Boasting a Mediterranean climate, delicious tapas, afternoon siestas, and a cheap cost of living, Spain has long been on our list of destinations. After years of waiting, we found an opportunity to go to for free by travel hacking. After flying into Barcelona, we rented a car and spent 16 days exploring the beaches, cities, vineyards, and mountains of Catalonia. What we found was a premium lifestyle at bargain prices.
Our first stop of the trip was in the city of Girona. It’s much smaller than Barcelona and the pace of life is more relaxed. We stayed close to the old city center which is full of narrow winding streets and Medieval architecture. The city’s fortifications are well preserved and walking the walls gives you a view of the entire city. It’s like visiting another time, and for that reason it was also a filming location for Game of Thrones.
There were a fair number of tourists, and I expected the prices to reflect that. We did our first shopping at a fancy little grocer tucked beneath an old stone building. I was perplexed when I saw local wines starting at $2/bottle, and left the shop thinking I’d missed something in translation. But after checking a few more shops I realized excellent wine is very cheap in Catalonia.
Everywhere you go in the city there are open air cafes where locals relax with coffee, wine, and beers throughout the day. Beers were $2 a glass and the tapas were usually $5 or less. After eating and drinking to our content, our tab was usually just over $10.
A city life I could live
I’m not much of a city person, but I could spend more time living in Girona. The people spend a lot of time outside and socializing in cafes. Old dudes sit around having drinks and playing cards alongside children running around the sidewalks. The atmosphere is more that of a family get together.
The entire city is easily walk-able, and in addition to a weekly farmers market, there’s a daily indoor market. Here the cured meats, fish, olives, mushrooms, and vegetables were some of the best I’ve ever seen. I only regret we didn’t have a chance to cook more while there.
Our time in Girona flew by with us drinking cheap – yet incredible – local wines, enjoying tender jamon, and admiring the old architecture. We visited some Medieval towns perched in the mountains nearby, and I saw a lot of mountain bikers popping in and out of trails everywhere. There are a lot of cool activities in the area, and I feel we only scratched the surface.
Checking out the beach in Begur
After our stay in Girona we headed to the beach town of Begur. For only $70/night we had an entire apartment. It was part of a shared villa with a pool and views of the Mediterranean. Like many of the medieval towns through the region, Begur is perched on a hilltop where invaders could easily be spotted from miles away.
Begur’s historic center is also a center for some excellent cafes and restaurants. Being in a fancy beach town, I thought we’d end up paying the tourist tax. But once again we were greeted with $5 seafood tapas, and $2 beers.
We were starting to get a handle on Catalan cooking, and started making some local dishes. Sausages, meatballs, wine, and incredible seafood are cheap and readily available at most grocery stores. As we enjoyed our dinner with $2 local wine on our terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, I couldn’t help but consider that a similar experience would have cost us about 5X the price in Northern California.
Parking for the beaches was hard to find on a weekend and cost us $2, but it was worth the hassle. The Mediterranean water was deep blue and crystal clear. The color is so striking that it almost looks like there’s blue food coloring in it. The water was brisk, which was perfect on a hot summer day.
The Mountains of Catalonia
While it was fun seeing the sights and enjoying the beaches, we wanted to get away from the crowds and get a better picture of the Catalan lifestyle. After looking around at random towns, I found a cheap apartment for $50/night in the small medieval mountain town of Talarn.
On our drive there, I was taken aback by the scale and beauty of the Pyrenees mountains. I felt like we were on our Colorado road trip again as we weaved through mountain passes and tunnels. After a few hours of driving we came upon an old stone village perched on a big hill surrounded by mountains. I couldn’t believe our luck when I realized this was going to be our home for nearly a week.
Things only got better when we got into town. After finding our apartment, located in the old town square in front of a 1000 year old church, we were stunned by the view from our terrace. Fields of wheat, grape vines, and olive trees stretched for miles through the valleys.
After unpacking, we went out for dinner at the village’s one restaurant. With a few Catalan phrases we picked up, we managed to order a rabbit stew and meatballs, both smothered in wild mushrooms. Incredible home cooking the way it had been done for centuries, and with a few drinks, our bill was still less than $30.
Hiking the Pyrenees
Over the next few days we took road trips deeper into the Pyrenees mountains that border Catalonia and France. My mind was blown by the surreal villages and castles perched on the sides of the mountain passes. We took a detour to drive up to one such village. After 20 minutes of hairpin turns and precariously passing oncoming vehicles on a single lane road with steep drop-offs, we reached the town.
There were probably 5 families living in this village, and I think they all could sense us wandering through admiring the incredible views. I could only imagine these were old outposts of some sort keeping an eye on the passes for hundreds of years.
If the drive there wasn’t enough, I will never forget our hike in the Sant Maurici National Park. We followed a crystal clear stream of snow melt through a valley surrounded by snow capped peaks. Good parts of the valley were filled with green pastures, and they were kept pristine by agile cows grazing along the paths. The hike ended at a clear blue lake formed in between the mountain peaks.
At another mountain top lake, the paths were surrounded by waterfalls, and we even came across some of the melting snow that fed the dozens of tributaries coming down from the peaks.
The food and culture were living up to all of my expectations, but it’s the striking scenery that really took me off guard. I wish we had more time to experience some of the other awesome activities in the area like mountain biking, climbing, and whitewater rafting. When we were leaving Talarn, our host mentioned that an apartment like ours could be rented on a monthly basis for about $300/month.
Visiting Catalonia’s Wine country
As with the rest of Catalonia, the wine region of Terra Alta is a sight to see. Olive tree groves and vineyards stretch for miles with ancient towns interspersed between. While it looks like everything Napa Valley wants to be, the beauty of the area belies the fact that these are working farm towns. The residents are salt of the earth people, much like the farmers you would find in America’s heartland, only here they grow olives and grapes instead of corn.
We stayed in Corbera D’Ebre, where we rented an entire Airbnb apartment for $23/ night. Not only was it the cheapest, but also the biggest and most well equipped place we stayed in during our trip. Cheaper than camping in the US, you could stay two nights for free just with an Airbnb referral sign up bonus.
A day in the life of a Catalan farmer
There are no stand alone farmhouses to be found. All of the farmers live in apartment buildings in town. When the sun comes up, the roar of tractor engines fills the streets. This marks the start of the daily commute out to the fields surrounding the town. I was reminded of my grandfather when our elderly neighbor pulled out his tractor and headed out plow his fields.
The farmers work the fields until noon, when they return home for lunch. They’ll drink some wine then siesta until 3-4pm. During siesta, all local shops close. After siesta, the farmers head back out to the fields and work until sunset which isn’t until after 9 pm in the summer. They wash up, have some more drinks, then dinner is at 10pm, always followed by dessert with coffee or liquor.
While each farmer has his own fields to work, they still operate as a large community farm. Each town has its own cooperative where the farmers bring their grapes and olives to sell. The town co-op then makes the wines and olive oils.
Adapting to the Catalan lifestyle
This town did not cater to tourists, and it took some time for us to learn the local routine. For example, since the locals eat dinner at 10 pm, we were turned down when tried to eat at 7 pm because the kitchen was closed.
It took us a few tries, but when we finally got some food, it was incredibly good and cheap. A solid meal of meat and potatoes can be had for $5, and a plate of grilled seafood was $9.
Our Airbnb hosts tipped us off to the the local happy hour, where we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and tapas for less than $4.
At the cooperative, tastings are free, and bottles range in price from $2/bottle to $5/bottle for the fancy barrel-aged wines. You can also get wine straight form a barrel for about $1.50 a liter.
At our local co-op, we were initially confused about how to do a tasting. We saw funny looking pitchers of wine, but no cups. After some broken Catalan and gesturing, we realized the wine gets poured straight into your mouth from the porron. Mrs CK decided to try first, and proceeded to take a shower of white wine – it went everywhere but in her mouth. After a few more tries, we both managed to get a good tasting of the white wine. The lady working there had a good laugh, but stopped us short and brought out some plastic cups for the red wine.
What to do on a hot day
Further south from the mountains, the Terra Alta region was already pretty hot in June. On a particularly warm day, we took a 40 minute trip to the nearest beach. It was much less crowded than the beaches near Barcelona, and there was plenty of free parking. On a hot day, the cool clear waters were extremely refreshing.
Oh, and the beaches are topless. Some beaches are nude and there are signs saying no pants allowed. If you do wander on to such a beach wearing board shorts, expect to get some nasty looks from naked old dudes.
One final stop in Barcelona
We finished our trip with a couple of nights in Barcelona. It’s a beautiful city with a lot to see – especially the architecture – but it was also the most expensive and touristy location of our trip. As with many touristy spots, you can usually find the local joints a few streets over from the main strip. We still managed to find some excellent local seafood cheap.
We spent our time walking the city, checking out the Gaudi apartments and the Sagrada Familia. While I’m glad we got to see it all, and we did get some good food, two days in Barcelona was enough for me. There are too many people, and the local vibe isn’t the same as in the country.
A great retirement spot
While Barcelona is more crowded and expensive, there are plenty of other cool cities and villages where you can stay and eat at a fraction of the prices. We saw nice apartments that could be rented for only $300-$500 per month. A six pack of beer costs $3, and local wine only $1.50 a liter. For minimal cost, you can hang out with the locals at the outdoor cafes lining the streets.
Not only are premium food and booze extremely cheap, but Catalonia is also an incredible area for nature lovers. The roads and highways are modern and well kept, and you can get around many places by train. Within a few hours, you have incredible mountains, beaches, vineyards, and cities. Given the cost of living, incredible nature, modern infrastructure, and top notch food, Catalonia would make for an excellent retirement spot.