Spain — Part 1
My first trip to Spain coincided with Christmas and New Year 2007-08. It was mostly a quiet affair. I met up with friends from Cuba in Madrid, where it was cold and rained most of the time, typical weather I’m informed for Madrid in December. I did the usual tourist things, walked the streets, visited the many squares, strolled passed the palace walls and went for a paddle in the lake in the large attractive park. I then headed to Barcelona for Christmas, where I sat on a beach, enjoyed the sun and cool breeze and relaxed. I met few people apart from a crazy Aussie named Chris and his mate Phil, a mad Kiwi. They were young pups travelling around Europe having fun. They helped me use the internet and kept me company. At one point, we had a play fight on the beach, swearing at each other and throwing wet sand.
Christmas night was an interesting affair. I decided to walk into the city from my hostel which was out at the coast, a good forty minute journey. When I arrived in the centre things began to happen, as I got lost trying to find one of the many cathedrals! Most Spaniards don’t know the English word for cathedral and my Spanish is basic and without accent. I found a square, passed through an interesting dark passage, climbed a small hill and crossed several small roads. I finally asked a guy who kindly showed me to the main cathedral of the city. On entering the colossus, I met a lady from Rumania and her Spanish husband. They were charming and showed me around the monastery. Built in the mid thirteenth century, it was huge and contained a vast echo. A service was taking place, preventing us from exploring the entire area, but just walking within the monastery was enough for me to gauge its vastness. Surrounding the outer perimeter of the cathedral were unusual artistic designs. Different rock formations were displayed in wire cages. There was also a pond with delightful geese and a garden that contained a rock formed nativity play. The area was busy with aggressive children, who pushed and ran around, bereft of manners — Spanish kids get away with anything!
My new friends and I eventually left and went for coffee before I began to head for a subway back to my accommodation. It was while I was asking for train directions that this young guy from Thailand asked me to a house party. I figured the night was young, so why not. Therefore, I changed trains for a second time and went with my new companion, aged in his mid twenties, to a friend’s apartment. The small group assembled consisted of a Brazilian guy, a Dominican Republican and our host, an Australian guy. Hot food was offered and I got a nice cup of tea. The music was a little against my taste, but it was interesting and relaxing. Around 3.00 am, we decided to walk into the city and they would drop me at my hostel. A taxi was eventually found and they paid my fare. The cabby misunderstood the address and dropped me in the wrong place. This cost me a two-hour walk, as I first walked in the wrong direction. I eventually found the hostel with the help of a local who was slightly drunk and a bit crazy. He was friendly enough and showed me the way. I eventually arrived back around 5.00 am!
Barcelona was ok, but I was out by the coast and away from the action, getting food was difficult because most places were closed, it being the holiday. There were a couple of grocery stores nearby and a café in the front of the hostel, which was open daily. The hostel itself was basic, with a tiny reception and nowhere to sit or congregate. It lacked atmosphere. However, it did have free internet and a microwave to warm up food. Its main plus point was that it was on the beach, literally!
My one other excursion of note in Barcelona was a trip to Goaldi Park with Phil. The park, a monstrosity of unusual architecture, lay on the furthest side of the scattered city and high on a hill. It lay gigantic and impressive with towering stone pillars, stylish iron decoration and fantastic city views. We walked most of the way only taking the subway when necessary. The park lay at one of the highest points of the city and there were a series of escalators to assist the unfit tourist most of the way. We climbed one or two of the hills that were almost vertical in places. You could walk the entire mountain from bottom to top, but I was unfit and the light was beginning to fade as we arrived. The park was huge. We had time for only a quick inspection, since the light was rapidly receding and it was getting chilly — it was December! I felt some of the stone pillars that felt smooth to the touch and vast in size and scale. It had taken years to design and build, and was beyond most peoples’ imagination of a park. It gave a sense of grandeur and imagination, not at all like your usual park. We eventually headed back to the hostel, returning as darkness enveloped us. It is one of the main attractions in Barcelona and along with its complement of mountains, beaches, and frenetic nightlife, it is an appealing city to visit.
I assessed my plans, explored which hostels had vacancies and eventually chose Seville for my next destination.
Travelling around Spain is pretty easy for a backpacker, there are hostels everywhere and at a reasonable price, though they do vary in standard. The hostel where I stayed in Madrid was also small and had no common room; however, the hostels I visited later were much improved. I travelled by train, though I discovered the bus was often cheaper. Trains are more comfortable, and the ones in Europe are fantastic.
It took twelve hours by train from Barcelona in the region of Catalonia to Seville, the largest city in the south. Seville was fantastic, I took a taxi to the hostel on the first night because nobody spoke any English and I was unsure how to locate it at night. The taxi was a good decision, as I would not have found the hostel by myself. It was off a main street and tucked away in a cobbled alley-square. Most of the street names and squares are unpronounceable and I managed to get lost on many occasions while wandering around that large medieval city. The city was fascinating; with its small, narrow passages, arches, squares, and tiny winding cobbled streets. Beyond the main thoroughfare it was quiet, cool and tranquil. It was around December 28th but it was hotting up in Southern Spain.
The hostel called Oasis Backpackers was fantastic. It was large with two buildings. The main hostel had a bar open from 6.00 pm until 2.00 am every evening. There was a veranda and an upstairs kitchen. People cooked hot food several nights a week and there were free Tapas tours to see the Flamenco shows on offer. I was given a bed in dorm one, notorious for its lack of privacy and bad smell! Lets just say the place had character!
I made friends immediately. I was sharing with a crazy Mexican named Marco, he occasionally cooked and lead one of the tours. He was in Seville to learn Flamenco guitar and to travel. It was his first trip to Europe. He was great fun, gentle and very amenable, he would do anything for me and we had a laugh. He got me food and introduced me to his cuddly friends, Pierre the monkey and his bear who said, ‘I love you’ in Spanish when you squeezed it! I met Loretta the bar girl sometime later. She was cool, a young Aussie in her twenties. I took to her quickly, discovering she had beautiful soft silky hands. I smiled, told her she was lovely and asked to feel her hands. I told people it was how I saw what people looked like! Her hands were perfect; I had an excuse to hold them!
I enjoyed Seville, just walking around the streets trying unsuccessfully to find the cathedral. It is reputed to be the third largest in the world after St. Peters in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Also Christopher Columbus’s bones are said to be entombed in the cathedral! This is probably untrue, but it sounds good.
The city has many attractions, from the cathedral to the bullring, and the river and its picturesque bridge and museums on Flamenco. The nightlife is cultural and energetic. There are Tapas bars a plenty, where you can find small samples of food usually on small plates and at affordable prices. Finally, and perhaps the main attraction to the city is the Flamenco music and dancing itself — dichotomy of vision and sound. The female dancer is often young, pretty and wears a decorative costume. The heavy pounding of the dancer’s feet gives rhythm to the intricate guitar playing and the simple story-telling singer. It is full of passion and warmth, emotion and love. The songs are often simple tails of love, hardship or poetry. The energy produced from the performance is incredible. I witnessed a show more than once and was moved into swaying hip motion on each occasion — it was enticing and invigorating, I just had to dance.
My time in Seville climaxed with New Years Eve, and what a night that was. We partied all night staying up long after the dawn — there was so much food available, you could have fed half of Africa. Imagine it, pasta, salad, bread with ham or salmon, a strange kind of veggie casserole and more. I had several bowls and even found some cake that went down well. People came and went and it was fun. I mingled with the many different backpackers, chatted up three girls from the US, joked with several guys from Australia and even found an interesting Irish guy to discuss music and travel with. Marco crashed about, coming in and out with yet more food, and Loretta fluttered among the congregation like a pretty bird. I even got the chance to dance with her at one point — thrilling!
Will, the bartender from France, was another guy I became acquainted with and he constantly kept my glass filled with lemonade and/or water, I was never left drifting and was looked after by one and all. Another hostel staff member that I had met earlier that night, Andrea from Austria, gave me a lucky plastic pig and told me to keep it always and it would bring me fortune!
However, my enjoyment of New Years Eve was short lived. As when I checked my bank account the following morning, I discovered I was in the red by several hundred pounds. Amused, I just thought it was a mistake by the automated bank server. However, when I rechecked it was unmistaken, I had been robbed of some serious money. In total about two thousand Euros, about £1200! I was outraged. I contacted my bank to discover what had happened. I had become entangled in a credit card fraud and had to return home to solve the problem and get my money back. I managed to get a flight from Seville directly to England and sort out the problem. It was a blow to the trip, as I was unsure if I would return to Spain and continue my journey to Portugal. My friends kept my spirits positive and Marco even accompanied me to the airport, a journey of a bus ride to the local train station then a twenty-minute bus to the airport. It cost about three Euros each way.
Although I had all my money stolen, it did not mean I thought Spain was a bad country; it is just part of travelling. It could happen to anyone, anywhere.
My first endeavours into the country had been interesting; I had met fantastic people and explored three great cities with Seville being the highlight. It made me determined to return as quickly as possible. Good friends and a delightful city ambiance will do that to even me. Madrid had been ok, seeing it with friends made it pleasurable, but Barcelona apart from the good weather and beach was slightly disappointing. I was away from the action with only a few backpackers in a quiet hostel, it made the stay less fun than it could have been.
I left Spain at the beginning of January with a feeling of ‘see you soon’ rather than ‘goodbye forever’.