España, te llevaste mi corazón – you took my heart. My week and a half in Spain (was it only that long?) wasn’t just a journey navigating trains, buses, city streets and hostels, but also finding my way through emotions and life lessons. It began with a long day of travel on the now seldom used Feve train which hugs the North coast of Spain and takes at least twice the amount of time to travel than if you were to drive the route on the motorway. Idyllic in concept, but in reality we changed trains 4 times and for a good two hours transferred to a bus which was still responsible for stopping at all of the train stops, requiring backroad rambling and oh-so-many roundabouts. When we were actually on the train it was a beautiful, authentic experience, and I really didn’t mind the times the conductor had to stop to clear forest debris from the tracks. It was also one of the first days I’d encountered with not a single person even attempting to speak English, so aside from my couple brief exchanges with a fellow traveler or initiating conversation with my VERY rudimentary Spanish, I didn’t get much interpersonal connection that day. Except for a very hard phone conversation with the guy I’d met while ski-bumming in British Columbia. So although Cangas de Onis was a picture-perfect mountain hamlet complete, I was left feeling pretty darn lonely in my oversized double room that night.
The next morning I made time for some yoga and meditation, determined not to let this cloud keep me from fully enjoying my much anticipated trip to Picos de Europa national Park. But connecting was still going to be a challenge – the starting point for my multi-day trek was Cain, and I’d figured out the day before that my cheapest option to get there would be to join an all-Spanish tour group of which none (not even the guides) knew much English. But I tried my best to stay optimistic, and by the time we were hiking alongside the Cares River Gorge, the views, fresh mountain air and our joint attempts at communication succeeded in clearing my head and putting the smile back on my face where it belonged 🙂
That transcendance would continue into the next day as I left the tour group behind and ascended high into the Picos and 6 hours later arrived at the Vega de Ario refuge. The day of both intentional and environmental therapy left me feeling more elated than I had in months. In just days I went from feeling frustrated and lonely to connected, empowered, inspired and free. Without going into detail, those two days of struggle provided me with some long needed revelations about myself that were will worth the heartache it took to get there, and my panicked reminder of the power of meditation gave me the tools to now overcome and improve on these facets I now knew I needed to change. Sure the hike was hard, but it flew by as I took in the space and beauty around me with no clouds hindering my outlook. I arrived at the refugio and had the afternoon to myself to climb to the top of the nearby peak and do some yoga. That night I became fast friends with 4 Spanish guys that were finishing up an 8 day trek of all 3 Massifs that make up the Picos. We shared a delicious dinner cooked by the refugio hosts and they taught me a card game very similar to Euchre. The next morning after breakfast the 5 of us hiked together to Lagos, where they picked up their car and I proceeded on through fields and forests over to Refugio Varregadonda. There was a previous group leaving, and as I walked in the door I was greeted by a fluffy dog and the sounds of Pink Floyd. When I peeked in the office/kitchen to voice my approval of the music, I met the smile of a beautiful bearded Spaniard who was staffing the hut. After I set down my backpack, I grabbed my lunch and joined Dani, Pablo (another staff member) and Yogi the dog on the porch for an afternoon of non-stop fetch and hours of conversation. As it turned out, Dani had impeccable English, developed over 5 seasons of ski patrol and working the gear shop at a ski hill in Scotland. It soon came up in conversation that he’d done some ski touring on the mountain above us the day before, seeing as that’s one of his favorite things in life. At one point I headed upstairs to do some writing, and through my open window I could hear him playing the guitar, occasionally interrupted by another throw of Yogi’s ball. That day, I was more at home than I’d been since I had one myself. Later that night we talked music, watched the sunset and looked at the stars. In the morning after having breakfast and packing up, Dani (and Yogi) joined me for the first part of my descent back down before saying our “see ya later”s (he’d already offered to come to San Sebastian to meet up with me the next week). I continued on the long journey back to Cain with awe, amazement, and confusion as to what the heck the universe was drunk on to play me a hand like this. My self revelations were largely relationship based, and here the very next day I meet the line-by-line man of my dreams. Unlike every other time I’ve met someone and quickly become infatuated with them, this time I feel level headed about it; appreciative and excited but not placing my happiness on our future together. Even if Dani used the term “soul mates”. I feel like being handed this “test” directly after confronting a huge personal issue (directly applying to relationships) is like the universe saying “you think you’re good now? Well we’ll just see about that!”. So far I feel like I’m handling the test with deep breaths and a calm response, hopefully I can retain this lesson even when it’s in the more distant past!
After a too-hasty departure from the mountains due to limited public transport, I made my way to Bilbao. Walking from the train station to my hotel, I wondered what the heck I’d left for: the city was a grinding, gritty metropolis that wasn’t the least bit pretty. Turned out that the route took you though the rough part of town and when I headed out late that afternoon I was happy to find a vibrant yet quaint old city. I quickly embraced the “pintxo” culture prevalent at nearly every bar or restaurant: a large display of finger foods awaiting your selection. A perk to my visit was the performance art festival underway: in just a few hours I saw an impressive acro-dance performance with live musicians, a silent synchronized comedy where the performers were blindfolded, and a hilarious opera/small symphony act. Thereafter I joined the crowds on the streets spilling out of the bars and cafes, finding myself amongst more locals than foreign travelers.
The next day I joined a walking tour of the city, which felt more like a friend taking a few of us around to point out his favorite spots and unknown local info. The unexpected highlight of the tour came when our tour guide informed us that the XX, a band I LOVE from the States, was currently putting on a multi-day festival in Bilbao and would be having a show with only 500 tickets available on Tuesday… In only a couple hours I’d acquired tickets and changed my plans around to be for it! After spending the rest of the day exploring on my own, that night me and two girls I’d met in the hostel headed out for pixtos, wine, and some much needed good conversation. We were all in a state of big transition in our lives and I think we were each very appreciative of the support and companionship of two other driven, independent females.
I’d set aside the next day for some solid museum time; the Guggenheim in Bilbao is renound for it’s eclectic collection and deserves the accolades. The entire first floor was an exhibit unlike any I’d seen before. Artist Joana Vasconcelos used everyday household items as the building blocks of her sculptures, sending a message or posing a societal question with each one. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a huge heart made from red plastic cutlery, reshaped and intertwined in the style of fine Portuguese filligre. Other pieces included a huge mask made from mirrors, a giant pair of high heels made from pots and pans, and a chandelier made from tampons. Read into each at will, and check out the rest of her incredible exhibit below. https://joanavasconcelos.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/exhibition
After sufficient museum time, I texted myself a bike and took a couple hours to ride out to the Spanish seashore and back. Looks to me like the Spanish love their beaches; the couple that I passed and then stopped at were packed with very little free sand left for an extra beach towel or two.
I woke up the next morning and headed to the beach destination of San Sebastian, and promptly meet up with Astrid, my new friend from the Bilbao hostel, for a run. If I thought the beaches outside of Bilboa were busy… ! Soon thereafter Dani (the beautiful Spaniard from the mountain hut) arrived and we had a great 24 hours of wandering the streets, eating incredible food, contemplating the museum exhibits on Roman/Greek gods, and endless hours of really nice conversation, impressive for a man who’s known English for only a few years. Time to step up my Spanish! We made it back to Bilbao in time for the flawless XX concert. Spain treated me really, really well, so well in fact that I’m doing what I can to intern in Barcelona this fall with a couple I met in Lisbon, Portugal, who have their own environmental consulting firm. It’s Barcelona, it’s beaches, but it’s also only hours from the huge Pyranees mountains and at the doorstep of the rest of Europe. Seems like no better time to add Spanish fluency to my CV too! Fingers crossed!!!