From early January to early March, 2020, my family and I spent a glorious two months in Spain.
Rewind about six months to the summer of 2019. I was about to leave my anesthesia job in a matter of weeks. We already had plans to spend the fall in South America (although we ended up spending two months in Mexico thanks to civil unrest in Ecuador).
The calendar was wide open in 2020. I got an email from Scott’s Cheap Flights alerting me to cheap airfare to Europe, and I was able to find a fare to Valencia, Spain from our tiny airport in northern Michigan for about $2,500 in total for our family of four.
I asked my wife what she thought about some slow travel in Spain, and she was totally on board. I booked the flights before the fares could change on us, and worked out the rest of the details later.
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Spain was a great choice for our second big trip in early retirement. As a family, we have been committed to learning Spanish, albeit at a very gradual pace.
Also, in the winter months, the weather in Spain is temperate and comfortable with highs around 60 Fahrenheit and lows in the 40s. Compare that to the gray, snowy chlll that sets up in northern Michigan for nearly half the year, and Spain makes for a lovely escape.
I would have liked to have booked a trip of three months — US citizens are allowed to spend 90 of every 180 days in the European “Schengen Area” — but I had an obligation back in the states in early March. That would prove to be fortuitous.
The 2020 White Coat Investor conference was scheduled for March 10th to 14th in Las Vegas, and we planned to arrive back in northern Michigan a couple of days before that.
If we had planned to stay overseas until early April, we would have been dealing with the uncertainty and added expense of trying to get home as a pandemic spread rapidly throughout Spain while tight lockdowns were enforced.
Our final two weeks in Spain were spent in Madrid. When we arrived in the capital city, there were two cases of COVID-19 in there. A week later, there were a few dozen. By the time we left, it was a few hundred, and we all know where it went from there.
Our Days in Spain
The days in Spain were anything but plain, there was not much rain, and our routines kept us sane.
Just like our 2 months in Mexico that ended a few weeks prior, this was not a vacation. Slow travel is life; you just live it somewhere other than home.
Our boys continued to homeschool, or “worldschool” which gave me at least a couple of hours most days to devote to my blogging work.
We stayed in the three largest cities in Spain over the course of our two months there, and getting around was easy. Public transportation was plentiful, and we stayed within a kilometer or two of most major attractions and city centers in Valencia, Barcelona, and Madrid.
Our primary mode of transportation was the shoes on our feet, and we averaged 3 to 5 miles a day, putting 10 or more miles on the tread some days.
We also ran a lot in those shoes. We trained for and completed a half marathon, running all throughout Barcelona with 23,000 other running enthusiasts in the BCN Half the 3rd week in February.
A few weeks later, those same streets were all but deserted as stay-at-home orders were strictly enforced (while I was solo-quarantined myself in northern Michigan).
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When our families heard about our upcoming travel adventure, several relatives expressed an interest in coming to visit. We welcomed them with open arms.
My parents were able to join us for two weeks — one week in Valencia and another in Barcelona. A few days after their departure, my wife’s aunt arrived from Boston and spent a week with us in the Catalonian capital.
It was fun and refreshing to play host to family in our home away from home for the winter. It can be tough to go for months at a time without seeing familiar faces in person (as the pandemic has taught us well).
Another benefit of having visitors is that we chose larger accommodations than we might have otherwise. Once again, we stayed exclusively in short-term rentals via Airbnb (get $40 off your first Airbnb stay).
We had three bedrooms in Valencia, four bedrooms (and a second half-bath) in Barcelona, and both places had small balconies. In Madrid, we had no visitors, so we opted for a higher-end place with two beds and one bath. We were very happy with our choice in accommodations all around.
Our first stop in Spain was in Valencia, but before we arrived, we had a long layover in Amsterdam after our redeye flight to Europe.
I knew from a previous trip across the pond that it was easy to take the train into town and tour around a bit. As a solo traveler in my 20s way back when, I used my layover time to grab a beer in a pub on a Sunday morning, walk through the red light district, and visit the renowned Sex Museum.
Two decades later, traveling with my wife and kids, we skipped the pub and that museum, opting instead for an educational and emotional tour of the Anne Franke House.
We purchased our tickets two months in advance and had our boys read Anne Franke’s diary beforehand. We had also visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with them a few months earlier. These experiences have left an important and indelible impression on all of us.
We had a couple of hours before the museum opened to check out the center of town with its many canals, boats, and bikes. Amsterdam is a beautiful city that I would love to return to for more than a few hours someday, preferably in the warmer months when it doesn’t stay dark ’til 9 a.m.
We caught the train back to the airport, retrieved our stowed luggage, and passed out on the plane bound for Valencia.
Before seeing this flight deal, the one thing I knew about Valencia is that there must be oranges there, and I probably only knew that because Blue Moon beer says it uses Valencian orange peels right on the label.
Before booking the flight, I could see that it was right next to the Mediterranean Sea. Google told me it was the third largest city in Spain, with a metropolitan area population of about 1.6 to 2.3 Million people. That makes it comparable to U.S. cities like Nashville, TN, Austin, TX, and Las Vegas, NV in terms of the number of residents.
It looked to be an easy train ride to either Barcelona or Madrid, the two largest cities in Spain. I booked it, and we made plans to spend two to four weeks in each of the three cities.
We stayed on the south end of town near the Jesus (pronounced Hey, Suess) Market and metro stop. There was an excellent and convenient Consum supermarket right downstairs in our building and dozens of restaurants and bars within a few blocks.
We paid a total of $1,121.56 for 29 nights, or $39 a night for the 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom flat. Many places on Airbnb give you a substantial discount when you book for a month or longer (28+ days, specifically). Note that the cancellation policy for long-term stays are typically that you do not get your first month’s money back, an important caveat to keep in mind.
Although it was a nice place at a great price, I would choose to stay further north or northeast and closer to the town center if we were to return (which I’m sure we will someday). Now that we know the lay of the land, a place next to the Turia would be ideal.
Back in 1957, the Turia River flooded and wreaked much havoc in Valencia. Subsequently, the river was diverted, and the old riverbed has been transformed into an amazing series of parks, gardens, and playgrounds with running, walking, and biking paths throughout its 5+ mile length.
The Turia was our training grounds for the BCN half marathon, and nary a day went by that we didn’t spend some time in the park. Our boys’ favorite spot was Gulliver Park, a massive sculpture with stairs, ramps, and slides that looks quite creepy from above, but is a great place for boys to play.
At the far west end of the Turia is Bioparc, an African themed zoo with no real fences to speak of.
A combination of well-placed trenches and glass barriers keep you safe from the elephants, giraffes, gorillas, and mighty meerkats while very much visually connected to all of them.
We spent a half-day or so there. Admission for our family of four was about $90 USD, and I’d say it was well worth the money.
City of Arts and Sciences
At the opposite end of the Turia, the City of Arts and Sciences anchors the eastern portion of the old riverbed. It is a visually stunning set of futuristic buildings that formed the set of the Disney movie Tomorrowland starring George Clooney.
When my parents were in town, we purchased the tourist’s package that gave us entry to a world-class aquarium complete with a dolphin show, the science museum, and an IMAX movie.
The package cost us about $150 USD for our family of four. It wasn’t necessarily the best bargain in town, but the aquarium complex, Oceanogràfic, was pretty spectacular.
If you don’t want to pony up the money, you can take in much of the splendor of the complex by simply walking the grounds and the sidewalks lining the Turia on either side of these architectural wonders.
El Carmen / Old Town
Like many European cities, Valencia was once a walled fortress. You can still visit remnants of that wall that remain as the Serranos and Quart towers in the Old Town that forms the center of the city.
There’s also an opportunity to see the ruins of the much older 2nd century Roman settlement that existed there in the L’Almoina Archaeological Centre.
The good news about many of the museums in Valencia is that the information on the displays is bilingual. The bad news is that the second language is Valencian, which looks an awful lot like the Spanish alongside of it.
Some of the more popular museums had some English, and if there was an audio guide, English was always an option, thankfully.
We actually visited quite a few museums in Valencia, often with free entrance on a certain day or by using the 7-Day City Pass. The Lladro factory tour and museum was a particular favorite of my mother’s. She has been collecting their glazed porcelain figurines for years.
The streets of the Old Town and are narrow, windy, and lively with small shops, tapas places, bakeries, and beverage stops. Yes, there is a brewery, and yes, we stopped by for a pint or two.
One of the highlights in the adjacent El Carmen neighborhood is the ubiquitous street art, particularly that of David de Limón and his spraypainting ninja character that lurks all around town.
I first learned about the street art in a blog post from expat Lane from Travel Inspire Connect, and I was able to connect with him a couple of times for cervezas and Agua de Valencia during our stay.
The Holy Grail
In Valencia’s 13th Century Cathedral, a fancy chalice purported to be that which Jesus drank from at the last supper is on display behind several barriers including bulletproof glass.
Unlike the grail that Indiana Jones found, this one is rather ornate with gold and jewels. Also unlike that grail, no one’s faces have melted off upon viewing the one in Valencia.
Is it the real deal? That’s up for debate, but I’m glad we got to see it along with the rest of the artwork in this historic church.
The Bullfighting Museum
Near the central train station lies the Museo Taurino, Valencia’s bullfighting museum. It’s also a functional bullfighting arena.
Based on what we learned and saw, I have no interest in ever witnessing an actual bullfighting event. I just don’t have that kind of bloodthirst. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the history, appreciate the pageantry, and to have the ability to wander the ring of an actual arena while our boys played the parts of matador and bull.
Although the Mediterranean Sea isn’t exactly tepid in January, we had to get in a little beach time, and Valencia has a massive and lovely beach.
From the city center, the beach and El Cabanyal neighborhood are a few miles to the east. You can easily get there via public transportation on the above-ground tram or with a long walk. We did both at different times, and I made it a part of my jogging route on a couple of my longer training days.
It was a quiet place when we were there, but I can imagine it’s bustling with activity in the hot Spanish summers.
And That’s Not the Half of It
Our first month in Spain was a smashing success, and we made the most of our time there. But there was a lot more to see in the month that we had left.
Stay tuned for a followup post highlighting the best of our time spending a month between the beautiful cities of Barcelona and Madrid, with a side trip to Toledo.
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Have you visited Spain? What left a lasting impression on you?