When I travel, I often have no idea where I want to go. I find myself staring at the map that hangs above my desk and gaping at the vastness of the world. Luckily, I have a few methods for figuring out where to go next that doesn’t involve throwing a dart. I’ll probably talk about some of my other methods in the future, but for now, I’d like to talk about my favorite way, which is to visit my friends.
There is something magical about visiting a person you love in the place they call home. If they are from that culture and place, that’s the best! Even when you know them well, a a visit to their home often gives you a brand-new glimpse into their soul. I know that all of my friends say they see me in my most natural state when I am back on my ranch in Nebraska. And while we all love to see our friends sparkle, let’s not forget that visiting friends means you have a natural tour guide and translator.
I promise that no matter how much research you do, you will never get a tour that will match the one that your friend who lives there locally will be able to show you. As someone who loves to be the visited friend as much as the visiting friend, I know I am always eager to show off my hometown in the best light possible. Winning all around.
When I started writing this, I wanted to say something about how awesome it is to visit friends in new places, but that was because a specific story from this summer made me think about why this is such a good idea. I know it’s the stories that inspire you to travel after all, not the checklists. In fact, now that I’m reflecting, the most amazing memories of visiting friends are now springing to mind. I’ll start with this one, but I guess you’ve given me even more ideas for future posts. Thanks for that.
Madrid, July 2018
It is the best part of the summer. Sunlit days that last until ten or eleven, only to be transformed into balmy cloudless nights. The streets are full of people at tables or standing around smoking cigarettes and chattering to each other as if the morning will never come or they don’t care if it does. Their faces are lit by the red and yellow glow of lamps and lanterns strung decoratively through the trees and awnings. Each business owner knows this is the season to woo the summer crowd to his or her own little corner of the sidewalk.
We are in Madrid, a capital city not as majestic as Paris, chic as London, or cool as Berlin, but joyful in a way that I’ve not felt in other cities. Madrid is the heart of a country that beats with friendliness and hospitality. You can hear proof of this on the public transportation where people talk and laugh or see it in the encouraging smile of the shopkeepers who suffer through your attempt at bad Spanish. There is a liveliness and a candor to the people that makes you want to pack up everything, download Rosetta Stone Spanish, and move to one of the apartments in the little alleyways overlooking the bars with the lanterns. More than anything though, this hospitality truly materializes in the form of tapas.
In Spain, socializing is eating and eating is drinking and drinking is socializing and the cycle continues. So if you are staying to drink and you are cheerful company, you have a good chance of being served tapas.
This is what I love most about the tapas culture actually. You are not entitled to tapas, nor are the staff obliged to serve them to you if they serve the table next to you. In short, it behooves you to be kind to your server and the people around you. I was also a huge fan of the tinto de verano which is a mixture of wine and gaseosa (a drink that tastes a bit like Sprite). Fittingly called “summer wine”, not only is it amazingly refreshing, it keeps you hydrated and sustained in a culture where the motto seems to be “Water? Why not have tinto de verano instead!”
And the food! When I first began this blog, I thought about calling it “A Story about Bellota” because that actually would have been a suitable name for this trip. Bellota, which is the meat of pigs fed only on acorns for the last six weeks of their lives, is some of the tenderest, most buttery, most scrumptious meat you will ever taste. It became an integral part of our diet and to me, the memory of Spain is accompanied by the lingering taste of this melt-in-your-mouth flavor. Maybe we took it a little too far, but we ate it as snack food on our road trip, built it into “Bellota crawls” to find the best one in every place we stopped, and one of us even kept it stashed in his fanny pack for snacks whenever the feeling moved him.
I realize so far I have really only talked about summer wine and buttery pig meat, when really the whole time I have promised you a blog about traveling to visit friends. The truth is, we couldn’t have found the best bellota (or ordered the right kind once we found it), ate nearly as many tapas, or drank the tinto de verano in such quantity if we had not been visiting our friends, Adrian and Rose. We couldn’t have walked all over the city by foot and never lost our way or known where to find the most local place for bacalao in a tiny linoleum room full of old Spanish men and napkins covering the floor.
I loved Madrid. But at the end of the day, anyone can visit Madrid quite comfortably. Sure, you might not have found the best places to eat or ordered the right bellota on your first try, but you would love it all the same. The special part of a friend visit is the part when your realize there would be absolutely no way you would have ever found that place or experienced that experience on your own. It’s the places you get taken by your friends that are only discoverable by chance or a miracle when you are on your own.
In these moments, you find out that not only do you love your friend more than ever, it dawns on you that you will do everything you can to become a host that makes you feel the way they just made you feel for bringing you to their special place. That’s magic. For me, this happened in Hervás, the home of Adrian’s mother, a village of 4,000 people found at the foot of the Sierra de Bejar. After a couple of days in Madrid, we packed up a rental car with our belongings and bellota and headed towards the village in the mountains.
When we got to Hervás, we dropped off our bags at Adrian’s house and went off to explore the town by foot. It is the kind of town that you expect to find in a story book, complete with a little stone bridge over a babbling brook that leads you up the mountain to a view of the old town. With a few tapas and tinto de verano stops along the way, we were able to thoroughly explore the town in a couple of hours and find expected things such as a huge, old, and very beautiful church, as well as some unexpected things, like a succulent garden on a private patio that is so extraordinary the man decided to open it to the public.
In true small town spirit, we were given fresh cherries by random strangers and enjoyed Adrian being affectionately greeted by many of the men we passed who often turned out to be an uncle or a cousin.
Being a small town girl myself, I do have an incredibly soft spot for these places in the world. The places where people still greet you by name when you walk in the door and look at you curiously when you aren’t from that place because everyone knows everybody. Even far away from home, I feel a sense of home because of these interactions. It is more often than not, these kind of places that nestle themselves most ardently into my memory.
Granadilla, the forgotten village
When we weren’t exploring Hervás, drinking tinto de verano on the roof under the stars, or chilling with Adrian’s hilarious mother, we were making side trips to the secret gems in the area.
Granadilla was one such gem. It is a village encapsulated in time and although the site is now used as a summer camp, it is amazing to walk the abandoned streets and feel like you are walking through the year 1955. This was the year the inhabitants abandoned the village because they feared flooding by a reservoir that was so rudely built just down the hill by the government.
Even though I appreciated the experience of this walkable time capsule, I also couldn’t help but reflect on the unfairness of the situation that gave us such a historical treat. Can you imagine? The government is just like, hey, this place looks like the perfect spot to build a resevoir, but it’s going to flood the place that you’ve lived all your life so we’re going to have to ask you to take all your things and move.
It seems almost like a horrible joke that the village didn’t flood. I digress, but the folly of humanity continues to astonish me. So back to the village that is perfectly captured in time…
The town is surrounded by an old city wall that we were able to climb and walk the entire parameter of the village. From this vantage point, we could see the offensive resevoir puddled harmlessly at the bottom of the hill. Looking inward, we could see the ruins of what must have been the inhabitants’ houses. While we didn’t see any people, it was incredible to see cows grazing in places that once were probably people’s kitchens or living rooms and trees busting through cracks in the old stone walls. Although it was eerie to see this collision of life and abandonment, it was reassuring to know that people came back to the village to keep livestock, gardens, and fruit trees.
Los Pilones is the second gem we explored thanks to Adrian’s local insider knowledge. Los Pilones is a natural rock slide carved by the rushing of ice cold mountain water. If natural rock slides were given ski slope ratings this would be a double-black diamond due to the freezing cold temperature of the water and the sharp rock edges hidden under the gush of the current.
The best part about Los Pilones is that if you make it down unharmed, the rush of adrenaline you get keeps you going for the rest of the day. My pro tip for you if you do decide to brave Los Pilones: Identify a group of locals and follow them closely. Jump where they jump. Step where they step.
When you finish this exhilarating trip, you can either run up the path alongside the river and do it all again, or hang out at one of the little beaches of sand and rocks at the edge of the river. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and the pools of ice cold water are a natural cooler if you want to bring a few beers.
At the end of the day, no matter how many “secret gems” you discover or mountains you climb, if you are with an amazing crew, you will never forget it. No matter how many cool places I’ve seen, the memories I cherish the most are the ones I make with my friends. So, my point is, if you don’t have friends than make some and if you already have them, go visit them! What are you waiting for?
Where are your favorite places you have visited friends?