Over December and January 2015, Dusty and I embarked on an epic road trip across Western Europe. While we didn’t hit every spot on the list above, we adventures our way from Germany to hit Spain, Portugal, Morocco and France.
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“There’s another pit bull!” I cried out to Dusty as we arrived at the platform to catch the train. It was our Five Year Anniversary and we were headed to celebrate in the city of excitement, nightlife and love, Barcelona. So far, every time we’d taken the train in and out of the city to our campground on the coast there had been at least one pit bull whose owner would reluctantly tolerate me cooing and petting their widdle wuv muffin on the twenty minute train ride. The stigma that these sweet creatures carry in the United States left me happily stunned at their acceptance in Cataluña. But there were so many differences like that, unique pieces of Barcelona lifestyle and history that make it such an inimitable city separate from mainland Spain. That fact has left Catalonians protesting their independence from the Spanish government for centuries, their history they declare is so isolated from Spanish history that they deserve their own unattached countryhood. Even the language spoken in Catalonia, Catalan, proves the distinction from the Spanish spoken in mainland Spain. Knowing conversational Spanish, I attempted on the first day to speak the Spanish I knew to the people we met and was laughingly told that I’d be better off trying English. Message received.
We arrived in Barcelona and got a shuttle bus service outside the city limits to our campground along the teal blue Mediterranean. Like many European campgrounds we’d visited, we had a café, pool, clean bathrooms, store and bar at our disposal on site. It wasn’t so much camping as it was “glamping” but we did pitch out tent in the dusty ground under low trees and got sufficiently dirty. “Grab everything valuable,” Dusty warned and stuffed his wallet and phone in the bag we carried. I rolled my eyes; Dusty is a chronic worrier of thieves and, as such, never left anything in our tent whenever we left for the day. He was absolutely right to do so, anyone can rob a campsite and our fellow campgrounders all seemed to be under the age of twenty, but I am more of the “whatever happens, happens” mindset. Once Dusty felt like our tent (which he locked the door zipper to the tent and took the key with him) was secure and our bag (which had a carabineer attached to its zipper too, connecting it with a loop on the strap so it would be very hard for a pickpocketer to open) was secure, we took the train to the beach for the day.
It’s a cliché to say, but I discovered my favorite parts of anywhere in Europe is anything close to the Mediterranean. The aqua waves tipped with white like vanilla frosting allured me, reaching with their fingers crawling on the shore to tickle my feet and draw me in. When we arrived at the train platform overlooking one of the beaches of Barcelona, the entire coast stretched out to us. The golden sand was sprinkled with a rainbow of beach umbrellas, towels and the rosy brown tones of nude flesh. We took to the sidewalks leading down to a wooden hut on the beach, in between volley ball courts and brightly painted metal sculptures that served as children’s playgrounds. The hut was owned by the campground as well and served an assortment of food and drinks to the guests lounging on four poster, wooden beds scattered on the sand. “This is heaven, right?” I asked Dusty, looking around at the tranquil scene of pure beach enjoyment. He laughed and gave a satisfied sigh as he dropped our bag and flopped down on one of the beds.
We laid together and ordered tapas and drinks while we watched families try to unsuccessfully corral their naked, brown children in one direction or another and teenagers kissing passionately on their shared beach towel under an umbrella. True to custom, there was not a bikini top in sight but instead the rosy color of bare flesh absent of embarrassment or insecurity. A topless woman would be shamed beyond belief for her indecent exposure in much of the United States, but it was my bikini top that was shaming me on this Barcelona beach and I quickly shed the stringy piece in relief. When we wanted to dip in the chilled teal water, Dusty carried me down to the edge on one of the many wooden boardwalks set up in the city to allow anything with wheels to easily access the water’s edge. Such a convenience was a novelty to us and I was delighted with Barcelona’s consideration and welcoming gesture.
Later in the day, we dried off and took the train to the center of downtown Barcelona. We made our way to La Rambla, the main strip in Barcelona, and strolled for a good while, enjoying the street performers under the suspended shadows of the street lights. By day the buildings of Barcelona are loud walls of bright reds, yellows and teals, with beautiful stone carvings along the edges telling a different story from wall to wall. At night, these buildings take a back seat to the performances and festivities on the street. men with carts on either side demonstrating their wares for the crowd, which tonight was a plastic spinning toy that light up and shrieked when it was flown. Bustles of colorful flower arrangements were on display at other carts, selling bouquets of sweet smelling drooping purple petals I’d never seen. People milled around us, the musical Catalan language wove through the crowd and the bursts of French or English or Italian danced on the melody like notes on a sheet of music. Teenagers leaned against light poles kissing and kids banged on the tables of outdoor cafés waiting for their parents to finish their wine. Many of the girls wore cutoff shorts riding up high on their hips and cropped suggestive shirts hung loosely and unabashed. Smoke rose through the crowd from the innumerable cigarettes dangling in the corner of mouths or pinched between the two fingers of old, wrinkly men selling flowers and too young boys riding skateboards down the street. Barcelona seemed more alive in the shadows of night with glowing streetlights illuminating a scene of entertainment, taste and excitement. As the hour grew later, the fervor of La Rambla amplified into a megaphone of merriment and wine that reverberated like a pulse throughout the city.
We made our way down La Rambla towards a small dinner theatre restaurant that people from Dusty’s unit had told me has the greatest display of Flamenco dancing in an intimidate setting in Barcelona. Later, I reflected that any notions I had about passion in dancing were redefined for me in Barcelona. The Flamenco is a dance that captures the soul of the dancer and speaks in the proud swish of the dress or the stomp of heels on wood. We were seated by escorts in tuxedos in a cramped, multilevel dining room of tables with silk tablecloths and bright red roses on the table. We hadn’t come in time for the dinner, but our empty hands were soon filled with glasses of sangria. The lights in the room suddenly darkened and a single light blinked on to illuminate the wooden stage in the front of the room. The musicians of the show walked out to line the stage, dressed in the signature Flamenco black pants and loose white shirts bleeding accents of red. The Spanish guitar began slowly as the musicians took their places, a sad melody of love and complication that escalated as a singer stepped forward. I didn’t need to translate the words of the singer to feel his passion, gesticulating with outstretched arms and his rich, high throaty voice rose alongside the guitar. And then the dancers emerged.
One solo at a time, a dancer would move forward into the spotlight and stomp, swish, twirl and sway to the singer and guitars. There were two female dancers and two male dancers, each with their own personality of Flamenco dance. Their dresses and costume were dark, with stark white tops or a bright rainbow of threading. Dark hair was oiled to shine in the light whether pulled tight into a bun or loosely bouncing in curls. A dark-haired woman wore a dark blue, richly red detailed Flamenco dress that stopped close to her neck and had thick white layers that she would lift and swish with every fast turn. A blond dancer with large, bouncing curls danced to slower, romantic songs of intricate guitar melodies and layers of skirts lifted high. Her red and black dress dipped at her bare shoulders and gave the effect of her dress melting off her in a syrup of carnal energy. Both dancers would suddenly smack their heels and fiercely tap their boots on the wooden stage while they spun and twirled. The Flamenco showed itself to be a dance of love and passion, shown by both the fierce beauty of the steps and the enticing, expressive splendor of the costumes and dancers.
The song would change after the crescendo of the coda and a new singer would begin soloing a high, throaty verse of the next song. When one of the male dancers came to the center stage, dark and seductively dressed with an open chest peeking through his shirt, his entrance would be aloud series of complicated taps and stopes that were met with cheering from the other dancers. The show was as social of an activity for the dancers as it was for the audience. The men danced as aggressively as the female dancers, their arms outstretched or risen above their heads and their legs stomping the stage in a fervor of heat and sound. Their complicated foot work and dizzying spins were accompanied by colorful accents of scarves and dark hats and, for some song, decorated by short waist vests.
A few times in between songs, we were graced with the presence of the matriarch of the dance. This older woman had her long, dark hair pulled so tightly into a long pony-tail braid that it pulled on her eyes, which were heavily painted like the other female dancers against bright red cheeks and dark lips. She would come to the front of the stage, arms spread, singing the loudest of the troupe and dancing as complicated of steps with the same passion as her younger dance cohorts. She gestured to either side as she sang and the dancers swayed and clapped to her song. And then, as suddenly as she would appear, she would stomp her heels and spin offstage. The dance and guitar and song came to a dazzling crescendo when the dancers reappeared together in brightly colored, bedazzled dressed, vest and hats, twirling each other and dipping and stomping to the harmonizing singers. The guitarist, sitting on a bench off to the side of the stage, suddenly came into view as the dancers stepped aside to showcase his talent. This musicians’ fingers became a blur as he whipped up and down the neck of the guitar to bring the dance to it’s passionate, complicated end.
We had never before heard a guitar sing so complicated a song or a dance that could stomp, sway and spin so many different sides of passion. The Cataluña Flamenco redefined the way I see the art of dancing; I know now how many sides of a soul can be shown just through sparkling cloth, mesmerizing rhythm and steps so passionate the leave the wooden stage forever dented with its steps. I was breathless as the this dancer’s song came to an end. My heart pounded loudly in my chest, feeling the music melt into my veins and course through my body. It was as if the dancers moving on stage were speaking the language of love to their partners and to all of us in the audience.
I learned in elementary school that bees communicate through dance, giving directions to each other where the good nectar is located by zigzagging patterns, turns and steps. They dance to connect with each other, their bodies creating the language. These dancers, with their beautiful dresses and vests of bright red, blue, yellow and green thread, were telling us about love in the passion of their steps. And it wasn’t the shy, slow affectionate love they expressed but the love of such enormity that its weight is painful. They were speaking of that moment when you angrily surrender to the fact that you love this person so much that life is nothing could never be anything but painful without them. They stomped the hunger for that other person, the ache for their arms and their fever that captures you completely. I knew that love, that anger that someone could imprison my heart so strongly and so completely yet I still ache for their attention. I never knew a dance of such beauty could so capture a depth of understanding of that love and commitment.
We left that night for our tent and sleeping bags carrying the message of the dance with us, sensitive to how gratifying it was to be holding each other hands, to kiss, to simply be married for five years. The modest gestures in a relationship, taking the bag, rubbing a back, were amplified by the passion of the flamenco and we slept that night unable to untangle from each other’s arms.
The next morning we left on a treasure hunt to find the sights of Barcelona and sample as many tapas as we could. There’s a famous architect of Barcelona that has shaped the atmosphere of the entire city with his inspired, colorful art. Antoni Gaudi’s houses are an attraction that cause many to walk the city just to see his work. The houses are astounding and truly look like recreations of the settings of many of my favorite childhood movies; it’s as if Willy Wonka came to Barcelona to make homes for his Oompa Loompas (but in normal sizes). It was the night of our anniversary and all I was told was that we were going to dinner. I pulled on my dress over my unshowered, still wet from an early morning dip in the Mediterranean hair and we got on the bus-to-train into the city.
When we arrived at a prominent Gaudi house, there was a crowd of onlookers taking selfies with the beautiful art behind them. There was a red velvet carpet, a gate and a giant bouncer who more resembled a tuxedoed Palm Tree at the entrance, daring the tourists to take a step closer into his domain. Dusty, in a very suave move, pulled out tickets hidden in his jacket and handed them to the bouncer whose demeanor changed to welcoming as he unlocked the gate to let us in.
We were escorted to a back elevator by the Palm Tree’s also giant friend, Mr. Cork Oak Tree .
“Mademoiselle, dis is a very especial way to, ah, see da art of Gaudi”, Cork Oak informed me when we got in a glass elevator. “You see, Gaudi wanted people to, ah, see da house as if dey are, how you say, going underwater,” he said as he pushed the button to the top floor. “Da higher you go in dis house, the deeper underwater you see”
I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to tell me until the elevator starting moving. The walls of Gaudi houses are not straight, but curved in ripples and scenes are painted on the curved and moving walls. The first floor was alive with yellow colors and smoother walls, but as the elevator began to ascend I saw the walls begin to ripple like water. The colors changed to from yellow to lighter turquoise to a deep ink blue. The glass strategically placed over different areas of the wall made it look like you were viewing the entire scene underwater. It was incredible.
When the doors opened to the penthouse, tuxedoed waiters ushered me inside and escorted me to where Dusty, who had taken the stairs, was waiting. The top floor of the apartment opened up to a large dining room bared to the street with large floor-to-ceiling windows and a kitchen turned into a bar for the night. The cream walls and dark wood floors were made amber by low lights, creating an ambience of mystery and glamour. They soon filled my empty glass with champagne to match Dusty and we were escorted out to the large balcony looking out over the back of the street behind the apartment. We could see over the tops of other buildings, the red tiled roofs lit in the moonlight turning to a dark maroon sea of Barcelona nightlife. The balcony seated two or three dozen people in white wicker chairs surrounded by tall, dark leafy plants and trestles woven with vines. A small stage had been set up at the front and a band in black suits played rumba catalana melodies on guitar and piano accompanied by a shiny brass saxophone and trumpet. A beautiful African woman swayed in the center of the stage and sang in a Cataluña accent while smiling at the crowd with bright red lips and a gap tooth that made her seem even more appealing.
I took Dusty’s hand as we sat near the back, listening to the sweet sounds of Cataluña and marveling that five years earlier we were just starting this life together. How far we’d come in such a little time, figuratively and as we sat thousands of miles away in Spain actually literally far. I looked over at my husband, his eyes closed listening to the music and his arm around my shoulders. How far we’ve come, how far we’ve come, indeed.
Dusty tore down the mountain chasing the tires of the mountain bikers in front of him. It was the second day of their group ride and he felt like an amateur against the hardened skills of his fellow bikers. This island, La Palma, is not only the most mountainous island of the Spanish Canary Islands, but also one of the most mountainous islands in the world. It’s a mountain biker heaven, with shops and hostels spotted throughout the island to provide refuge for the thousands that trek here year round. Yet, despite its popularity in the extreme sports world, the island remains mostly uninhabited and undisturbed with several villages and only one main city. At one time this remote Canary Island was patronized by a famous pirate known in the west as “Peg Leg” or more accurately, Jean-Paul de Billiancourt who raided the frequently plundered shipbuilding island of La Palma in 1553.
The “mountains” that Dusty twisted and turned his way down are actually the steep sides of still active volcanoes. The entire island is a product of two main volcanoes, with contributions from others throughout its’ history. As a result, the beaches are the black, glittering sand of aged lava and the ground crumbles with broken pieces of the last eruption.
He stood with his feet on either side of his bike, having made the ascent to the top of the mountain they’d be biking down soon, and took in the scene as he caught his breath. The green, rocky mountain below him seemed to melt down in the ocean, bubbling at the edges with white sea form. Clouds hazed at the furthest point of the sea, making it nearly indistinguishable to tell which was the water and which was its’ mirror.
“Ok, this first section is steep. You’ll need to keep your distance and do a front pivot turn to get through the bends.” The group leader addressed the group of 10, all young guys except one Italian female lawyer. Everyone’s experience ranged, but Dusty felt that he had the most to learn from the group than the others with only a few months experience under his belt. The group leader was German but had moved to La Palm and bought a bike shop/ B&B. He offered to take groups on the trails all over the island, providing transportation when needed and guidance before each section of a trail. “Keep an eye out for each other. If someone goes down, it’s up to the next person behind them to yell it through the line until it gets to me at the end. Ok? Super. Vamos!”
Dusty pulled down his helmet over his face and kicked forward on his bike, getting to the edge of the cliff with the others and waiting as the person in front of him disappeared down the trail. He leaned forward to tilt his bike and breathed steadily as the trees and greenery whizzed past in the peripherals of his eyes. He focused on the trail, reading the curves, bumps and roots of endless trees. Finding the motion of the mountain was his goal for this ride, learning the fluidity of the curves and mounds like one learns a dance by feeling the revolutions of their partner’s body. His tires pressed into the flesh of the mountain and he caught his breath as he performed the recommended pivot turn through the bend in the trail. He rode fluidly, rising and falling with each mound, and reared back on his handlebars as the bike fell through the air in a jump. Roots and rocks dotted the ground in between the trees like freckles on a body and he worked his bike back and forth to miss them. The tension in his shoulders became the energy of his hands controlling his speed with the front back and then the back brake. This job, this unit, this German assignment asked more from him than he had been prepared to give. His daily negotiations with corporate alliances here in Europe and back in the United States left him wishing for a community not dependent on money or status. His email had become the chain that kept him to his desk and served as his morning Grim Reaper. But this ride, this island, undressed the uniform of stress and responsibility from his body and warmed his bare, liberated skin.
All too soon, dust rose in the open track of the brief respite in the trail where they’d agreed to stop and Dusty rolled his hand over the bars to clutch his bike. He stepped to the side with the others and awaited the arrival of the last few members of the group. He took out his phone and smiling with freedom, began capturing the views around them.
While Dusty rode his hours on the island, I sipped café con leche leche (a drink that we had learned was a local favorite) by the pool of our lodging and watched the waves of the dark aqua ocean. The patatas and salsa verde I’d ordered were too delicious to even wait too cool and my burnt tongue groaned with the warmth of my coffee. I was in a paradise of black, blue, green and white swirling colors but I couldn’t shake the cloud that seem to hang only over me like a cartoon. Lately I had been hit with so many hints from life that confirmed my insecurities about being a real, capable adult. During the past weeks, I felt like I could hear life cackling at me whenever I forgot to make that phone call at work for my boss or ended a conversation with “but you know, you can, like, do whatever”. I felt incompetent and powerless to be able to change. But mostly, I was so insecure with myself that I didn’t even want to be around me.
But maybe, I thought, as I looked at the game of beach volleyball playing down on the black beach, I could find something I liked about myself here. I inhaled that resolution and smiled at the startling sweet smell of the air, a side effect of the copious banana farms throughout the island.
On the days we explored together, we trekked down to the hiking trail Ruta de los Volcanes along the Cumbre Viega mountain ridge on the southernmost part of the island. While the majority of the island is covered in tropical greenery, we spotted in the southern tip of the island small spines interspersed between large red rocks and yellow crumbling earth. We moved slowly, party for the crumbly, rough terrain of the path and also because we simply could not stop admiring what we saw. First there was the sparse shrub covered Volcan Martin (which can be seen the road and erupted in 1646) and down further was Montana de los Charcos (its 1712 eruption is responsible for flattening much of the southern part of the island). Dusty climbed the ridges of the steeper parts of the path ahead of me and stood on the edge to take pictures of Crater del Duraznero (caused by the San Antonio volcano in 1949) and Crater del Hoyo Negro (formed from the 1949 San Juan volcano which is responsible for flattening the southern part of the island). We descended from the volcanos to the Punta Fuencaliente, the southernmost point of the island complete with an old lighthouse to watch the sea.
The volcanoes themselves reach a height that, on a clear day, you can see the top of the mountain on Tenerife, the next island over. These heights, paired with the remoteness of the island, give a chance to see more stars at night than ever known before. NASA and the Spanish government joined forces to study the clear, unspoiled vantage point to the heavens and now the Gran Telescopio Canaries and Los Muchachos Observatory on one volcano of the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente. This national park is a massive crater formed by successive volcanic eruptions and now is one of the highest spots on La Palma.
That morning, we drove northeast from our little town of Los Llanos and couldn’t resist stopping at a little café that seemed to dangle precariously from the cliff edge. But upon entering the small outdoor tables, we could see why the location had been chosen. From the deck of El Mirador de Time, we could see in almost every direction up and down the coast of the island. The expansive banana farms rolled up and down the rises of the island and their sweet smell made the air thick and syrupy. We stayed to order omelets with salsa verde and cafés before continuing on our day.
Our destination was the top of one volcano, where the top had formed a crater called la Caldera de Taburiente. To reach the crater, we drove past La Cumbrecita, a vantage point to see the island, and parked at the beginning of the Rogue de los Muchachos trail. The ground was all rock this high up, a sandy red and brown that steamed from the sun and dusted our shoes. We walked along the edge of the steep ridge climbing to the top when suddenly it the entire Atlantic Ocean and the edges of the tiny island opened up. The warm sun greeted our faces as we gazed down at horizontal banana farms, growing up the sides of the volcanoes, their large green hats covering fat yellow fruits. The brightly painted orange and yellow houses and buildings spotted along the edges of this island, so small I could reach out with both arms and wrap the edges in a hug. We could see the small towns nestled into the slivers of air between two volcanic cliff edges leaning in to kiss. Small clouds below us hid parts of the black beaches along the island edge, as if trying to shield our eyes from the nudity our fellow European travelers felt comfortable enough to express. We continued to walk along the highest peaks of the crater on thin, amber paths that fell off down into the crater on one side and down the volcanic side on the other. We gulped thin air that was no longer sweet from the wafting bananas below but had a faint sour of sulphur emitting from the volcano. Dusty couldn’t be happier; this were he found his source of contentment and solace from life, when he is wrapped in the warm embrace of Mother Nature and chasing the freedom of Father Sky. We spent the day charging ourselves in the power of the view that volcano offered us until hunger brought us back to our car and down the road below the clouds.
But I didn’t find my bliss until a few days later, when we discovered the true infinity pools of the island that so many hotels across the world try to recreate. The ocean waves pounding against the dark lava cliffs form inlets into the cliffs over the centuries but uneven ones that twist around to form a mouth. The result is a natural pool in the cliffs with water that rocks with the current, but will sit in the sun all day and warm to a pleasurable temperature. In high tide, the waves crash against the opening of the pool and the cold eater will splash the swimmers soaking in the sun warmed bath. Dusty and I drove the winding roads around the perimeter of the island, there being only one road that cuts through the center of the island from east to west, to the northeast corner of the island to Barlovento. We parked along the cliff edge overlooking the ocean and climbed down the stone staircase to las Piscinas de Fajana, a group of several infinity pools with seats carved into the lava rock and home to colorful, tiny fish who enjoy their visitors. Waves with white foam crashed on the sides of the stone pool, the sound like the heartbeat of the Atlantic. And she was welcoming us in with the sun warming the stones where I sat on the edge of one of the pools, my legs dangling in the water waiting for Dusty to finish undressing. The waves were loud enough to dull the sounds of us talking, completing the ambiance to the sunlit circle of warmth. I floated in the water, tilting my head back to soak my hair and yelped when Dusty pulled my legs to him and wrapped them around his waist. We took our GoPro camera and filmed the tiny, darting fish swimming around us and taking ticklish nibbles of our toes. Dusty stepped out of the pool and stood on the stone edges of the pool to capture the waves splashing into the pools at high tide.
As I watched him taking pictures, I understood something about my insecurities. I may be a little awkward of a person, probably unprofessional and a little uncouth, but what was more important for me to realize was that I am lucky. An incredibly, jealously-provoking, want-to-hate-you-but-can’t lucky person. I’d grown up thinking the Canary Islands were one of those places that only either the really rich or the really lucky get to see. And here I sat, letting the rippling aquamarine arms rock me in the sun and watching tiny red and yellow fish dart in between my toes while my love smiles and walks back towards me. I am one ridiculously lucky girl and in that moment, I felt humbled by the island’s gift of understanding and felt her smile in the warmth of the sun.
There’s nothing easy about trying to make mass public transportation accessible in older European countries. There’s no American Disability Act that ensures all vehicles of public transport be made accessible, which leaves a wheelchair-using tourist like myself feeling a little lost. That split-second feeling of entitlement (“What do you mean you didn’t make this train car specifically for someone like me?”) that comes from only ever knowing the accessibility laws of the United States was soon to be hushed from one encounter after another of inaccessible transportation (I’m looking at you, Italy). But what was so surprising and so reassuring was how the people of every country, every public transportation worker in each city, went to extreme lengths for me and my party so we could get to our destination. Old lifts were dug out of hidden corners of train stations, strangers carried my wheelchair up flights of stairs while Dusty carried me and workers continually took time to escort us through alternate routes when an aufzug (German word for elevator) was broken. Thank you, people throughout Europe, for affirming a belief in humanity that people will help.
Here is a short example video of how to exit an older train in Germany: