Before we dive in, I want to preface that we take a lot of side trips on Remote Year. They are trips to other cities or countries that are usually within stone’s throwing distance from our home base for the month, and side trips are usually amazing. The group is always stoked to be wherever we are, we are in full adventure and explore mode, and we generally have a great time. However, there were two day trips I took in Spain that were the opposite of a great time. This is dedicated to those trips gone wrong.
Pamplona - “I’m too old for this shit”
TL; DR: Don’t go here on a day trip with a group travel company that caters to college kids
Pamplona is home to the San Fermin festival, a week-long celebration of bullfighting and debauchery famously captured in Hemmingway’s “The Sun Always Rises.” As part of the festival, there’s a running of the bulls every morning. The running of the bulls is the quintessential event that all college students who are studying abroad in Spain do. I studied abroad in France, so naturally I’ve had a FOMO that has been raging on for about 6 years.
The second I heard that some of our group was organizing to go to it, I hopped on that train. Literally, hopped on the train from Valencia to Barcelona to then take the day trip to Pamplona. From Barcelona, it’s a 6-hour overnight bus ride to Pamplona, you’re then there for 6 hours, then you take the bus ride back. If we thought maybe 10 minutes longer before signing up for all of this, we may have realized that that’s not going to be the most comfortable experience ever, but whatever, we’re young, and the bucket list must be checked!
When I say we’re young, that’s a bit of a misnomer compared to the rest of the crew that was part of the tour company going there with us. Remember when I said that all my friends in college went to this? Yeah, we quickly saw that we were at least 8 years older than the median age of the rest of the group. Not to say that that can’t be fun, but there’s just a whole different level of traveling that you’re used to when you have a bit more money to spend than when you were in college.
While we expected organization and timely departure, the tour group was used to catering to a bunch of college kids who have more of an “anything goes” attitude, and their service matched this attitude. Our bus was two hours late in taking off to Pamplona, without much explanation as to why. What’s worse, our guide, “Cheesus,” actually played a part in 30 minutes of this delay by not realizing that the bus that was parked in front of us was OUR bus, since he didn’t know Spanish and couldn’t communicate to the bus driver.
Standing around, waiting for that bus to come along, some of us started thinking about staying an extra night in Barcelona instead taking the six-hour bus ride to Pamplona just to return the next day on the same six-hour bus ride back. However, we ended up pulling through, putting our big boy and big girl pants on and climbing aboard that bus roughly at 1am. We could easily stay in Barcelona, or we can take the bus to Pamplona and live the experience, whatever it will be. On the bus, we were asked if anyone wanted to order a traditional bullfighting costume from the tour group we went with, a few of us ordered one, and we were off.
After riding on the bus for two hours, most of us were in a deep sleep when we were suddenly halted awake for a pee stop. Climbing down the steps of the bus, I began to properly wake up when I heard dry grass crunching underneath my sandals. Blinking my eyes awake, looking around at the shrubs and darkness, I realized that this was not a planned stop. The bus just pulled over to the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere so that those who absolutely needed to pee, could. Thank you, college girl #1 who drank too much alcohol prior to getting on and couldn’t wait until our planned rest stop.
Roughly four hours later, we pull into Pamplona. Or, rather, Pamplona underneath a layer of solid trash. The city looked like an apocalyptic zombie town, with zombies stumbling home through the most garbage I’ve ever seen – and I’ve gone to a lot of music festivals. There was a giant park that we passed by that was just absolutely covered in white plastic cups, plates, paper towels, napkins, plastic bags, you name it to the point that you could barely tell there was green grass underneath all the rubbish. Later on, walking through the streets, you also noticed some additional debris you couldn’t see with your eyes from the bus: vomit, spilled food, streams of running sangria.
As we pulled into the parking lot around 7am, all of us were handed “sangria” (2 buck chuck plastic bottled sugary juice) that we paid for as part of our excursion to properly greet us to debauchery-ville. We were then asked to wait for the outfits. About 30 minutes later, our ring leader, “Cheesus” came to inform us that unfortunately they ran out of outfits so they wouldn’t have any for us, sorry.
Outfit-less and low on time since the running of the bulls was starting at 8am, we all began to make a run for the town to get into position for the bulls. Some guys in our group wanted to run with the bulls, so they were on the lookout for the starting line. Turns out that since we left Barcelona late and were held up with the outfits for an extended period of time, they were too late to actually run with the bulls. If you wanted to run with them, you’d have to promptly get to the starting place at 6am, not 7:30 which is when we finally got to town. The rest of us struggled a bit ourselves to just find a good spot to watch, and then, the bulls were off!
Of which we saw all of 5 seconds of.
Anticlimactic to say the least, and we were still stuck in this town for another 6 hours before the bus was on its return back to Barcelona.
Let’s recap what’s happened thus far. We paid 80 euros for a bus ride to see a thing which we almost missed because of the incompetency of our tour company, and then were provided petrol grade alcohol as a consolation and were expected to be happy about it all.
Walking through the trash strewn city, we settled on finding a brunch place. It started raining, which seemed like a perfect coupling to all of our moods at this point, and were left seeking shelter under a tree since all establishments were still closed at this point.
We finally found a place for brunch, and on our way, we walked by the travel company’s “bar” for the day- which was a tiny cavern with the floor paved with hay that smelled like a frat house. They were joyfully handing out the 2-buck chuck sangria (which no one deserves, I promise) and breakfast sandwiches. Our excitement over the unexpected breakfast sandwiches quickly took a downhill turn when we opened them, finding them to be worse than the sangria – tough bread with just a single slice of cheese and unripe tomatoes. Nothing edible.
After brunch, we walked past the bar once more, avoiding the rambunctious college kids who started to throw sangria at each other and down the street, walking into a park. The park ended up being our sanctuary for a while, and the weather began looking up, as did our moods. On our way back to the town to view the bullring, we walked past some open food markets and live music, giving us all some pep in our step. The town was slowly being cleaned by a huge crew, and we finally were able to shake off the long bus ride there. Unfortunately, the bullring was closed to the public, and our travel company, while on their website promised a tour of it, did not deliver so we didn’t get to see the inside of it.
We all know that our boy Hemingway loved to drink, so it makes a lot of sense that he loved the San Fermin festival with all its debauchery, but if I learned anything after this trip, it’s that Hemmingway is an original douchebag, and we probably shouldn’t take travel recommendations from him.
We ended up making the most of our time in Pamplona, but I would severely not recommend Stoke Travel or the day trip to Pamplona to anyone who is outside of college – it seems completely tailored to young kids who don’t have a lot of standards other than being able to drink as much as possible in as little bit of time as possible. We got back on the bus just 6 hours after getting off of it, eager to leave Pamplona behind us.
Albuferra - “Please just fucking feed me”
TL; DR: Don’t go here without making a restaurant reservation in advance
A group of four of us went to Albuferra for a day trip one weekend on a suggestion from the city team. We were looking forward to the best paella in the Valencia region (the place paella was born!) as well as a sunset cruise on the river.
We had a bit of a rocky start as we couldn’t figure out the bus schedule and what was the proper bus that would take us there (totally our fault), but eventually we were off.
The day progressively gets more ~interesting~ from there. As we arrive into Albuferra, our bus backs up to get into a more appropriate position to let people off at the bus stop. BANG. Our bus backed up into a light post, dragging it out of the concrete, and causing it to lean at a 45-degree angle. Let’s say I was really glad that this was not my problem.
We step off the bus at Albuerra and it’s HOT. Probably the hottest I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty-six years of living. The air hugged you as soon as you got off the bus, to the point where you feel almost suffocated by the humidity and heat.
I am not someone who deals with heat well. I will just say that as is. I know a lot of people would rather be in supreme heat than cold, but my rule is that you can always put on more layers, there’s only so many layers you can take off before you’re trying to scrape your skin off.
Walking through what I imagine is the temperature of hell, we went on our search for the best paella in the Valencian region. We went to the number 1 restaurant in this town – which truly was a TOWN of just perhaps no more than 300 adobe style houses. The restaurant was completely empty, as expected at 11:30am (the Spanish don’t typically eat lunch until 1 or 2pm), so we didn’t think it would be a problem for our party of four to get a table. The waiter immediately looked at us like we were aliens and was apprehensive about us sitting down. He finally allowed us to sit but mentioned that we could only get 1 kind of paella (of a menu of 10). His reasoning was that any other paella would take up to 2 hours to make, and they would have reservations coming in at 2pm.
Looking around at a completely empty restaurant, in a town of maybe 1000 people, we found it hard to believe that they couldn’t serve us. We would definitely be out of there by 2, even if they didn’t serve us until 1:30, and we would happily order sangria while we waited. They continued to refuse us service, so we ventured forth to the number 2 restaurant in town.
At this restaurant, there was enough seating to fit the entire city. There were no less than 100 tables with a huge patio. We were seated and told to wait a few minutes. A few minutes turned into 20, then 30. We saw people being seated and given menus, yet no one came over to us. When we tried to wave them over, there was a blatant ignorance for our plight - at this point, all four of us were EXTREMELY hangry and tired. We tried to call our waiters over, which was futile – we might as well have been invisible. We finally left the restaurant, and on the way out, the host gave me a sympathy pat on my shoulder. I could have skinned him alive at that point, but we were focused on the goal of food.
We called our city team manager, Carlos, as a 911 last resort. We asked him what to do as it seemed like this entire town did not want to serve us.
He told us about another restaurant where his friend works, and he told us to go there while he called ahead. At 1pm, we were finally served and so happy to be sitting inside an air-conditioned restaurant with menus in front of us! We ordered the traditional chicken and rabbit paella with snails (!!) and sangria, and dug in once the paella was served. Overall, the paella was nothing spectacular (I think we ultimately ate at restaurant #23 out of 25 restaurants in this town), but it was Lisa’s first time trying snails which was a sight to see, and our stomachs were finally full.
Ready for our second adventure, finding a way to sail the river, we talked to our waiter (finally a friendly waiter), who said he can directly lead us to a river cruise.
The river cruise ended up being a quick 20-minute tour around the rice paddies that provides the rice for the paella in the region, and the water provided some relief from the heat.
After our few mishaps here and there, we were happy that we were able to check our two main goals off, and we returned to Valencia, but definitely weren’t looking to come back anytime soon.