Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spanish Language: Going beyond the Book

Language is something that is closely tied to the culture it comes from.  In this post, I will focus on my experience with Spain/ Peninsular Spanish.

If you've ever taken a Spanish class, you've learned the basics: how to conjugate verbs, word order, some key expressions, etc.  But, there's a lot more to the language than just what you read in the books.  Upon first arriving in Salamanca, almost 4 years ago, I had spent about 7 years studying Spanish.  I had the impression that my level was pretty high, and that I wouldn't have any problem communicating.  The reality is, while I was able to make myself understood, when it came to having conversations that went much deeper than "where are you from?" and "what did you do today?" I found myself struggling to not only keep up with the pace of the conversation (which is to be expected), but also to understand a lot of what was being said.  How can this be?  I've spent most of high school and all of college studying Spanish!  Did I miss something along the way?  Was there a special "colloquial language" course I missed?

I won't be able to share with you all of the different nuances of Peninsular Spanish in one quick blog post, but I will attempt to highlight some of the more frequent and therefore useful ways of communicating in Spain.

Vocab/ Expressions: 

This is just a quick list of words or ways of saying things that I don't ever remember learning in a class.  They're commonly used, and good to know if you plan on interacting with natives on a more friendly/ personal level.  

Caerle bien/ mal a alguien: litterally meaning "to fall well/ bad to someone" this expression is used to describe your impressions of people.  For example, if you meet someone who seems nice, pleasant, and an all around good person, you can say "Me cae bien."  The opposite would be "Me cae mal" or basically, "I don't like that person."
Mis amigos no les caen bien a mis padres- "My parents don't like my friends."

Estar hecho/a polvo:  If you want to communicate that you are completely wiped out after a long day, what better imagery than to say "I am made dust"?  There's also the fun alternative estoy molido/a literally meaning "I am ground/ powdered".
Buff... ¡¡qué día más largo!! ¡Estoy hecha polvo! 

Quedar (con): "Quedar" means "to stay".  However, its uses go much further than just a simple translation.  In this specific instance, if you "quedar con" a friend, you mean you've made plans to meet up with them.
No puedo ir a tu casa esta noche.  Ya he quedado con Sara. - "I can't go to your house tonight.  I've already made plans with Sara."

Meterse en un lío: This is a fun expression, basically meaning "to get oneself into a mess."  This can be used whenever you feel like the situation around you isn't going the way you had hoped, or the way it is supposed to.  There is also the option of saying "tener problemas" which is the same as saying "have problems."
Juan está saliendo con dos chicas.  Me parece que se va a meter en un lío.  "Juan is going out with two girls.  I feel like he's going to get himself into a mess."

Ser la leche:  Literally meaning "to be the milk" this expression is a way of saying something is really cool.  It's basically like saying "it's the bomb." (Fun side note,  you can also say that someone "es la bomba" in Spanish!)
Esta película es la leche. - "This movie is awesome/ the bomb/ cool."

Estrenar (ropa):  An "estreno" is when a movie comes out for the first time.  The "latest release" or "debut" of a motion picture.  Well, the term doesn't stop with it cinematic reference.  You know that feeling when you wear a new outfit for the first time?  There's just something special about it.  In Spanish, they have a way of describing that!  "Estrenar" an article of clothing means just that: to wear something new for the first time.
Estreno este vestido. - "It's the first time I'm wearing this dress."

Ser un rollo: What's the opposite of something being "la leche"?  Well, a "roll" of course- because that makes perfect sense (is my sarcasm coming through?)!  And not the yummy ones you eat.  This is a roll of materials that is used for construction.  If something is a "rollo" it's a "bore" or a "drag."
Esta clase es un rollo. - "This class is a bore/drag."

No sé qué, no sé cuántos:  This is one of my personal favorites.  It's a way of saying "yadda, yadda..." or "etcetera, etcetera."  You know, when you're rambling on about something, and you just want to fill the space to make it clear that the thought continues, but it's not necessary to finish it.
Mi amiga me estaba contando la historia de cuando conoció su novio.  Iba a hacer no sé qué, no sé cuantos, y de repente... - "My friend was telling me the story of how she met her boyfriend.  She was going to do 'yadda, yadda' and all of the sudden..."

¿Yo qué sé?:  This is a great way to say "what do I know?"  As in, if your friend asks you a question that seems ridiculous, or that there's no realistic chance of you knowing the answer to, you simply answer, "¿Y yo qué sé?"
"Dónde está mi libro?  Lo deje aquí en la mesa." "¿Yo qué sé?  ¿Cómo voy a saber yo dónde están tus cosas?" - "Where's my book?  I left it on the table."  "What do I know?  How am I supposed to know where your things are?"
*This may sound like a fairly "blunt" exchange... Stay tuned, I'll address that in a little*

Currar:  In school we're taught the more formal word for "work"- "trabajar".  However, little did I know before coming to Spain, there's another way of saying it!  "Currar."
Buff... estoy hecha polvo.  He currado muchísimo hoy.  "Uhh.... I'm completely exhausted. I worked a lot today."

Molar:  What's more useful than knowing how to say that something is "cool"?  I've already mentioned one common way of saying this, but here is another!  If something "mola" it means that it's pretty cool.
Esta canción mola mucho. - "This song is really cool/ good."

Pirarse:  When you're out with friends, instead of saying "Me voy a casa" ("I'm going home") another common way to let them know you're ready to call it a night, or at least leave to go somewhere else is simply by saying "me piro."
Ya tengo sueño.  Me piro. - "I'm sleepy.  I'm going to go."

Ser majo/a:  As if there weren't enough ways to describe something as "cool" here's one that's used only for people!  If someone is "majo" that means they're fun, nice, and an all around cool person.
Mi profe de inglés es muy maja. - "My English teacher is really cool."

General Communication:

Let's just get down the brass tacks...

Spaniards are very blunt people in a lot of ways.  Anglophones usually try to add a hint of politeness to everything we say.  What's one sure-fire way of knowing someone isn't Spanish?  Listen to them order at a cafe or bar.
Let's play out this scenario.  You walk into a cafe, up to the bar and order your coffee.
In English this would go something like, "Excuse me.  Can I have a coffee, please?"
In Spanish it's more like this: "Ponme un café."  ("Put me a coffee.")

If you are familiar with Spanish, you'll notice the request is made in the form of a command, and a "tú" (or informal) command at that!  If you're feeling like you want to be a little more polite, it's also normal to say "Me pones un café".

But the point is, in Spain it's okay to be straightforward and blunt!  It's not uncommon that someone will tell you "you look horrible today!"  This doesn't mean, by any means, that they're rude!  It's just one of the nuances of communicating in Spain.  And, to be honest, I personally prefer it to the overly polite, sometimes fake, way of talking in the US.

Not to mention that Spanish people are usually very passionate.  Sometimes it may seem like someone is yelling or angry, when in fact they're just excited or having a good time with their friends.

If you're not interrupting, you're not listening

I remember when I learned this on a first-hand basis.  I was sitting, eating dinner with my roommate.  She was telling me about "no sé qué, no sé cuantos..." (see how handy that is?), and I, being the polite Anglophone that I am, sat quietly, trying to give her my full attention.  After talking for awhile, she stopped and asked me if I was listening.  Completely shocked, I said, "Of course!"  Her response?  "Well, you weren't saying anything."  

Listening is an active activity, and you demonstrate that you are absorbing what others are saying vocally.  A simple head nod won't do the trick.  Another common Spanish word that comes in handy in this situation is "vale".  You'll hear this all the time.  It means "okay" and in a conversation it can be a way of letting the person know you are following along with what they're saying.  

Don't be offended or think someone is being rude if they don't just say a quick "vale" but instead, jump into the middle of your sentence, either to finish your thought for you, or to add in their own.  As I said, it's a way of letting someone know that you're actively interested in what they're saying.  And for someone like me, who can literally ramble on and on about nothing, it's a great way of being sure that I'm not monopolizing the conversation, or boring the people around me.  

These are just a few things that I've learned...

and there are many many more.  Communication is something that isn't just about words, but about culture.  Knowing the ins and outs of the mechanics behind the language will get you a long way.  But if you want to dive in completely, and create bonds and relationships with people from different places, being aware of how they communicate will help to enrich that experience.  There's a lot more to learning a language than you can find in any text book.  

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Tapa Concurso: Food, Fun, and more Food!

One of my favorite parts of living in Spain is the food!  (If you know me, you're not surprised...)

Being the food-lover that I am, nothing makes me happier than a full-blown Tapa Concurso!  The first time I stumbled onto one of these was in Segovia.  It was a discovery that forever changed the tapa eating experience for me.  And, (imagine my excitement) one has just come to Zamora!  This means that hubby and I have spent the last few weekends (and some week nights we've been to lazy to cook) bouncing from place to place enjoying the atmosphere, experience, and of course, the food!  

So, what is a tapa concurso, and why is it a magnificent opportunity to enjoy the Spanish cuisine in a traditional yet revolutionary way?  

To begin with, "concurso" mean "contest."  Putting the two together, we can understand that a tapa contest is an event in which many of the local restaurants, bars, and cafes put together their best tapa and sell it for a reasonable price (for example in Zamora each tapa is sold for a set price of 1.30E).  As participants in the judging process, clients are given a leaflet on which they can rate the various dishes.  After sampling the tapa at the "local" (establishment) you ask for a stamp.  After you get the set amount of stamps (in Zamora it's 4) you're allowed to cast your vote.  (The sheets are drawn at random later for a raffle, in which participants have the possibility of winning various prizes for taking part).  

Leaflet with stamps, and booklet with information on the participating bars/cafes/restaurants 

Casting my vote! 

This allows you to not only indulge in the long-standing and world-famous tradition of the "tapeo", but also let's you see a different side of Spanish cuisine.  While the dishes are made up of traditional Spanish ingredients, many times they are made and prepared in a new and exciting way.  No bar is going to win the contest by serving its standard Spanish Tortilla or Montadito de Jamón.  They create new and exciting items, some with amazing presentation, and serve them up in a unique and original fashion.

So, what exactly do I mean when I say typical Spanish ingredients served in a fun and innovative way?  I'm so glad you asked!  The best way to explain this is with pictures!!

For example, at one restaurant in particular visitors are given a friendly reminder that all of the ingredients boast the local "zamorana" heritage.

The sign hanging over the bar informs the customer that the products used and presented are all proudly from the city itself: "The most emblematic products from the 'Zamorana' pantry."  Reading further, we learn that these items are young lamb, peppers, veal, sheep's cheese, chick-peas, and the grapes which are used to make red wine (most famously from the village just outside the city named Toro).  These are items which are easy to find anywhere in the city.  However, in this particular "local" they are all made in a different way from what you would usually expect.  

The "zamora's-nack and gelatto" tapa
The "Zamora's-nack and gelatto" tapa is a wonderful example of the how the Spanish cuisine can remain true to its roots, but also fun and playful.  Sampling a large variety of the traditional Spanish kitchen in bite-sized bits gives the patron an opportunity to not only experience the deep-rooted culture embedded in the food, but also the continuously evolving world of the tapa culture (which continues to develop with the modern gastronomy of the times).  

Another great example of this is the "Coci-Pizza."  The traditional Spanish "cocido" made into a bite-sized pizza!  Cocido is a classic dish which is made differently in various regions, but the most renowned being from Madrid.  Generally, a good "cocido" has a base of garbanzos (chick-peas) mixed with vegetables and different meats and stewed slowly until all of the flavors meld together in a rich, warming, combination of deliciousness.  This specific bar La Flaca decided to take this staple and give it a twist.  

La "Coci Pizza" 
Again, the flavors seem to scream "Spain" while the presentation does nothing of the sort.  Mixed with a mountain of cheese, it's easy to identify the taste of the beloved Spanish dish, but not in the traditional Spanish style.  Served in a cute little "pizza box" the Coci-pizza is a wonderful representation of what makes the Tapa Concurso such a memorable experience.

Of course I can't go through each tapa, one by one, and explain what they are made up of, and what makes them special, especially since in Zamora this year there are over 80 establishments participating!  Besides, describing them and enjoying them are two very different things, and what makes the Tapa Concurs such a great experience is getting to sample them for yourself!

It isn't just the food, but rather the entire premise of spending a night out, trying new things, and bouncing from one place to the next which makes this event what it is.  In essence, it is still the usual Spanish "tapeo", which is where the beauty lies in all of this!  It is a traditional way of spending an evening with friends, but with a special flare!

While it may be hard to plan an entire trip to Spain based solely around one of these wonderful events, I highly recommend that if you're going to spend any extended amount of time in the Iberian Peninsula, that you try to find one near you!  You will seriously not regret it!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

5 (more practical) Tips for Travel Through Spain

I love everything about living and traveling around Spain!  It's an amazingly beautiful country filled with history, yummy food, different languages, and overwhelmingly gorgeous landscape!  But I didn't just land here and automatically know how to get around, where to go, and what to expect when I got there.  I had to make a few mistakes, learn a lot of lessons, and keep an open mind.  The point of this blog post is to help you avoid some of the mistakes, prepare you for the lessons, and give you a sneak peak at what to expect when traveling through Spain.  (If you're interested in more of my personal advice about what to do/ expect check out my other blog post HERE).

If you're planning a trip to Spain you may find yourself a little overwhelmed when trying to plan out the technicalities.  So you've made it to Madrid, that part is easy.  Most international flights will go through Barajas International Airport in the Capital and heart of the country.  But now what?  Even if you're going to spend a few days in Madrid before moving on, is there something you should expect or be on the lookout for?  And what about when you want to go somewhere else?  How do you get there?

1.  Getting around

Getting around Spain is really very simple.  The entire country seems to run on public transportation! The problem is, still, how do you know where to look to find the option that's best for you?

Well, let's start with the option of going in train!  Everyone loves a relaxing train ride!  The trains in Spain are spacious and comfortable, and a great way to get some amazing views of the country-side as your travel from one place to another!
The website for the train company here is:
The site tends to have a few glitches from time to time, so be patient with it.  If you find that you can't purchase your ticked on the webpage (which is a common problem, for me at least) you can get your tickets easily at the train station!
Here's an example of what the website looks like when I searched for a ticket from Madrid to Barcelona.  (Be warned!  The website won't show options for trains too far in advance, so if you're planning your trip WAY ahead of time, don't panic if you don't find an option for travel.  Check to see if they have trains that run the route you're looking for by pushing up the date.  You can go back and buy them later if you find something you like)

You'll probably notice the difference in prices.  This is something that's somewhat common, so if you're looking for a bargain, check the site a few times, and see if you can get a really cheap Promo! 

What about going by bus?  This is another great option, as it's much cheaper than going by train.  The buses aren't always very comfortable, but every once in awhile you'll be pleasantly surprised.  The bus company you'll take depends on where you want to go.
The easiest way to check your options for bus travel is simply with a google search.  Just type in "Bus Madrid Barcelona" (or whatever origin/destination you need) and see what pops up!

Skip over all the ads..
And there you have it!  The first link (NOT an ad) is what you're looking for!

In case you want to verify that you have the right site, some of the most popular bus companies in Spain are: Alsa, Avanzabus, Monbus, Auto-Res.
Just so we can see a comparison in price ranges between bus and train, here's the same trip (Madrid-Barcelona) on the same day:

If you're still not sure what company, line, or option would be best for you, simply visit the train and/or bus station in the city you're visiting!  You'll be able to get all the information you need there.  (In larger cities -Madrid and Barcelona- there may be more than one bus/train station, so be sure to check that you're going to the right one!)  

2.  When, where, and why?

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I truly believe that if you want to get to see Spain up close and personal, you need to move around!  You can't just stay in one place!! (For a link to that blog, click HERE)  But where you should go depends on a couple different factors: what time of year you're traveling and what type of experience you're looking for.

Spain is, in reality, a country made up of a lot of different little countries.  There's no end to the variety and diversity when traveling from one side of the peninsula to the next!  Below I'm going to give just a few scenarios for possible destinations, with some information as to why I've recommended them.

I want sun, fun, beaches, and more sun!! 
If you want to travel to Spain to experience part of what has given it it's fame then the South is probably what you're looking for.  Also, the Spanish islands have some amazing beach and resort destinations!  Places such as Ibiza are famed for their tourist allure!
Try cities such as: Málaga, Cádiz, or Valencia
Time of the year to travel:  Being that Málaga and Cádiz are in the South, and Valencia is in the Southeast, the weather is good pretty much all year round!  But if you're looking for some real cultural experience along with your sun and beach time, Semana Santa (Holy Week- leading up to Easter) in Andalusia is famed for it's celebrations and processions.  Also, during Carnival the South of Spain comes to life with festivals and parades!  In Valencia, the most famous time of the year is during Las Fallas in mid-March.

Other cities such as Barcelona and San Sebastian also have great beaches, but being that their in the north, you won't find the year-long warm weather that's present in the south and islands.

Playa de la Concha- San Sebastian 

I want art and culture!
Spain has some wonderful artistic history!  With people such as Picasso, Dalí, Goya, and Velazquez there's no shortage of amazing works to see!
Try cities such as: Málaga, Madrid, and Barcelona
Why?  Málaga is the hometown of Picasso, and his works and life are celebrated there.  Madrid houses some of the best and most renowned museums in the country (El Prado, Reina Sofia, Tyssen).  Barcelona is home to Gaudí, a famous abstract architect from the early 20th Century.  His contributions have turned the city into a work of art in and of itself.  Places such as the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlo, Casa Vicens, and Parc Güell seem to be taken straight from a Dr. Suess book!
Time of the year to travel: The weather in Málaga will be beautiful almost year-round.  Barcelona also has a moderately mild climate.  Madrid, however, gets very cold in the winter.

Casa Vicens in Barcelona

I want history! Roman ruins and Medieval cities please! 
Spain's history is rich and complex.  The peninsula changed hand many times before it became what we know it to be today.  Forming part of the Roman Empire, the country is still sprinkled with ancient artifacts and monuments.  Having a strong Arabic influence, and forming part of the Moorish Rule for over 700 years has left a colorful and unique mark, especially in the south of Spain.  With large Cathedrals dating back even to the 12th Century, the Spanish architecture mirrors its long and historic past.
Try cities such as: Segovia, Cáceres, Córdoba, and Santiago de Compostela
Why?  It's true that no matter where you go in Spain, you'll find history and awe-inspiring tales of days gone by.  But, the cities I've listed above seem to make the history almost palpable.  Running through the heart of Segovia, you will find an almost completely intact Roman Aqueduct.  The cathedral is astounding, and the Alcazár is beautiful.  On the outskirts of the city, you will find a 12th Century Templar church.  Cáceres is a place where it feels like time has literally stood still.  The old zone is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is one of the most well-preserved Cascos Antiguos I have ever been in!  Córdoba played an important role in the history of the country, especially during the Arabic rule.  The heart of the city is the Mesquiza, a beautiful masque which overwhelms the visitor.  In the center of the masque, you'll find a Cathedral!  It feels like you have walked into a different building, city, and time period.  Santiago de Compostela is in the far north of Spain, and never formed a part of the Moorish Kingdom.  The city is built around what they believe to be the remains of St. James, and the large, ornate Cathedral will literally take your breath away.
Time of the year to travel: Córdoba in the south will boast wonderful weather all year around.  Segovia and Cáceres should be visited during the spring or summer months, as the surrounding landscape is best at this time.  Santiago de Compostela should be visited during the summer.  Being that it is in Galicia, the region with the most rain, there are only a few months when you won't be required to carry an umbrella with you wherever you go.

La Mezquita in Córdoba

3.  In case you get sick...

No one wants to get sick when they're on vacation.  But, let's be serious... being trapped in the confined space of an airplane for 8-10 hours, sleep deprived, and physically exhausted isn't a great combination for the ideal image of health.
So, what should you do if you find yourself getting a sore throat, the sniffles, or any other form of illness while traveling through Spain?  The answer is simple!  Unless of course it's something serious which requires a doctor's immediate attention, you simply have to find a pharmacy!  They are everywhere, very easy to locate, and are where you will be able to get anything you need from cough syrup to ibuprofen!  The pharmacists working there are actually like doctors.  You explain your ailment to them, and they will be able to "prescribe" you what you need to take.  You won't be able to find Tylenol or DayQuil in the stores, as you can in the States.  So, be aware that if you start feeling like you're dragging a little the pharmacist will quickly become your best friend.

4.  How much should I tip?

The answer to this question is easy!!  YOU DON'T!  Tipping in Spain isn't expected.  If you're feeling generous, you can leave something small (like the change you have left over after you pay).  But, long story short, tipping isn't part of the culture!

5.  Let's Eat! - Timetables, Menús, Tapas, and Hey! Where's my water?!

Eating and vacation go hand in hand!  I firmly believe that to experience a culture, you need to experience the cuisine.  Spain has an amazing gastronomy!  Everything from seafood to pork, beef to yummy veggies will be on almost any menu you find! So, let me take just a minute to talk about what to expect when you go out to eat in Spain.

In one of the blog posts I added a link to earlier, I mention the weird eating schedules.  Lunch goes from 2-4pm and dinner from 8-10pm.  Kitchens generally close during the off hours, so you won't be able to get a big meal from 4-8pm, generally.  Lunch is the big meal in Spain, but that doesn't mean they won't serve a large dinner as well.

When looking at a lunch or dinner menu, you'll probably notice a few things worth noting.  One is the "Menú del día".  This is a common thing at Spanish restaurants, and generally consists of a first course, second course, dessert, and drink all for a bundled price (generally between 8-15 Euros each).  This is a GREAT option if you're really hungry and want to get a lot of food for not a lot of cost!  There's also the option of ordering a "plato combinado" which is just a typical dish, such as chicken and fries, or something like that.  Be careful though!  These platos combinados may be cheaper than the full-blown menú, but you'll get a lot less food, and still have to pay for your drink.  So, the menú is probably the better option.

Speaking of drinks, you'll notice that in restaurants and such they don't give you a glass of water.  If you want water, you have to order it, and it comes in a bottle, and you have to pay for it.  You can try to ask for tap water (agua del grifo), but some places won't serve it.

And, as always, you have the option of enjoying the local cuisine through the wonderful Spanish tradition of the "tapeo".  Pinchos (or tapas) are usually small portions of food that you can order along with your drink at bars or cafés.  Depending on the city or region you're in the tapa culture will be different.  In the north, in cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian, the pinchos are elaborate and delicious!  They usually cost between 2-3 euros each, and you'll need to hop from place to place, sampling different ones as you go!  In cities like Cáceres in the southwest,  the tapas are large and delicious!  They cost about 5 euros, and can be shared easily between friends.

No matter where you go, you'll find delicious food and a unique culture behind it.  Don't be afraid to get out there and try a little of everything!

Cheese plate in Cáceres

Pincho in Bilbao

What to expect when you're an American in Spain

This post is one that I've recycled from an earlier blog.  I've edited it a little, taken a few things out and added a few more.  Basically, this list highlights the things that I, as an American, found surprising, interesting, or just plain weird about Spain when I first got here.

1.  Lunch and Dinner SUPER late!!
Lunch time is usually between 2-4p and dinner between 8-10p.  This can be very frustrating when you get hungry around 5-6p and nowhere is open!  This isn't to say that the restaurant might not be open, so don't be fooled.  A lot of places will keep the cafe/bar section open all day.  BUT the kitchen will be closed, meaning that unless they have tapas sitting out on the counters, you're not going to find any food.
*Use this time to explore more of the local tapa culture of the place!  Try some pinchos with a coffee, or a caña with a slice of tortilla!*

2.  Daily "hora de comida"
From 2pm until (roughly) 5pm everything closes (except a few bigger stores and the cafes/ bars).
This is true for some tourist stops and monuments, so be sure that you check the schedules of the places you want to see before you plan your day!  In major cities- Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, etc.- the "hora de comida" (lunch time) doesn't necessarily affect the places you'll want to see.  But in smaller cities- Segovia, Zamora, Salamanca- this may be an issue.

3.  Throwing napkins and trash on the floors of bars and cafes
This is something that really shocked me at first.  When you're in a cafe or bar, and you watch the other patrons finish with their drinks, you'll probably be as surprised as I was when I saw what they did with their trash for the first time.  They just toss it on the floor!
I asked a friend who has a bar why this is.  His explanation actually makes a lot of sense!  It makes it easier for the waiters to clean up.  When the "rush" times have died down, you'll see an employee come out with a broom, and bing, bang, boom!  The place is clean!  Leaving napkins and trash on the plates for them to scrape off will actually cause them to have to add an additional step to their service process.  It may not seem like much on a slow day, but during the lunch or dinner rush, when the bars and tapa restaurants are packed tightly and speed is the waiter's friend, being able to just simply dump the plates, cups, whatever into the sink without thinking twice will save them precious seconds.

4.  Walking EVERYWHERE... ALL the time!!
If you're going to be in Spain for any time at all, you'll learn this quickly.  To be honest, my first week here my legs were almost always sore from walking up and down hills, along long streets, and basically for hours on end.  Be prepared for this, and bring comfy shoes!

5.  Public Transportation Expectations
When you don't actually have to walk, and decide to take a bus/train/etc.  There is one interesting little social norm or expectation I didn't expect!  Thankfully, my roommate and friend (who's Spanish) scolded me for breaking this cardinal rule before someone else did.
DO NOT RECLINE YOUR CHAIR!  If there is someone behind you, you have to ask their permission before leaning your chair back.  If no one is there, but someone sits down later, you're expected to put your seat back in it's upright position.

6.  The lights in the bathrooms.
Alright, so, when you go to a bar, cafe, restaurant whatever, and you go to the bathroom the lights are generally on, right?! Well, not here! You have to turn them on, and they're generally on a timer.  Be prepared, because sometimes that timer doesn't last very long, and you'll need to reach back up and turn the light on again!

7.  Not to mention every toilet flushes differently.
Ok, not EVERY toilet, but yes, I have seen more creative ways of flushing toilets here than ever in my life.  There are some with buttons, some with those pull things that come down from the ceiling, some with foot petal things and the list goes on.  It's always an adventure!
Oh, and ps I have yet to see a toilet with the normal handle on the side like we have in the States.

8.  To continue with the bathroom oddities...
Even though in nicer restaurants and such this isn't a problem, if you're going to be traveling through bus or train stations you'll want to take note: there is almost NEVER toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms!  Just keep a packet of tissues and a thing of hand sanitizer with you, though, and that won't be a problem!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Top 5 Most Underrated Spanish Cities

If I'm going to be honest, I haven't been to a city in Spain that I haven't been able to find something special about.  Whether it's the food, history, people, architecture, or museums and monuments, all across the country there seems to be an endless list of places to go and things to discover.  However, after being here for almost 4 years, I have found a number of cities which I will gladly go back to if I have the chance.  What's funny about this list, however, is that these cities probably don't appear on the first-time traveler to Spain's list of places to go.

While the larger cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, or Valencia all have amazing things to offer, if you want to get a first-hand experience with a more intimate side of the country, these 5 cities are a great place to start!

In this list I will include things to see, reasons to go there, and if applicable a nearby destination for a quick day trip, among other things.

The cities are listed in no particular order.  I've also included a link to my full-length blog post about each place.

1.  Oursense

Region: Galicia
History: Dating back to the Roman Empire.  Destroyed by the Moors in 716 and rebuilt in 877.  Wasn't urbanized until the 12th Century.
Major Attraction: The "Burgas" or "Termas" - natural hot springs
Other Attractions:  Roman Bridge, Millennium Bridge, Carnival celebrations
What makes it special: The surrounding landscape is lush and green and the small city center is quaint and inviting.
For link to my full blog blog HERE

As Burgas: Natural Hot Springs

Roman Bridge

Public Termas and Galician Landscape

2.  Cáceres

Region:  Extremadura
History:  Changed hands many times: Roman Empire (founded in 25BC), Arabic Empire, Christian Empire
Major Attraction: Old Zone
What makes it special:  The food is absolutely amazing!  The old zone is extremely well-preserved and boasts buildings from all of the major occupations which the city experienced. 
Optional day trip: Mérida- Roman ruins
Link to my full blog post HERE

In the Old Zone

Plaza de San Jorge

Roman Ruins in Mérida

3.  Segovia

Region: Castilla y León
History: Formed part of the Roman Empire, and believed to be the site of a famous battle which took place in 75 BC.  Abandoned during the Arabic Empire, until reconquered during the Christian Reconquista
Major Attraction: The Roman Aqueduct
Other Attractions:  The Alcazár, The Jewish Quarter, The Cathedral
What makes it special:  Small, warm, traditional feel to the entire old zone.  A ton of history, and delicious food!  
Optional day trip: La Granja (royal summer home with amazing gardens)
Link to my full blog post HERE

The Cathedral

At the Aqueduct

La Granja

Gardens at La Granja

View of the Alcazar from a distance

4.  Ronda

Region: Andalusia
History: Founded originally by the Celts in the 6th Century B.C.  Was once a strategic position during the Arabic empire, and formed part of the Kingdom of Granada.
Main Attraction: The "New Bridge"
Other Attractions:  The Bull Ring- the oldest in Spain
What makes it special:  The city is absolutely beautiful!  The food is yummy, and the surrounding landscape is completely breath-taking
Link to my full blog post HERE

The Bull Ring

The "Puente Nuevo" (New Bridge)

Amazing Landscape

5.  Salamanca

Region: Castilla y León
History:  Boasts the oldest university in Spain, founded in 1218.  The city has been involved in educational and ideological advances since its origins.
Major Attraction:  La Universidad de Salamanca
Other Attractions:  Plaza Mayor, Las Catedrales, La Casa de las Conchas
What makes it special: A long and rich history.  The city has a small old zone, but it's absolutely beautiful.  The specific stones which were used, in addition to the lighting which illuminates it at night makes the city seem to glow at night.  Very yummy food!
Optional Day Trip: Ávila
Link to my full blog post HERE

In the Plaza Mayor

Shell House ("Casa de las Conchas")

View of the Cathedrals from the other side of the Río Tormes

The Wall ("Muralla") in Ávila

Monday, March 28, 2016

Ronda: The not so "pueblo" Pueblo Blanco

The Pueblos Blancos (white villages) of Spain's southern region Andalusia are celebrated for their indescribable beauty.  One of the most famous Ronda has a long and intriguing history.  Originally founded by the Celts in the 6th Century BC, the city changed hands multiple times before being conquered during the Christian Reconquista of the peninsula in 1485.

The name "pueblo" usually brings to mind images of quaint country-side villages and hidden-away treasures.  Ronda, however, doesn't seem to have a very "pueblo" feel to it.  It is a huge tourist attraction, and in reality isn't that small (with a population over 35,000).  Despite all this, the warm Andalusian sun and the spectacular landscape still overwhelm the visitor with a feeling of tranquility.

If you're looking for a warm getaway still sprinkled with typical Spanish culture and flair, this city may just be for you!  While it is possible to find the stereotypical attractions one expects when traveling to the south of Spain (Flamenco dancing, warm weather, and gazpacho, to name a few) Ronda still offers various cultural and historical elements which will educate as well entertain the enthusiastic visitor.

The main sight in Ronda is hard to miss, as you will need to cross it to enter the old zone of the city.  The Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is a massive stone construction standing 390 feet above the floor of the canyon it crosses.  The name is somewhat misleading, because even though it is the newest of the three bridges found in the city, it's not that new by modern standards, being completed in 1793.

If you're feeling adventurous, and want to get some amazing views of the Puente Nuevo (see above) there is a little trail (easy to find) which will lead you down into the gorge.  Being that it gets hot pretty quickly in Ronda, it's a good idea to plan this outing for the morning, as the hot afternoon sun will not make it any easier.  

Want to experience some traditional Spanish culture?  Well, Ronda is a great place to see a bullring up close and personal.  The oldest bullring in Spain, completed in 1784 is another famous landmark of the city.  

Another famous destination in Ronda is the Arabic Baths.  They date back to the 13th Century.  They are located a little outside of the center, so be prepared to walk for a little (about 10-15 minutes) and up and down a few hills along the way! 

If you wish to continue your journey into the rich Arabic historical influences in the city, the "Palacio del Rey Moro" (Palace of the Morrish King) is another historical landmark.  Within the Palacio, you will find the Secret Mine.  Legend has it that Muslim King Abomelic built this structure back in the 14th Century.  It's rumored that the mine contains hidden houses, palaces, bathing chambers, among other things.  

From the entrance to the Palacio del Rey Moro, you can get some amazing views of another famous Ronda sight, the Hanging Gardens.  This national monument was designed and installed in 1912, and during the peak growing seasons is absolutely stunning.  Unfortunately, we made our trip to Ronda during the end of the blooming period, so we weren't able to enjoy the gardens in all of their glory.  The views, however, are still spectacular.  

Like the lovely Spanish city that it is, Ronda has some great food and a very unique tapa culture.  If you're looking for somewhere to relax and have a bite to eat after a busy day of sight-seeing or a relaxing afternoon of strolling through the winding, hilly streets, the Plaza del Socorro is a great place to start.  Order a plate of "tapas mixtas" or try a combination of hot and cold tapas (usually sold in a bundled package- 2 each for 6 euros for example) and enjoy sitting at one of the many outdoor terraces, taking in the view and Spanish sun.  

Ronda is a perfect destination for anyone looking to enjoy the relaxing Spanish culture, breath-taking landscape, and delicious gastronomy!  While it is often crowded with tourists, the city itself still has its own unique charm and personality.  With various monuments and landmarks that highlight the different historical and cultural elements that have gone into the formation of the city, the visitor can experience not only the ancient past with the Moorish influences but also the more recent and stereotypically traditional side of Spain.  A trip to this not so "pueblo" Pueblo Blanco can be both relaxing and exciting, educational and delicious, and will not disappoint any visitor eager to see this romantic and overwhelmingly beautiful side of the country.