A Year of Life-Changing Places and Moments

This last year has been a period of relentless change for me, both professionally and personally, both good and bad. 

I settled into the Mediterranean way of life in Barcelona, though I failed miserably at improving my Spanish.

I met someone who showed me what it is to love and to be loved and I realised a lifelong dream of becoming a full-time travel writer, getting paid to stay at luxury hotels and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants. But it wasn’t all sunshine and siestas…

Celebrating the summer with a splash of cider, in Gijón, Asturias (northern Spain)

Celebrating the summer with a splash of cider, in Gijón, Asturias (northern Spain)

I lost both my grandfather (Jack) and uncle (John) to cancer, both within a couple of months of each other. “Enjoy your life, Ben. You only pass this way once,” my grandfather told me the last time I saw him.

It’s been a volatile and testing time, but I’ve experienced places and moments that will stay with me forever. And more importantly, I feel I’ve made a conscious effort to pursue my dreams, to live the life I wanted. I think old Jack would be proud of the the way I’ve taken the bull by the horns, the way I’ve tried my best to enjoy my life.

Here are a few highlights from my year in travel (and life). I hope it gives you a little inspiration.

Epiphanies in Joshua Tree, California

The year started a little differently than most. Jason, one of my best friends who I lived with when I first moved to Barcelona in 2009, and I drove out to Joshua Tree with his dog, Betsy. It was bright and sunny, but there was snow on the ground and a bite in the air. We spent the day talking about life, about our problems and hopes for the future. We played the Beatles through a speaker and the voices of Lennon and McCartney echoed through the rocks. Something changed in me that day and I returned to Barcelona a new man.

Epiphanies in Joshua Tree National Park

Finding My Dream Home in Barcelona

When I lived in London I’d sit at my desk and stare out of the window at the rain and grey skies, dreaming of Barcelona and the life I thought I’d left behind forever. I’d dream of having a flat up in the mountains of Collserola, with a terrace where I could drink coffee in the mornings and watch the sunsets at night. With a little bit of luck and a great deal of tenacity, I made the dream a reality. I’ve spent the last year here, writing like a madman to pay the bills and bothering my neighbours with my vino-fuelled guitar solos. It was a big gamble, but it paid off.

Putxet Barcelona

Home, where the sky turns to candy floss once a day

Ben Holbrook travel and food writer Barcelona, Spain and beyond

The view from my new office

Cycling Collserola Mountains around Tibidabo, Barcelona

Cycling the Collserola mountains by my new home

Hanging at the Beach in Barcelona

I find it hard to just sit on a beach all day. I’m too restless for a start, and my complection is hardly suited to the searing Spanish sun. But the city beaches of Barcelona are different. There’s always something weird and wonderful going on, from live Cuban music performances to flea markets. Typically I’ll just hang out there on my own, cruising the boardwalk on my longboard and sipping on a couple of cold ones. I’ve written about it here, if you’d like to hear more about it.

Read more: Where to stay in Barcelona

Slacklinging Barceloneta Beach

Researching Barcelona’s Booming Vermouth Scene

At the start of the year I became “the Barcelona guy” for Expedia’s blog, writing monthly travel features about Barcelona’s cultural and gastronomical attractions. This, naturally, means I now have a decent excuse for sauntering around the city’s bars and restaurants. The blog post I wrote about Barcelona’s vermouth scene here on my blog is probably one of my favourites of all time.

Vermouth bars Barcelona

And Craft Beer Bars

I’ve also met some amazing people within Barcelona’s craft beer community and drunk some even more amazing beers. Be sure to check out my blog post on the best craft beer bars in Barcelona if you’re interested in discovering some local brews. There’s so much going on in Catalonia.

Craft beer bars in Barcelona

Press-Tripping in Girona

I also started writing for Ryanair’s travel blog and in early summer I went on a press trip to Girona, an ancient Roman city about an hour away from Barcelona. Not only do I consider it to be an essential day-trip destination from BCN, but I also consider it to be one of my top ten cities in Europe. Make it happen.

Girona (and the Costa Brava in general) is full of spiring Cyprus trees, which feature in many of local artist Salvador Dali's paintings.

Girona (and the Costa Brava in general) is full of spiring Cyprus trees, which feature in many of local artist Salvador Dali’s paintings.

Kissing the lion's ass at St. Fèlix Church, because doing so ensures that you will one day return to Girona

Kissing the lion’s ass at St. Fèlix Church, because doing so ensures that you will one day return.

Enjoying Asturias’ Natural Beauty and Famous Hospitality

Rosana’s cousin got married in Asturias in early summer and I was honoured to be invited as a guest. We ate like kings, drank like fish and danced like god knows what… As well as being blown away by how friendly and generous the Asturians are, I also fell in love with the natural beauty of the region. It’s wild and rugged with spectacular beaches and mountains. And it boasts incredible gastronomy and delicious wine and cider, especially in the charming beachside city of Gijón, which is where I recommend staying if you want to visit Asturias. Paradise, indeed.

Wedding in Asturias

Dancing off the five-course lobster lunch

Llanes Beach, Asturias

Llanes Beach, Asturias: They say this region of Spain is a “natural paradise”. They’re not wrong.

Road-tripping / Wine-sipping in the North of Spain and Portugal

It’s quite a long drive form Barcelona to Asturias, so we made the most of the road-trip by visiting the incredibly handsome city of León, Spain… Make it happen.

 city of León, Spain

The rich and regal city of León, Spain

And the charming seaside town of A Guarda in Galicia, where the seafood (don’t miss the “pulpo” octopus) is sensational and the local Albariño wines converted me from a red wine drinker to a white wine drinker.

Falling for Albariño wines at in A Guarda, Galicia Quinta Couselo

Falling for Albariño wines at the Quinta Couselo bodega in Galicia

ancient settlements in A Guarda Galicia, Spain

It’s not much, but it’s ours…

And just a quick drive across the bridge, we left Spain behind and entered Portugal. We stayed in the cosmopolitan riverside metropolis of Porto, which is of course famous for being the birthplace of port, the drink. Make it happen.

Sandeman Winery in Porto, Portugal

Sandeman Winery in Porto, Portugal

Pont Luz, Porto, Portugal - Kids Jumping Off Bridge into River

Someone’s had too much port…

Exploring Tarragona and its “Natural” Beaches

Barcelona’s beaches are special, but leave the city limits and things get a little wilder. We stayed in Tarragona for two nights and spent our evenings swimming in the sea and nibbling tapas in the old Roman city. I recommend seeing it for yourself if you want a quiet, romantic couple of nights away.

Waikiki Beach, Cala Fonda Tarragona Coast, Catalonia Spain

Cala Fonda nudist beach (or Waikiki Beach as it’s better known) on the Tarragona coast – An hour away from Barcelona

Tarragona CIty, Catalonia Spain

Although Tarragona city is equally as beautiful. Well worth a night or two.

Family Time in Mallorca

It was a hard time for my family, but it was good to spend some quality time together with a little island retreat. We stayed in a beautiful villa in the mountains of Deià, Mallorca and spent our days and nights sipping on giant G&Ts and eating together on the terrace, sharing old memories and making some new ones. If you need to get away from it all and recover from everyday life, I suggest you do the same. 

Swimming pool luxury rental villa in Deia Mallorca

My mum swimming away the blues

Deia Mallorca Luxury Rental Villa

Our retreat in the hills of Deia, Mallorca

Eating and Drinking in Valencia

Ryanair and the Valencian tourist board arranged an exquisite blog trip for me. I ate and drank at seven incredible restaurants and bars (three of which were Michelin-starred) and cycled the iconic Turia River down to the beach, where I enjoyed traditional paella at the beach. It’s not a bad job, I suppose.

Needless to say, I fell madly in love with Valencia. If you’re looking for a comfortable hotel in the city centre, I thoroughly recommend the 4* Vincci Mercat hotel, where I stayed for three glorious nights.

La Pepica beachfront restaurant, Valencia. Like a scene from Santa Monica, LA.

La Pepica beachfront restaurant, Valencia. Like a scene from Santa Monica, LA.

Heaven on a plate at Restaurant Riff Valencia

The ascent to gourmet heaven at Riff Restaurant, Valencia

Agua de Valencia at the operatic Cafe de las Horas in El Barrio Carmen

Agua de Valencia (Local orange juice with cava, gin and vodka) at the operatic Cafe de las Horas in El Barrio Carmen

La Birreria Italian Craft Beer Bar in Valencia

10/10 Italian brews at La Birreria craft beer bar in Ruzafa, the trendiest barrio of Valencia

But Most Importantly…

Made it home in time for one last day of messing about on the river...

I made it home in time for one last day of messing about on the river with my hero, old Jack.

What were your favourite travel places and moments of the last year? I need inspiration for the next year, so please tell me in the comment section below!

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