“Could we live here?” is a very different question than “What should we see or do here?” That’s the distinction between scouting and traveling. In our first six weeks in Spain, we’ve stayed in as many places as we did in six months in Ecuador. Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve looked not just for scenic beauty, historic sites, and architectural wonders, but for livability, conveniences, and whether a town’s charms will wear thin or endure.
We’re approaching our time in Spain differently than our time in Ecuador. Last year we started with five weeks in Cuenca to get acclimated, learn some Spanish, and make a plan. We ended up staying between one and four weeks in 11 different places, because we kept feeling like there was so much more to the country we wanted to see. But it takes more than a month to settle in somewhere and find community. So this year we decided to scout as many places as we could for the first month or two, and then decide where to settle for the next 5-6 months. Here’s what we learned.
- Living in a place is not the same as sight-seeing in a place. It requires some conveniences as well as charm and scenery. Is there good public transportation? Is it easy to get to a major airport or train station? Is there a supermarket we can walk to? Is there decent wifi? Is there a lot of traffic? Does it feel hustle-bustle or more relaxed? Our exploratory walks in a new place often focused on these questions while we also tried to appreciate its beauty and history.
- We are not big-city people. We enjoy visiting, but for us, crowded sidewalks, daylight-blocking buildings, and honking horns outweigh world-class museums, parks, and theaters. (As to the latter, I doubt my Spanish is good enough to appreciate a play here anyway!) So we knew from the start we would likely not choose to live in Madrid or Barcelona and our time in both only reinforced that we were looking for something smaller.
- Climate and weather are important to us, but hard to predict based on a quick visit. Websites that track weather patterns aren’t much help because the whole country (about ¾ the size of Texas) seems to have average temperatures that are within 5 degrees of each other. Everywhere gets hot in summer and cool-to-cold in winter. But the north is reputed to be colder and rainier, the central plains seem to have no prime weather seasons, and there is skiing in the mountains in both the north and south. So all we can really do is base our decision on what we observe and hope for the best.
Our first stop was Gijon, in the north. We’ve been told it’s like the Portland, Ore., or Seattle of Spain—a smallish city (compared to the really big ones) that has a lot of character, music, and food and is prone to damp, cool winters. It’s walkable, has an historic district, and a modern side with malls and big supermarkets. It has an easy-to-access beach with enough waves to support a surfing school, gorgeous cliff-top coastal walks, a few historic landmarks, and is driving distance to great hiking. It has access to a small airport and a high-speed train to Madrid that takes 5 hours, but also a drab industrial side. We liked a lot of things about Gijon, but it was our first place, so we hadn’t done enough scouting to say immediately, “This is it!”
We then explored a few small villages in the Picos de Europa mountains, and loved them for their amazing scenery and hiking. But they had few conveniences, apparently get quite cold in winter, and would require a car to live in for six months. Stops in Toledo and Cordoba helped us enthusiastically rule them in as tourist destinations, but out as potential homes. Could we live there? Sure, but they teem with tourists, which could wear on us in short order.
Next came stops in several of the “Pueblos Blancos” (“white villages”)—fantastically charming hillside towns sprinkled throughout southern Spain. Each village has the same components: bleached white houses with red tile roofs packed tightly around narrow cobblestone streets and a medieval castle on the top of the hill (we even stayed in one!). Each village also has its own unique personality and attractions—one is known for the houses being literally built into caves; another for its well-preserved Moorish baths. I could (and probably will) write a whole post about the Pueblos Blancos, but viewed through the lens of scouting, while we love their charm and size, they are fairly isolated, and, again, would require a car. So our scouting journey continued.
After a stop in Marbella on the south coast (ugh! Traffic! Mega-malls!) and a day in Gibraltar (technically the U.K., so that’s out, but we did find British “hobnob” cookies in a shop), we visted the southernmost point in Spain. Tarifa has a gorgeous beach renowned for its winds and easy access to Morocco (which is clearly visible across the strait), but it was raining at the time, and perhaps as a result it seemed a bit dingey. Such are the hazards of quick impressions. We stayed for a week in Cadiz, on the southern Atlantic, where we found Moorish forts, a cathedral, Roman ruins, and the best (and oldest) covered market we’ve seen so far in Spain. The modern part of the city sprawls along an urban beach for quite a distance but has little character, and we’ve read that Cadiz is a wild party town during carneval and summer weekends. Intriguing, but a mixed bag for our scouting report.
Then we crossed the entire country diagonally in two 4-hour train rides (which was not even possible in a day in Ecuador!) to Barcelona and the Costa Brava. There we spent time in a series of fishing villages that become crowded escapes for city dwellers in summer. They are typically set around a small cove with a sandy, horseshoe beach and rocky cliffs jutting up on either side. One of Spain’s famous “long-walk” trails winds its way up the coast from Barcelona, offering thrilling views along the way, whether you walk the whole distance or just bite off a few hours. I can’t say we found “home” in our short time here, but we surely loved the views and the paella (seafood stew with rice).
Finally, it was time to rest and take stock. We booked a four-week stay in a small beach town south of Barcelona called Cunit (Coo-neat) and found ourselves across a quiet malecon (boardwalk) from a long sandy beach with gently curling waves. Somehow from our deck we can see the sunrise to the left and the sunset to the right, each one seemingly more colorful than the last. This points out the importance not only of the town, but also the accommodations—here we can get a comfortable apartment with a great beach view at a reasonable price, and it’s the best lodging we’ve had so far.
As to the town, it’s a bit like being on Cape Cod in the fall—the water is too cold now for swimming, but chilly, sparkling nights give way to sunny days in the 60s, perfect for long walks. The streets and boardwalk are quiet but not deserted, and there are enough restaurants and cafes open to offer some options. Plentiful supermarkets, a thriving Friday outdoor market, fresh seafood, and a 50-minute train ride to Barcelona round out the conveniences. We’re told winter is short, with the days warming up soon. There is such a thing as “recency bias”—when the last place you see seems best—but when we ask “could we live here?” the answer is very comfortably “yes.”
And the time clock for validating our visas continues to tick. Remember the visa saga? It turns out getting approved for the extended visa doesn’t mean it’s actually valid—go figure! While the process appears to be different in every region, we believe our best chance for getting approved involves proving we have an extended lease in one place and going to the immigration office in that place, lease in hand. We are hoping the bureaucracy in a small town is easier to navigate than in a big city, and we will finally have jumped all the visa hurdles.
So in many ways it feels like the music has stopped in our game of musical chairs—and the chair we’re in feels pretty darn good. Is it the perfect place in all of Spain? Who knows, but we remind ourselves not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And trust me, we are not done exploring Spain. We will use this as a base to get to the places we still want to see, and then have a home with a view that we can come back to. We’re just done scouting.
In the words of one of our favorite songs, “Home is where I want to be and I guess I’m already there. … I guess that this must be the place.”
PS: Our apologies for the long lag between our last post and this one. All of that traveling really cut into our ability to make the time for writing. Now that we are settling in, we’ll get back to more regular posts, and promise to create some photo galleries as well!