El camino

12 08 2015

A couple weeks ago, I welcomed my sister at the Barcelona airport, the fourth and final member of my family to visit me in Spain! The first few days, as she recovered from jet lag and I finished my final shifts of work, we stayed in Barcelona – cycling around the city, enjoying a picnic and open-air cinema at Castell de Montjuïc (which offers an amazing vista overlooking the city and the sea), delicious Neapolitan pizza and of course, craft beer. But after a few days in Barcelona, we embarked on the real meat and potatoes part of her visit – cycling the last 250 km of the Camino del Norte from Luarca to Santiago de Compostela.

As the Wikipedia story goes, Santiago de Compostela became an important Christian pilgrimage site after the remains of apostle Saint James were discovered there in the 9th century. The Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, which denotes several different routes culminating in Santiago, became increasingly well travelled in the Middle Ages as it was means for pilgrims to earn indulgences. However, supposedly the camino’s origins date back much earlier than this widely known history indicates. As early as 1000 BC, Celtic pagans travelled this route, then known as Via Finisterre, in search of the land’s end (as the name suggests) and the sun’s resting place as a born again ritual. Rather interesting.

While there are several caminos originating from different locations, the Camino del Norte starts in Irú and follows the northern coast of Spain through the Basque Country, Cantabria, Austurias and Galicia.

Barcelona – Luarca (by bus)

Travelling with bikes proved to be a bit of a hassle, unless of course we were riding them. Not only did the bus company require us to pay a 15 euro charge to transport each bike, but upon arriving at the bus terminal, they also required us to pay 12 euros each for a bike bag. But at this point, what other choice did we have?

A long 15 hour journey through Lleida, Zaragoza, Burgos, León and Ovieda, drifting back and forth between sleep and snacks. Met a Belgian guy on the bus who had walked the Camino del Norte three years ago, and now embarking on the journey again, starting in Gijon. So, there must be something to this camino business, or at least something a bit addictive…

Luarca greeted us with typical weather – rain and rather cool, and we both wondered if we’d packed appropriately – definitely a contrast to the scorching temperatures in Barcelona. Re-assembled the bikes, warmed up with a cup of chocolate and headed to the first albergue we saw.

Luarca, the quaint coastal fishing town where we started our camino

Luarca, the quaint coastal fishing town where we started our camino

An albergue is the type of accommodation you find along the camino – cheap (usually about 6 euros a bed), anywhere from 12 to 60 pilgrims or peregrinos in a room (so sometimes a symphony of snoring to listen to through the night), basic yet all the essentials. At our first one, in Luarca, we obtained our pilgrim’s credentials and got our first stamp!

At the albergue, we met a 16 year old guy from Olot (a city in Catalonia). Our conversation began when he asked me if he could cook rice in the microwave. I wasn’t sure but gave an encouraging response. He’d been walking the camino for 16 days, starting in San Sebastian. With dismal summer job prospects (remember Spain’s unemployment rates), why not walk the camino? With just a couple hundred euros in his pocket and needing to make it last the trip (and too proud to ask his parents to send him more), he hadn’t eaten the day before and had camped in the forest the previous night, or at least tried to. Woken up by rain, he fled to the awning of a shop. He was getting tired he said and had 10 days left and wasn’t sure if he would finish. Not sure if he did, but I sort of think so.

That night, as with almost every night, we anxiously awaited the re-opening of restaurants around 8 PM. Appropriately, we went to a sideria and had some local cider with croquetas de jamon and a board of different Austurian cheeses and some apple jam. We even had some leftovers to take on the trail with us. Early to bed, early to rise – we wanted to get a nice early start for our first day – a bit nervous or at least uncertain of what it would hold.


Delightful detours

30 05 2015

My posts here are so sporadic that I don’t expect anyone to actually follow them because more often than not, there’s nothing to follow. So much for my career as a blog writer. I did briefly consider it as a convenient source of income while travelling, but thankfully I’ve found alternative employment. I don’t think I would be good at it anyway and I don’t much like writing because I feel like I have to. Amidst an ever-intensifying snowstorm of online content, I’d rather wait until I have something to say. And at present, I thought I’d try to help alleviate my parents of the burden of questions with ambiguous answers – like what I’m doing and when I’ll be home. The latter I don’t know. However, the former I can elaborate on.

Today pretty much hits the 5-month mark for my time in Spain. When I arrived at the end of December, I planned to stay in Barcelona for a couple months, then continue to the south of Spain – cycling around and working at hostels along the way in hopes of figuring out if I might want to start a hostel myself. I enjoyed my first two months of working at a hostel here in Barcelona and learned A LOT! Among many other things, I learned about the tourism climate in Barcelona – mass tourism of a predominantly international crowd. According to The Guardian, Barcelona hosted 7.5 million tourists last year, almost four times the number of inhabitants. So, the people are coming (whether Barcelona residents like it or not) and if a hostel is in a half decent location offering a half decent service, the people will come. There is little incentive to have flexible policies or offer particularly good value. Very seldom are there repeat customers. Online reviews, like Trip Advisor, helps keep business in check to some extent. However, I think sometimes these reviews carry too much importance, and a high-rating business could be more attributed to strategic social media, rather than good overall management. Or worse, one bad review from an impossible-to-please customer can be a huge detriment to a new business. This rant could continue, but I realize it’s a tangent, so I’ll summarize in saying that running a hostel in Barcelona is dramatically different than running a hostel in small town Ontario, or at least I hope it would be. Or course, there are transferable skills, but hopefully, a different approach – more personal, more human, more consideration of the long-term, rather than, to quote Steve Miller, a “Take the Money and Run” mentality. I would want to operate a business that ensures long-term repeat patrons, and considers the long-term effects on the community.

So, after working and living in a hostel for two and a half months (in Barcelona, then Tarragona), then living in various hostels for another month, I was ready to take a break from the scene. I’d planned to work on some farms – get back to nature and my rural roots for a bit and be more immersed in Spanish culture (since the multiculturalism of the city tends to have a diluting effect in this regard. Then, just as I was about to say goodbye to Barcelona, the opportunity arose to help out at a craft brewery while the head brewer was away for a couple months. I had been volunteering there sporadically since January or so, and what can I say, I can’t say no to learning new things, working with interesting and intelligent people, and of course, craft beer. Further, taking an unexpected detour is rarely something I’ll decline. And I felt lucky to be presented with such a sought-after opportunity in such a trendy (sometimes too trendy) industry. So, I found a shared apartment and actually started living in Barcelona, rather than being a tourist. I also picked up a part-time job at a recently-opened brewhouse called Black Lab that I had frequented. Staffing requirements quickly turned this job to full-time temporarily, but I’m now thankfully back to part-time so I can enjoy the summer festivities . So, basically half my work hours helping make beer and the other half selling and educating people about it, so maybe a bit too much beer in my life, but nonetheless nice complements. While I’m a bit afraid of the onset of the summer temperatures that locals speak of, I’m hoping my body acclimatizes.

Not sure how long I’ll continue along this detour, but I trust my capacity for reflection well enough not to worry much about it for now. After all, as some cliche probably goes, life is a detour. And while only hindsight will be able to tell, it might not even be a detour at all.

Off on two wheels

6 03 2015

After spending the better part of two months in beautiful and bustling Barcelona, I finally made my escape (although maybe temporary). I packed my panniers and and headed for Tarragona, where I had arranged a HelpX at another hostel. I had originally planned to cycle right from Barcelona, but following the advice of a Catalan friend who was more familiar with the roads than I was, I took the train to Sitges, a costal town 40 km south of Barcelona. Spent the afternoon and night in Sitges, staying at a nice hostel with a beachy vibe, and appropriately called Utopia Beach House. Great staff, clean, colourful and lots of outdoor areas to chill. 

As recommended, I went to Big Al´s burger joint (probably my first burger since arriving in Catalonia as it’s not the typical local cuisine), after all they had Edge beers on tap. Biked around quite a bit, then had my afternoon vermouth at a tapas place beside the sea. Since been told that the appropriate hour for vermouth (which is quite popular here, served with a orange slice and a couple olives) is actually before lunch, but I´ve come to quite enjoy this refreshing drink, so I´m likely to break this custom again in the future. 

 The next day I got a later than expected start after waiting for the bike shop to open, having my morning cafe con leche and croissant, and packing up, but I got off eventually. My first cycling adventure! I was excited but also a bit nervous because I didn’t know what to expect (i.e. how good of shape I was in or what the road ahead was like – what if it was one big, long uphill!?!)

My first break was Cubelles, 15 km down the road. The croissant had long disappeared, so I replenished the tank with a bocadillo con jamon and queso, and of course, a caña to rehydrate and olives. Normally, I haven´t been a huge olive fan, but here, I have developed quite a taste for them, especially when they automatically come with your drink. When I got back on my bike I realised that I might have overindulged all at once, and in the future I would eat more moderately to make it easier to start cycling again.

I had identified a route of regional roads, staying off the main highways (which I’m quite sure don´t allow bikes anyway). But even this road sometimes had a speed limit of up to 100 kph and plenty of trucks. Not exactly the idyllic cycling trip I had envisioned. I made a few different attempts to get off this busy road, which resulted in longer than anticipated “detours”, some of them quite scenic and lovely, others on little more than a dirt path, and others that had me thinking, “What the heck am I doing?”

At one point, I stopped for a much-needed rest at the unfortunate location of Burger King in Sant Vincenç de Calders. I had just done a particularly sweaty 15 km on a busy road, so here, I contemplated, researched and finally decided to head towards the sea and try to find some better way. I did…eventually, and the trail I found (after carrying my bike up a dirt path and a set of stairs) was very rewarding. A walking path right along the sea, where bikes were usually prohibited, but as an older man assured me, I could ride on since it was supposedly winter (even through it was over 20C and I had been cycling in shorts and a tank top).

Needless to say, some kilometres were better than others.

All and all, my jaunt was just a mere 62 km (according to Google Maps, but more likely a few more including the detours). By most cyclists´ standards a short day, but for me and my 12 o’clock start, it was enough. 

Here in Tarragona for a few more days. I’m enjoying the small town vibe of the old city. However, I’m planning to head back to Barcelona for a beer festival this weekend. Then, vamos a ver, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I can put my two wheels back in the open road. 

Carnaval in Cadaques

23 02 2015

Last week, I welcomed my sister to Barcelona for an all too short 10-day visit. We spent the first half in Barcelona – walking tours, Parc Guell, hanging out at my favourite craft brewery – Edge Brewing, biking around (even doubling on occasion, much to Lindsay’s fright), and exploring the different barrios of the city.

At Gaudi's Parc Guell (the free part of course!)

At Gaudi’s Parc Guell (the free part of course!)

The most delicious dessert ever...Lindsay, let me know if you can replicate it!

The most delicious dessert ever at a Napoli pizza place in the Gothic quarter. The best pizza in Barcelona too!

The second half, we hit the open road, and I had a much needed break from the city. We headed up Costa Brava, first to Palamos, then on to beautiful and breathtaking Cadaques and Cap de Creus. Then, we crossed into France (ssshh, don’t tell the car rental people) to the small, artsy town of Ceret, nestled in the Pyrenees, and then spent our final night in Girona, and drove the steep and winding road up Montserrat before returning the car in the afternoon. In total, about a 700 km journey, not much by Canadian standards for 4 days, but we definitely saw a lot.

Our favourite stops were Cadaques, drinking wine at Cap de Creus, lunch and self-serve wine tasting an agricultural cooperative in the wine region of Emporda, a lovely lunch by the historic bridge in Besalu, the Dali museum in Figueres, live music in Girona, the unnerving drive up Montserrat, and being caught in the middle of Carnaval parades in both Barcelona and Cadaques.

Beautiful Cadaques

Beautiful Cadaques

Lindsay in Cadaques

Lindsay in Cadaques

Contemplating the oddities of Dali in Figueres

Contemplating the oddities of Dali in Figueres

Could Lindsay look any more excited about the Michelin-recommended restaurant in Besalu

Could Lindsay look any more excited about the Michelin-recommended restaurant in Besalu?

Eating a cloud - love when not really knowing what you ordered turns out well!

Eating a cloud – love when not really knowing what you ordered turns out well!

Live music by UK singer/songwriter Ben Owen in Girona

Live music by UK singer/songwriter Ben Owen in Girona

Wine and vermouth on tap in a supermarket. Not sure if you can see the prices, but it's 1.17 euros/L of wine, and about 3 euros/L of vermouth!

Wine and vermouth on tap in a supermarket. Not sure if you can see the prices, but it’s 1.17 euros/L of wine, and about 3 euros/L of vermouth!

Yup, that's 18 C!

Yup, that’s 18 C! Not bad at all!

Contemplated the "serrated mountain"

Contemplated the “serrated mountain”

At Montserrat

At Montserrat

Breathtaking Montserrat, just 1/2 hour from Barcelona. Definitely worth the frightening drive up!

Breathtaking Montserrat, just 1/2 hour from Barcelona. Definitely worth the frightening drive up!

Carnaval is a big street party that occurs just before Lent starts, especially celebrated in highly Catholic places like Brazil, Mexico and Spain. So, the idea is they have a big party before enduring six weeks of penance. Sitges (just south of Barcelona) is the place to go for Carnaval. Thinking that this scene might be a little too crazy for two small town gals, we headed north up Costa Brava for a more relaxed rendezvous.

Carnaval parade in Barcelona...

At Carnaval parade in Barcelona…

Everyone joins in the fun!

Everyone joins in the fun!

But of course there was no escaping such a highly observed celebration, nor would we want to. When we arrived in Cadaques in early afternoon, there were large speakers set up in the street, pumping upbeat tuns (the likes of the Beatles and Gloria Gaynor) and filling the town with a cheerful ambience. Everything was either closed or closing early. And then, while walking down a narrow street along the sea, we were suddenly caught off guard by an oncoming parade – basically groups of friends dressed in similar costumes, drinking and dancing on themed floats. Not too many tourists about, mostly locals doing as they do best and having a good time. After this, we headed off to see Cap de Creus for a couple hours. Upon returning to Cadaques, the speakers were taken down and we were surprised that the town was so quiet after such a festive afternoon. Where were the party people? We never really found out, maybe having siestas or partying in their homes.

The Carnaval parade in Cadaques

The Carnaval parade in Cadaques


We did find out that there was going to be a big fiesta that night from about 11 PM until 6 AM, and it seemed as the whole town, young and old, would be going. While a decent uphill trek up from the main town centre, it was fairly easy to find – between asking people in street and following the crowds. I was curious more than anything and had no idea as to what to expect. We found ourselves in a large indoor gym, with a bar set up in the back corner and stage at the front with a band setting up. We arrived around 11:30, still very early by Spanish standards, so people were still coming and many just partying in the parking lot – looking much like a tailgate party if you ask me. The scene felt oddly familiar, much like the Lion’s Head street dance (bearing particular semblance to the year it got rained out and moved to the arena), or Halloween party at the Tobermory Legion, or an open wedding dance.

A gym...

A gym…

...and a band is all you need in a small town!

…and a band is all you need!


So, maybe I’m in a different country and among people speaking a different language, but as it turns out, small town fun is small town fun! No need for a fancy venue, just some music and maybe some costumes on occasion, because it’s really the people, young and old, who make the party!

A Catalunya

13 01 2015

After a nice ten months on the Bruce Peninsula, I’m on the road again. This time, I’ve come to Spain on a working holiday visa, which means I can live and work in Spain for one year, and move freely throughout the EU during this time.

I hope this next chapter is full of both learning and adventure! My main goal is to work in different hostels in hopes of figuring out if this type of work is for me, and gathering ideas about what makes a successful hostel. For the first couple months or so, I will be helping a friend who is taking over ownership and management of a hostel in Barcelona.

Some of my secondary goals are:

  • To learn Spanish and about different cultural perspectives
  • To explore the rural landscape of Spain (and possibly beyond) by bicycle
  • To do some climbing (a skill I’ve wanted to develop for some time)
  • To visit organic farms, social enterprises and other innovative businesses working towards sustainable development
  • To explore some other nearby countries, such as Italy, Croatia, Greece and Turkey
  • To work as necessary (in other words, maintain sufficient funds to have food to eat, a bed to sleep, and to continue traveling for as long as I want)

But enough talk about future plans and ideals, and more talk about the here and now. Some highlights so far…

  • An unexpected tire change in Toronto led to an hour delay in arriving to Montreal. On one hand, I missed my trans-Atlantic connection. On the other hand, Air Canada paid for my hotel and I was able to squeeze in a visit with some friends who I hadn’t seen in a while.
  • And because I was so highly inconvenienced by the extra 24 hours in Montreal, I was upgraded to business class for the 7-hour flight to Brussels. This upgrade meant sparkling wine upon boarding, my own individual pod where I could lay down, pillow and duvet, two relatively good meals served on real dinnerware with a white tablecloth, warm, moist towels for freshening up, and more.

    Business class on Air Canada Flight 9552

    Business class on Air Canada Flight 9552

  • Bringing in the new year with a international group of strangers who soon became friends in Placa Catalunya, amidst thousands of people from all over the world, Cava (Catalan sparkling wine) being sprayed into the crowd, and not arriving back to the hostel until the time when I would normally wake up (and I’m not a particularly early riser).
    Our NYE feast - Melba toast with creme de brie, hummus, some type of canned fish and Catalan red wine

    Our NYE feast – Melba toast with creme de brie, hummus, some type of canned fish and Catalan red wine

    Sharing Placa Catalunya with thousands at the stroke of midnight

    Sharing Placa Catalunya with thousands at the stroke of midnight

  • Visiting some nearby towns about an hour or so northeast of Barcelona – Amer, Banyoles, Castellfollit, Besalu, learning some basic Catalan & much about Catalan culture

    The 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvia river in the historic town of Besalú

    The 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvia river in the historic town of Besalú

  • In Spain, the main Christmas celebration and biggest gift giving day is on Jan. 6, and not Dec. 25. Rather than having Santa Claus as we do in North America, Spanish children receive gifts from the three kings on their return journey from Bethlehem. So, on the evening of Jan. 5, there is the Cavalcada de Reis, or the Three Kings Parade – the biggest and most spectacular parade that I’ve ever seen! In Barcelona, about 500,000 people attend, it includes 12 floats or “carrozas” and it stretches over 1 km! It is designed and performed by professional artists of theatre, music, dance and circus, and includes 1200 costume participants and 26 dance routines! And the final float in the end of the parade had a canon shooting out candy into the crowd. Although I didn’t see this first hand, I was even told that some serious parade-goers bring a step ladder and an umbrella to catch the candy! Here is a glimpse of the extravagant floats… (Note that these photos definitely do not do them justice!)

IMG_0330 IMG_0335IMG_0337

  • So far, I have done two walking tours (one of the Barri Gotic and the other an alternative tour of street art and squats) and a tour of Santa Maria del Mar (led by my friend Ignasi who works there), slowing learning more and more about Barceona
  • After quite a few flavourless cans of Estrellas and a few more slightly better bottles of Moritz (the Epidor, a stronger version is yet another step up), I found craft beer in Barcelona – Edge Brewing! Unfortunately, at 20 euros, as of yet, the growler is out of my budget.

    The facilities at Edge Brewing. Small by many standards, but quite large and advanced compared to our manual techniques at the Firehall Brewing

    The facilities at Edge Brewing. Small by many standards, but quite large and advanced compared to our manual techniques at the Firehall Brewing

  • And this past Saturday, running to La Barceloneta, going for a swim and basking in the sunshine

    A sunny, warm winter day at Barceloneta, just a 20-minute run (my speed!) from the hostel

    A sunny, warm winter day at Barceloneta, just a 20-minute run (my speed!) from the hostel