Monday, 29 December 2014

Oh Hello Spain 2014 Travel Roundup: The Take 12 Trips Challenge

My friends and family may joke that I'm away more often than at home, but the truth is, I love a trip. 2014 has been no exception, with Spanish weekend breaks and trips home to the UK aplenty, plus further-flung travels. Yesterday I stumbled across the #take12trips challenge from Need Another Holiday on Twitter, and thought this summed up my approach to seeing the world perfectly.

Blogger Clare created the #take12trips challenge last year to inspire those who work full-time to get out and about a minimum of once a month. While downing tools for a week or more and heading off on holiday every month is unrealistic for most employees, taking a day trip or weekend break isn't, with some careful planning and budgeting. Rather than waiting until August to take a whole month off like most of my Spanish colleagues, I'm more an advocate of regular weekend breaks and the odd longer holiday here and there. Basically, any excuse to pack a bag and set off to see a bit more of the world.

I'm cheating a bit and joining the 2014 challenge retrospectively, but in 2015 I'm planning to make a conscious effort to take my 12 trips. As you'll see below, I don't think I'll struggle...

So, here's how my 2014 year in travel shaped up... It's a bit of a mammoth read, so grab a cup of tea and settle in.


The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca

My 2014 travels started well with a trip to Salamanca straight after Reyes for my work's annual conference. Although we spend most of the time holed up in an auditorium listening with rapt attention to the speakers (ahem), there was also plenty of time to socialise, and the event concluded with a tour of the pretty university city on a chilly winter morning. I've visited Salamanca twice before, and as the Spanish equivalent of Oxford, I feel right at home there.

Business trips provide a great opportunity to stay a while longer and soak up a city's atmosphere, but as I'd already seen Salamanca in 2013, a friend and I headed instead to Zamora for our post-conference recovery. A weekend in the beautifully-restored NH Palacio del Duero did the trick; we even managed a tapas crawl around the casco antiguo which involved a lock-in with a cast of interesting characters. That said, winter probably isn't the best time to visit Zamora: this Castilian town gets pretty damn cold, and most sights and shops closed at midday, so we spent plenty of time huddling in cafés over steaming cups of cola cao.

January ended with some sunshine thanks to a hop on the AVE to visit my friend Vicki in Utrera, close to Seville. This welcoming little town has more quality tapas bars per square mile than Madrid, I swear. Understandably, the weekend was spent dipping in and out of many of those, notably Besana, Casa Diego and Doña Juana, catching up over tasty bites and plenty of white wine.


Oh hello, Barcelona!

After January's trip-fest, February was a calmer month, with one trip to Barcelona to attend another conference. Stepping off the AVE, I was pleasantly surprised by the much milder temperature than Madrid. The temperature wasn't the only reason I warmed to the Catalan capital, though: being whisked off for dinner at beachside Pez Vela and cocktails at the sail-shaped W Hotel with a view over the twinkling city lights might have had something to do with it. This trip inspired more than one repeat visit to Barcelona, a city I'd previously been undecided about.


The Guggenheim in Bilbao
In March, I welcomed two different friends from the UK to Madrid, so a couple of weekends were spent in the capital, sightseeing, snacking and shopping our way around the city. March also saw me take another work trip to a city beginning with B: this time, I headed off to Bilbao. In addition to attending an event there, I also managed to wander the beautiful casco antiguo and the riverside, as well as catching up with a friend over lunch and a visit to the Guggenheim. The wow of Bilbao inspired my second-ever blog post in 2010; 4 years later the effect was the same. This compact city nestled in the green valleys of the Basque country is a gritty industrial hub no longer. Instead, it's the ideal mix of ancient and modern, with a friendly feel to boot. The Basque country is famous for its food, and Bilbao is no exception: I was only sorry not to bag a table at the Guggenheim restaurant as I had last time. Modern Casilda made a pretty good alternative, though. 

March ended with a quick trip up to Barcelona and a drive down the coast towards Tarragona, taking in stunning coastal views from curving mountain roads.

It's always good to see the sea: the coast between Barcelona & Tarragona

Read more: Bilbao and Barcelona.


April was another busy month, beginning with another conference in Harrogate in Yorkshire, to which I added a trip home to my parents' in Lancashire. I found myself back there a few weeks later for a significant birthday, which I also celebrated with friends in London.

A Semana Santa procession getting underway in Baena

Easter fell late this year, and I was lucky enough to follow my birthday with a trip to the 9 Andalucian towns that make up the Caminos de Pasión route: Carmona, Osuna, Puente Genil, Cabra, Priego de Córdoba, Baena, Alcalá la Real and Lucena. The trip aimed to introduce a group of international journalists to the sights and sounds of Semana Santa in these towns in the provinces of Seville, Córdoba and Jaén, and from the hundreds of times my finger clicked my camera shutter and the ringing in my ears afterwards, the goal was achieved. Semana Santa processions in Seville and Málaga are well-known – and for that reason, well-attended. As the Caminos de Pasión route is exclusively made up of medium-sized towns not often on foreign tourists' itineraries, we were able to get close to the passing pasos and chat to local costaleros (men and women who carry the pasos). I'll be writing about this experience in the March 2015 issue of Flush Magazine, but if you're thinking of an Easter trip to Spain, try some of the Caminos towns for a less crowded experience.

My intense introduction to Semana Santa ended on a high with sábado santo in Seville. An experience shared with Kim from Becoming Sevillana, we were whisked from procession to procession by a keen crown of capillita boys, finishing by watching the solemnly beautiful entry of the Virgin into San Lorenzo church, where she'll wait for another year. Kim and I both touched the wooden door of the iglesia once it closed behind her, which according to local lore means we'll be returning next year.

Read more: Easter in Andalucía and Holy Saturday in Seville


My first trip to the Costa Brava: Port de la Selva

Even though April found me away from Madrid more days than not, Spain's puente de Mayo is a travel excuse that can't be missed: free days off! I took my first trip to the Costa Brava, staying in laid-back little Port de la Selva and day-tripping out to nearby Cadaqués, Llança and over the border to the French town of Banyuls-sur-Mer. With the infamous tramontana wind whipping holidaymakers into submission, there was no chance of early sunbathing, but a visit to Salvador Dalí's former home in Portlligat was a much more cultural way to pass the time. I fell for the wild, rugged coastline of the Cap de Creus, a side of Spain I hadn't seen before. That's one thing I love about living there: a weekend break can take you to a region so far removed from the one where you normally reside, both geographically and culturally.

My second May trip was less leisurely: a weekend in Córdoba with the sole aim of pasándolo bien at the feria. My favourite Spanish tradition involves andaluz towns and cities throwing a week-long party during which anyone with ganas de fiesta decamps to the recinto ferial on a daily basis, dolled up to the nines ready to sip rebujito and dance sevillanas by day, and switch over to copas and reggaeton by night. I'd never attended Córdoba's fair before, but found it to be a good size, with plenty of different casetas all open to the public. The cordobeses certainly have stamina: their feria lasts 9 days and continues well into the early hours of the morning – things were only just winding down as we limped home at 4.30am.

Feria de Cordoba: Welcome to the party

Read more: Costa Brava posts and Córdoba posts


Exploring Paris

In June, I jetted off to Paris to celebrate a close friend's birthday in style. Staying at a chic Airbnb apartment near Oberkampf, we spent the days wandering Montmartre and the banks of the Seine, and the nights sampling trendy restaurants and propping up local bars. One memorable meal was at Pirouette, a chic spot near Les Halles with an impressively good value set menu given the standard of the cooking. I can still almost taste their take on rice pudding, a humble dish elevated to new heights by the light texture and the delicious inclusion of salted caramel.

Dinner at Pirouette. If you're in Paris, go.

I also spent a weekend back home, catching up with my family.


Relaxing in Morocco

After the whirlwind of the first six months of the year, work-wise and everything-else-wise, I escaped to Morocco for a week's yoga and pilates holiday. Organized by the fantastic My Escape, this break at Villa Mandala near Agadir showed me that group holidays needn't be scary, and that a week of sun, stretching and gorgeous vegetarian food is strangely so much more relaxing than 7 days on a sun lounger.

Fuengirola: Pretty nice, actually

I wasn't back in Madrid for long before taking the AVE down south for 5 nights in Fuengirola. Intrigued by my company's choice of this Costa del Sol resort for their annual summer conference, I tagged on a weekend break with Vicki, staying at central Casa Consistorial before heading up to the hills for the conference at Reserva del Higuerón.  On this trip, I tossed my prejudices about this part of Spain put where they belong: after all, the Costa del Sol is where I first developed my love for this country. I'd be surprised if 2015 doesn't see me head back to Fuengirola for another sunshine break.

At the end of the month, I flew back to Lancashire for a weekend with my parents.

Read more: Yoga & pilates in Morocco and Fuengirola


Oxford: My beautiful former home

Picking up from my weekend at home, I began 3 weeks  living out of a suitcase and sleeping in more beds than I care to mention as I visited Oxford and London for work, France for holidays, Newbury and Liverpool for weddings, and Lancashire again for family catch-ups. I can't say I enjoyed all the packing, repacking and hauling of my suitcase on and off various forms of transport, but I loved spending time with friends and family, visiting old haunts and escaping the Madrid heat.

The UK enjoyed a great summer in 2014, and I was lucky enough to visit during (mostly) 25 degree heat: an optimum temperature for running around Oxford and London in sun dresses, seeing their buildings bathed in a warm glow. To me, Oxford is beautiful in any season, but there's something about the light in the warmer months, combined with long summer evenings spent in beer gardens with friends that makes it my favourite time to return. The weather was sadly less kind for both of the weddings, but even the rain couldn't dampen the warm and fuzzy feelings weddings induce.

La Grande Cote

The weather was also a bit cruel during my week in St Palais in the Charente-Maritimes region of France, where my bestie H's family have a stunning house. We girls spent a week between sun loungers and shelter, also finding time to visit the nearby beach at the Grand Cote, the local market, the photogenic little town of Mornac-sur-Seudre and the area's nearest city, Royan. Plenty of eating and drinking of French wine was also done, and we returned relaxed (if not as tanned as we'd have liked).


After around 12 days back in the capital, I boarded the AVE for Barcelona again. Saturday was spent up in Port de la Selva, which is distinctly livelier in high season, and Sunday involved a stroll around the pretty Parc del Laberint d'Horta on the hillside overlooking Barcelona.

Read more: A weekend in Oxford, Port de la Selva and Parc del Laberint d'Horta


El Valle de los Caidos

September was a bit of a departure for me, with no weekend breaks. A bit of time at home, living out of my own wardrobe was in order after a hectic August. I enjoyed a visit from Kim and we ventured to El Valle de los Caídos, the mammoth monument near El Escorial that was built under Franco's orders following the Civil War. Republican prisoners constructed the basilica chiselled into the rock and the huge cross that tops it, but accounts vary widely on the exact amount of labourers who carried out this project to commemorate the very war they fought in. A number of soldiers from both sides are buried here, yet Franco himself is also buried within the basilica, a fact that irks plenty of people. With Franco's legacy still raw to many Spanish citizens, El Valle is a sight that divides opinion. Some people find the idea of visiting morbid at best and fascist at worst, but nothing can change the fact that El Valle is a hugely significant monument in Spanish history, and for that reason, Kim and I wanted to see it for ourselves. I still haven't worked up the courage to blog about it, but that post will be coming up in 2015.


Beautiful Valencia

Back to the usual rhythm of weekend breaks and itching to leave Madrid, I spent the first weekend of October in an unseasonably sunny Valencia. One of my favourite Spanish cities, I believe Valencia's got it all: a gorgeous, largely pedestrianised casco antiguo, great (and great value) places to eat - and the beach. I spent the weekend showing first-time visitor J around the city, with our Airbnb apartment close to the Torres de Quart providing a perfect base for explorations. And explore we did: on Saturday we walked over 12 kilometres, wandering around town, dipping into the huge Mercat Central (apparently Europe's largest food market) before strolling through the Jardines del Turia to reach the Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias and finally, the beach. 

On the 31st, I hopped on the train again, this time to Málaga for a weekend with my cousin, who's currently on her year abroad in Marbella. We learned that malagueños go all out on Halloween, with zombies, ghosts and dead cheerleaders of all ages prowling the streets: definitely a good night to hit the town.

I'm a bit behind on my blogging, but there are new posts to come on both these destinations.

Read more: Valencia and Málaga


I just loved Malaga

The first weekend of November in Málaga felt more like the last of summer: after a morning wandering the revamped port area, Muelle Uno, we spent the afternoon on the beach. Spain, I love you and your sunshine. This was the first time either of us had spent more than a day in Málaga and we were suitably impressed by the coastal city. The Telegraph has just listed Málaga as a top destination for 2015 and I can see why: it has a smart centre with some beautiful buildings, the aforementioned port, a fantastic city beach and plenty going on culturally, with a selection of top-notch art galleries to be added to by the opening of the Centre Pompidou next year. Making the most of the last days of veroño (an Indian summer), we spent more time wandering than sightseeing, but the good news is that I've got plenty of reasons to return. 

From Málaga, it was straight up to Barcelona for work, where I also got to check out the Praktik Vinoteca, hip new gourmet food court El Nacional and the Adrià brothers' Mexican taquería, Niño Viejo.

El Nacional, Barcelona


Somerset House in December

A work trip to London went awry thanks to a bout of gastroenteritis, scuppering all my plans for catch ups with friends and kickstarting that festive feeling with mulled wine and mince pies on the South Bank. Still, once back in Madrid I managed to squeeze in a snowy day trip to Cotos, a skiing spot up in the sierra.

My final trip of 2014 was the one I make every year: back home for Christmas with family.

Back home in Lancashire

Having spent several hours writing this post, I've realised three things. One, I travel a ridiculous amount. Two, I attend a lot of conferences. And three, I'm behind on my blogging. Although I want to remedy that final point, I'm certainly not prepared to cut back on the globetrotting while I'm able to do it. I'm lucky enough both to get the opportunity to travel with my job, and to have friends who live around the world who are happy to receive visitors. And if those things continue, I should have no problem completing the #take12trips challenge in 2015.

Which has been my favourite destination? Well, although I don't document those trips here, my visits back to the UK to see family and friends are always high up on the list. In terms of purely leisure trips, it's difficult to choose, but I loved the craziness of the Caminos de Pasión trip, discovering the Costa Brava, stretching it out in Morocco and my two visits to the province of Málaga, both to Fuengirola and the city itself.

2014 hasn't just been about travelling though: it's been about settling back into Madrid and into expat life after moving in 2013. Although I had previously lived in Madrid from 2009–10, it took me longer than I expected to get used to living in the Spanish capital again. I don't usually share much about my daily life on this blog, but I recently wrote a guest post for the Day-to-Day series on Paper Planes if you're interested in finding out more about life as an expat in Madrid. For me, 2014 was also about blogging: this was the year that I changed the name of my blog from Tales of a Brit Abroad to Oh hello, Spain and got back into the swing of researching and writing regular posts.

So where is on my travel wish list for 2015? I'd like to continue getting to know new areas of Spain as well as revisiting my favourite destinations, so I'm hoping to tick off both San Sebastián and Cuenca next year, in addition to returning to Málaga and Granada. I'm also hoping to head to Portugal for the first time since 2011, and maybe even taking a long-haul trip outside of Europe. I'm open to suggestions – leave me a comment below!

Will you be taking the #take12trips challenge in 2015? Where was your favourite 2014 destination?

PS: If there's any chance you're looking for any more reading material after that(!), I've recently written 2 guest posts: the Day-to-Day in Madrid mentioned above, and my first post as a Praktik Ambassador, about an alternative 'Sunday plan' in Madrid. 


  1. This is a great post Kate and the take12trips is a great initiative. I too try to get out of Seville once a month, even if it is just for the day just to blow the cobwebs out! Looking forward to reading your 2015 posts.

    1. Thanks Kim! I thought it was a brilliant idea when I stumbled across it. Agree that even a day trip can do the trick! Likewise, and this post next year will feature our 2015 Semana Santa trip - can't wait!

  2. Your article gives me tons of ideas of weekend / day trips! Cordoba, Tarragona and Bilbao are definitely on my list already :-)

    I love the idea of the challenge although I'm usually the kind of compulsive person: I spend 2 or 3 lazy months in Madrid and then I feel an urgent need to travel and usually book 2 or 3 trips for the same month!

    I'll follow your adventures in 2015 then :-)

    1. Hi Cathy!
      Glad it helped. The great thing about Madrid's location is that you can get away really easily for a day or a weekend. Would really recommend both Cordoba and Bilbao. Tarragona is somewhere I'd also like to visit - and Girona, thinking of Catalunya!

      Totally understandable, especially in winter - sometimes going away is the last thing you want to do.

      Great! Let me know where you end up visiting :-)


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