For a variety of reasons, I left my job at Stoke Travel a week early during the Running of the Bulls. It was a tearful goodbye, but I did what was best for my situation. I am forever grateful for the past three years of fun and friendship that Stoke has given me.
My boyfriend Louis and I caught a bus from Pamplona to Barcelona with no idea what we were going to do for the next few weeks. On the way, we formulated a skeleton plan to head down the Spanish east coast, ending in Lagos, Portugal by the 21st of July (the date then was 10th July). The four main stops would be: Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, and Granada. Each stop had something different and great to offer.
Barcelona – Great Food and Magic Fountains
Going to Barcelona is always like returning to home base. It is where Stoke Travel is based and where many current and former Stokies live. Our friend kindly offered us a couch to sleep on for the few days we were spending in Barcelona.
Louis and I had both been to Barcelona many times, but had somehow evaded doing most of the tourist activities in the city. So on our first day, we made a plan and set out to do a couple new things a day. But first, we had to get dinner at my favorite restaurant in the world, La Malandrina.
After dinner, we hiked up to Gaudi’s Park Guell for the sunset. Park Guell is inside a large park that you can enter for free, but to enter the actual Gaudi compound costs €7 and has to be booked online. There is a house and a gift shop, designed by Gaudi, and some other beautiful little features around the grounds.
Louis’s birthday fell while we were in Barcelona, and on the word of my friend the head chef at Stoke, we went to Quimet y Quimet, a tiny tapas bar off the beaten path. We had a huge variety of gourmet tapas, like goat cheese with truffle and mussels with caviar.
After dinner, we headed to the “Magic Fountain” of Montjüc. From 9:30 to 10:30, it performs a light show to music, like the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas. It is free to the public and one of the coolest things in Barcelona.
After four days in Barca, it was time to head down a few hours south, to Valencia. Buses were expensive so we booked our ride on Blablacar, an app where people offer seats in their car for a pretty cheap fee. It has become one of our preferred methods of getting around in Spain.
Valencia – Home of Paella
Valencia is a small town near the beach about five hours south of Barcelona. It is the third largest city in Spain and, as I later found out, home to a branch of Berkelee College of Music. We headed to Valencia on the rumor that you could get a pint of beer for €1 (we never did find it). We booked a room on Air Bnb that turned out to be huge and air conditioned, with a balcony. Oh, and they had a beautiful dog named Canela. We did not deserve such luxury.
Paella, the traditional Spanish rice dish, was apparently invented in Valencia. The most traditional paella is made with chicken and rabbit (fittingly called “Valencian paella”). We figured it would be a crime not to try Valencian paella in Valencia, so we found the highest-rated-without-being-bank-breaking paella around and had two bowls with sangria. It was the best paella I’ve ever had.
One of the perks of staying in an Air Bnb is getting to ask a local what the best things to do are. Our host gave us a long list, which included trying a horchata, which is a cold milky drink made from hazelnuts (I think). She pointed us in the direction of this horchateria, which served up cheap and authentic horchata. The place was nice, but the drink was pretty gross and didn’t leave us feeling too good afterwards.
While not indulging on infinite Spanish snacks, we went for a very long walk around the city. One of the most notable things to see is the Center of Art and Science. It is a huge compound with an art museum, a science museum, an aquarium, an opera house, and a cinema. Surrounding the buildings are pools of very blue water, where you can actually rent kayaks and stand up paddleboards and ride around. For €15 for ten minutes, we chose to save our money.
From Valencia, we caught a train down a couple of hours to Alicante.
Alicante – Beautiful Beach and an Old Castle
Alicante is a tiny coastal town just outside of Murcia. We came across it in our research because it has a beautiful beach without the intense tourism of places like Barcelona. We rented another Air Bnb just outside the city center and close to the old castle.
The Castell de la Santa Barbara is an old fortress at the top of a huge hill. The hike to the top was hot and a bit treacherous (but if you have a car, there is a road to drive up), but the views from the top were stunning.
The ocean in Alicante was warm and lovely. For the first time in Spain, we were able to leave our things on the beach and go swimming without worrying that someone would steal them.
Possibly our favorite discovery in Alicante was a Taco Bell on the Main Street. Louis had never been, and we felt we deserved a little unhealthy snack. We ordered off the dollar menu, and on the way out, we found a sign saying “three beers and a quesadilla for €4, 5-7 happy hour.” At that moment, it was 4:58. So we went back in, and enjoyed a little Taco Bell happy hour.
From Alicante, we got a ride in another Blablacar to Granada. Our driver was an older man who spoke no English and had a bit of a lead foot. We made the 4 hour drive in 3 hours…
Granada – FREE TAPAS
Before we headed to Granada, Louis had posted in Facebook looking for recommendations on what to do during our trip down the coast. Several different people all said the same thing: Go to Granada, they give you free tapas with every drink.
We decided to stay in a hostel in Granada because we found a room for €9 a night, right in the center of town. As soon as we checked in, we headed out on the hunt for these mythical free tapas.
As it turns out, our friends were right. We found the first open bar (it was siesta so most places were closed) and ordered two beers. There was a tapas menu on the table, and when the bartender brought the beers he asked which tapas we wanted. They ranged from cheeseburger to grilled octopus, and we dipped a toe trying a few different ones. When we went to pay, it was only €8- €2 per beer, for four beers.
On day two, we took a bus out of town in search of a waterfall our friend recommended to us. Unfortunately, the directions were vague and we spent two hours wandering around a mountainside looking for a “dirt path.” Eventually, we found the right path, but took a wrong turn and ended up walking down river and back to where we started. We never found the waterfall, but the river walk was still nice. We decided to stick to what we are good at: eating tapas.
Granada was by far the cheapest city we had been to on the journey. What was really cool was how obviously influenced by North African culture the city was. Our street was lined with little Moroccan shops and eateries. I got a cute leather wallet for €4 and we got a new mandala blanket for the beach.
On our last morning, we went to a lookout point to view the Alhambra, a very old castle once again on a hill. We couldn’t get tickets to go inside the grounds, so we just had a look from afar. The castle was the home of Ferdinand and Isabella after they retook the city from the Moors. Annnnd that’s the extent of my Spanish history knowledge.
From Granada, we caught a bus to Lagos, Portugal, with a short pit stop in Seville. In just 11 days, we had opened our eyes to a whole new side of Spain. I highly recommend paying a visit to all of these cities in your travels, and I can’t wait to explore Spain more in the future.