A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

Five of Spain’s Most Bike Friendly Cities

While many visitors to Spain like to see the sites on their own two feet, moverse on two wheels is becoming ever more popular and tourism grows.

From city-wide cycling lanes to innovative and unlimited rental systems like donkey.bike, Spain is following the example of other European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam when it comes to making cities bike friendly, and cycle tours are cropping up as quickly as tapas bars, it seems.

Bike Tour El Arenal Sevilla

Issues such as sustainability, pollution and health have become heavy-hitters that swing in the favor of biking – and that doesn’t even cover the weather or leisure factors. In fact, the sector grew 8,2% in 2o15 and an estimated 10% of Spaniards use a bike daily (source: Asociación de Marcas y Bicicletas de España).

Cities around the country are listening, but you don’t have to be local to take advantage of the ‘pedelea‘:

Barcelona

Even if Ada Colau is all for a touristic ban, you can’t deny that Barcelona is a city rife for cyclistic touring. The local Ajuntament is launching a larger network of bike paths that will take cyclists from one reach of the city to another, scheduled to debut over the course of 2017.

Barcelona bike lane map

source

And in a city as large and (almost) flat as la Ciudad Condal, bicycle hire in Barcelona is the way to go; imagine cruising past the waterfront or down Las Ramblas on a bike!

Seville

When my friends Brian and Matt came to visit me in Seville, the city had just launched its bike-share system, one of the first in Spain. My college buddies spent their days riding from dock to dock, drinking beers in between in the January sunshine.
Bike Tour Sevilla Patio de las Banderas

During the nine years I lived in Seville, my main mode of transportation became bike(s) as I made use of the miles of paved bike lanes that crisscross the city, connecting nearly every neighborhood better than public transportation does. And it made me feel extra European!

What sets Seville apart is that its bike lanes are off the street, meaning that it’s safer for cyclists. And because of the weather, you can bike year-round.

If only Madrid would invest a bit more in their infrastructure so this abuelita can stop yelling, “ESTO NO ES UN CARRIL BICI” on my frigid walk to work.

Valencia

When I went to Valencia for Las Fallas last March, it wasn’t the fireworks and burning effigies – it was how many people were still circulating around the city by bike, despite throngs of tourists and raging street party (look for a post soon – it was a ton of fun and worth the burst ear drums!).

Testing out new wings. How do you like them?

A photo posted by Donkey Republic (@donkey_republic) on

Thanks to a push from the local government to make the Mediterranean city safer for bikes, as well as a coastline and the dried bed of the Turia – now turned into a huge park – Valencia (and its 120 kilometers of bike path) is quickly becoming one of Spain’s best urban areas for cycling.

Málaga

An up-and-coming tourist destination in a country full of red-letter cities, Málaga, its coastal counterparts and the surrounding mountain communities have invested in cyclists. And given the higher number of holiday makers and the city’s strong push for infrastructure, culture and gastronomy, bike-friendly laws will likely grow.

Bike Tour Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

If you rent a bike, you can use the city’s nearly 100 kilometers of bike lanes to take you from just about Pedragalejo past famed Playa de la Malagueta, to the city center and as far west as the Diputación de Málaga.

Zaragoza

One of Spain’s largest cities, the capital of Aragón has been giving ciclistas priority throughout most of its urban center for years – and it’s relatively flat, despite the region’s fame for mountains and outdoor activities.

What’s more, the town hall website has numerous resources for cycling fans, including the best routes for both urban treks (including how long it will take you and any bike shops en route) and for those looking for more of a challenge further afield.

Seville Bike City

As tourism in Spain surges, many other cities – particularly in the Basque Country and in touristic destinations like the Costas – are expanding their infrastructure to promote safe cycling for locals and visitors alike. A word to the wise: remember that, as a vehicle under penal law, you are subject to the same laws as a driver. This means no cycling after knocking back six botellínes or riding through a stoplight when no one is coming. Helmets aren’t required but strongly recommended.

Spain's Most

These days, the only sightseeing I’m doing is to the doctor’s office or pharmacy, but my legs are aching to be back on my cruiser, Feliciano. That is, once I’ve bought a bike seat for Microcín!

Have you ever rented a bike in Spain or done a cycling tour? I’d love to hear about it!

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.

the-guiri-guide-to

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.

little-boy-baby-clothes-on-a-clothesline

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!

andalusian-wedding

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.

annaprimavera-8769

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

Exploring the Wonders of Dalt Vila, Ibiza’s Old Town

There’s more to Ibiza than Pacha, the jet set or kitesurfing.

Dalt Vila, meaning ‘Upper Town’, is a significant fortified acropolis that has retained all of its charm; in fact, it is one of the most picturesque old towns in Spain. The winding, narrow and steep cobbled streets, the vast terraces and the high ramparts all exude wonder, magic and a colorful history. Listed as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO describes Ibiza’s old town as exceptionally well preserved and note the evident historical imprints of the Renaissance, the Catalans, Arabs and Phoenicians. Dalt Vila is a sublime place to visit for lovers of history and culture. Join me as we explore the wonders of this magical town on this popular island.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows

​​Image by juantiagues, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With a history that dates back to the 13th Century stretching through to its gothic refurbishment in the 18th Century, the cathedral of Dalt Vila is a central attraction of the town – one you certainly do not want to miss. Sitting at the top of the acropolis, it offers tremendous panoramic views of Ibiza. The beautiful cathedral also holds several significant pieces of art.

The Puget Museum

This museum is also one for the art lovers and is home to a number of works by Ibizan artists, such as Narcis Puget Vina and his son, Narcis Puget Riquer. The Puget Museum hosts temporary exhibitions, too, so it is always worth having a look in advance at the artwork they will be displaying.

The Necropolis of Puig des Molins

This massive necropolis houses over 3,000 tombs that date back to the Phoenician era and the era of the Punics (Carthaginians). Exhibited in the Monographic Puig des Molins Museum, the magnificence of this archaeological find is only bettered by the tremendous collection housed at the museum – a collection consisting of the Phoenician, Punic and Roman artifacts found in Ibiza. It is here that you will discover the depth of Dalt Vila’s history.

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Es Caná and Santa Eulalia

These two resorts are great places to utilize as a base to explore Dalt Vila. Es Caná is a relatively small resort that is relaxed and friendly but with a lively air thanks to the popular weekly Hippy Market. Santa Eulalia, on the other hand, is a quieter destination popular with families and gastronomes, what with its long-established reputation as the culinary centre of the island. Both have golden beaches to enjoy as well.

Fine Dining

Talking of fine dining, eating in Dalt Vila is also an easy affair with a plethora of fine restaurants to choose from. The dishes to try are the two delicious traditional specialties: guisat de peix, which is a fish stew, and peix sec, which is dried fish.

Even more wonders

There are even more wonders to discover in Dalt Vila, this brief guide does not even scratch the surface of the treasures that await you. From the awe-inspiring castle that stands on top of the acropolis, to the sixteenth century fortified walls that embrace the unique architecture, to the monumental Sacred Heart of Jesus, to the many nearby beaches, Ibiza’s old town is a richly rewarding experience. Just remember to take a comfy pair of shoes, for the simple pleasure of a romantic walk with stunning views is what Dalt Vila does best.

​​Image by Michela Simoncini, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Ibiza and the Islands are on my short list for next year – though partying with a newborn is not happening. Any great tips for food, sites or excursions?

Ten Weird Things to Know About Teaching in Spain

As the school year winds down, I often think about how I ended up here. Not physically in Spain – after a summer drinking more Kalimocho than water, it was a given I’d be back – but how I turned down a radio news job in Chicago to come to Spain and be a slave to Cambridge exams, student reports and surly teenagers.

Must Know About Teaching in Spain

For someone who was set on being a journalist since age 11, it shocked everyone to hear me utter, “I actually like teaching.”

Having not gotten an education degree, I was thrown to wolves that looked an awful lot like bored fourteen-year-olds and told to teach past simple irregular verbs during my first week as a maestra. After eight years and the proper TESOL certificate to teach in Spain, I’ve taught a range of levels, from three-year-olds who refuse to take a pacifier out of their mouths to oncologists whose questions had me stumped. I’ve run day camps and language schools. I’ve handed out detentions and failing grades. And I’ve survived working in the Spanish public and private school system.

If I say one thing, let it be that teaching in Spain is a lesson in hilarity and it’s a lesson in learning to just let it go.

Cursive Numbers and Letters

“My name is Miss Cat” I stated to the 27 kiddos sitting in front of me, turning from writing in colored chalk on the blackboard. Most were picking their nose, leaning into the kid next to them or fiddling with something. “Can you read that?”

During my trial lesson at a school I’d later be employed at, I was not having much luck rousing up the kids, who were just back from recess on a hot September day. They were sluggish and not impressed, and I was beginning to panic that I wouldn’t be offered a job. Try planning a lesson for five-year-olds when you have no idea if they can even put on their jackets, let alone follow a lesson entirely in English.

I switched gears, and they seemed to liven up, and after a three-hour interview and another class, I was hired as the bilingual preschool teacher.

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And before I learned the names of my 150 new alumnos, I was introduced to the characters of Letrilandia and given feedback from my practice class: Your penmanship is terrible.

I’d never claimed to have perfect handwriting, but it’s legible (and by that time, I had three years of being a language assistant and had directed a summer camp). As it turned out, Spanish children learn to write cursive before they learn to print, and that not writing according to their system had my students confused my lowercase letters – the Bs became Fs, the Ss were Rs.

Additionally, my task of teaching numbers to 100 meant I had to start crossing my 7s and giving my 1s a bit of flair. Calling on the age-old “If you can’t beat them, join them,” I found it was easier to change my old habits than try to change theirs.

There are five continents, not seven, and Columbus is the President of America

Yes, what you just read. The entirety of the Americas are considered one continent, and Antarctic is just one big lump of wasted space.

As for the Columbus thing, there’s an entire day dedicated to the Spanish race on October 12th, the day the Italian-born explorer reputedly landed in the Caribbean Islands. Working in a preschool for a very Spanish family, I was asked to dress up as a Native American (I opted for a sailor instead) and remind my students how Spain had done the world a service by “liberating” the natives during their numerous expeditions to the New World – all as the Spanish national hymn rung out for the whole morning.

Spanish holidays are varied – from Peace Day in elementary school to Day Against Domestic Violence for the older lot, so embrace them. But please teach them that Antartica isn’t wasted space because there are polar ice caps and adorable animals.

Lockers and Book bags

I came to teach in Spain right in the middle of the High School Musical craze. Apart from the folders emblazoned with Troy Bolton and endless questions about whether or not American high schools had glee clubs and pep rallies, I had students involve me in another plot: to convince the school’s director to install lockers.

Really, they had a point: high schoolers have a dozen different subjects, some of which they have just once or twice a week. Backpacks sagged and kids would often turn up without materials, having had no room for their PE notebook or forgetting to pack a protractor. Lockers would have absorbed some of the noise in passing periods and helped correct premature stooping.

I got the last laugh when I played an April Fool’s joke on them, proclaiming there would be lockers for all.

As for school supplies: pencils come without eraser (evoking the endlessly hilarious, “Can I borrow a rubber?” request), kids like to doodle on themselves with sharpies and white out, and paper has a size – the letter A followed by a number.

Lunchtime and Snack Time

When I taught preschool, my favorite time of the day was recreo, or recess. My zany babies could run and play while I sat on a bench getting Vitamin D, and they’d hand me their half eaten sandwiches, bananas and cookies.

Midmorning snacks are far more common than eating lunch at public schools – in fact, my students were shocked when I told them that a part of my daily chores was making a brown bag lunch. Instead, students have a 30-minute recess that happens midmorning. Expect common areas of the school to be littered with wrappers and juice boxes.

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Teaching as a conversation assistant meant that I could break out of school and have a coffee down the street with other teachers, and now that I work in the evenings, I avoid shopping between 11 and noon, lest I have to claw my way to the Polvillo for bread when teens from the school next door are ordering bocadillos.

If you’re placed in a private or concertado school, your students will sometimes stay for lunch in the mess hall, called a comedor. Run from the puré de garbanzos and the palitos de merluza!

Gossip

Walking into a newly assigned baccalaureate class after a schedule switch, I quickly introduced myself and began a lesson. I could hear the students snickering and immediately felt my butt to see if I’d sat in a batido or something at recess.

One girl, probably named Mari Algo, raised her hand but blurted something out in Spanish before I could even call on her. I gave her my best side eye for interrupting and told her that if she needed something, it would have to come in English.

“Yes, erm, who is [Novio’s name]? Valle say us you are a boyfriend.”

Valle, my effervescent coworker and part-time spirit animal, just smiled and shrugged. On one morning commute, I’d confided in her that I’d met a guy I was interested in, and she mentioned it to her students. I took it in stride (hola, my name is Cat, and I have a blog!).

You know how lice is a thing in elementary schools in school, an almost rite of passage in primaria? Liken that to gossip in Spanish schools – once it starts, it’s hard to stop. If you want something to be private, it’s best not to mention it around the brasero on a cold day.

On a First Name Basis and You May Touch the Children

Speaking of Valle, I was also shocked to find that teacher-student relationships are a lot more relaxed than they are back in the US. I was called by my first name and asked personal questions about my age/sex/location. Students wanted to know if I’d buy them beer. I once ran into one partying who was hysterical, and I took her back to my house to settle down and dry out for a few hours.

Oh, and then there’s the end-of-year dinners where students drink the Spanish equivalent of Boone’s Farm, all under the watchful eye of their teachers from senior year. I had to embrace it and have a drink with my graduating seniors at a disco because, hey, drinking age is 18. Never mind that I was only a few years older than them!

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Working in an elementary school, I was once told the children found me to be cold and uncaring. I was wiping their boogers and reminding kids that the Reyes Magos were watching their bad behavior (which included hiding my winter jacket in a toy box overnight) – I was certainly caring.

In Spain, it’s totally fine for teachers to hug and touch students, and many are close with older students outside of school. Some have followed me on twitter and like to message me about what last week’s homework was. My response is always the same: get off of twitter and do your homework, lazy!

On Wednesdays, We Wear Track Suits

I was appalled to learn that my high schoolers only got two hours of gym class a week. They seemed to have more pep in their step when those special days rolled around (though I could usually smell them before they entered class. Teens and PE and Spring in Southern Spain is a torture worse than my allergy to olive blossoms). Plus, they came to school with a special uniform.

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Gone were the sheer shirts and the booty shorts – it was chandal day, a public service announcement that my teens who had been chowing down on Doritos at recess were going to be running a few laps around the playground.

Working in a private elementary school, my kids called it Tracksuit Day, or ¡toca chandal! I loved chandal day because they admittedly smelled better (their parents gave them tiny packs of cologne for their school bags because, pijos) and I didn’t have to re-tie 25 ties and dust off 25 tiny blazers.

ABCs and B1-B2-C1 (and Trinity-Cambridge-TOEFL)

Spain has what’s called ‘titulitis’, or a problem with requiring documents to prove anything. Can you drive a car? PROVE IT. Can you pick up a letter at the post office from your grandma? PROVE IT. And when it comes to speaking English, only a stamped letter from an official language assessment will suffice.

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The Spanish government requires all university students to present a minimum B1 level of English to even get the paper copy of their degree (ach-titulitis!). If you’re totally new to teaching, the system of level assessments and certificates is confusing, especially one against another. What does a Trinity Level 7 correspond to in Cambridge? What does CPE stand for? Try being in charge of academic development at a school and explaining that to parents whose first defense will be, “I don’t know, I studied French.”

Yeah.

The Takeaway – School’s Out for Summer

I often think back to my first days of teaching. I had a newly minted TEFL degree, teaching genes apparently in my blood and no idea what to do in front of 30 teenagers who’d rather copy Justin Bieber lyrics off of the blackboard (yeah, that’s how long I’ve been at it!).

I always swore I’d never be a teacher after watching my mom scramble on Sunday nights or having to manually put in all of her grades into a gradebook. The boss I had when I was an auxiliar once told me that I had vocación: I had what it takes to be a teacher. After nine school years, probably 2500 students and a million eye rolls later, I think she’s right.

Teaching in Spain is rewarding, frustrating and hilarious all rolled into one job with pretty amazing vacation time.

Want the skinny on teaching in Iberia and tips on how to land and get situated in Spain? I co-penned a comprehensive e-book in 2016 on how to move to Spain and set up as a teaching assistant or ESL teacher.

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Read more about it here or purchase it for 10€ through eJunkie! 

More on teaching in Spain: How to Apply to the Language Assistant Program | Paying Teaching Programs in Spain | What it’s Like to be a Language Assistant

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?

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