Region: Europe, Spain Travel time: 2009, October 12th to October 15th
My journey to Spain marked the beginning of a new era: Couchsurfing. I joined the community two weeks before my trip to Barcelona and Mallorca in October 2009 and got addicted to it ever since. This post will not only cover my experiences in Spain, but also give some general insights into Couchsurfing.
I was very glad to be jetting off to the south, as it was a very rainy period of the year in Frankfurt and the weather forecast for Barcelona looked much better. Prior to the trip, I got in touch with a few couchsurfers and asked them if I could crash in for a couple of nights. As my profile was brand new and I only had 2 references, it was not easy to find a proper place. But in the end I found a host: Mabel from Peru. She just moved to Barcelona to start her studies and I was her first guest - perfect timing!
I believe empty profiles can sometimes deter potential hosts as they would prefer to host someone who has already received positive feedback. I personally do not follow this procedure and as long as the surfer seems to be a nice human being, I’ll give them a chance to start their couchsurfer career, even if they don’t have any references at the time. At the end of the day, everyone has to start from scratch.
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing..
I arrived pretty late at the Main train station in Barcelona without any plans, waiting for Mabel to pick me up. As the minutes passed by, I asked myself if it was right to visit a foreign city and meet up with someone you don't even know? I couldn't reach her on the number she provided and after 45 minutes of waiting, I started to formulate alternative plans... should I wait longer or start looking for a cheap hostel?
I decided to get going 15 minutes later and it was then when Mabel finally reached me. I was very relieved and we decided to meet up at a Metro station close to her place. Since it was not so far away, I decided to walk there, crossing the Arc de Triomf which apparently served as the location for a Couchsurfing meeting with a lot of young people dancing in the dark.
Eventually I met Mabel and we walked back to her place which she shared with a bunch of guys. I can still remember Mario very well, a nice guy who always had a smile on this face, even though he only understood about 10% of what I said But aside from all the language barriers, you somehow manage to communicate with another person through reading their emotions and reactions.
We kept on talking deep into the night until it was finally time to sleep on my first couch at a stranger's place - located in the kitchen! Even though it might not look that comfortable, I had a very good sleep that night!
Using Couchsurfing for your trips requires that you don't expect a 5-star hotel room. Over the years, I’ve experienced sleeping on a lot of different couches and beds and though they may not look very nice sometimes, I always had a good nights sleep. You don't have to pay anything for it, so you should not be very demanding and you will also have a picture or at least a good description of the couch before you actually get there.
October 13th in Barcelona
I woke up with an incredibly good feeling, as the first thing my eyes could catch was the sun shining in through a tiny gap in the window. The boys headed to their universities and since Mabel had the following days off, she kindly offered me to show me the city. As we walked though the streets of Barcelona, we came by a group of people celebrating one of the typical Catalan Festes.
The next destination was Parc de la Ciutadella, an 70 acres wide green spot in the city and a very nice location to hang out for a while. The park also hosts the Zoo which we didn't visit though. Getting closer to the nice harbor of Barcelona, we decided to drop by at the Aquarium. I payed for Mabel's Entry Fee since I didn't bring any gifts from home but it turned out that the money was not well spend - missing the Aquarium is definitely something you can do.
Getting to the top of the Columbus Monument however is a must-do as it provides a good overview of the city. It is also the starting point of the 1.2km long street La Rambla, which is known for it's pickpocketing, so you should always take care of your belongings while walking the crowdy mall. Mabel had to leave at this point and I met up with Katrin, a German Couchsurfer living in Barcelona. She was also one of the people to deny my request as she only accepted females
We spent the following hours talking at the beach with the sun setting behind us. She told me a lot about her previous Couchsurfing experiences, which is always a fun thing to do with other Couchsurfers as most of them have some very funny stories to tell. As we were talking, we didn't realize that the waves were getting stronger and eventually a big one surprised us and caught Katrin's shoes
Did you know? You can specify to only host males or females. This is especially useful for young ladies starting off on the site as most of them are afraid of "bad guys" who try to end up in bed with them. Even though I never had a "Couchsurfing-Affair", I can image that some people try to use the site as an easy way to date people. So far, only one female couchsurfer told me about a story where she felt harassed by a guy - you could image that it happens a lot more!
October 14th in Barcelona
Today was the day to see all the major tourist spots created by Antoni Gaudí. Everything he created looks so unique and special and seeing those sites live is one of the highlights in Barcelona. Using the Subway, you can directly head to Casa Milà & Casa Batlló, two houses created by the great architect. They already look really cool but once you start walking around, you'll soon discover the church Sagrada Família, which is the best known attraction of the city for a reason. Parc Güell comes in pretty close though in the ranking as it is also full of Gaudi-typical buildings and structures, plus it provides some very awesome view points to see the complete city and the beach behind it. I highly recommend to check out those!
Mario joined Mabel & me to spend the afternoon at the beach. We had some beers and met a guy who just caught an apparently highly venomous fish. He was pretty proud and posed for my picture We hiked up the hill Montjuïc, which offers a fantastic sight over the city from it's fortress. It was already dark when we reached the top and the reflected lights of the city made the clouds look yellow - pretty cool sight!
As we walked back, my nose began to bleed again due to a small cold. This seems to happen to me quite often during vacations... It wasn't bad though and we could go on after a couple of minutes, passing the Olympic park and the 136m Communication tower which was build in 1992 to transmit television coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics Games in Barcelona.
October 15th in Barcelona
We used the last day to check out the mountain Tibidabo (512m). Unfortunately it was very rainy and windy that day and we couldn't really enjoy the view up there. The amusement park located at the top of the mountain was also abandoned and only a few other people were walking around. We took some pictures, checked out the church and then headed back - it must be very beautiful up there during sunshine though!
Mabel had to leave me until the evening and I met up with Katrin again, who worked down in the city in a juice bar. On my way there, I checked out the market La Boqueria which offers everything you could ever imagine. After a short stop in the Pablo Picasso museum, I headed to Katrins' to drink some delicious fruit juices and say goodbye to her.
I finally got back to Mabel's place to have my last night in Barcelona - it has been a great way to spend the first half of my vacation and to have my first Couchsurfing experience!
Region: Europe >> Spain Travel time: 2009, October 16th to October 19th
This is the second part of my Couchsurfing-based blog about Spain. Heading out to explore the Island Mallorca with a rented car was a complete different experience to the typical city sightseeing in Barcelona as described in part one. And it was definitely more exciting as you will find out soon...
Mallorca (or Majorca) is a very famous holiday destination for Europeans, located in the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the German visitors, however, are only interested in getting wasted at various Beach bars around the Platja de Palma area. I never understood that trend and I wasn’t too keen to do it either, so I just avoided the area.
Lucky for me, I had better things to do like meeting my new Couchsurfing hosts Ricardo and Jéssica! After sleeping in the kitchen of a student's flat share in Barcelona, I now had the privilege to have my own room in a gorgeous house close to the Capital Palma - very luxurious for Couchsurfing standards as I even had my own bathroom!
Every Couchsurfing trip is unique and every location different compared to Ho(s)tels. I've slept on big beds, small beds and even once shared a room with 9 other Couchsurfers in Bratislava. I'm not sure if this story is true, but its said that a couple was once visiting New York and their host just left them the keys for his Penthouse flat before he took off for his 2-week vacation. Crazy if it's true, I would never give my Keys to a guest...
**REWINDING** Let me start at the beginning... It's a raining Day, Hallelujah!
Since it was so much fun to drive on the serpentine roads on Gran Canaria(Read here), I didn't waste any time at the airport in Mallorca and picked up my car immediately to start the tour I planned moments ago on the plane. Looking at the sky, I could already tell that it might rain very soon and even the radio predicted heavy storms for the evening. But this wouldn't stop me of course and so I began to look for the first Supermarket to buy water and food for the next couple of days.
It started to rain as I was driving down the Highway Ma-1 from Palma in the direction of Andratx, making some stops in the smaller towns along the way. I didn’t spend much time in those though of the weather – even though it cleared up from time to time. My first main destination was La Reserva Puig de Galatzó, a nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage. As you can see on the map, it was a little bit off the way and I was just hoping for better weather until I got there. I passed the Gate, parked the car and started to walk the path leading in to the area. 10 Minutes later, it began to rain really hard and after waiting some time under a tree, I decided to run back to the car.
As I was driving back, the sky cleared up and I could see the sun for the first time on the island somewhere along the west cost north of Andratx. It certainly gave me a motivation boost and everything was so much nicer all of the sudden; I couldn't wait to reach my highly anticipated next target: Valldemossa. The village is considered to be one of the most beautiful spots and I can't argue with that statement. It is a very nice place to walk around and enjoy the views as the village is located withing a very nice green and hilly area. Luckily, there was no rain this time
The sun slowly began to set and I could see gorgeous views over the ocean in the cost area of Deià. The cover picture I used for this report originated from that moment as well Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to sit down and enjoy the moment, as I still had to get back to Palma in order to meet up with my Couchsurfing hosts! They live in a nice house, approximately 4km east of the capital and I stopped by there to see the Cathedral La Seu at night. Basically, I just parked the car at the harbor, got out to take pictures and drove back again in 30 minutes, as it was already dark and I didn't want my hosts to wait for me.
This topic brings me to another interesting aspect of Couchsurfing and in fact the only one I had negative experiences with so far: Meeting up with people you are supposed to host! Sometimes, those guys would just not turn up and while I was waiting for them somewhere in the city in the beginning, I decided to let them come to my place first, so I wouldn't waste any time if they didn't come. Now it doesn't really bother me anymore if somebody doesn't show up - it also only happened with people that just joined the project and had no references so far - I guess it's my fault to host them so I can't complain anyway
By the way: I mentioned Gaudí in the first part of this series about Barcelona and he was also brought in to handle the restoration of the Cathedral in 1901, only to leave it a decade later without finishing it. I think he would have made something better out of it, but it's still worth visiting for sure! I finally met up with my hosts Ricardo and Jéssica (and their cute little dog!) and they showed me their house, which turned out to be one of the better places to stay for Couchsurfing standards. We just talked for a little bit because it was already quite late and I had lots of ground to cover the next day.
My first destination for the next day was the monastery Santuari de Lluc as I was heading to the northern part of the island. A very spiritual place, used by many pilgrims. Unfortunately, I was unlucky with the weather again and it rained a lot. But this time it actually didn't bother me, because it really fit the scenery. I was happily walking around in the rain, trying to shoot good pictures
By the time I reached my second destination, Es Torrent de Pareis, the sun came up again and I was very glad as I entered a very beautiful canyon, which is also the start of a trekking route. You can use the car to Sa Calobra, north-west of Lluc, and then walk along the beach side until you reach a tunnel through a mountain which leads to the valley you can see in the above picture. It is a stunning area, which would have deserved to consume more of my time but sadly I was rushing a bit and didn't walk around too much.
The third destination was Cap de Formentor in the very north and I passed a gate up in the mountain, which has to be to most windy place I've ever been to so far, somewhere along the serpentine streets towards Port de Pollença. Driving in this area was so much fun and always exciting, because you never knew if a bus was blocking your way or not. The route also offered some nice view points, so I stopped the car from time to time to enjoy the mountain landscape.
I finally reached Cap de Formentor and again the weather was not my friend. Only this time I really hated it, because I was looking forward to great sights from that point and it took quite a while to get there. Instead, the weather became worse and I had to wait in the car, which was shaking really bad in the wind. I went outside the vehicle after 30 minutes and realized, that the door to the bath room at the light tower was already out off its hinges - suddenly I was in the middle of a storm!
Only a couple of cars were left behind at the Cap now and I decided to get out of there before nightfall. As I was driving back, I saw a car at the end of the street with the warning lights blinking and immediately got a bad feeling. The route was blocked by a giant tree and the car couldn't pass! The situation got serious now as the remaining 8 people (including 2 kids) and 4 cars couldn't pass the tree and the storm became even worse.
We decided to try and cut off branches off the tree in order to create a way for the cars. This took quite a while and we always had to move back to our cars in protection against the trees around us, which came pretty close to snapping due to the enormous wind at the time. We eventually got it done and two danish guys were able to slip by the side of the tree with their car. They barely made it through the mud though and we decided to wait until they called for help, as the complete communication system on the island failed and no cell phones were working.
The remaining 5 folks and myself waited in their cars, it was already dark now and the danish guys just wouldn't come back with help! It took 3 hours until we could finally see a light in the distance. The firefighters had to cut their way through 4 huge trees before they got to us... I was so happy to see them and we could finally drive home unharmed. Ricardo and Jéssica were already concerned about me and I was just glad to go to bed after this experience. In the end though, I'm happy for it, as it made the trip way more exciting!
Day 3 started with a lot of sun and a good message: Ricardo would be off work and free to show me the island. We used his car and headed east to check out Coves del Drach, a couple of up to 25m deep caves. Sadly, taking pictures was not allowed, so the ones I sneaked in didn't turn out to be good It's been nice there but I think you can also skip it if you're low on time. Afterwards, we drove back east to Felanitx and the mountain Puig de Sant Salvador (510m). It's absolutely brilliant up there as it offers the best 360° view of the island.
Ricardo and I finally got some time to talk after the first 2 busy days. He is working as a Police officer on the island and had lots of interesting stories to tell. And he knew the secret spots as he lived on the island for his entire life! Luckily, I packed my trunks since we were driving to a huge isolated beach in the south-west coast of the island and it became pretty hot on that day.
The beach was just awesome, starting from the seemingly endless stretch of soft sand, the fact that only a few people and no buildings at all were around, and lastly to the stuff you could see along the beach. I didn't hesitate to jump into the water while Ricardo took some pictures with my camera. Afterwards we spend 2 hours talking on the beach and he told me some stuff about the Spain culture I didn't know before, such as their New Year's Eve celebration to eat twelve grapes 12.
This situation reflects my favorite Part about Couchsurfing: Meeting people and their country, as well as getting to know their culture and stories. Since everyone there is someway similar in terms of their open-minded attitude and the desire to travel the world, you will hardly get disappointed by the people you meet. At least I never did, even though I imagine that more "abusers" (people who just use CS to get free accommodations) will join due to the fact that more and more people get involved.
Let me address one other issue as I wasn't able to insert so many Couchsurfing Side infos in this post so far. People always ask me if they necessarily need to host somebody in order to use Couchsurfing. Well, you don't. You should, however, contribute in some way to the project. If you have no capacities to host people, you could still meet up with travelers and show them your city or just spend time with them drinking coffee. That would be enough to build up some good references and surf other couches. Of course, in the end it would be cool if you could also host someone someday but its not a must-do.
However we couldn't stay there for the whole day as Ricardo wanted to show me another insider location: The cliffs of Cabo Blanco, located in the north of the beach. It is a military area within a beautiful landscape, a sign let's you know that you are not allowed to go there but Ricardo said that nobody cared and it would be no problem Getting to the edge of the cliff offered an extraordinary view along the cost line and it's steep cliffs. Such an amazing view, probably my highlight of the whole trip!
We stayed there for another 3 hours, watching the sunset and just having fun talking about various stuff. I was so happy that Ricardo showed me the place and you shouldn't miss it if you get to Palma as it is not very far away from there. Eventually, we had to leave though, as we planned to have Tapas in the evening with Jessica. We drove back to Palma and walked around for a while, before we sat down in a nice little restaurant.
We ordered Tapas and it was delicious, I even ate some fishy stuff which I usually hate It comes without saying that we also had some drinks and we eventually ended up playing Jenga, which was a lot of fun with the two. Speaking of them, they've been great hosts and made my stay as enjoyable as possible. Too bad they are not too active on Couchsurfing anymore...
Sadly, every good trip has come to an end and even though this one was quite short, It definitely didn't lack of diversity, which I really appreciated. Before I returned the car at the airport, I was driving through Palma in order to see it once at daylight, even though I had no time to walk around much. Some nice views from the plane rounded the trip up, I especially liked the view above the Swiss Alps as you can see in the last picture!