Spain itinerary: Asturias road trip

Spain itinerary: Asturias road trip

This in-depth article will tell you all that you need to know about exploring the Asturias region and the Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain. It’s a narrative of the 17 day road trip that I took with my friend Debbie in the autumn of 2018.

Debs and I had already travelled together in S E Asia and we had also been on a road trip in the south of Spain a couple of years previously so we knew that we would have a lot of fun on this trip.  Our intention this time was to get to know Asturias and also dip our toes into the neighbouring regions of Rioja, Cantabria and Castilla y Leon.

This is a long read – so settle yourself down with a cup of tea and get comfortable and enjoy – or if you want to come back to it later, Pin using this image

You can replicate all or part of the trip yourself and I am happy to respond to any questions that you might have about our trip so please do drop me a message or comment below – I would love to hear from you.

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Day 1:  Exploring Logrono

The old town of Logrono was our starting point for this road trip which would take us mainly through the region of Asturias.  Our journey north to our starting point had taken us through the wine region of Rioja with rows and rows of vineyards and across a huge flat plain where the farmers were busy finishing gathering in their harvest of cereal, straw and hay.  This was the end of October and autumn was here.

Arriving in Logrono we checked into our backpackers hostel which was conveniently situated just a few blocks outside the old quarter.  We quickly settled in and then after dumping our bags we set off to explore.

Logrono is a delightful town with the River Ebro running through it and boasts a huge cathedral and narrow cobbled streets in the old town. Despite this being a road trip we had a lot of walking planned and so we began as we meant to go on and we explored Logrono on foot.

We crossed the river via the old iron bridge and we walked back the other way across the even older stone bridge. We stumbled across a tiny little museum, the El Cubo Artillero del Revellin which is based inside the last standing piece of the old city walls and we also visited the Science Museum – both of these museums are free to enter.

That first evening we walked around the old town and we ate pinxos in the area around the famous Calle Laurel.  At the end of October the weather here was still warm enough to stand outside and enjoy the buzz of the crowds who were munching on their snacks and in true Spanish style, chattering away at the tops of their voices.

Pinxos are a type of snack that are found in the northern region of Spain.  They are more than bite-sized, they are usually served on pieces of bread and they have the most scrumptious flavours.  Salchita (sausage) bacalao (cod) and pork feature heavily. Many come with creamy sauces or simple tomato and olive oil. They cost just a euro or a bit more for the fancier ones and are a great way to fill up on some exquisite tastes.

The pinxos are displayed in glass fronted counters along the bars where traditionally you choose one or two with a drink, chatter loudly with your friends and then move on to the next place and repeat.

The town of Logrono has taken pinxos to the next level and the bars are all busy in the evenings with locals and tourists alike vying for the best seats and the chefs vying for the most eye-catching displays.

After we had eaten our fill we returned to our hostel where we got a good night’s sleep in the 22 bed dormitory that was popular with walkers who were attempting the Camino de Santiago.

Day 2: Pancorbo and Reinosa

We were aware of the peligrinos (pilgrims) quietly packing their rucksacks in the dark before dawn so that they could head off early but both Debs and I are quite used to sleeping in dormitories so they didn’t really disturb us.  We rose at a more acceptable time and went out to a nearby cafe for a coffee and a pastry to kick-start the day.

Debs drove Betty the Berlingo north and because the weather was threatening to change for the worse we stuck to the motorway at this stage.  Along this part of the route the road was cut high into the side of the mountains and with several long tunnels and viaducts swooping across valleys the motorway offered the best views of the changing landscape below.

Needing a break and deciding to come off onto a smaller road we got confused at a junction where we accidentally took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a small village.

I should point out at this stage that getting lost was never usually a hassle and both Debbie and I were happy to discover what lay in a different direction.  Vague Spanish road signs, my confusion at reading my map and Debbie’s complete inability to remember her left from her right all took us up the wrong roads and frequently.

This time was no different and as it was time for a break anyway we parked up in a village that we discovered was called Pancorbo and we walked around to stretch our legs.

What a find this little village was!   We didn’t realise it at this stage but these gems would just continued to fall into our laps on the whole trip.  This medieval village was about to have its annual pony fair but even without that event happening on the day of our accidental visit, the village is well worth a poke around.

There are so many cobbled streets with so many old houses, often half timbered, many built on stone stilts and all with terracotta tiles that it’s a photographer’s dream.

We followed a stone path up behind the houses and found an old stone arch which was once part of a very old castle on the mountainside above and we watched birds of prey (vultures and buzzards I think) launching off the jagged cliffs and the castle ruins.

On a large field at one end of the town some of the local black ponies, called the Losino which are unique to this area and which run semi-wild up on the mountains for much of the year were displayed in pens.  Pony rides and carriage rides around the village were offered for free and some small stalls with artisan goods were doing a brisk trade.  Debbie and I took advantage of a carriage ride around the village alongside a laughing local family and we bought some local sheep’s cheese for our supper from one of the stalls.

The village had a bizarre atmosphere on the day we arrived, and I am not sure if it was because of the horse fair or not.  Surrounded by the mountain peaks we felt as if we had been transported back to South America.  The physical appearance of many here bore a strong similarity to people that I had seen in Peru and Bolivia – possibly some of the villagers’ ancestors had returned after the Spanish colonised that part of the world – but also the music that was being played, the clothes worn, the friendliness of the people and the proud horses all added to the charm.

Debs and I felt as if we had dropped into some parallel universe because approaching this little village (prior to our wrong turn) we hadn’t even been aware of the massive mountains which loom over the town and in some optical illusion, immediately upon leaving the village the mountains disappeared from behind!  It was a strange phenomenon like turning a corner and dropping through a hidden portal, but if you do have time, factor in a stop and see the mountains and the strange houses in this village.

Continuing to Reinosa

Refreshed and continuing our journey north the road climbed steeper and steeper when a thick mist came down to swallow us up.  We stopped for a hot chocolate at a roadside bar which was packed with Sunday walkers and dragon-boat teams.  With everybody softly steaming in the damp, warm atmosphere and the smell of wood-smoke hanging in the air it reminded me of a skiing holiday. We were very close to the huge lake called the Embalse de Ebro which explained the dragon boat teams and which must be very nice on a sunny day but views of which were proving rather elusive to us due to the low clouds, mist and the drizzle.

Warm and full of hot chocolate we continued around the lake and dropped down into the town of Reinosa to find our accommodation for the night.

This small budget hotel, although not too much to look at from the outside was perfect for us and we were welcomed into our cosy room before deciding to brave the elements.

Wrapping up warmly we walked briskly down to the small town centre.  This was much like the others in the region with grand houses built from stone, an even grander town hall, large plazas and imposing churches.  The sensible locals had broken out their ski gear several weeks earlier than normal against the biting cold which had descended upon them and they were padding around in salopettes and thick jackets.

The hotel guy had joked with us that autumn had missed the town this year and it had been plunged straight from summer into winter.  Our best course of action seemed to be to find a warm little bar which served a very nice red rioja wine before heading back for a hot shower, a supper of sheep’s cheese and an early night.

Get your Lonely Planet Guide here which will help you with your own road trip around the north (or anywhere) in Spain.

Day 3:  Santillano del Mar & LLanes

By the time that we got up the next morning it was raining hard and it was even colder but despite the weather, after checking out of our hotel we headed just a few miles out of town to find the source of the River Ebro.  I have been to the delta where the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea many times and Debs lives in a village on the banks of the Ebro so we were both very interested to find the birthplace of the longest river on the Iberian peninsula.

A short walk among autumnal leaves brought us to a pool with some remarkable blue and green hues and where the water rippled and bubbled as the springs gave life to the river.

After taking a couple of photos it was back in the car and north towards the beaches. Just before the coast we parked up and wandered around the town of Santillana del Mar which has been described as ‘the prettiest village in Spain’ by Jean-Paul Sartres.

Even in the rain it was easy to see how that description could have been earned although there are many other villages just as pretty in different ways.

This village became rich from the profits off the back of South American conquistadors and on their return, many people purchased titles.  They became barons and lords and upgraded their houses to mansions, complete with coats of arms.  A vast proportion of the village were wealthy enough not to work anymore and they reflected this wealth in their homes.

Despite the rain there were hordes of tourists wandering in and out of the numerous artisan delicatessens and souvenir shops and poking around the back lanes.  The village must be over-run with people in the summer but it wasn’t too bad when we were there.

Continuing north we next parked up for a wander around the seaside town of Corillas. This town’s claim to fame are several buildings designed in the style of the Catalan architect Gaudi. To be honest, we were beginning to fade a bit as the bitter wind blew in off the sea so we didn’t explore too much. We found a cute little restaurant where we tucked ourselves away and ate a Menu del Dia before moving on to our final destination of the day at Llanes.

The seaside town of Llanes

We sort of assumed that Llanes would have lots of accommodation being on the coast, out of season and on the route of the Camino de Santiago but we did start to panic a little bit when phone calls revealed that everything in our budget was fully booked.

Both myself and Debbie are seasoned travellers so panic wasn’t an option and we instead decided to settle ourselves in a bar with wifi and to ask around.  We eventually found a pilgrim’s hostel which had space.  Not being pilgrims we weren’t allowed to take advantage of the very reasonable priced dormitory but were obliged to take a private room; although as it came with free off-road parking and a breakfast we were very happy anyway.

After checking in, the drizzle seemed to be easing so we parked up Betty and we went to see what Llanes had to offer. This town has a lovely ambience with a large, very old neighbourhood, ancient stone town walls surrounding much of it, a harbour and beaches.  There were plenty of places to eat and drink and they also specialised in sidre.

The sidre (apple cider) in this part of Spain is poured into small glasses from a great height in order to aerate it. It’s naturally flat unlike the sparkling cider that we are used to in the UK but this pouring gives it body and a bit of fizz.  It’s normal to buy a large bottle and share between friends.  This way it stays cold and after the first pouring by the bar staff it will often be capped with a tapon, which is a cork with a hole in so that you can pour the following glasses yourself with hopefully minimum mess.

We did see some restaurants where the sidre was poured out over a deep metal bin but the best places were where the staff and the locals accurately hit the glass every time, freehand and usually whilst not even looking at either the bottle or the glass.

We climbed some stone steps to the mirador (a viewpoint) on the cliffs to see the sunset and to watch the high waves from the backend of the storm lash the concrete sea defences.

But more interesting was a ‘blowhole’ in the cliffs.  The incoming tide was forcing the sea up and through one of the thousands of cracks and blowing it up in a spray.  There are many of these blowholes all along this stretch of coastline thanks to the geological makeup of the cliffs where underground caverns have been carved over billions of years and something very simple gave us much enjoyment as we stood and watched.

Day 4 and the blowhole at Bufones de Pria

We liked the town of Llanes so much that we decided to extend our booking for a second night and take some time to explore it properly.  A bonus was that the sun had come out so We took a long walk out along the coast path where we watched men collect pink seaweed and spread it out to dry in the sun. They told me that they use this weed that had been washed ashore in the storm as a food and also use it in an elixir for health (jarabe).

We came across a beautiful beach with some strange rocks that were poking out of the sand and the bay like rows of jagged teeth and we climbed up to the top of the cliffs to what was once a fort where we lay on the wall in the sun, had a picnic and then in true Spanish style, we took a siesta and we fell asleep in the sun!

We decided to take advantage of the good weather so we walked back into Llanes, collected the car and drove west along the coast road (via the comically named town of Poo) and towards the cliffs where we had heard that there was a spectacular blowhole at Bufones de Pria.

It turned out that we had got ourselves a little bit lost and didn’t take the conventional path to the site, and by the time we had hiked along a cliff path deep in bracken and gorse and reached the blowhole the tide had just passed its peak.

There was quite a crowd of people who had been patiently waiting for decent photographs – they had approached along a much wider and more accessible path then we did – but due to the stormy weather the previous day, our blowhole in the town of Llanes had actually put on a better show for us.

If you are keen on geology this bit of land up on the cliffs was fascinating.  The rocks are rough and spiky with countless fissures – the huge ones fall all the way to the base of the cliffs and form the blowholes.  The noise of the sea pounding the base of the cliffs below is immense and all the time there is a constant dull booming and a loud shwooshing noise like an underground train approaching from its tunnel.

This part of the Asturian coastline is similar in so many ways to Devon and Cornwall in the UK with high cliffs, rugged coastal paths and small sandy beaches in the coves far below and driving further west to the incredibly pretty seaside town of Ribadesella confirmed this.

Set at the mouth of a river where sandy deposits had formed a beautiful stretch of beach this town had a small marina and pedestrianised streets with the regulatory old buildings and a church with a gorgeous ceiling.  It was nothing too spectacular until we took a stiff walk up a short hill, behind the town and out onto a look-out point where we were treated to yet another splendid sunset overlooking the bay and a spectacular vista below.

Day 5: Cabrales cheese and Arenas de Cabrales

After breakfast in our hostel we checked out and were on the road again – this time heading inland for the Picos de Europa and the area that was the main attraction for both of us on this road trip.  The sun was out and it was promising to be a gloriously warm day. It wasn’t a long drive to our next guesthouse so we took a detour to a viewpoint marked on our map.

Being Spain we ended up in a tiny village but with no indication of which way to go for the mirador.  We parked up and did what we do best and we asked a farmer for directions.  He was enjoying the sun over a cup of coffee outside his barn and he directed us to a small path out of the village.

Following his directions we walked up to a nobbly hilltop and a field of maize.  Walking around the small field and therefore around the nobbly top of the hill we were treated to views of both the coast and the Pico mountains at the same time.

What are the Picos de Europa?

The mountains in the Picos have a distinct shape with sharp angles and jagged points.  They cover 20 square kms, are close to the northern coastline of Spain and appear to be relatively unknown outside of Spain despite having some of the most iconic rock climbing and some amazing hiking routes.  The high pastures are grazed by gentle looking cows, sheep and goats, all with tinkling bells around their necks, and the pretty towns and villages are very welcoming.

The food and drink here is wholesome and hearty and we found the people who live and work here to be extremely friendly.  They also speak Castellano (Spanish) with a very clear accent which is also a bonus if, like me, you are learning the language.

There are many villages dotted around the mountain range but no good roads cross the mountain range in its entirety, although as I have already said, there is a fabulous network of hiking routes.  Many people base themselves in one of the larger towns and go out on day trips from their base whilst others like ourselves approach the Picos from various directions, circling around the outside and accessing different areas by bus, by car or by motorbike.

Arenas de Cabrales

For the next two nights Debs and I based ourselves in Arenas de Cabrales.  This town has a sleepy Alpine charm about it with a river running through, a nice selection of low-key bars and restaurants, green fields all around with the soft brown cows who all have bells around their necks and with views of the nearby mountain peaks.

As we had arrived too early to check in to our guesthouse we continued to Poncebos to check it out in preparation for our planned trip the following day.

Poncebos is the start (or the end point) of the Ruta de Cares – a hike along a gorge which everybody raves about and that we planned to hike along.  It is also the base station of a funicular that runs up to a mountain village called Bulnes.  It all looked a bit grim as we drove past and when we discovered that the funicular was going to cost us 22 euros we decided to give it a miss and to drive the road upwards and into the sun – well actually Debbie planned to turn the car around but there was no opportunity to do so for the next 10 kms on the narrow track!

This track took us up and up and along the side of a glacial valley, up high and into a cute little mountain village called Sotres where we parked up and wandered around in the sun.  We followed the start of a hiking trail and we ambled along for a while and yodelled at a herd of mountain goats which were grazing ahead of us.  The views were terrific, the sun strong and the peace and quiet brought a lump to my throat.  THIS was what I had been hoping to find on this trip.

There was magic at every turn, whether in the sound of the cow bells, the eagles soaring high above or the carpets of delicate autumn crocuses which gave the pasture a soft lilac sheen.

Don’t forget, please don’t go on any trip without adequate travel insurance.  You never know quite when a freak accident might strike, whether it is turning your ankle while hiking or coming face to face with a bear (check the small print as I’m not sure if bear attacks would be covered!).  I have used Alpha Travel Insurance for a few years now and whilst I have never had to claim so far (touch wood), I have always found them to be very competitive.  You can get a quote at this link.

After a picnic with the best views of the day we drove back to the junction at Poncebos to investigate where the start point was for the Ruta de Cares hiking trail.  We happened across one of the park rangers and an innocent question about where the trail began led to him spending three quarters of an hour with a map of the Picos draped across the bonnet of his car.  Victor enthusiastically pointed out the best bits of the Picos to us and gave us loads of valuable information about the bears that Debbie was so excited to see.

That encounter with Victor proved exactly why it pays not to make too many plans in advance because we completely altered our itinerary there and then thanks to his insider information about the best bits of the Pico mountains and the regions of Asturias and Cantabria.

We returned to our hostel with its cute outside kitchen and garden complete with hammocks (I love a hammock; shame it was too cold) and after checking in we walked a little way up the road to the Cuevas de Cabrales.

The Cuevas del Queso Cabrales/Cabrales Cheese Caves

I wasn’t too sure what to expect at these caves.

Were there goats, caves or was this a cheese factory?

Lasting just under an hour our guide led us through a labyrinth of caves cut under the mountainside and she explained (in fast Spanish) about how the local registered cheese had to be matured naturally in caves in order to be allowed to display the coveted green foil wrapper.   The atmosphere and temperature in the caves which are dotted all through this region provide the perfect conditions for maturing the cheese which is one of the main industries of the area.

Our tour ended with a small taster of the different types of cheeses and some sidre  – although having bought some of the cheese earlier that day we could appreciate just how creamy and blue (and smelly) it was.

That evening we went out for dinner in the town and tried one of the local specialities of chorizo en sidre and chips in a creamy blue cheese sauce.

Lakes of Covadonga: Day 6

We had a busy day ahead of us so first we set off for Cangas de Onis.  Victor had advised us to pop in to both the tourist office and the office for the National Parks to get information about the hiking trails and some maps.

This town looked very interesting but we didn’t have time to stop today as we were on mission to go to the lakes of Covadonga.

If you visit these lakes in the summer or at weekends there is a system of car parks and shuttle buses to take you up the narrow roads to the top.  Without a traffic-management system the whole route becomes gridlocked but we were here mid-week so we could take our time and only hope that Betty wouldn’t overheat.

We drove up the long road through the halfway point of Covadonga with its spectacular church set on the peak of a rock and we continued upwards along a series of hairpin bends for miles.

I began to freak out as the road became incredibly narrow with few passing points and even less safety barriers and it began to get congested. As the road deteriorated even further I resorted to muttering and mumbling like a mad woman to deal with my anxiety while Debbie patiently manoeuvred close to the crumbling edge and the sheer drop down the mountain below us to allow others to pass from the other direction!

Finally reaching the car park for the start point of our lake hike and practising my mindfulness like mad I managed to relax – and also thanks to Debbie’s foresight to move the car to the lower cark so that I didn’t spend our hike worrying about the worse stretch of road.

(You can get your copy of my book on Becoming Stronger through Mindfulness at this link)

After a very necessary visit to the toilet we set off on our circular hike around the two lakes of Enol and Ercina.

The air was clean and clear and the hike which took us under 3 hours meandered past the lakes, through a forest and up and over pastures which were dotted with tiny stone huts for shepherds and hikers to shelter in.

I had seen images of these lakes on other travel blogs and I was thrilled to be walking around them high up in the mountains.  The tallest peaks above us still had snow in some deep pockets from the previous winter and as you looked across the pastures there was a hint of purple to the grass where trillions of the lilac autumn crocuses were blooming.

The marked walk was easy although we did have a bit of confusion at one point when it wasn’t too clear which way the path went.  We rested at the end in deckchairs outside a bar and looking over the wide U-shaped valley and watched some shepherds leading a herd of cows to a holding pen from where they would be carted lower down the mountain for the winter.

After we had descending halfway back down the mountain in the car we made a stop at Covadonga for a poke around the imposing cathedral.  Yes, it’s spectacular but it’s far more impressive from the road as you see it in the distance below but remember to avoid the place at weekends if you want to drive here yourself.

We returned to the restaurant of the previous night in Arenas de Cabrales where an epic language fail produced what looked like a plate of noodles.  I don’t think that I would have been able to eat them even if I had continued to believe that they were noodles because of the weird taste but even less so when Debbie informed me that they were baby eels.

Now I do eat fish and seafood but these eels had no distinguishing features at all. No eyes, or fins and all I could think of was that they were white earthworms.  I have eaten worse (for example crickets in Thailand) but the flavour of the accompanying sauce was so strong it was making me gag.

I filled up instead on bread and sidre.  In this restaurant the waitress poured our sidre from its required height over a deep metal bin to avoid splashes on the floor and then she left the bottle with us on our table with its tapon – a cork with a hole in it – so that we could replicate the effect.

Day 7; Cangas de Onis and Gijon

We headed back to the coast for a few days as bad weather in the mountains was coinciding with a holiday weekend and expensive accommodation.  We made a stop to explore Cangas de Onis in more depth (we had passed through the previous day) and we did some shopping in some of the many gift shops.  We walked across the ancient Roman bridge and we treated ourselves to a lunch – a Menu del Dia and our first taste of fabada asturiana and chachopo de ternera asturiana before navigating our way around the port city of Gijon.

Due to the lack of accommodation over this holiday weekend we had reserved three nights in an AirBnB apartment in Gijon which ended up being quite a strange experience.

If you have never used AirBnB before, you can use this link here to get a discount off your first trip

Our host was lovely and super friendly but for some reason she decided to pack too many people into too small a space, whilst she was also decorating a room.  Our bedroom which looked nice in the photos was crammed full of spare furniture and the lock to our door was broken.  In the middle of the night we were woken by another guest who had got disorientated on his way to the loo and who was very confusedly standing in our room.

We had access to the roof terrace but due to the decorating work and the fact that another guest and our hostess were sharing that room we had to clamber in and out of our window.  We also had access to the kitchen but there was never any room in there – there were simply too many people in too small a space.  We had no choice but to make the best of a bad job but it was all very clean and we were only planning to use it as a base.

That first evening Debbie and I walked along the beach and into Gijon.  On the surface this city looks like any other city in Spain but there was a dark edge to it – dark as in no light rather than dark sinister, but like our accommodation, we were just staying there as a base from which to explore further afield so it didn’t bother us too much.

Day 8: Dinosaur footprints

After a slow start we jumped in the car and headed east along the north edge of Spain.

We parked up and wandered around the small town of Villaviciosa which was not technically on the coast but on a river.  We had coffee in the sun and took it easy, checking out some of the beautiful homes and buildings in the small town centre.

It was all nice and laid back and sleepy and while we had no real timetable to follow we wanted to get quite a long way along the coast so we forced ourselves back to the car and headed off again.

Our next stop was at  La Griega Beach and after a picnic overlooking the wide sandy beach we followed the coast path along the cliffs to to see dinosaur footprints that had been fossilised in the rocks below.  These had been on my list of things to see on this trip but I underestimated quite how it felt to see and touch evidence of such huge creatures that roamed the earth so long ago.

It also felt odd, almost irreverent, to be able to walk in the depressions in the flat stones although as they have been there for 154 million years I don’t suppose they are going to wear out anytime soon.

We decided to continue following the coastal footpath along a designated hiking route which took us up and down through forests and along the top of the cliffs until we came to a fork in the road.  It was decision time.  We could walk another 3kms to a view of some islands or 300 metres to a tapas bar.

You didn’t really think that we would head for the islands did you? 😉

Our final stop of the day was the seaside town of  Llastres.  With steep cobbled streets and a stone harbour wall sheltering the boats it again reminded us of a Cornish fishing town.  It was very pretty but full of tourists and with prices to match so we picnicked on the sea wall and we chatted to a pilgrim who was walking the Camino who had also stopped to rest.

Day 9:  Asturias beaches

We still had another night booked with our AirBnB hostess so we set off to explore the coastline to the west of Gijon.

The route was quite beautiful with old stone viaducts crossing the valleys that cut deep paths through the trees to the sea.  We parked up on one very windy headland which boasted a lighthouse (Cabo Penas) and again we commented on how like the Cornish coastline this whole area was with craggy cliffs soaring above the raging surf crashing onto rocks below.

Then it was on towards another couple of fishing villages – they were all beginning to look very similar now – but we had time on this trip and both myself and Debbie were happy to have a couple of slower days.

If you want to replicate this trip then you will also want to know that we stopped and wandered around the coastal villages of Cudillero and Lluarca – both sprawl up steep hillsides and have pretty narrow streets and harbours and are great for people watching although I think that they might be unbearably busy in the summer.

After a day exploring this coastline we headed back to Gijon along a high swooping stretch of motorway and treated ourselves to a half a metre of pizza and sampled yet more sidre in a restaurant close to our temporary home!

Day 10: Somiedo National Park and the Cantabrian brown bear.

Now things were getting a little more exciting because we were heading inland again and to another National Park – Parque Nacional de Somiedo, or the Somiedo Nature Park – and where nearly two hundred and fifty BEARS live.

The road in to the next mountain village where we were to stay for a couple of nights was as usual, amazing.  For the last part of our trip it followed a steep sided gorge where the road was undercut through cliffs that were overhanging the road and waterfalls that splashed down over our car.

I am always aware of the environmental impact of my travels but this was a road trip and many of the highlights were the driving routes that we chose.  Whether here, in the Picos or along the coast the roads that we took were generally through awe-inspiring scenery and mostly with very little traffic so they were a pleasure to drive and we had many opportunities to stop and take photos or have a picnic.

In Spain there is a standard road sign that warns of wild animals on the road – but here, as we entered the mountains of the Somiedo National Park, the deer were replaced by bears on the sign which was really very exciting!

Our accommodation for the next few nights was in the village of Pola de Somiedo that nestled in a bowl surrounded by high pastures and peaks and with small roads that headed out from the village like spokes from a wheel in different directions and deep into the national park.

After checking into our lovely roadside inn we went for a walk to get our bearings and stopped off at the visitor centre to educate ourselves about the bears in Spain and to pick up some maps for some of the many hiking trails that were round and about.

After learning about the bears the weather turned damp, cold and grey so instead of setting off up the mountain we stumbled into a noisy warm bar which was full of locals and joined them with several glasses of excellent house red wine and a huge tureen of a mountain style soup which warmed us up.

Brown bears in Spain

The bears were traditionally hunted almost to extinction in Spain until 1953 when hunting of them was banned.  They do occasionally take calves and lambs that graze away from the villages but the farmers are compensated.  There have been very few incidents of human attacks – and these have all been when the bears have been surprised or when they have cubs with them.

The information centre has a lovely display with information about the bears and everything else in this region – food, the agriculture, the lifestyle and the birds – and is well worth a visit.  There are now approximately 250 bears within the Somiedo Natural Park and small groups over in parts of the Picos de Europa also.

During the autumn and the winter the bears are usually deep in the forests stocking up on nuts and berries, so you are more likely to see them in the spring when they are looking for food with their cubs.

If you go hiking it is recommended that you don’t creep around quietly.  Whilst you might want to spot a bear you do want the bear to spot you first.  If you are lucky enough to see one, do not run!  Stay quiet and watch and hope that the bear will wander off first.  Do not turn your back for a selfie!

Day 11: Valle de lago, Somiedo

We were up and out early for the first of our planned hikes to some of the many glacial lakes that are high up in the mountains here in this natural park.  We drove along yet another spectacular valley, climbing higher and higher along a well maintained but narrow road with plenty of hairpins.

We were beginning to understand the topography now – there are access points into the mountains from key towns and the roads usually follow steep gorges and ravines.  There are very few points where you can cross completely – both here and in the Picos – but that all adds to the charm of the place.

We parked our car at the furthermost point allowed for the general public (farmers here have much deeper access along small tracks) and we set off on our hike which was a steady uphill route.  On our left, craggy peaks rose steeply out of green pastures with the occasional traditional hairy-roofed stone refuge dotted about, and to our right was thick forest where we imagined the bears were hiding and stuffing themselves silly on the autumn fruit and nuts.

The trees were beginning to change to the most vibrant, orange, reds and yellows and although in the sun we were getting temperatures of 20 degrees, the moment we stepped into the shade it was decidedly chilly.

Our destination lake wasn’t the most spectacular – in part because it was reflecting the heavy grey sky but it was well worth the walk.  For much of it we were followed by inquisitive cattle and we also saw a herd of goats.  In this region there are often no human shepherds taking care of the animals but dogs!  These shepherd dogs are massive – like some sort of a mastiff.  I wouldn’t dare go near their flock whilst they were working but we did see quite a few retired dogs in the villages and they are certainly gentle giants. I just find it incredible that these animals operate without humans overseeing them.

Day 12:  The Saliencia Lakes/Lagos de Saliencia

After a relatively quiet night in the village we set off the following day along a different valley – this time to a high pass between the mountains and to a cluster of more glacial lakes.

Today’s climb was a lot tougher with some steep uphill sections but once again we were rewarded with some great views.  The route between the lakes involved quite a bit of scrambling across boulders, through deep bracken and dodging some rather intimidating bulls.

We joined a few other hikers at a bottleneck in a narrow pass through the mountains – what was this – a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere?  The farmers were beginning to round up their cattle and transport them down to the lower pastures before the winter snows (which arrived just a week after we left the region).  We were all very happy to hang around and chill while the men battled to get 9 enormous beasts plus some calves into a truck.  It was certainly a test of willpower and strength and the cows were not going to give in gracefully.

We followed a hiking path around three different lakes that were surrounded by green pastures, craggy peaks and yet more cows.  We ate a picnic lunch sat on a rock in the sun gazing down a valley from a high mountain pass before taking our time on the drive back and stopping off to explore several other mountain villages and their bars.

Can you see a pattern forming here on our road trip?  Food and drink played a huge part (we were always careful never to drink and drive), but we felt virtuous because of all the walking that we were doing.

Day 13 of our road trip to Asturias

Debbie and I were quite reluctant to leave Pola de Somiedo but we had to continue our road trip so the following day we set off in horrible weather, crossing through the national park and heading first south and then west and back towards the southern side of the Picos and Boca de Huergano.

Before we had set off on our road trip some friends had recommended that we pay our money and drive a remote toll road.  They had told us that it was a long route that swept down past the Picos but we didn’t think that we would be far enough west to see it.

However on our route south today we accidentally got onto one of the two entry points of the toll road….had a spectacular fail at the (unusually) unmanned toll booth because we didn’t pick up a ticket – and then got off the toll road at one of the two exit points where the guy in the office waved us through after we explained that we thought that the ticket machine had been broken.

To cut a long story short, it seemed that completely by accident we had driven the middle section of the route that our friends had recommended and exited alongside the enormous Riano reservoir with six or seven drowned villages underneath.

The strange little village of Boca de Huergano didn’t have much going for it but it was to prove to be a fantastic base for our planned expedition the following day.  We stayed in an inn which at first seemed a little strange but by the end of our stay was ingrained on our memories as such a cute, friendly place.

After checking in we went for a walk through the forest behind the village, following the small river.  We went as far as the next-but-one village which was so traditional that many of the villages till slept in the stone houses that were built above their farm animals.  Just about every house had one of the peculiar wooden storage barns raised high up on wooden stones and which were traditionally made without nails.

On our way back we found a modern hotel with a huge log burner and big squashy sofas.  After a large glass of wine both myself and Debs nodded off to sleep – in our defence we had done an awful lot of hiking and driving over the previous few days, and we returned later that night for an evening meal with tablecloths!!

Day 14 and the Ruta de Cares

The next day was an early start with a long drive up an incredibly high mountain pass to the place that was top of my ‘must see and do in the Picos de Europa’ list.  We drove for more than an hour in freezing cold, thick fog, rewarded every so often with snatched views of the sharp peaks towering above the road.

Betty the Belingo was proving to be a real star as she motored solidly uphill for nearly an hour with Debs nursing her to keep the temperature needle in the green and then she had to be nursed down the other side to ensure that the brakes didn’t overheat!  The last part of the road into the village at the end of the path was hairy with overhanging rocks and stones tumbling down that had been dislodged by the earlier rains, but the sun was breaking through and the mist was lifting.

I had been advised by numerous people that if I attempted nothing else, that I should hike the Ruta de Cares and Debs and I were told by our forest ranger a few days earlier that if we were to only do half of it we should start at the south.

The hiking path was wonderful.  It followed a steep sided gorge, crossing several bridges hanging across the raging water below and across a section of decking that was suspended over a horrifying drop where a rock fall had swept away the path several years before.  I lost count of the number of tunnels that we had to duck through that had been cut through the cliffs and waterfalls that we had to dodge as they tumbled past us.

As we got to the halfway point the gorge began to widen but it was no less spectacular – and for those engineering geeks of you out there, I should point out that a canal was cut separately along the route – the building of which must have been even greater than preparing the path.

This hiking path is the only continuous route north to south across the Picos and it’s easy to see why when you see the steep mountains.  Goats were bouncing around on the rocks opposite, seemingly oblivious to their imminent death if they were to miss their footing and plunge to the bottom of the gorge.

Back at the village of Cain which is either the start or the end point of your hike, and which had a decidedly alpine feel, Debs and I treated ourselves to a well earned coffee while we watched buzzards ride the thermals high above us.

After we had rested, we braved the very slow route out of the valley, past the old wolf trap where in medieval times the entire village had to turn out and help to catch and kill wolves, then onwards and back to our lovely little inn for the night where some of the elderly men from the village sat and chatted to us and shared glasses of wine and cognac with us.

Day 15 – The east side of the Picos de Europa

Our road trip around Asturias was beginning to wind down now and we drove on to explore the eastern side of the Picos mountain range.  Once again, the drive was spectacular and on our drive into Potes both Debbie and myself agreed that this entire region was indeed a true paradise.  It had ticked so many boxes for both of us on so many levels – the nature, great hiking, spectacular scenery, tasty food and drink and it had also touched us both on a spiritual level.

We didn’t see any bears of wolves but as we discovered when we visited another bear information place – this time in Potes – the spring is the best time for sightings although there was great excitement on the local television news one evening because a bear had wandered into a village.  The bears are now fiercely protected after being hunted to the point of extinction in the past and farmers are now compensated for any livestock that they might take.

We arrived in Potes on a dreary wet and very cold day but we had struck gold with yet another cute inn.  The best bit about a road trip outside of the high tourist season is the flexibility that it affords so we checked the weather forecast and adjusted our plans once again.

Our accommodation was a twenty minute walk from Potes town centre but we decided to leave Betty rest and we trekked in and out each time.  As I have already said, we visited the bear information place and we ambled around the tiny cobbled streets that twisted themselves between stone cottages and intriguing little alleyways.

The shops contained every souvenir that you might possibly want so we stocked up on goodies and continued on our quest to test all of the red wine and sidre that we possibly could.

That evening, in true traveller style we got chatting to a couple of Spanish guys at the next table in the bar and we spent a lovely evening swapping stories and learning some more about the amazing hiking in this region.

Day 16 – Exploring Potes

We woke to sunshine but cloud was forecast so today was to be spent in and around Potes.  We set off to follow a hike that a lady in the tourist office had assured us was ‘easy’ but after an hour of steep uphill and with more to follow, plus a huge confusion on which path to follow at one point, we were certainly cursing her.

We didn’t see another soul on the entire route until we found, totally by accident, a hermita (a hermitage) nestling in the trees.  Our route had taken us high above the town, around the back of a mountain and back down again through forests along a very steep track.  At one point I fancied that I had found a bear print in the wet mud in the road.  In reality, the track was probably a bit too close to the town for bears but I am not totally sure that we weren’t being watched from the dark trees at some points.

More exploring of the town and more sidre testing followed our hike before a relatively early night as we had a long day ahead of us the following morning.

Day 17: the Picos de Europa cable car at Fuente De

We rose early because the weather forecast promised that today would be the best of all the days – sunny and with no cloud until later in the day.  We were heading off to Fuente De – and as it was a sunny Sunday we wanted to beat the crowds.  We were going to take a cable car up into the Picos.  We joined the queue with many day trippers like us and groups of serious mountain bikers and hikers to be whisked up the mountain.  The cable cars were quite small, holding just twenty people each and had a very steep incline covering 753 metres in less than three and a half minutes.  Emerging from the top the air was certainly fresher and bingo, there was no cloud.

As we had a long drive ahead of us later that day having adjusted our plans so that we could take advantage of the better weather, we just spent a couple of hours at the top, walking around the moonlike landscape which was in a crater and watching golden eagles, vultures and alpine choughs play.  A cup of tea and a nerve inducing photo on a metal grid suspended over the mountain completed our visit and we headed back down again in the car.

We had initially been tempted to hike down but our two Spanish friends had put us off with tales of long drops and slippery paths, so we used our return ticket and took the easy way down.

We were off to Logrono which had been our starting point for the whole trip and we were looking forward to revisiting the tapas bars and eating and drinking our body weight in pinxos and rioja wines.

As we headed south east the landscape became much more arid up on the high plains and then dropping down to the river and the city of Burgos, far more industrial.  The highway followed the Camino de Santiago for miles (although we were obviously heading in the other direction to any pilgrims), and then, with just an hour of daylight left, Betty started to wobble.

A scary sort of ‘maybe the wheel is going to fall off’ wobble followed by a loss of power coincided with a petrol station with a large forecourt.  Some of the massive articulated lorries were already parked up and there were plenty of people around so Debs and I weren’t too concerned about what to do, although this was Sunday evening in Spain!

We did the usual – we checked under the bonnet and kicked the tyres before googling our problem – and made the decision that we had to call out the emergency rescue team.

Wow, how impressive were they!  A trailer appeared within 20 minutes for Betty and a taxi was laid on for our 5 hour drive back to our home.  The taxi driver had been settling down in the town’s stadium and preparing to watch his local team play football when the call came through to take two ‘elderly’ ladies back home.

Elderly!  Well I guess we might have been elderly to the twenty-something operator at the end of the phone but when the taxi was offered rather than faffing around with a hotel for the night, we decided it would be wise not to complain and certainly not point out that we were probably fit enough to walk all the way home!

So our trip didn’t end quite as we had planned and we missed out on our tapas, but we did spend a nice journey chatting to our very pleasant cab driver.

And Betty?  Well she followed us a few days later but sadly the trip had proved too much for her twenty year old bones and she had to be retired to the great scrap yard in the sky.

I hope that you have enjoyed this journey with Debs and I.  I have nearly one thousand photos and it was very hard to choose which ones to leave out so watch out for an article and a photo tour of northern Spain in the future.

If you would like to replicate our road trip to Asturias you can get further information below or drop me a line.

Accommodation

When I travel I usually prefer to not book my accommodation in advance and not to plan my trips too strictly.  I like to be flexible and to be able to change direction or extend my stay on a whim.

On this trip to Asturias however, budget accommodation was being snapped up fast – due to the weather and the long holiday weekend – so my friend Debbie and I tended to look just one destination ahead and reserve a place.

Some of our trip was on the routes of the Camino de Santiago where there are numerous hostels and albergues but many were fully booked or cost a lot more for non-pilgrims.

There were hotels and guesthouses EVERYWHERE but we were travelling on a budget; although in a real emergency we had a tent and sleeping bags (it got very cold at night) and a credit card to pay for a more expensive hotel if necessary.

Debbie and I used a variety of means to find our accomodation.  We walked in, we asked at the Tourist Information Offices and we used the following booking websites:

I will shortly be publishing a list of the places that we stayed to take even more of the hassle out of the trip for you, so bookmark this page or drop me an email.

If you want to replicate this trip, you will find details in this section, but you can of course choose any starting and finishing point.  If you would like any specific information about any of the places that I visited do drop me a line as I would love to help you explore.

Our trip details at a glance.

Day 1:  Arrival in Logrono

  • Wander the old town and the narrow streets and riverside
  • El Cubo artillero del Revellin
  • The Science Museum
  • Iron and stone bridges across the river
  • Pinxos for supper

Day 2  Logrono to Reinosa

  • Pancorbo with its unusual houses and amazing mountains behind
  • Lake – the Embalso del Ebro
  • Arrive in Reinosa
  • Old civic buildings in the town
  • The nearby lake
  • Source of the River Ebro

Day 3:  Reinosa to Llanes

  • Source of the Ebro
  • Santillana del Mar (prettiest village in Spain)
  • Corillas (Gaudi type stuff)
  • San Vicente de la Barquera
  • Destination Llanes
  • Cliff walk & blowhole

Day 4:  Around Llanes

  • Llanes
  • Bufones de Pria
  • Ribadesella

Day 5:  Llanes to Arenas de Cabreles

  • Poncebos (start or end point of the Ruta de Cares)
  • Funicular to Bulnes
  • Sotres
  • Cueva del Questo de Cabreles – the cheese cave

Day 6:  Day trip from Arenas de Cabrales

  • Cangas de Onis
  • Covadonga
  • Lago de Enol
  • Lago de la Ercina

Day 7:  Arenas de Cabrales to Gijon

  • Cangas de Onis – shopping and lunch
  • walk in the evening in Gijon into the old town

Day 8:  East of Gijon

  • Villaviciosa
  • Dinosaur footprints and cliff hike at La Griega beach
  • Seaside town of Llastres

Day 9:  West of Gijon

  • Lighthouse at Cabo Penas
  • Cudillero
  • Lluarca

Day 10:  Gijon to Pola de Somiedo

  • National Park of Somiedo – information centre in Pola

Day 11: in the Somiedo National Park

  • Drive to Valle del Lago and hike to a lake

Day 12:  in the Somiedo National Park

  • Drive to the viewpoint at Alto de la Farrapona and hike around the 3 lakes of Saliencia

Day 13:  Pola de Somiedo to Boca de Huergano via the Riano reservoir

Day 14:  Cain and hiking the Ruta de Cares

Day 15:  Boca de Huergano to Potes

Day 16: Potes

  • Exploring the town of Potes
  • Hiking the mountain behind Potes
  • Casa del Oso (the Bear House)

Day 17:  Potes to Logrono (well we almost made it!)

  • Fuente De cable car
  • headed for Logrono – broke down and home in a taxi!!

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Lace hankies and floodwater – finding myself in India

Lace hankies and floodwater – finding myself in India

I want to remind you that despite how people might appear on the outside we never know the whole story about what’s going on in someone’s mind.

It’s also good to be reminded that happiness (and loneliness) doesn’t only depend on external factors or material things and that no matter how bleak things sometimes seem to be, they usually improve.  My tattoo of a peacock (India’s national bird) reminds me daily of lessons learnt when I got soaking wet in the monsoon rains in India.

Peacock decoration on a door in Agra, India

Peacock decoration on a door in Agra, India

I first wrote this article just one year after I the breakup of my marriage.  I travelled to India with Explore and travelled with a wonderful group of people – and whilst it’s a cliché – India truly was a life-changing experience for me. My children had chosen to cut me out of their lives, I was being bullied in work and I was floating around in a (prescription) drug induced haze following an emotional breakdown.  I needed a change and I needed it quickly if I were to begin to rebuild my life and my self-esteem back up.

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Lace hankies and floodwater

 

I have been at my loneliest whilst sat on an exquisite beach in Mexico and I have been at my happiest soaked to the skin in the monsoon rains in India.  Let me explain.

A luxury holiday in the Caribbean.

 The turquoise Caribbean sea lapped against the hot white sand whilst emerald green hummingbirds darted around the manicured grounds of the five-star gated holiday complex.  I lay on a sunbed gently toasting in the sun whilst a waiter brought me iced cocktails and my biggest decision of the day was whether to wander down to the beach or stay next to the pool.

I knew that I was privileged to be able to holiday at such an amazing place, but I was hungry to see what lay beyond the gates and to meet the real people of Mexico.

luxury and hot white sands in Mexico - but I felt lonely

luxury and hot white sands in Mexico – but I felt lonely

One day on this holiday, my husband and I joined an organised coach trip which took us from our resort to the iconic Chichen Itza site.  We drove through towns and villages and we were offered tantalising glimpses of people going about their day to day business.  After exploring the ruins I strolled ahead of my husband among the small stalls set up under the trees by local people.  This was more like it; I spoke no Spanish yet I felt comfortable here among the people who were doing their best to attract tourists to their handicraft stalls.

I wandered around intending to buy a couple of small things which cost just pennies from a group of ladies who proudly showed off a small baby to me, but I was persuaded by my husband to move on; that we didn’t need to buy the cute little handkerchiefs that they had made.

Later that evening, as we sat in our hotel restaurant eating food that the stall holders could only dream of, I was angry for allowing myself to be dissuaded from buying a couple of  lace hankies and years of unhappy experiences crowded into my mind.  Sat on the beach the next day, I couldn’t stop the tears as I realised that despite being on holiday in such a beautiful place, I was deeply unhappy and feeling lonely in our relationship.

It was on that holiday in Mexico that I began to seriously question the path that my life was taking.  By the following June I had decided that things couldn’t continue as they were and when I really began to question the status quo, my life as I knew it imploded.

Finding myself in India 

One year later, in the August, I was holidaying at the other end of the scale.  I had travelled to India during the monsoon season with the travel company ExploreI had been in a pretty bad way emotionally and a friend had suggested that I could do with a break.  She recommended Explore and as I was not in any position emotionally to travel solo I took her up on her suggestion and I found myself in India with a small group of 16 travellers.

local travel in India - trains in the rain

local travel in India – trains in the rain

Advertised as touring India on a shoestring we were travelling on local buses and trains and mostly staying in small low-budget hotels.  Whilst we had the security of a travel guide we also had a lot of free time.  (Continue reading to the end of the article and discover how I ended up in India when I had intended to book a cycling trip in Italy!)

On my second day in Delhi I was riding in a tuk-tuk with three other people – almost strangers to me at that point – when flash floods engulfed the city streets.  We had decided to use our free time and take a tuk tuk around the city when the rain began to fall.  Drains blocked with rubbish soon began to overflow and the waters began to rise.

tuk tuk in India

tuk tuk in India

Our driver ploughed on into the floodwater, oblivious to the fact that it was now well over the sill of his vehicle and was lapping around our hips on the back seat.  I have to admit to being a little scared at that point and then, with our bags raised above our heads, and smoke belching out of the submerged exhaust, the machine coughed and then stopped.

Assuring us that he would manage to re-start the machine and refusing all offers of help with a push, our driver indicated that we should get to some higher ground.  We gingerly stepped out and waded through thigh-deep water to take some shelter in a shop doorway.  Joining a group of cheerful Indian ladies with their sodden saris trailing in the water I tried to ignore the obvious lumps of sewerage which were floating past (thankfully at that stage I was oblivious to the dysentery that would soon follow) and the desperate poverty that was present all around us.



My group of friends chatted about the rain and we worried about how we would ever find our way back to our hotel because the unpronounceable street name had been washed clean from the paper on which it had been written.  We glumly looked out over the messy, untidy street where the filthy water was running and we tried to squeeze some of the rain water out of our clothes and our hair.

walking in the monsoon rain in India

walking in the monsoon rain in India

On the contrary, the ladies giggled as they watched some men who had waded out to help push the tuk-tuk up a slope and then like men the world over, gathered around scratching their heads and offered mechanical advice – totally unfazed by their soaked clothes and the water lapping around their knees.

The women told us that whilst the floods would cause many deaths (that year was particularly bad), the monsoon rains always brought a welcome relief from the sapping summer heat and it irrigated the parched land.  The monsoon season was to be celebrated because the consequences should it ever fail were unimaginable.

The first stage to my recovery. 

I stepped out from under the shelter and I raised my face to the deluge allowing the warm water to wash over me, imitating the little children who were playing excitedly around us.  They had long ago discarded their clothes and their little brown bodies shone as they splashed and laughed in the rain.

street life in India - life goes on - despite the rain

street life in India – life goes on – despite the rain

Marooned in the shabby backstreets of Delhi, surrounded by water and sewerage, the jewel-bright colours of the women’s silk saris reminded me of the humming-birds in Mexico. These ladies weren’t focusing on the negatives at all.  They would have to wash the mud out of their clothes, their homes would be damp and travel during the monsoon season would be difficult but they could count their blessings that the rains had come and they laughed and chatted together.

I was in a strange country with nobody who I knew, yet I was not lonely. I was truly happy and like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis I felt reborn.  I was taking back control of my life, and as I began to come out from the shadow of my marriage, my own identity blossomed and I decided that I liked the person that I was becoming.  I couldn’t wait to see what I was capable of achieving next.

Continue reading below the image and discover how I ended up in India when I had planned to spend 5 days cycling around the vineyards of Tuscany.

If you want to build your self esteem and maybe travel alone by yourself one day why not try the Smash the Pumpkin Project for a month (click here for more information).

If you want to take a holiday but you would prefer not to travel solo I can totally recommend Explore. They are so good that I have actually taken 4 trips with them and I have made many long term friends via them. This link will take you to their website where you can book your dream trip.

If you would like to read a book which explains how you can become stronger through mindfulness I have just the thing for you.  This introduction to the subject of mindfulness might just set you off on your own personal journey of self discovery (click here to purchase)

book cover - Becoming stronger through mindfulness

Becoming stronger through mindfulness

 

I had planned to go to Italy! 

I have already explained that my friend recommended that it might do me good to take a short break away from my problems and she gave me her Explore brochure.  I wasn’t in a good place emotionally having recently experienced an emotional breakdown and needing some time on anti-depressants.  One afternoon, I took my towel and a bottle of cider down to the communal garden of the small apartment block where I was living and I settled down to choose my holiday.

I remember deciding upon a 5 day cycling tour of the vineyards of Tuscany in Italy. A bit of exercise, plenty of pasta and wine and some beautiful European countryside would be the perfect start to my recovery. I don’t remember much else because the cider, the anti-d’s and the sun all conspired together and I fell asleep in the sun.

The Taj Mahal - that booking error possibly changed my life - Finding myself in India

The Taj Mahal – that booking error possibly changed my life

Obviously I got myself back into my apartment and settled down for the night because the next morning I woke up in my bed with a thumping headache and a nagging suspicion that I had booked my holiday.  This feeling didn’t go away so I contacted the company and trying to ignore the fact that it must sound totally weird, I asked the operator on the end of the phone to confirm my holiday details for me.

She reeled off my travel date just 6 weeks later and confirmed that I would be flying into Delhi for the start of my two week trip around the Golden Triangle of India.

‘You mean Tuscany…for 5 days….cycling?’  I questioned her.

‘Nooooo, we spoke yesterday and you definitely reserved and paid in full for your trip to India.  You will be leaving in 6 weeks time and you will have a lovely time.  It’s one of our best trips!’

Suddenly I had a flash back to the previous afternoon and I remembered waking in the garden and finding that the wind had flipped the page of the magazine over to the India trip. It had obviously attracted me so much that I had gone into my apartment and phoned the company to reserve my spot!

I had several options open to me at that stage.  I could

  1. a) feel sorry for myself and weep loudly down the phone
  2. b) change my holiday to Italy and probably lose a percentage of my booking fee
  3. c) pull up my Big-Girl Pants and embrace the experience.

Thanking the operator for her help I put down the phone and wondered how the hell I could go about applying for an Indian visa.

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Finding myself in India

Finding myself in India

 

The Universe will give you what you need.  I didn’t think so at the time but I was certainly ready for India and I needed it at that exact moment in my life.  Relax and accept what comes along.

You WILL deal with it.

 

 

Getting naked at Playa del Torn, Catalunya

Getting naked at Playa del Torn, Catalunya

I knew next to nothing about naturism in Catalunya until I began setting myself personal challenges.  I had never taken off my clothes off in public but I felt that I needed to give it a go.  I am a mentor to people with low self-confidence and low self-esteem helping them achieve self belief through a series of personal challenges – and as it’s only right to practice what I preach I am always looking for ways to stretch myself.

Luckily I have the perfect challenge partner in Debs who is often even more up and ready for things than me and so the other summer we decided to push our boundaries and discover how much self empowerment we could achieve. Click here to read more on self empowerment

Make sure that you continue reading to the end of this article for the tale of a very funny incident that happened on the nudist beach at Playa del Torn in Catalunya last summer!

Getting naked at Playa del Torn

The first challenge that we set ourselves that summer was to visit a naturist beach.

Playa del Torn beach, Catalunya

Playa del Torn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close to the town of Hospitalet de L’Infant on the Costa Dorada in Catalunya there is a large naturist resort – i.e: naked people as opposed to a naturalist site where you go bird-watching and such-like.  It is important that you do not get the two words confused!

This resort, complete with pools, restaurants, and campsite attracts naturists from all over Europe and it’s on a wonderful position up on the cliffs behind a long stretch of soft golden sand. Playa del Torn (or Platja del Torn in Catalan) is a large public beach with a lively xiringuito (beach bar) down on the sand where people from the local area mix with the campers.  During the summer months a little gazebo is set up on the beach where you can get a fabulous full body massage from Albert who normally works in Barcelona and the occasional beach vendors wander along selling artisan jewellery or sunglasses.  The beach has a lovely friendly family atmosphere in the locality of the campsite and the beach bar whilst further along the beach is gay friendly.

Debs and I parked the car near the beach of Playa del Torn and we set off along the cliff path which runs next to the campsite.  We had not taken more than 10 steps when a woman came out of a gap in the low hedge from among the camper vans and walked along in front of us wearing absolutely no clothes and carrying a loaf of bread under her arm.  Walking past the caravans and the tents I could see that everybody was carrying on their daily business – playing cards, standing and chatting around the barbeque, reading or cooking BUT the majority of them were stark staring naked.  Toddlers chased each other around yelling enthusiastically and groups of teenagers hung around looking cool (most of the teenagers were wearing bikini bottoms or swimming trunks for modesty.)

I suppressed my giggles as we walked down the steps to the beach where a volleyball game was in progress, feeling like I was in a Carry On film.  Reaching our chosen spot with as much space around us as possible Debs and I stripped off our clothes – and I promptly lay down flat and stayed flat for as long as I possible.

As the day went on I progressed to swimming in the warm sea – what a fantastically liberating feeling that is with no bikini – and I had a massage from the wonderful Albert.  The massage was a piece of cake after the trauma of booking my session with him.

Tickets needed to be bought at the bar in the xiringuito – and my personal challenge was to buy mine without covering up and wrapping a sarong around my body.  All well and good and I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I crossed the hot sand – until I wove through the tables to the bar (it was lunchtime and busy) and it dawned on me that my bare bottom was head height to the diners faces.  Of course there was a queue at the bar and I had to wait there, standing with my naked bum just inches from a poor man’s dinner and feeling the insides of my stomach curling up with embarrassment!!!!

I managed to relax later on as Albert kneaded all of the knots out of my tense muscles whilst I lay in the shade of his gazebo.  He told me that he worked as a masseuse in Barcelona but that he decamped to the beach for his work during the summer.   When I confessed to Albert that it was my very first visit to a naturist beach he replied how brave I was to actually have a massage (naked) right out there in the public eye and I realised that I was beginning to enjoy myself.

Personal challenge achieved I felt great as Debs and I returned to the car – in fact we returned to Playa del Torn many times throughout the rest of the summer and we progressed to drinking in the bar and then making friends with groups of both campers and locals.  It was idyllic standing and sitting around chatting as the sun went down and the moon came up over the horizon and looking back, it was always gratifying to realise how relaxed I had become with my own body image.

A naturist beach is a great leveller.  Without clothes on people usually soon realise that not even the elegant couple who turns heads as they walk across the beach lives up to the media driven image of perfection once they remove their clothing.  Cellulite, flabby bits, scrawny bits and dangly bits are everywhere.  Bodies are decorated with both tattoos and scars, boobs may be missing and piercings glint in the sunlight.  It all seems less important somehow.  Smiles, facial expressions and laughs become what define beauty and we can all wince together at sunburn in delicate places.

Scarlet Jones naked at Playa del Torn

Scarlet Jones naked at Playa del Torn

Snorkelling in the dark

My second personal challenge that summer was to attempt a night time snorkel.

I am not at all confident out of my depth in water and I am terrified of waves in the sea.  Debs and I had already spent the day snorkelling around the rocks in the little bay of Sant Jordi d’Amalfa on the coast of Catalunya and the sea was lovely and calm as we made our way up to the beach hut at dusk where Plancton have their base.

We were given our equipment – a wet suit, snorkel and mask, an arm band with a flashing light and a waterproof torch while the instructors told us how we should conduct ourselves and pointed out some of the things that we could expect to see.  And we set off BUT we turned left instead of right and walked down to the next bay where the sea was anything but calm.

I had already told one of our instructors how nervous I was and she (Eli) stayed by my side as I got into the water.  I was only waist deep but the waves were crashing over my head, and whilst terrified I pushed through beyond the breakers until I was out of my depth.  The rest of the group struck out for the sea while I attempted to sort out my mask which kept on leaking.  Eli took my hand and we swam slowly out – and then I panicked.  I had a vision/premonition/past experience – I don’t know – but I KNEW that if I continued I would surely drown.  I can swim but all of a sudden I lost the ability to keep my head above water and I just had a dreadful recurring feeling that I was going down under the waves.  I panicked even more as I noticed Eli backing away – I could hear a little voice from my swimming lessons as a child saying that you keep your distance from a drowning person – but Eli pushed the dive float to me and waited patiently while I got my act together talking calmly to me, but I knew that the overwhelming fear that I was feeling wasn’t going to go away.  I had to get back onto dry land immediately or I would be feeding the fishes.

Clutching the float as if my life depended on it we made our way back through the crashing breakers.  I was so relieved to be back on the damp sand and promising Eli that I would now be fine she went back to join the others while I sat and watched the shooting stars above me in the dark sky and thought about my experience.

Had I failed at my personal challenge?  No.  Of course not.  I had pushed myself to get into the rough water in the dark in the first place and whilst I had failed to snorkel in the dark I had given it a go.  Would I do it again?  Probably not!  I had tried my best and I can see no real reason to attempt it again.

Driving on the wrong side of the road

I was initially nervous about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in Spain, but it didn’t take long before I was zooming around everywhere.  I got lost plenty of times (no surprise there) but I enjoy driving and it’s a dream in Catalunya because apart from in the town centres there is very little traffic.

I used to be very afraid of heights until my year in South America.  In Peru I eventually got used to careering around the Andes in chicken buses with the drivers high on the coca leaves that they chewed, both to stay awake and also to counter the altitude sickness, but I was still very nervous the first time that I had to negotiate a truck down a narrow track from the mountain in Spain where I was staying.  In fact, I put the trip off for ten days until I ran out of food.  A friend offered to deliver me supplies but I stubbornly declined – this was just another challenge which would prove to me that I was capable of coping by myself.

So early one morning I set off down the mountain. Nope, not in the truck but on foot!  I wanted to see for myself where the ‘dangerous bits’ were as well as the passing places.  Because I could take my time and look where the dodgy bits were I began to relax although it did take me nearly two hours to hike back up to the house.

To celebrate my epic hike in the heat I opened a bottle of wine – which of course also had the effect of postponing the inevitable until the following day – but I am pleased to say that I eventually made it down the hairpin bends and now I hammer up and down the mountain like a rally driver!

Since that summer I have also ridden my motorbike over to Spain crossing the English Channel on a twenty four hour channel ferry and riding solo down through Spain during an epic storm.  On that journey I was so glad that I had been perfecting my Spanish because I got horribly disorientated in Bilbao and I needed to ask directions.  My phone had stopped working, the name and address of my hostel had disintegrated and my map was in soggy pieces.  I squelched into a bar where half a dozen men leapt to my attention and helped me before sending me out into the rain again, this time in the correct direction.

 

facing my fear of heights

Facing my fear of heights in Catalunya

Immersion in a foreign language

Catalan is the first language of the majority of the people in this region of Spain which is great for me and others who are learning to speak Spanish.  Because Spanish (Castilian) tends to be the second or even the third language here, people often speak slower and can use simpler vocabulary.

I loved speaking with Andres who farmed close to the place that I was living that summer.  He was extremely patient with me, rephrasing words or acting out verbs so that the conversation flowed as best as it could although I did have one hilariously epic language-fail one evening.

I was a bit flustered as I answered the door and invited Andres to sit and wait while I finished up my conversation with a technician in the States.  My laptop was open on the bench as I was in a ‘live chat’ with the other guy.  In my best Spanish, or so I thought, I explained to Andres that my website was broken but there was a man in the States who was going to look at it and mend it remotely from his end.

I didn’t really understand why Andres abruptly stood up and shot out of the door mumbling something about going to check on his plum trees in his field however I returned to my conversation with the expert on the other end of the chat window.  Twenty minutes later there was a tentative knock at the door and Andres hesitantly poked his head into the room.  After assuring him that I was finished and my computer was now functioning perfectly I got on with the business of cooking dinner, wondering why Andres kept giving me strange looks.

Halfway through our meal Andres began to chuckle as something obviously dawned on him.  It turned out I had mispronounced the word for webpage.  I had put the stress in the wrong place which totally changed the word and therefore the meaning.

I had apparently informed Andres that my VAGINA was broken but there was a technician in the US who was looking at it down the camera on my computer – and I just needed Andres to wait for fifteen minutes whilst it was mended!!!!!

It’s always a bit daunting when you don’t speak the same language and you need to communicate.   It is the easy option to only mix with people who are the same as you and avoid difficulties; but we also communicate via body language, facial expressions and sign language and the results when you make the effort can be so rewarding.  Learning another language is another way to stretch your comfort zone.

 

Rio Ebro at Benifallet

the Catalan countryside

 

If you would like to know more about how you can receive a personal challenge that is emailed to you every fortnight, drop me a message and we will arrange a free call and I can explain more and while you are about it, sign up for my email list and get regular updates and more of my stories sent to you.

And now for that funny story that I promised you.

Our friend Toni and his partner make lovely artisan jewellery from natural products that they sell at Playa del Torn and we have got to know them over the last couple of years.  In keeping with the naturist element of the beach they wander up and down selling their products whilst wearing no clothes.

One day after spending some time chatting to Debs and I, Toni and his partner continued walking along the beach – Toni was holding a tray with some little shell anklets on it.

A sudden gust of wind blew the jewellery into the sand – with one piece ending up between the butt cheeks of a guy who was lying face down and asleep.

Toni was in a quandary.  Everybody watching held their collective breath as Toni made several attempts to pick the anklet up from the guy’s crack.  He decided to go for it but just as his grip tightened around it, the guy woke up and rolled over onto his side.

A dozen or more of us who were watching collapsed with laughter at the frozen tableau.  As the guy rolled over his bum cheeks had gripped the anklet tight – he froze as he looked up and saw a naked guy bending over him and holding whatever was trapped between his buttocks.

The guy’s wife was also laughing too hard to explain to her husband straight away as Toni backed away and his own partner was creased with laughter as she collected up the rest of their jewellery.

If you would like to know more about my time in Catalunya you can read some of my other posts here:

Exploring the Ebro Delta in Catalunya

Cat Fishing in Catalunya

The Catalan referendum: an opinion piece by Scarlet Jones

This article has been updated since it was first published in September 2015

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Playa del Torn

Playa del Torn, Catalunya. Getting naked and other challenges

 

Playa del Torn challenges

getting naked & other challenges

 

 

5 reasons NOT to visit Finland in winter

5 reasons NOT to visit Finland in winter

Should you visit Finland in winter?  

Won’t it will be cold and dark and expensive!

Finland in winter: Tampere in the snow

I began to wonder why I had decided to visit Finland in winter when my plane landed at Tampere and all that I could see through the swirling snowflakes was a flat, grey and white landscape.

I carefully negotiated the stairs from the plane with warnings to hold on tightly to the handrail due to the thick coating of  ice on the steps and I walked out into the biting cold.

Finland in winter is cold. The Tampere winter time is cold, but I spent six days in and around Tampere in January.  In this article I will tell you whether any of the warnings that I was given before I set off were true or not so read on.

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It’s always cold in Finland!

 

Of course it’s cold in Finland in winter, but people dress accordingly and buildings are well insulated and toasty-warm inside.

Go out for an evening in any city in Britain in the winter and you will see men dashing between bars and clubs dressed in short sleeved tee-shirts and girls teetering around on spikey heels. Nobody wears a jacket or a coat on a night out in the UK but in Finland there’s a no-nonsense approach to the cold.  Layers, layers, hats, scarves and gloves and more layers are not only the sensible choice but the only choice if you want to avoid hypothermia or frostbite.

Don’t forget travel insurance before you set off either.  You don’t want to slip on a patch of ice and end up in plaster do you.  I use Alpha Travel Insurance who are very competitive – you can get a quote and buy at this link.

Shops and buildings are well heated and they often have a double-door porch entry system and polar strength double or triple glazing.  Duvets are super-light but super-warm and showers are piping hot.

But the cold here is different to the cold in the UK and in many other parts of the world.  It’s not loaded with damp which creeps into your bones and your chest.  It’s sharp and crisp and freezing but invigorating and it makes your senses come alive.  The snow prettys everything up like a layer of fresh white paint and it also dampens noise.  My hostel thoughtfully had a large box of coats and wraps just inside the front door so if you ever needed to dash outside for anything you could easily throw on an extra layer.

So don’t let the cold put you off.  Wear sensible boots or shoes, layer up and get outside.  Walk in the forests among the pines where the snowflakes float gently down and birds are eating the jewel-red berries.  Catch glimpses of the frozen lake between the trees, and then find a steamy, warm cafe and cup your hands around a hot mug of coffee and treat yourself to a tasty cake.

It’s always dark in Finland!

 

Of course, the further north that you go in the winter the hours of darkness are longer, but in Tampere in January we had daylight for at least six hours a day.  Yes, often the daylight was a soft dove-grey as the falling snow curled over everything and at times it was like peering through fogged up glasses but snow also reflects, so once it was dark, everything had a cool glow about it.

I used to be scared of the dark and I would rarely venture out alone at night prior to travelling solo, but I have challenged my negative perceptions of what is dangerous and here in Finland in the winter I had little choice.  Contact me if you would like some help dealing with phobias or negative beliefs that hold you back – as a Mindfulness Practitioner I have several tricks up my sleeve!

Street lights illuminate the paths and the shadows retreat deeper down alleys due to the whiteness of the snow.  Buildings are brightly lit and peeping through the windows you can see rooms cosy and warm with crackling log fires and lots of pine or they are funky and bright in a Scandinavian Ikea type of a way.

After settling in at my hostel I checked out the map and needing to go out and find something to eat, as is my usual practice I asked at reception if there were any places that I should avoid walking around on my own after dark.

With a raised eyebrow the receptionist simply replied ‘It’s often dark in Finland’.  As self-preservation is high on my list while travelling solo I then asked if there were any districts or areas of the city which I should be wary of wandering into.  With a complete look of incomprehension the reply was ‘Of course not!  This is Finland!’




The Finnish language makes no sense to anybody: unless they are Finnish!

Yep!  I can’t argue with this one BUT despite always apologising for their bad English, the majority of Finns that I met spoke impeccable English.  And Swedish.  And sometimes Russian or another language or three.  In my six days there I managed to learn two words – kiitos which is thank you and hei which is hello. And I have subsequently learnt that the Finns do not use all of the letters which are available to them in their alphabet.

If a sound is duplicated then they have dropped one of the letters and adopt the other – for example, in English the letter C sometimes makes the same sound as an S and sometimes makes the same sound as a K – the Finns don’t faff about with complications – they have all but dropped the C from their language.

So at least if you are learning Finnish the alphabet is shorter, but as I have said, the Finns are amazing at speaking other languages so don’t panic – you will easily get by.

 

Everything is expensive in Finland!

 

Costs are comparable to those in the UK with winners and losers across the board.  Granted I stayed in a hostel during my Tampere visit BUT the price and the quality of accommodation was excellent. You can check the latest hostel prices and book at this link.

The hostel that I stayed in (The Dream Hostel) also had a hotel floor so that you don’t have to do the whole dorm experience if you would rather not, and I managed to get a return flight to Tampere for £49 with a budget airline!!!!  That’s an insane price and there was also a realistically priced bus transfer from the airport to the city too.

Coffees, beers and food are similar prices to the UK (as I only had carry-on baggage I didn’t even glance at clothing or gifts) but I was pleasantly surprised as I had expected much much worse.

So get yourself a cheap flight and visit Finland and for budget priced but NOT budget style accommodation book in at the Dream Hostel, Tampere (a more detailed post on my time here will follow another time), grab yourself some Euros and go visit.

You can read more about staying in a hostel at this link to another of my articles here: Hostel tips and how not to behave in a hostel

If you still don’t fancy staying in a hostel (but please do check out the Dream Hostel first) then you can get the up to date prices for hotels at this link to Agoda

 

The Finns are a cold, silent people!

 

True – you will walk around the streets and people will not be smiley and enthusiastic to greet you, but whenever I stopped and looked a bit lost or I struggled over my map, somebody would usually check and ask if I needed any help.

I visited a church which was disappointingly closed, but Sari, the lady who was sweeping the snow off the path outside, offered to open the building up for me and to show me around.

I also visited a museum and I was helpfully told that if I were to return after 3pm I could get free entry because it was Friday.  Later at the museum I learnt some more about the history of Finland and I also learnt that, while you cannot stereotype a nation, the Finns are a people of few words and are generally shy.  This was written up on the walls under some of the exhibits and while it may be true, the people that I spoke to were warm, friendly, interesting and helpful.

Personally I think that people get this reputation because they don’t want to linger outside in the cold and they want to keep as much of their faces in their scarves as possible because once inside the cafes and coffee shops  and once everyone had shed some of their layers of clothing, I invariably got warm smiles from people.

 

Getting around Tampere

 

I mostly navigated my way around the city of Tampere with the help of a free, self-guided walking tour on a map that I had got from the friendly people in the tourist information office.  The city is small and compact and full of museums which are clustered around the river that runs through the middle of the town.

So, if you have a few days free and you can find yourself a convenient flight, do visit Tampere in Finland in winter.

A short walk from the city centre is a forest with paths through the trees that lead up to a tower from where you can look down over the town and see all of the snowy lakes.

I would love to return in the summertime and see the stunning landscape without its cloak of snow and ice.  Finland in winter was spectacular with a monochrome beauty but it must be drop-dead gorgeous in the summer with the greens and blues of its many lakes and islands, and when the flowers add colour.

If you don’t want the challenge of travelling solo, Explore do some fabulous sounding tours to Finland too and you can even go on a brown bear watching weekend!… Check out their latest tours here

And because I am always asked, for the latest in flight offers I always use Skyscanner.  Try searching with their monthly option for the best deals at the link below:


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Save and pin this post so that you can refer to it later and do add a comment and let me know whether you think that the Finland in the wintertime should be avoided or embraced.

Finland in winter: a winter wonderland
Finland in winter. Frozen lakes and fjords
Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico – Debbie’s story

Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico – Debbie’s story

Swimming with whale sharks could be on my bucket list – if I wasn’t so afraid of water – so when my friend Debbie told me that this was one of her biggest dreams I excitedly followed her plans.

I want to share her story with you and hopefully inspire you to chase the one thing that you have always wanted to do.  Put aside the excuses and start the ball rolling today – and please do comment at the bottom of this post and tell us your one big dream. (Click on the links in the text to find out more)

 

Inspirational people – Debbie’s story

 

  1. You have just returned from a solo trip to Mexico. Why did you choose to go there? 

I went to Mexico because I’ve always dreamed of swimming with whale sharks, and at this time of the year (July) there are huge numbers off the coast of the Mayan peninsular.  I went for three weeks and most of my trip was based around the water and snorkelling with the wildlife.  You don’t have to get in the water either.  I took a catamaran trip and I kayaked too. Mexico and Belize have the second largest reef in the world off their coastline, and I also crossed over the border and visited Belize for a couple of days.  However there is more to Mexico than water sports.  There is lots of history, ruins and temples – I only went to a small part – Mexico is vast.

 

 

  1. Why did you go solo? 

Partly because nobody was free to come with me and swimming with the whale sharks was something that I really wanted to do.  In the past I would never have dreamed of travelling solo, not until I went travelling with yourself last year (we backpacked together for 7 weeks in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand), and then I realised that when you stay in hostels you are never really travelling alone.

Travelling with you (and doing your confidence building course before hand) made me more knowledgeable about this type of travel (solo).  With knowledge comes confidence and therefore I was confident enough to book this trip solo to a country that is in fact reasonably dangerous. 

 

  1. Did you ever feel that you were in danger? 

There was one episode – when the police were after someone.  There was a manhunt for somebody from one of the drug cartels who had killed a police officer.  I heard the gunshots whilst I was sitting outside a restaurant drinking the first of my 2-for-1 margaritas.  The staff immediately ushered us all inside the building and quickly fixed bars across all of the windows to prevent us from entering.

Were you scared? 

I watched the police in the street run past armed to the hilt.  Personally I wasn’t frightened although there were people running into the restaurant for sanctuary and many of them were scared and crying.  They were hiding behind the pillars.  In true British style I ordered my second margarita and waited it out.  The only time that I felt nervous was walking back to my hostel through streets that had been locked down and felt like a warzone.  

 

  1. Why did you choose to stay in a hostel rather than a hotel or an apartment? 

Well as I mentioned above, when you stay in a hostel you are never actually travelling alone.  It’s altogether a more friendly experience.  You can cook and eat with other guests, travel together and share experiences.  I would never want to stay in a hotel from choice.  I don’t want the restrictions of a hotel (unless it’s for a romantic break!). For more tips on staying in hostels click here

 

  1. Did you ever feel lonely? 

One day I received bad news from home.  I had just arrived at a deserted hostel – not even the owners were there – so I jumped straight on a bus to where the life was and got chatting to the waiter in the coffee shop, but otherwise, no. 

If you are not ready to take a trip like this solo, why not take a look at what Explore have to offer?  I have travelled 4 times with them and I would highly rate them – Scarlet Jones

  1. How do you think you would have coped if you had got sick? 

I can speak the (Spanish) language which is one major hurdle overcome and I had good travel insurance.  I felt quite confident that I would be fine if I were to get sick.

I use Alpha Travel Insurance.  Get your competitive travel insurance quote here – Scarlet Jones

  1. What were the top highlights of your trip? 

Swimming with whale sharks!  I wasn’t disappointed at all, however, all of the excursions that I did were all great and also the best bit was making new friends.  I have been invited to visit a family in Colombia that I met on my catamaran trip and also to Mexico City by a flight attendant!

swimming with whale sharks

swimming with whale sharks – courtesey of www.whalesharkencounter.com

  1. And the worst? 

After a six hour hot and dusty bus journey I arrived at my next hostel to check in.  There was nobody around, just a faded handwritten notice on the door directing visitors to the run-down little house next door.  There I found a friendly family who had a key and got me into the hostel.  They were very helpful but it turned out that the owners were away and I was the only person (guest or staff) rattling around in the place.  This coincided with me receiving my bad news from home.  However, despite this, my spirits were lifted when the grandfather of the family next door invited me to sleep in one of their hammocks with his family if I didn’t want to be alone in the hostel.  I declined but the thought was there.

 

Swimming with whale sharks

 

  1. Tell me about your experience of swimming with whale sharks 

I had been very thorough with my research before I booked my day out and I wasn’t disappointed.  I chose to go swimming with whale sharks with the Whale Shark Encounter from Cancun who do a lot of conservation work.  We were one of the first boats to arrive at the expected whale shark site and because of that I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the water with these magnificent fish.

The experience was wonderful – to swim next to a 30 metre long creature, looking into its enormous mouth, seeing its gills and its eyes.  You know they are watching you but they are beautiful gentle creatures.  I would do it all again

 

  1. What next? 

I am thinking about going to see blue whales, swimming with dolphins in the wild and I would love to do a 3 day trek and boat trip to see orang utangs in the wild in Borneo.  By visiting these animals in their natural habitat in an unobtrusive way with responsible companies and guides can help to provide an income for local people who find it in their interest to protect the environment and the species.  For instance, in the case of Whale Shark Encounter that I used in Mexico, all employees are from the local community and the company has the National Geographic Snorkel’s Certificate.

  1. What advice would you give to anybody who wants to travel but who has friends that either don’t want to go where you want to go and or can’t get the time off work 

I would say, just do it. Research it, stay in hostels but don’t be too regimented with your plans.  I literally only had the first few days booked and planned and I made arrangements as I went.  As long as you have internet access and a smart phone it’s all so simple.

I would also recommend that anybody who is nervous about travelling solo for the first time that they take a course.  I initially followed the Smash the Pumpkin Project and then later, I joined you (Jane at Scarlet Jones Travels) on a trip through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, both of which taught me a lot.

These things gave me the confidence to travel solo and made me realise that I didn’t need to wait around for friends to be free to travel with me.

 

  1. What saying or mantra resonates the most with you? 

As I was racing across JFK Airport in New York to make my onward connection to Mexico I saw this sign.  I stopped briefly to take a picture but it really struck a chord.

‘Live the international life.  We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.’

inspirational quote

Inspirational quote from JFK

 

  1. I know that you had problems as a result of flight delays. How did you cope with that?  What were your initial feelings and was it as bad as you had feared? 

I was a little bit disappointed as I had my tour to go swimming with whale sharks booked for the following day and I wanted to be organised and relaxed for that.  I did everything in my power to catch the connecting flight but I missed it by minutes (due to delays with the first flight).  As I arrived at the gate, staff came out to tell me that they were sorry but the gate had been closed and I had missed the plane, however they immediately directed me to a help desk who organised a hotel and a flight the following morning.

I was nervous but I decided that it was just another experience and part of my travels.  I got to spend a night in New York where I met some very friendly people including a man who bought me a cheesecake!  I was apprehensive but I knew that the airport staff would fix things so I relaxed and told myself to chill.  I also got chatting to an air steward who sat with me on my first flight and explained the layout of JFK and my options should I fail to make the connection – we are still in contact via email, and he invited me to stay with his family in Mexico City.  None of this would have happened if I hadn’t missed my plane.

I use Skyscanner to search for and book all of my flights – Scarlet Jones

 

  1. Would you return to Mexico

Yes I would and I would recommend Mexico even if you are not into water sports.  I would love to visit Mexico City, the north and the Pacific coast and I would certainly love to go swimming with whale sharks again. 

 

  1. And to sum up – do you have any tips for would-be solo travellers? 

If you are in Mexico and you plan to hop over to another country and back, be careful with the taxes that you might be asked to pay when you leave and enter across the border.  For instance, if you are due to leave by air at a later date you should not have to pay taxes to Mexico if you pop over to Belize by boat (you will still have to pay Belize customs).  I researched this topic from other travel blogs whilst on the way to the border and I subsequently held my ground and (correctly) declined to pay the requested taxes when leaving Mexico. I also managed to get a refund for an Irish couple at the border who had been unaware of this rule and had initially paid up without questioning. 

If you are inspired by Debbie’s story and you would like to travel alone but you are still a bit nervous why not travel with me later this year  – I am going to Myanmar Singapore and Malaysia

Would you travel solo and take a trip like this?  If not, drop me a line below in the comments and let me know what is stopping you – or alternatively tell us about your own experiences when you chased your dream

 

 Useful Links and information:

Travel Insurance from Alpha Travel Insurance

The Smash the Pumpkin Project – build your confidence and self belief 

Are you too old to stay in hostels?

Hotel tips: and how NOT to behave in a hostel

Getting sick while travelling in S E Asia

Travel with me in Malaysia later this year

Small group adventure holidays with Explore

Guide books to anywhere from Lonely Planet

Find a place to stay with Agoda

Search and book your flights with Skyscanner

Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun – www.whalesharkencounter.com

Scarlet Jones Travels contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions are akin to you buying me a cup of coffee and keeping me on the road so that I can continue to bring you articles and information. Thanks for reading!

 

Discover Porto, 9 highlights and top things to do

Discover Porto, 9 highlights and top things to do

If you’re looking for a European city to explore I can certainly recommend Porto (the second largest city in Portugal) for you. In this article I’ll help you to discover Porto with my 9 highlights and top things to do.  Porto is romantic and brimming with history, it has amazing food and drink and the people are extremely friendly – you should seriously consider visiting this up and coming destination.

the river D'ouro - highlight of Porto

River life in Porto

I initially chose to visit Porto because I found some very cheap flights on Skyscanner  (click here to try their search anywhere option?), but also, because it was the beginning of the season, there was also plenty of cheap accommodation available (check out the latest prices on Agoda here)

 

Getting to Porto

 

Before I set off I had been living in the same location for a few months and I was getting itchy feet.  I need to stretch myself occasionally and remind myself what I am capable of so I played around with the Search tool on Skyscanner* and when a too good to be true deal to Porto turned up I was away.  As I was living in Spain I did consider letting the train take the strain or even using a car share which I have done many times before, but the flights were cheap and the airport a simple metro ride from the city centre, so this time, the plane it was.

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Discover Porto: my 9 highlights and top things to do.

 

When I visited I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend who is studying in the city (we met on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos).  Eduardo very kindly took me along for a traditional Portuguese meal and showed me some of the sights.  I also took two separate free (for tips) walking tours with Citylovers Tours and between Eduardo and the tour guides I learnt much of what makes the northern Portuguese tick.

1.  The D’ouro River

The river dominates Porto.  Called D’ouro- meaning the river of gold, this major waterway is the lifeblood of the city.  The old town grew up around the port, with stone buildings crammed onto the steep hillside on the banks on one side while the storage and distribution cellars of the port wine companies were built across the water.

the busy riverside - a highlight of Porto

the bustling riverside at the weekend in Porto

Six bridges cross the river, but by far the most spectacular is the Pont de Dom Luis 1 right in the heart of the city.  The bottom tier carries road traffic and pedestrians, the upper level the tram and pedestrians.  Look out for the young men collecting money from the gathering tourists and daring to jump off the bridge and do walk across both the top and the bottom levels in the daytime and after dark.

One night, my friend Eduardo drove me up to a viewpoint at the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar high above the city for a birds’ eye view which I loved so much that I returned to see the sunset a few evenings later.  Eduardo explained to me how maybe as recently as fifteen years ago Porto had little night life and much crime, but it has now been cleaned up by the police and the politicians – and the residents are reclaiming the streets again.

must see in Porto - the riverside at night

must see in Porto – the riverside at night

New bars, coffee houses and restaurants are springing up everywhere and there is now a vibrant nightlife scene encompassing art, food and music.

Porto is hilly but there are buses, trams, funiculars and even a cable car which can take some of the strain; so take your time wandering around and enjoy the relaxed ambience and stop and listen to the music from the buskers who can be found playing on many of the street corners.

tram - highlight of Porto

the tram is now mainly just for tourists

 

2.  The beach

 

Make sure that you take the local bus down to the beach which runs down and around the corner of the coast from the river estuary.  A grand promenade runs behind a long stretch of golden sand where the big waves from across the Atlantic thunder ashore and are a magnet for surfers.

If you have the time, go along to the little streets in the area known as Matosinhos where you can order fish from one of the little restaurants and ask for it to be grilled on a barbeque on the street in front of you.

the beach in Porto at sunset

make sure that you get down to the beach in Porto

Porto is also a popular start point for walking the pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago.  I saw several people walking purposefully northwards along the promenade, their scallop shells hanging from their rucksacks; and if I do ever get around to attempting the walk, I think that Porto to Santiago would be my first choice of route.

 

3.  The countryside around Porto.

 

I had met Raj from Nepal on the free walking tour with Citylovers Tours and we decided to take the train together to the small town of Braga.  This town is famous for the number of churches and religious buildings.  It’s very relaxed and offered a nice escape from Porto and the train ride alone through the Portuguese countryside was worth it.  The tourist office told us about a couple of places to visit outside Braga that were easily accessible by bus although I have to confess that Raj and I were feeling lazy and we didn’t bother to go outside Braga.

Don't miss Braga when you visit Porto

Braga on a sunny day

In the summer you can take a cruise along the river to see the hillsides along the D’ouro valley covered with vines – I had hoped to go pop along by train because the scenery is beautiful but I missed the early train and didn’t have enough time.

The railway station in the centre of Porto is also well worth a visit and there are always people admiring the tiled artwork.  The huge tiled pictures tell the stories of the history of Porto and also show off the opulence of the city to arriving passengers.

the wonderfully tiled station in Porto is well worth a look

the wonderfully tiled station in Porto is well worth a look

 

4.  The buildings

 

Much of the old town and the area clustered around the riverside is UNESCO listed thanks to the beautiful architecture.  Tall narrow town houses are squashed together, many are tiled, most are painted in rich colours and the majority have ornate balconies, railings and shutters.

a highlight of Porto: the UNESCO listed buildings

a highlight of Porto: the UNESCO listed buildings

The huge Plaja Libertad is flanked by restaurants and hotels and topped by the grand civic building which sparkles a brilliant white in the sun and is lit by amber spotlights after dark.

Bolhao Market is the oldest in the city and has a worn down shabby feel.  Walk around the upstairs terrace and you will feel that you are transported back in time, although due to rumuurs that this is the next public space that will be renovated, many of the traders have already moved out which gives the place a down-at-heel feel.

don't miss the highlights of Porto

The majestic Plaja Libertad

 

5.  Porto’s parks and green spaces

 

Porto certainly does well with green spaces.  The City Park which is actually on the outskirts of the city is a huge green space with meandering paths that circle around a lake and attracts runners and cyclists – as does the whole promenade area along the beach road.

the park on the prom - 9 highlights of Porto

the park behind the prom – 9 highlights of Porto

Crystal Palace Park contains a stark green dome – squatting among the trees like a space ship and which houses a sports centre but the park itself has great views of the river and the hillside below.  Another park worthy of a listing here is the …which has a lake and some cute sculptures among the trees.

Right in the city centre is a green space at the foot of the Torre dos Clerigos.  An enterprising bar owner has taken advantage of this position and supplies blankets for lounging on in the sun.  Cool music plays in the background and I was told the bar becomes an outdoor club in the summer.

the art deco house in the grounds of the Art Museum

the art deco house in the grounds of the Art Museum

The Contemporary Art Museum is surrounded by gardens and farmland.  There are landscaped ponds, long driveways underneath grand trees, strange sculptures and the pink art deco house which houses further exhibitions.

 

6.  The churches of Porto

 

Porto has many churches which vary enormously from the stark and bare to the ostentatious Igreja de Sao Francisco which creaks under the weight of all the gold.  Many of them are tiled on the outside – (as are many of the other buildings too).  The tiles (mostly blue and white) were put on the buildings to combat and protect the structures from the humidity as well as being a means to show off the prosperity of the city in the past.  The tiles repel the damp during the winter and reflect the sunlight in the heat of the summer and are a feature all across Portugal.

the tiled churchs are a highlight of Porto

the tiled churchs are a highlight of Porto

The Cathedral is on a high point above the city where it can be seen by people approaching from the river.  Unusually behind the university there are two churches (one is the Igreja do Carmo) that have been built virtually next to each other.  It wasn’t allowed for two churches to occupy share the same wall so the tiniest little house was built in the small gap between them to get around that ruling.

I already mentioned the Torre dos Clerigos above.  It is a good climb up the 240 stone steps to the top of the 75 meter high tower but you get fantastic views of the terracotta roofs of Porto, the river and the countryside beyond.  The church attached to the tower contains a small museum and you can climb up into the galleries that overlook the altar.

the view from Torre dos Clerigos over Porto

the view from Torre dos Clerigos over Porto

 

7.  Food and drink in Porto.

 

Portugal is very reasonably priced and the food is good.  Pork is a favourite and every part of the pig is eaten – the people from Porto and the north are traditionally called triperos – tripe eaters due to their love of that particular speciality.  Bacalao (salted cod fish) is a staple dating back to the days when people had to salt their fish to preserve it and apparently you can now find over 1000 recipes for bacalao.

some of the many great restaurants in Porto

some of the many great restaurants in Porto

I decided not to do a port wine tour but I did want to sample the various types of port.  Luckily I didn’t have to take part in a tour for this and I stumbled upon the 3+Arte Cafe.  This is a co-working space for creatives with a bar and good wifi – so despite being by myself I ordered a tasting set of three different types of port wine to test and compare.  I spent time working on my computer and ignoring the strange looks from the people who were eying up the three glasses of port that were in front of me.

port in Porto

port in Porto

Cafe Majestic is one of Europe’s oldest cafes and with its art nouveau frontage is certainly special.  The prices match but if you can grab a table  and you want to soak up the atmosphere of times gone by, just order a coffee and watch the world go by.

 

8.  The Harry Potter connection.

 

The Harry Potter books from J K Rowling contain several connections to Porto.  The author lived in the city for a while and some of her inspiration came from the things that she observed.  Groups of university students wander around the city conducting strange (to outsiders) ceremonies for the novices but noticeably they are dressed in black woollen capes similar to the ones worn by the students of magic in the books.

the waterfront in Porto

the waterfront in Porto

The Lello Book shop got so inundated with tourists wanting to look at the interior with its carved wood features and the staircase (was it the inspiration for Hogwarts?) that they have now resorted to charging an entrance fee; although that is refundable off the price of any book purchased.

Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

 

9.  The people are always the highlight for me.

 

The people from Porto remind me of the Spanish but they are calm, quiet and extremely polite.  That is not to say that the Spaniards are not, just that the Portuguese are more so. Portugal has been in economic crisis for some time now and food, drink, transport and accommodation costs (for tourists) are probably among the cheapest in Western Europe at the moment.

catching a quiet few moments in Porto

catching a quiet few moments in Porto

My history lessons in school didn’t focus on Portugal at all so it came as a surprise to me to learn that the country also suffered under a dictatorship for many years.  There were in fact three successive leaders who ruled with fear and over the years many innocent people were tortured or simply disappeared.

The nickame for the Golden Anchor bar near to the university translates to the Portuguese name for (head) louse and, legend has it, got its name from the days when the city was full of government spies.  It became illegal for more than 3 people to gather and talk in a group on the street so the bars became places for chatting.  The landlord of the Golden Anchor was believed to be sympathetic to the people and would scratch his head to indicate that there was a suspected spy in the bar listening to the customers.

If you would like some more inspiration for things to do in Porto from another perspective, then read what the Crazy Tourist has to say about the city …click here.

The people that I met

 

And for me, as always, what made Porto special were the people that I met.

Rui from Paris who has inspired me to walk the camino from Porto, Erika from Germany for your fun company, Raj from Nepal and Rita and the rest of the super friendly staff at the Porto Lounge Hostel  Thank you to Eduardo for giving up your time and showing me around and introducing me to the smaller, more traditional places where the Portuguese hang out and also Maria and Patricia from the walking tours.

People watching on a sunny Sunday in Porto

People watching on a sunny Sunday in Porto

Thank you everybody for sharing your stories with me and for giving me yet more insights into the strength of the human spirit.  I support and encourage people to change their lives with the Smash the Pumpkin Project, but you change mine.

If you are looking for a romantic city break try Porto

If you are looking for a romantic city break try Porto

When I was in Porto I never got around to visiting the golden clad Igreja de Sao Francisco, taking the train to Coimbra or the boat/train down the D’ouro valley to the vineyards.  I never ate tripe either so I shall just have to return, although not specifically for that!

 

Where to stay in Porto.

 

I stayed at the Porto Lounge Hostel which easily makes it into my top ten of the cleanest, brightest hostels that I have stayed in.  If you have never stayed in a hostel there is nothing to be afraid of; do give it a go.  Many hostels now even offer private en-suite rooms and if you’re nervous about the required etiquette in a hostel you can read my guide on how NOT to behave in hostels (but please bear in mind that encountering problems such as the ones in my article are very rare).

happy and bright - inside the Porto Lounge Hostel

happy and bright – inside the Porto Lounge Hostel

I travel slowly, working from my laptop but there was plenty in and around Porto to keep me occupied all week, although had I got fed up, Lisbon was a relatively short train ride away.

*If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, Skyscanner has a great facility which allows you to input any destination from a specific airport and will subsequently call up all flights which can be sorted into price order.  Give it a whirl at this link – but be careful – it can be addictive (Do let me know if you succumb and you book something ;-))


Thank you for taking the time to read this article.  Make sure that you don’t miss out on future posts by signing up and following me at www.scarletjonestravels.com where you can get your free guide –7 days to a more confident YOUonce you have entered your email address.

And finally, don’t forget you can plan your own trip with this Lonely Planet Guide which you can get at this link

the wine cellars by night in Porto

the wine cellars by night in Porto

Discover Porto, 9 highlights and top things to do

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