Teaching my child the joys of Spain on a road trip through Andalucía

Ross Kenneth Urken and his wife took a restorative trip to Spain ahead of the birth of their baby. Today, he imagines building upon the original itinerary and spending more time in happy spaces as a family of 3


IT HAS been particularly difficult to watch the toll Covid-19 has exacted in Spain, with more than 182,000 confirmed cases and the death count approaching 20,000. The country distils and spreads joy quite unlike any other place I’ve been — merrymaking is practically a national sport.

The current reality stands in sorrowful contrast to the convivial one I recently encountered on a trip that I will treasure for the rest of my life. It was an experience I hope to build upon with added flair (and a new family member) when the world returns to normal.

On a beach in Marbella this past New Year’s Day, my wife, Tiffan, then six months pregnant, lifted her shirt to expose her convex belly to direct sunlight for the first time. Sure, I’d felt my child kick before and seen it move so wildly in response to the ultrasound wand that we gave the baby the nickname “Wiggles”. But here with this particularly potent solar intrusion, the baby went on such an excited rampage that we could see the jabs from the outside.

Flamenco in the streets of Marbella

This babymoon moment of bliss, enhanced by the crashing Mediterranean before us and the weather in the high 60s, stands in particular contrast to our confined reality in New York City in the middle of a pandemic as we approach the due date. That day in Spain, I took a dip in the frigid sea — a 2020 baptism. I’d like to think jumping in cold water is part of my personal brand; lying slumped on my couch in a Zoom meeting is certifiably not.

In fatherhood, I was planning to be grounded — but not so entirely immobile. Because of this new shelter-in-place reality, one in which a trip downstairs to receive packages proves an ersatz adventure, I’ve been dreaming a lot about a future where I return to the Iberian Peninsula with Tiffan and our child at age three (old enough to appreciate, and hopefully remember, the experience) to relive its “first” trip abroad and add in a more adventurous twist.

During our last escape to Spain, we remained relatively antisocial and sedentary. Now that I’ve been cooped up for weeks, there’s nothing I’d like more than to join in the revelry of Andalucía with a jaunt to Maebella and Jerez.

A Road Trip, Starting in Marbella

We’ll fly into Málaga and rent a vintage red Fiat 500 to drive 45 minutes to Marbella’s Anantara Villa Padierna, a Tuscan-style pink palace hotel set among cypress trees (and an Obama family favourite). After checking in and getting settled, we’ll rally and head to the charming downtown Casco Antiguo with its orange-tree-stuffed squares and serpentine, white-stucco alleyways — scored by guitar arpeggios and local laughter. In this populated shopping district, my child will learn to do as daddy: Eat all the churros at Churrería Marbella in the Plaza de la Victoria.

The pool at the Anantara in Marbella

After we wipe powdered sugar and chocolate off our faces, Tiffan and I will take turns reading our child a toddler-oriented version of “Don Quixote” that integrates the Spanish language. Then we’ll hold hands as a family, our child in the middle, and stroll along Playa de Venus, thronged with palms.

The all-marble Roman baths-style Anantara Spa

Back at the hotel, after an indulgent siesta, Tiffan and I will take turns retreating to the all-marble Roman baths-style Anantara Spa, complete with a sea salt hammam and laconium, followed by fancy cocktails at vis- count-ready, fireplace-warmed Eddy’s Bar — in glasses shaped like frogs, octopuses and lily pads. During our stay, we’ll be sure to visit Villa Padierna’s seaside Club de Mar, a seafood-centric restaurant that provides easy access to the Mediterranean, and see how this child, no longer in utero, dances to the Costa del Sol warmth.

The Festivals of Sherry Country

Explore the coast of Marbella

The trip will have to be in May so that, after enjoying life on the coast for a few days, we’ll be able to drive two hours to Jerez de la Frontera, Spain’s sherry country, to celebrate at the Feria de Jerez or the Feria del Caballo (“Horse Fair”), a Spanish mashup of Mardi Gras pandemonium and royal wedding sophistication (but fascinators are paired with outlandish flamenco dresses).

This trip will be all about community in an amped-up capacity — no more isolation. Crowds, remember them?

Dating to the Middle Ages when farmers assembled to sell their animals, the Feria de Jerez in its modern incarnation still features beautiful Andalucían horses that parade attendees around in carriages. During this vibrant time, the entire society distills and emanates duende, the Spanish state of heightened passion and authentic emotional expression.

Under arcades of hanging lights that mimic a Moorish facade, we’ll walk through Parque González Hontoria, the bustling fairgrounds that play host to the carousing. When we’re craving some bellota ham or a rebujito (an elixir of lemonade, ice and fino sherry), we’ll visit the casetas (makeshift restaurants and bars) that glow on either side of the expansive park whose ground is golden-cinnamon sand and enjoy the rides and carnival games.

We’ll stay at the soon-to-open Hotel Bodega Tío Pepe, a 27-room boutique located in a rehabilitated 150-year-old building within the sherry cellars where winery workers used to live. It’s on the site of what is thought to be the most visited winery in Europe, González Byass’ Bodega Tío Pepe, which welcomes some 200,000 annual guests. We’ll be able to enjoy the aromas of the wines ageing in oak casks and once again find some momentary calm away from the hoopla.

Nestled with our child by the blooming jacaranda trees, we’ll reflect on our last time in Spain when Tiffan meticulously set up our registry. I’ll reminisce about how I learned what a “Boppy” was and how the word “Snoofybee”, an enhanced baby changing pad, entered my vocabulary. But we won’t want to stay in for too long. After a siesta — más fiesta.

Currently, staring down the prospect of keeping our child (whom we call “the Urkling”) mostly inside for the first bit of its life, save occasional stroller time to stave off jaundice, my reveries veer toward a future where our Spanish sojourn exhausts and enlivens us.

In our new travelling family experience, one in which we guiltlessly violate 6ft- distance prescriptions and embrace social proximity, we’ll bask in the camaraderie and preternatural zest for life that Spaniards espouse. In that combination of sun, sherry and sociability, we’ll find a certain zen, propelled through greedily profound and mask-free inhalations, in our ability to be part of society again in vibrant fashion and as a family that has come out of confinement.

Because I know it takes a village to raise a child, during this difficult time, I have top of mind the National Domestic Workers Alliance advocacy organisation and its Coronavirus Care Fund, which provides money for home-care workers, such as nannies, who’ve encountered financial difficulties as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. — Bloomberg