Perhaps the greatest dividend afforded to me by my year-long experiment in exploration is the open-floodgate exposure to an incredible array of cultures, each a distinct glimpse into the collective conscious and customs of a people carving out their own niche in the world. Each subsequent country teaches new lessons, and I find myself better understanding myself and my own values through this bizarre carousel of cultural lenses. At times, this is a bit unnerving, particularly when it exposes elements of American life that I find myself a bit disenchanted with. While there’s tremendous opportunity for growth and self-discovery in these moments, I’d yet to really encounter a way of life that resonated absolutely with me and my own system of values, aspirations, and passions. But then again…. I hadn’t been to Spain yet.
BUT! I’m getting ahead of myself, because after leaving Italy, it wasn’t Spain I was initially destined for – it was westward Iberian neighbor Portugal.
Lisbon: Beautiful Seaside Melancholy
Lisbon – or Lisboa, in Portuguese – is both figuratively and literally having a real moment in the sun. This is a gorgeously charming seaside town characterized by a visual signature of hills, Easter pastels, and stunning ornate tile that any Instagram user will eventually find splashed throughout their feed. The city has had a real renaissance as of late, and the world is beginning to wake up to its charms.
This was a place for which I had few preconceived notions and hopeful expectations – and I was all the more excited to inundate myself in its allure with another good friend from back home, Rich!
Rich is genuinely one of the most unique human beings I’ve ever known. The man’s an absolute explosion of energy, positively bursting at the seams with enthusiasm and absolutely devoid of inhibition. The modern millennial vernacular would quickly coin him ‘extra‘, and it’s this very exuberance that I most admire about him – I knew we’d be having one hell of a good time, no matter where we found ourselves…. and have a good time we did.
We’d have the pleasure of staying at yet another phenomenal hostel, which really made our short time in this Portuguese capital special. Hostel Home does everything right, but its most notable claim to fame is the massive traditional homemade Portuguese dinner made each night by ‘Mama’ – the owner’s grandmother, a damn fine cook! I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of her, but she’s special enough to warrant finding one on the interwebs.
It was at these dinners that we made some awesome new friends to spend our days with. There’s Fairouz from Morocco (who I’ll be visiting soon in Marrakech!), Vanessa and Rebecca from Brazil, Colin and Sahel from the UK, Jasmine from Melbourne, Kyoungmi from Seoul… and that’s just the folks I managed to snag photos of. Needless to say, we had a great crew!
Our time in Lisbon was brief, but we made the best of it. We explored the city’s great street art culture…
…Took an amazing oceanside walk (with a particularly familiar looking landmark)….
…And appreciated some, um, interesting art 😂
The city has a really palpable creative vibe, as well, and you can tell in just walking around through town.
Rich actually captured one of my favorite images of the year in Lisbon as well, as I indulged in one of my favorite travel pastimes: indulging in the sort of male pampering you’ll only find in a proper, traditional barbershop in the care of a skilled craftsman.
The absolute hands-down highlight, though, was discovering the city’s intensely passionate and melancholy tradition of Fado music – a hauntingly beautiful homage to suffering and longing that’s come to be the defining cultural signature of Portugal. Sitting down for a show – which occur nightly all over the city – is an experience that is utterly moving and emotionally powerful. Take a look and tell me this doesn’t make you feel something.
I’ll go back to Lisbon someday if only for the sole purpose of seeing more Fado – that’s how impactful the experience was for me. My one regret is not seeing more of it!
While Lisbon was a wonderful time with wonderful people, our little shoehorned interlude here came to a quick close – and it was time for the main event: España, the country that would come to capture my heart.
Seville: Sensual Andalusian Paradise
It’s going to be difficult to capture in words just how much I adore Seville – just how much it wrapped its tendrils around my heart and soul – just how much it seduced me and just how much I melted in its hand. But hell, I’m going to try.
When you think of Spain – in the most romanticized sense – what do you think of? Tapas? Bullfighting? Exquisite Moorish palaces? Flamenco dancers? You’re thinking of Andalusia, the southernmost region in Spain (a country very much divided into many wildly diverse regions). And Seville – dripping in Amber paint and steeped in passion and tradition – is the crown jewel of the South.
Seville is the textbook embodiment of everything I came to love about Spain. It’s a city that prioritizes the joy of life, first and foremost. It wakes up late, indulges in the finest cuisine, expresses itself wildly and freely through music and dance, and stays up very late indeed – spilling into the streets to walk together, to dance, to drink the finest wines and to challenge any notions that life need be principally about work, about accumulation, about struggle. This is a culture that is relaxed, that appreciates the brevity of life, and that indulges the senses and instills in its people a sort of passion and appreciation for life that I’ve only seen hinted at in nearby Italy – but here it just feels, for lack of a better term… spicier.
Food here is absolutely sublime, and tapas reign supreme. Nevermind the American emulation of the concept – the real deal is something special, and the Spanish are every bit the culinary artisans as the Italians – just with a bit more diversity in their cuisine.
The Alcázar is one of the oldest functioning royal palaces in the world, and to explore its grounds is to inundate yourself in color and in architectural genius, the product of its Moorish heritage.
And while Lisbon has Fado, Seville has Flamenco. Not content to marry just music and voice, flamenco is all the more complex and provocative: a beautifully intertwined dance of masterfully complex guitar, impassioned singing, and an astoundingly hypnotic display of physical expression: the kinetic catharsis of the flamenco dancer, who pours his or her soul into every movement and offers every shred of their energy to the alter of expression. Each element feeds the other – a delicate balance of human expression. It’s absolutely stunning to witness, and flamenco is the lifeblood of Seville – on its streets, in its bars, pulsing through its very veins. This is sensuality, it’s pain, it’s lust and desire and longing… and it’s beautiful.
Here’s one brief look at what it looks like – and a gorgeous longer piece by the New Yorker that really touches on how important the art is to Seville. Definitely encourage you to watch that one if you have the time!
If ever there was a theme to my year, its this: the people make the place. And Seville absolutely spoiled Rich and I with an incredibly rich group of amazing people. Anamaria is a wildly creative Georgian (the country, not the state), and she volunteers at the hostel.
The lovely Elisa, from New Orleans, and Carlye, from California, met in Seville and immediately became close friends and great dinner company for Rich and I.
Annie, a beautiful Quebecois girl from Montreal, was my favored dance partner and co-explorer for the week.
And, again – I missed some beautiful faces! Here’s a big group photo from one night at a flamenco show, and STILL this collection excludes some awesome people (Bobby, Anneke, Marcela, Juliette, Kasia… I’m bummed I didn’t get photos of you guys!)
I felt a connection to Seville like I’ve felt in few places in my life. After so many LATE nights, dragging myself to bed at 6 in the morning overwhelmed with happiness and content, I was really sad to leave. But Spain would continue to delight.
Madrid: Artistic Epicenter
Madrid wasn’t actually originally a part of my plans; it’s Spain’s big capital city, and as an international hub of commerce, I felt it lacked some of the distinct flavor that makes Spain the special place that it is. However, its location in the dead center of the country makes it a convenient transportation hub, and its world-class collection of museums made it a worthwhile stop, however brief. I won’t say too much about the city itself – but here are a few snapshots (and some particularly potent food porn):
Though Madrid is known for its raucous nightlife, we didn’t partake too much – Rich was headed back home to the states, and I was still exhausted from Seville. Ultimately we took it relatively easy, and I said goodbye to Rich, whose company was a real joy during our two weeks together.
Basque Country: Food of the Gods
Remember I told you earlier that Spain is more like a big collection of autonomous nations than it is one cohesive nation? This fact couldn’t have been more evident when I arrived in Northern Spain’s Basque Country to explore its most important cities: Bilbao and San Sebastián.
The North is a different world altogether. Relative to Andalusia’s blistering sun, Basque country is distinctly Seattle-esque: it’s grey, mountainous, and constantly soaked in a sort of pervasive, ethereal mist that locals call xirimiri. Which is another hint: they speak an entirely different language here – Basque – and that’s one of just FIVE prominent languages spoken throughout the country. Fortunately, my semi-fluent spanish got me by here just fine as well (a fact that made a tremendously positive impact on all of my time in Spain and really helped to confidently immerse me in the culture).
Most importantly, though, is the fact that this part of Spain is it’s culinary epicenter, and pound-for-pound, I truly believe it’s the best foodie destination on Earth. Lonely Planet agrees, because they just declared the Basque Country’s pintxo culture #1 on their list of the 500 best food experiences in the world. What are pintxos? I’m glad you asked.
Similar to tapas, pintxo literally translates to ‘skewer’ in the native Basque language. Generally a pintxo involves something insanely delicious affixed to a piece of bread, but the term has grown to encompass basically any small plate in this region. These dishes are usually presented right atop the bar, ready to eat. Best of all, they’re unbelievably fresh, delicious, and of astonishingly high quality for just a few euros each. They’re generally washed down with local wines: txakoli, a dry, sparkling white – or Rioja, most commonly a fruity, full-bodied red (an average house wine is absolutely delicious and clocks in at about €1.50).
San Sebastián in particular has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. The thing is though, you don’t have to blow a whole paycheck on a ridiculous haute cuisine tasting menu – because ALL of the food here is absolutely incredible, and the thing to do here is to hop from pintxo bar to pintxo bar enjoying one or two bites from each over a glass of vino before meandering to the next one.
Aside from the absolutely orgasmic food – which blew my mind wide open and borderline brought me to tears a few times – Basque country is also home to Bilbao, notable for its rising star as a modern art mecca. This is due primarily to the presence of the astonishing Guggenheim Museum, which was erected in 1997 and has radically transformed the city in the decades since. It’s easy to see why.
As a passionate fan of amazing food and boundary-pushing modern art, you can see why I was in heaven in Spain’s incredible northernmost province. Every bit as remarkable as Seville, and yet completely, radically different in every way. At this point I’d seen the sexy, traditional south, the buzzy big city center, and the delicious, experimental north – but I still had one stop to go: one of the world’s great cities.
Barcelona: Psychedelic Beach Metropolis
It’s as if I’d dared Spain to show me another facet, convinced it couldn’t possibly be any more diverse or have more surprises in store. Barcelona is a mind-bender of a city: home to some of history’s brilliant surrealist minds, architecture’s most boundary-pushing geniuses, and a creative edge that doesn’t let off the gas. Nestled along one of the world’s great urban beaches (calm down Rio, I said one of the best), this metropolis is teeming with energy and rewards travelers of all kinds. The capital of Catalonia (and host to yes, yet another language) boasts an impressive skyline, too, and backpackers love to soak it in over a few bottles of wine.
You can’t talk about Barcelona without focusing on Antoni Gaudí, the truly one-of-a-kind modernist genius architect whose trippy influence is absolutely all over the city.
The principal example of Gaudí’s genius is his breathtaking architectural masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. Construction began in 1882 and is STILL ongoing, with completion scheduled for 2026. When finished, it will be the tallest building in all of Europe – and surely the most psychedelic. Personally, I consider it the most beautiful building I’ve ever stepped foot inside… High praise after recent trips to the Vatican, Angkor Wat, and Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. If only my photos truly did the place justice…
The artistic brilliance of this city is hardly limited to Gaudí, though. Catalonia is also home to Dalí, the world’s foremost master of surrealist art.
Ever hear of Pablo Picasso? It’s Barcelona that Picasso considered his home, and in turn Barcelona is home to a museum dedicated to the genius himself.
Barcelona’s not content to restrict itself to these timeless, masters, though – it’s a city absolutely dominated by art of all kinds.
The whole city is an explosion of color, of creativity, of life.
And as usual, it was also host to some friendly faces, like Olivia (Chicago) and Tyler (Toronto), who were kind enough to model for me when we spotted a particularly hilarious artistic masterpiece.
Michela, an actress from Vancouver whose experience taking headshots I accredit for her supreme photogenic nature!
And Heikki, a former coworker of mine who’s Finnish but calls Barcelona home and was happy to meet me for coffee at Satan’s Coffee Corner, a place whose name made me unfathomably happy.
Barcelona, too then, was an absolute blast, and a city that plugged so directly into the things that I hold dear in life. Wonderful and yet entirely distinct to the rest of the cities I explored, Barcelona too was a treasure chest of art, culture, food, and vibrant appreciation for a good time.
España, Estoy Enamorado de Ti
Spain has absolutely blown my mind; this country reverberates so deeply in my soul and stirs so much feeling inside of me. It’s passionate, fiery, absolutely gorgeous, laid-back, and progressive – and while steeped in history and tradition, it doesn’t feel at all stuck in the past. The food and wine are incredible, the people are beautiful, and culture, music, dance, and expression are all inseparable hallmarks of Spanish life – not to mention the naps! And best of all, it’s wildly diverse – truly rewarding those who explore of each of its unique regions.
I don’t know which chapter of my life it’ll play a role in, but I know this: I plan to live in this wonderful country one day. I’ve travelled to a lot of places that are special in a lot of ways – but pound for pound, as it concerns places I could see myself actually living and not just visiting, Spain is my favorite country on Earth. It was, however, perhaps a mistake to visit it back-to-back with Italy… I think I put on a couple of pounds.
That’s a wrap for this one, folks! The next few adventures I’ll be sharing with you are pretty exciting, as well: I’ll be detailing my time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – the largest arts festival in the world – plus my romp through Dublin. Then comes a real treat: my 2-week tour of Iceland, the otherworldly island of fire and ice.
See you soon!