Monday, 23 May 2016

Seeing Madrid in style... without breaking the bank

It's been a long time since I've devoured a sandwich on a street corner in the interest of saving a few euros. The idea of a shared dorm fills me with dread. It's safe to say that as I've grown up, my travel priorities have changed. I'm not always searching for the cheapest deal; convenience and ease now have a big part to play in travel planning. You can definitely have fun on a budget, but some compromises need to be made along the way: and style is usually one of them. Street corner sandwiches aren't usually the chicest of snacks.

When WeSwap challenged me to spend £50 on a day in Madrid, my focus wasn't purely on stringing out every last cent in order to maximise the money. I live in one of Western Europe's cheapest capitals, so it wouldn't be difficult. But seeing Madrid in style without scrimping? Now that's more of a challenge.

Thinking of the sort of places I love to take my friends and family who visit, I planned a day of culture, cool hangouts and copas. But how far would my £50 stretch? First, I converted my currency to euros using WeSwap's handy app. Opting for the instant exchange,* I received €62. Now to spend it...

Morning: Getting cultural on a budget

If you only see one art gallery while you're in Madrid, make it the Thyssen. The least famous of the Golden Triangle (also comprised of the Prado and the Reina Sofía), the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is a compact treasure housing works spanning the centuries. If you fancy seeing some Dutch masters, you'll find them here. If contemporary American's more your thing, check out the Chagall and Lichtenstein. There's a smattering of Spanish artists too, including works by Dalí and Picasso. A visit to the Thyseen is like a one-stop whirl through the decades of art history - but unlike the Prado and the Reina Sofia, its free opening hours are limited (12-4pm on Monday), so I handed over €12 for a ticket.

Centro Centro: A stunning building, inside and out

Post-Thyssen and feeling culturally virtuous, I popped into Centro Centro, the impressive exhibition space located in the Palacio de Cibeles. Worth a visit if only to marvel at the architecture, Centro Centro hosts a variety of rotating exhibitions - and entry is free. If you've had your fill of culture, there's a rooftop bar and restaurant with great views of Cibeles fountain.

Running total: €12

Lunch: Stylish sandwiches

In need of a quick refuel before an active afternoon, I headed to cool cafe Harina. A sleek white space known for its light lunches and baked goods, Harina's a handy spot for visitors to nearby Retiro Park. If the weather's being kind, make the most of the outdoor terrace in the shade of the Puerta de Alcalá, one of the city's two remaining gates. At Harina, I tucked into a multi-grain baguette with tuna and roasted peppers, washed down with a homemade spearmint lemonade.

Running total: €21.50

Afternoon: Retiro rowing and sundowners with a view

Before getting our row on in the Retiro

Madrid may not be the greenest city, but it's easy to forget once you step into Retiro Park. The capital's prettiest park once belonged to the royal family, but nowadays it's open to the public and mixes formal gardens with wilder wooded areas, a boating lake and even exhibition spaces. It's also traditional to take a post-lunch paseo in the Retiro, but if you're feeling more active, you can rent a rowing boat for laps of the lake. Post-rowing, check out the Palacio de Cristal for temporary exhibitions in association with the Reina Sofía.

In need of some refreshments and a rest, I headed to the Azotea del Círculo de Bellas Artes. I've tried a fair few rooftop bars in Madrid, but this is the terrace I always return to. With its almost 360 DEGREE views of the city and out to the mountains beyond, plus decently-priced drinks, it's a winner for some relaxed sunset sipping. The only downside is the entry fee: €4 per person. Still, the wine's a relative snip at €4 per glass, so sit back and watch the sun go down over Madrid.

View towards Gran Via from the Bellas Artes roof terrace

Running total: €37.50

Evening: Dinner at La Pescadería

When dinner time rolled around, I still had more than a few cents to spend on dinner, so I made my way to Malasana. A winning formula of hip hangout, fantastic food and surprisingly good service add up to make La Pescadería my favourite restaurant in Madrid. Their tapas are like other bars' raciones, so 4 between 2 is more than enough. My challenge partner and I shared cod fritters, baby squid, a goat's cheese and pumpkin salad and the best patatas bravas  in Madrid, washed down with a glass of wine. Once the bill was paid, I even had a few euros left for la penultima at a nearby bar.

Running total: €61.40

Challenge completed: I'd had a culture-packed, fun day in Madrid without even worrying about my budget. Turns out staying stylish in the city isn't so costly after all...

It's easy to pay bills with the WeSwap card

This post is sponsored by WeSwap as part of the #WeSwap50poundchallenge. WeSwap offers a social currency exchange with better rates than the banks. Sign up here or download their app to get started. 
*Rates are always competitive, but vary depending on how quickly you need your money. 3 day and 7 day options also available.

Monday, 2 May 2016

5 things I'll never understand about living in Spain

I've now lived in Spain for five years. There was my first stint in Alcalá de Guadaira back in 2004–5, a few months in Seville in 2008, a year in Madrid from 2009–10, and my current three-year stretch. On some levels, it feels like home. It's where I spend the vast majority of my time, where I work, pay my rent and tax. It's also where part of my heart is. But even after five years living in two different regions, do I understand everything about living in this incredible country? As they say in my native Lancashire, do I heck.

5 things I'll never understand about living in Spain

1) The amount of bureaucracy

Spain takes paperwork to a whole new level. From compulsory tax returns to admin that can only be done in your bank branch, there's a whole lot of bureaucracy even a native Spaniard has to deal with. Throw in your expat status and the form-filling, officials to speak to and inevitable misunderstandings triple. Why does Spain love admin so much? Well, I once heard that the number of bureaucrats had to do with creating employment. So rather than having one form to fill in and one official to talk to, you have several. I'm not sure whether I believe it, but it's a convenient theory to explain away the dreaded papeleo. Come on Spain, let's streamline.

2) The toilets

Many a guiri blogger has already expounded the horrors of Spanish servicios. Restaurant and public bathrooms are almost always dirty, with wet floors and a distinct lack of paper or soap. Find both of those two commodities and you feel like you've hit the jackpot, no matter how skanky the surroundings. And don't get me started on the amount of pee on the ladies' toilet seats, or the number of women who don't wash their hands on exiting the bathroom. Spanish homes may be immaculate; Spain may be the number one consumer of bleach in the world, but when it comes to public toilets, the characeristic cleanliness goes out of the window.

3) The obsession over what you can eat and when

Paella: Not to be eaten in the evenings

Now I may have adopted the maxim that rice is for lunchtime, but I'm all for freedom of foodie choice.  In England, anything goes. Here you'd never eat anything legume-based in the evening, street snacking is a no-no that will earn you a few frowns, and choosing a drink is a minefield according to the time of day. Take this recent example. I was with a close friend, waiting to pick someone up from the train station. It was 2pm, I wanted my lunch, but we had to wait until the other friend joined us. 'What do you want to drink?' she asked. I thought, 'Nothing, I am absolutely starving and would really like my lunch right about now'. I said, 'I don't know, maybe a juice?' 'A JUICE?? What are you going to have a juice NOW for?' was the incredulous reply. Well, maybe because I don't like fizzy drinks, I've already had a coffee and if I have wine on an empty stomach I'll get drunk. I had no idea there was a time window for juice consumption, but apparently there is. Live and let live, people. I don't judge you for thinking a tuna sandwich is a breakfast food. Oh OK, maybe I do. Just a little bit.

4) Unnecessary greetings

In an increasingly online age, it's easy to feel like we're losing human contact. So although I think it's charming that in small shops in Spain, customers greet everyone present with a general 'Buenos dias', and I'm on board with the 'lift hello' when taking an elevator in a shared office building, there are some situations where it's just not necessary to saludar. Keeping yourself to yourself in a gym changing room is preferable: greeting strangers in the buff is just plain awkward, in my humble opinion. Nor do I need colleagues to say 'Hola' or 'Hasta luego' to me in the office bathroom, particularly when this is the only interaction we ever have.

5) How difficult it is to make Spanish friends

I may have been here five years, but I can count the number of close Spanish friends I have on one hand. And I don't even need all my fingers. I know it's not just me: plenty of expat acquaintances have the same problem. But if I ever tell this to a Spanish person, they look at me with confused disbelief. Now Spaniards are very friendly, but there's a difference between being friendly and being friends. I'll admit that the problem is worse in big cities: one of my friends lives in a medium-size town in Andalucia and has far more Spanish friends than I do in Madrid, But still, it's often the case that Spanish people move around the country less than Brits – they usually attend their closest university, for example – and so maintain the same group of friends they've known since school. When people do change cities for work reasons, they often return to their pueblo at the weekend. I've found most people to be very welcoming and hospitable, and have many times hoped things will translate into the foundations of a friendship. Of all the things I don't understand about Spain, this is the one I'd most like to crack.

Do you agree? Is there anything else you don't understand about living in Spain?

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Plane-train-Spain: Sights, bites & insights from my Spanish roadtrip

One thing I discovered: it gets cloudy in Canarias too

In February, I visited nine out of 17 regions of Spain. Madness for 4 weeks, but it really reminded me how diverse Spain is. Each autonomous region has its own government, with the possibility to modify certain centrally-set laws, and the ability to introduce others. Several also have their own regional language, and they all have a strong identity which distinguishes them from each other. A short distance can mean a lot in Spain, but the most marked differences were when I visited 2 or 3 far-flung regions in one week. The cosmopolitan whirl of Barcelona contrasted sharply with the slower pace and wetter climate of Galicia: as did the average price for a meal.

Four weeks on the road allowed me to fuse business and pleasure, and as well as working I had time to take in a few sights and try out a few local dishes.


My visit to Gran Canaria may have conicided with the worst weather in the Canary Islands for the past couple of years, but this did little to detract from the beauty of Playa de las Canteras (above). Located in the capital, Las Palmas, the bay is protected from big waves by a sandbank, making it a calm stretch of sea. With a sweep of sand stretching just over 3km, Playa de las Canteras is vast. No doubt it heaves with suncreamed bodies in the summer months, but on damp February days it was almost deserted.

Inside La Sagrada Familia

In Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia was a rather more crowded sight. I first visited Gaudí's masterpiece in the making aged 21, and my return 10 years later saw plenty of progress to the interior in particular. The sense of height inside is astounding, and the level of intricacy and detail in the architecture means you could marvel at the craftmanship for hours. Unfortunately we didn't have hours: if you're booking a ticket, I'd recommend you don't opt for the last slot as you only have an hour to enjoy your visit.In addition, what you can see on with a standard ticket is now limited: last time I'd been able to climb the towers, but the €14 basic admission now excludes this. A complete visit will now set you back €29. This disappointment aside, it was well worth checking up on the builders' progress a decade on.


Solo dining can be dull. Not so in Alicante, however. I dropped into cosy wine bar  Alioli for a pre-dinner drink and came out hours later with a bunch of new friends and a tummyful of tapas. The best part was that my new friends invited me to most of the drinks. So if you're looking for a vino and a tapa in Alicante, check out Alioli. I challenge you to leave after just one drink.

In Gran Canaria, our hosts shunned the tourist traps and took us to cute cantina La Bikina. Right by the beach, this little spot serves up fusion food, including Mexican and Thai. After a few weeks chowing down on menú del día and deep-fried Spanish grub, their veggie take on Pad Thai went down a treat. We also had the chance to try some more typical Canarian cuisine such as papas negras (black potatoes) served with 2 types of mojo (sauce), and grilled smoked cheese sprinkled with herbs. Dessert was a hit too: creamy polvito uruguayo is very popular in Gran Canaria, and if you've got a sweet tooth you'll love this confection of crumbled biscuit, cream and dulce de leche.

Papas negras: a typical dish from the Canary Islands

Monday, 29 February 2016

A month on the road: Plane-Train-Spain

One month. One country, nine autonomous regions, 11 cities. During an intense few weeks travelling around Spain for work, it's fair to say that  I woke up more than once wondering where I was. Covering thousands of miles by plane, train and car in the space of four weeks, early starts and late nights became the norm. 

But I'm not complaining: the chance to get to know new places, try new foods and meet new people is always welcome. Although I'd visited most cities previously, Vigo and Las Palmas were new to me - in fact, I'd never set foot in the Canary Islands before. I did manage to visit during the most inclement weather they've had in the past couple of years (think cold winds and lashing rain falling diagonally), but it did nothing to dampen the fun. Yes, fun: the nights of room service and my head hitting the pillow by 10pm were counteracted with lots of laughs and plenty of long lunches (hey, it's Spain).

As I travelled around the country, I posted photos on Instagram using the hashtag #planetrainspain. In my next post, I'll be detailing some of the highlights of my month on the road (rails?), but for now, check out the maths that made up February 2016.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Travel: The highs... and lows

Despite jaunts to Portugal, France, Croatia and Slovenia, my 2015 travel was mostly in Spain (for a change). I saw in a new year of travel with a work conference Zaragoza, and my final destination of 2015 was another business trip to Murcia. There was plenty of travel for pleasure, though, with long weekends in the Basque Country and Extremadura, and a week touring the Costa Brava on two wheels.

So what were my 2015 travel highs... and lows?

Favourite new destination

I have boomerang tendencies when it comes to travel, bouncing back to destinations I've loved. So in 2015 I tried to branch out, ticking off a few 'new' towns and cities – including Girona, Baiona, San Sebastián and Cáceres – plus a previously unvisited country, Croatia. When it comes to picking a favourite, I was torn between the pretty cities of Girona and San Sebastián. Both beautiful, compact, with buzzing food scenes and lively bars, San Sebastián ultimately swung it thanks to the sandy sweep of La Concha beach. Given its lack of stand-out museums and tourist attractions, San Sebastian is all about the food and drink: the bars in the old town and seafront Gros come alive at night, when pintxos washed down with txacoli steal the show. With nothing more pressing to do than eat, promenade and party, San Sebastián is a fun, fuss-free weekend break destination.

Stunning San Sebastian: My favourite destination of 2016

Most visited destination

This will come as no surprise to regular readers, but I clocked up 5 visits to Barcelona this year. With its cosmopolitan charm, great restaurants and firm grasp on tradition, I'm a sucker for the Catalan capital. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona, and finally witnessing castellers assemble a human tower during September's Festes de la Mercè. Watching a correfoc (fire run) from the sidelines is one experience I'd be happy not to repeat, though: the flying sparks and booming firecrackers just centimetres away were a bit too much for me.

Castellers in Barcelona (and anonymous selfie snapper)

Favourite hotel

In terms of Instagram-worthy images and a stunning setting, it would hands-down have to be the Parador in Baiona. But when comfort, service and food are thrown into the mix, there's no contest: Hotel Sa Punta in Platja de Pals takes the title. From a room upgrade to friendly but professional service, a gorgeous freshwater pool with spa jets, big balconies and a tranquil location, the scene was set for serious relaxation. My expectations of hotel restaurants are generally low: often overpriced and uninspiring, I tend to avoid them. But the Sa Punta restaurant is no standard hotel dining room: it pre-dates the hotel itself and attracts diners from around Catalunya. And you can see why. With three-course menus drawing on the best of local produce and combining delicious flavours with perfect presentation, it's a real treat. Service is attentive yet discreet, and the wine choices were spot on. I'd return in a heartbeat.

Biggest surprise hit

The first time I visited Palma de Mallorca as a teen, I was so ill I ended up in hospital the following day. With clouded memories, I was unsure what to expect from my second trip years later - but I was blown away. Chic and international with a very Spanish feel, Palma is packed with impressive architecture, interesting sights and top-notch bars and restaurants. I felt so at home there, I didn't want to leave. Watch this space for a return visit in 2016.

Palma de Mallorca: Picture perfect

Best trip

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Festive fun in Madrid: Christmas 2015

Last year's Christmas post proved pretty popular, so here's an updated version for those who'll be in Madrid over the 2015 festive season. In Spain, the holidays last longer than many other European countries, culminating in the traditional present-exchanging on 6 January, or Three Kings Day. If you're around on the 5th, be sure to check out the Cabalgata de Reyes (parade) which runs down Paseo de la Castellana – but only if you don't mind the crowds!

What else can you do in Madrid during the lead-up to Christmas?

Seeing the Christmas lights

Christmas lights seen from the Navibus. Photos from my Instagram feed

Madrid puts on a good show in the evening (until the oddly early hour of 11pm). All around the centre, streets are illuminated with glitzy lights, some of which were dreamed up by top Spanish designers. Most of the conical Christmas trees which pepper the city's plazas are unfortunately sponsored, with the names of multinational companies festooned in lights, but the huge gold tree in Puerta del Sol is sponsorship-free. Sol looks particularly good at Christmas, and Gran Vía and Cibeles to the Puerta de Alcalá are also festively lit. If you want to get a good look at the city's best displays, take the Navibus from Plaza Colón (opposite Calle Serrano 30); an after-dark tour of the city's Christmas lights. Costing €2 for adults and €1.50 for children (under 7s go free), the trip on an open-top bus runs daily from 6–11pm until 6 January. The route takes in Puerta de Alcalá, Cibeles, Calle Alcalá, Gran Vía up to Santo Domingo where it doubles back and follows the same trail in reverse, adding in some of barrio Salamanca on the return journey. The tour lasts about 40 minutes and is fun for kids of all ages.

Christmas shopping: Markets, pop-ups & local brands

If high-street Christmas shopping isn't for you, you might want to check out some of the many markets and pop-up stores on offer in Madrid this month. There's a very comprehensive list (in Spanish) over on Madrid Diferente, but a few highlights include the Mercado de Motores (12 & 13 December) and the  Mercadillo del Gato from 11 December–2 January with vintage goods, jewellery, cosmetics, artisanal products and more. 

The Hovse: Pretty but pricey

On the pop-up front, the much-hyped (and stupidly-named) The Hovse is back for another year. Cute and very Instagram-worthy it may be, but unless you spend triple-figures on Christmas presents, it's best for a browse, a drink and a snack from Olivia te Cuida's pop-up area. All the independently-designed goods are beautifully presented, but their price tags are not within reach for your average mil eurista. If you're looking for similar gift items, clothes and jewellery at a more reasonable price, try boutiques La Intrusa and Nest instead. Nest also sells Christmas cards.

More traditional outdoor markets selling artisanal goods, food and jewellery among other gift items can be found around Plaza Mayor, near the Palace and in Plaza Santo Domingo.

If you're more of an online shopper, check out some homegrown brands such as jewellery label Tartesia (25% off with the code TARTESIAFRIEND) and the cute Mr Wonderful.

Spanish-made Tartesia jewellery

Ice skating

Although you can glide on the ice year-round at Palacio de Hielo, a few outdoor ice rinks pop up in Madrid during winter. They're usually not quite the grand rinks in prime locations that London and New York have to offer, but they're fun for a quick spin, especially for kids. This year however, there's a new offering that could challenge other cities: the Hola! (yes, the magazine) rink at Plaza Colón (until 6 January).You can find another central rink at the normally borderline salubrious Plaza de la Luna, and if you venture a little further out of town, you'll find one at Parque Berlin

Seeing some real snow

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