Solo Backpacking in Spain

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The first time I went on a solo trip was back in 2011 to South Korea’s Jeju Island. It was different at the time — I was working, so I had very limited time to travel (just 3 days if my memory serves me correct); I wasn’t limited to a student’s budget so I opted to stay in a solo room rather than “roughing” it up at hostels and thus missed out on meeting people my age; I had all agendas sorted out before I arrived at the place; and I didn’t have a backpack, bringing along a traditional suitcase which impeded moving (it didn’t matter though as I was only there for three days anyway).

Spain was different. I just booked two flights at the onset – my flight from Germany to Barcelona, and my flight out of Spain (Sevilla) three weeks later. What I would do in between, and where I would go, I had a rough idea but nothing final. I brought a 55L backpack, nothing more. I booked my accommodations the night or two before arriving at each place. I loved the uncertainty, just deciding the day before where I will be the next day.

To be honest, it was a little terrifying, the idea of this trip. Not because I thought Spain was a scary place (it isn’t, generally), but because of a host of other things I was worried about:

1) I was not fluent in Spanish. Although I did study Spanish in high school and a semester in college, I was far from fluent. I knew in many areas in Spain, especially outside the bigger cities, few people spoke English, and I was worried this would pose a problem such as when I would venture away from the tourist path (I did, I got lost, but I turned out alright).

2) I might lose everything. This is a valid concern since as a solo traveller, if you lose all your money and debit/credit cards, passport, how the hell do you go home?? To resolve this, I brought along a money belt, which I removed very rarely. The peace of mind it afforded me was priceless.

3) I may get lonely. 17 days is quite a long time to be just by yourself. It turns out, this should have been the least of my concerns. You are never alone (unless you want to) when you travel alone, you always always meet fellow traveller/s if you are open enough. On every leg of the journey I was with a travel buddy or two I met along the way, and most of these people remain good friends to this day.

Why Spain?

Filipinos will not ask this question, because I know given the chance a Pinoy will go to Spain. Spain occupied our country for 300 years, and the influence is very much palpable to date. Mannerisms, habits, our language (Tagalog is comprised of a lot of loan words from Spanish) have been shaped one way or another by Spain, and I wanted to see myself just how much of the Philippines I could find in Spain. I wanted to see if the old historical parts of the Philippines, such as in Intramuros, indeed look like parts of old town Spain. I wanted to see if the people of Spain were to some extent as warm as Filipinos. I wanted to sample the dishes, the sweets, the treats. I was homesick, and I wanted a piece of the Philippines in Europe.

But more than that, I wanted to see the magnificent Alhambra in Granada. My late grandfather gave me the book “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving when I was in my teens, and I’ve always wanted I wanted to visit the place that inspired the book since then.

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How long and how much?

I was in Spain in March for a total of 17 days, visiting 7 cities: Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla. Initially I was aiming to spend more time in the south of Spain, since my (then) flatmate and dear friend Nataliya told me about places like Cadiz and Jerez that sounded truly enticing. But then I found out that the 5-day Las Fallas festival was going on in Valencia at the time I was there and I immediately changed my plans. Giant paper mache sculptures erected throughout the city? Nightly street parties? Firework displays and mascleta (sound fireworks) shows day and night? The festival sounded too good to pass up.

I spent a grand total of about 650 Euros (Php39,000) touring Spain for almost three weeks, and that included my flights to and back. Having a limited budget had nothing to do with having fun, thank goodness, and to this day this backpacking trip remains one of the most memorable ever despite not shelling out very much. I stayed at hostels that averaged 12 euros a night, took buses to go from one city to the next (cheaper than trains and met many nice people along the way whom I sat next to), ate street food, etc. Spain wasn’t really a very expensive country to travel in, relative to other countries in Western Europe, although I found the food there a little more expensive than Germany. Bulk of my expenses went to entrance to sites. (After Spain, I went to Paris and spent 250 Euros in three days despite trying to keep the expenses down — well that is Paris for you!).

1) Barcelona 

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Ah, Barcelona, the jewel of Spain. But don’t tell that to the Catalans, because they will passionately argue that Barcelona is in fact in Catalonia, which they deem to be a mere colony of Spain. I didn’t know about this sentiment until recently. People were very patriotic, the Catalan flag proudly displayed everywhere in Barcelona. Practically every Catalan knew how to speak Spanish but I heard a smattering of Catalan being spoken (which to me sounded like a mix of French and Spain – I lived with a Catalan girl for a year and heard it frequently enough) during my time in Barcelona.

Regardless of whether or not Barcelona is an authentic Spanish city, the fact remains that it is one of the most visually stunning cities you would find in Europe. It was snowing when I left Germany, and when I arrived in Barcelona it was sunny and warm  — wow. It was good to be on holidays. 🙂 (A shout out to Coni for sharing me her Barcelona tips!)

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Barcelona is Gaudi’s city. Antoni Gaudi created the world-famous Sagrada Familia, the city’s landmark, but I didn’t expect that the whole city to be full of creations by Gaudi: a house here and there, a lamp post or two, even a park filled with colorful unorthodox designs. The picture above was taken at Barcelona’s Park Guell, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the designer of the house you see is none other than Señor Gaudi. It resembles Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house of my dreams, I could just about eat it.

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One of the best things about my Barcelona trip was meeting Julia, whom I met at a free “Gaudi” walking tour (she’s there on the photo with me, with the Sagrada Familia as backdrop). She was also travelling solo when we met and became travel buddies for our remaining time in Barcelona – hiking up (and getting lost in) Mount Tibidabo, dinner and treats here and there, and a girls night out during my last night in town. Julia remains a dear friend to this day, and actually came back to Germany for work (from the States) and visited me in Saarbruecken in June! That story is for another post.

It was in Barcelona where we got to try Valor’s sumptuous churros con chocolate. Oh myyy. Bar none, the best churros con chocolate I’ve tried in Spain! Valor is a chain that’s available throughout Spain so if you ever find yourself in this country, do yourself a favor and make a beeline to this shop.

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2) Valencia

After four days in sun-kissed Barcelona, I purchased a bus ticket taking me to Valencia. Valencia was on a frenzy when I got there because I arrived during the eve of the biggest event of the year: the Las Fallas celebrations. And, my, the Valencians sure know how to party! Accommodations were a little difficult to get, but I managed to find something (it was certainly the most expensive I’ve paid this trip, but that was expected — supply and demand and all that).

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Las Fallas is a 5-day fiesta in commemoration of St. Joseph. As early as one year before the fiesta, each neighborhood starts constructing colorful gigantic falles and ninots (paper mache dolls). A few days before the fiesta, these sculptures are set up throughout the city, to be burned during the crema on the last day of the fiesta —  except for one display judged as the best. The sculptures are works of art and it feels like a waste to burn them at the end — but I suppose that is the allure of the whole fiesta. It is all safe, firefighters are deployed throughout the city during the burning to ensure that nothing goes out of hand.

Each display has been stuffed with explosives so that, you know, they burn well and good.
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During the day there were mascleta (sound firework) shows held at Plaza Ayuntamiento at noon. I was there everyday during my stay in Valencia, and the mascletas were *loud*. I was with travel buddy Tania then and we had the same sentiment: we felt like our ears were going to fall off. But we kept on coming back for more — hey the whole town was there and we didn’t want to miss out!
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Time and again you would see falleras waking the streets.
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When darkness sets in that was when the fun started! There were impressive firework displays at close to midnight, after which the street parties started. I met two lovely girls, Liz and Katy, whom I had the best time with in Valencia.
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I also met some locals – Marisa, Mayte, etc. – whom I enjoyed the festivities with during the day.
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Valencia was simply amazing, and I was more than glad I made the last minute decision to go there. I was almost reluctant to leave the city, but Madrid beckoned.
3) Madrid
I always enjo capital cities, and Madrid was no exception. I enjoyed the museums – the world-class Prado and Reina Sofia museums – and discovered new Spanish artist favorites (El Greco’s paintings blew me away). If you enter at certain times of the day, you can get in for free. That’s exactly what I did.
I took a Sandeman’s Free Walking Touri of Madrid and learned the city’s colorful history. For instance, did you know that the Spanish “c” (as in c in hacer) sounds like a “th” because, once upon a time, a Spanish king had a lisp and ordered everyone to talk like him. Those who disobeyed would be killed. One of the few Spanish trivias imparted by our guide.
I couldn’t help but compare Barcelona to Madrid and thought Barcelona was prettier. Not to say Madrid is aesthetically challenged — it is not and has its own charms. The nightlife was one of the best I’ve experienced so far (in a lot of clubs, girls didn’t have to pay to get in and received free drinks the whole night just to entice them to enter), and I loved the vibe.
I was able to simply relax in Madrid, take it easy, and get to know some people at the hostel. Dani, one of the sweetest girls ever, became my travel buddy for this leg of the trip. Together with Emily, we explored the city, which was very walkable.
Here in front of the Royal Palace:
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Chilling at Retiro Park:
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Some Madrileño pastries, which reminded me of baked goodies back home:
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4) Toledo
Toledo, one of the jewels of Central Spain, is an easy day trip from Madrid, I think it took us less than an hour to get there. I explored the walled city with Madrid travel buddy Dani, and Juan and Andres from Chile.
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Unfortunately it was raining when we were there. Still, we were blessed with breathtaking views. Spain was indeed gorgeous, more so the countryside.
Toledo used to be the former capital of Spain and within the walled city, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in the past. The city has a feel of an open-air museum, and you could see the influences left by its former inhabitants in the architecture. No wonder the whole city was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
This city, the capital of Castille-La Mancha, is also where Don Quixote’s Route (Ruta de Don Quijote) began.
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It was now time to head to Andalucia in the south.
5) Granada
I expected a lot from Granada, and it did not disappoint. Among all the cities I’ve visited in Spain, this one had the most Arabic feel to it. From the foodfare to the Moorish-inspired architecture, the place is certainly not your typical Spanish ciudad. It was also one of the most breathtaking places I’ve seen during this trip, with the snow capped Sierra Nevada serving as the city’s backdrop. I regret just allotting 2 days here, and wished I spent at least one more day.
First things first: a visit to the Alhambra was in order. After all, that was one of the reasons I came to Spain. It was a gorgeous sunny day when I visited the Alhambra. I was lucky.
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The Alhambra served as a fortress built by the Moors — Muslims from North Africa — when they still occupied this part of Spain. It was built around the 9th century as a small fortress and converted into a royal palace around the early 14th century. The jewel of the Alhambra is the Nazarene palace. The palace is the epitome of elegance. No wonder this is one of the most visited structures in Europe, despite the fact that Granada is a little out of the way of the tourist route.
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It was really a treat to simply stroll around the fortress grounds.
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My tour of the Alhambra lasted about half a day. Thereafter, I headed to town for some tapas. After which, I did a night tour of Albayzin to see where the gypsies lived.
To be continued…
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2 thoughts on “Solo Backpacking in Spain

    1. Hi Arlet, I’m based in Germany so I only had to pay for my flight from Germany to Spain and flight out of Apain (to Paris). Roundtrip tickets cost me a little less than 100Euros. Planning on a Spain solo trip as well?

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