June 12, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

My journey started in the bustling Barcelona center, smack right in front of La Sagrada Familia cathedral. Surrounded by tourists and the buzz of street traffic, I had no idea that only a half hour later I’d be engulfed in a nature paradise – Montseny.

Designated by UNESCO as a biospere reserve, Montseny Natural Park is a flora-and-fauna-covered mountain range that staggers into the skies just inland between Barcelona and Girona. Reaching over 1700 meters in elevation, the rain-saturated landscape seeps H2O from every crevice — so much so, in fact, that 50% of Spain’s bottled water originates from the mountain fissures, rivers and lakes.

The classification as a “natural park” rather than a “national park” is a unique distinction. According to a Montseny park guide, since the Montseny land has been occupied and used for quite some time (since the Palaeolithic Age, to be exact), rather than taking a passive approach to its conservation – as with national parks – the government works proactively to ensure the evolving land use doesn’t harm the region’s ecosystems.

Take for example Sr. Farmer. Let’s say he’s got a herd of cows munching on a lush grassy pasture, just like they have for generations. But Sr. Farmer’s son isn’t super keen on the whole cow thing – I mean, he could be a DJ, astronaut or, say, travel blogger. So, chances are that when Pops retires, so will the cows. And, along with them, say “adios” to the entire ecosystem that was created around them. That’s not cool.

But natural parks like Montseny work to mitigate this problem. Filled with loads of animal and plant species, public funds are dedicated to researching, maintaining and supporting the fragile ecosystems. So, while much of the land is privately owned, careful checks and balances enable a more promising future for the area. And good news for the rest of us: a nature-filled playground for years to come.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share with you this little natural paradise only a short drive away from Barcelona and Girona. Grab a snack and some comfy shoes, because it’s going to be an active and very food-filled journey.

Disclosure: I’m traveled through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

June 5, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I’m not entirely sure where I am, as late last night we weaved up through the mountains, past the clouds, and finally stopped at a hidden stone villa, where a warm fire awaited and the promise of some much-needed sleep. What I do I know is that I’m somewhere in the Monsteny mountains, only a short drive away from Barcelona. Judging by the crisp mountain and air and the chorus of birds outside my window, I can’t be sure, though. More to come soon, but first: A couple quick shots from yesterday, which started at 4:30am in Madrid, followed by a healthy stop in Barcelona, and finished with me prancing around a Montseny farm full of plants that smelled so delicious that I wanted to roll around in them.

Disclosure: I’m traveling through Montseny as a guest of Turístics Montseny. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.

May 16, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

A couple of weeks ago, I took a day-trip to Barcelona. Meeting up with a friend who hadn’t been there before, we decided to jet around the city, checking out some top spots, and stopping occasionally for a much-needed glass of wine (or two). Here, a quick picture rundown of my whirlwind visit to Catalunya’s capital.

We started the day in Plaza de Catalunya, where we chased pidgeons before taking a stroll down La Rambla.

We spied street art in between stops.

Then settled down at a bar stool for a quick lunch at La Boqueria Market’s Pinotxo.

We walked off the tapas with a paseo past some of Barcelona’s most prized buildings such as La Pedrera and Casa Batllo.

Followed by a pit stop at the Barri Gòtic’s Cathedral (free to enter after 5:15pm).

Then we aimlessly wandered through alleyways lined with colorful clothes that dangled and danced in the afternoon breeze.

And finally, we finished up the day with drinks at Cuines Santa Caterina restaurant before heading to Plaza de Catalunya to catch the Aerobus back to the airport.

Not bad for a day’s work.

November 10, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain

This latest guest post comes from one of my favorite American expats here in Spain: Stephanie over at theViatrix. She and I connected over Twitter, later discovering a slew of strange connections, both Madrid and not-so-Madrid related. Now we meet nearly once a week to write…make that pretend to write while we gab about díos knows what. A tour guide with over six years of madrileña life under her belt, she’s my go-to chica for input on all things awesome in Spain.

Erin asked me to write something for La Tortuga Viajera a while ago, and given our shared love of food and sugar, I immediately thought a blog on hot chocolate would be perfect. But it was August, and hot anything sounded awful. So now that it’s November and the weather’s getting cold, the time is right to start seeking out those steaming cups of cocoa.

First, a bit of background. While Switzerland may get all of the attention today, Europe’s chocolate history begins in Barcelona, where Columbus landed after his first voyage to the Americas. The court paid little attention to the mysterious beans until 30 years later, when Hernán Cortés proposed mixing them with sugar and spices to make the bitter Mexican drink more palatable. And Swiss Miss packets were born!

Not really, but Spanish monks did begin producing the yummy treat for members of the court, which had by this time moved to Madrid. Aristocrats fell in love with the sexy new drink (and perhaps with each other after drinking it) and Madrileños became so crazy for chocolate that they asked Pope Pius V to exempt the beverage from fasting regulations. “Liquidum non rumpit jenjunium,” ruled the Pope: “Liquid does not break the fast.” Is that why we say chocolate is “sinfully delicious?”

Spaniards managed to keep their discovery secret for almost a hundred years. That is, until Jewish chocolatiers began smuggling the stuff with them when fleeing the Inquisition. They first went to Portugal, where they were kicked out again, before finally settling in Bayonne, France. Here, in this relatively tolerant Basque border town, they started their own production, using beans brought back by the famously intrepid Basque sailors. By 1870, the industry had grown to employ more chocolatiers than in all of Switzerland, firmly establishing Bayonne as France’s chocolate capital (bet you didn’t know that).

Jump back to Barcelona, where the milling process had become mechanized in the 1780s, turning the city into Spain’s chocolate-producing center. You can even thank chocolate for one of Barcelona’s emblematic modernista buildings: Casa Amatller. During Barcelona’s boom years at the turn of the 20th century, chocolate magnate Antoni Amatller commissioned architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch to build him a house on the famous “Block of Discord”—it’s the one next to Gaudí’s Casa Batlló.

But let’s get back to the good stuff, and the point of all this: chocolate-drinking establishments. Chocolaterías start springing up in Spain’s big cities at the end of the 18th century, and become important meeting places for intellectuals in the mid 1800s. This is also the period in which people decide it’s necessary to dip something doughy and delicious in the chocolate, driving each region to develop its own specialty. In Madrid, that means churros, fried sticks or loops of batter invented specifically for dunking. Today, churros con chocolate is the quintessential Madrileño breakfast (or post-club energy boost).

Barcelona has chocolaterías as well, but more interesting are the granjas, or milk bars, which spring up at the end of the 19th century. Who cares about dairy products when we’re talking about chocolate? Well, when your hot chocolate comes under a mountain of thick, unsweetened, freshly-whipped cream, you care. Barcelonians call this a “suís” (“suizo” in Spanish) and it’s amazing. Since churros are very un-Catalan, I like to eat mine with an ensaimada, a light and airy pastry snail, though many people would maintain that melindros (Catalan lady fingers) are more authentic.

And what about Bayonne? Well, rather than the dark, almost pudding-like Spanish hot chocolate, they whip up a super-frothy cup of the stuff, call it chocolat mousseux, and serve it with buttered toast. It may not be as thick, but it’s just as delicious—and all that butter doesn’t hurt either. 😉

If you’re traveling around Iberia and want to know which are my favorite chocolaterías in Madrid, Bayonne, and Barcelona, head over to theViatrix for my list of hot chocolate spots.

July 12, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Spain

So it was off to Barcelona – without my suitcase. Before beginning the drive, we headed to the airport expecting it to be on the next flight, but sure enough, it didn’t show up – but instead, Guido’s did. At which point we realized we’d been tracking Guido’s bag the whole week and that mine was still in London. So, we had no choice but to continue on our road trip to Barcelona with Manu, Natalia and my meager travel bag containing my pathetic effort at packing (since I thought I would be getting my bag).

It wasn’t the best way to start the trip. At that point, I was still sick and my body was all but shutting down due to the stress of travel, work and the missing bag. But we were heading out for a weekend of R&R and fun. On tap for the first night was the U2 concert! With 90,000 people expected to attend, we knew it was going to be quite a show – and it didn’t disappoint. The stadium was absolutely packed, and the show was surreal. It was pretty cool to see so many energized people in one place.

The next morning we promptly hit the road and headed north to the region of Girona where we would be staying for the next two nights. When we arrived we checked in to our hotel in a small town called Begur. It was an absolutely charming little pueblo just above the beach. Our hotel was basically brand new too (an old restored building) and we discovered that there was an awesome jacuzzi spa in an underground cave that we could reserve for just the four of us, not to mention an awesome rooftop terraza with stunning views of the village. We were super stoked to hit that up later in the day. First stop, though, was the beach where we grabbed a late Spanish lunch at about 4PM and then laid out on the rocky beach for a bit. The beach was in a little cove surrounded by steep hillsides with houses stacked one level upon the other. It was gorgeous and super charming. After laying out, we headed back to the hotel to check out the cave spa and then off to dinner.

The next day brought the best adventure of all – we rented a motor boat and headed out on the Mediterranean, just the four of us, to enjoy the sun and swims in the water. The day went like this – lay in the sun, nap, jump in the water, swim, lay in the sun, nap….you get the picture. It was so incredibly relaxing and fun – I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Oh yeah, and it was 4th of July – so I was sad missing home, but kind of got over it pretty quickly :).

That night we drove to another small medieval pueblo, called Pals, where we walked around and then had dinner. It was a nice, relaxing way to spend the last night of our trip. The next morning, we hopped in the car and headed back to Madrid. What a trip!

And to end the wonderful weekend, I was able to go pick up my back Sunday night. Reunited at last!