Last October we backpacked through Spain with our eleven-month old baby. We spent ten days soaking up culture, history, and food in Madrid, and parts of Andalusia. Our choice to take only backpacks goes back to our why. We wanted to travel light. We wanted to keep our hands free. We wanted to hop on and off of buses and trains easily, to experience local life as much as possible by walking. We wanted to keep things simple, which to us means not surrounding ourselves with a lot of stuff to keep track of, transport, organize, and generally bother with. We wanted to travel slow, relax, and take our time at these places that were steeped in history. We spent a month before the trip memorizing enough Spanish words and phrases so that we could order off Spanish menus scrawled on the chalkboard walls of hole-in-the-wall tabernas (and avoid the tourist traps that had the pretty, laminated English menus). We wanted to be able to ask basic questions of the locals, and on some occasions even make small-talk in our broken Spanish with friendly folks on the subway who invariably approached to tell us how muy guapo Johann was.
We were here now. We had explored Madrid, made it to Seville, and were now ready to enjoy the rest of our trip.
On our first full day in Seville, we had two goals: See the Cathedral and Giralda, and buy train tickets for our day trips to Cordoba and Cádiz. [We had decided not to book everything ahead of time since we wanted to keep some flexibility in our plans so we had not booked these tickets prior to our trip. We now had to buy them in-person at the train station, since we had no computer.] Since we now knew how to get to and from the station, we decided to tackle the tickets first. We got an early a.m. start, walked the mile to the bus stop, rounded the corner, and were immediately confronted with a sea of pink T-shirts flowing past us. Thousands and thousands of women of all ages were running in what we assumed was a breast cancer race, past our bus stop as if it were an unreachable island in the middle of the sea. The road was closed to traffic in both directions, and we watched helplessly as the police at the end of the road redirected all the buses.
Hmm. What next?
We waited and watched for a little while hoping the race would move on and normal traffic would resume. But half an hour later, the pink sea was still flowing strong. They just kept coming and coming, as if they were multiplying right in front of our eyes. Tensions were running high. Seeing no end in sight (as it could have been a marathon), and unsure of how to move forward, we ducked into a nearby park. We held hands, slowed down, and just focused on keeping the peace between us. The park was a hidden gem, tucked outside the gardens of the Alcazar, with beautiful murals, a cool fountain, and all sorts of flora and fauna. It was just where we needed to be right then.
We walked around practicing gratitude and finding joy again. An hour passed, and when we left there was no more pink sea. Normal traffic had resumed. Our bus came along and we hopped on, overjoyed. Ten minutes later we were back at the station and forty minutes later we were leaving again, with tickets in hand, feeling relieved at having plans and grateful for having made the most of what had now been a shaky twenty-four hours. And, once again, Johann was sleeping hard in the Ergo carrier, blissfully unaware of the morning’s excitement. What a trooper.
A NOTE ON BABY’S SCHEDULE
Does anyone have a schedule on vacation? During the trip, we placed more importance on routine rather than schedule. Johann’s naps mostly happened on-the-go, in the Ergo carrier. Sometimes he took two, which was normal for him at eleven months, but sometimes just one longer nap. His nighttime sleep was very different than his at-home schedule, as we all generally went to bed later. But we watched how much total sleep he got within a twenty-four period to make sure he was getting enough rest. And, he did. We never had any sleepy crankiness from him while we were in Spain.
We spent the afternoon inside Seville’s Cathedral, marveling at its impossibly large scale and gothic architecture. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest cathedral overall. We felt very small the minute we stepped inside. We gazed up at its pillars and vaulted ceilings towering above us, stood in awe at Christopher Columbus’ tomb, admired the stained glass and intricately jeweled walls, and slowly took in the various rooms – each exquisitely designed and adorned for its specific purpose. Johann had snoozed while we waited in the entrance line but woke up just as we entered the cathedral, ready for an afternoon snack and a little exploring.
We ended our visit by climbing up the 34 levels of the Giralda to the bell deck, and were rewarded with 360 degree views of Seville and beyond.
We spent late afternoon recouping at the hotel, and let Johann play, then went out again for a light dinner of tapas. We couldn’t help but walk around the square once more enjoying the sunset with €1 cones of tasty gelado, completely guilt-free by the way since we had walked eight miles that day.
Early the next morning, we took the train to Cordoba and spent the day there. Our day in Cordoba was the most special one of our whole trip. Our main goal there was to see the Mezquita. This nearly one thousand year old Moorish-built structure has served as both mosque and cathedral over the centuries, depending on the conquerors of the day. The history was gripping and the place was breathtaking.
La Mezquita is the kind of structure where, when you stand inside, it’s easy to feel tiny and insignificant. It was a powerful reminder that our lives are really just dots on a line that stretches into eternity.
But there was so much more.
Cordoba pulled you back in time and allowed you to see Roman armies and ancient walls. We walked through castle gates and everywhere we looked reinforced that we only walk this Earth for a short time.
When we sat down for lunch at a taberna that had been a family-owned business since 1912 (wow!), we had no idea that we were about to eat the best meal of our whole trip. We ordered two regional specialties to try: Salmorejo, a thick, gazpacho-style cold soup made with tomatoes, bread, oil, and garlic, frequently served topped with hard-boiled eggs and chopped ham.
And, Rabo de Toro: Bull’s Tail stew usually served with potatoes.
Ryan and I will remember this meal for the rest of our lives, it was just that incredible. Johann sampled everything, and was especially thrilled to hold his own spoon and lap up the creamy Salmorejo.
That evening we arrived back in Seville, feeling like we’d had a day-long religious experience, and got a good night’s sleep.
A NOTE ON FOOD
You’re probably wondering how we managed to eat all this rich Spanish food, enjoy cervezas or sangria with every meal, and have gelado almost every day (oh, yes we did) without gaining any weight, and without breaking the bank. Pretty easily actually: By eating small portions of real food, walking a lot every day, and strict budgeting. Eating good food is a priority for us, and even though we never ate at any fancy places in Spain, we didn’t skimp either. Most of our “sit-down meals” were at bars or cafes. Some places tend to charge more for outdoor seating. So we scrutinized the prices, and weighed them against our mood and how badly we wanted to sit outside – which we actually did, a lot. It wasn’t a shock for us to see how much we spent on food because we had anticipated it, budgeted accordingly, and saved it all up ahead of time. Sometimes, we picked up food from grocery stores for quick lunches or snacks on the go. These were cheaper, and helped us stay within our budget. We ate well, savored every bite, and usually got up from a meal feeling happy and wanting “a bit more.” When you’re eating good, tasty, real food, you don’t need a whole lot to keep you full. We didn’t go hungry, but we were never stuffed either. Our average meal comprised of two Tapas plates, that we shared. (In case you’re wondering, a Tapas portion size is at most one-third or half the size of an “appetizer” plate that you would see at a restaurant in the US.) Since most of it was real food, we shared almost everything with Johann (churros and some other deep fried stuff were exceptions). Nursing and snacks usually happened on-the-go, or whenever we had the opportunity to take a break to play.
We also had a drink with most meals. Sometimes we skipped drinks and just had water so we could try a third Tapas dish, depending on how hungry we were or how tempting something looked. And, believe me, there are a lot of temptations in Spanish cuisine. It is generally easy to find food and water in Spain. Between all the markets and shops carrying a good variety of fresh produce and food for purchase, and abundant tabernas and cafes, we never lacked options. One additional benefit to me was that I was still breastfeeding (but don’t worry, the alcohol was all well-timed not to interfere!) and so burning extra calories there. Ryan and I were both walking nine miles on average, daily. And traded off carrying a twenty-pound infant strapped onto us. So, it is possible to eat great food on vacation without gaining weight or breaking the bank. In fact, Ryan and I had each lost a few pounds by the time we got back to the States.
Back in Seville, early the next morning, we hopped a train to Cádiz. It was two hours away one-way, but completely worthwhile. Cádiz, a seaport that stabs into the Atlantic Ocean, is “the most ancient city still standing in Western Europe.” We were thrilled to spend the day exploring it. Our visit on a holiday allowed us to keep a relaxed pace as the whole city seemed to ease through a perfect day. We all splashed in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and Johann had a huge smile on his face as he dipped his feet in it for the first time. We walked along coastal walls and visited fortresses that defended the city.
Cádiz was the perfect place to just wander.
The next day was our last full day in Seville. We stumbled upon a playground, and Johann was ecstatic to be there. We took about a billion photos of him playing on the swings. Seriously, a billion. We eventually pulled ourselves away and walked over to see the Plaza de Espana – a massive half-circle-shaped building, with a moat and courtyard, that was originally built for the 1929 World’s Fair but is used today as Government offices.
For lunch we ordered a racion (plate) of Black Paella for all to share. This is not Paella made with black rice, but rather squid ink. Johann loved it! This was only one of many strange new foods he had eaten on this trip, and we could not be more proud of our adventurous little foodie baby. We then moved on to see the last big highlight of the trip, the Real Alcazar. The Alcazar of Seville is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We were amazed at the palace and grounds. Its gardens have been featured in movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Kingdom of Heaven, and while we were there we saw HBO filming scenes for Season 5 of Game of Thrones in the gardens! It was a good day.
The next morning, we all jumped in the hotel pool one last time! Johann promptly fell asleep right after (as he always does post-swimming) while we packed up and got ready to check out of the hotel. We caught our train back to Madrid, arrived to find ourselves walking around in the pouring rain to get dinner, then went straight to the nondescript airport hotel for a few hours rest before our (very) early morning flight back home.
We said a fond farewell to Spain. We had filled our souls with wonder, our bellies with amazing food, and our memories with joyful experiences. We had stayed within our budget, which was important to us. What helped us was our mindset. We knew this wasn’t a once in a lifetime “bucket-list” type of trip. We would continue to travel, and possibly return to Spain someday. So it was easy to say “no” to some of the cities and sights that were either further away or more expensive, and forgo some things that we would have liked to do. This helped us have fun and enjoy ourselves, and wisely spend the money we had set aside. We were grateful for our good health throughout our trip. We thought we were well prepared, and still learned a lot about backpacking through a foreign country with a baby. It was not without struggles, but we tackled the challenges that came our way, remained at peace with each other, and made a conscious effort to enjoy each moment. Now, more than ever, we were convinced of our motivation. Our why.
Our trip was about more than just going on a holiday to a new country, and putting a pin on the map. It was about sharing memories, experiences, and special times with the people we love, trying new things, and opening our eyes to the world around us. It was also validation that our lives haven’t stopped. In some ways, they are just beginning. We don’t want Johann to change us, but we want to influence Johann to appreciate the wonder that is in the world.