Have you traveled to Spain yet?  No???  WTF people!!  Get your asses in gear!

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Ahem… In all fairness, this year was my first trip there… and I’m closer to 50 than 40.  But, oh how I’m glad I did.

I traveled to Spain with Intrepid Tours out of Australia, a company I have used three times before, and had fantastic trips.  The trips are typically chock full of a great mix of Australians, Kiwis, Americans, and Canadians, and this trip was no different, though the vast majority were Aussies.  Yippee!

Madrid was the meet up locale for the tour, and quickly proved to be rustic and charming.  Tapas bars abound, and great Riojas flowed into generous wine glasses.  Tourists plentifully mixed with locals, but not in the shoulder-to-shoulder feel that I have experienced in cities like Venice (I’m not sure how the locals survive the tourists in Venice, as in high season you can barely navigate the canal-bound alleyways without ramming shoulders every other step).  I stayed at the Hostal Marlasca, a small, clean, and friendly hostel , right in the heart of Madrid.  Just outside the front door of the hostel, across the street, I found a lovely little bar called Jardin, with a chill atmosphere, free snacks, and a bloody handsome bartender.  Not a bad start!

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Madrid is famous for their flamenco, and I looked forward to experience some authentic flamenco guitar and dancing.  I wasn’t disappointed.   Our tour group met up at Tablaos Flamenco Villa Rosa, not far from our Hostal.  As the lights dimmed, the guttural notes of raspy singing began (think Gypsy Kings), lilting Spanish guitar burst into the air, and heels struck the wooden floor with force and grace.  A very cool, very Spanish experience.

Also not to be missed is the Mercado San Miguel , a treasure trove of tapas, iberico ham, cheeses, salamis, gelato, and wine.  We did some counter side wine tastings, and left this little haven happy and full.

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We moved on to the historic walled town of Cuenca, a rural town that oozed charm.  Wi-fi was practically non-existent, but I don’t think you’ll miss it.  There is a sweeping valley to behold, a long wooden bridge to cross to the city, and delicious sangria to be quaffed.  It’s also a great place to pick up some gifts for friends or family back home. cuenca-stunning-views

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The Intrepid tour gals!

 

Next we moved onto the beach front city of Valencia.  Valencia’s name is derived from the Latin meaning valor or strength so don’t ever say you don’t learn anything from reading this blog!  It is the third largest city in Spain, and its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain.  It is also home to one of the most delicious mojitos I have ever had, even in light of our tour leader sticking his finger into my drink to have a taste for himself.  Seriously, dude?!  The beach was lovely, if a bit windy.  The beach front restaurants were a little pricey, but hey, you’re paying for the view!

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One the most impressive stops in Valencia, however, was the City of Arts and Sciences.  It is like walking into a sci fi movie, with its main building resembling a Darth Vader-esque helmet.

 

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Parquede Cabecera bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

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City of Arts and Sciences

 

 

 

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The sci-fi world of the City of Arts and Sciences

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bring your camera, soak in the sights, and then take a walk along the Passeig de l’Albereda in Parquede Cabecera, past young breakdancers at the Skatepark Gulliver, and witness a multitude of joggers, dog walkers, and couples just out for an evening stroll, enjoying their city.

Barcelona was the final stop on our tour.  This is truly a city with a little bit of everything.  There is fabulous architecture, amazing shopping (yes, I did visit my favourite Barcelona based Desiguel!), tapas restaurants, and a gorgeous beach.  We stayed at the Hostal Levante on Baixada de Sant Miquel.  It boasts clean, spacious rooms, friendly staff, and a great location within an easy walk to shopping, bars, and the main drag, “Las Ramblas”.

The tapas were lovely in Barcelona.  My new friend, Caitlin, and I were lucky enough to be strolling the main street, “Las Ramblas” one night and see countless restaurants setting up tasting booths for “Tastas de la Ramblas.  For a few nights, you can buy your pass card, and meander from one spot to the next, sampling their wine, and savouring succulent bites, the best the restaurants have to offer.  Truly a unique and serendipitous event to have stumbled across.  I did have to purchase my elegant stemmed wine glass, and naturally I wanted to keep this lovely momento.  So, I packed it carefully in my luggage and toted it all through Greece and finally back to Canada—unscathed!

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The day after my tour ended, my cousin, Kim, from the UK joined me in Barcelona.  It was so wonderful to see my lovely cousin.  We have always grown up worlds apart, but when I spent time with her, it feels like the years just fall away.  This is my family.  We fell into conversation easily, had some lovely dinners.

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We decided to visit the Parc Guell together.  The line for tickets were long and the day was hot.  It did not appear we were destined to enter the park that day.  However, we were able to walk the periphery of the park, which was quite lovely and entertaining in its own way.  I bought some cheesy souvenirs, and listened to some sultry flamenco tunes in the warm Spanish air.  One musician, however, captured my attention above the others.  He was tall, with Steven Tyler-esque crazy hair.  He wore skin tight leopard print pants, torn and battered as his weathered face.  His face stretched into a crazy, happy smile, as he sang his song.  The lyrics were inspired…. Consisting of “meow, meow, meow… motherfucker…. Meow, meow, meow!”  And it made us laugh our collective asses off.

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Kim and I quickly deduced that one of the best places to be in Barcelona was, of course, the beach.  After all, the air was incredibly warm, and the sun never failed to shine down on us.  A quick and fun way to get to the Barcloneta Beach is taking a pedal-powered rickshaw cab from an informative and lively local.  Once at the beach, spread out your towel, have a beach picnic, and for 5 euros you can buy a mojito or sangria from one of the peddlers selling their refreshing wares.  Even a braided fellow balancing a board of luscious donuts wandered by, creating quite the buzz and a number of sales.  You can even sunbathe topless if you’re feeling the vibe.  I thought, why not?  When in Rome and all of that, right?  It’s very easy and completely unremarkable in this part of the world, so no one even bats an eye.  Be careful however, because if those puppies rarely see the sun, they will get burned!  And yes, they did.

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But just the thing after a sun soaked afternoon in the sun is passion fruit cocktail at the Guru bar, my favourite find in Barcelona.  This cool little cocktail bar has a very Game of Thrones chair, friendly staff, and some of the best cocktails I have ever tasted!  My passion fruit mojito was to die for, and leads the weaker of us to a two cocktail minimum!  For those girls’ night out that needs to be a little more high octane than sangria, this is your place!guru-bar

In Barcelona, it only seems right to balance out the beach and cocktails with a little architecture.  I’m not, after all, an uncultured heathen!  So off we ventured to Casa Batllo.  Casa Batllo was created by the architectural genius, Antoni Gaudi.  Built between 1901 and 1906, this colourful marvel overlooks Passeig de Gracia, beckoning in visitors from all over the world.  The entrance fee was 20 euros, and truly worth the price.  Walking into Casa Batllo is like falling down the rabbit hole and entering a magical kingdom.  The walls are undulating waves, and the ceiling swirling vortexes that leading the eyes in dizzying directions.  Colours assault the senses.  Magic, imagination, echos of sea creatures, and the real world all collide in one beautiful experience.

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Before long, sadly, it was time to bid farewell to Barcelona, and all of Spain.  But just as the perfect send off, I was seated on my British Airways flight next to a charming Portuguese man who lived in Barcelona and was flying to London, UK for business.  He held my hand during take off, which was gallant as hell, and perhaps not totally necessary, but lovely and comforting all the same.

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And although my Spanish tour guide had a rather negative outlook on his native country, I was thoroughly charmed by this magical and historic country.  Don’t miss it.