11 Unique Things About Spain

I traveled to Spain after spending time in Central Europe.

1. Star Wars Siesta

Spain's version of a city park

Spain’s version of a city park

Plaza de España in Seville, Spain

Plaza de España in Seville, Spain

star wars set in seville

Star Wars was partly filmed in seville

Siesta is a Spanish concept that in essence means countrywide nap-time to escape from the sun: 2-6pm. I’m not sure about summer but in winter the Spanish seem to oscillate between using it for sleep and an energetic break time. Either way, nearly all businesses close for four hours. The first siesta I took was in Seville at the Plaza de España, a sun-drenched park covered in ornate tile and sleeping Spaniards. This scenic locale is also featured in Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia and the Dictator. Yes, I napped near where R2D2 rolled.

2. Weird Schedule of the Day, the Day is Focused on the Night

Siesta kind of throws the day off “normal”. Some businesses, like banks, solve this problem simply by never re-opening after 2pm. Others re-open from 6-10pm. Instead of dark signifying the end of a day, it signifies a new beginning. Kids come out to play, old people stroll with their dogs, all well after sunset, meaning that night loses its fear in Spanish cities. As well, “normal” dinner time is shoved back to 9 or 10 pm. The restaurant I went to in Madrid was open from 9:30pm to midnight. So the parties don’t begin until after midnight and don’t really end until sunrise. The only time Spain seemed to sleep was 10am on a Sunday morning.

In Seville, this meant that people in my hostel had a syncretic schedule between Spain and “normal”. There was always someone eating, someone sleeping and someone trying to figure out what was open. Around 6pm the kitchen would fill with travelers, students, a doctor, a chef and me cooking and munching on food. (That chef deeply complimented me on my use of bay leaves.) From 8-9pm our hostel had free sangria. Then we’d figure out where to go to dinner together and what to do after.

3. Spanish Dancing

Flamenco Dancing: I’d seen pictures. I foresaw a tourist trap. Instead I found crazy intense rhythmic clapping and stomping and a highly emotive singer. Flamenco is a dance that is more about its sound and its emotion than its look.
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Street Performer: This guy was impressive. The two characters top halves are stuffed. The man’s feet are his feet, the woman’s feet are his hands. And he makes them dance. Naturally. SAM_0544There was also lots of dancing in the streets at Carnaval. We’ll get there…

4. Columbus and Other History

As I’ve said, Spaniards hang out a lot and don’t seem too worried about getting much done, other than partying. Why is that? Well when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he brought back ridiculous amounts of gold and silver. So much so that it actually became illegal for nobles to work, because the country had so much money. There are a ridiculous number of parks, plazas and ornate churches. Life in Spain is not centered around work, but around parties and free time.

I also learned that King Ferdinand was not fond of Columbus, there were complicated arguments about profits. BUT Queen Isabella was very fond of Columbus, which might explain the King’s dislike. SAM_0488
One thing that money helped (re)build was the Seville Cathedral. This cathedral incorporates an old Muslim minaret, and is largest church in the world…by volume: meaning St. Peters in Rome has more square feet, but Seville has more cubic feet. Columbus is buried there. Well, the biggest chunk of Columbus in the world. They actually opened his grave up to check that it was him in 2006. 10% of him is there. Yes, that’s the biggest chunk.

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Columbus’ tomb

5. Tapas

When I was in Seville, I’d go out to dinner with friends and we’d share tapas. Tapas are lots of little dishes, like Turkish mezes or Chinese dim sum. I had some delicious eggplant grilled in brown sugar and patatas bravas (spicy fries) among others. After Seville I went to Granada. Every Spaniard I’d met said that “real” tapas were only in Granada.

“Real” tapas meant that you order a drink, usually sangria or beer, and food comes WITH it. This blew my mind, as it meant that Chinese tapas in Granada were considered real tapas because you ordered a drink and then got a plate of noodles, dumplings or eggrolls with it, automatically. Drinks were 2-2.5 euros. In Granada I had Spanish tapas, Mexican tapas, and Chinese tapas. It was easy to round up a group at the hostel to go for tapas because it was a tasty, cheap, good-way-to-bond meal.

6. Churros and Chocolate
SAM_0796Spanish-wide favorite snack. Deep-fried pastry covered in cinnamon and sugar. Dipped in liquid chocolate. Need I say more?

7. Granada: Alhambra, Street Art, Hippies

Alhambra

Alhambra

Granada is the Boulder of Spain with its hippies, good food and nearness to the mountains. This small city is also known for the Palace Complex of Alhambra built as a fortress in the 800’s and transformed into a Palace in the 1300’s by the Sultan of Granada. It wasn’t until 1492 that the Muslim Emirate of Granada was surrendered to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Big year for Spanish history. (1492 was also the year of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews.) The Palace may be one of the most intricate and detailed places I’ve ever seen.

However, the city has more. It has an Arab quarter with steep, winding streets of whitewashed walls. There’s some cool street art, my favorite was a painting that incorporated stairs. At the top of the ridge is a youth correctional facility that use to be a church (odd mix). On the other side of the hill, is a neighborhood that doesn’t officially exist. It’s a series of caves that use to be populated by gypsies and are now squatted in by hippies. Rent-free living. Though half of them don’t have water or electricity. With a high concentration of hippies comes a high concentration of substances but also parks where strangers jam in the park and groups stand around and practice juggling.

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8. Carnival
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An Austrian woman, a Kiwi girl, 2 Swedish guys and I decided to go to Carnaval together in Cadiz. The deal, set up by a university student group, was 20 euros for 5 hour bus rides from Granada to Cadiz and back and 13 hours in Cadiz, and breakfast. However, the hours you are then are 5pm-6am.

Cadiz has 160,000 inhabitants on a peninsula on the Atlantic, where Columbus left on 2 of his 4 voyages. This little city hosts the third largest Carnaval celebration in the world (after Rio and Trinidad) for 10 days, though no one seems to know quite how many costumed people descend on the city. And it is all night, city-wide, costumed street party. We’re talking pirates with tricked out cars starting dance parties in a plaza. The difference from Halloween is that groups dress up together, so there’s 20 Marios together, pacman and ghosts, a flock of chickens, eggs, whatever you can think of.

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I  went from wearing my superman socks, to having a cape, to having a Sponge Bob poncho and painting my face to look like Sponge Bob. It was a good night. Though somewhere there was a parade and somewhere there were groups doing ironic skits about Spanish politics, the party was just too massive to find them.

Creepy Sponge Bob for Carnival in Cadiz

Creepy Sponge Bob for Carnival in Cadiz

9. Art and Whimsical Architecture

After Cadiz and Granada I went to Madrid. Where the highlight was seeing the Prado and works by El Greco, Goya, Velazquez. However, my favorite painting was Caravaggio’s of David with Goliath’s head. While I was at the Prado I ran into Rachel and Alyson who are Fulbrighters in Erzincan and we spent the rest of the evening hanging out and eating some delicious food.

Then I made my way up to Barcelona where Gaudi’s whimsical architecture reigns supreme. Here are a couple of his buildings and parks.

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Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona

Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona

Park Guell designed by Gaudi in Barcelona

Park Guell designed by Gaudi in Barcelona

10. 1 Billion Rising

One Billion Rising in Front of Barcelona Cathedral

One Billion Rising in Front of Barcelona Cathedral

In front of one of the major cathedrals was an event put on by One Billion Rising, that incorporated woman and girls — young and old — dancing, doing skits and playing songs. One Billion Rising advocates against violence toward women around the world. It was a cool event to stumble upon. For Baylorites: a mixture of SING and Tunnel of Oppression.

11. Hot Chocolate and Hospitality

The last hostel I stayed in was in a nice neighborhood outside the hustle and bustle of the center’s tourism. It was more like a house than a hostel, with a Spanish host (Jose Maria) who spent an hour telling every guest about his hostel and his city. What a beautiful, calming place for 6 euros a night. I also slept in a tower. A good place to rest and be refreshed. Not just this hostel, but every other hostel had free hot chocolate in Spain.

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