Monday, September 24, 2018
Travel

Airbnb Experiences a cool option for solo travelers

BARCELONA - I slipped into the back kitchen of a Portuguese bakery, late and alone for my class on making paella.

Pairs from Australia, Toronto and Manchester had beaten me to the wine and small talk. Outside of their circle, I fumbled for talking points, lathering my hands extra long at the small sink, then fussing with the knot of my red apron.

A blond woman from Hawaii walked into the kitchen, sunny and confident. Summer didn’t seem to mind being there on her own.

This wasn’t her first time in Barcelona. And it wasn’t her first time easing into an Airbnb Experience.

I found the evening class on paella on Airbnb while planning my July vacation. I wanted it to serve as my introduction to the cuisine and culture of Catalonia after four days at a work conference in the Spanish capital of Madrid.

I was new to Spain and still most of Europe, so I decided to tack on a weekend train trip to Barcelona to explore and relax, even if it meant going without my husband or friends from work.

I saved money by booking three nights in an air-conditioned room of an apartment in trendy El Born ($295, after a discount). As I fretted about the looming craters of free time, Airbnb followed up with an emailed pitch to "do something you can’t find on your own."

The home-sharing website launched its local-guided Experiences feature in November 2016. There are Airbnb-approved activities in 40 major cities throughout the world.

• • •

In Barcelona, the most popular market for Airbnb Experiences, options included a whimsical-looking tour of wine bars on vintage bicycles and a tapas crawl with smiling locals working on their postwork side hustle. My friend dared me to do a sidecar tour of the Gothic Quarter. My boss urged me to not.

I held up my rejection of a nude-drawing class, at a suspiciously low price of $18, as proof of responsible decisionmaking. But Summer from paella night had tried it and swears it was a good time.

I settled on two experiences: the paella class on Saturday at $43, and two hours of sailing on Monday for $76.

Would I have done those activities without Airbnb’s prompting? Probably not. But as with my room, I saved a nice chunk of change by trying something new with a well-reviewed local over a polished professional instructor at a more-established tourism company.

Sailing in the Mediterranean Sea isn’t a typical must-do in Barcelona, unlike a tour of Gaudí’s astonishing Sagrada Família or the Pablo Picasso museum. But it has become the most popular option on Airbnb, and it was a fantastic decision after a hot day of wandering around the hills of Park Guell.

My host for sailing, Sergio, was a telecommunications engineer by day and a tour guide by night, paying his marina fees at Port Olimpic with two-hour tours through Airbnb. He welcomed our group of sailors from France, Dubai, Switzerland and Santa Monica, Calif., onto his 14-meter boat of two months. Sprawled across the Maggie May, we sailed for 30 minutes without hearing much from him about boat safety (those life vests were somewhere) or the significance of obvious buildings on the shore.

The spirit of informality did have its perks. How else would I have ended up at the helm for a few minutes, without an ounce of nautical know-how? Once we reached his swimming spot, he stopped the boat, threw out a blue inner tube and brought out a spread of beer, manchego cheese, chips and dried ham treats.

I dived into the water, feeling more comfortable in my new bathing suit among strangers than I usually do around friends. I floated in the deep blue water (and thought about how cool that was going to sound back home) as Sergio played the inescapable summer anthem, Despacito.

• • •

Before he was a paellamaking host on Airbnb, Eladi Martos worked in a restaurant, studied gastronomy and pursued film and tech projects. His friends let him use their bakery at night to start his Airbnb class, Paella Maestro, which he now teaches from a tiny house at the back of a garden.

He was not the practiced, exuberant showman I would have expected in a typical cooking class. He was a one-man production, washing dishes in a large industrial sink between lessons around the marble countertop table.

There’s no recipe with paella, he told our group of eight. It’s just a process.

He spoke a notch above a whisper as he asked for volunteers to do simple tasks: chop apples and oranges for the sangria, cube chicken breasts for the main paella dish and separate egg yolks from whites for dessert, crema Catalana.

He emailed the recipes after class, so we didn’t have to worry about taking notes or keeping up with papers. I typed out his best one-liners on my phone between rigorous hand-washings.

Throw in garlic with the skin on for flavor.

It’s the water of the tomato that’s important. Not the tomato!

Saffron is 80 percent color, 20 percent taste.

The social ice melted, helped by the sangria and a blowtorch we passed around to scorch sugary brown coats on our pots of creme.

We waited and waited for the simple paella of chicken and green beans to fully cook. A French woman fretted about the rice surely charring on the bottom of the pan, saying it was bad for our hearts. Eladi was holding out for a crisp top on the rice, and when he pronounced it finally ready, she muttered, "Oh, thank God."

There were no plates, forks or chairs. We plunged wooden spoons into the same huge pan, standing around the table where we made it. Eladi divided each portion of rice into the shape of a pizza slice, with just one rule: Do not cross your border unless invited. I was lucky and ended up with a drumstick in my triangle.

Summer and I left the class together with hopes of catching a 9:30 p.m. flamenco show in my neighborhood. It was sold out, so we hopped around bars sipping 4 euro gin and tonics as she talked about her ex-boyfriend and her teenage kids.

At the night’s end, I followed her on Instagram and told her I’d let her know if I wanted to see flamenco the next day.

I went to the show, but I did not message her.

The free sangria was too sweet. The stomping, sexy flamenco show too short.

But this time it just felt good to be alone.

Contact Katie Sanders at [email protected] Follow @KatieLSanders.

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