Hidden gems on the French-Spanish border: Make Portbou (Spain) more than just a pit stop!

While booking my train tickets from Narbonne to Girona, I knew I’d have to change trains in Portbou, so I asked myself; should I stick around for a couple of hours and see what Portbou is all about, or should I just leave it and take the very next train to Girona?

Before writing this post I also wondered if anyone would be even remotely interested in reading about this place as it’s such a small, unknown town and doesn’t have any famous tourist attractions and one might ask why you should choose Portbou over other, better known towns in the Costa Brava region.

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And maybe that’s exactly why you should go to Portbou. Without the pressure of a tight schedule filled with stuff you need to get done within a set amount of time, and without having to rush from one tourist attraction to another, you’ll have more time to relax and unwind. And to appreciate a place for what it really is.

Portbou is a small, beautiful Catalan town perfect for those lazy days on a quiet beach or an adventurous mountain hike in the Pyrenees. As the town is conveniently located on the border to France, the locals are used to tourists passing through while on their way to Girona, Barcelona or to French cities like Perpignan and Narbonne. You’ll hear Spanish, Catalan and French in every bar and restaurant. I am absolutely certain you’ll get by just fine with English too!

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While strolling along the streets of Portbou, I stumbled upon some pretty cool street art dedicated to the environment, peace and love. Empty plastic bottles were used as wall decor alongside the street art.

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I also noticed a couple of cute boutiques that caught my interest, as I was wandering around, observing, photographing, enjoying my own company – as you do, when you’re a solo traveler!

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So what are the top 3 things to do in this charming little town?

  1. Go to the beach. Even during the summer months when most people go on vacation, the beach in Portbou never gets overcrowded. Bare in mind, it’s a pebbled beach, so you might wanna wear your flip flops!
  2. Hike the Walter Benjamin Trail. Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher and literary critic who in 1940 committed suicide in Portbou, rather than being captured by the Gestapo. The hiking train will take you to his memorial; a piece of art created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan. Following the hiking trail, you’ll get a spectacular view of the turquoise blue sea and the mountain ranges. For more information, click here.
  3. Eat all that tapas. Because, when in Spain, you simply just can’t allow yourself to miss out on some tasty tapas (nor wine, for that matter). Riky is a restaurant known for their authentic, non-touristic tapas and Gastro Bar Passa la Veu serves modern, creative tapas. For the best view, check out Xiriguito Campaner Guinguita.

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Want to spend a night in Portbou?

It’s a small town, so options will obviously be limited. Hotel Comodoro and Hostal Juventus are both conveniently located close to the beach and most of the restaurants, and they both have mostly just positive online reviews.

Besides all the reasons mentioned above, I just wanna let you all know that Catalonia is always a brilliant idea. And Portbou might just be perfect for that quiet little weekend getaway you so desperately need (because, who doesn’t?)

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Sickness, Sangria and making efforts (Madrid, Spain)

Sometimes things don’t go as planned…I feel like I say that so often it’s becoming ironic.

Only two short weeks after returning home from Panama, my suitcase was already ready to be packed and boarded onto a plane. This time a little closer to home, though. More precisely; Madrid, Spain.

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The trip had been planned for a long time as a birthday present from me to my partner. I was fully aware that he couldn’t take any additional days off from work, which gave us only a day and a half to explore the city.

Little did I know that I’d end up traveling to Madrid while being extremely ill for the second week in a row. And little did I know how many times a day it’s physically possible to run to the toilet, almost faint and still force yourself to function – without collapsing. The human body is a machine when the human mind is stubborn as eff. I’ll tell you that!

Our flight was supposed to depart at eight thirty PM.  We were supposed to get there around ten PM, which would give us enough time to find a good restaurant, enjoy some tapas over a few glasses of red wine and celebrate the rest of the evening with some invented-for-tourists-and-not-really-authentic sangria. Because that’s basically what sangria is, most places.

Instead, our flight was delayed and we arrived in Madrid around eleven PM. We were supposed to take a taxi to the city center, but the line to get a cab was the longest line I’d ever seen. Ever. After running back and forth like headless chicken, feeling clueless and yelling at each other for not coming up with a solution, the solution came to us like a miracle sent from the man above: A bus. Why hadn’t we even thought of that before?

By the time we made it to the hotel, it was already ten minutes to midnight. The hotel (Petit Palace Posada del Peine) was modern, the staff was friendly and our room had everything I’d expect from a 4-star hotel. It was nice, clean and my only complaint would be that our air conditioning didn’t work. My partner found that to be a lot more awful than I did, though. His idea of a good night sleep would probably be to place a mattress inside of a human-sized fridge, if he could.

Midnight. In my opinion, that’s way too late to be going out for dinner. I suggested just going to bed and pretend not to be hungry. My partner thought that was the worst idea ever…so we asked the hotel receptionist if she knew any restaurants nearby that would still be open. Most of them were; for one more hour. Turns out, Spanish people eat late.  Very late. They’re basically owls.

As we sat down to order a large tapas platter, my nausea started to kick in. I absolutely love tapas and wouldn’t mind eating tapas three times a day, every day until death do us part (that’s an exaggeration) but as I had been sick ever since I made it back from Panama, just the smell of food made me feel ill. Just like my high school crush, it was something I wanted but couldn’t have, and when I got it, I didn’t want it anymore.

Croquetas, Pimientos de Padron, deli meats, manchego cheese, Spanish style meatballs and sausages, enormous olives and delicious, warm bread. I wanted to eat it all, but my body didn’t quite agree with me. However, chugging sangria was a-okay!

The next day, I was feeling just as ill as the day before… Just like I’d expected. The breakfast buffet looked great and my partner was having a blast, eating all sorts of deliciousness, while I could barely even force myself to eat some fruit and drink some green tea. Maybe it would be a good idea to stop by a pharmacy and by some sort of a miracle cure. Popeye’s spinach, for example?

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Before searching for a pharmacy, we decided to stick to our original plan and follow Lonely Planet’s architectural route to see some of the main highlights without making a bunch of detours. We saw the Plaza de la Villa, which used to be the permanent seat of Madrid’s government from the Middle Ages until recent years, when the city council relocated to Plaza de la Cibeles (which was also part of our route). We wanted to take a short break at Plaza de Espana, and watched street artists making huge soap bubbles and kids chasing them. The bubbles, not the artists. Our break lasted a bit longer than planned, as we ended up becoming so mesmerized by bubbles that we ended up trying to photograph them  – which turned out to be way harder than expected.

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Moving on to Gran Via, the upscale shopping haven for locals and visiting shopaholics. The street is known as the Spanish Broadway, with all your favorite musicals featured in Spanish. I seriously wanted to buy tickets to see Mamma Mia, as we walked past the poster. I already know the songs and the story by heart anyway (in English), so who cares if I don’t understand any Spanish? My boyfriend was not impressed.

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We walked past the Musee du Prado and Caixa Forum, but didn’t visit the museums. I’m absolutely certain I would have loved them both…if only I had been feeling better. We had already made it towards the end of the route and I was feeling exhausted from trying to stay strong all day.

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So we took another break, and went to the nearest pharmacy and bought me some medicine. It tasted disgusting. I ended up re-naming the medicine Fernando, as I could never remember what it was called and only knew it started with an F. Fernando became my best friend that day. Despite how disgusting he was.

Last stop, Antigua Estacion de Atocha, the old Atocha train station – and quite impressive one, too!

For the evening, we’d signed up to join a food tour with Walks of Spain to learn more about the local cuisine, local restaurants and their history. We followed Andrés (along with a group of Americans and some Portuguese tourists) to some amazing little eateries that we’d probably just pass by, hadn’t it been for him. And boy would we have missed out, if we did!

The first restaurant he took us to, was a 19th century tavern where both local and international celebrities have sipped on the famous aperitif of the city – vermut de grifo – and enjoyed the taste of the true Spanish tortillas. After getting us all a bit tipsy on vermouth, he took us to his favorite ham bar to taste the finest of Spanish deli meats and his favorite local wines. Moving on to a new restaurant, paella was the next dish to be served. Along with that, the wine tasting continued and yet another dish was served. Obviously, a meal is not complete without dessert – and a wine tasting is not complete without cheese. Surprisingly enough, thanks to Fernando, I managed to taste absolutely everything – even the cheese and the dessert  – without feeling sick!

I had a fantastic time at the food tour. It was by far the highlight of the day.

The next day, we got up early to check out the El Rastro flea market, which turned out to be extremely crowded. It seemed like every person who was visiting or lived in Madrid had decided to go to the market at the same time. Everybody. Instead of sleeping, eating, going to church, whatever else it is people normally do on a Sunday morning. We escaped the crowd to visit yet another crowded place: Mercado de San Miguel. I wondered, was noon too early for a cocktail? Nah, it’s always eight o’clock somewhere.

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We finished our Madrid adventures with one last tapas platter and one last Sangria pitcher, before visiting Plaza Mayor one last time, and returning to our hotel to pick up our stuff. Did I feel happy about how this trip turned out?

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I didn’t take half as many photos as I would have wanted to, and I kind of feel like I owe it to Madrid to go back, take better photos, revisit everything, eat everything and make it the greatest trip of my life. I feel like I owe it to my partner too, as I was probably the worst travel companion ever and his birthday present didn’t turn out quite the way neither of us had expected.

The moral of the story is; if there’s one thing that’s more important than creating memories, visiting places and learning new things – it’s having the health to do it all.

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