It’s officially winter, which means I’m officially day-dreaming of faraway places.
The normal wintry daydream usually includes white-sand beaches and tropical drinks, but, not for me….not this time, anyway.
I’m thinking of warm, fuzzy coats, Catalan architecture, hot chocolate, and an off-season that delivers.
Like many people, I don’t necessarily have the money nor the time to go to Europe willy-nilly. The current Euro exchange rate is 1 to 1.19 with the US dollar, which is pretty good, but it still doesn’t make Europe feasible for everyone.
However, off-season travel (ho winter!) offers opportunity–flights are cheap, hotel rates are low, and the glut of tourists is noticeably thinner.
Last January I went to Spain, and a mere four weeks prior, found a round-trip flight (Delta & Air France) from San Francisco to the El Prat Airport in Barcelona for $430. My travel buddy in Colorado found an even cheaper flight from Denver. We knew we wanted to travel that winter, but we weren’t sure where — when we found these cheap flights to Spain our decision was made.
We planned three days in coastal Barcelona, three days in the capital, Madrid, and one day in the medieval town of Girona. Though I would have loved to have seen Valencia, Pomplona, and more and more and more, they will have to be saved for another trip….perhaps this winter.
Winter Weather in Spain
Barcelona and Girona are on the coast, so you can expect gray skies with scattered showers. It won’t be hard to find an umbrella — as soon as a few raindrops hit the ground, vendors come out of the woodwork, selling paraguas and plastic ponchos. We were able to get by light raincoats and lucky timing. The 2-3 times the Barcelona sky really opened up, we were in the dry safety of a cafe, bar, or museum. Madrid, on the other hand, is known for its clear blue skies and crisp winter weather. Residents and tourists alike walk around in chic coats, kick ass boots, and gorgeous scarves. It is cold (36-60 ° F) but not unbearable.
Things to Do
1. See the art & architecture. La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and other edifices throughout the city offer a fantastic look into the fairy-tale minds of Anton Gaudí and Eusebi Güell–two famous Catalan architects. Raining? Go to the Picasso Museum located in the romantic and labyrinthine Gothic District.
2. Eat the food. My god, the cured meats. Iberian ham (or Jamón ibérico) is delicious and everywhere. You will find plenty of cured ham, chorizo, and delicious cheeses and olives wherever tapas are sold (everywhere). Another common tapa you will see is the Tortilla Espanola, which features no tortillas. It is more like a fritatta of egg, potato, and onion, sometimes mixed with cheese and ham. I loved it as a quick and protein-packed breakfast snack. My *favorite* wintertime Spanish treat (is it seasonal?) was the decadent churros con hot chocolate found throughout the city. Dip and die happy.
Now, I know I can’t talk about food in Spain without talking about paella. Paella is *the* coastal Spanish dish, but I’m not a huge fan….but, it’s me, not them. I like seafood, I just don’t like it that much. However, if you’re looking for an authentic and seafood-rich paella experience, try out Can Sole, an elegant restaurant serving quality seafood (thanks, Kara, for dinner!).
3. Check out Las Ramblas. Las Ramblas is known as the place to be, particularly in the summertime. We walked a few blocks, took a break inside a cafe when it started raining, and then walked until its end at the Christopher Columbus Statue (see very first photo in article). It is quite touristy, noted by the sidewalk-souvenir-restaurant repetition offering the same thing. Hustle and bustle, street performers, music, and history and add color and excitement to the place.
1. Go to a fútbol game. We caught a Real Madrid vs. Malaga game in Madrid. The stadium is beautiful and the energy is electric. If you don’t care for soccer, you’ll sure as hell care for it by the time you leave. There is no drinking allowed in this particular stadium, which threw me at first, but then I grew to appreciate it. I did not see or experience any drunken, lecherous harassment, booze-inspired fights, or wasted couples screaming at each other in the wings…just tens of thousands of people, joined together by love of fútbol. We were seated by the band, the cheering section, which boisterously pulled us along and scored the event with sheer enthusiasm.
2. Walk Around. Plenty of amazing architecture, palaces, restaurants, mercados, parks, and plazas to bum around in.
3. Go to a Museum. I went to the El Prado museum with a small, personal interest in art history. Even with that, this museum was painful. Yes, it is a seascape of the European mastery of painting. Yes, there are huge works of art, giant and daunting with their history, technique, and meaning. But after three floors of Jesus as a baby, or Jesus descending the cross, Jesus ascending the heavens, or Jesus as somebody else, you start getting tired of the topic. Of course, there are some gems, and some other focus points, such as provincial life by Goya or the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (my favorite!). Go if you have a particular piece or artist’s works you’re interested in, or if you want to inundate yourself with four to five centuries of art history.
3. El Rastro. This is one of Madrid’s most iconic Sunday Street Markets. Every Sunday at 9am, you can find hundreds of stalls set up in the Calle Ribera de Curtidores, in the Embajadores neighborhood. It gets crowded with local and tourists alike, even in winter.
Go before noon for the least amount of foot traffic, after that, it can be difficult to navigate. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in full-blown tourist season. But you can find great stuff! Antiques, jewelry, second-hand clothes, decorative items, vinyl record, Madrid souvenirs, artwork, and the ubiquitious Spanish Scarf (made in china). It is fun place to kills some hours, and just stone’s throw from the big square, the Cathedral, and other sites.
Walk Around! Girona is made for wandering and can be explored in one day. It is a collection of museums, galleries, cobblestone streets, medieval walls, and churches. If you Google it, most likely you will be rewarded with this image below — houses bordering the Riu Onyar, which demarcates the ancient center on one bank from the commercial center on the other. The ancient center is filled with charming hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, and gorgeous Roman and Gothic architecture. Below, are some more photos from wandering Girona, including images of the Jewish Quarter, The Girona Cathedral, the Basilica de Sant Feliu, and more.
The train is one of the best ways to travel in Europe. If you are doing a three-month stint through Europe, by all means, get the all-encompassing Eurail or Spain Renfe Pass; otherwise, single-use tickets should do the trick. Keep in mind, it pays to book ahead. The later the reservation, the more expensive the ticket; plus, seats can fill up, so you don’t want to leave it to the last minute. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance, so if your schedule is set in stone, book ahead for cheaper tickets (look for PROMO and PROMO+ fares). These usually have limited availability, sell out early, and have restrictions on refunds and exchanges.
The official train operator for Spain is Renfe, which runs Spain’s superb high-speed AVEs and other mainline and local trains. AVE trains look fast and are fast at 220 mph, linking most major cities with Madrid. I felt like I was in 2001 Space Odyssey, but that could’ve just been the weed cookie (a theme?).
Renfe’s website has a reputation for its glitches, such as not always/never accepting foreign credit cards. I had this experience, so after conducting some research, I learned of a site called Loco2, which links directly to Renfe’s ticketing system and charges the same price as Renfe. Yeah, the name sounds like a scam, but it’s a legitimate website. I used Loco2 to purchase AVE tickets from Madrid to Girona for $50 each (a 3-hour journey) with no issues at all. As a bonus, Loco2 is in English.
Types of Trains
When searching for tickets you will see a variety of train types, times, and prices. Here is quick breakdown:
AVE: The badass, high-speed, Space Odyssey Train mentioned above. A typical journey from Barcelona to Madrid is 3 hours, and can cost anywhere from $30-$150.
LD-Ave and MD-Ave: The LD stands for Larga Distancia, or Long Distance, and the MD stands for…you guessed it, Media Distancia. These trains stop more often than the regular AVE, and sometimes require a change, which results in the journey taking longer, but the tickets are cheaper. A typical journey from Barcelona to Madrid on one of these trains will take 5-7 hours, costing $30-90.
Regional: Regional trains are….regional. They connect nearby cities (i.e. Barcelona and Girona) and are bare-bones, inexpensive, and run regularly. You’ll need to purchase a ticket beforehand, but you can usually do this at the train station on the same day that you plan to travel. Our Girona to Barcelona tickets were about $8 each, and the journey took a little over an hour with plenty of stops in between.
Flying from city to city can save on time and can also save you money. My travel partner and I were looking at train tickets from Barcelona to Madrid, and we couldn’t find an affordable train which arrived in time for a futbol game at 4 pm, so we started checking flights. We ended up booking a flight with Vueling airlines, which allowed us to fly from Barcelona to Madrid in 1 hour for $50 each. Worth looking into.
Bus travel in between cities should be much cheaper than train or flying, but it takes much longer. Since we were on a “time budget,” we didn’t end up using the bus for any long-distance travel.
If you’re in a city–use the Metro! It is easy to use, inexpensive, and goes everywhere. You can take it from the airport in both Barcelona and Madrid to nearly anywhere. Barcelona even offers a “Airport Pass” for $4.50, which is cheaper than the $30 it costs to take a taxi to or from the airport. Three to five-day passes are also available, which may save you money if you plan on covering a lot of ground in a few days. This could be helpful in Madrid, as it is quite spread out; Barcelona is smaller and more compact, so it may not be necessary. To make getting around even easier, each city’s metro system has an app you can download to help you figure out what you need to take where.
I took one taxi in Barcelona, and it was from the airport to my initial AirBnb. Otherwise, I used the metro. The pricing seemed comparable to other cities (i.e. $30-$40 for a ride from the airport). Keep in mind, Uber and other crowd-sharing car services are illegal in Spain.
This is just the *smallest* sampling of what Spain has to offer, and it’s an even smaller sampling of what the world has to offer the budget-winter-traveler, or any combination, thereof.
So, with that in mind, how about we check out some plane tickets?