Last spring, as we watched the fluffy white Alpine snow of Austria melt into a grey sloshy mess, we decided to skip spring in Austria and jump right into summer… We had discussed the idea of Greece, Southern Turkey, and Sicily, but finally settled on Spain and Portugal as a language immersion experience to set us up for future travels in South America. We both had traveled in Spain, but Portugal was new.
Even though we hadn’t really committed to the trip, much less a specific itinerary, my husband asked me to apply for some house sits in Spain through TrustedHousesitters. This was Sunday. By Monday, we had spoken to several hosts and accepted to housesit for three dogs in Badalona, Spain for a long weekend…This coming weekend — be there by Saturday morning. Five days to get to Spain.
Within that week, I was pushing to do a complete overhaul on this blog, my husband was trying to finish off a project, we needed to swap out our winter tires, track the constantly changing COVID requirements, plant the gladiola bulbs that had been sitting on the stoop waiting for the last freeze, pack for four months of remote work, rock climbing, city galivanting, and then lock up the house. Oh, and he was recovering from a hernia surgery, so the heavy lifting was down to me.
By 8 am Thursday morning, we were at the pharmacy getting our COVID tests and en route to Germany. From our small village of Bad Goisern to Badalona, the estimated driving time 17.5 hours. But we weren’t leaving on just ANY Thursday, we left the Thursday before the Easter holidays, the same Thursday that every other family in Europe was also heading for sunshine. We watched as more and more little round avatars popped up on Waze, as our 17.5 hours grew to 20, 22, 24.5 hours.
We broke up the driving with coffee and cake in Germany, crashing at a friend’s house in Basel, Switzerland, and by 6 pm Friday, we were enjoying a pizza and a well-deserved glass of French wine under a palm tree in Perpignan, France. After a good night’s rest, we crossed into Spain, had breakfast and arrived at our host’s home right on time Saturday morning.
This manic week in some ways set the tone for the coming months. It was an extraordinary trip, but not one of our smoothest and it provided some lessons for how we choose to travel moving forward. We have been able to apply those lessons 4 months later in South Africa and we found that the Spain trip set us up positively for a better experience all in all.
Culture in Spain and Portugal
We appreciated the lifestyle, culture, and connections made in the smaller villages over the big cities in both Spain and Portugal. The more years I spend traveling, the draw of major cities seems to lessened. Places like Cordoba, Granada, San Sebastian, Lisbon, and Porto were teeming with tourists in the summer of 2022 — not surprising after two years of COVID. I despretely tried to find the magic in each city but felt more compelled to explore outside of them. We had deeper connections in the smaller villages, the restaurant food tasted better, and while the cities have always been the cultural epicenters, we felt more included in the ceremonies, festivities, and events in the smaller towns anf felt that those places were the highlights for us.
Our immersion learning fell short. Coming to Spain and Portugal we thought it would be a great way to learn the languages. We studied using Duolingo, Coffee Break Español and attempted practice with locals. We were ambitious and hoped to be fluent in both within four months. In Portugal we had more success, but in Spain, we needed the speakers to be slower and more patient. Had we stayed in fewer places, built better relationships, and taken the time to communicate more, we would have absorbed more.
Portugal was on everyone’s radar last summer and will continue to grow as a tourism, expat, and digital nomad destination. Tourism has its ebbs and flows. However, there are countries that get a lot of noise and recognition, and they quickly become tourist meccas. In 2019, it was Croatia. In 2022, it was Portugal. Near Sagres, there is a whole community of German expats, in Algarve it’s the British, in Lisbon I heard Americans on every corner. Some places become popular due to the development of the tourism council, their friendliness and accessibility, cheap flights, pocket-friendly accommodations, as well as travel influencers on TikTok and Instagram. I can understand the appeal, our time was terrific and it is very special country with wonderful and kind people, a rich landscape, and unique architecture.
We witnessed what has been coined “revenge travel,” but really it was pent-up energy and the desire to travel everywhere and see everything post-COVID restrictions. Demand went up, prices went up, yet most people didn’t care — they were determined to travel.
It is difficult to escape the noise in Spain. Wow! This was unexpected. We loved the energy and passion of the Spaniards. We were met with vibrant and jubilant festivities, late-night parties, live music, loud music, bad music, static and weak radios, nightly televisions infomercials, YouTube, construction, sirens, barking dogs, anxious drivers sitting at red traffic lights, rumbling tractors at 4 am, bakery delivery trucks announcing their arrival on each side of the street of every mountain town, bells in the church towers, bells on the cows, bells on the sheep, rolling rapids and waterfalls, strong winds on the mountain tops. Humming refrigerators, whirling fans, whooshing air conditioners, toilets flushing, neighbors yelling. It was incredible. The noise was everywhere.
At some point in my life, I dream to have a swimming pool covered in Moorish tiles. I fell in love with the symmetry, colors, and shapes inspired by the Alhambra in Granada or the Royal Alcazar in Seville. A sanctuary amidst the summer heat, with nods to Moroccan architecture and design.
The Nature and Landscapes are spectacular. My first few trips to Spain highlighted the major cities and I overlooked these gems. My nature prior was the beautiful coastlines and parks within the cities. I would plan far more time exploring the National Parks of Spain and Portugal next time. These were some of the most beautiful and preserved areas in these countries.
World-class climbing is easily accessible in Spain, the hiking is less so. The approaches for some of the most phenomenal climbing in the world can be as quick as a 5-minute walk. When carrying heavy gear, this is fantastic. There are so many beautiful areas and opportunities to rock climb throughout Spain. When it comes to hiking, we found many trails on Alltrails or Strava to be misleading, overgrown, and not well-maintained or developed. We did some excellent hikes within Spain, but an equal amount of bushwhacks.
Cuisine in Spain and Portugal
The Portuguese cuisine was welcomed and felt fresher, healthier, and more palatable than the Spanish one. The food was prepared simply with not a lot of fuss. Our favorite meals of the four months were black swordfish and whole sardines seasoned with salt and grilled over fire, Peri Peri chicken, and all served with steamed vegetables. While Spain is a Mediterranean country, seasonal fruit and vegetables are primarily eaten at home and not featured on a lot of Spanish menus. Heavy stews, tortillas, and fried foods are the most typical menu offerings.
The transition from Austrian winter to Spanish dinner culture was difficult to acclimate to. We left a country where it was dark by 5:00 pm and by 9 pm we were cuddled up in bed. Jumping into Spain where dinner service doesn’t open until 8 or 9 pm, I struggled to keep my eyes open for the first few weeks to make it through dinner. Once acclimated, we enjoyed having our summer days extended way into the evening.
While I may have slammed the Spanish cuisine for being too heavy, I do love getting “free” food. In Andalusia and Jaen regions, each vino or beer was attached to delicious tapas. The drinks always cost one or two euros more, so you really are paying for each bowl of olives or pan con tomate, nevertheless a welcomed custom.
I have zero self-control when they bring a bowl of potato chips to the table. Growing up in a non chip-eating household, I never learned how to moderate my potato chip consumption. When I would peer around at the tables with completely untouched bowls of potato chips I couldn’t fathom how it is possible to have so much control.
My Favorite cocktails: Vermut con Sifon – Vermouth, soda water, olives, and orange. A refreshing and surprisingly balanced sweet cocktail with a little bit of brine to cut through the sugar. Another favorite was the Tinto de Verano — a cocktail of chilled red wine and lemon soda, but more often it was red wine with orange Fanta, it just worked.
We both have experience working remotely, even pre-pandemic, and we combined remote work with travel. While in Spain and Portugal, we were moving every 7-12 days. A luxury for some to have a vacation like that, but with full-time work, it was far too fast. Trying to balance work, culture and tourism, rock climbing, hiking, surfing, and general sanity was difficult, We had different expectations of how we would manage our time and wanted to experience everything each place had to offer and ended up burnt out.
We needed to have a clear understanding of what we need in a successful work environment. Many places on AirBnB offer a dedicated workspace. We never understood how they define that. Sometimes it was a kitchen counter with a barstool. We were traveling with an additional monitor and keyboard and were sitting for 8 hours a day in front of it. A bar stool doesn’t cut it. For me, I require a clean environment with a lot of natural light and fast Wi-Fi. For him, it’s a comfortable chair with a large rectangular table, a view and slow but steady Wi-Fi. When we figured out what helps each of us stay productive, it was easier for us to narrow down where we wanted to be working and living.
We started asking for internet speedtests from the hosts prior to arrival. When we heard “It’s good enough for Netflix” it was never good enough for work; and a solid video call requires 10 Mbps. If the location was amazing, we sacrificed the speed.
I struggled working independently and needed accountability to stay on the job. Once I established a co-working group with other coaches I felt more compelled to tackle the administrative tasks I would usually procrastinate on.
Our Fiat Bravo was the perfect car for touring Spain and Portugal. It gave us comfort knowing that we could fit almost anywhere on these small roads and tight parking spaces. We bore witness to a number of Spanish drivers pulling in and out of parking spaces, dinging, denting, and tapping neighboring cars without regard. Our little Fiat made it back with only a single minor incident.
#Vanlife was all the rage and the mountain passes were lined with vans. We considered this several years ago but opted for a compact vehicle and booked accommodation instead. There is no wrong approach — they are different styles of travel with accompanying benefits and disadvantages. We’ve overlanded for years in Africa and yet we remain conflicted with how we want to travel in the future.
It helped that we were two. Often driving and navigating alone seemed somewhat challenging in cities such as Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville. With a million roundabouts it was nice to have a second pair of hands to zoom into the maps and say “exit NOW!”
We were always searching for the unicorn. The inexpensive accommodations with fast wifi, direct access to nature, a kitchen (not just a kettle and microwave), a table and chair, and in the heat of summer, some sort of cooling device. “It will be cheap and comfortable, but it won’t be near Nature” “It will be comfortable and near nature, but slow Wi-Fi” or “it will be near Nature and cheap, but it won’t be comfortable.” We were seeking accommodation that checked all the boxes and realized we needed to either up our budget, change our priorities, or put in more effort to seek these places out.
When organizing a housesit, we make sure there are very clear expectations for both us and our hosts. Our first housesit was brilliant and the owners were lovely and easy to get along with. Our second, gave us PTSD. She was a terrible communicator, and we received conflicting information (or no information). After that experience we determined to vet our hosts thoroughly and get all instructions and information before the agreed to sit. Since then, the housesits have been a fantastic way to stay.
The importance of labeling all food and food boxes. While staying in communal accommodation, this is a good practice to ensure food stored in common areas doesn’t go unclaimed, rancid, or rotten. We fell victim to volunteers, I mean, vultures, who abused the system scavenging the shelves and fridges for anything unlabeled. It could have been fresh unpackaged tomatoes or a sealed jar of olives… no label, hasta luego.
We needed more of a community. We enjoy the comforts of personal space in the long-term, and chose to work and stay in homes rather than hostels or co-living / co-working accommodations. The downside is a lack of engagement with other travelers. Working online can also be fairly isolating, and moving every two weeks, we weren’t as engaged with the local community. We are a social couple and fortunately, we got close with fellow rock climbers and surfers, and were excited to meet up with friends from home who were also traveling, but socially we would have liked more.
A fruit bowl. When our ‘home’ is never ‘our home,’ it is essential for me to make it home as quickly as possible. Often, I will do an extra clean before we have unpacked our gear. I’ll move furniture to make the rooms flow better or more functional, put away kitschy dust-covered ornaments, and I will always make a fruit bowl. Moving in takes about 45 minutes and moving out, including packing, is 1 ½ hours.
Compartmentalizing our gear. We shuffled a lot, trying to come up with the best solutions for our belongings, and the easiest way to move in and out. We had a bag with our office, a bag for our clothes, a bag for our climbing gear, a “junk drawer” bag of out-of-season clothes and general overflow, a cooler tote, the green food box, and later a yoga mat and a beach chair. It all fit, but it was a point of contention playing Tetris with all our bags. Having one of us pack the car was better than both of us doing it. The other just had to accept the arrangement with no complaining.
Having those clothing layers accessible. We were hit with bone-chilling cold days in the middle of summer, post heatwave. We celebrated Summer Solstice in southern Spain dressed in the same winter attire we left Austria in.
Our essential food box. I love to cook, I love to eat, and food diversity is key. I was prepared for any craving – Mexican, Indian, Thai.. We want it, I’ll make it. Outside of the major cities, Spanish cuisine doesn’t have much variety and definitely not enough heat, so cooking at home was essential for us. We carried a green Tupperware with olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, aluminum foil, a sharp knife, a veg peeler, tea towel, cutting board, coconut milk, chilis (a large stash of chilis wherever we could find them), mustard, flour, honey, and a sealable box chock-full of spices.
And my husband would say, “definitely ditch the gigantic sun hat that we dragged around for months.” I retorted, “the hat stays.”