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