The negative side of travelling solo

The negative side of travelling solo

There are some amazing positives about travelling on your own. You can wake up as late as you like, you can decide to have a lazy day on a beach without being pulled to an all day museum excursion. You have no one to fight with and no friendships will be in tatters by the end of the holiday. Your whole trip can be completely flexible and you only need to leave a place when you feel ready. Not to mention, you are more open to new friendships as you meet other travellers in hostels. When you’re in a group or couple, you tend to stick to your comfort zone, speaking your language and not discovering any authentic local culture.

That is why I chose to travel solo. It’s my first time travelling alone, and although I’m an independent person in life, we all need company, especially when you’re on the other side of the world out of your comfort zone.

This hit me when I left the loving embrace of my best friend’s family in Mexico and arrived in Morelia, Michoacan, which was my stopover on the way to Guadalajara. I was recovering from two terrible days of food poisoning (completely brought on by myself eating 4-day-old leftovers of my own tuna pasta bake), and I was feeling weak. Despite wanting to curl up and sleep for days, I still didn’t miss the comforts of home. After all, what was home for me? My temporary share house with the bitchy housemate who never spoke to me?  My grandmother or mother’s house, where I had never lived? No, home was where I could sleep and watch Netflix. Unfortunately, my hostel in Morelia was a place where I could do neither of those, thanks to the bed whose springs I could feel in my back so severely that I laid my clothes out underneath me to soften the pressure, and the wifi that didn’t reach my room, rendering me netflix-less with food poisoning for two days, unable to trust myself to eat anything, perpetuating the feeling of weakness for another day.

Morelia, as I had been told, was quaint, pretty, and safe, but without a local to show me around, I didn’t know the best places to visit. I was sick of museums ad cathedrals, and I just wanted to sit in a bar and talk with someone. Unfortunately, when I headed to a suggested restaurant, a drunk local leered at me and asked if I was there alone. After telling the guy I understood everything he said to his friend in Spanish and he would be wise to stop looking at me in that manner, I had no choice but to head to the main plaza to eat in a restaurant, therefore paying more than I really wanted to.

After a couple of days resting, I headed to Guadalajara, a place where I had heard was full of culture, nightlife and mariachis. I was very excited to meet a local of the town, who knew a lot of great places to show me. Unfortunately he had to cancel only a few minutes after I booked the trip, and I found myself heading to a hostel again with no idea where to go or what to do.

The following day, I headed into town, walking through the leafy neighbourhood of Chapultepec on the hour-long walk through the city centre to the Mercado San Juan de Dios, the largest rooftop market in Latin America. On the way, I was approached by the usual street vendors and beggars, which U had become used to in Mexico City. However when I arrived at the market, I discovered a whole new level. I was accosted by every market seller on the second floor, basically beaten down into a chair at a restaurant where I ate the most unfulfilling tasteless birria and charged 40 pesos for a coke (the same price as in Australia, and should be around 15 pesos), .

I left the market without even looking at the rest of the wares, too annoyed that because I was white, they assumed I would accept that price for a coke, and more annoyed that I hadn’t had the gumption to argue, but just accepted it like the weak tourist that I was.

I decided to walk to the famous Plaza del Mariachi, where I heard mariachis lined the streets to plays for passersby. In the few hundred metres, I noticed all the stares pointed towards me as I walked. Men leered, vendors followed me, beggars held out their hands, taxis shouted at me and women looked at me as though I was an intruder. In Plaza del Mariachi, I saw a lot of people standing around dressed as mariachi, but only one band playing at a restaurant in a corner. I sat on the only bench in the plaza to watch, but couldn’t listen to a thing because a woman was intent on selling me something and wouldn’t leave.

I waited angrily for an uber, having been quoted 3x the price for a taxi, meanwhile being again leered at, this time by the mariachi dressed men. I could feel my angry frown covering my face, which made me incredibly sad. It reminded me of a local in Morelia who chatted to me on my second day and after a while talking, he told me that when he first saw me, he thought I had an angry face. I used to walk down the street with a smile, hoping that it would be contagious to others on the streets of Melbourne – after all, life was good. But walking these streets, I felt that I needed to have some wall up to defend myself, some unapproachable look that says “I’m not someone you want to come close to, I don’t want your jewellery, your taxi or other useless crap you have to sell, leave me in peace for one minute PLEASE!” It was the first moment since I began this journey in March that I missed something from home. The freedom to walk alone.

I returned to the hostel tired, angry, and alone. I tried to explain my thoughts to my hostel companions, but as men, they could only understand the part about being sold to by street vendors. They kept telling me I should take the stares and advances of men as a compliment.

Is it too much to ask to walk the streets without being looked at like somebody’s lunch? That within 30 seconds of men leaving my presence every man who passes me whispers something lewd under their breath? Why should I take this as a compliment? This is how women accept approaches by men?

So, now I’m in Latin America, a realisation that I’ve been warned by friends would happen eventually. I’m white, I’m blonde, I have blue eyes, I’m female and most of all, I’m alone. There may as well be a neon sign on my head flashing the words “HERE I AM!! TARGET ME!!!”

So, I head to Puerto Vallarta with two other backpackers from my hostel in Guadalajara in the hopes that some time with others and the cool feeling of the pacific ocean on my skin will wipe this angry look off my face and restore my joy to keep going.

Alicia

Busting myths about Mexico City

Busting myths about Mexico City

Back when I was in Australia preparing for my trip to Latin America, when I told people I was going to Mexico City, their first reaction was usually, “Oh, be careful! Are you going alone? It’s dangerous!” Whilst I appreciate all the care that my friends and colleagues have for me, I think that you really have to spend time in a city before judging it based on what you’ve watched on Netflix. One of my closest friends in Australia is from Mexico, and she inspired me to visit the country’s capital and North America’s most populated city. For latino families, a lot of my observations won’t surprise you, but for those with doubts about CDM, read on!

But first, some advice: ALWAYS keep checking the board of boarding times and locations of your flight at an airport – it updates at the last minute!!

Waiting for my connecting flight in Florida, I was too engrossed in La Casa de Papel to notice until five minutes after boarding had begun that they had changed the gate – to ANOTHER TERMINAL. I was running through the airport like a madwoman in a movie -and those who know me know that I HATE running for transport – I prefer to miss a bus than be the humiliated girl on the side of the road as the rest of the people smirk with derision as they pull away.

As I ran through the terminal, counting the gates that never seemed to end (and of course, mine is ALWAYS the last in the terminal), I had all the airport cheering for me as I ran and ran, hearing my name being repeated over the PA system. When I finally arrived, waving my hands madly at the crew and doubling over in coughs and pain, they told me I had another 10 minutes before the flight closed. I spent the rest of the flight coughing and feeling like the whole plane was listening to me dying).

Observation: Mexican people and families are the warmest you’ll ever find

Within ten minutes of arriving in the airport at CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico City), I noticed a difference in the people from Spain. People chatted happily to me on the plane, in the line for luggage pickup and even in the bathroom. People are far more open to speak, curious about where you are from and where you will be going in their country. I was met at the airport gates for the first time in years – by the family of my friend, who still lives in Melbourne. They took amazing care of me all week, taking me to a doctor to get rid of the cold that had stuck around in Spain and had morphed to a serious throat infection, helped along by my airport adventure above. The housekeeper cooked for me every day, washed my clothes and I was constantly asked if I was ok, if I needed anything, and offered all sorts of things. I was taken to restaurants, directed to clean places to eat on the side of the road, and was accompanied by my friend’s Mum who helped me pick out some new tops for the warmer weather in Mexico. I felt that I really had a family here, and it was amazing to wake up in the bedroom that my bestie had grown up in, surrounded by photos, clothes and sooooo many shoes….all things that reminded me of her. The open and affectionate nature of these people astounded me, a very big difference to the families in western culture, who barely speak once a week. It’s a big adjustment for the more independent folk like myself who are not used to being in contact each day with my family, but it’s lovely to know that I have a family here thinking of me on my travels.

Myth: Mexico City is dangerous

Every city has dodgy areas, but you wouldn’t categorise the entire city as a ghetto. Mexico City is no different, however although you may want to skew away from the usual throng of tourists on buses and expensive restaurants catering for rich travellers, these are the areas you need to stick to in CDMX to stay safe, especially if you travel alone. There is a a ton of security and police in the streets ensuring the safety of the masses. The turibus is a hop on hop off service that take you on multiple routes throughout the city, explaining each stop in your language. For only $8.50USD you have an all-day ticket to all routes. Check out the historical Zocalo square, featuring the famous enormous Mexican flag towering over the great Cathedral. However do NOT be sucked in by the terrace restaurants to eat there in the square – you’ll spend more than a good lunch in Australia.

The bohemian, leafy and tranquil neighbourhood of Condesa is a great place for lunch or dinner, with a wide variety of cool bars and restaurants. If you’re like me and you need a taste of nature, you can’t go past the Central Park of Mexico – la Bosque de Chapultepec. This enormous forest is divided by roads into three parts and in addition to being an incredible place to relax by the lake or go for a run, iot features a museum of Anthropology, Butterfly Sanctuary, Zoo, Kids Museum and hundreds of market stalls selling food and souvenirs. I spent an entire day here, making my way up the hill in the centre of the park to the Castillo de Chapultepec, once a castle and now a museum that features loads of emotive art and artefacts about Spanish colonisation of Mexico.

El Castillo de Chapultepec, high above the trees of the Bosque, in the heart of Mexico City.

 

For a taste of mariachi culture, head to Garibaldi Square, not far from Zocalo, which is particularly alive on Friday nights with traditional Mexican musicians serenading the passersby. However go with a few people as the surrounding neighbourhoods are a little ‘ugly’ (unsafe in local speak).

CDMX is a humongous city, so you have plenty of freedom to explore the best parts of the city in complete safety.

Myth: You’ll get robbed in public transport

I have heard a mountain of bad stories about public transport in CDMX. The metro is slow and constantly crushed full of people, making it very easy for pickpockets, and those more bold to cut open your bag. Hold your bag in front of you, lock it up if possible, stow away your phone, and you’ll be fine. One thing is for sure: the metro so busy you’ll never be alone, so your only real worry is pickpockets but if you’re alert, it’s not a worry at all.

Other ways to get around the city are kombis (vans) that have set routes around towns and are only a few pesos, very economical. THere are also the larger camiones (trucks), which due to the larger amount of people and greater probably that one is a thief, are not recommended for blonde female solo travellers like myself. Advice from locals is not to take a taxi. They are always priced based on your nationality and you never know how much they will really charge until the end of the trip. The tracking and rating tools of Uber make it the safest option, and they are still very well priced. Going 20km to the city each day was never more that $10USD.

Advice: You CANNOT miss Xochimilco

My favourite day in CDMX was when I met up with one of my language partners from the city, Antonio, and he took me to one of the towns that was developed outside the centre of CDMX, Xochimilco. The town is flanked by a river full of party boats. For 500 pesos ($25USD) you can hire the boat for a 2 hour boat ride up and down the river. Don’t hire one of these for a romantic boat ride for two – join up with another group at the docks and make it a party! Buy alcohol from the bottle shop close by and you can even hire a speaker (highly recommended, in fact I wouldn’t go without one). The river is full of boats partying, rinking, dancing and singing. Boats selling food, drink and souvenirs flot past to sell their wears and you can even hire a mariachi boat to serenade you along your journey. This is the activity the many young people do on a weekend and it’s a great way to meet new friends in CDMX.

Of course, CDMX isn’t as safe as Melbourne, Sydney or any city in Australia (except maybe Dubbo ;-)). Over the recent decade, unemployment, corruption and young armed gangs have made some neighbourhoods less than favourable. But if you use your logic, stay alert and listen to the advice of locals and other travellers, you will have an amazing time in Mexico City. The people are open and welcoming to tourists and you will find those myths are only that – myths, and the only reason you will want to leave is to move to the the next intoxicating town in Mexico.

Until next time,

Alicia

Read my previous post on my travel tips for Spain.

Spain: Travel Tips from a Solo Backpacker

Spain: Travel Tips from a Solo Backpacker

I have just completed four weeks of travel in Spain. I began my journey in Madrid and Toledo, visited Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada, Malaga, Girona and finished in Barcelona. Despite my original impressions that I could easily travel around the country within a month, I was very very wrong. Spain is in fact enormous. I had no time to visit the beautiful north in Galicia, walk the Camino to Santiago, taste the wine and visit friends in Basque country or dive in the southern Canary Islands. I would need another 2 months at least!

Each town has its own unique identify that is completely different from the rest as it has developed over hundreds of years with different people, food, accents and traditions. However what I am writing in this article is a general summary of Spain to help those who are interested in travelling to Spain.

Disclaimer: these are my personal experiences only. Taking into account my personality, my cultural background, timing, and all those other individual factors, my opinions may and probably will vary greatly from yours. There’s no right or wrong opinion here.

Tip #1: Be prepared for a history lesson

The thing that really hit me within only days of arriving in Spain was how little history my country has in comparison to Europe. With only 230 years of written history since the British arrived in Australia, I had no concept of how deeply history can be entrenched in a society. Spain has experienced invasions, gone through an inquisition, fought countless wars, destroyed and rebuilt entire towns. Towns exist where multiple religions from Catholic to Muslim to Judaism coexisted, explaining why churches, cathedrals, mosques, monasteries, basilicas and synagogues now dominate the landscape. With so many hundreds of years of traditions, it started to become more clear to me why removing such longstanding traditions such as bullfighting is not as black and white as it seems. Whilst I am 100% against animal cruelty such as this, as is the state of Catalonia who has outlawed it, I have come to understand that asking the locals of these towns to cut a 1300 year old tradition is essentially the equivalent of saying that we should stop celebrating Christmas. I have emerged from this month a little bit more knowledgeable of events outside of my own isolated island and generation.

Tip #2: You have to work to make Spanish friends

As a solo traveller, one thing that is high on my priority list when I travel is to meet people, learn about their culture and understand the city from a local’s eyes, not a tourist. I have realised on this trip that as much as I enjoy my privacy at home, when I go out I like to socialise and share my experiences with others. I was expecting to arrive in Spain and strike up a conversation with everyone I met on the street, simply because I could survive with conversational Spanish. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be true. In Madrid, the bustling city flew past before my eyes, with locals not having time to make eye contact and hospitality workers take your order in rapid fire Spanish before fleeing to their next customer. In Sevilla, locals seemed to ignore the throng of tourists and in Barcelona, the locals spoke Catalan, making conversations even more difficult, even if you can speak Spanish, it’s not preferred and you’re still an outsider. Friends I met in hostels told me that despite even living in Barcelona, the friends they made were from outside of Catalonia, and most outside of Spain.

Many have told me that people from the south are warmer, having a lot to do with the weather (this also is the theory in France and Italy, so I’m told). However if you are a social person like me who likes company on your travels, I recommend you bring a friend with you to Spain, know people there already, or stay in hostels as I did.

I realised that I had become accustomed to the warmth and openness of Latin Americans in my Spanish learning journey, and I had forgotten that Spain is still in Europe, where people are a little more reserved. They take a little longer to get to know but once you’re there, you have some incredibly kind, funny, intelligent and long term friends.

Tip #3: Public transport in Spain is amazing

Welcome to Europe, where they really know how to transport their population and tourists. There were always multiple options to get to places, easy airport connections and clear instructions to just about anywhere, even in the narrow cobblestone roads of smaller villages in Granada. Tickets were easy to buy and understand, and cost only a dollar or so. The metro arrived every 3 to 6 minutes so you never had to run. Buses arrived on time, displaying screens of each stop inside the vehicle, and timings of arrival at bus stops. Disabled access is clearly important, with ramps extending from buses and most importantly, people MOVE for those less mobile. I wish we saw more of that in Australia. If you’re not limited by time, try to avoid the high speed train, as it’s often double the price of a bus or medium distance train. Book your tickets the night before if possible to avoid arriving at the dtsation to find out the train or bus as been booked out and you have a two hour wait until the following departure. Malaga in the south has an airport from where you can get extremely cheap flights to the north, from around 30EUR. I never once needed a taxi or uber.

Tip #4: The provinces seem to be in competition with each other

Due to their long history, their great world discoveries, the conquests to the Americas and their wide variety of traditions all around the country, the Spanish are a very proud people. Each province holds its own unique personality; climate, speciality dishes, accents, legends and immigrant history, therefore physical characteristics of the people too. Each civilian of these towns therefore boast about their town proudly; that they have the best tapas, the best beaches, the best wine, the best nightlife or the best people. Unfortunately this also leads to competition between each part, which I encountered on a daily basis when speaking with locals. I was constantly directed to various places, being told it’s unmissable, only to be told by someone from another region that that place was a waste of time, and I should go somewhere else in their region instead. Madrid and Barcelona fight for the best parties, Seville and Cordoba compete on the history front for who has the most authentic alcazar and the best cathedral. the Southerners say those in the North are cold and serious, whilst in their defence the Northerners say the Southerners are fake and lazy. It’s a tough country at times. Don’t even get me started on the political issues amongst Catalonia, Basque Country and the rest of Spain. That is a subject not to be touched by foreigners without upsetting someone.

Tip #5: Eat, drink and be merry (but get ready to do it later in the day)

My favourite part of Spain, apart from the friends I made in hostels and those I had come to visit from HelloTalk, was the food. We have all heard of the paella, the sangria and the tapas, however what really impressed me where the things I hadn’t heard of. Wonderfully flavoured slow-cooked rabo de toro (Oxtail) accompanied by a beautiful white wine from the warmer region of Cordoba in Andalusia. Patatas bravas (cubed fried potatoes with a delicious spicy sauce) Solomillo de cerdo (pork sirloin) with a lovely full red wine from Basque Country and the scrumptious creamy croquettes.

Breakfast is a simple tostada and cafe con leche (coffee with milk) for as low as 2.50EUR. The daily menus are excellent, offering an entree, main, drink, bread and dessert for about 13EUR. This is a heavy dish and usually eaten at lunch over the siesta break between 2-4pm, so you’ll have to wait longer than usual. If you;re anything like me, you’ll be starving by lunchtime! Dinner is then therefore also pushed back late due to later business closing hours, with people heading out for dinner at 10pm. This lighter meal is usually the perfect time for tapas and smaller dishes. Usually the menus will give you a choice between small (tapa) medium/entree (media) or large/main (racion). In tapas bars you will also see the smaller ‘pincho’ (appetiser).

I could go on forever about Spain – it’s beautiful landscape, profound and vibrant history, astounding architecture, fashionable women and so much more, but I will leave you with this summary of my main thoughts to sum up as best I can a country with such varied areas. If you want to know more, feel free to ask in the comments below and I will answer with as much knowledge as I can.

As I said before, these were mine and depended very heavily on my moods, the season and much more, however I’d like to know what you think about my observations above. Have you visited Spain or are you from Spain? Have you had similar or different experiences?  Comment below!

Up next – I’m off to Latin America, first stop – Mexico city!

Alicia

To read my other articles about Spain click on the titles below:

Madrid, Toledo and 3 things you might not know about Spain

The Caliphate of Cordoba

Making friends in Sevilla

Being sick whilst travelling: Granada and Malaga

The beauty of Catalonia in Girona

Artistic Wonder in Barcelona.

Discovering Artistic Wonders in Barcelona

Discovering Artistic Wonders in Barcelona

Barcelona is vastly different to any other city I visited in Spain. It’s full of international visitors from all walks of life. It’s busy, vibrant, artistic, cultural and full of tourists. Perhaps that’s why it reminded me more of my city, Melbourne, than any other city I’d visited so far.

My hostel was located in the Poblenou district, which is an upmarket neighbourhood close to the beach. For those who love to exercise, play beach volleyball and laze in the sun, dipping their toes into the cool Mediterranean, this is the place for you. Each day I woke up and walked along to beach AT night the calmness reminded me of the beach walk I did each morning or evening at home. For this first time in a month, I felt a tinge of nostalgia for my home.

If you want to be closer to the centre of town near the tourist spots, I’d recommend the historic Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gothico), home to the great Cathedral and lots of great restaurants, or the beautiful Gracia, a hit with lots of tourists for its charm and local vibe.

La Sagrada Familia and Antoni Gaudi

You cannot, however, come to Barcelona without seeing its main attraction, La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family). This basicila began as a project of the architect Antoni Gaudi, a project which the visionary artist began at 30 years old and he worked on until his death in 1926. It is the most visited attraction in Spain, and although I’d seen quite enough cathedrals and basilicas to last a lifetime, especially for an atheist, I’d been advised that it was a work of art not to be missed.

And man, they were not wrong. Gaudi’s vision for this building was to tell the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ. Rather than leave the detail for the internals of the building as is often the case in cathedrals, with small chapels lining the sides  dedicated to various saints and stories, the story of Christ is told on each side, or facade, of the basilica. The entrance tells the story of his birth, and the exit, of his death. A golden figure atop the exit reminds us of his later resurrection.

Upon entering the inside of the building, the light shining through the stained glass windows illuminate the space, blue and green shades on the eastern side for the early morning sun, and warm orange and red tones for the afternoon sunset. Gaudi had a purpose for every detail. The hude columns inside the space supported what is going to be an enormous tower, dedicated to Jesus Christ. The architect died with only two parts of the project completed, and others have continued on with his vision. Gaudi spent his life on this project and was asked to be buried in its crypt when he died. He had such respect from the people that the town converged to carry him to the site upon his death for his burial. It was upon hearing this that I felt the sting of tears behind my eyes. To imagine being so dedicated to a project that you wish to spend your eternity there, and to leave a legacy so great that people from all over the world will come to see it for decades, perhaps centuries to come, is something so great I could not put into words, I could only weep.

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Gaudi’s influence is seen all around Barcelona city, including in the Casa Batllo, which was beautiful decorated in roses for Dia de San Jordi, who is the patron saint of Catalonia. On this day, women receive a rose and men receive a book, stores and corners around the province are alive and bursting with both.

Gaudi’s former house is located in Park Guell, located north of the neighbourhood of Gracia. The park is beautiful and is free to enter, however for the famous photo often seen from the park, you must pay an 8EUR entry to an extra section, and as a tourist sick of paying for entry to take photos of things just to say I’d been there, I decided it wasn’t worth it.

 

Friends in Barcelona

As always, my favourite part of a trip is always when I meet new people and visit those I’ve been chatting with for months.

First, I met up with Vittoria, a girl from Italy who now lives in Barcelona and whom I met in my hostel in Cordoba. She introduced me to another friend from Argentina whom she had met in her travels to Sevilla and with a glint in her eye, Vittoria told us she had a special place in mind to show us. She led us up a hill to the Bunker de Carmel, where we could see the entire panorama of Barcelona city, away from the throng of tourists. She then produced beers and snacks! What a great new friend I had made. There we sat, three girls, talking about life, Barcelona, our countries, Spanish and more as we sipped our cool beers, watching the afternoon sun hit the city, with La Sagrada Familia dominating the skyline.

Secondly, I met with Ramon, who lives just outside of Barcelona and with whom I’ve been chatting for over a year on HelloTalk. It was great to wander around with a local. I’d been commented to by many visitors and outsiders to Barcelona that Catalan people are a little hard to get to know, simply because their friendship groups are already formulated, and also because visitors who do come to BCN may speak Spanish, but not Catalan, their preferred language.

Barcelona has a lot to offer to people from all walks of life, from beach to sports to shopping, history, art, architecture to hiking in the mountains to the north. It’s a wonderful melting pot of cultures, languages, music and parties (unfortunately of which I couldn’t attend as I was still unbelievably unwell). With the right company, you’ll have a blast in BCN!

Barcelona was my final city in Spain. It is with huge regret that I couldn’t get to Zaragoza, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Bilbao in Basque Country, but alas this will have to ve another journey in another time. It’s time to move on!

Stay tuned for my summary of Spain, and my next adventures in Mexico!

Girona: Travelling To Catalonia

Girona in the northern province of Catalonia is often overlooked by tourists, but its beauty is undeniable. After two weeks in Andalusia in the south, I was excited to arrive in a new area of Spain and discover the differences between architecture, food and people.

I was met at the train station by Sarah, a young woman who I have been chatting with for close to two years on my language exchange app HelloTalk. Sarah is among a group of people who have collectively convinced me to add Spain to my itinerary, which originally only consisted of Latin America. Therefore after months of planning and preparation, the meeting with her at the station was surreal, exciting and full of hugs and laughter.

Sarah is a born and bred Gironian and is extremely proud of her region of Catalonia, so she was armed with a fully planned itinerary and boundless enthusiasm to show me her hometown.

 

 

Game of Thrones scenes filmed in Girona

Who needs a paid walking tour when you have a local friend who knows all the stories of the region? Sarah and her friend Paula took me around the old historic sector of Girona, where in fact many scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed, including a chase scene with Arya, the theatre play she attends and, most notably, the cathedral steps where Queen Cersei is humiliated and forced to complete a naked walk of shame through the town. There are lines of people to pay for entry into Sevilla’s Real Alcazar to see the fictional land of Dorne from the series, however on this dreary rainy day, it was wonderful to be in a less-known and touristy place. There were still tourist trains driving around and tourists doing their snaps on the cathedral steps – these days tourists have infiltrated everywhere, myself included! I must admit, I was tempted to stand on the top of those steps and yell “SHAME, SHAME!”

Legends of Girona

More than revelling in the beauty of the architecture, if you really want to get to know a city, learn its legends and stories. Sarah was full of them. The first legend was about the Witch of the Cathedral, who they say used to trouble parishioners with her insults about religion and threw stones at the cathedral until she was turned to a stone gargoyle attached to the church facing the ground, damned to hell for eternity. She is the only human gargoyle on the cathedral and looks very sad as water pours from her face in the rain.

Characters of a better standing are immortalised by facing the heavens, for example the butler, who, to play a trick on her guests, mixed sugar into her sausage mix. However the guests unexpectedly loved the dish, and sweet sausages are now a famous dish in the region.

Close to Sarah’s apartment is another unmissable icon with a legend – the Lioness’s bottom. It is said that soldiers leaving Girona who wanted to return alive would kiss the bottom of the statue before leaving. So the saying goes that any visitor to Girona who likes the city enough to return, can’t leave without partaking in the tradition. Needless to say, my lips got busy that day!

Finally was the legend of the crocodile woman, who was a nun who was locked in a dundgeon on the river. She was a beautiful woman but very holy and the other nuns in the convent locked her up due to jealousy. She remained in the dungeon for weeks as it began to fill with water after heavy rain. Eventually her body morphed into that of a crocodile, but since she was a saint, she also grew butterfly wings. It is said that those with a good heart see her swimming in the river on a full moon night.

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The following day, I was taken to the charming surrounding small towns around Girona, including Peratallada and Pals. We finished the day overlooking the Mediterranean’s Costa Brava, where the rich of Catalonia spend their summer vacations.

 

If you come to Spain and decide to drop into Barcelona and the province of Catalonia, don’t miss out on visiting Girona. There are three speed options of trains ranging from 36 minutes to 2 hours depending on your budget and timetable. Girona has all the beauty, food, history and nature of anything in the south. You won’t regret coming here.

Special HelloTalk offer

Thanks to my language exchange application HelloTalk, I have made wonderful friendships online, like this with my friend Sarah.

UPDATE:

WIN A 12 MONTH VIP SUBSCRIPTION

If you are interested in learning a language and want to meet people online to practise with, HelloTalk premium is a great way to do it. You can make video calls, have unlimited translations per day and you can access your entire chat history, which is priceless for language learning to see how far you’ve come!

HelloTalk are offering free VIP membership for a year to the first 5 people who respond in the comments below. If you don’t have HelloTalk yet, simply register for free then comment below with your username for the chance to win!

Granada, Malaga and travelling when sick

Granada, Malaga and travelling when sick

Three weeks into my trip, I got sick. It started off with a husky voice on my last morning in Sevilla, which I tackled with a lemon tea and carried on ignoring until I arrived in Granada at my hostel. I had booked the hostel because it was a partner of the awesome hostel I’d stayed in Sevilla, and also for the hammocks I saw in a photo. I’m a sucker for hammocks.

I arrived after a lovely scenic drive through the andalusian valleys (coughing all the way and probably scaring all the passengers around me that I had smallpox). It was a cool 12 degrees and grey. After a confusing walk through the labyrinth of cobbled laneways uneven enough to make any weighed-down backpacker with fragile bones nervous, I arrived at my hostel. Reggae music was playing, the staff had dreadlocks and piercings, people were rolling who-knows-what in papers, a man was passed out in the ‘chill-out’ room and the hammocks were damp. I was shown to my room and, to my delight, I had received the first lower bunk of my trip so far. I was excited to chill out in bed chatting to friends and watching netflix to regenerate.

WRONG!

The wi-fi worked only outside. I headed outside to be sociable and enjoy the vibe of this alternative hostel. After 10 minutes of shivering, I wrapped myself in a blanket I found on the back of the chair, not wanting to know the last time it had been washed. One of the staff was making a menu for the hostel family dinner. I had heard that the best tapas were in Granada, but considering the weather I was more than happy to stay in.

“Hope you are ok with vegan food!” announced the guy proudly. In that moment I had my first temptation to book a flight immediately to Mexico where I know the tacos had plenty of cheese ad wouldn’t disappoint.

But I’d come all this way for the beautiful Alhambra, which some people wait weeks to get tickets for, so I was going to push through.

 

La Alhambra

The Alhambra is an Andalusian palatine city that consists of a set of palaces, gardens and a fortress that housed a real citadel within the city of Granada, which served as accommodation to the monarch and the court of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. It is the second most visited attraction in Spain after the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and you normally books weeks in advance for entry, unless you can squeeze in a group tour ticket a week beforehand, as I did.

At approximately 10 degrees and rain, the tour was not enjoyable at all. At started tensely when the tour group leader arrived just on time for the commencement of the tour and without apology, pissing off the very punctual Australian and Italian people in the group. We then dawdled as we waited for another two families who arrived late, one with five young children and other family without any English and needed to wait in line for an audio guide in their language.

Throughout the rest of the tour, I shivered in the rain as we waited at every stop for the family with the children to catch up to us, dragging their stroller with them. I felt so bad for not enjoying this place, but I was honestly so cold and miserable all I could think about was bed and the warm beaches of Mexico. Hopefully the pictures do it better justice. 

People tell me that Granada is beautiful, but by the time the tour was done and I made my way back to the hostel, I was so unwell I did nothing but stay in my room coughing and watching Friends on my laptop, with the odd emergence from my room to hang my phone out the door in the cold to get the slightest wifi connection.

I was pleasantly awoken at 4am the next morning by someone vomiting in the trash bin next to my bed.

Ah, hostel life.

People tell me that Granada is beautiful, and that it rains only a couple of days a year. People tell me I was very unlucky.

People say a lot of things, but all I learnt on this trip was how sickness affects your positivity about everything, no matter how unique the experience is that you’re having and no matter how many years of history you’re standing in.

 

Malaga

I was happy to move on to Malaga, and immediately felt the air warmer as I stepped off the bus and headed towards the beach.

Walking through Malaga’s commercial streets and past its port with tall skyscrapers by the beach, I felt immediately comfortable and safe. It felt just like my home on the Gold Coast. Tall buildings, beach, and loads of rich white tourists.

But being at home wasn’t what I was here for, and I was still quite unwell. I went to the pharmacy to ask where the nearest doctor was, only to be told that doctors won’t see me under the Spanish free healthcare system as I’m not a part of the European Union or Spanish-colonised Latin America. If I wanted medical treatment, I would need to go to emergency at the hospital under my insurance cover. I was absolutely NOT going to use my health insurance for a cold so early into my trip, so I spent a day almost entirely in my room, plowing myself full of lemon lozenges, painkillers, anti-inflammatories and cough medicine. One guy checked into our hostel room, took one look at me and an hour later returned to move to another room, telling me rudely “I’m travelling by bike, I can’t be sick right now.”

Having other roommates going out partying whilst I was sputtering and dying in bed was torture, knowing I could have been out enjoying Spain with them and meeting new people, dancing all night like in Sevilla, however a long term trip needs a healthy body, and the last thing I wanted was to be sick that weekend in Girona for a weekend with my friend Sarah.

The next day I had the strength to rise up and explore the port and beach of Malaga, working my way up a hill to the Castillo de Gibralforo, once a castle and fortress with an incredible view of the Mediterranean sea. I would have forgotten I was in Spain were it not for the stark reminder in the form of a massive bullfighting arena that dominates the view.

I booked another night to completely recover and spent the next day chatting with various people in the hostel, losing my voice yet again from how much I laughed at the dark jokes of an English guy I met. I had forgotten how much I missed that humour, which has a lot of similarity with the offensive sarcasm of Australians. We both got talking to a young English traveller leaving near Ronda in Andalusia, an aspiring DJ intent to introduce funk and soul to Andalusia and get her own show in Malaga. Talking in English, telling jokes and discussing music with these people re-energised me, and by the next day I was ready to move on to Catalonia.

Sevilla: how to make friends whilst travelling

Sevilla: how to make friends whilst travelling

 

One day I promise I will arrive at a hostel without getting lost! I made the mistake of not downloading the local map before arriving into Sevilla, so I relied 100% on the directions from strangers.

I have at least learnt how to scan a place for someone who looks relatively friendly that I can ask for directions – and they always tend to be women – I can understand them more when they speak. I asked a friend if my language comprehension was sexist, and she told me there is a scientific reason why women understand other women more easily – something to do with the decibels and vocal chords. I am more in tune with the way a woman’s voice sounds.

Lesson: don’t waste time choosing who to ask for directions. Just ask someone and don’t be afraid to ask them to tell you slowly or to repeat as necessary. No one gets offended if you tell them you didn’t understand. Avoid asking people with backpacks or maps. A dog is generally a good sign of a local walking around their neighbourhood.

My hostel, La Banda, gets its social reputation from their rooftop patio, 7-8pm happy hour with €3 cocktails and 9pm ‘family dinners’. Almost everyone involved then hits the town at midnight and is out until at least 4am, in my case that night, 6am!

View of the great Cathedral of Sevilla from our hostel rooftop terrace bar.

Another lesson: unpack your clothes and toiletries soon after checking in. You won’t want to do it late at night and it will be impossible to get ready in the morning in the dark trying not to rustle through your bags and wake up the hungover bunkmates.

There are lots of touristic reasons why people visit Sevilla – The Real Alcazar was featured as the city of Dorne in Game of Thrones, the Plaza de Espana was featured int he filming of Star Wars and the Cathedral is the biggest is Spain, the third biggest church in Europe and the largest gothic building in the world. The architecture is stupendous and the gardens of Plaza de Espana, which also include a beautiful moat where you can hire and row a little boat, are beautiful.

However, I discovered on this trip that already only a week into my trip, I didn’t want to spend all day in lines to the attractions. It did mean that I missed out on the Alcazar, which as a GoT fan I was annoyed at missing as the guided tour I’d booked made an error. As an atheist, visiting the cathedral didn’t thrill me. What I wanted to do was discover the local food, walk to the non-touristy neighbourhoods and hang out with people I’d met from my hostel.

On my third day at La Banda, I came downstairs to see Anthelme, a friendly French guy, planning a walk through the city, he asked if I would join him ad before I knew it, we found ourselves getting lost in the winding streets of Sevilla. We found a local restaurant and sat lazily in the sun for two hours speaking in waves of English and Spanish about life, jobs, and sustainable development. You know, light-hearted stuff. Anthelme has an Argentinian flair when he speaks thanks to the friends he has spent time with, which was confirmed by the waiter at the restaurant when he asked if he was Argentinian. What a compliment! All I received was “You’re obviously Australian”. Well, just stab a dagger through my heart!

However the highlight of that day was when a bird in the tree above decided to let go of his load, all over Anthelme’s head and t-shirt. The restaurant owner told us it was good luck, and she was right – I found a euro in the street, which I can promise you was put towards a good cause – a beer at the rooftop bar later that night.

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One thing I want to take away from Anthelme is his ability to initiate a conversation with anyone. He randomly asked me if I wanted to explore the city with him, he chatted calmly with the waiter at the restaurant, discovering he was a lawyer from Venezuela who had moved to Spain and needed to re-learn the laws of Spain. Then later he struck up a conversation about Spanish history with an attendant at a rather empty tourist attraction. On the way back to the hostel in the afternoon, I mentioned that he should ask a local Sevillano about Sevilla’s ‘feria’, their Spring fair and party time, and Anthelme wasted no time. He stopped the first person who walked past us, asked him if he were a local of Sevilla and proceeded to question him about the feria. It always takes me a few minutes of psychological warm up and practise sentences before I can stop a stranger and ask them something, and even then I’ll think of a thousand other things I wanted to ask after walking away, but didn’t have the self confidence to do so. However this is the way to improve my Spanish! So the next evening on a hostel night out, I got bored of speaking English with the other travellers so I channelled what I’d learnt from Anthelme in just a day and noticed a bearded man (obviously Spanish, they all have beards here!) on his phone alone at a table. I walked right up to him, fuelled by the courage brought to me by the wine I’d already consumed, and just started talking. Soon, his friend who had been at the bar ordering drinks, returned and before I knew it, I was having a slightly drunken, and rather intellectual conversation in Spanish about immigration and refugees in Australia.

Now, THIS is travel. I won’t forget the girl talk with Melissa from Costa Rica, talking about Aboriginal history with Alberto from Mexico, or complaining about having to get used to the Spanish restaurant times with Ali, my compatriot from Australia.

One thing I would love to forget is waking up at 4am one morning to my bunk bed shaking and the Brazilian girl underneath my bed getting royally screwed by someone I can only assume was a guy at the hostel (which I later confirmed by surveying the arms of all guys the next day, identifying the match with the hairy arm I saw hanging out of the bunk through the curtain the next morning).

I remembered a friend asking me if I could ever do it, and I thought maybe I could, but after that experience, definitely NOT. I’m too old for that. I popped in my ear plus and after five minutes it was over anyway. The worst part was that I could smell the alcohol. Gross. But that’s hostel life!

 

My experience in Sevilla has been wonderful – it is lively but beautiful. The people are relaxed, and there is always someone ready to go out for a bite to eat or crack open a beer. I only wish I had time to be there during Feria, when the city awakens for a two week party. But, on we go to discover the next place in my journey – Granada!

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HelloTalk and meeting friends in Sevilla

HelloTalk and meeting friends in Sevilla

For those learning a language, HelloTalk is the tool I used to meet all my friends overseas. I want to explain to you why I am on this trip halfway around the world Many people decide to go travelling to a certain country and then learn a language so that they can survive there. For me, the case was quite different.

I had started learning Spanish because I had gotten addicted to Duolingo the vocabulary application, however after several weeks, I wanted more. So I searched for applications for language exchange online and I found HelloTalk, an application where you can find people to chat with in any language. Once you find a social reason for speaking in a language, it motivates you even more, and I found myself speaking Spanish conversationally with nine months. Over the course of a year, I made friendships with people in Spain, Mexico, Peru and Colombia and the more I heard about their countries, the more I wanted to visit. So I put together a 6 month itinerary to visit these people, starting in Spain.

My first meeting was in Madrid, where I had posted on Instagram that I’d arrived and suddenly I received a message from Daniel from London, who was on holidays in his home town in Madrid. Instead of visiting the tourist attractions that day, I received the Madrileno tour of the city. Much preferred!

Samira: Sevilla

My second meeting was in Sevilla, and much anticipated for many many months. Samira was the first woman from Spain whom I’d spoken with, and that was a year and a half ago. I could barely speak more than a few phrases of Spanish at that time, and I had always admired her perfectly British English elocution. On my first night in Sevilla, we agreed to meet in front of her university, a beautiful old builiding grander than anything I’d ever studied in, but to the Spanish this just used to be an old tobacco factory. Oh, you Spaniards! Even your factories out-perform our town halls and parliament houses!

I turned around and saw Samira there with a friend she’d invited along, introduced lovingly as Maria del Mar. I wasted no time running and hugging her as though we’d seen each other thousands of times before. As we wandered the halls of the university and the streets of her town, it felt both surreal an totally natural at the same time to be here chatting idly with someone I;d known for so long but never met. I was taken on a Sevillano journey of the university, shown the amazing pasos, or floats that are paraded through the streets during the Easter processions, very famous in Sevilla. We traversed through the quaint streets of the Jewish quarter, and I was delighted to be regaled with stories of Andalusian way of life. As we walked through Barrio Santa Cruz, Maria pointed out to me how the ornate decoration of the Town Hall building peters out gradually to a very plain design, and whilst this is because the architect died, taking his vision with him, it is said that this is a great reflection on the Andalusian way of life: they start something with all the passion and energy they can muster, but as time drags on, they lose motivation “nos cansamos” – we get tired. “You’d get tired too if your summer afternoons climbed over 45 degrees!” argued Maria passionately.

The Sevilla Town Hall, whose renaissance construction was never finished. Notice the diminishing detail going from left to right,
Samira, Maria del Mar and I wandering the streets of the Jewish Quarter.

Daniel: Huelva

Two days later, I journeyed out of Sevilla to a local town on the port, Huelva.  When I had more time and more internet back in Australia, I created an English practise group in HelloTalk and Daniel was one of the members. He was always one of the top contributors and I always felt encouraged with his participation. I met Daniel at the bus station and after taking me for a walk around his town, showing me his work building, the port and randomly running into his father on the street (who, might I say, is a brilliant artist!).

His wife, Rocio, was kind enough to take a break from work to meet us for lunch and I was treated to some local Huelvan cuisine, including crab meat salad and fried cuttlefish, which as a scuba diver took some coaxing at first but I thoroughly enjoyed. Daniel, Rocio and I discussed our language learning journeys. Rocio mentioned that whilst she understands English well, her vocabulary is limited and that affects her confidence when speaking.

I am also experiencing the same issue with my Spanish, and my advice is that INPUT (listening, reading) is not enough to remember new, more complex vocabulary. You will see or hear new words this way, but to practise them enough to stick in your memory, you must deliver OUTPUT (writing, speaking). I was very impressed to hear that Rocio and Daniel speak English at home in the evenings, Between couples this might feel weird to speak another language other than you own when you know you can have an easier, more complex conversation in your native tongue, but when you are comfortable with someone, sometimes language flows easier than with a stranger and you are more confident to be corrected.

We drove out of the city to explore the famous Rio Tinto, which won its name from the red wine colour it runs due to iron contaminants. Unfortunately we were not so lucky that day, as the recent nearby rainfalls had diluted the river to a deep orange. Later we picked up Mario, Daniel’s young son, from school and went to visit the Muelle de las Carabelas, where are housed three full sized replicas of the three ships that Christopher Colombus sailed in his voyage that eventually took him to the Americas. It is from this port that the ships departed Spain, and this museum reveals just how proud the Spanish are for this great discovery of the new world.

Replica of the Santa Maria, one of the 3 caravels sailed by Chris Colombus to discover the Americas.
The Rio Tinto, named for the red wine colour it turns due to the iron contaminants in the water,
Daniel, long-time online practise part and now real life friend.

Although shy at first, young Mario was skipping along holding my hand by the end of the day, and I received a big hug at goodbye time. It’s days like these that I will treasure more than any visit to a tourist attraction.

HelloTalk: Online Language Exchange App

WIth HelloTalk, learn a language by chatting with native speakers around the world – for free! You create a profile, search for people in any area (even people in your city) and away you go! HelloTalk is a messaging application where you make translate, make corrections, send audio messages and even have calls, including video calls.It worked for me – I was speaking Spanish within just a few months!

HelloTalk is a mobile application only, available on Google Play for Android and the App Store for iPhone users.

WIN A 12 MONTH VIP SUBSCRIPTION

If you are interested in learning a language and want to meet people online to practise with, HelloTalk premium is a great way to do it. You can make video calls, have unlimited translations per day and you can access your entire chat history, which is priceless for language learning to see how far you’ve come!

HelloTalk are offering free VIP membership for a year to the first 5 people who respond in the comments below. If you don’t have HelloTalk yet, simply register for free then comment below with your username for the chance to win!

 

Entering Andalusia: the Caliphate of Cordoba

Entering Andalusia: the Caliphate of Cordoba

I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the fast train in Cordoba and felt the warm Andalusian air on my skin. No need for a jacket here. After a pleasant chat with a local Spanish man about the pros and cons of preserving the Spanish traditions such as the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona and Bullfighting, I could tell that the people from the south were immediately more open.

Unfortunately, arriving at my hostel I can’t say the same. My hostel boasted about being in a ‘great location’. I guess it would be for those who enjoy being in the middle of the shopping district and I guess I shouldn’t complain being closer to the train station when I had only a 15 minute walk with a ridiculous-looking bulky 24kg double backpack pushing me to the ground with every step. I caught my own reflection in a shop window and realised that I am the perfect target for street theives. I can barely move let alone run away and I look like I’m carrying everything but the kitchen sink. That was the last time I wore both backpacks on my back. I had bought them so I could connect them and avoid uncomfortable sweaty walks with a  backpack on my front side, but the walk back to the station at the end of my time in Cordoba was a lot easier to manage this way and I don’t get as many stares from locals wondering if I’m human or pack horse.

Cordoba: a brief history

The one thing that really struck me about Cordoba is how much history Spain really has. I come from a country with only 250 years of history, founded in 1788 and here I am in a town that is said to have been established by Romans in 152BC!! In the 8th century Cordoba was captured and rebuilt by Muslims, falling eventually to Castillian King Ferdinand III in the 13th Century and becoming part of Christian Spain.

This history is evident all through Cordoba’s historical district, from the winding labyrinth of narrow laneways used as a defence tactic within the walls of Muslim Corduba, to quaint alleys in the Jewish quarter and boasting elaborate churches, Saints and open plazas and streets from the Catholic times.

 

La Mezquita: The Great Mosque

The crown jewel of Cordoba is the Mosque-Cathedral, ‘La Mezquita’.  This impressive structure is the only one of its kind – I never imagined I would ever see the mixture of two cultures that now cannot seem to coexist in peace under the roof of a place of worship. La Mezquita was founded in 785 by Muslim Caliphe ʿAbd al-Raḥmān and at first was a small building constructed using the remains of a Catholic Basilica. It was enlarged by his successors and completed about 976 by Abū ʿĀmir al-Manṣūr, who was in fact the ambitious vizier of the young son successor. As he was not the direct successor, he wanted to demonstrate his power and although his section was the largest by far, it is very sparsely adorned. The curved archways of the doorways and pillars starkly contrast with the catholic style clock tower out the front – a very impressive sight.

Why did the Catholics not destroy the structure and start fresh? In these days, money had a lot to do with it. In this case however there was something more. Many of the individual chapels surrounding the edges of the mosque were dedicated to noble families in Cordoba who fought the idea to destroy and rebuild the mosque.

Inside the mosque is a mihrab – a curved archway and this case an entire room that is a sacred place for prayer, facing mecca. Unfortunately, the Caliphe must have failed geography in school or he had hired the wrong land surveyor, because the mihrab in Cordoba does not face mecca. It is said that calculations could have been wrongly made when the construction plan was directly copied from another mosque in another kingdom, or that Caliphe had it constructed to face the mosque in Damascus, or to the direction of where his family were situated in North Africa, where they hid him from assassination for six years.

The Catholics built their Cathedral in the centre of the structure, including an enormous pipe organ. Let me tell you, even an athiest has a moment of spiritual sobriety when a 5 metre tall pipe organ sounds and echoes through the halls of a millennium old mosque.

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To me, Cordoba was a very drastic change in pace from the fast lane to the slow. Everything is warmer, calmer, and more relaxed. People don’t seem to be in a rush. I enjoyed crossing the Roman bridge over the river during the day listening to the two teenage boys playing flamenco guitar, and then doing the same by night with my hostel buddies and seeing La Mesquita ethereally illuminated.

La Mesquita and the Roman Bridge lit up by night

 

The beautiful 3-level gardens of the Alcazar of Cordoba

Being away from the touristic historic side of town, my hostel was far quieter, but I realised that a long term voyage cannot be parties every night or you will burn out. I need time to be alone, rest, recharge, write and TAKE CARE OF MY BUDGET!! I liked my lazy afternoons sitting on the hostel’s sunny terrace listening to the lilting sounds of the street violinist echoing through the streets of the shopping district and wafting lazily up to me.

My second and final morning was spent in the awe inspiring gardens of the Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos, (Spanish for “Castle of the Christian Monarchs”). It was a tranquil way to end my time in Cordoba and although I loved the historical aspect, I’m ready for some actin and socialising in Sevilla!

Until next time,

Alicia

Madrid, Toledo and my First Impressions of Spain

Madrid, Toledo and my First Impressions of Spain

After almost 40 hours since leaving for the airport in Brisbane, I landed in Madrid. Seeing the vast historic city stretching before me and the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance brought a tear to my eye as we touched the tarmac and it suddenly hit me that my dream was finally being realised after years of planning.

There’s nothing more nerve-racking than arriving in a new country and you have to have your first conversation in their native language. Spanish language practice doesn’t compare to asking for directions at a train station and trying to keep up. Furthermore, when you speak to someone in Spanish that sounds more than basic, the Spanish speak to you like you’re a native too – like a horse race commentator! Already this week I’ve felt like an idiot for being too nervous to ask people to repeat themselves for clarity and just nodding my head saying “Vale, vale, bien!”

I arrived at my hostel and immediately the girl at the counter commented on how large my backpack is, as if I didn’t receive enough stares on the train at peak hour on the way from the airport. Now I’m super self-conscious about it and even though I’ve thrown out so much to fit everything in, I’m re-thinking buying something super light and forgetting the safety features that make y current luggage so heavy and big. After all, if someone wants to rob my dirty undies, they can go right ahead, it saves me the 11 Euros to wash them.

Day 1 in Madrid started with a walking tour around the centre of the city. The wonderful thing about Madrid is that you can walk to most of the main spots within 30 minutes. Erica, our tour guide from Colombia and now a proud ‘Madrileña’, was full of handy trivial pieces of history that I loved. For example:

3 Handy facts you may not know about Spanish culture

  1. Back in the time of the Black Plague, the water source was infected with disease, so people started drinking wine. Obviously drinking wine all day sent the Spanish loopy drunk, so they needed to think of a way to dilute the wine’s strength. How did they do that, you ask? With fruit. And that is how SANGRIA was born.
  2. Tapas are small dishes to share, with perhaps 3 or 4 pieces. They are grazing foods. Where did this concept come from? As the Spanish did not want flies and other insects infecting their wine with disease, they covered their glasses with bread and other types of food, calling them ‘lids’. The word for lid in Spanish is ‘tapa’. And that is where TAPAS comes from.
  3. Ham is like a religion in Spain. You never want to tell a Spaniard you can find better ham anywhere else. All around the streets of Madrid there are shops with pigs strewn by their hooves from the ceilings. The best ham is the Iberian ham with black hooves. Why is it such a huge industry? Back during the times of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews and Muslims were being persecuted and either forcibly converted, exiled or executed. Those who didn’t want either of those options had to find a really good way to hide their religious faith. Unfortunately, marrying a Christian and going to Sunday mass was not enough. They needed to do something that no God-fearing Jew or Muslim would do. So they started lining up at the markets each week to publicly buy and eat ham. Ham and pork, all day, every day. This led to a huge boom in the ham industry that still reigns supreme in Spain to this day. And let me tell you, it’s delicious!
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Typical Spanish lunch: mixed seafood and chicken paella with a glass of sangria

The Spaniard timetable

In my normal Australian routine, I would traditionally wake up at around 6am, do some exercise, go to work, come home at 7ish, eat dinner at 8 and sleep at 10.30. That has really needed to change since I got to Spain. The Spanish take lunch late from 2pm, take a 2 hour siesta at 4 then return to work. Dinner isn’t until 9pm and all pubs and clubs are empty before midnight. Parties go until 6am and if you still haven’t had enough, after parties in Madrid kick on from 6am until 3pm the following afternoon.

Toledo: the city of 3 cultures

Coming from Australia, a country with only 200 odd years of history, Toledo to the south of Madrid was a must on my list. This picturesque town once was home to the three cultures of Jews, Muslims and Catholics living together. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues all were constructed within metres of each other. I loved walking through the quaint Jewish sectors, squeezing myself through tiny pedestrian-only alleys where you could touch the sides and seeing the beautiful Islam-inspired arches cut from the stone buildings. My piece of advice: Toledo is loaded with tourists and therefore they make the most of the industry offering over-priced guided tours. I personally didn’t get anything out of mine. If you want the background on a place you go to visit, read up on it before you go, or look up the guide’s reviews before you book.

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VIew of Toledo from the River Tajo
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La Catedral de Santa María, the richest cathedral in Spain
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The quaint streets of the Jewish Quarter

 

I didn’t do any more day trips, I wanted to sit in a tapas bar drinking sangria and acting like a local. I booked one more night at the hostel and spent my last 2 days wandering the streets browsing shops and practising my Spanish with people in my hostel from Argentina and Costa Rica. Oh, and recovering in my hostel’s salon on their comfy bean bags after a 7am finish after a pub crawl!

Madrid has a lot more to offer, but I’m glad to leave the hustle and bustle on to the more relaxed and warmer Andalusian south.

Next up, Cordoba!