The world seems to be slowly opening up again but it’ll still be a long time before I can go travelling. At least I can travel…in my memories. In this series, I enlighten you with wisdom from my travelling past by reviewing – not just a hotel, not just a restaurant, oh no! I am more ambitious and shockingly hubristic than that. I will review… an entire country!
On paper, Spain has it all: History! Architecture! Culture! Cuisine! Art! Nature! Beaches! But the reality is curiously subdued. I spent almost six months there and I did not love it.
EASE OF TRAVEL: 7 / 10.
Spain is easy enough to travel in. It’s affordable and has good public transport. It’s safe enough if you’re more cautious than you would be at home. We fell victim to a pick-pocket but the wallet really shouldn’t have been in an accessible pocket whilst we rode the subway. Lesson: things that are okay in New Zealand are not safe overseas.
A common complaint when travelling in Spain is that you will, not often but sometimes, be frustrated by the siesta thing. Now, I am not opposed to siestas. Contrary to what some people believe, the Spanish really do earn their siestas. They get up at the crack of dawn and labour all morning, putting in hours of work before most office workers have even sat down at their desks. I have volunteered on a farm in Spain and in that context siestas make perfect sense. You can’t be out doing manual labour in the hot afternoon sunshine. It’s not just disagreeable, it’s unsafe. But I still wonder how on earth it makes sense in the context of, say, a museum? Are the museum staff really going all the way home between 1pm and 4pm? Doesn’t it just mean commuting twice a day instead of once? Isn’t it very annoying to close everything and open it all up again? Wouldn’t they rather just finish their day earlier? I don’t know. Perhaps it works for them. Perhaps they love it. At any rate, the logistics of it are not my problem but I wanted to note that it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the style of travel when you show up in a town with not much of a plan and just a day or two to try and check off all the major attractions. You can find yourself at a loose end in the afternoon. It can be frustrating but you can’t change things in the slightest so (and now we come to the actual point of this paragraph) I urge you to research attraction opening times in advance.
Moving on, there is also a definite language barrier but – okay, listen, now I want to say something about language barriers. I don’t really think they are a problem. Oh, they can be a problem, of course, it’s not like I haven’t been served a plate of sliced pig ear in a restaurant when I meant to order something else, anything, anything at all really. But at its core a language barrier isn’t a problem in any given place, it’s a feature. If you’re one of those people who sees a language barrier as a terrifying and insurmountable thing, I’m sorry but I just don’t get it. I’ve always gotten more enjoyment out of travelling somewhere noticeably different from home. I want to go to countries where I don’t speak the language! It’s much more exciting. You get by. You should of course pick up a bit of the language before you travel, not just to make your life easier (this goes double if you’re leaving the main tourist routes) but also because it’s courteous to at least thank people in their native tongue. But I like travelling a lot so I’m not one of those types who thinks you need to properly learn a language in order to earn the right to visit a country. There are too many places I want to go, I do not have the time for that and I don’t expect you to, either.
Now, I know you’re yelling “colonialist privilege!” at your monitor and I hear you, I really do. It’s unfair that we English speakers get to arrogantly traipse around the world, expecting people to cater to our linguistic ineptitude in their quest for our tourist dollar while we reap the benefits of a history of oppression and economic imperialism. It’s very unfair. I’m sorry about it. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Having said all that, there’s a definite language barrier once you’re off the beaten path, so that’s something to be aware of.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS: 10/10.
Not only does Spain have heaps of cool stuff, it has cool stuff you can’t see anywhere else in the world. There’s literally nothing else on earth like La Sagarada Familia or the Cordoba mosque-cathedral or Guernica. Or the Alhambra. Or Casa Batlló. You get the idea. Forget about beaches, go to Spain for art! The art galleries are astonishingly good, especially in Madrid. Go for architecture. You take the exuberant Gaudi buildings of Barcelona and add in the solemn churches, cobbled old streets and stately town squares of the rest of Spain and it’s a real feast for the eyes. It helps that the scenery is mostly very lovely as well, especially along the Northern coast which is all rugged cliffs and golden beaches and little towns draped in foliage. To be honest there is a chunk of Spain right in the middle that is all super blah looking countryside but they do make up for it by strewing pretty little churches around.
Okay, but beaches are also rad, you say? I do happen to agree with you, as a matter of fact. I thought the rugged beaches of Northern Spain were more interesting than in the South. Go to San Sebastian! The best town in the world counts as an attraction, right? If anyone knows of anywhere else as perfect as San Sebastian then please tell me immediately so I can start saving up money. San Sebastian boasts a gleaming expanse of golden sand, lovely old buildings, a quirky island to explore, a million ice cream shops, a fireworks festival, lively pintxo (Basque tapas) bars, and a long promenade on which to stroll arm in arm with your sweetie. It’s old-fashioned in the best possible way. I can’t think of a more perfect spot for a vacation.
Honestly, Spain is festooned with excellent little towns. I’m talking dozens (hundreds?) of places where the old town has survived intact and you can literally step into another century. What a feeling, to be surrounded by golden stone, lit up in the late afternoon sun. Salamanca, guys. Toledo! And even the mediocre or modern places all seem to have a square or an old church or an ancient bridge, something beautiful to raise them up. You won’t lack things to do in Spain.
As far as I can tell the shopping is good but I was broke when I was in Spain so I can’t say for sure. The funnest shopping though is if you go in the weeks before Christmas and go to a Christmas market in a square somewhere and look at all the goods they have for sale for nativity scenes. Spanish people apparently love nativity scenes and we’re not just talking about like, the stable and a few figures, on no, we’re talking recreating the whole of Bethlehem, so the Christmas markets are full of stalls where they sell individual miniature eggs and tiny baskets and pots and bottles and little buildings and mini plastic pigeons and anything you could imagine to give a nativity scene a sense of life and place. It’s wonderful window shopping.
It’s hard to know how to score this. When you eat out in New Zealand the food is almost always decent but rarely either fantastic or dreadful. Spain has the exact opposite problem – it was seldom merely mediocre – sometimes the meals were absolutely amazing and a lot of the time the food was just plain bad.
I think some of the fault lies with us – we were in Spain for around six months and so we weren’t exactly going to research where to eat every meal. We had mixed results on the occasions we chose a restaurant based on Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor recommendations but anyway we mostly just ate what at whatever place was nearby and that nearby place was mostly bad. Greasy, bland, just plain bad. Soggy pasta and frozen pizza and over-cooked chips. Blegh. Some of these places were tourist traps but we spent time off the beaten path and so a lot of them mostly catered to locals, making the poor quality of the food quite inexplicable. Perhaps the locals only go there for a drink?
The best food we ate was in people’s homes or restaurant recommendations from our Airbnb hosts. And that is the problem with eating in Spain. You know there’s good food out there. Spanish food is famous for a reason! But it all feels out of reach. It’s out of town. It’s home cooked. You have to be in the know. You needed a reservation months in advance.
When we did have good food, it was out-of-this-world unforgettable. Why do I still think about that stew with chips we got as a tapas in that pub in Grenada? It was just stew, for goodness sake. But god it was tasty. And the tomatoes at the organic farm were out of this world. The yellow cherry tomatoes grew everywhere as weeds. We ripped handfuls of the vines out of the ground, Barns cramming as many as he could eat into his mouth, unable to believe they’d all go to waste. The simple revelation of a tomato. Finally understanding what flavour is as dozens of notes unfold in your mouth and you truly see for the first time that a taste is comprised of hundreds of chemicals that interact and combine, that even a single tomato isn’t a song, it’s a symphony.
You’ll try to grow yellow cherry tomatoes at home but it’s not the same.
There is one workaround I want to mention in the very unlikely event anybody turns to this blog for advice: Don’t buy lunch. Find a supermarket and buy some decent bread and a bit of ham and pre-sliced cheese. Ta-da! It’s all you need for a slap up meal, much cheaper than buying a sandwich from a cafe while being of better quality, and the ham will be way nicer than what you get at home (if you’re from New Zealand, anyway). You’re welcome.
Truthfully, it doesn’t feel nice to write this. I know Spain has been hit incredibly hard by Covid19, and those who rely on the tourism industry are suffering terribly. It’s almost a comfort that an incredibly popular post of mine will garner maybe five page-views so no one will read this. I don’t want to harm people who are in strife but I do have to be honest with you: People in Spain are generally not very friendly to tourists. Some were, of course, I mean we were there for five months so you’d hope that some people were nice to us in a time period that long, but they were far outnumbered by the people who clearly wished we’d just fuck off.
I don’t know. When you read about Spain, it sounds very exuberant. Imagine a place where not just the bars but the streets fill up in the evenings as people make the rounds, chatting with friends, stopping here and there to pick up some gossip. It seems really lovely for them and in reality it is great people watching. But the problem is just that – you’re only watching. It’s not exactly that I expected to be included, actually I am hopelessly socially awkward and never expect that anywhere, but if you’re on your own or it’s just the two of you, Spain can feel pretty lonely. We went back to our airbnb early most nights. It was easier that way.
OVERALL SCORE: 6/10.
Obviously, we were in Spain in a pre-Covid19 world. Who knows how things have changed? Tourist dollars will now be more valuable than ever worldwide. Tourists will possibly be more welcome. I’d love to give Spain another try. This time I’d enjoy the art, plan all my meals in advance, not stay very long, and happily skip home to my people.