Getting Stuck in Madrid, Taking Risks and Falling in Love

2016 has been a year full of surprises and unexpected changes in plans.

Some surprises, like meeting someone and falling in love despite it being the last thing I was looking for, were good.

Others, like having to stay in Madrid for 8 months longer than planned (it’s a city I dislike), without a job, so that I could be with my partner because we couldn’t legally move to the U.S together weren’t as great.

2016 Sponsored Trips and Tours

I partnered with a few hotels, wineries and tour companies towards the end of the year and attended some events as a blogger. I wrote about my experiences (all completely 100% honest and keeping in mind what I’d expect if I was a paying guest) and shared that content on social media as my social media presence kept growing and growing (through a lot of time and effort).

These were my first experiences writing for and promoting businesses in exchange for services and experiences (though I wrote for and promoted businesses throughout my career in the wine industry). I stuck with mostly small or independently owned businesses as I have always loved telling the story of small businesses and brands who work hard and deserve additional exposure.

A big reason I decided to move in this direction was because I had to give up a professional life (and the perks that go along with it-like a paycheck, socially acceptable status and financial security!), and I wanted to make sure I was employing my professional skills in some way. Not working full time and not being in a professional position isn’t something normal for me. I love to throw myself into projects and be busy!

I enjoyed my experiences so much I’m going to keep doing these types of projects and partnerships in 2017 on a larger (and more financially rewarding) scale.

January to April

Granada

I started 2016 last year in Granada, toasting in to the New Year and eating my 12 grapes (read up on this tradition here) with some awesome Greek women I met through a week long Spanish with Don Quijote Spanish school.

Visiting Granada and the Alhambra in Spain was an unforgettable experience. What a beautiful city! Perhaps my favorite city so far (though I have regions I like better than Andalucia) in Spain. It has everything you hope to find in Spain, as a visitor. Charm, stone and cobbled streets, big and beautiful old buildings. Plentiful free tapas served with every drink you order….

Contrary to what many Americans think, this is not typical of every city in Spain.

Housesitting in Tuscany

In February, I flew from cold and rainy Madrid to cold and rainy Tuscany (didn’t think about the weather to be honest!) to do a month of dog and house-sitting in a tiny Tuscan village near Lucca.

This was both a high and a low point of my year as it rained profusely almost every day, was freezing cold and the dog was very badly behaved (aka spoiled rotten and not neutered). But the views and the hikes on the nice days, and the experience of getting to roam around an empty Villa made up for the down sides. I won’t soon forget hiking around the wet green hills of Tuscany, eating boar polenta in the local ristorante (literally the only business besides the butcher’s shop) and taking a bath in the big Villa tub on rainy and stormy days. I also won’t forget running out of provisions and having to ask a neighbor for a ride into the nearest city (Lucca) 6 km away!

Road Trip to Marche

I took a three day road trip through the villages and hills of Italy’s Le Marche region. Though I did so in winter when the weather was cold and wet and many businesses were closed, the rolling and lush green countryside, hilltop castles and villages were breathtaking. Urbino (I stayed a couple of nights just outside the city in an agriturismo) was a particular favorite. As was San Leo and some other picturesque villages I passed while driving (photo below). I plan to come back to this region in the future, in Spring, and explore much more. Le Marche also makes some of my favorite white wines as well.

The Hilltop Village of San Leo

Cinque Terre

I finally got to Cinque Terre! Ever since living in Italy in 2005 I’d wanted to go and hike from village to village in Cinque Terre but never got the chance. While staying in an apartment in Lucca for the month of March, I took the opportunity to go (the 1st village is only about an hour and a half by train from Lucca).

The views were as stunning as I’d heard (photo at the top of this post) and the hike was a great workout.

Lucca

I spent a month in a house (I negotiated a good monthly rate with the Airbnb host) in Lucca and got to explore this picturesque walled city daily. Morning walks or runs around the walls or along the aqueducts were a daily thing and I did a lot of writing and cooking in my cozy house (complete with office and extra bedroom!). Lucca isn’t an exciting city during the winter, but relaxation, time, solitude and peace were what I needed at the time and it worked well for that.

I also spent a lot of time researching and exploring where to find gluten free products and food and taking day trips through the Tuscan countryside. Read my gluten-free guide to Lucca post on Italy Magazine’s site here.

VinItaly and Verona

I attended VinItaly for the first time! This is a HUGE wine event in Verona that has been THE major Italian wine trade event for those in the industry for over 40 years. The number of wineries is overwhelming and the event itself spans so many large tents that it is, in fact, like a small city. Navigating the event takes sheer willpower, a keen sense of direction and map skills. There is no way you could taste in all the regions you’d like to taste, so the key is to choose a few and stick with those.

While tasting in this way isn’t my favorite way to experience new wines, I got to attend a legendary event that I’d been dreaming about since I was a 22 year old working in tasting rooms in Sonoma County. I also got to meet up with a good friend there (owner of one of my favorite wine bars called La Dolce Vita in Sonoma County) and explore the beautiful city of Verona.

Verona is charming and romantic, with stunning views over the river and great food that was much more interesting (to me) than the typical food you find in Tuscany. Northern Italy in general, holds more of interest for me food-wise than Tuscany (remember I can’t eat bread or pasta) and I like the wines better as well.

Volunteering as an English Speaker in Spain (aka meeting my boyfriend)

I participated in my third ‘volunteer’ program as an English conversation partner for Spanish professionals, this time in a small village in Northern Spain with an organization called Diverbo. Like all of my previous experiences in these types of programs it was an amazing experience packed with fun, friendships, parties and adventure. The difference with this program? The handsome young Spanish guy I met who wouldn’t let me leave Spain……… I had my trip home scheduled and my tickets bought at that point.

But after meeting in Santiago de Compostela for a long weekend and then going back to Madrid together, we both knew my trip home wasn’t happening.

I gave in to love, changed my ticket and remained in Madrid (though I really had no interest in staying in this city). First I delayed by a month, then later simply cancelled my ticket so we could get a place together. The rest is history! 🙂

It easy to find reasons not to give in to love. Convenience, money, profession, geography…. It’s tougher to take a risk and dive in with your whole heart. And, though the journey hasn’t been easy, I’m glad I chose the latter.

May to December

May was a tough month. Constant searches for affordable temporary apartments, stress over having to break into my ‘start over’ fund and the stress that comes along with being on a super tight budget and not having a real home in a big hectic city. Moving from overpriced place to overpriced place. Finding wifi to get my work done. It wasn’t a fun month. The one thing that kept me going was my boyfriend and our developing relationship. All the challenges and seeming bad luck only brought us closer to together and showed us we could depend on each other.

California

I took a long trip home to California in July, after hitting a low point and questioning how and why I had made the decision to stay in Madrid. The oppressive heat, our tiny dark apartment with no insulation and being in a loud, crowded, dirty and hectic city was really getting to me. I needed the ocean, clean air, light food and my family and friends. Not to mention I was really missing doing work at a higher level and being a professional versus an unemployed foreigner.

I spent a great month at home, visiting old friends, writing an article on and visiting local Northern California cider producers and taking road trips up and down the coast and through San Diego, Sonoma and Napa. Hiking, lots of great sun (without humidity), ocean views and fresh organic food and I felt much better. I missed my boyfriend terribly during this time but he knew I needed the trip so he supported it fully. We Skyped at weird hours (9 hour time difference) and made plans for how to make our lives in Madrid better when I got back. Those plans mostly included planning for how we could start our lives together back in the U.S.

Galicia

In August after I got back from California, Manuel and I went on a trip to Galicia with a group of friends we’d met in the English immersion program. One of the women had apartments in a beach town there and I set up appointments at Rias Baixas vineyards to taste Albarino. We spent a lovely 4 days by the beach, eating seafood and drinking white wine and meeting with winemakers. It was great (and much needed) escape from Madrid and way to end August.

In September, we took another trip to Galicia and went way out into rural areas, stayed in casas rurales and visited some gorgeous places like Cathedral Beach, Rinlo, the Ribeira Sacra (I did this portion alone and showed up three days earlier than Manuel to get some writing and wine tasting done) and Pontevedra. The views, the hiking, the scenery, the lack of tourism and the great seafood and wine make this region one of my favorite in the world.

Hiking Day Trips and Discovering the Mercados of Madrid

In an effort to find something we liked about Madrid, we took as many weekend day trips as possible to nearby hiking destinations that were accessible by train and explored some cool areas neither of us knew existed. We even ended up (accidentally) finding snow one weekend when we decided to venture out ‘a little farther north’. Cercedilla, El Escorial, La Pedriza, Cotos and Segovia (up in the hills surrounding) were some of our favorite spots for getting outdoors and on trails.

We also hit most of the Mercados (big indoor markets with many different independent businesses inside that are starting to turn into social gatherings vs. just markets) in Madrid. We found the best mercado for partying and dancing and eating many different types of prepared foods (and the least touristy mercado): Mercado San Fernando,the best mercado for finding South American products and foods (Mercado Mostenses) and the best posh Mercado for hanging out and having fancy San Sebastian style tapas and wine or cocktails in the appropriate high quality glassware. We made it our Sunday ritual to hit our favorite mercados and have a few glasses of wine, grab some small bites and then pick up items to take home and cook for dinner.

View from Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli vineyards in Getaria

Coastal Basque Country

I spent a few idyllic days out on the coast in Basque country in tiny villages, visiting vineyards, attending a wine festival and exploring the parts of the Camino de Santiago that run through this area. This area captured my heart completely. It had everything: vineyards, ocean views, phenomenal fresh seafood and tons of gorgeous countryside full of hiking trails. It’s now on my wish list to come back and do the Camino de Santiago from Basque Country in Spain to Basque Country in France stopping at casas rurales, vineyards and farms all along the way.

All in all, despite the professional and financial setbacks, 2016 held a lot of good and a few life changing experiences I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’m still glad to see it go, however, and looking forward to resuming a normal and more comfortable, stable life in 2017. Making sacrifices for love is romantic and all but I’m a gal who needs a financial cushion, a comfy bed and apartment or home and the freedom to do the leisure activities I want to do when I want to do them. At least 60% of the time.

Lucky for me, I’ll now get to share that comfy bed and apartment and life with my fiancee. And for the first time in my life, spending the rest of my life with someone doesn’t sound so bad..

Of course we have to get his Visa first………


Originally published at www.adifferentkindoftravel.com on January 3, 2017.

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