In contrast to the seven weeks spent gallivanting around Italy and Portugal last year, this year I managed to secure a measly two weeks off from work. Which meant only two weeks somewhere away from the Dutch weather. Based largely on my childhood adoration of Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving (and slightly as an “up yours” to Portugal) I decided on Spain. By chance, my oldest friend, Loz, was going to be in Europe at that time, and we agreed to holiday together.
Both Loz and I are by nature slow travellers: two weeks in one city is perfectly normal, as we both like to get a feel for a place by getting lost at our leisure. We both like being able to have a regular café, and believe that frantically dashing around the top tourist sites is unlikely to offer an insightful impression of a new place. However, for our Spanish sojourn, we decided to be different for once and pack as much into two weeks as possible, trying to get an overview of a country, rather than an overview of a city.
Our itinerary was as follows: a few days in Barcelona, followed by a flight to Valladolid where we spent an afternoon, a day in Salamanca, a few days in Madrid, a couple of days in Seville, a day in Córdoba, a day in Granada and a couple of days recovering at the beach in Nerja.
Clearly we’re insane.
Seeing as I said I was trying to get an overall impression of Spain, I’ll forgo the dull blow-by-blow of our itinerary, and offer up instead a few observations about things that struck me on my holiday, and some suggestions for how best to go about travelling in Spain (or any other place, really).
Things that are things in Spain
1. Meat on bread.
In Australia, we of course have our own version of tapas, which is usually a selection of Mediterranean themed finger foods (think olives, cured meats, cheeses, dolmades, other yuppie-ish appetizers). While we certainly found this type of tapas in Spain, we also regularly encountered tapas options consisting entirely of various types of meat on various types of bread. Heaven help the vegetarians.
2. Boobs on the beach.
I would argue that topless bathing in Australia is not normal. There are designated nude beaches in certain places, and Google has informed me that some people insist topless bathing occurs fairly commonly, but this is certainly not my experience. However in Spain, Loz and I decided it was futile to try and take photos on the beach, as there were so many topless women that we’d inevitably look like weird peverts, regardless of what we were trying to photograph. While I applaud the confidence of these women, I can’t help but wonder: what happens if they get sunburnt?
3. Endurance toddlers.
There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a grandma than finishing your drinks around midnight, heading home, and walking past dozens of toddlers clearly able to stay up way later than you. Do these kids not have bedtimes?
Siesta is something I wholeheartedly embrace. Society sanctioned nap-time after lunch sounds like the solution to all my food-coma woes. It’s also something we regularly forgot about, planning to take refuge from the afternoon sun by going shopping. We took much delight in our foreign idiocy, and would put on our best Valley Girl accents and walk around quoting ridiculous holiday complaints, in all likelihood insulting the locals and visiting Americans alike.
5. Very attractive police officers.
In Madrid, Loz had the misfortune of having her phone stolen. We dutifully went to the police station to report it, and encountered the Most. Attractive. Man. Ever. I don’t think I can even provide an evocative description of this Adonis, as every time I think about his appearance, my imagination turns him into a unicorn upon whose back I ride over a rainbow into Weekend Love Planet. We may have brainstormed other significant items to have “stolen” in order to return to the police station. But of course we didn’t, because that would be desperate and sad, and we’re totally not like that.
6. Union Jack t-shirts.
You know those weird days where someone points out something very specific, and for the rest of that day you see that thing everywhere? For us that “thing” was the Union Jack printed on t-shirts, and it lasted the whole two weeks. We even started awarding points to the person who saw the t-shirt first, which meant our conversations went something like this:
So, I was thinking that – Union Jack – we could head to the museum in – Union Jack – the afternoon before going back to – Union Jack – the hostel so you can Skype – Union Jack -your mum…
You get the picture.
Things that are not things in Spain
Before going to Spain, I asked a Spanish friend for some tips on how to make the most of our time there. One of the things she advised us to do was go to the beach quite early, as they get crowded quickly, and people camp out for the whole day. Taking her advice to heart, Loz and I headed to the beach in Nerja at around 10am… and the only other people we encountered were the hard-core ocean swimmers taking their daily exercise. Other recreational beach goers didn’t really appear in significant numbers until we were leaving at around 12.30. Clearly the definition of early is relative.
Not speaking a word of Spanish, I practiced my best rendition of no hablo español and figured that seeing as we were travelling to places pretty well on the beaten path, the pervasive dominance of English would mean we’d have little trouble making ourselves understood. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or not, but the Spanish seemed to have resisted the influence of English pretty well. Even when we were passed on to someone who spoke Engligh, most of the time these people would still speak to us in Spanish, just more slowly or with more gesticulating. Often when we asked ¿Habla inglés?, we were answered simply with a shake of the head. I really enjoyed this, and with Loz’s Spanish picked up from a couple of months in Mexico, and my odd mixing of half-remembered Portuguese and Italian, we got by.
3. Accurate maps.
As much as Loz and I advocate getting lost in a new city, when time is short and to-do lists are long, it can be useful to be in possession of a map. We generally had a map provided by the hostel or information centre at our disposal, and would on occasion consult it in order to best plan our next move. We may as well have ignored them all for all the help they gave us. Either we really, really suck at reading maps, or there is some dastardly Spanish conspiracy to inaccurately represent the size and contours of streets to confuse and disorientate tourists for the amusement of the locals. Maybe it’s some kind of sport, I don’t know. All I know is that with all my solo travelling experience and Loz’s orienteering upbringing, we would figure out our location and route, and at least 85% of the time confidently march off in the wrong direction.
Of course, marching off in the wrong direction meant that we had to have some other fool-proof guidelines to keep us from getting ourselves into hot water. So here it is:
B’s Helpful Guide to Travelling in Spain (Or Anywhere Else for that Matter)
1. Don’t be a dick.
For instance, if you will be arriving at a hostel late at night, don’t wake up the sleeping people to introduce yourselves, turn on the light and proceed to have a loud conversation for two hours.
2. Always help the Irish.
You never know when one of them might be a leprechaun.
3. Think of the step count.
Spent half an hour walking in the wrong direction? Think of the step count. Lost your metro ticket? Think of the step count. Faced with walking up a billion stairs to see a famous landmark? Think of the step count.
4. Follow the shops.
When faced with an inaccurate map and doubtful about which street to take, follow the shops. Inevitably they will lead you back to a major tourist spot.
5. What could possibly go wrong?
Use this as your mantra when you’ve gotten yourself into a slightly shady situation. If you survive, it’ll make for a great story.