After leaving Pierlo’s first thing on Saturday (June 9th) morning, we had an hour stop in Toulouse (coffee and crossoint marathon) before travelling onwards to Barcelona. We did part of the journey on a double-decker train (this made me very excited), changing at Narbonne and Figueres Vilafant and working really hard at staying awake so as not to miss any of the beautiful scenery.
We arrived into the busy Barcelona station at around three in the afternoon, with six hours before we had to leave. We locked up our luggage, purchased a map, indulged in some fast food (immediately felt ashamed) and set off into the city. The weather in Barcelona was a bit weird for the first few hours we were there, with half an hour of chilly wind, then half an hour of burning sunshine and so on. Since we had limited time and decided to wear ourselves out by walking everywhere and doing as much as we could possibly fit in so that we would sleep like babies on the night train. So, first we headed to the nearest few Gaudi buildings and stood in awe for quite a while… We wandered down Les Ramblas and on to the small streets of the Gothic part of the city… Barcelona seems really cool and was full to the brim with interesting people, amazing architecture and great street entertainers (we saw a harp player, a clown, a didgeridoo player, an a capella soul choir…) – I’d definitely like to spend more time there someday. At one point we were followed down the street by some kind of street theatre group, all wearing red noses – but apart from that, dressed like an average shopoholic, complete with Primark bags – who would walk along for a while and then all stop in unison and stand completely still for a few minutes. The cathedral was beautiful, and free to get in, so we had a wander around and chilled out outside for a bit, where there was a big brass band playing. Later on, we took a walk along the beach (it was nice to see the sea again! I’ve missed it) and enjoyed a Pina Colada in the evening sunshine.
We ended up being just in time for our night train, which was a mistake because most of the luggage space had been taken and there was a stressful moment of trying to find space and then nearly dropping my 100 litre rucksack on a Spanish couple’s head. But all was okay and we both managed to sleep for a lot of the journey. In fact, we only woke up because people were getting off the train all around us, and we had a confusing few minutes of ‘are we really in Granada already?’ etc. The train station in Granada was a lot smaller than expected and there was no luggage lock-ups in sight which was a bit worrying as it was 8am and we weren’t meeting our couch-surfing host until later on. So we went in to the cafe, got more coffee and tried to work out the weird ‘you’ve been framed’-esque Spanish TV show that was on and that had a distinctly blue (would definitely have shown after the watershed in the UK) edge to it. We freshened up in the toilets, began to feel more human, and to our great relief found out from a helpful station worker that there was a luggage lock-up just a few minute walk from the station.
Granada was HOT. We got a map from the luggage lock-up place and headed into town. The city had an immediate atmosphere of awesomeness, there was a really relaxed feeling in the air and a definite positive energy. There’s a big student population in Granada (which probably helped make us feel at home), including a lot of international students and there’s a huge mix of nationalities in the city generally. We decided to head to the cathedral first, outside of which a lady approached me, shoved a bundle of rosemary in my face and then spoke quickly at me in Spanish. I tried to politely get away but she grabbed my hand and began to trace her fingers across my palm lines, stopping to poke my boob and shove the rosemary in my face every now and again, whilst continuing to speak very quickly at me. All I understood was that I am apparently going to live until I’m really old. Great. Anyway, then she of course wanted some money, but I managed to get away with paying in nervous laughter and ‘I have nothing’ hand movements.
We wandered around town for a while, soaking up the sunshine and good vibes, then headed up to The Alhambra, as we’d been recommended by our friend Abi. We weren’t really planning on paying to actually go in but a Dutch guy offered us a discounted ticket outside and we decided to go for it. I’m so glad we did. It was so incredible, amazing architecture and breathtaking views of Granada and the mountains and it’s so huge that it was definitely worth the ten euros, we spent a good three hours there. After wards, we headed back in to town, did some window-shopping and people watching and then went to get some lunch. We’d been told already that most places in Granada give you a free tapas dish with your drink and we’d seen a few signs but by this point it was mid-afternoon and we were pretty hungry so we decided we wanted a whole meal (plus, we knew we were getting tapas with our new host the next day) so we chose somewhere without a ‘free tapas’ sign and ordered some beers and sandwiches. To our confusion, a plate of food was brought out to us with our beers, on it was two meat bagels, some potato wedges and a pasta salad and two forks. It turned out, this came free with our drinks! It literally is every single place in Granada that gives you free food when you buy a drink. So we wolfed that down, followed by the sandwiches we’d ordered and then, like idiots we ordered two more beers, not realising that meant we got another plate of food. Needless to say, we were full to the brim by this point and so just nibbled on some of it and ended up leaving the majority. We felt very silly.
Next it was time to meet our couch-surfing host, Sebastian. We fetched our luggage, gave him a call and met up with him and a French girl who had been surfing at his the previous night. What an amazing first couch-surf experience! Sebastian was a long-haired, twenty-something Romanian and we went back to the flat he shared with his sister, Nico and her boyfriend, Mikey and had an amazing evening. The French girl left and the rest of the evening was a blur of music, laughter, card games (we learnt a new game called Killer which was a lot of fun) and getting heady on Romanian Moonshine brewed by Mikey’s grandfather. Wow. Nico was super helpful with helping us work out the bus we needed to get the next day, Mikey told us loads of stories about Greece (he lived and worked there for three years) and now I really want to go, and Sebastian was the perfect host, who even gave his bed for the night. I ended up eating chicken because I couldn’t possibly turn down anything from these amazing people, and… it was pretty tasty.
We had to leave at 7am to get a bus back in to Granada and then catch our bus to Ugijar, in the Sierra Nevada. At the bus station, a Spanish couple – Andres and Clara – approached us and it turned out we were all going to stay with the same HelpX host – Karen Andres had been Karen’s very first helper four years ago! The bus journey was four hours and a lot of it was on windy mountain roads and I was feeling a tad hungover from all the Romanian moonshine (and maybe my stomach was a little in shock from the chicken) so it wasn’t the greatest journey of my life. As expected, there was some amazing views though, and we passed through a lot of towns with a very Mexican feel as well as a zillion orange trees. I was pretty pleased when we finally arrived in Ugijar, met Karen and headed to a local bar for beers and delicious free tapas! 1.50 for a beer and a free tapas dish of your choice – amazing. We stayed there for a good couple of hours, getting to know each other, including Karen’s two lovely dogs – Jimi (Hendrix) and Bob (Marley).
The forty minute drive up to Karen’s place – 1800m above sea level – was pretty unforgettable. She has a big old 4X4 that she uses for the journey, but which isn’t legal to drive around in town so we swopped over cars before heading “up the hill”. In the big beast we squeezed a BIG load of shopping, five people, four sets of luggage and two dogs. It turned out that Clara actually had a fear of dogs and I was so impressed with her determination to face that fear! The track was bumpy, windy, long and we had to stop to let the engine cool down for a bit. But eventually we arrived at Cortijo Fuente del Espino – Karen’s little bit of paradise tucked away in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
Karen’s lived at Cortijo Fuente del Espino for around six years. She originally came here with her partner, but it’s just been her and the dogs for the last couple of years. She’s from Scotland but is very well travelled, and also lived in Barcelona for a couple of years before moving down to the Sierra Nevada. Karen lives in “the shed”, which is so much more than a shed – an amazingly renovated little den (it used to be used for hanging hams in apparently), filled with treasures from Karen’s travels around the world and with solar panels and a small windmill on the roof. It’s a real cosy little haven, open plan with a bedroom area, kitchen area, living space and “chill out zone”. Outside is a balcony with the sink, a big table for eating and a little table for game playing, looking out onto an incredible view of mountains and the sea in the distance – and on a really clear day, usually in the wintertime apparently, you can see right across to Algeria.
Below the balcony are some more ruins which Karen has various vague plans for, an actual shed where the barrels of home-brewed cider and cherry wine are kept, and ‘The Bunkhouse’, which also used to be ruins but was made in to another living space by some of the first volunteers – including Andres – a few years ago. The shower is also in The Bunkhouse, and Karen has a brilliant system for heating up the water – the hose that connects the spring water to the shower stretches over Karen’s roof and down over the bunkhouse roof, and the first part of the hose is covered in dozens of plastic bottles to help trap the heat from the sun. This water, which gets really hot in the middle of the day, is used for washing up and for showers.
One garden is to the side of Karen’s house, there’s another small one in front of The Bunkhouse, and then a bigger one below. There’s also an orchard full of fruit and nut trees lower down, and various plants, trees and flowers dotted around the place. A short walk from the house and balcony is the long drop toilets (holes in the ground with branches across to make a seat of sorts) for ‘number 2s’ – number 1s can be done anywhere but it’s nice to do it on the compost heap if you can. There’s a few long drops, one is in use at a time and if the small green shovel (for covering up your business with soil, to help keep the flies away) is not in the bucket by the sink, that’s the sign that the long drop is in use!
So, we decided that Andres and Clara should sleep in the bunkhouse since Andres helped to build it, and Matthew and I took the other spare room – a white van (with a bed in) just above Karen’s house. There was another helper expected at some point, Aldus, who would go in The Bunkhouse with Andres and Clara. Karen wasn’t sure when Aldus would arrive as he was walking… from Granada!
On the first night, Karen showed us around, introduced us to her lovely little cat Sid (who used to have a sister called Vicious), fed us a delicious dinner of dahl and rice and told us that we could start work in the morning whenever we woke up! I slept like a baby that night.