers in the big cities….just look for it!
  5. No matter what you do in Barcelona, your to-do list must include Montserrat and The Sagrada Familia Basilica.   If you have to skip 10 other things and delay your flight home, you MUST visit these two places while in Barcelona.  Don’t miss them, no matter what!  And if you’re there around 2026 you might get to see the finished Sagrada Familia.  It will be twice this tall!

    Antoni Gaudi's masterpiece, The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
    Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

San Isidro Corrida

Two disclaimers.  First, I don’t pull any punches here.  What happened is what I write, even the killing of the bulls.  Second, since this is a controversial sport as far as animal rights go, I wrote as impartially as I could to not influence you one way or the other.  I just wrote what I observed.

Plaza de Toros, Madrid
Plaza de Toros, Madrid

And they dragged the sixth bull off to a loud roar from the mainly local, Spanish crowd.  But that’s the end of the story.  For me it all started in Portugal…

While in Portugal I was unsuccessful in attending a corrida (bullfight) because there weren’t any scheduled in the places I visited so I knew when in Madrid, going to a bullfight was something high on my list of things to do.  Before I went to Spain I knew there was a corrida in Madrid every Sunday so I thought this might be my last chance.  After taking the night train from Coimbra, Portugal I arrived at my city center Madrid hostel around 9:30.  Being there so early meant I couldn’t check in so I hung around for an hour, stowed my bags, and joined the free walking tour.  The tour was great, lasted 3 hours, and I learned a lot about Madrid and its history.  I also learned it was the beginning of the week-long San Isidro celebrations in Madrid.  Among other things the celebration includes corridas every night!  Suddenly I had my choice of nights to go.  I met a brother and sister from Toronto and the three of us all went together one night.

Upon arriving via metro (subway in Madrid) at the Plaza de Toros stop we emerged from the underground right next to the arena.  It looked just like I thought it would.  Old, round, tall.  Impressive and imposing I thought.  We went in and found our seats, about halfway up for 13 Euro….which I thought not bad considering only the best matadors and bull breeders are involved during San Isidro week.

The sun was slowly setting with a third of the arena floor already shaded when the formal introductions began.  The matadors, then picadors (men on horses with lances), and I think the bulls or the bull breeders (no hablo español).  Then it began.  Suddenly.  It almost caught me off guard.  I guess I’m used to watching American sporting events that include several minutes of commercial breaks every several minutes.

Like me before going to the arena on this perfect May evening, I’m sure many of you reading this have never seen a Spanish bullfight.  Here’s a not so quick overview of what happens:

San Isidro Corrida, 2013
San Isidro Corrida, 2013
  • Several matadors enter the ring with their pink muletas (capes) but stay hidden behind the entry walls.
  • The bull enters and gets baited a specific direction by a few matadors and their muletas (this allows the main matador to get into place behind the bull).
  • After running (tiring out) the bull for a minute, then turning the bull toward the main matador, he ‘fights’ the bull for several minutes. Olé, olé, etc., etc.
  • The horns blow (yes, there’s a band) and the picadors come out, one across from the other in the ring.

    Picador at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
    Picador at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
  • All the while the matadors have continued to run the bull back and forth (wearing him out).  When set, they turn the bull toward one picador (the horse is heavily clad with protective gear).  He charges and attacks the horse’s side.  At the same time the picador strikes the back of the bull, putting all his weight on the lance until the bull retreats (anywhere from 5 to 25 seconds).  This all happens twice.  (Picador, it seemed like a less dangerous job then a matador, until I heard that the night before one of the horses got knocked over and trapped a leg of the rider for a moment. That must have been a scary few heartbeats.)
  • The matadors distract the bull again as the picadors leave the ring.

    Banderillero at San Isidro, 2013
    Banderillero at San Isidro, 2013
  • Two matadors become banderilleros and trade in their pink muletas for a pair each of barbed wooden sticks.  They look like 24” long batons with little spears in one end.
  • After the bull gets ran some more and turned toward a banderillero he charges and gets stabbed in the back with two barbed spears at the same time.  The barbs keep them stuck in the bull and they dangle from his back.  This happens three times so there are 6 dangling sticks.
  • The bull, now noticeably weaker, continues to get directed and run around until the main matador comes out with a red muleta and sword.  Now the two are alone in the ring and they
    Faena at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
    Faena at San Isidro Corrida, 2013

    begin to dance.  Olé, olé, olé…for a few minutes.  This is called the faena (the matadors capework) and it’s very impressive, even with the bull tired, weak and bloody.

  • The matador trades up to his sharp, stabbing sword.  A couple more olés occur before the matador aims and strikes as the bull makes one last lunge.  The 30” long sword goes completely in the back of the bull.
  • Immediately all the matadors come out and confuse the bull until he collapses.  One matador takes a knife and stabs the spinal cord until its severed and the bull is dead.
  • Several workers come out and start raking the arena floor (they’re like the grounds crew between innings at a MLB game, except they have to clean up blood too) as a few others along with two horses drag the dead bull out of the arena.
  • It’s over.
  • It is all choreographed, seemingly down to the second, and very theatrical.  There is a lot of posturing and posing from the matadors and bulls alike.  Everyone knows their role and plays it, including the bull.
  • While I was there, this happened 6 times.  20 minutes each, almost exactly.

Like I said, everyone plays their role.  So after the initial 20 minute corrida, which was very interesting because it was my first, the others can seem monotonous…unless a matador messes up.  Or unless the bull goes off script.  Both of which happened the night I was in attendance.

In the second corrida I don’t know exactly which happened.  Maybe a combination of the two.  Whatever occurred the result was the main matador ended up riding the head of the bull for a few steps, doing his best John Heisman impression with a hand between the horns along the way.  He escaped without any harm or even falling to the ground.  It was a very athletic move.

Matador with Sword Takes Aim at Charging Bull
Matador with Sword Takes Aim at Charging Bull

The last corrida had all kinds of unexpected action.  Throughout the fight the bull was doing his own thing.  When the band signaled for the horses to come in, he turned and charged the wall in the direction of the horns.  At times he seemed disinterested in continuing, but the matadors kept him in line.  Then, after the matador came out with his red muleta, he fell down in the middle of the faena.  Yeah.  FELL DOWN…four feet in front of the bull.  This situation must be on their ‘worst case scenario’ practice schedule because everyone knew what to do and didn’t hesitate.  The matador immediately started rolling away as all the other matadors rushed in to distract the bull.  It worked.  The bull didn’t move and the main matador was able to get back to his feet with only a dirty uniform.

At the end of the night, these were my main takeaways:

  • I heard you could go buy the meat of the 6 bulls afterward.  Any cut you wanted: steak, criadillas (mountain oysters), whatever!
  • I had gained respect for the bravery of the matadors and picadors.  Most of the time the bull does what he’s supposed to, but sometimes he goes off script. It takes major cojones to stand 3 feet from a bull and turn your back.  Especially when the bull randomly has a mind of its own.
  • As someone who enjoys watching just about anything performed by people who are really great at it (professional sports, live concerts, an artist sketching The Sagrada Familia, etc.)  I enjoyed seeing the regions best matadors and the best bulls battle to the end….even if the end was never in question.
  • I decided I’d like to see a Portuguese bullfight where the bull doesn’t die, and see if there are any other differences (I hear there’s a test of courage that has to do with the bull charging and seeing who is the last man to move).
  • I also noticed the picadors horses are blindfolded.  I suppose they wouldn’t stand there and get attacked by a bull if they could…ya know, SEE.  Perhaps the horses are the smartest mammals in the ring.

    Matador and Bull at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
    Matador and Bull at San Isidro Corrida, 2013

7 Great Budget Travel Tips Anyone Can Use!

Conventional wisdom says traveling is expensive.  I guess that’s why most people I know (until recently, myself included) save for months, or longer, to afford their week-long vacation every year.  Personally, I’d save for a 10 day hiking/camping trip to the canyons in Utah or a week-long trip to see relatives and visit beaches in Florida and the rest of my yearly vacation days would be used on short trips closer to home or just on long weekends when I wouldn’t leave home at all.  I thought it too expensive to travel for all three or four weeks of my yearly vacation (I guess that’s the fiscal conservative in me!).  I’ve since changed my thinking on travel expenses and travel budgets.  Now I think it costs more in experiences missed out on than it does in money spent, especially if you travel smartly and budget friendly.

There are many ways to trim travel expenses.  It all starts with a mindset.  Think about what’s really important while visiting a place and ways to cut costs are easy to imagine.  Here are 7 ways I’ve saved money while on the road for nearly 2 months.  Some I already knew and others I learned the hard way!

Do you really want to spend a large part of your travel budget on a hotel, where you won’t spend much ‘awake’ time?

  • Instead of staying in tourist area hotels (translation; expensive), stay in cheaper options down  the road a few blocks or off the beaten path.  Stay in hostels where available or rent an apartment for the week.

Is it more important to eat out three times a day or spend time learning more about the food culture in a region?

Fruit Stand at Rio Piedra Market, San Juan
Fruit Stand at Rio Piedra Market, San Juan
  • Instead of eating at the tourist, and usually chain style, restaurants you go to at home (translation; expensive), eat like a local: go to the market, the grocery store, the street vendor.  This is a great way to gain some insight in the local food culture, and overall culture for that matter.  Eat healthy snacks picnic style in a park or in your hotel room and then reward yourself with dinner out (so just eat out once a day).  If you have kitchen access (in a hostel or apartment) buy local ingredients from the market and COOK!  If you‘re staying in a place with free breakfast, don’t skip it.  Load up!  It will fuel you’re morning sightseeing and keep you on budget at the same time.

Will having a car really be worth the cost and hassle of rental fees, fuel fees and finding/paying for parking?

Metro Sign - Barcelona
Metro Sign – Barcelona
  • Instead of renting a car for the week use public transportation (like the locals).  Most cities, even in North America, have at least a decent system of buses, trolleys, trams, subways, and/or taxis.  If you’re traveling in Europe most public transportation systems are super efficient and very cost-effective.  And another, even healthier option: while sightseeing walk from site to site when possible.

 

The old saying ‘Time is Money’ can apply when traveling.  Especially if you plan on seeing a lot of the popular sites.

  • Look into buying a city pass card.  A city pass usually lumps together a grouping of tourist stops into one fee and you can choose a certain number of those destinations to visit. The long lines at museums and other trendy tourist stops are not to get in…they’re to buy tickets.  With the city pass you already have your ticket and normally have a special ‘city pass’ line for entry.  Do the math on what the pass costs vs. what you’ll pay for the individual sites you want to visit.  It could be worth buying just for the time savings even if you don’t save a lot of money.  I’ve used this method in the past and walked right past the long lines and entered with no wait!  You can find specific information about these cards on the local tourism website or in the local tourism shops scattered throughout major cities.

Take advantage of FREE (or near free) stuff.  It’s everywhere!

  • To keep in touch back home there is free WiFi all over the place, you just have to find it.  Use Skype or another free online tool to make video/phone calls.   Many museums have free hours in the evenings and on weekends.  In one week, two different cities, I visited five great museums including a Salvador Dali exhibit and a Picasso museum without paying anything.  In Europe and other parts of the world many churches and cathedrals are free or near free to visit.  If staying in a hostel, walking tours are regularly organized and normally free (save a tip at the end).  It’s a great way to get an overview, and some great historic information, of the main tourist sites in the area.

Do you need soft drinks 5 times a day? 

Official Unmapped Travels Water Bottle
Official Unmapped Travels Water Bottle
  • Luckily I don’t have a caffeine addiction and need coffee every morning or a soda with each meal.  It’s expensive to buy drinks every day, so I carry a water bottle with me everywhere.  I fill it up for free when I get the opportunity and in restaurants where they charge for water I’ll just drink from it instead.  Just be sure the water in the area is drinkable.  If you do NEED caffeine, cutting it in half could save you several dollars a day.  That adds up to real savings over the course of a whole trip.

Lastly, you’re on vacation…..relax!

  • It’s an easy trap to fall into….filling every possible moment with ‘stuff’.  I’ve been a victim of the vicious cycle as well.  You’re in a new city, you want to see it all and only have 4 days.  Been there, done that.  The problem is this: while you rush around from place to place you’ll miss out on the ‘real’ culture of where you’ve traveled and when you get home you’ll probably need a vacation to get over your vacation!  Take time to relax.  Chill out for an afternoon in a city park.  If you try to fill every moment with a museum, or famous restaurant, or bus tour, or local show or…… You’ll miss out.  On the atmosphere.  The ambiance.  Take time to soak it in and see the lives people live in the places they live them.   Not only will you learn a little something and be recharged for more sightseeing……it’s free!

Whether you’re traveling for months at a time like me, for Spring Break with your friends, or taking two weeks for your first trip abroad these tips can cut your travel costs and increase your travel experiences!

I’m sure I’ll learn more tips as I continue to travel and look for ways to cut my personal costs.  I’ll try and share them along the way!  What are some tips you’ve used to ease the strain on your travel budget?

See the Spanish language version at lobu.do HERE!