Oh, sunny Spain! Or perhaps I should say sweaty Spain, considering we spent the majority of August in the southern region of Costa Blanca. For three weeks, we volunteered as Workawayers at an activity center called Casa la Pedrera. The house was once featured on Grand Designs, a British TV show, and for good reason: the place boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a two-tiered swimming pool, a rugged desert landscape, and a glimmering sky-blue lake for a backyard.
Now a bustling family-run business in the tourism industry, Casa la Pedrera offers holidayers the chance to ride quads and horses, shoot air rifles and arrows, paddle canoes or kayaks out on the lake, lounge poolside while enjoying food and drink from the tea garden, and take part in a number of unique events which it often hosts. Alongside the family and a crew of ten other Workawayers, Tyson and I were thrown right into the mix.
Tyson’s experience with off-road vehicles quickly came in handy as he began learning to give quad bike tours with the help of a fast friend, Dan. He was also soon showing guests the ins and outs of archery and air rifles out on the practice range. Of course, I was eager to help with the animals (which included two peacocks, four pigs, five dogs, two parrots, seven horses, two ponies, and one donkey!), and alongside Janna and Kira I began to rise at the crack of dawn in order to help muck out, feed, groom, and prepare the horses for the day’s trail rides. We then led groups of riders through the dusty dunes surrounding Casa la Pedrera, walking alongside the horses for half-hour and hour-long stints throughout the day, which inevitably led to a lot of sweat and one serious tan!
With so much work to be done, there never seemed to be a moment’s break at first. Between tour facilitation, grounds and animal care, machinery maintenance and serving food in the tea garden, our initial week was a whirlwind. Sufficiently exhausted by the end of each night, the crew eventually devised a rotation that made our collective working hours more manageable. On one of our first free evenings, we caught the bus with Dan to the nearest town, Orihuela, and spent a sweltering afternoon walking through what appeared to be a ghost town in search of a cold drink. We soon discovered that the Spanish locals do indeed take their siestas very seriously – not a single business was open before 7PM there! Needless to say, three refreshingly cold glasses of tinto de verano were downed rather thirstily when we finally found an open bar that evening.
Back at the house, multiple summer events took place over the course of our stay. Sometimes these took shape in the form of a birthday party for which we would put on a barbecue. Others, like the Mermaid Experience (where little girls were all dolled up and given tail fins to swim in) and the Horse and Flamenco shows (complete with displays of incredible horsemanship in the arena and professional flamenco dancing on the outdoor stage by moonlight) kept the crew hustling and bustling through the week. For me personally, the shows were a highlight. Performers wowed the audience with vaulting, freedom training, dancing – complete with horse and rider partnering a flamenco dancer on the ground – and more. At the end of one show, the entire Workaway crew got up on stage and performed a rather wild Spanish line dance with the Flamenco dancers, which ended the evening with much laughter and good cheer despite our collective exhaustion.
Knowing that we wanted to see a little more of southern Spain, Tyson and I decided to pool our days off and spend the next weekend exploring Granada, a four-hour bus ride away. Our AirBnB in Granada turned out to be in a stunning location, high up on a hillside with a panoramic view of the city nestled in the low valley of the surrounding mountains. The scenic sunsets from the small balcony weren’t the only things we enjoyed – we also happened to have a lovely host who took us out for tapas at all the best haunts with a few of her friends. For those who might not know of this magical concept, tapas are the free appetizers you get whenever you order drinks in certain parts of Spain. As these delicious morsels come in all shapes and sizes for the meager price of two euros a drink or less, we found ourselves sampling octopus salads, mini chicken buns, olives and vermouth alongside our sangrias, and all while in good company that night.
The following day began with some relaxed morning wanderings and a lunch of – you guessed it – more tapas! before signing up for an electric bike tour of the city in a spur-of-the-moment decision. As it turns out, the experience was incredibly worthwhile. Biking much farther than we would have been able to explore on foot, we pedaled up to the Alhambra palace and came back down through the narrow streets downtown before winding through the neighborhood of Sacremonte. This neighborhood sported many whitewash buildings quaintly set within the hillside, much like caves, where the “gypsy” communities still reside. The tour group made several stops at scenic vistas like that one along the way, another of which looked out at the majestic Alhambra while a group of local musicians played some very Spanish tunes. Luckily for me, all the hills we had to scale during the three-hour ride were made a breeze on the electric bikes, and it was a perfect way to explore such a lively, beautiful, and culturally authentic city.
Stopping through Murcia on our return trip to Casa la Pedrera, we soon encountered a little bit of a transportation hiccup. We hadn’t realized that very few buses actually run on Sundays, so in a mad scramble to find alternative transportation after 5PM, we decided to try out BlaBla Car, an application whose concept of carpooling for the shared price of gas connects travelers of all kinds. Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, it is – as long as both parties speak the same language! We soon discovered that our driver didn’t speak a lick of English, and with only the tiniest comprehension of Spanish on my end, there was quite the confusion about where exactly we were trying to go. Though we did manage to get dropped off in Orihuela, we thought we might be stranded there for the night. Luck was again on our side, however, and we magically caught the last bus out of the small village at around 10PM to arrive back at the house in one whole, yet somewhat travel-weary, piece.
Our last few Workaway days were spent in our now-comfortable routines. I had an enjoyable afternoon giving the 30-year old Andalusian-breed donkey known as Sqwonkles a bath. He and I bonded a little more every day as I chased him away from the dog food or watched over him as he ate his lunches in the pen with the sharp-eyed and ever-greedy ponies. One morning I even tried my hand at lunging one of the horses, but I wasn’t very good, and the horse knew it, which made for a rather laughable affair. Tyson, on the other hand, had many a quad adventure; you could tell whenever he’d been out on a tour, since his beard and hair were turned quite comically grey from all the dust. Having chased after a rogue quad once (which happened to have a small child aboard at the time), Tyson also had to get creative with the superglue in order to salvage his flip flops – a summer backpacker’s most precious possession, especially in the Spanish heat! On one of our last evenings, we went out onto the reservoir in a kayak together to enjoy a panoramic sunset before a last poolside hang out with Dan. On the whole, we felt quite nostalgic to leave Casa la Pedrera behind as we bid the crew adieu.
Next came a short taste of both Valencia and Barcelona. In Valencia, we walked through a fresh produce and fish market in the morning, nibbling on this and that as we went – and again we decided to rent bikes (though sadly not electric this time) for the low price of 7 euros each for the rest of the afternoon. The city was absolutely stunning, and perfectly designed for biking. With a long park running directly through the middle of town, we could mosey on and off the impeccably landscaped trails to see whatever we liked of the city, including the architecturally elaborate science center and the massive stretch of beach at the edge of town. We even managed to get a little lost along the harbor, crossing into a remote residential neighborhood. By the time we found our way back to la playa, I was practically dying of heat – so I quickly ran to one of the beach’s shower stations and rinsed off, prompting a nearby gentleman to point out, “you’re wearing clothes, hey?” as though I might have forgotten. Our day ended in the downtown park with us laying in the grass, enjoying each other’s company before heading to Barcelona the following day.
Our long ride on a Supra Economy bus for 16 euros apiece was surprisingly luxurious, equipped with large lounge-style seats, wifi that was usable for once, and of course some great views of the passing scenery. Once in Barcelona, we walked to our lovely AirBnB right outside the Plaza de España before heading out for an amazing dinner at a self-proclaimed pinchos bar. These pinchos turned out to be delicious appetizer-style morsels on color-coded toothpicks, which you are then meant to grab at will from the bar, proceed to eat your fill, and tally up your toothpicks for the final price of your meal – a mere 1 to 2 euros per toothpick, depending on the color!
On our last day in the country, we decided that we would rent bikes yet again to see the most of Barcelona’s highlights, such as la Sagrada Familia and Park Güell. We cycled all day long, and though there were times when I didn’t believe I would survive the steep inclines and sweltering heat, Tyson and I both agree that it was the best way to see the city in short order once more. After watching the sunset from a beautiful vantage point at the Palau Nacional, which also overlooks the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, we retired for the evening in happy reminiscence of our Spanish experience.
From my wandering heart to yours,