I arrived in the UK three and a half years ago with a handy Irish passport, directions to Paddington station I’d received from my brothers and the ambitious idea that I would soon begin the first of countless travel adventures, slowly but surely discovering each and every corner of the world. I even blogged about it, so it had to become reality right? I’m afraid not. Not only am I constrained by time/leave and money, but I have also discovered that just the UK and even London alone offer an overwhelming amount of things to do, with an incredible diversity of food, sights and activities, unique to each and every area, whether that area is Scotland or east London.
While there haven’t been many of them, I have been privileged enough to enjoy a European trip here and there. One of my most memorable of these was a week-long shoestring trip to Spain.
Although family holidays to Italy and France included large villas (thanks mom and dad!), a swimming pool, our own car, homemade food and the like, and Spain, on the other hand, resembled a student holiday consisting of hostels, a strict budget and travelling by bus and metro – our biggest luxury was a fast train between Madrid and Barcelona – my Spanish holiday remains close to my heart and will remain there for a long time I’m sure.
Travelling with one other friend and neither of us knowing anything about the country or the culture, we had no idea what to expect. She was happy for me to plan everything, and, being someone with a passion for organising and ticking off ‘to-do’ lists, I was equally satisfied with the arrangement. I can’t quite remember now how we planned it this way – most likely because it was cheaper for some reason – but we ended up spending four days in Madrid and two in Barcelona. During our time in Madrid we went on two day trips, one to Toledo and one to Valencia. As it turned out, while I agree with the many others that Barcelona is lovely with its history and architecture, sea and sun, it’s Madrid that really struck my fancy. But I think the reason is hugely to do with the fact that it is here that I was able to get a good snapshot into the Spanish culture. So perhaps it is the culture I fell in love with more than the city itself.
We went in winter yet the weather in Spain was still surprisingly mild compared to chilly London. Nights were cold but days were warm in the sun. We arrived late at night in Madrid, and found our way to the busy and buzzing Puerta del Sol, where our first backpackers was located. Getting lost, as is my nature, we asked a group of locals for help and they happily pointed us in the right direction. The staff at the backpackers were friendly and helpful from the start and the guests seemed relaxed and fun, with a fair mix of languages floating about. We slept in a room with six other beds, most of which were occupied. Although I’m used to smaller rooms or fewer people, our accommodation was great considering what we paid, and the biggest ‘problem’ I can remember us having was an energetic bout of snoring here and there. Regardless, we had plenty to see and do and spent most of our days outside the hostel.
Being a sharing platter, tapas kind of girl, I was definitely in the right place when it came to food. Breakfast consisted of chocolatey churros and lunches and dinners of a variety of tapas, shared between the two of us. I absolutely love how the Spanish gather around food, treating it as a fun, social occasion rather than approaching it with a grab-and-go attitude, often seen in other parts of the western world. One of my most memorable experiences is related to food actually (although this shouldn’t be a surprise considering the amount of joy it brings me). I remember one of our first dinners in a random pub/restaurant. As soon as we entered, we were confronted by a lively atmosphere, and the evident happiness and loud bursts of laughter of those inside seemed infectious. We ordered few different options of tapas to share between us, glancing around at the room at the groups of families and friends gathered around tables. I noticed a particularly big group of people in one corner, animated conversations all around. By the time we finished eating, it was around 10pm but it was only at this time that the large group considered ordering their meals. Greatly enjoying their time together, they didn’t look like they were going anywhere in a hurry. This was when I first began to notice how relaxed and carefree the Spanish culture seemed and I longed to be a part of that group, spending hours chatting into the night, ordering tapas after tapas and then departing for our next adventure, whether that be late-night flamenco or bed!
On the subject of flamenco, having heard that locals often engaged in sporadic flamenco dancing, we did a bit of research and found one late-night club that had particularly good reviews as being a place often filled with locals who were known to flamenco dance into the morning. This sounded like a dream to me and so we took a stroll to the club late one night to see what it was like. On arriving there, we found that it wasn’t open until around midnight and that flamenco dancing only usually began in the early hours of the morning. I glanced over at my friend – I’m the kind of person who loves dancing till dawn and would happily accept the opportunity to do so, so I was fully prepared to enter round number two of tapas or go for a drink somewhere else while we waited for the club to open and the dancing to begin. The thought of being in a lively club surrounded by locals, witnessing more of their fantastic culture and getting up close and personal with the beautiful art of flamenco dancing was a thrilling idea. Unfortunately, my friend was less keen – and probably a bit wiser considering we had another full day sightseeing ahead of us – and so we decided to head back to the hostel and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day.
I was sad to leave Madrid a few days later but equally excited to arrive in Barcelona, the weather warmer and the sun shining throughout the day. In choosing a hostel this time, we decided not to stay on the popular Las Ramblas, having been advised by my cousin that it was a tourist trap. Instead we stayed further out, which meant we needed to take the metro to get between sights and the hostel, but it was clean, friendly and cheap and so we enjoyed good accommodation once again, this time in a quieter suburb.
We went to most of the usual sights. As these trips tend to go, we did a lot of exercise that week, walking from one attraction to the next. But we also participated in a different form of exercise – cycling. Since it wasn’t the most popular time for tourists to Spain at that time, we ended up on a cycling tour around the city that consisted of only our tour guide and us. It was a wonderful way to see Barcelona, our guide slowly taking us through the different parts while explaining the history of the city and its important sights. It was soon after lunchtime that we took the tour and I noticed things had quietened down and shutters were closed. Was it siesta time? It seemed so. I’ve heard mixed opinions about whether Spanish siestas really do happen, or if so, where they happen, but it definitely seemed on that mid-week day, that life had come to some sort of a standstill.
As we cycled along narrow roads, I looked up at the colourful shutters, fronted by pot plants and hanging clothing, the occupants inside perhaps enjoying a siesta, and I fantasised about living in Spain, eating and sharing delicious bites through the day, living at a relaxed pace, appreciating times of bonding with family and friends, spontaneous, passionate dancing, late nights and siestas.
Unfortunately, the week had to come to an end and it too soon became time to begin our return to London. I often look back at my week there with longing and hope to return one day in the not-too-distant future. While I can’t return to Spain tomorrow, I can adopt parts of their lifestyle into my own. And so perhaps I can look to the Spanish culture for inspiration when I feel life could do with a bit of livening up – making social occasions with loved ones count (preferably over food), enjoying the fun times and special moments, relaxing more often and occasionally indulging in a sneaky siesta.