For many years, a trip on my bucket list and my late husband’s was Spain and Portugal. Originally it was going to be our honeymoon in 2012. Unfortunately, Jim passed away in October 2013 and therefore never had the chance to realize his dream. I decided that this was the year I would do it for both of us – alone.
To save money and to get a feel for how locals lived, I chose staying at Airbnb’s for my accommodation needs. I also decided that the right way for me to meet people since I was going solo would be to book Airbnb experiences in each of the places I was planning on visiting. My itinerary included starting in Barcelona, working my way south to the Agave in Portugal and finishing off in Lisbon.
I considered buses and trains as my mode of travel but finally ended up renting a car. The drop off fee, although hefty, was worth it to me in convenience and peace of mind. Plus, the thought of travelling the open road free and on no one else’s timetable but mine, was very appealing. And reminiscent of my days as an importer of jewellery, travelling for months on end from town to town.
This series of articles chronicles my trip with Airbnb stays and adventures, hopefully, some insights into what worked, for me at least and what didn’t. It was an excellent time to reflect on my life- long hours of driving often does that for me – while at the same time wishing that my husband could have been there to experience it, too. So, in many ways, you could say it was a bittersweet trip of what was and what might have been. Either way, I’m glad I did it.
After considering many options, I chose to stay at an apartment located fairly central to everything, including the airport. The advertisement read as follows:
Double room in our cosy, eco-friendly apartment. Enjoy the Eixample, a laid-back residential neighbourhood, right in the city centre, a stones through from all the main attractions of Barcelona. We are on the first floor but, although there’s a lift, there’s a few stairs to climb.
The room has a double bed (1’35 cm x 2m) best suited to one or two people—a clean basic room with a rack that you can use for your clothes. No lock on the door but, there is a latch on the inside. Bedsheets, duvet and towels provided.
This is our home. Enjoy it and come and go as you please. Feel free to use the kitchen to prepare coffee/tea and light meals, but please remember to clean after yourselves. Please, if any needs or enquiries, ask!
Although I had mentioned I was planning to arrive before noon, I missed Anya, my host, by less than 15 minutes. When I called her, she informed me that I would have to wait an additional 3 hours before returning to let me in. Disappointed I nevertheless took the opportunity to find a store where I could purchase a phone chip for Spain and a café in which to wait. Thankfully Anya called a short two hours later and told me she was able to return earlier. The directions were confusing; even the Uber driver didn’t know where it was, but Ana found the café I was in and helped me with my bags to the apartment. It was just as advertised- simple, basic, but clean. Price per night was less than $55 Cdn, which I felt was well priced. And Anya was an excellent host, with a great sense of humour, who unfortunately did not have a lot of time to visit with me due to work commitments – she worked for Apple, and they were launching a new product that week. One downside: Not mentioned was the noisy street construction that made afternoon siestas near impossible. Parking was difficult and expensive, so I opted to pick up my car at the airport after my stay instead of negotiating the city, a decision that turned out to be a good idea given the traffic, one-way streets and no GPS. (More on that later). But other than those two relatively small things, I would book again if needed.
After a short rest on a small but quite comfortable double bed, and a quick shower, I was ready for my first Airbnb experience that evening.
Top Paella, Sangria and Catalan Cream
Knowing that I would have to eat dinner at some point and stay awake until at least 9:00 pm to avoid jetlag, I chose a cooking class of one of the most famous dishes in Spain- paella. The ad for the course read as follows and cost $76 per person.
ANGELES & CARMEN We are two happy sisters & very good friends. Both made a big change in our professional careers looking for something more exciting. ❀ Carmen ❝I am very foodie & passionate cook. I love teaching my guests how to make a very authentic and delicious Paella❞ ❀ Angels ❝I am a Professional Chef, with lot of background, working for a Michelin star restaurant and some celebrities in London❞ We decided to join our energies and started a project in common, our dreamed kitchen, where we love meeting new people and sharing our culture and passion for cooking. IMPORTANT: Please note that, we have 2 different turns, so if you book a class you will be either with Carmen or with Angeles, but not with the two of us at the same time. Looking forward to meet you!
It sounded charming – I have never taken a cooking class before anywhere, but this seemed like the right place to start. (Note: 99% of the booked experiences were done at least 2-4 weeks before my trip abroad, while the others in the country itself).
I found my way to the cooking school and since I was a little early, took the time to stroll through the beautiful courtyard, surrounded by restaurants and fountains and some of the narrow side streets that teemed with people. It was a people watching paradise, and soon I was snapping photos of everything and anyone that crossed my path. Then, promptly at 7:30, I presented myself to Angles, our host for the evening.
In all, there were about 12 of us from all parts of the USA and China and other parts of Spain. I was the only Canadian.
Angeles was a wonderfully passionate woman who imparted sheer joy and enthusiasm as she lectured us about intricacies of Spain’s most famous dish. We learned the history of paella, the types depending on where you lived, and as well got to sample delicious and numerous glasses of sangria. It didn’t take too long for the group to relax with each other as we cooked. As a bonus, we took turns to stir, mix, and chop the ingredients needed, before sitting down to enjoy the food (and the sangria), together. The class was well worth the money, although my only regret was that Angles did not send us the recipe the next day as promised. Still, this is an experience I would endorse fully, in every way.
I give it a 5 out of 5 ratings.
Day 2 seemed like a good day for some exercise. I chose the following Barcelona and Gaudi on E-Bike tour to get me moving. The ad read:
Your route starts and finishes at the meeting point: Woobikes experiences & rental, where you can have a coffee and croissant (included) to get some energy for the ride. After that, you get on your e-Bike and start the adventure into the world of Barcelona and Gaudí! Discover worldwide known places like Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas; you will also meet other landmarks of Barcelona like Ciudadella park or Arc de Triomf as we travel between the different works of one of the greatest architects ever known! We also include a video of your experience using a GoPro action camera, and it will be sent later as it is a big file and requires time to upload.
I woke early and refreshed, lucky to never experience jetlag, and headed to Woobikes. Once again, directions seemed to be an issue for my driver, but luckily now that I had a Spanish phone chip, I could call my host, a young man named Gianpiero and walk the few blocks to his shop. As luck would have it, I was the only one on tour. Never having ridden an e-bike before, I was concerned that I would crash into someone, but now that at least was alleviated.
I can honestly say that this was one of my favourite tours, (although as it turned out, all of them throughout my trip were pretty great). But Gianpiero had excellent knowledge and information about Barcelona and its historical sites, as well as a passionate interest in the famous architect Gaudi, whose many influences and structures dotted the route we took. Since architecture is a subject I am keenly interested in, the tour was incredibly fascinating.
Initially, I worried that the tour might be too long for me, but I soon saw Barcelona has the most extensive bike path system I had ever seen, on mostly flat terrain. That, combined with the fact that e-bikes are fantastic, I found the 3 hours flew by. I give this tour a 5 out of 5, as well as Gianpiero, my guide. And at $52 CDN, I thought it was a bargain. Plus, I received the Go-Pro recording as promised a few days later.
Day 3 required a little downtime, but I still wanted to sightsee. I have found a great way to do this in any foreign city I have ever visited, is a hop on, hop off bus tour. It has always been one of my most favourite way to explore. – time-saving feet and catching some rays in the sun on a double-decker cannot be overrated. In addition to the historical places I visited the day before, I was able to take a cable car ride to the top of Barcelona’s scenic Montjuic neighbourhood and a beautiful panoramic view of the city. On the way down, I was able to photograph the picturesque marina and yacht club. At about $35 for 24 hours, I think a sightseeing tour bus is a reasonable price for a day trip.
For the evening I booked a dance class that I was looking forward to, advertised as Rooftop Tango Lesson & Fun.
– First, relax and enjoy snacks and drinks/breakfast (depending on time) in our wonderful rooftop. Tango is a social and popular dance, it’s important to know each other a bit before the class. Also, you’ll have the chance to chat with locals, getting advices of secrets places of the city. We’ll spend 30-40 minutes here – A very dynamic lesson of Tango Argentino with professional dancers, no need any experience, also you can come alone. You’ll be introduced to the essence of Tango. As you may see the reviews, a lot of fun guaranteed. This class is a group lesson of 50 minutes approx. Depending on the day could be around 4 and 9 couples.
Once again, I had a tough time finding the place, and after several texts and frustrating calls with Ana Paula, the instructor, I almost gave up and returned home. I also think I felt a little cranky after my afternoon atop the bus, and not in the mood to go hiking through the crowds and narrow streets looking for an elusive door that looked like all others. Finally, however, I found the place – which coincidently turned out to be in the same complex as where the cooking school I had been at two days earlier. My sense of direction could use a little work.
Ana Paula quickly put my crabby self at ease, and we all sat out on her rooftop, sipping a drink and getting to know each other a bit. I was feeling a little shy and nervous. Although I am a belly dancer, Tango looked hard to learn, and I was a bit afraid of making a fool of myself. Once again, I needn’t have worried. In just a short time, Ana Paula had everyone looking reasonably competent, a sure sign of a gifted teacher. And she filmed each of us executing the first five steps, which to anyone would not sound like much, but to us was everything. She even suggested that I have a “sensitive feel” and consider taking lessons in Toronto, a city near where I live in Canada and home to some excellent Tango schools. I glowed all the way home. The class’s price was reasonable and worth $38 CDN and yet another 5 out of 5.
Day 4 – Today, it was time to go to the airport and pick up my rental car from Hertz. The experience was mostly a nightmare, from pick up to trying to figure out the GPS to hitting the 8-lane highway with no idea which way was south and my next destination. As I drove out to the main road, I saw three huge signs with three destination choices. Saying a little prayer, I chose the middle one. After a mile down the road, I spotted a gas station, of which there are many in Spain and Portugal, thank God, and pulled in behind a row of taxis.
The first taxi driver I approached wanted nothing to do with me, but the second was more than willing to help. Whether it was because I had burst into tears or that I looked so totally lost, I will never know, but I will be forever grateful for his kindness. The first thing he tried to do was get my GPS to work. When that failed, he asked me for my phone. On learning that I had a Spanish chip, he programmed my destination into google maps, and with an assurance that I had picked the right road, he pointed me in the direction I needed to go. Within 5 minutes, I found myself on track to my next city and adventure- Valencia!
Liveability rating: As the first stop of my journey, I looked critically at Barcelona as a place to retire one day. The city was easy to get around in, very walkable, lots of green space, and beautiful sights to see no matter where you looked. Research told me that you could easily enjoy both city, mountains and beach and never be bored for lack things to do. I met a group of ex-pats at a little cafe one day, and they told me there was a large community of people from other parts of the world, who were retired or worked remotely, both categories I could easily fit. They did say that rents were high and climbing, due in part to the place’s popularity, as taxes if you opened your own business. But as of writing, they told me that someone could live, comfortably at 1000 euros a month.
I’ve decided although I would visit again on vacation when I return to this part of the world, I am looking for something a little smaller and less busy. Unless I found a place in a very quiet out of the way neighbourhood, and at much less rent, it would be better for me to carry on my search.
To Be continued