Spain Snapshots: The Romanesque Churches of Oviedo

There is little I don’t love about Oviedo, the capital of the Principality of Asturias, nestled between the Picos de Europa and the Cantabrian Sea – the enormous cachopos, the spontaneous rainpours, the colorful plazas with cidra bars and the raucous Calle Gascona.

Gran amigo of Oviedo is the American director Woody Allen. Uvieu has been front and center in a few of his films, and there’s even a statue of Allen in the central part of town.

Claudia assured me I would recognize this famous monument of Oviedo:

Recognize these churches? Perhaps from the film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona when Juan Antonio takes the women to Oviedo for the weekend to meet his father?

We spent a lazy Sunday morning hiking to the pre-Romanesque churches that rest just outside the city on Mount Naranco. There’s a small visitors center just off the parking lot, but the beauty is really in the details of the two churches – completed in the late 9th Century. Santa María del Naranco was built as part of a large palace complex to the Virgin Mary, with San Miguel de Lillo, 100 meters downhill, though both were converted into worship places.

It’s easy to see why – the views from Monte Naranco of the picos are incredible. Clau and I spent easily an hour there, looking out over the capital.

If you go: You can drive to Monte Naranco by following signs leading away from the train and bus stations in Oviedo, or you can also take the local bus numbered 10 from the city center, getting off at the stop marked ‘Cruce.’ Follow the signs uphill until you reach San Miguel. Santa María is just 100 meters on. There are a number of bars in the area with great views and sandwiches.

San Miguel is currently not open, though guided tours will take you to Santa María to explain its history, construction and patrimony every morning but Monday. The structures can be visited year-round.

What’s your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site, either in Spain or beyond?

CaminoFTK: Meet my Sponsors, Podoactiva

I’ve been thinking a lot about passion these last few weeks as I wrap up my master’s and mentally prepare for walking over 200 miles on the Camino de Santiago. Many of you have never met me face to face, but it’s clear that my passions are Spain, blogging, and photography. Add with that a love for helping people and connecting, and challenging myself, and you’ve essentially got my reasons for wanting to do the Camino de Santiago.

Pursing my passion led me to Spain in the first place: a passion for Spanish language, a passion for traveling and a passion to do something different while pushing my personal limits. I’m never one to drag my feet when it comes to making a decision and sticking to it – evident by my fight with bureaucracy, my fight against the Spanish private school system and my fight to make a meaningful life in Seville while dealing with my guiri complex.

My parents claim I ran before walking, and have been the first to tell me I’d always have the world at my feet so long as I stayed true to myself and what I wanted out of life. Thanks, padres. This led to a near-obsession with walking the Camino de Santiago, and for carrying something more than a 6kilo backpack for more than 200 miles.

When looking around for sponsors, I had very few criteria. For one, they had to be on board with my reasons for walking and support Dance Marathon and my passion for it. Secondly, they had to be people who personified passion themselves. When Caser Expat Insurance contacted me not three days after my post on why I’m walking went live and shared their interest in me and my story, I was floored.

A few weeks later, I was on a Madrid-bound train to meet Pablo, the director of Caser Expat Insurance, and his team. Their biggest focuses are on health and well-being, so they took me to have a physical…for my feet. Talk about putting your best foot forward!

Pulling up to the Podoactiva clinic near Paseo de la Castellana, it was clear that these people were passionate about feet. Despite having a clientele that ranges from the players of Real Madrid to Shakira, the office was welcoming and calming (it even quelled my nerves about baring my feet to a bunch of strangers).

Carlos got me set up in one of the consults, which was stacked wall-to-wall with machines. Podoactiva uses biomechanics to measure your feet’s resistance, strength, weight distribution and more, which is why they specialize in sports performance. Having been a gymnast my whole childhood, I would have loved to know all of these fators growing up, especially because my body now feels like an abuelita‘s.

After the customary round of questions – birthdate, weight, shoe size – I was made to lay down on a cot while Carlos tested the flexibility and strength of my ankles. He guessed I was a dancer because even the slightest touch or twist meant my ankle bent. “I hope you got boots that cover your ankles” was Carlos’s response.

Oops. They looked funny!

Once finished, I stood still for 30 seconds upon a mat so that the pressure I put on each foot could be properly measured. Carlos and his colleague, Jaime, then fed these images into a computer so that I could see the results. As it turns out, the knee injury I got from gymnastics ten years ago has greatly affected the way I walk and stand – I overcompensate with the right side of my body, particularly in the toes.

Asking me to walk back and forth on the pressure mat, Jaime and Carlos watched closely (and took a video) to see how I walked and how much support my ankles got when doing so. It was evident that my feet turned in, and the effect than four years of marching band had on the “roll-down” way in which I walk. This, Carlos explained, was causing the bones in my feet to become impacted and lose the natural arch (in other words, I have juanetes. Go look up that word, lest it show up in a search engine in English!).

I also walked on a treadmill, both barefoot and in my running shoes before sticking my foot into the patented Podoactiva 3-D scanner. Jaime helped me to Keep my foot still on the soft silicon hammock as each foot got scanned, creating a virtual image of what my custom insoles should look like. The scans are sent to the company’s manufacturing plant in Huesca, where they use lasers and robots to cut the insoles.

In about two weeks, I’ll have custom-made plantillas delivered to Podoactiva’s office in Los Remedios to start breaking in, along with my boots. Since the whole two-week trek won’t exactly be a walk in the park, knowing I have the passion for foot care and a healthy lifestyle behind me and someone to walk in memory of, I’m excited. I’m elated, actually. And dreading how my feet will look afterwards!

Don’t forget to follow my Camino story through my blog and through the hashtag #CaminoFTK. Awareness is key, so please spare a moment to share any posts via social media if you see fit. I couldn’t do all of this without the support of people like you all, Kelsey’s family, Caser Expat Insurance, Walk and Talk Chiclana, Books4Spain, Your Spain Hostel and Dance Marathon.

Podoactiva will be with me literally every step of the way: they graciously picked up the tab for both my consultation and the lime-green insoles I’ll be getting for my hiking boots. I’m still a bit cross that their client Xabi Alonso didn’t come watch me run barefoot on a treadmill, but you can’t always get what you want. 


Three Great Day Trips from Barcelona

I’ve said recently that I don’t like Barcelona (and it sparked a big debate on my blog and Facebook page. Turns out even people who love the city think it has a dark side and that its people can be unfriendly at first, though many were shocked with my confession). So when my parents suggested it as our Christmas travel destination, I was initially disappointed, but figured a seven-night stay would guarantee we’d use Barcino as a springboard into a region that others tout as gorgeous and cultural.

Three places you can't miss on your trip to Barcelona. Medieval towns, funky architecture...and another country?

Thankfully, Barcelona is capital to a region with multiple encantos, even if I’m not a fan of its capital city or politics. During our stay, we were able to break out of the city thrice, discovering the beauty of Catalonia in its interior.


Upon my family’s last visit to Spain in 2007, the holidays presented us with the problem of what to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hiked a mountain, attended mass in English (Thank you, Costa del Sol and your guiri enclaves!) and had dinner at the hotel. This year, we were in a heavily touristed area, but had three days of festivals to counter.

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”? We became Creasters cum Holy Rollers on the day of Jesus Christ’s birth by driving to the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in the mountains of the same name.

My mom and I made the last cable car for the day and were its only occupants, affording unparalleled vistas of the strange mountain range that the monastery and its various hermitages can be found in – it jutted up from the plains like an upside-down saw. My dad and sister drove the car up, snaking through alien rock formations and curbside offerings. Because it was Christmas, the parking was free, but the cable car ran my mother 6€ and me 5€ with a carnet joven.

The monastery, apart from its surroundings, is also known as the home of the Montserrat virgin, whose face is black, earning her the local nickname of La Moreneta. The place was crawling with tourists, similar to my experiences at Covadonga and Santiago de Compostela, but we were in for a treat: the all-boys choir, L’Escolonia, would be singing at the noon mass.

The whole place was opulent, lined in limestone with marble floors, statues of saints and an impressive art museum. I could barely see anything but on my tiptoes once inside the church, but the slight breeze and commanding views of the area were all I needed to consider myself holy on that day.

If you go: Montserrat can be reached by car, bus or train from central Barcelona. I used this page to plan our trip. The basilica itself was free, and many pilgrims choose to bring picnic lunches and enjoy the views, rather than picking over sandwiches in the cafeteria.

Girona and Besalu

For ages, Girona to me was little more than a Ryanair hub with a direct flight from Seville. On my way back from Karnaval in Cologne, Germany a few years back, I had a seven-hour layover. Not willing to sit in an airport, I hopped a bus to the city about an hour north of Barcelona and explored it on a sleepy Sunday.

It surprised me, quite honestly. Humbling beautiful, historic and lively – even on a Sunday!

I told my parents it was a must-see, and my dad’s love of medieval architecture made a trip to nearby Besalú to see the famous stone bridge. The town is teeny, cut through with cobblestone medieval roads and small, family-run shops.

We stopped in the tourism office, which was open but unmanned, and found that practically all roads led to the river Fluvià and the magnificent bridge. Many of the people we met told us that they were from elsewhere in Spain and had fallen under the charm of its Romanesque streets and history.

Girona was a quick drive away, and I remembered the city well – the soaring spires of the churches, the cobblestones under our feet, the street life. The clear day shone over the city perched along a river and its bright buildings, and merchants reopened after a few sleepy, glutton-filled days. We stopped for cupcakes on the main shopping street, beers in sun-drenched plazas, pintxo moruno in a bustling restaurant. Sadly, the smack-in-the-face Independence flags and signs got in the way of the beautiful buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

Even a horrible tummy ache (I later got sick) couldn’t prevent my sweet tooth from getting the best of me. I took my parents to Rocambolesc, the brainchild of the Hermanos Roca, famous Catalan chefs. The whimsical interior of the small place, which is a Catalan word for fantastical, was something like out of Willy Wonka, from a wall display of the six types of ice cream, a cotton candy machine and pinstripes.

I have to say that the hype, much like Barcelona’s, didn’t live up to my expectations. I let the attentive and sweet (ha!) shopkeeper chose baked apple ice cream with butter cookie crumbles and sweet apples, but could barely plow through half of it – it wasn’t sweet or even that tasteful! I agonized over the orange sherbet the guy parked on the bench next to me.

If you go: Girona and Besalu can be reached by car or bus from Barcelona, though there is a toll on the C-33. Rocambolesc is right near the red iron Eiffel bridge (Santa Clara, 50). The walk along the ramparts above the city are also not to be missed.


This minuscule principality wedged in between mountain peaks of the Pyrenees range separating Spain from France welcomed me with a text message from my phone company. If Vodafone thinks it’s another country, it is in my book, too.

We snaked our rental car up through the Montseny and Costa Brava area of Catalonia before reaching the border. The signs were only in Catalan, but from the looks of it, we’d need to take just one road into the small country’s capital, Andorra la Vella. Upon parking, I felt like we were in a glamorous ski town – all mountains, clear skies and ski bunnies bustling up and down the city’s main shopping streets. Christmas sales had already begun, so we took our time browsing duty-free stores and brand name shops.

The day was leisurely, with the only hiccups being stops for a coffee or lunch. The city doesn’t offer much by way of culture, and our tour of the historic part of town – stretching back 800 years – took a mere five minutes. The tourism office claimed that hot springs, ski resorts and outdoor activities keep the country’s economy afloat, but I have a feeling it’s the tax-free cigarettes and perfume.

Andorra is a three-hour car trip from Barcelona, or a four-hour bus journey via ALSA bus lines. Part of the highway has tolls. Don’t miss the breathtaking mountain views and the duty free shops!

Have you ever taken any day trips outside of Barcelona? Where do you recommend visiting?

If you’re looking for a guided tour or discount tickets for attractions, check out TicketBar. Or if you’d like to take a Spanish course while in Barcelona, I’ve got top tips and language schools – get in touch!

Camping on the Islas Ciès of Galicia

Julie and I had set out from Coruña after a two-day search for a tent. I have to admit that I’m much more of a luxury Spanish villa type of girl, but the prospect of camping on what has been called the Most Beautiful Beach in the World had me willing to sleep on the hard ground in the cold on the middle of an island in the Atlantic.

Oh, I’m also a mountain girl, for the record.

When my pulpo-guzzling, beach-loving friend mentioned the Islas Ciès, a small archipelago whose only residents are seagulls, I wasn’t immediately keen. Her father’s house on the port of nearby La Coruna was as close as I needed to get to the water because I am a chicken (tuna?) when it comes to getting my hair wet and swimming in the ocean.

The following week, we were on a ferry from Vigo, Spain to Cangas across the river mouth and onto Playa de Rodas with little more than our swimsuits, a towel and some snacks.

The boat docked in front of a small bar and restaurant 40 minutes later. The archipelago is comprised of three mountainous islands, the two northernmost joined together by a sandy bar and jagged rocks. Playa de Rodas, which the Guardian UK called “The Most Beautiful Beach in the World” the year earlier, was nestled between the two, idyllic and blocked from the harsh atlantic waters on the other side of the islands.

Not three minutes after we’d waded from the boat onto dry land, we’d already stripped off all of our clothes. Out came the towels and reading material, the plastic bottles of tinto de verano and all of my qualms about having gone to the beach in the first place.

We spent the rest of the day exploring smaller, beaches tucked away in small, rocky coves and paths that lead up the crags and to clandestine lighthouses. The crescent of white sand was dotted with colorful umbrellas and beach babies, while the bay was full of small yachts bobbing gently against the tide. The squalls off the Atlantic are broken up over the craggy rocks, meaning we had a day of glittering sunshine and occasional breezes.

My phone rang. The campsite had been calling me all day, but our lack of a tent meant we were going to have to slip in after the sunset and find a bar spot of land in between the packed-in tents and call it a night. While we watched the sun sink down behind the ocean, I hatched a plan.

We walked over to the bar on the island, ordered two beers and a plate of fried squid legs and I asked to speak to the owner. I explained that we had been robbed when we fell asleep on the train, and that our tent has been stolen. He told us there were no physical structures on the island, save the bar/supermarket, the lighthouses and the park warden’s cabin. He promised to try and find a few blankets.

Julie and I huddled together for warmth, splitting the last few sips of wine as we sat on a park bench, the lights from Vigo shimmering on the water. A voice came from behind us.

“Are you the girls who had their tent stolen?”

Turns out, the owner of the bar mentioned to the owners of the camping that we were the delinquents who hadn’t checked into the camping that afternoon. They sent their son to hunt us down. I figured we’d be facing some sort of fine, but the boy whose name but not sculpted biceps has long been forgotten invited us to his tent. Sunburnt and with sore muscles, Biceps had a tent with two rooms and a queen-sized bed for the two of us.

The following morning, we woke up with Biceps, who was off to man the camping himself. We unzipped the screen, letting the light breeze in as our bare feet dangled over the end of the mattress. The rest of our day was filled with hiking, random rendezvous with other sevillanos and a shaky ride back to the mainland, leaving behind the gorgeous stretch of beach.

If you go: The Islas Cies can only be reached by boat from Vigo, Cangas or Baiona. Prices and hours will vary, so confirm online. There’s just one place to stay overnight, the Camping Islas Cies (7,90 adults, 8,50 per tent). Reservations should be made before reaching the island through telephone or the website, and the campsite is open from March 1. There are basic facilities for washing up, a small supermarket and a restaurant, but anything you take onto the island must also be carried off.

This is my entry to the March 2013 Carnival of Europe hosted by DJ Yabis of  Dream Euro Trip with the theme “Beaches.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t like Barcelona?

I am a person who believes in second chances. You can ask my dear friend, Phil (hi, friend!).

And when it comes to cities that I didn’t like the first time around, I’ll always willing to make another trip. So many of my travels could have been spoiled by rain, strikes, food poisoning and culture shock, but some cities and I are just not amigos, even after multiple visits.

Barcelona is one of those cities. Three second chances later, and it’s still not grown on me.

In all fairness, I love the whimsical architecture, the Mercè festival, the oceanfront. But the positive aspects seem to end there.

I find Barcelona too busy, too big, too expensive and not well-lit. It’s not friendly in the same way that Valencia is (another Spanish city I could take or leave), nor did I ever stop feeling like a tourist. Having my family with me was stressful as I repeated, “No, Mom, I can’t read it; it’s in Catalan and I don’t speak Catalan,” or tried to ask directions, only to find the person I’d asked spoke no English or Spanish. Apart from the sites I like, such as Parc Güell or the Gràcia neighborhood, I felt like I wasn’t really savoring a second chance in a city – and I swear I tried!

I hear loads about the cuisine, but being based in El Born, couldn’t find much that wasn’t chain pintxos and tapas, or menus riddled with poorly translated English – always a sign the service and prices will be exorbitant. What’s more, I come from a family of picky eaters. We had pizza, two consecutive meals at a pintxos bar and burgers.

And what is with not a single place being open for coffee before 9am, save Starbucks?! Even the 24-hour McDonalds wasn’t open when we left early one morning for the Pyrenees! I can always count on an obscure cafeteria opening early for a coffee in every other part of Spain I’ve traveled to, so I was surprised that all the bars seemed shuttered until 9am.

I’m also not into the Catalan ‘tude. Spearheaded by Artur Mas, a campaign for Catalonian independence has transformed the city into an alien landscape of sorts, which independence flags hanging from balconies and Mossos, the Catalan version of a cop, all over the place. I can’t argue that their claim  that their language and culture was oppressed under Franco, I don’t think that their reasons for leaving will necessarily make things any better. The kicker? They want to be recognized as an EU sovereign state but still stay in the BBVA Spanish soccer league! (if you’re interested in learning more, check out Simon Harris’s book project, Catalonia is not Spain: a Historical Perspective)

I also had to laugh when our host called to ask us how the trip was going. Considering we’d invariably come during three back-to-back holidays, I told him we’d had to escape the country on the whole and go to Andorra. Qué lujo, he responded, and I told him about my plan to travel to 30 countries before 30. His response? That Cataluña is another country, even though it’s illegal to secede from Spain. Different, yes, but still Spain.

What is great about Barcelona is its proximity to the Pyrenees, Girona and Costa Brava. Navigating through my cell phone, we took quick breaks to Andorra, Girona, Besalu and Monstserrat. Getting out of the city meant having my head cleared and experiencing a part of the country whose tourism is highly developed and thriving. Returning, I tried to see Barcelona a bit differently, but I just ended up pouting like a three-year-old when I had to pay more than 1,20€ for a beer and use my cell phone as a flashlight for opening the door to our place in El Born. 

Have you ever given a city a second chance? Were your thoughts swayed? Is there a destination you’re not keen on returning to? Watch for the response to this post from Aga, part of the traveling duo of Aga Nuno Somewhere. If you decide you have to see Barcelona, considering checking out Barcelona Home for apartment rentals while in the Ciudad Condal.

Seville Snapshot: Bodega Marqués de Riscal in Eltziego (País Vasco)

As a traveler, I should take pride in really getting to know a city, to meeting and talking with its people and to finding its heart.

Travel Confession: I love kitschy sites, kitschy souvenirs and don’t always stay off the beaten path.

When it  came down to deciding what to do while in Spain’s Wine Country, La Rioja, we all agreed that wine was at the top of the list, while a sub category to wine was visiting a bodega. I called around, sent emails and was delighted when we got a last-minute booking for Marqués de Riscal, one of Spain’s most famous exports.

Elciego, or Eltziego in Basque, is a beautiful city in its own right. Nestled amongst vineyards, its burnt fall colors provide a dramatic backdrop to a stone medieval city whose claim to fame is the wine and the hotel commissioned by Marqués de Riscal, which was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

The colors chosen – metallic silver, pink and bordeaux – are representative of the wine bottle, whereas the wavy steel plates and pale stone pillars are meant to represent a vine before harvest. Built as a millennial addition to the winery founded during the mid 19th century, it seems to blend in with the history while looking forward to the future.

We signed up for a 90-minute tour of the bodega, which took us first to the newest installations, then past their ancient fountain – outfitted with a digital clock and weather reader – and into their oldest cellar. The damp, musty smell and little light protects their oldest editions, which mustn’t be uncorked. A small butane stove is used to heat a metal ring, then cold water is applied, breaking the glass and allowing the wine to be poured. As someone who loves the craft of writing and is a geek about it, I think I could geek out about wine if I got to learn more about it. Sadly, we were tired after the previous night’s antics and in search of a bed. After our two glass of wine, we dipped out and back to Logroño.

If you go: Marques de Riscal bodegas are located in Eltziego, just 15 kilometres from Logroño. It’s actually in the Basque region, and not La Rioja! To take a tour, which are available every day of the year, making a reservation through email or over the phone is a must. the tour included a tasting of two young wines and runs 10,25. More information and contacts can be found on Marques de Riscal’s webpage. Tours can be done in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and even Russian.

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