In recent years, the world has fallen for the gorgeous Mediterranean gem that is Barcelona, and we are certainly no exception. Having both previously spent time here on separate trips, we were eager - after a delightful few weeks in Southern France - to return together to this Spanish coastal city for some delectable Catalan cuisine (patatas bravas? Yes, please!) and a 'best of' tour of our favorite sites (the genius of Gaudí takes our breath away every time). Our visit turned out to be perfectly timed as we were able to re-connect with our dear friend (and Trey's former colleague), Crystal, who happened to be in town on a sabbatical of her own. The three of us caught up over piping hot paella while soaking up views of the expansive sea and readied ourselves for a mini-road trip through the Spanish Pyrenees.
A Catalan Road Trip
Leaving Barcelona, our first destination was Sort, the Catalonian capital of all things "luck" (which is, in fact, the meaning of the town's name) and purportedly home to the most Spanish lottery winners in all of the country. La Bruixa d’Or (The Gold Witch) is the place to go in Sort to purchase tickets for one of the world’s richest lotteries, affectionately known as “El Gordo” (The Fat One), drawn every Christmas (2016 winners took home $2.4 billion! SPOILER ALERT: We unfortunately did not win.). Tickets in hand and bellies full of delicious Catalan fare, we made our way into the Pyrenees, stopping first in the national park of Aiguestortes and the gateway town of, Espot. One never goes hungry for long in Catalonia, and as we continued on, we made the fortunate find of Els Puis, where we feasted on local lamb and pork.
Awe-inspiring vistas and snow-capped mountain passes awaited us as we made our way deep into the Pyrenees, ending our second day’s drive in the quaint village of Broto. This idyllic mountain town, a bit sleepy out of ski season, serves as entry point to the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. Renowned for its exceptionally beautiful canyon valley, Ordesa draws hikers year-round, and as we walked the ‘three waterfalls trail’ along the Rio Arazas valley, we were so blessed to have beautiful clear skies and fresh mountain air to accompany our long chats. Re-connecting with friends during our journey has been re-energizing and refreshing, and we were saddened that our good times with Crystal over the long weekend had to come to an end. She departed back to Barcelona, and we had one more day of hiking in the Ordesa valley along the ‘Turieta Bajo trail,’ giving us time to pause and reflect on our good fortunate to have such wonderful, fun friends in our lives. The next day, we made our way to the picturesque, historic hillside village of Aínsa for a day of rest and to prepare before our drive across the country to the capital, Madrid.
Restored after a blissed-out, rainy day in Aínsa, we drove over the vast, arid plains of northeastern Aragon to the spiritually-charged city of Zaragoza to see the impressively huge Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and enjoy a delectable lunch at the trendy La Clandestina restaurant in the Old Town. As we hit the final stretch of the road trip to Madrid, it struck us that this would be the last driving we would do on this year’s journey. Our hours of long, meaningful chats (often followed up with giddy, delirious-fueled car karaoke) would be greatly missed as we prepared ourselves for a completely different mode of transport on the Indian sub-continent in just a few days' time.
Marveling at Madrid
Arriving in the capital’s Lavapiés neighborhood, an up-and-coming, multi-cultural enclave of deliciously trendy restaurants and an edgy art scene, proved to be the final test of Martin’s driving skills (and Trey's hotel Spanish) as we navigated the narrow, cobbled streets to locate our final European Airbnb. With the car safely returned, we immediately headed out on the town by foot, excited to explore an undiscovered city together!
Madrid had long been on both our shortlists of must-see European cities, so we were thrilled it was to be our last European destination of the trip. Our first evening was spent strolling the idyllic area around the Prado and Puerto del Sol and watching the throngs of tourists mix with locals in the age-old Spanish pastime of the paseo, or evening stroll.
On our second day in Madrid, we woke early to explore countless cultural sites set amongst the charming Madrilenian neighborhoods, including the historic Latin Quarter and the collegiate Malasaña and festive Chueca barrios. On this beautiful late-September day, we were drawn back to the artsy Prado neighborhood where we toured the ultra-modern CaixaForum, which boasted an exhibit of emerging photojournalists from around the world, and later strolled the grounds of the lushly landscaped Buen Retiro Park. As the sun sat on our final evening in Europe, we strolled the cobbled lane from our lofted apartment one last time to a local taverna for a Spanish tapas feast - fresh tomatoes, dry-cured jamón, peppery, mouth-watering steak, and a final plate of patas bravas - a meal we wouldn't soon forget as we headed on to more emerging destinations!
The next morning, we excitedly jumped out of bed and began packing for our return to Asia, but not before stopping by a small café in the neighborhood for a European breakfast. As the taxi carried us out of the Spanish capital, we were both eager and nervous to board the hours-long flight that would carry us to the Indian sub-continent for our final three months of this yearlong adventure.