A Year Was Not Enough to See it All in Spain
In 2006, I got a job teaching English in the small town of Cuenca in Spain. I had never heard of Cuenca before and it was a long and nerve-racking journey to get there but it was definitely worth it. Although at times it was difficult living in a small town with a different culture, it was there that I discovered my love for teaching, and where I finally got to a point with Spanish to consider myself bilingual. Also I got to explore the country and it’s amazing.
Favourite City: Gijón
How to choose just one city? I love Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, and Bilbao (to name a few big ones), but there is something about Gijón that grabs me. Most people have never heard of it – it’s on the north coast, in Asturias, a few hours east of Santiago de Compostela or a few hours west of San Sebastian. Walking along the boardwalk, you are sandwiched between centuries old architecture (the city was originally founded in the 5th century), modern restaurants and bars, and a beautiful beach. There are a number of attractions and cultural activities, including a very impressive aquarium where I got to see shark embryos up close.
Favourite Town: Cuenca
My beloved Cuenca is a town in the plateau of La Mancha (home of the infamous Don Quijote). Millions of years ago, the area was an ocean and now the mountains and cliffs that surround the city have been shaped into all sorts of gravity-defying forms. The medieval town was built upon a cliff so as to have optimal views of potential invaders, but it grew so much that they started building down into the sides of the cliff. Amongst many churches, art museums, and even a castle, the most fascinating site is the hanging houses which literally hang off the sides of the cliff.
Favourite Food: Tapas
In most parts of the country, when you order a drink, it comes with a small side plate of food called a “tapa” – a great way to eat cheap! You can also order from the wide selection of tapas on display on most bar counters. Common tapas include olives, cheese, ham, all kinds of seafood, and “tortilla” (a potato omelet). Favourites of mine include queso manchego (cheese from La Mancha), patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce), and pimientos de padrón (small green peppers fried in oil and covered in salt)
Favourite Drink: Wine
The Spanish countryside is full of beautiful vineyards – apparently it is the most widely planted wine producing nation with almost 3 million acres covered in grape vines. This means that great quality wines are available for cheap all across the country (the really cheap kind is often used by young people to make Calimocho – a drink made by mixing wine and coca cola!). The most famous wine region is La Rioja, known for it’s delicious Tempranillo.
Favourite Beach: Espasante
Another unknown gem, in Galicia on the north coast, Espasante is a small fishing and farming town en route to Santiago de Compostela (the end point of the Camino de Santiago). The wetter climate makes for a beautiful landscape of lush green forests along the white sands and turquoise waters. It’s sunny in summer which is great for exploring the secluded Espasante beaches.
Favourite Music: Ojos de Brujo
This nine piece band rhythmically blends flamenco, hip hop, and other international sounds to create an eclectic and almost magical musical experience (see video below). Spain is home to many fantastic musical artists that range in their sounds from classical Flamenco to an extensive underground Hip Hop scene. I was fortunate to be introduced to all of this through a good friend of mine that is part of the Cuenca-based hip hop group Ronin TSA who also deserve a shout out (check out this video which features shots of different parts of Cuenca in the background)!
Favourite Bargain: Cheese
I was very fortunate to live in La Mancha, home to manchego cheese. It was everywhere and so were so many other varieties of cheeses made from cow, sheep, and goat milk, all at extremely affordable prices. I can’t believe when I see manchego selling at home for 15 Canadian dollars for a tiny slab when I used to be able to get an entire wheel for that price!
Favourite Tourist Activity: Exploring Barcelona
Marvel at the almost psychedelic architecture of Antoni Gaudí, the life works of Pablo Picasso, the views of the entire city from Montjuic mountain, or at the fact that the locals switch seamlessly between Spanish, Catalan, and at least one international language. Relax by the Mediterranean on the beach, delve into the city’s local art and activism scenes, or party all night long. It is all possible in Barcelona. I went for 4 nights, stayed for 10.
Favourite Thing about the People: Socializing
The typical weekday schedule in Spain is work from 8am-1pm, go for a drink and tapas with friends, do chores or have a nap, return to work from 4-8pm, go for a drink and tapas with friends, sleep, repeat. This is not the case for everyone but it’s very common to meet with friends or go out with coworkers during the three-hour lunch break, and/or after work. During the day, many do not drink alcohol but they still go out for socializing which is an essential element of daily life. We could learn something about unwinding and relaxing from the Spanish.
Favourite Piece of History: The Architecture it All Left Behind
700 years of Moorish rule, another 700 years of battle for the territory between the Moors and Christians, unity of the Spanish Kingdoms in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, Franco, Movimiento 15-M… Spain has been an epicenter for major historical events for hundreds of years. It’s impossible to pick one event but I love the architecture that this diverse history has left behind. Gothic, baroque, classical, modern, post-modern…. aqueducts, castles, cathedrals, mosques… it is so easy to get lost in the history and the beauty of it all.
Most Incredible Moment: Looking out from Las Majadas
After nine months of living in Spain and three months of travelling Europe, I came back to Cuenca to say my final goodbyes. One of my good friends took me to a gorgeous mountain lookout point just outside Cuenca called Las Majadas. The sun was setting over the hills and it was setting on my time in Spain. It was a nostalgic but very beautiful moment that will always stay in my mind. I am so lucky to have made wonderful connections in Spain, and to have experienced so many parts of the country, including hidden gems as beautiful as Las Majadas.