We ended up finding a housesitting/dogsitting gig about an hour outside Barcelona, so we planned to spend a few days in the city before meeting the new pups. From Rome, we took another cheap flight directly to Barcelona, trading our pasta for paella.

Kickin’ it in Catalonia

We arrived in Barcelona on Thanksgiving, finding an American-style beer hall where other expats were celebrating together. Nothing beats spending Thanksgiving with family, but sharing some turkey and stuffing with other folks in the same boat was better than the alternative.

As we toured the city, I was impressed with the Catalonian pride we experienced throughout the city. After learning about Irish independence earlier in the trip, it was encouraging to see Catalan as a primary language around the city and learning about the region’s independence movement.

While Barcelona wasn’t at the top of my list of cities to visit, I found myself particularly excited about the urban planning and architecture of the city. Maybe I played too much SimCity growing up, but I absolutely loved walking around the city and investigating the city blocks – it was surprisingly friendly for both pedestrians and motor vehicles. And when it came to architecture, I came in knowing basically nothing about Gaudí – that was quickly remedied by our trips to many of his designs. We were even able to see the Sagrada Familia’s new tower completion, its first in decades.

I absolutely have to mention Caga Tio since we visited in the Christmas season. Caga Tio is all over the Christmas markets in Barcelona, a uniquely Catalan tradition…and his name literally means the Poop Log, since he poop out presents and candy. Y’all, I’m 100% not making this up. Google it.

As the tradition goes, every night children feed Caga Tio a little bit and cover him with a blanket so he doesn’t get cold. Kids must take good care of the log, keeping it warm and feeding it every evening so that it will poop out presents on Christmas. To make it defecate, children beat it on Christmas with sticks, singing various songs about el Tio. One popular song translates to:

Poop, Christmas log,

Almonds and nougats,

Do not defecate herrings,

Which are too salty,

Defecate nougats, which are better,

Poop Christmas log,

Almonds and nougats,

And if you don’t want to defecate,

I will give you a smack!

Poop, Christmas log!

Yep. Naturally, we now own a Caga Tio and look forward to adopting it as a new family Christmas tradition.

Anyway, we had a fun few days in the city and found it, unsurprisingly, to be very tourist-friendly. 

Strange times in La Costa Brava

After our period of “fast-travel” in Barcelona, we were ready to hang out with some pups in the small coastal tourist town of Lloret de Mar. It’s a charming seaside town, usually known for its summer nightlife, though we’d be visiting in the off season. Strangely enough, it turns out my parents visited there almost 35 years ago!

Our hosts picked us up at the train station, and we drove a short ways up the hillside to our new pad with an absolutely amazing view of the ocean right at sunset. We unpacked, and had a tasty dinner, learning about the dogs, Iggy and Archie, and their routines. Our hosts were very friendly with us, but we noticed that they spoke very little Spanish and basically no Catalal, relying mostly on English.

The next morning they went on their way, taking a vacation in the south of the country. Now the dogs…the dogs were actually pretty great. A little too feisty when it came to other dogs (and bicycles!), but they were extra cuddly and actually made for great yoga buddies! Once we got settled with the routine, we were able to relax more than we’d done in a long while, deciding on our plans for the final couple of months of our trip.

The neighbors on the other hand, were a little, uh, eccentric. I’m not sure what it was about the neighborhood, but there were definitely some characters. There was the Roma family across the street who made lots of noise at strange hours in the evening, revving their collection of fancy cars and asking us how much the house cost (why would we know this?). There was the perpetually sneezing Dutch neighbor who insisted we walk with her and her dog, who would invariably get stuck in another neighbor’s fence and require our help to get untangled. And then there was the neighbor who just kept their dog chained up all day…come on. As a disclaimer, we met plenty of nice people in Catalonia, but this neighborhood was odd.

One neighbor who was actually amazing was Lut, another Dutch woman who happened to be a tour guide and was eager to show us around the area. She was so nice! We ended up driving along the coast one day after the dogs were tuckered out from their walk, ate at an excellent seafood restaurant, and learned about the Catalan independence movement from someone who was actually fluent in Catalan. Aside from some great dog cuddles, this was the highlight of our stay.

Now here’s where the story gets strange…

We were originally supposed to watch the dogs for about a week, but about halfway in, we got a text from one of our hosts saying that they’d be back early, coming in that evening. Ok, a little odd but whatever. We didn’t get much context, but we called our other host to see if it was covid-related or if we needed to find other accommodation. “No, nothing like that. Everything is OK” was the response, so we waited for the evening.

It turns out both of them were in the middle of a spat, and one of them called off the vacation early. We were fine, but things felt a little awkward. The next morning went pretty smoothly, and we took the news in stride. However, right around noon, our other host came back. Were we going to stick around for another few days as originally planned? They didn’t want to put us out, but we could see the writing on the wall. After a short heated discussion between the two of them, we decided to peace out.

Fortunately, we were in the middle of a tourist town in the off season, so we didn’t have any issues finding accommodation. One of the hosts volunteered to drive us down the hillside to the hotel area. We said goodbye to the good pups, packed our stuff in record time, and found ourselves in a hotel for the last few days on the Costa Brava. My wife and I just looked at each other with WTF faces. I think we’re done with dogsitting for a while, lol.

The next few days were actually great – now that we had no responsibilities and weren’t around an arguing couple, we explored the city, ate well, and even found some salsa dancing in our hotel lobby! The indoor rooftop hotel pool was our respite, with almost no other guests and a great view of the coast, things ended pretty darn well all things considered.

Sorry, Iggy and Archie – we miss y’all!

Pastries in Porto

The next stop on our Iberian excursion was in Porto, Portugal. We decided to book an Airbnb in the city center and slow down for a bit to focus on ourselves. Porto was the perfect place for it! While it’s not a huge city, it was large enough to keep us occupied for 10 days yet perfectly walkable (at least until I hurt my foot, oops).

Known for its delicious fortified wine, Porto is also home to some of the most interesting history and distinct cuisine on the continent. After sampling many of the local dishes, we quickly found our favorite, the Pastel de Nata. It’s basically an egg custard tart pastry, and we ended up eating at least one a day. We justified this by doing yoga once a day, but I’m not sure it evened out.

Porto also happens to be where JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter – so there were plenty of times we did double-takes, connecting the city’s sights with the Harry Potter universe. From the magical bookstore Livraria Lello to the Hogwarts-esque uniforms of Porto university, we could feel the spirit of the books in the city. I’m not even that big of a Harry Potter fan, but it was a ton of fun to experience.

We ended up seeing a small part of the city each day, slowing down to focus on ourselves. We even connected with some local artists after one of our friends back home introduced us on social media!

From there, we jumped into the Holidays with friends and family!