Five Places in Spain that Surprised Me

When you’ve criss-crossed Spain as I have – both on four wheels and on foot – you’re bound to see a number of sites, of cities, of open road. While Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada are the cities most synonymous with a ten-day itinerary through Spain, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the, um, surprises in lesser-known cities and towns we’ve hit along the way.

Some have been planned, others were by pure luck or a because of a tummy rumble, or the place where I’d planned to rest my head. If you’re planning a trip to one of Spain’s big cities, there are plenty of other stops to consider not too far away:

Don’t go to SEVILLA: go to Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz)

Sitting smack dab in the sunflower fields between coastal Cádiz and Seville is Jerez de la Frontera, a city renowned for its sherry and purebred Andalusian horses. Their fair is open to the public, their pubs fun and cheap, and the city is a gateway to the pueblos blancos in the region (as well as the beach!). I love Jerez because it’s like Sevilla lite – all of the andalusian salsero without the cost or the snobbery.

read more about Jerez.

Don’t go to OVIEDO: go to Avilés (Asturias)

Choosing a place to start the Camino del Norte last year was easy: we had two weeks, so we counted back 14 stages and ended up in Avilés, the third largest town in Asturias. While we’d heard that the city was smelly, industrial and a little unwelcoming, Hayley and I explored the town on foot the night before starting the big hike and found it a beautiful juxtaposition of traditional and up-and-coming. The food choices were outstanding, the buildings colorful and there were small pocket plazas and green spaces throughout the city center. It’s a quick FEVE ride from Oviedo and worth an afternoon.

Read more about Asturias

Don’t go to CÁCERES: go to Garganta la Olla (Cáceres)

After a disappointing visit to the Yuste monastery in the backwoods of Extremadura, we steered our car down the steep, cherry-blossom covered hills to the hamlet of Garganta la Olla. Rumor had it that it was one of Spain’s most beautiful villages – and it was – but it won me over with its bountiful free tapas, its dilapidated wooden porches and its local legends. It’s a bit out of the way, but a wonderful little place to wander through.

Read more about Extremadura

Don’t go to BARCELONA: go to Girona

I ended up in Girona after booking two flights with a long layover in the RyanAir hub of the same name. I expected to find an airport with something to keep me entertained, but instead saw little more than a snack bar. Plan B: get my poor culo to Girona and walk around to kill time. The city’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the river, and its medieval alleyways and religious statues provide plenty of entertainment. It’s also home to some of Spain’s best dining! I don’t like Barcelona, but Girona is a quick escape away.

Read more about Cataluña

Don’t go to BENIDORM: go to Calpe (Alicante)

I was psyched to be invited on my first blog trip, #Calpemoción. I knew very little about the beach destination, other than that it was just north of Benidorm. From our first glimpse of the Ifach to the fresh seafood to stand-up paddle surfing, it was a beach escape worth repeating. What stood out about Calpe were the people we met, who had worked hard to be sure that tourism – while the city’s lifeblood and its most important sector – didn’t take away its charm.

Read more about Calpe

Spain is most like itself in its small towns and off-beat destinations. There are plenty of other places I’ve really enjoyed – Murcia, Cádiz, Alcalá de Henares – and others that are pure hype. Sure, Madrid has its museums and Barcelona has Gaudí, but getting out of the big cities makes trips more and candid. Thanks to a new house, I’m sticking close to home for my next few trips – Valverde del Camino, hiking in the Sierra Norte and a quick jaunt to Madrid with a visiting friend.

This post was brought to you by Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There – Top Destinations to Go There, and I’m encouraging other bloggers to take part. So let’s hear it, Jessica | Mike | Tiana | Kaley | Courtney!

What’s your favorite city or town in Spain? Why do you love it? Have you been to any of the places listed above?

Tapa Thursdays: A Gastronomic Experience at Restaurant Puerto Blanco in Calpe

The Novio does’t understand my “world.” He doesn’t understand why I’m a smartphone addict, why I take pictures of details, and why I spent my hard-earned cash (hard-earned on a slot machine in Vegas, that is!) on a DSLR, my trusty Camarón.

Then I dragged him along as my plus-one on a blog trip. During our weekend in Calpe as VIPs for #calpemocion, we ate, drank and made merry with 50 other digital media strategists, and the Novio finally understood why I love blogging and sharing my stories and photos with my readers.

During our welcome dinner at Restaurant El Puerto Blanco, one of Calpe’s most famous eateries, he even graciously held the bite-sized tapas we munched on while I shot them. Score.

Welcomed to Puerto Blanco by the team of Calpemoción, we had a champagne cocktail with fruit  skewers while Mario Schumacher, the event organizer and master in experiences, greeted us. The mayor and tourism board of the fishing village-cum-tourist destination was on hand, too, and we had a few beers while they spoke.

The setting was idyllic: at the foot of a squat, albero-colored hotel (private bungalows can be reserved – but the waiting list is nearly a year!), a pristine dining room welcomes guests just right along Calpe’s lesser port, Puerto Blanco. Even though the night was cool for May, we spent out time on the terrace, complete with a pool and lounge chairs.

Mario presented executive chefs and husband and wife, Maria Grazia and Patrick Marguette, who would be serving us a menu full of Calpe’s flavors. We got to mingle and grab the tapas off trays to our heart’s content – I ate until I was completely stuffed, trying to find room for one more braised pork rib or another pinch of brownie.

Warning: this post contains little more than photos of scrumptious food. You have been warned.

If you go: The Puerto Blanco restaurant is located adjacent to the port of the same name in Calpe, a 20-minute drive north of Benidorm. Most tasting menus are 28 – 38€, which include two dishes and a desert. Be sure to call ahead, as the place is usually booked during the busy summer months. Puerto Blanco is closed during the winter months, and closed Monday in the summer. Check their website for more information on opening times and restaurants.

Are you ready to devour your computer? I didn’t even include everything that we ate! Five desserts and I was in my happy place. As for my tapas Thursday absence…I’ve been eating camp food for nearly three weeks. Nothing else needs to be said about that.

Paddle Surfing in Calpe

I don’t know what I was more afraid of – the translucent jellyfish that floated near the surface of the water, or the fact that pictures of me in a bikini were circulating around twitter and instagram. Malditos blogueros.

Patricia was quick to offer up the switch: “No, no. You take my spot in the paddle surfing class. I prefer to stay on dry land, or at least sail.”

I was in Calpe on a blog trip, rubbing away the early morning goosebumps on my legs as I agreed to give her my spot in the sailing class for hers in the stand up paddle class, known locally as SUP. Calpe’s location in the northern region of Alicante is planted right on the water, its enormous Peñón de Ifach splitting the old fisherman’s city into two bays. That morning, I’d be learning how to surf standing up.

My legs already ached thinking about the six-hour ride back to Seville and the inability to stretch out after a vigorous morning workout.

I’d tried surfing before in La Coruña, but the lack of waves meant that as soon as I’d paddled out to the middle of the Riazor and stood up on the board, I’d sink. I was thankful that the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean were calm that day.

Chris from Gravity Cartel Surf Shop met us with a dozen boards. Resembling those used commonly for surf, the SUP boards were wider, sturdier and easier to get on, meant not for speed but for stability. He breezed through an explanation on how to correctly use the oars, how to stabilize a board and how to make turns. His abbreviated monologue was due to the calm waters – we had no need to learn how to battle waves nor how to pick up speed for the hour we’d be on the water.

I watched as Miguel Angel, Carolina and Fabio all paddled out, made it to their knees and then stood up without so much as rocking the boat. I cautiously waded out until the water reached the top of my bikini bottoms. Too cold to stay in the water, I climbed on top of the board, gingerly getting to my feet. The others were all paddling quickly through

The day ended up beautiful, the sun already high in the sky and reflecting off of the sea. The other instructors from Gravity Cartel helped me perfect my skills, talking about the village and how long they’d been there – they were all adopted calpinos, drawn to the villa for its sand and surf. Calpe seemed to be a city that has been able to retain its fishing village charm while meeting the demands of the tourism that fuels the local economy.

As Fabio and I began paddling back onto shore nearly an hour, I asked Laura to take our picture. Once she’d done it, a small wave rippled behind my board, knocking me right into the water as Fabio laughed. Turns out I should have stuck around to listen for how to deal with waves.

Have you ever paddle surfed? Are you as deathly afraid as jellyfish as me?!

Major thanks to both the Calpe Tourism Board and the instructors at Gravity Cartel for the lessons and not laughing too hard when  I fell off my board. My opinions, as always, are all my own.

My Travel Round Up from the First Six Months of 2013

My parents, upon my high school graduation (10 years ago…thank you, Atlantic Ocean, for existing and putting distance between me and my fellow Tigers just this once!) gave me a heartfelt speech about how I was always the child who never learned how to walk. I went from spitting up on myself to running, just like I went from college to globetrotter four years later.

There was no better way to start my year than ringing in 2013 with my familia and cousin Christyn in Puerta del Sol. The first six months of the year have been busy (but the good kind), fruitful and happy. I’ve been able to sneak in some travel, my 30th country and finish a master’s in the process.


After a trip to Barcelona with my parents and taking various day trips around Catalonia, I returned to work absolutely pooped and with zero ganas to move forward. The chilly weather and the extra responsibility of becoming a training Director of Studies was a lot of work, but the great people at Almohalla 51, Myles and David, allowed Hayley and I to come stay with them at their newly-opened boutique hotel in Archidona.

I also looked forward to having the Novio home from his duty abroad. As a late anniversary present, I took him to eat our way through Florence and Bologna. In between bites, we checked out the sites along the Arno, drank copious amounts of espresso and Moretti beer and befriended a Venetian named Peppino. Buona manggia, sí señor!


February was quiet, though Angela and Ryan of Jets Like Taxis joined me on a colorful trip to Cordoba. I chalk it up to being a short month.


As the trimester wound down, I began to get geared up for my Semana Santa trip to Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Hayley, my Spanish media naranja, and I walked the impressive city walls in Dubrovnik while refueling on cevapi, a spiced sausage sandwich and drinking in the views and local beers at Buza Bar (despite its obnoxious advertising).

After a few days in the Pearl of the Adriatic, we took a bus across the border to Montenegro, which was my 30th country. While  the weather wasn’t stellar, we were charmed by Europe’s youngest country. The friendly people, the free wi-fi and the views of our roadtrip around the Bay of Kotor made for a rejuvenating week.


April showers seemed to have brought Feria heat – we sweated right through our flamenco dresses, and I think my right bicep is now twice as large as its twin from all of that fan flicking. I even broke some of my own rules when it came to stalking around the Real!

Just the week before, I had gone up to Madrid (if only I had a euro for every maldito trip I’ve made to la Capital…) to visit my sister-in-law, Nathàlia, and pick up my new car, Pequeño Monty. Nath is Brasilian but did her degree in Alcalá de Henares, city of Miguel de Cervantes fame, so she showed me around her town known for its university and free tapas.


Luckily for this guiri, the usual May weather was nowhere to be found, so we got some respite from the heat. Meg and I drank rebujito at the Feria de Jerez, a lite version of Sevile’s famous fête where you don’t get trampled by horses, and we bounced between a Mexican-themed caseta and a biker bar. Toto, We’re not in Sevilla anymore. The following day, I continued the fiesta in the Novio’s village at their Romeria de San Diego, a booze-soaked picnic in the middle of the dehesa.

A week later, I attended my first blog trip to Calpe, a small fishing village that has capitalized on the tourism boom from nearby Benidorm. Despite the hotels popping up along the beach, Calpe is laid-back yet bursting with energy. We were treated to tons of water-related activities, including paddle surfing and betting on our lunch at the Lonja de Pescado.


During the first weekend of June, I had to make a trip to Madrid for mandatory camp meetings and Camino dealings. I met with Pablo, Fernando and Alex of Caser Expat Insurance, who are helping me make my Camino For the Kids a reality. I even got my feet checked out by the team at Podoactiva, the same people who outfit professional athletes with their shoes.

The Novio and I snuck in a day at the beach, and my mom came to stay for a week in the last sweltering week of June. I was extremely busy with my master’s and preparing for summer camp. Apart from showing her my favorite restaurants and rincones of Seville, we also made it to Jerez to see the horse show, to Doñana for a horse ride through Mazagón, and San Nicolás del Puerto, where she got to meet the Novio’s mother and ride their prized mare, Orgiva.

I am happy to say that I have very few travel plans at the moment for the second half of the year, save slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina with Kelly in August and Oktoberfest with my cousins in late September – I need a break after a year of turning my blog into a business, completing a master’s in a second language and starting a new job. Sunshine? Yes. Siesta? POR FAVOR. 

Don’t forget that I’ll be back at camp in July, and then walking close to 320km to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer patients back home on the Camino de Santiago. Please follow #CaminoFTK on twitter or instagram for more information. Sunshine and Siestas is also accepting guest posts during this time, so please send your stories and photos from Spain!

What were your travel highlights of the first six months of the year?

Betting on Lunch at the Lonja de Pescado of Calpe

YA vienennnnnn! At the sound of the bell, plastic crates of fish and shellfish descended on a thin conveyor belt. Date prrrriiiiiisaaaaa! Hurry! I screeched to the Novio, having already informed Mikel of A Salto de Mata via Instagram that any red mullets were mine for the taking. Our lunch was being auctioned off, and our salmonetes were at stake.

Big mistake: the other auctioneers were smartphone-enabled, whereas my poor Novio was dealing with a broken machine and not-so-nimble fingers.

We were at the Lonja de Pescado of the village of Calpe, witnessing a daily event in this sleepy fishing town-cum-beach destination for Northern Europeans. Sitting in bleachers around a conveyer belt equipped with large screens, we were willing to pay upwards of 100€ for just a kilo of shrimp.

Just the night before, the Novio and I joined 49 other VIP couples – bloggers, digital media strategists and tourism professionals – as we ate morsel afer morsel at the celebrated El Puerto Blanco restaurant in Calpe. This family run eatery on the Costa Blanca runs on tourism and, indeed, el turismo is Calpe’s economic motor. Eight of 10 Calpinos work in the industry, and the privileged location on two pristine bays means that the mar is Calpe’s lifeblood.

No visit to the small village north of over-touristed Benidorm would be complete without paying homage to the ocean and its important role in Calpe’s economy. We began our day by taking a tourist train ride from our hotel, Gran Sol y Mar, to the port nestled just below the Peñón Ifach. The sun glittered off of the water as we were herded into the humble building labeled LONJA DE PESCADO.

This isn’t my first trip to the fish rodeo: for my friend Hayley’s 26th birthday, we had lunch at El Tintero, a seaside restaurant where you shout for your food as the white-and-black-clad waiters bring around whatever they’d caught that morning. In Calpe, the subasta, or auction, begins around 6pm when all of the fishing boats come in. Fish stink permeated my consciousness far too early in the morning, but as soon as the local fisherman began passing out the remotes that were to be used to bet, I could feel my pulse quicken.

 As the daily catch came down the belt, I craned my neck to see what was in the crates. On the screen, the name of the fish, its weight and the number of buckets to be expected, and a camera affixed at the end of the belt gave us a real-time view of the seafood passing underneath it.

I watched in horror as the prices climbed upwards. “Coño!” the Novio shouted, “I think our machine is broken!” The alarm sounded again, and the boss informed us that he was putting a cap on what we could spend for the next round. We were to pass along our remotes to others and watch the process repeat itself.

After we’d had two rounds of betting on everything from octopus to crabs to lenguado, Mundo Marino treated us to a catamaran ride around the Peñón with a glass of champagne and then it was back to dry land for fried seafood and a paella contest. We sampled half a dozen different types of the rice based dish, all cooked by different restaurants around the port and served up with homemade alioli.

…and now the Novio is beginning to understand my world.

If you go: The Lonja de Pescado de Calpe is located at the foot of the Peñón Ifach on the Esplanade. Look for the fishing boats, the long nets and the smell of freshly-caught fish. The building can be visited from 16h to 19:30h, and the subasta happens around 6pm, once all of the boats have returned with their daily catch.

Many thanks to Calpe Tourism Board for their invitation to #Calpemocion, and their generosity when it came to feeding, housing and entertaining us. For more information about my weekend of san, surf and seafood (with my own opinions, claro), check out all of my Calpe-tagged posts.

Seville Snapshots: El Peñón de Ifach

Round the N-332, I caught my first glimpse of the dramatic Peñón de Ifach. In all of the research I’d done on Calpe, the 332-meter high rock face seemed to loom everywhere – and we found that to be true once we’d settled into this sleepy fisherman’s town on the brink of touristic glory. Our hotel room at the Hotel Solymar had sweeping vistas of the bay and of the rock, we sailed around it on a catamaran and tasted paellas and fidueas in its shadow in the afternoon. Its size and sturdiness meant that Sunday’s paddle surf lesson would be on calm waters.

It’s the Giralda of Calpe, its most recognizable symbol.

Ifach, pronounced Ee-fahk, is nowadays a bird and wildlife refuge, a last little hiccup of the Cordillería Betica that stretches across much of Andalucía and Murcia. You can visit the Peñón daily from sun up to sun down, and well-marked trails and climbing are available.

Author’s note: I was a guest of the Calpe Tourism Board on their annual blog trip and digital media conference, #Calpemocion, and will be reporting for The Spain Scoop. All opinions are my own because, ya sabéis, I like to give them.

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