The Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Third Trimester

I stood in front of the mirror, belly bowing out like a gorilla’s, totally naked. I had a cotton pad in one hand and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the other.

Was it really necessary to prepare my nipples for breastfeeding this way? I shuddered and consulted Google. No, no it is not.

As my belly swelled, so did the unwanted advice. “Why don’t you schedule a C-Section?” “Oooh, seven kilos? You should be seeing a dietician.” “Working out is bad for you when you’re pregnant.” “Put rubbing alcohol on your nipples, lest they get bloody and gross when you nurse.”

And to boot, I kicked off my last stretch of pregnancy seeing a movie about a mother who dies of cancer when her son is 12 years old. SERIOUSLY. I was not prepared for that one.

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Summer abruptly left, turning Madrid into a damp, lonely, grey city. My belly was blossoming, rendering most of my winter clothes useless – including all of my winter jackets. I had a problem with maternity clothes, refusing to buy anything until week 32, save a winter wedding dress.

Just a word to the wise mamá: pregnancy tights are a gift from God. Add that to the list of tonterías that I let slide during my pregnancy – do not fear maternity clothes, ladies!

Once I’d passed 28 weeks and was officially into third trimester, my pregnancy changed. I became a little more stalwart about getting out and doing all the things “you can’t do when you have a little one,” about researching baby gear, about drafting my birth plan.

This is when the clash of cultures became apparent, more so than not wanting to know the baby’s gender until week 20. Other expectant mothers were appalled to hear that I was heavily considering an unmedicated birth, or that I didn’t want to shower my child with a million fancy outfits porque sí. I had to remind people that I did not have an illness – just a little extra mass – when they treated me too delicately or reemed me for shoving one more mini croissant into my piehole on a work outing.

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So, third trimester. In which I discovered how much amazing maternity tights are, in which I cried quite a bit, and in which I did my best to ignore everyone’s advice but my doctors’.

Vocabulary

You think you know it all, but you have no idea. Even with a stack of pregnancy books and interrogations to mommy friends, I found out that I was clueless about the baby vocabulary that mattered closer to the due date.

cesárea: Cesarean section, or C-section. Not the most beautiful word to start with, but an important word. The rate of C-section births is scary high in Spain (a reported 25% in 2015!!) and something that concerned me when deciding where to give birth. For this reason, I listened to my doctors and made it clear that I’d prefer not to have one unless it was the only medical option.

clases de preparación del parto: prenatal classes. If you’re in the public or private system, these midwife-led classes will prepare you for the birth and what happens beyond that. In Madrid, there were seven consecutive weeks of classes, which began around week 29 or 30; in Seville, I am told there are five weeks of classes.

contracciones: contractions. This one is easy, and Braxton Hicks are known by the same in Spanish (Brastohn Hiss). What I didn’t know was that I’d have them as early as 32 weeks!

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epidural / parto medicado: epidural / medicated birth. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but medicated births are quite normal in Spain, and I caused a scandal in class by announcing I wanted to go it 100% natural. Women are now beginning to ask for a walking epidural, usually referred to as “el walking.”

lactancia: nursing or breast feeding. While I haven’t tried this on for size yet, the general consensus is that Spain is lacking in lactation experts.

madre primeriza: first-time mother. After asking if it’s a girl or boy, most people will ask if it’s you’re first. The masculine form is padre primerizo (though I’ve found that no one pays much attention to the Novio these days, pobrecito).

monitores: heart rate monitors.  From your eight month, you may be asked to get hooked up to these machines that register both your baby’s heart rate and whether or not you’re having contractions. Eat just before so that your baby will be active and bring a book – I once was hooked up for an hour because the midwife got pulled into a surgery!

paritorio: labor and delivery room. Not ones to overcomplicate terms, this is the brutish word used to describe the room where you do active labor after you’ve fully dilated. Many hospitals in Madrid now have paritorios with more than just the potro (see below) and will allow you to give birth in positions that favor gravity, such as laying on your side or on all fours.

parto: birth. Though this singular moment has so many different names (such as one that literally means to give light), this word actually refers to the moment your baby is born. Pujos is the pushing phase.

plan de parto: birth plan. Midwives these days will push for you to plan your perfect birth, knowing that there’s a chance that you may have to alter it. And many hospitals are opting for a patient-priority birth.

potro: birthing bed. You know how you see women in films with their legs up in stirrups and sweating as they push the baby out? This particular, adjustable bed is known as a potro. Fun fact? It’s also the word for foal and pommel horse or vault (speaking as a former gymnast!).

romper aguas: to have your water break. Little did I know that this is a part of the birthing process when you’re dialating, and not that holy-crap-here-it-comes moment you see in movies.

suelo pélvico: pelvic floor. This is a buzz word these days as doctors now coach women on how to Kegel their way to strong pelvic floors. This is essentially the hammock that holds all of your innards, in.

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

tapón mucoso: mucous plug. A former coworker told me that this was an indicator that you could go into labor at any time. This is the sticky goo that protects the placenta, located high up in the vagina.

Unidad de Cuidados Intensivos (UCI) Neonatal: Neonatal ER. When I quizzed other mommy friends on where to give birth, they told me that it was 100% important to choose a hospital with a neonatal ER just in case. I was delighted that even the small, private hospitals I was considering had them!

But new words are not even the half of it – my friend Susana asked me what of her daughters’ baby items I might want. Makuto? Capazo? Trona? I had to look up all of the baby gear-related terms so that I’d allow her to gift us a diaper bag (makuto is super Andalusian, they’re called pañaleras in most other parts), a carrier and a high chair.

The one word I prefer in Spanish over English? The portabebé, or one of those baby dangler things. Not the Michael Jackson sort, but the harness you wear so that you can carry your child to the market for bread rather than pull out the stroller (and it apparently favors their hip development. The more you know).

Third Trimester Exams and Doctor Visits

I soon found my agenda filled with exams, tests, weigh-ins and prenatal classes – sometimes as many as three per week (and I’m low-risk and healthy). It seemed like I was going to the doctor every other day, between public and private, Madrid and Sevilla.

At my third trimester scan just shy of 32 weeks, the routine was the same: small talk, cold goo on my belly, measuring the femur, and a baby acting like someone had rudely intervened in the little space he had. This exam was quite quick – maybe 10 minutes between pulling down my tights and rubbing the jelly off my growing stomach – but because Micro was within his margins and alive and kicking, there was little to be done. My due date was moved up by two days to January 1st, meaning this baby came to be during a party and may very well be coming into the world on one, too.

Apart from the scan, your doctor will have you do another blood and urine analysis to, again, rule out things like toxoplasmosis, gestational diabetes and any infections as you enter the recta final of your pregnancy. This typically happens from 32 weeks, and, depending on your situation, may continue to happen each week or every other.

I also got a flu shot (vacuna contra la gripe) around 31 weeks, as pregnant women are considered a high-risk group. This will likely be your case if you’re heavily pregnant during the winter months. I hadn’t had a flu shot since I was a child, but it was quick and with my absolute muñeco of a nurse – and he even allowed me to be seen early as a prize for arriving 10 minutes before my scheduled appointment!

Between 28 and 38 weeks, you will have to go for the tosferina, or whooping cough, shot. From 28 weeks, your baby absorbs any medicine you put into your system through the placenta, as it has thinned significantly to adapt to your growing child. For this reason, your whopping cough shot happens so late in your pregnancy. I had to again see my nurse for this shot, which was asked for by my gynecologist; your GP can also write an order to have it done. Be forewarned: I had dead arm for two days due to the dosage, though no other symptoms.

Tosferina is a bacterial infection that can be fatal in recently born babies, so it’s important to buck up and get the shot.

Though it’s falling out of favor, I got the monitores test performed at 37 weeks. My belly was hooked up to a fetal heart rate monitor for about 30 minutes, capturing the heart rate of the baby as he rested and when he was active. This exam was repeated at 39 weeks, at 40 weeks and after I’d been induced.

My doctor also tested me for the Group B Strep virus, streptococo, at 37 weeks by sticking a swab up my rear end – I was NOT counting on that, but this is to determine that you do not have an infection that could be passed on to your baby through the birth canal.

Even though I hoped to have a non-medicated birth, my doctor sent me to get an anti-stress test with the anesthesiologist to determine if I could have an epidural and which dosage I could handle. This consisted of blowing into a plastic tube a few times while hooked up to wires and answering a dozen questions about past surgeries and family health history. My doctor asked for this around 37 weeks, in case I went into labor earlier than 40 weeks (I didn’t).

Finally, I had the weekly prenatal classes plus one last check-up with each doctor and the midwife to get copies of my records to take to Sevilla. From week 30, it was a visit a week… y lo que me caerá!

Pre-labor classes and the Novio as a father-to-be

Getting to 28 weeks was a wake up call. Shit! I could go into labor in a few weeks! Shit! I don’t know where I want to have the baby or what kind of birth I want! Shit! We only have one of those fancy baby carriers and some onesies! The anxiety that had disappeared during the first two-thirds of my pregnany had come back, as did the tears. Any time I thought about giving birth, I got a weepy.

I was anxious to start my clases de preparación del parto, the free prenatal classes provided by my social security coverage. Due to the number of women in my medical center with a similar case of BABIES, I couldn’t begin the classes until I was at 32 weeks, in early November. The Comunidad de Madrid offers seven consecutive sessions that cover everything from how to prepare for labor and donate your stem cells to nursing and caring for your baby in its first days. I dragged the Novio along so that I wouldn’t have to re-explain the stage of labor or why I would randomly start lactating soon.

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

I have to say – he’s been a great sport. Apart from doing the heavy lifting around the house, he has been active in discussions and asking questions about how to best help me prepare, mentally and physically. Whereas most of the dads-to-be in the class are mum (one even passed out when we talked about the perineal massage technique), my matrona says he’s been comic relief for the shell-shocked male crowd.

As the due date gets closer, I’ve noticed that he’s more reflective and even looks at me differently. We talk about the baby non-stop when it’s just the two of us, and my belly is the focal point of every mirada and snuggle. There are more questions about my comfort and how I was feeling with each day – and concern if I call him rather than sending a quick whatsapp.

But that brings me to another point: sex during pregnancy. When you’re trying to get pregnant, it all flies, and I found myself fulfilled and lusted after. Almost immediately after finding out I was pregnant, his libido dropped and I found myself achy. Everything hurt – my boobs and my belly especially – making sex painful and less enjoyable. Some women find their sex drives skyrocketing: my rocket stayed on Earth.

Just as a forewarning.

The nesting period, or el síndrome del nido

I was so excited to find out that many of my friends were pregnant at the same time, especially a sorority sister who was due on the same date. The last time I emailed Fish, I asked her how she was feeling. She and her husband are waiting to find out the gender, and she gushed about setting up a nursery.

Many of these women are in the US and not in Spain, meaning there was a huge disconnect between the milestones and emotions we were all feeling. Things that are typical in America – a baby shower, planning and decorating a nursery and counting on the help and experience of friends and family – were foreign to me, and most of the mommy advice I got was from women whose daughters were of childbearing age, as well (exhibit A: the hydrogen peroxide nipple treatment).

De hecho, I was pregnancy outed to my aunts at my sister’s wedding when my mom’s best friend asked, “After the lovely bridal shower we threw Catherine, how will we give her a baby shower from Spain?!” I was initially iffy about having a baby shower, especially considering that most of my closest friends are down in Seville and we only have so much space in our rental apartment. But the girls down south pulled through and threw Micro and me a lovely baby shower at my home in Triana.

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When H came to visit in early November, she was shocked at how much baby clothing I had accumulated from other mommies looking to clean out their collections. And this was, of course, in addition to the lists I’d been emailed about necessities for Baby’s first six months. So she listened when I said that I didn’t want to make a registry full of chismes that I’d likely not use: instead, they pooled together to get us a car seat and high chair.

Because I stayed in Madrid until week 37, I didn’t have a full nesting period (unless, of course, you count the hours I spent in bed just resting and my nights in with take out and Law and Order: SVU, or the maniacal cleaning I did a week before leaving La Capi). What the Novio and I thought would be a child’s room in our house in Sevilla will be a room we rent on AirBnB, so I didn’t have to worry about decorating a nursery and placing Micro’s teeny socks and gifted onesies in a drawer. My nesting, once I arrived to Sevilla, became deep cleaning the cabinets, meal prep and moving our personal items to a locked closet – and, admittedly, ironing all of Micro’s sheets before tucking them into a crib. I LOATHE ironing.

And then there was the question of doing maternity photos versus newborn photos or just leaving it. I’ve been fascinated by how my body has changed and adapted, and I wanted to remember it. You know that motherhood glow before the baby is born and the eye bags start? I took full advantage and asked my acquaintance Katriina, a Finnish photographer who normally does professional head shots for her company, Anna Primavera, to do the honors. We got a beautiful autumn morning in Casa del Campo while I was still feeling fit and feminine.

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Maternity Photos by Anna Primavera

I have been making lists and checking them twice as Micro’s due date looms. This is mostly stocking up on baby necessities, and there’s far more to it than I ever imagined. My mother-in-law is perhaps the most prepared; apart from having raised three children over the span of two decades, she’s knit adorable sweaters, bought us a ton of gear and helped calmed my nerves as she patiently spells out all of the items we’ll need. My problem is the lack of vocabulary. How do you say nappy cream? And up to how many kilos or centimeters are these diapers good for? Apart from Dodot and Chicco, what are other baby-friendly brands?

I am the proverbial fish out of water; in fact, you’d probably see my fish culo in a frying pan in Castilla by now.

Tying up the loose ends: Matenity leave, reading materials and choosing a hospital

Call it being a recovering journalist, but as the nerves set in, so did the need to spend time reading and researching. I began first with hospitals in Madrid in case Micro decided to show up before December 10th, the date that my 10 days of vacation began. Truthfully, my employer and my immediate boss was supportive of my decision to disclose my pregnancy before signing a contract.

For general pregnancy, I read the Healthy Pregnancy Book by Dr. William and Mrs. Sears, a midwife and OB-GYN couple who have nine children of their own. The book is written from the perspective of seasoned grandparents, and it breaks down your pregnancy by month, including post-delivery care for both mom and baby. I sometimes rolled my eyes at the little quips added by the unborn child such as, “Mama! Please rest up for the symphony of birth!” but found the book non-invasive and calming.

The book came suggested as a bundle with The Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn, by a whole slew of doctors. While it was helpful, over half the book was about things that could go wrong in delivery. I appreciated the science-y aspect of it, but didn’t like flipping through to find a whole lot of bad things.

Finally, a friend recommended a Spanish language book on breastfeeding called Un Regalo Para Toda la Vida by Carlos González. Despite the challenge of reading in Spanish about something medical (who knew the boob had so many parts?!), the book gave me a lot of insight about the natural process of breastfeeding. Everything I’d ever heard from other moms is that most hospitals lack nurses specialized in breast-feeding, and the number of women who go straight to bottle feeding is quite high in Spain. This book has been, so far, the clearest and also a big cheerleader.

I also relied on an English-language prenatal class video to complement my classes in Spanish.

Even though women have been getting pregnant, giving birth and raising children for millennia, doing my own research was paramount, and it helped me to feel more prepared and empowered. Chances are I will forget everything once I’ve arrived to the sala de dilatación, of course.

Next on the list to sort out was my maternity leave. I spoke with the HR director at my new job once I’d passed my probationary period, and she explained the process of registering the birth and taking off my 16 weeks of paid leave. I had nine vacation days to use up, plus two weeks of university holiday, so I was able to travel back to Seville to rest and nest when the baby was just reaching full term. More about fourth trimester – social security payments, new mom benefits and the libro de familia in my forthcoming fourth trimester post.

It won’t come as a surprise when I say that we’ve decided to have the baby in Seville. The benefits for me were enormous: my own space and comfort, having family nearby and a car just in case. I narrowed down my list of hospitals to one public and two private and asked my mother-in-law to join me in seeing each one.

In the end, the private hospital right down the road from my house won out. Part of it had to do with the pristine facilities and the care and attention I received from the staff, but part of it was also because of culture clash. My parents and sister will be joining us for Christmas, and I didn’t think they’d cope well with me sharing a room in the public hospital or having different doctors carouseling in and out while I dilate with every other woman in Sevilla.

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And, por mis narices, Enrique will be born trianero.

The Pesky Thing About New Mom Advice

I asked the girl in the monitores with me how far along she was. “Just about 38 weeks,” she said as he partner took a picture of her. She looked uncomfortable as she was being hooked up to the machines. “You?”

Her due date was four days before mine, but she went on and on about how much having a baby during the holidays was an inconvenience for her and her family, so she’d be getting induced at the end of the week. The matron shook his head and whispered to me, “Christmas and New Year’s happen every single year.

“Becoming a mother does not.”

More than ever, I have been entertaining A LOT of advice. Some of it’s been helpful and welcome – take a new mom in Madrid showing me how to feed before confessing she needed to pay for an expert to help her out – but most of it has been unsolicited, unwanted and sometimes even hurtful.

I am someone who takes things to heart (even negative comments on my blog from strangers), so rather than nagging the Novio with my aches and pains, I’ve been venting about side remarks and the mess of advice that’s cluttering my brain. “But women have been mothers forever,” the Novio says. “You’ll figure it out, and you can always call my mother.”

I really wish I had a good way to deflect the negativity or find a holistic, mindful way to cope. But usually I smile and nod then roll my eyes, then ask my midwife. I am not keeping calm about it all, and I often end up flustered. Fine, touch my belly, Rando Abuela in the Súper, but don’t tell me I haven’t gained enough weight or that my shoes are inappropriate or that I should have waited another month to get pregnant so that I don’t give birth on Reyes.

You and your no-sex-no-excercise-no-spicy-food-sleep-only-boca-abajo-te-lo-digo-yo-que-soy-madre-eh! advice can ir a tomar por you-know-where.

Reflecting on Change, Motherhood and Swelling

I’m finishing this post and setting it to schedule on December 20th, two weeks before my due date. I’d like to unplug, to meditate and to sleep all afternoon, but that’s not me. I’ll be maniacally cleaning and preparing for Micro and savoring the last few days where I am my own boss.

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Maternity photos by Anna Primavera

Part of me is a tad remorseful that this stage of my life is coming to a close. My pregnancy has been a beautiful string of changes, of reshifting my priorities, of milestones – and one that I’ll remember forever. Even when I feel the flicker of jealousy that I can’t have a glass of wine or that I’ll have to turn down a trip, I know I’ll have a far greater reward in the near future.

Being this pregnant and waiting on my baby’s arrival is not like ticking off days until the Feria de Abril, a trip home to Chicago or even the minutes until work’s over. There is no D-Day on a delivery. When I had a bit of bleeding following a pelvic exam at the end of week 36, I said to the Novio, “What if we become parents tomorrow?” even though I didn’t believe it myself.

Despite the, “you must be so excited to meet your little boy!”s and the, “Pff, pregnancy has to be tough,”s, I often find my hand on my belly as he kicks and squirms and feel pangs of sadness that he won’t soon be with me at all times, wedged up between my ribcage and my pelvis. He’s safe inside, and I’m content knowing my body is helping him grow and develop. I’m misty eyed as I write this, knowing that it’s nearly at an end.

And this goes beyond the sleep I’ll loose or the sore nipples or the fact that I’ll likely be signing off from Sunshine and Siestas for a while: I know this is the beginning of the end with Enrique. From his first breath, he’s one day closer to not needing me in the same way anymore. Yes, there’s time, and yes, children always find a way to need their mother, but time is so, so fleeting.

Am I prepared for all of this? Yes and no. Am I excited? Like never before. When all of those women became mothers and said they had never felt unconditional love – I get it. This amazing thing we’ve done carries a great responsibility and an even greater reward. I can’t wait to see Enrique begin walking (or, if he’s anything like me, running), find things he’s passionate about, fall in love, travel for the first time. There’s no telling what he can do, but I want to be with him every single step.

Vente, Microcín – we are so very excited to meet you.

Read my pregnancy story through first trimester and second trimester by clicking on the photos below.  

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The Guiri Guide to Pregnancy in Spain

Ten quick tips to saving money in Spain without even trying

As soon as I’d bought a house, my friends began making plans to travel to Spain. How could you beat a personal, bilingual tour guide who had crisscrossed the Iberian peninsula, a free place to stay and one of Europe’s best budget destinations?

You can’t: I pride myself on being a great tour guide, especially to Seville.

The Bridge in Ronda

Every so often, I get an influx of emails about how to travel Spain on a shoestring, or how to make euros stretch further, or even hidden gems that won’t break the bank. Long passed are my days of cheap hostels (looking at you, Santiago de Compostela) and overnight bus rides for the sake of saving 15 euros. Even keeping in mind a few quick tips can save you loads.

Saving on food

The mere fact that the Spanish mealtime is slightly later than a US or UK, with a heavy lunch eaten any time between 1.00 and 4.00 pm, means saving money on evening meals. Dinner tends to be lighter fare, in that sense, and it’s easy to grab a tapa than actually sit down to a meal.

If you happen to be visiting the south, they’re particularly generous with the tapas (well, in most places outside of Sevilla – though you can find free munchies if you look). These little dishes are cheaper to begin with, and if you order a beer or drink you’ll get a sizable plate of food with each one. Even when the Novio and I head out for a few beers before dinner, I find that I snack on enough free aperitivos – typically canned seafood, potato chips or banderillas at our favorite bar – to skip dinner and head straight to a yoghurt or piece of fruit.

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Look for a menú del día if you’re out exploring. These three-course, choose-your-own meals were pioneered when Spain experienced a touristic boom in the 1970’s and resorts fed their works as part of their salaries. Nowadays, you can get a full meal and dessert (plus bread and a drink!) for a reasonable price of 7-12€.

And there’s nothing that beats a crunchy bocadillo. This sandwich as long as your forearm will only cost you a few euros and is perhaps the most Spanish lunch ever. They’re also great for long bus or train rides.

Saving on monuments and touristic sites

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Culture is a serious thing in Spain, and large concessions are made to offer it to the masses. Street festivals abound, there’s often live music in bars and plazas, and there is no shortage of cultural offerings by way of casa-palacios, museums or monuments, no matter where you travel.

If you’re under 31 and residing in Europe, you can grab a carnet joven or European Youth Card for under 10€ , allowing you savings on more than just museums – included is transportation, hostels and even courses.

In a country chock-full of museums, there is often free entry to many – including some of the most famous. Take Madrid, for instance: Entry to the Prado is free between 6.00 pm and 8.00 pm Mondays to Saturdays; on Mondays, and Wednesdays to Saturdays, admission into the Reina Sofía is free between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm, and on Sundays from 1.30 pm to 7.00 pm. The Sorolla is free on Saturday mornings.

In Alicante, you can enjoy free entry to the Museum of the City of Alicante, housed in a 17th century baroque house and home to more than 800 pieces to art. And in Seville, each museum has a free day, often Tuesdays. It’s worth stopping by the tourism office to find out or ask about discount tickets.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

Parks and seafronts are a stellar way to see open air art and Spanish culture, and definitely merit a stroll. Madrid’s most well-known park is the Buen Retiro. It costs nothing to stroll around the park’s elegant gardens, where you’ll see patrons rowing on the Retiro Park lake, a favored activity in the park, and are also likely to see a musician or two strumming away on a guitar, providing some free entertainment. You’ve also got traces of the 1929 Iberoamerican Expo in Seville’s María Luisa park, crowned by the Plaza de España, and Santiago’s Alameda park is a lush green lung amongst the sandstone buildings.

And don’t skimp on a free walking tour just because you’re that off-the-beaten-track kind of traveler. I often take a free tour to get some cultural and historical context and a lay of the land, spending only a tip for a guide. I’m usually available for the price of a menú del día, by the way.

Saving on transportation

One of the biggest benefits of Spain travel is how easy it can be to get from punto a punto: Spain’s public transportation infrastructure works, is relatively on time and is not expensive. Given that I now travel for work, I’ve been shocked at how much a high-speed, less comfortable train costs between Paris and Brussels, and how a short taxi ride in Switzerland can break my budget (bonjour, sandwiches for a week!).

Buses are without a doubt the cheapest way to travel between cities, but you can also try the popular rideshare, Bla Bla Car. You can search routes and find a driver that suits your timetable, and you pay a fraction of the cost. I’ve hitched rides to Valladolid or Madrid and have also driven in my own car.

Touristic Train Minas de Riotinto

If you choose to go by Spain’s phenomenal train system, book round-trip where possible, as this can save you 30%, and purchasing at least 60 days before means cheaper fare. You can also book a four-person table on the high-speed trains or find a group looking for extra travelers and save hugely. Search Tarifa Mesa AVE on Facebook or Movelia for secondhand tickets.

Within a city, walking is definitely the best (and cheapest!) way to get around in most cases, but check out 10-ride passes or unlimited travel cards for 1, 3 or 5 days – the local tourism office can help orient you on your options and how to purchase tickets or passes.

When my parents last came to visit, my sister remarked that it was their cheapest Eurotrip ever. Apart from having my house, my kitchen and my car at their disposition, we took saving seriously but also kept these simple trips in mind and planned our excursions to Mérida and Lisbon around them. Saving money on travel in Spain is intrinsic when you follow a few tips – save those euros for a great meal or show instead!

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Have you had any great travel discounts while in Spain? This list is in no way exhaustive, so please share below!

God Bless America?: Reflections on my Third Elections Abroad

The world is having a serious identity crisis.

To say that 2016 has been a weird year is to echo the sentiments of…just about everyone. And it goes far beyond the celebrity deaths, the Cubs winning the World Series and me getting pregnant.

You know that phrase, when pigs fly? As much as I’d love for patas de jamón to be raining from the heavens, there has been more bad juju this years than in the last decade. Race riots, gun violence and the refugee crisis have reached a fever pitch. Everyone is offended by everything. Spain finally voted in a government.

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And to me, the 2016 Election cycle signals the end of the democratic process as I’d been brought up to believe in. Thinking back to Mrs. Entwistle’s seventh grade social studies class – one in which we recited state capitals and the presidents from Washington to Clinton – seems like it was a century ago, not two decades.

And think about it: 100 years ago, American women still couldn’t vote.

There are decries of the electoral college, of unbiased reporting. And sitting in my living room in the northern part of Madrid, listening to Disney music as a coping mechanism since I can’t have a beer or two for my nerves, I’m still shellshocked by the last few weeks and months.

I voted from abroad. I donated to campaign issues that were important to me. I faxed in ballots for people, taking away from my workload because, hell, these kids were excited to vote for the very first time. Did we sit on our hands? Push a broken system? Stick our fingers in our ears when two people screeched at each other on television?

What in the actual hell happened? More importantly, what does it mean going forward?

A voting history of a Democrat abroad

I voted for the first time in 2004, even registering in a swing state because my home state is always – for better or worse – left-leaning. John Kerry passed by my campus for a speech, bringing along Iowa Golden Boy Ashton Kutcher and actor Ron Livingston to stump for him. I got caught up in election fever, not even bothering to read into the platforms of those up for reelection in the state in which I’d decided to attend college. I even went as far as registering as a Democrat, much to the dismay of my crimson-hearted parents.

Kerry lost by half of a percentage point and, with it, his seven electoral votes, but I proudly donned my I VOTED sticker that chilly November morning. AND I made it to class on time.

In 2008, I was the English teacher who had brought a map of the US with me, fished out of the Target $1 bins. That Tuesday afternoon, I diligently filled in the number of electoral votes each state had to throw at a candidate and put together a collection of markers, crayons and colored pencils so that my other expat friends could color in the states as election boards turned in official results. There were close to 50 of us packed into the top bar at the Merchant until nearly 5am.

2008 Elections

We celebrated over nachos and Budweiser beers until I had the pleasure of coloring my state blue with a Crayola marker that was nearly dry. The next morning, I received hugs from my coworkers as if I myself were Barack Obama. It was memorable, to say the least (and I still made it to class on time).

It was then when I heard the phrase that would resonate with me eight years later, “Cuando Estados Unidos estornuda, todo el mundo se resfria.” When America sneezes, the whole world catch a cold. I felt the optimism and a new era hurtling in from across the Atlantic.

Four years later, in 2012, a head cold and working evenings had me sidelined for election party antics, but I woke up at 6am to news of an Obama reelection. Between my Master’s and a new job, I had hastily shot off a vote without looking deeply into the issues, letting political party lines determine my vote. It didn’t feel as great as 2008, but I felt that my views had representation in all areas of government. Checks and Balances for the win.

But 2016. 2016 is different.

I’m in my 30s, no longer the 19-year-old swayed by celebrities and the rhetoric. Someone who has her values defined and tested. Someone who will be bringing a child into the world in the aftermath of an election that can only be described as long, ugly and exhausting. And, frankly, someone who would prefer being pregnant for an entire election cycle. All 600 days of it. And grossly pregnant.

Over the summer, the Pew Research Center survey found that about six in 10 of us were “exhausted” by the elections – which technically began with Marco Rubio announcing his candidacy in March 2015. Sheryl Crow petitioned for a shorter cycle. I lived through, in that time, two presidential elections in Spain – a country which only allows campaigning for two weeks leading up to the election.

I fully expected to feel relief on November 8th, relief that the mud racking and slandering and name-calling was over. Instead, I woke up anxious and looked for ways to distract myself at work, refusing to open news alerts and keeping my phone in my bag or face down on my desk, an arm’s reach away.

On being an American abroad

It’s an odd thing being overseas when big things are happening in your country. You feel one-part ambassador to the messed up things that are splattered across foreign news, defending the actions of a country that is far from homogenous. Like you have to right the wrongs, to make explanations for every policy, law and scandal. That one person can represent a greater good and not what Hollywood or Washington or the media portray. That, even though Spaniards are outspoken about their opinions, I could explain the historical and sociological roots of America’s political system and why a representative democracy is, ultimately, about people having the power.

Spanish Cowboy under Old Glory. Scottsdale, AZ.

There’s been so much backlash about colonialism and a 240-year-old piece of parchment that begins with “We The People…” but I fundamentally believe that our Founding Fathers wrote a document flexible enough to weather social change, an increasingly global world and demographics.

I work for an American university in Spain, so I don’t feel alienated in my views or living this experience alone – and this university is international, drawing 65 nations to a campus of 800 students. I was impressed watching students debate in the cafeteria and coming in exasperated that their absentee ballots never arrived and could-you-please-please-fax-this-so-my-vote-gets-counted?!

Speaking about my love of country – even with Spain as a flamboyant lover – was something I enjoyed doing for the first eight years of my expat life. And it’s a country that instilled values like hard work, acceptance and the beauty of diversity in me. It never felt like a chore nor would I have ever categorized my words as hollow. I am critical of the United States despite recognizing the privilege I was born into – not just by possessing a blue passport, but by being educated, white and from a family who supports me.

But this year, yeah. I am at a total loss for words and saddened for so many groups of minorities. The whole world has gone bonkers, and the ripples and cracks are deepening.

The Aftermath: That’s what you get for waking up in Trump’s America

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I will begin by saying that, even though I’m a registered Democrat, I have a lot of Republican values. My parents have never voted Democrat, too young to fully understand Kennedy’s Camelot and those who were taught to prescribe to my grandmother’s words, “My money is my money.” My mother confessed that she was morally struggling over voting for Trump – something I chalked up to her coming around and seeing that party lines can become blurred when you factor in more than experience and policy.

Still, when my absentee ballot arrived, I took the time to research candidates. I voted Democrat for president and Congress, but also filled in a few red bubbles for local and state elections. I felt more confident in my choices this time around and encouraged people to vote despite the age-old excuses of, “my vote doesn’t matter” or “I hate them both.”

When I went to bed just shy of 5am, Spain time, I’d been at an enormous election party since 11pm. It was almost like watching a European football match in a bar – lots of beers, cheering and jeering and floods of blue. Everyone was on my side for once, and I didn’t feel like my team was the underdog. I didn’t get nervous when the early reports put Trump ahead of Hillary and I watched as Florida flipped flopped more than Trump switched parties in the last 12 years.

But at 4am, things were looking grim, so I said goodbye to my friends, refreshed the NYT one more time just in case the world had collapsed and grabbed a taxi. I wanted to do the same as I did for Game 7 of the World Series – use a rain delay (or a few hours of sleep) to reset and let my team get its shit together.

Nearly 12 hours have passed since an Tang-stained bomb got dropped. I had planned to sleep until my body woke up, but at 9am, I bolted upright (oops, don’t tell my midwife) and called for the Novio. His face said it all, despite the fevered whispering that it actually might happen that we exchanged leading up to November 8th.

I passed through the Seven Stages of Grief pretty quickly, and once I’d denounced the actions of my countrymen (I mean, these exit polls are pretty eye-opening), I erased most of this draft and got to writing again.

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This election was more than about breaking the glass ceiling – it was about voting with head and heart for what I believe in. I put aside scandal and morality to look at the cold, hard facts.

It’s tragic that we have to fear for our friends and neighbors, or to fear our neighbors, or post suicide hotline numbers (but kudos to those of you who recognized that this could start an epidemic). It’s tragic that people can’t afford healthcare or that our education level is sliding as college tuition hikes make it impossible for people to have access to degrees. It’s tragic that democracy is crumbling because there is so much more bubbling beneath the surface.

There’s a disconnect between parties and the People, and this is blatantly honest from the eyes of someone who has been abroad for nearly a decade. When I came here, we didn’t think it could get worse than W. He now seems like the harmless village idiot in just a little over his head.

Time will tell what The Donald brings to the table, or if it’s Mike Pence doing all of the heavy lifting. I’m reminding myself between deep nasal breaths that checks and balances exist, as does a party identity. Maybe we can all just hope for a sitting duck? He’ll quack loudly, but probably just swim around in circles, nipping other ducks just to be cheeky. Ducks aren’t violent, right?

But here’s my biggest issue, now that I’ve gotten past the 279 votes my party didn’t win: I am shaking my head and wagging my finger at all of those people who say they’re fleeing to Canada or Europe or staying abroad. Now is not the time to put our tails between our legs and concede because the country is divided, and that fracture is deepening. My hope is that activism takes root, that people do their homework when it comes to issues and policies, that you write to the people you have representing you in Washington. There’s a reason we have a representative democracy – you have to show up.

We have four years, but just two until midterm elections and this vicious cycle begins again for 2020. I’m not giving up hope or prosperity because I believe in the country I call home and the values I hope to teach my child.

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My son is scheduled to come into this world on January 1st, 2017. I’m crossing my fingers that he doesn’t make his debut in 2016, a year marred by head scratching moments and an outwardly struggle to figure out who we are and what we stand for.

I know he will come to me one day and ask, “Mommy, who was president when I was born?”

I want to confidently say that he was born while Obama was in the Oval, when people could love who they wanted, be who they wanted and say what they wanted. I want to raise him to believe in himself and the good of others, but to also question morality and social wrongs.

I want him to be a good person, plain and simple. To use the right words instead of hateful speech. To not bully or belittle someone, but instead offer an ear or a hand or a hug.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but I want to believe people are good but sometimes just stubborn, misinformed and insist upon holding grudges. I want to believe that we, as a people, will hold one another accountable to pick up the pieces and trudge on forward, hand in hand. I want to believe that this is the beginning of positive change.

If you’re wondering how to help the environment, minorities or women, check out the Jezebel list of places and organizations to donate.
US Elections Abroad

I have to say, this post has been drafted, deleted and rewritten countless times since November 1st. Then I did it all over again on November 9th. It was a blessing and a curse to have the day after the US Elections off of work, and I’m still processing what happened – both in the last 600 days and the last 240 years to get here. I don’t get political on my blog, but I will say that I have yet to defriend anyone for voting differently. Second Amendment be damned – information and activism are the only weapons we need.

If you’re going to comment, be my guest. Call it being polite or just realizing that there is enough room in the world for everyone’s views. I will not allow attacks on others who join the conversation. Keep it nice and respectful, please.

A Tale of Two Sunday Markets: Madrid’s Rastro and Mercado de los Motores

Madrileños take Sunday Funday to a whole new level.

madrid-sunset-from-the-roof

It seems like no one stays home on a Sunday afternoon, particularly when the weather behaves; one of the most beloved eventos domingueros is market browsing.

I’ve long been a fan of how Madrid’s most castizo markets provide the freshest, cheapest produce, and the modern food halls are an easy way to introduce guests – who often eat with their eyes first – to madrileño cuisine.

On any given Sunday the city pulses: morning flea markets are the start to a day plan that will end in a long lunch, countless cañas and some indie rock band in some rincón of the center of town.

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Madrid, me matas. But mostly because I’m not cool enough for you.

In trying to get to know the city before the baby comes, I’ve drug myself out of bed the last few Sundays for some browsing, starting with the granddaddy of them all, El Rastro. Starting in Plaza del Cascorro and permeating the side streets in La Latina, the flea market operates every Sunday and local holidays from about 9am to 3pm. Believed to have begun 500 years ago when Calle Ribera de Curtidores was home to the city’s tanneries, the mercadillo bustles with everything from antiques to birds, clothing to flamenco dresses. It’s a bigger, more curious version of Seville’s El Jueves market.

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I took my best friend recently, meeting up with a friend who lived in Plaza del Cascorro before the Sunday morning ruckus forced him to move. We weaved in between stalls, looking for souvenirs for her to bring back to her family in Chicago – an apron for her mom, a t-shirt for her dad.

I was far more interested in the treasures to be found on the side streets, from antique glass bottles to old books to vintage Spanish products, like Cola Cao tins or siphones with the plastic crumbling off. We stopped into the pet stores on Calle de San Cayetano and the antique shops tucked into old corrales de vecinos before snaking through the hilly alleyways of La Latina, stopping in the shade of the stalls to browse literally everything and anything. El Rastro has a life of its own come Sunday mornings.

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A trip to the Rastro means that every bar is spilling with people. We bounded from bar to bar, eventually taking turns eating a slice of tortilla and balancing our purchases in one hand with a drink in the other. Try Bar Santurce on Calle Amazonas for a cheap bite – they’re popular for their fried sardines and Padrón peppers – or the immensely popular Txirimuri for pintxos at the bar.

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The following Sunday, I again pulled myself out of bed for the modern Mercado de Motores, housed in the railway museum a stone’s throw from El Rastro. Having grown through word of mouth, Motores is mucho más vintage – jazz bands plays catchy versions of Rihanna songs, a pop-up bakery pedals out treats to market-goers and second hand clothes vendors sidle up to artisans making jewelry from precious gems or bookshelves from salvaged wood.

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I arrived at 11:25am and was shocked to find the place packed with more than just hipster looking to pick up a silk bowtie or new pair of kicks. There were German tourists pushing past groups of teenagers snapping photos next to trains and families sharing a warm cookie.

By far the most interesting part of the market is the building itself, a romantic, wrought-iron and glass nod to train travel in the late 19th Century, which houses eight vintage trains and a number of rotating exhibits. There’s even a coquettish steam train outfitted with a small cafeteria.

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I couldn’t leave empty-handed – whether it was some cool piece for my house or at least a wedge of artisan cheese or a jug of artisan vermouth for the Novio – so I picked up a Blues Brothers movie poster for our room makeover and salvaged letters from an advertisement in Cubby blue that spell ‘Chicago’ from the bonafide flea market outside of the museum installations. Chill out music and the scent of burgers and papas arrugás from a circle of food trucks wafted from the back of the museum.

Thirty minutes later, I met the Novio for a Sunday afternoon aperitivo where he reminded me how careless I can be with money, even at a seemingly free event. But Sundays are for cañas and second hand stuff and meals outdoors! Maybe next weekend we’ll stay in?

El Rastro is held each Sunday and on public holidays from 9am until 3pm,  weather permitting. The closest Metro stops are Embajadores, Lavapiés, La Latina and Puerta de Toledo. Free. Mercado de Motores is held the second weekend of each month from April to October, from 11am until 10pm at the Museo Ferrocarril, Paseo de las Delicias, 61. Closest Metro stop is Delicias. Free, though there’s often a line to get in.

Interested in other Sunday markets in Madrid? The Matadero Cultural Space sometimes runs their Mercado de Diseño, featuring young designers, food trucks and a 2€ entrance fee with drink.

I’m on the lookout for cool things to do before Baby Micro arrives! Any cool ideas? Share, por favor!

 

An Asturias Road Trip: Exploring Spain’s Northern Coast

As soon as we’d pulled off the A-8 and onto the N-632, my brain kicked into gear: I’d been here before. This very same roundabout, where we’d dodged cars as we lost the trail of yellow arrows at daybreak on the second day of the Camino del Santiago del Norte.

Sí, Sí,” I shrieked. “I know this roundabout! Then we had to cross the highway and a beagle followed us to the little beach -”

“Cat, I’m driving. Shut your pico and tell me where I have to turn,” the Novio said, straight faced and without taking his eyes off of the road, whose grade nosed dangerously down the steep N-634 that runs parallel to the northern coast of Spain.

Camino de Santiago in Muros de Nalón yellow arrow

There are two ways to see the very best of Asturias: by foot and by car. The little mountain villages and pristine beaches are out often of the reach of the rickety old FEVE trains and buses, so retracing my steps on the Camino de Santiago del Norte was an absolute treat.

Deciding to spend a long weekend in Asturias was easy – not only is it our favorite part of Spain, but the Novio and I were celebrating our birthdays, our first wedding anniversary and my pregnancy reaching 20 healthy weeks (the gender reveal was a birthday gift to us both!). What wasn’t easy were the logistics: being a long weekend in August, trains were booked or prohibitively expensive, and both of our cars were standing guard outside of our house in Seville.

We’d need a rental car if we expected to do anything.

I will fully confess that I’d never actually booked a car myself! Always in charge of itineraries and lodging, I’d traversed India, planned a trip to Marrakesh and spent six years in Spain without needing to get behind the wheel. I didn’t even know what rental car companies operated in Madrid, let alone in which areas of the city, so I used EasyTerra to score a cheap compact from nearby Nuevos Ministerios. The service compared the nearby agencies, like Sixt or Enterprise, leaving only the lodging and itinerary (also my job on this trip).

Visit Lastres Asturias

My last trip to Asturias, I’d walked from Avilés to Figueras and across the Río Eo into Galicia, the Bay of Biscay always accompanying me to the left. Three years to the day after we’d arrived in Santiago, we picked up an Opel Meriva and began the trip north.

AP-6 to AP-66 to Oviedo

Glancing at the rearview mirror just past 2:30pm, I saw a snake of cars converting the AP-6 highway into a summer traffic jam. After rejoicing in the lack of people in Madrid for the first half of the month, it seems we’d found them all.

It isn’t a #roadtrip in #Spain till you’ve eaten your bocadillo, am I right?! With @easyterra

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

As soon as we’d past the M-50 ring road and the traffic eased up, we stopped for a bocadillo at a roadside bar. All epic road trips in Spain feature a simple sandwich on a dusty road, after all. The Guadarrama mountains melted into the arid plains of Castilla – where I’d studied abroad – before we caught the AP-66 at Benavente.

An hour later, we’d exhausted all radio stations but Radio María, but the music went off, the windows went down and the Picos de Europa rose before us, signaling our passage into Asturias.

A-8 to Faedo

As soon as we’d diverted past the capital of Oviedo and gotten on the A-8, I was flooded with memories of blisters, long walks and conch shells. I began remembering small details of our 200-mile hike, from memorable meals to cat naps in the shade of a picnic table.

We turned off the highway at exit 431, and my eyes grew wide.

Renting a car in Spain

“I’ve been here! I know right where we are!” Guiding the Novio around the roundabout by way of the spraypainted arrows, I was almost delighted to find that the next roundabout was under construction, just as it had been three years earlier. I could feel my calves tighten as the narrow road climbed downwards, past road signs announcing the Camino’s crossing over the highway and remembered our descent towards La Concha de Artedo.

At the bottom of the hill, we entered onto a mountain road that climbed out of a thick forest to hug curves around rolling, green hills dotted with hamlets and dairy cows.

Soon after, my mobile signal was lost. It wouldn’t be back for most of the weekend.

Faedo to Oviñana

La Casona del Faedo said it was in Cudillero, the technicolor fishing village I’d visited on my first afternoon of the Camino. It was an inexpensive, so we booked without realizing that it was in Faedo, a miniscule farming village in the Consejo, or district of Cudillero. But the air was crisp and the farmhouse was quiet, save the far off tinkling of cow bells.

Low phone coverage in Asturias

Ángel showed us to our room in the 130-year-old stone stucture, having recently reopened the family home after more than a decade in Lanzarote. He hailed from Pola do Siero, just like my mother-in-law. The internet signal didn’t reach our room – and neither did the 4G – so we passed time asking him for recommendations for food and sites.

Dusk fell over the valley, and we were back to the winding CU-4 towards the A-8. In Oviñana, we drove narrow roads to Sidrería el Reguerín. There was no place to sit on the patio, so we sidled up to the bar and had a bottle of cider uncorked before I could even ask for a free chair. The culín de sirdina was tart and cut straight through the acidity of the octopus salad set before us.

This is one of those places that has a set menu, but it’s always better to order whatever is written on the chalkboard.

Tabla de Quesos Asturian Cheese Plate

Downing another swig of cider and perking his nostrils, the Novio dove right into Asturian cuisine, ordering an immense cheese platter with quince pastes that disappeared within minutes. I’d have been satisfied, but no sooner had I run my finger along the knife to eat the last few crumbles of cabrales, a dish of fried zucchini stuffed with crab meat came out. The murmur of dinners grew louder as cider glasses were slammed on the wooden bar in rapid-fire fashion.

I took the wheel this time, nervously driving back towards Faedo on the hilly, unlit road.

Faedo to Muros de Nalón

Agustina wiped her hands on her apron as she walked out of the kitchen. “Can I interest you in some of my freshly baked cakes?” We gladly obliged as Ángel poured the Novio a coffee from an aging copper pot and followed it with fresh milk from across the valley. Agustina had been up early making a cinnamon coffee cake and pestiños – a honey soaked, fried pastry.

The Novio inquired about where to get the best smoked sausages and fava beans as Ángel nervously checked his watch. “You should hurry and get to Muros de Nalón. They’ve got a weekly market on Saturdays with just about everything.

A quick gulp of coffee later, and we’d jumped into the rental car and zoomed down the mountain, windows open all the way and the Novio’s hair, normally weighed down with hair gel, gently flapped in the wind.

Quesos Asturianos

Muros had been one of the first towns I passed through on the Camino, upon leaving Avilés and walking in a few circles around Piedras Blancas. We’d rewarded ourselves with a beer before the last ascent into El Pito, where we’d splurged on a nice pensión. The car came to a halt just under one of the blue and yellow tiles marking the path into the center of town and the market.

More than food stalls, we found clothing stands, used books and more people milling about the bars than the small market. While the Novio checked out the long coils of chorizo and morcilla, my nose drew me to the baked goods, where I bought a loaf of bollo preñao: sweet chorizo, strips of fatty pork shoulder and a few boiled eggs baked into warm bread.

Lunch was solved for 5,50€.

The Novio’s stock included six or eight links of both morcilla and chorizo to make fabada, a hearty bean stew. He downed a few culines of cider before we pointed the car down the hill towards Cudillero.

Muros to Cudillero

colorful Cudillero Asturias

Our first night on the Camino included a stop in Cudillero, dubbed as one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. Tucked into a natural bay and protected by rock formations, the sleepy town bubbles over during the high season. And interestingly enough, the town is said to have been founded by Vikings who sought a safe port in its natural breakaways, leading to a local dialect, Pixueto.

In late July, 2013, our legs had been too tired after 26 kilometers to do much else but have a taxi pick us up in El Pito and take us right to the port and its cool, pebble-streaked waters and central cider bars. Three years later, the Novio and I climbed the stairs leading away from the village center to the carefully stacked houses and sidewalks that tumble from the cliffs.

Things to do in Cudillero

Cudillero was just as quaint and colorful as I’d remembered it, though so overrun with tourists that I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Just a simple look over his sunglasses was all the Novio needed to say for us to retreat to somewhere a bit quieter.

Cudillero to Soto de Luiña

“Which way to the Pilgrim’s Inn?” asked the peregrino, eyes, squinting in the hot afternoon sun. His face was streaked with sweat and a bit of dirt, evoking memories of ending up, at 1pm, in much the same state. I pointed up the road, indicating that he make a right just after passing the church, where he’d find a bed for cheap in an old converted hospital.

Camino de Santiago mementos

The Novio put out his cigarette into a conch shell ashtray as we watched a few more scattered pilgrims arrive to the bar we were sitting in front of, dip in for a cold drink and continue on to a nap. The bar was the first in Soto de Luiña – and based on the fact that it had run out of food by 2pm, it was likely the most popular.

We’d walked steadily along the A-632 that morning, dodging cars and cyclists on our way to Ballota and its virgin beaches. The Novio bought a bottle of beer and a bag of chips and instructed me to wiggle into my bathing suit while we drove towards the nearest beach.

Soto de Luiña to Playa del Silencio

I’d often heard that Playa del Silencio was one of Asturias’s best, given that it was inaccessible if you didn’t arrive on your own two feet or in a sailboat. Cradled by a sheet rock cliff and a thick forest, the nearest “village” is several miles away, and there are no chiringuitos or even a lifeguard stand.

Playa del Silencia from above

The car park led us to believe that the place was crawling with beach goers, but most we met on the way were heading back from the beach. The gravel path led down to nearly 350 stone steps that were narrow enough that onlyone person cold pass comfortably through.

My nice leather sandals crunched uneasily over the smooth stones that made up the beach. Even with the 513 meter stretch of beach full of people, there was… silence. Save the breeze whipping past mey ears and the ocean lapping at the rocks, it was eerily silent.

Playa del Silencio

We passed the bollo preñao between us, contemplating the next 20 weeks and what would come after. I treated our weekend as a babymoon of sorts, a few fleeting days when it would just be the two of us, when we could called the baby “Micro” and when my belly just looked like a little bit of bloat. I plucked my straw hat from my bag and rested it gently over my face, succumbing to yet another afternoon snooze – savoring every one of them I’d get before the baby arrives.

Playa del Silencio to Luarca to Puerto de Vega

Washing the salt off of my body, I heard the Novio downstairs speaking with Ángel as his beer glass clinked against the wooden picnic table that we’d come to claim as our own. Not only was it a long weekend, but it was when many villages in Asturias celebrated their local festivals, making for a madhouse in villages that didn’t have the infrastructure for so many cars, tourists and hungry bellies.

fishing villages in Asturias

We decided to try for Luarca anyway, another large fishing town where Hayley and I had spent a night. I remember finding it devoid of much life – it was grey (the water in the bay included) with most of the town shuttered up, despite being called the Pueblo Blanco de la Costa Verde. But in fiestas, it might just prove to be a bit more lively, and local favorite El Barómetro told us they had space at the bar for two.

We drove in circles around the large port and up to the picturesque cemetery looking for parking, but it was futile – we were onto the next village, Puerto de Vega, as soon as we’d determined that even the vados had been taken. Puerto de Vega was decidedly sleepier, but for Casa Paco. We nabbed the last unreserved table in the dining room, a chill chasing us in from the port, where a few white and red fishing boats bobbed up and down with the wake. The octopus was tender, the cachopo – a pork loin wrapped in cheese and ham before being deep fried – as long as my forearm.

Seagull on wood planks

That night in Faedo, I didn’t last five minutes in bed (with covers on!) before I fell asleep to the lull of the diners in the bar below, waking up the following morning to crickets and cowbells as the fresh dew still lingered on blades of grass.

Faedo to Grado

We skipped the pestiños in favor of fresh cheese bought from the neighbor and crushed tomato on bread that Augustina pulled out of the oven with heavy mitts. Unsatisfied with yesterday’s yield of products, the Novio had already spoken to her about the market in Grado. Due to its position in a flat, fertile valley, the consejo is rich in gastronomic tradition, particularly cheeses under the D.O. L’Pitu and beans.

Purple flowers in Asturias

The roads were foggy and damp that morning as the car slid down the valley into Villafria. Ángel gave us instructions as only a born and bred asturiano could do, full of local words I couldn’t grasp, waving hands and landmarks.

We somehow arrived without getting lost (though we had to screenshot the way on our phones due to lack of a mobile signal).

Food stands at the Grado market

Known locally as Grau, the entire town shuts its central streets for the massive weekly market, and shops stay open, closing instead on odd days. We fought our way through crowds and vendors hocking socks, fake watches and clothing to the Plaza General Ponte, where the traditional market has run every Sunday since 1258. I went to check the free samples on cheeses while the Novio proudly announced that the chori-morci he’d bought the day before were fresher.

We tagged team the whastapps, making the rounds to ask which family wanted fabes or fabines for winter stews. A kilo of good quality fava beans in Madrid was nearly twice as expensive at 20€/kilo: prices in Seville could be up to 10€ more! We walked back to the car with arms laden with cheeses, pig shoulder and beans, stopping briefly at a sidrería for a refreshment.

Weekly market of Grado

Our late start meant we’d finished shopping right about lunch time. Agustina had suggested the hearty menu at Casa Pepe el Bueno which, at 17€ per person per menú del día (on a weekend!), was more than we’d paid for a meal all weekend. The low-ceilinged restaurant was as stuffy as it was packed with people. For a starter, we both chose fabada, served in an enormous silver bowl, meaning two plates each.

“Now Micro knows what a true fabada is,” the Novio mused, pushing back his chair as his cider-drenched hake was set down before him.

the Novio in his element

I was able to make room for dessert as I felt the first small rumblings of our child – a quarter Asturian anyway – deep in my belly. That, or a satisfied stomach.

Grado to Playa de Concha de Artedo

The road back from  Grado was far bumpier – I nearly scratched the car on the narrow road behind Pepe el Bueno, stalled twice due to the car’s sensitive gears and was kindly asked to just navigate us back to Faedo. We made it as far as Pravia before losing signal and relying on our instincts to guide us.

An hour later and after risking bottoming out on an old cattle route, I collapsed into bed as clouds rolled over the valley, heavy with rain.

Asturias driving

Slipping on my bathing suit – still a bit damp from my dip the day before – we made one last beach stop at La Concha de Artedo. I’d been but a kilometer from this beach on our second morning of the Camino, and smiled remembering a beagle that followed us from the restaurant at the top of the hill all the way down to the next arrow.

It was chilly but the time I’d found a dry rock to rest my bag, but the Novio was already darting between rocks, looking for baby andarica crabs that had been washed in with the tide. The pools were warm and shallow, hiding the creatures under rocks full of bígaros and clams.

Concha de Artedo beach Asturias

Due to a goof up in our room, Ángel and Agustina had offered to invite us to dinner at the casona, free of charge. Being one of two restaurants in Faedo – the other was a vegan music bar, quite modern for a town whose population hadn’t topped 150 in half a century – she cooked nightly for more than just guests. As dusk fell, the Novio and the propietario shared a few culines of cider and we chowed down creamy croquetas stuffed with local chunks of chorizo and pito al chilindrón, a simple chicken dish in which a whole chicken is cooked and stewed in a vegetable paste.

Mi mujer tiene mucha mano en la cocina,” Ángel would later claim as we thanked them for the phenomenal meal. Indeed, Agustina was a kitchen whiz.

That night, the wind ripped opened our heavy wooden shutters. Lightning pounded the valley, and as I lazily pulled the windows shut and locked them, I couldn’t help but think that there’s no wonder the animal products up here taste better – it rains so much!

Faedo to Lastres

Bueno, hoy es tu día,” the Novio stated, taking a long drag off of his cigarette as Ángel set a glass of fresh juice in front of me. “What’s on the itinerary? It was my 31st birthday, and I wanted to do what any other 31-year-old-woman would want to do: Go to a dinosaur museum.

Chispa the dog

I patted Chispa on the head once more and thanked Ángel and Agustina for their hospitality. Checking the route before we’d be left without internet once more, we rolled down the Meriva’s windows and slipped back down the mountain.

Passing through Colunga before reaching the Museo del Jurásico de Asturias, we gobbled down the rest of our bollo preñao in the parking lot. Being a national holiday, the museum was teeming with kids. I nudged the Novio in the ribs, knowing full well that we’d be skipping the bars for kid-friendly activities in a few short years.

The northern coast of Asturias was once home to a number of sauropods during the Jurassic period, and the Las Griegas beach has uncovered a number of bones and the largest dinosaur footprint to date. Forming part of the Costa de los Dinosaurios, the museum is one of Asturias’s top tourist attractions.

For someone whose favorite college course was based on the prehistoric beasts, I was a bit skeptical due to the number of reproductions (I am a purist, oops), but to have free election over what to do that day, I enjoyed pointing out the different features of dinosaurs and goofing off in the reproductions park.

Panoramic view of Lastres Asturias

Lastres was just around the bend of the AS-257, another quaint village perched on a cliffside. The stone houses reminded me more of the southern coast of France than the northern coast of Spain, with its red roofs and bougainvillea spilling out of window pots.

Though we’d eaten everything on our list – from cheese to fabada to bollo preñao – the Novo hadn’t had vígaros. As a kid vacationing near Lastres, he’d pick the shiny black mollusks off of rocks and dig out the worm with his fingers rather than using a straight pin.

fresh vigaros in Asturias

A waitress spread an old, faded tablecloth at one of the beachside restaurants once we’d descended the stone stairs to the small port. As a summer baby, I was clear about lunch – freshly caught seafood. Time stopped for an hour despite the ancient clock tower ringing every quarter hour. As the restaurant where we sat on stools fishing the vígaros out of their shells filled as the lunchtime hour creeped slowly up, we ordered a plate of razor clams, piping hot with a hint of parsley and lemon, and squid in black rice.

I’d have a birthday pastry at some obscure rest stop a few hours later, the Novio promised.

Lastres to Madrid

clock tower of Lastres Asturias

Tempting fate, we decided to return to Madrid a bit earlier than planned, checking the traffic report on RNE every hour. Once again, we had the Picos behind us in the rearview mirror after an hour, then the Castillian plains before ascending Guadarrama and entering back into the capital.

Perhaps on my next trip to Asturias – Micro in tow – we’ll focus on the oriental part of the region. The Lagos de Covadonga, the tiny mountain villages tucked into crags and providing sweeping views of Bay of Biscay, the artsy cities of Llanes and Ribadasella. Or perhaps he’ll eat cheese at el Reguerín and hunt for crabs with his father at Concha de Artedo.

Colorful Asturias Spain

It’s easy enough to explore Asturias by bus or train, I suppose, but half the fun are the tight turns, the stoping for cows and the sleepy little hamlets where vecinos wave you down to try and sell you their fresh milk or butter. Save walking along the coast, it’s the only way to go.

EasyTerra Car Rental, a Netherlands-based rental agency that compares well-known suppliers in more than 7,000 loctions worldwide, graciously picked up our tab. We paid for gas and navigated tractors trails and tight mountain curves ourselves – so all of the opinions expressed here are my own. That said, their website is user-friendly and their prices are the cheapest we found!

Have you ever driven or walked through Asturias? What places would you recommend?

Three Incredible Experiences to Have on Tenerife

 I’m writing this article from my new flat in the middle of Madrid. It’s stuffy in here and I’m restless (not to mention pale, and suffering a major case of the summer blues). I scroll through the promotions tab of my email and see there are plenty of places in Europe I could be going. Of course, there’s also the option to venture back down towards the South.
Playa Jardin Puerto Cruz Tenerife

I have earned exactly 1.5 vacation days at my new gig, and it all gets me thinking of my 2014 jaunt to Tenerife, which was a real surprise. I expected to see loads of beaches all packed with sunbathers, but we found beaches that had black sand and were empty but for a few locals casting lines into a mirrored bay. We also found pristine coastlines and fresh, inventive food. It was an island holiday that felt decidedly Spanish.

I’ll admit that my friend– an island convert who lives and breathes salt water and blue skies–had planned most of the trip ahead of my time there. Flying into Tenerife Norte and starting in the capital of Santa Cruz, we ringed our way around the northern half of the bowling pin shaped island in three days.

Climb Teide

Towering over Tenerife is the active volcano Teide, which also marks Spain’s highest point. Like the Giralda in Seville, it’s never quite out of view. From the bowels of the island we drove steadily upwards towards its peak, the cities melting into plush forests and finally, a Martian-like landscape as we entered into the Parque Nacional del Teide, which is only 50 minutes from popular resorts in the South of Tenerife like Costa Adeje.

Teide collage

Stretching over 3,700 meters above sea level, Teide is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance not only in the formation of the island, but its flora, fauna, landscapes and its bizarre mythology, which makes it similar to Etna or Vesuvius. The ancient Guanches believed that Teide held up the sky, and from the slender top (if you make it that far with the sulfur smell), you can see across to La Gomera and Gran Canaria. Just remember to dress in layers –  the hike up is hot, but it’s freezing once you reach the peak!

To visit Teide properly, you’ll need to first secure a permit online for free. When you arrive, book a cable car up from the car park (27€), then access the foot trails to the top of the peak.

Eat at a Guachinche

Eating locally produced, tradition-stepped meals for me is usually the highlight of my trips. After we climbed Teide and were sufficiently hungry, we rolled the car down the steep western face of the volcano and into La Orotava and a guachinchie, or family-run vineyard that serves food. It’s a concept as tinerfeño as Teide itself.

This is not the type of restaurant with a large menu, but the more the type of place where you eat whatever they prepare you. The produce comes from the garden out the front, and your table has a faded plastic table cloth. You don’t leave until your stomach is full.

Tenerife Road Trip - Guachinche Eats

Julie asked what was on the menu for the day, as there is not a fixed set of dishes in a guachinche, but she didn’t need to – she just ordered one of each. What we got was a garbazná, long coils of spicy chistorra grilled over an open flame, fresh cheese, a lightly charred steak and eggs with potatoes. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive and nothing from a supermarket. Even the wine we drank was produced on the family’s small vineyard that tumbled down the hill towards the Atlantic.

Explore San Cristobal de la Laguna

Reminiscent of the Canaries’ colonial days, the town of La Laguna also borders one of its modern marvels – Tenerife North Airport. But cradled between Teide’s foothills and the sea, the brightly colored pastel buildings seemed to have broken off from some Caribbean outpost and floated to the western coast of Africa.

Tenerife Road Trip San Cristobal de la Laguna

I can’t say we did much more than stumble along side streets, pick up some fruit in the market on the northern side of town and bathe in the late March sun. There were multiple bottles of Tropical beer split between us, as well as wedge potatoes with spicy, earthy mojo picón sauce.

My next vacation is a month off – and it’s for work, technically – but knowing that the islands or some other destination is just a quick jaunt away has my face turned to the sun before the summer melts away into fall.

Have you ever been to the northern side of Tenerife? What would you recommend doing?
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