Spanish Surprises, Spanish Delights

A month in Spain surprised us and delighted us! Top ten of each!

Surprises

1. Adjust your clock! As a Spaniard told us in the south no one would get up before the sun rises at 8:00. Kids have to be in school at 9:00. Parents go to work by 10:00. Just move your US clock up two or three hours. Breakfast at 9-10am. Lunch at 2-4pm. Dinner after 9pm. In restaurants at 8:30 you’re eating with tourists, at 10:00 with locals.

2. Crossing streets can be hazardous — not because the Spanish are crazy drivers. They seem pretty polite. But not motorized scooters and bicyclists. Proceed with caution. The crosswalks are a few yards away from the corner to give left-turning vehicles a place to go. The cars will usually stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks, but the two wheelers often do not. Be careful!

3. Spain is up close and personal. Tapas bars are crowded. Tables are close together in restaurants. They seem to like it that way! One Spaniard told us it’s as if we must feel the “breath of the people on our cheeks.”

Crowds at popular tapa bars spill out into the street

4. Service can seem abrupt. Not rude. Just very few of the pleasantries that pass for polite banter back home. In restaurants, the waiters fly around. No “how’s your day going” or “how are those first bites tasting.” In one restaurant we were reminded of the old British comedy Fawlty Towers, given the yelling and frantic pace of the wait staff. (Of course, a fine dining experience in Spain is quite different.) We’re talking about the tapas bars, the bistros and more casual restaurants where we hung out.

5. Order what you want. Ordering a 1 euro espresso and 2 euro snack is absolutely OK. One Spaniard told us there are almost no public restrooms in Spain because you just stop, have a quick bite or drink and use the WC. Want to split a dish? Not at all uncommon and, in fact, it is often expected a table would share several dishes. Not very hungry? Order a half portion or even a tapa portion.

6. Franco’s legacy lives on. And it’s unresolved—feelings still run deep. Some still admire the fascist leader, others loathe him. This should not be a surprise to those of us from a country still dealing with the legacy of slavery and segregation. Franco died more than 45 years ago. Today’s right wing politicos trace many of their issues back to what they see as a better time when Franco defined what it meant to be Spanish.

7. The Catalan independence movement is a very strong undercurrent in Barcelona. Yes, we’d read about the desire by many Catalans for an independent Catalonia, with the region split roughly 50/50 in polls. Seeing the pro-independence flags hanging from balconies all over Barcelona, the graffiti in Catalan, and the police presence on the Day of Spain national holiday when pro-Spanish nationalists paraded through the streets of the city in an in your face political march, made it very real, very immediate, very intense.

“We take power” in Catalonian and Catalonian flags

8. Catholicism is more cultural than practiced. Cathedrals and basilicas are everywhere, but often empty. The birth rate is 1.2 children. The south is more Catholic, the north less so. Another legacy of the Spanish Civil War—the Catholic Church was strongly supportive of Franco as his army moved from the south to the north in the war. Many in the north still resent the Church for its complicity in the Franco years.

9. Royal family is definitely not the icons the British royals are. The Spanish king and his family are not very visible, often criticized for corruption and are seen by many as a drain on the economy. As one person reminded us, few people would even recognize a picture of the king, queen or their children. The former king is now living in Dubai in exile and not welcome back. Again some of this attitude may go back to Franco’s death and the hasty re-establishment of the monarchy one day later.

10. The Spanish do not like spicy food—a shock to us.

The delights?

1. Spanish high speed trains! Clean, efficient, comfortable. Taking a five hour train ride was less complicated than any airplane trip we have ever taken anywhere. Easier security. Roomier. Less waiting time. Departure and arrival near the city centers.

2. Tapas and the wine scene. Usually quick, often delicious, and almost always cheap. Spanish omelette (tortilla), potatoes with a paprika sauce (patatas bravas), Russian salad (ensalada Rus), Spanish ham (jamón) or anchovies on toast were staples. But many tapa bars have their own specialties or twists on these standards. Some were simple affairs. Some were gastronomical masterpieces. And wines by the glass—often the house wine was outstanding—house made vermouths, and cavas (the Spanish version of champagne).

3. Moorish architecture. From the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Alcazar in Seville to simple doorways in small villages, the Moorish influence infuses much of the Andulacian region. Complex, intricate designs. Gorgeous tile work. Beautiful water features. Cool garden courtyards.

4. Living the streets! The energy, the liveliness. Sunday afternoon extended families gather in outdoor restaurants for long lunches with kids running around the table. Particularly on weekend evenings before dinner, couples, families and groups of friends just saunter down the main streets seeing and being seen. In many squares, playgrounds for the kids and, conveniently, cafes or bars for the parents.

5. Flamenco! Okay we went to see a show mainly because it seemed the thing to do. We weren’t prepared to be so impressed. The guitar mastery. The singing — somewhere between the Moslem call to prayer and Portuguese fado. Then there was the dancing. We learned there are several styles reflecting Gypsy, Moorish and Jewish influences. Don’t miss it if you are in Spain!

Pictures weren’t allowed at our flamenco show but we did see this street performer.

6. The Belle Époque and Art Nouveaux in Barcelona. Blocks and blocks of late nineteenth and early twentieth century homes and apartments. Several of Gaudi’s stand out among the less experimental and fanciful designs. The broad octangular intersections to create the space for horse drawn vehicles to turn around and space for some of the best architecture.

7. The stained glass window of Sagrada Família. While the entire structure is amazing, the afternoon light coming through the west windows stunned us.

The window on the left generates the light on the right. Totally dazzling.

8. The white villages of Andalusia. We loved our “home” in Vejer de La Frontera. All the charm of Italian hilltop villages with the overlay of Moorish style.

9. Hiking in El Estrecho Natural Park. A steep climb from nearly sea level to cloud forests with views to the sea and Morocco.

10. The cost. Food in restaurants is unbelievably cheap compared to the US and the rest of Europe. Meals for two with drinks rarely cost more than 30 euros. Wine—3 euros, espresso-1 euro, tapas-2-3 euros (or free with a glass of wine). Again, you can spend much more but the quality at most moderate restaurants and tapas bars is so good, why bother. Prices do climb a bit in the heavily touristed Barcelona.