I love Spain! And what better time to pay homage to one of my favourite countries than these dark autumn days. I have to admit, Spain is in fierce competition with Ireland for the title of ‘best country in the world’, but I will elaborate on that some other time. For now, let me take a mental journey to the country in which so many memorable moments took place. Throughout the years I have had a wide range of experiences, from going on a binge-drinking-holiday-to-celebrate-our-high-school-graduation with my friends to moving out of my parental home to live in Spain for a year. From short city trips to prolonged holidays. From lying on the beach to skiing down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada… You get it, this love letter is long overdue.
el principio | the beginning
In all fairness, I cannot really remember the first time I visited Spain. I was four years old when my parents decided to drive past our usual destination in southern France and journey on towards the Costa Brava, Spain’s north-eastern coast. They came to regret that decision soon enough. We were hit by some serious rain, only to wake up one night to find the entire campsite flooded. My only memories of this are the photos that were shown years after. One particular image remains crystal clear in my mind. It shows one of those blue and yellow rubber boats, floating in an enormous puddle. I am not sure whether we used it to navigate the flooded campsite (go to the toilet by boat?) or whether it was just floating in the water because we took it to the beach that day and had not deflated it. Or if it was even ours. Either way, not necessarily a great start to what would eventually become a long-lasting love affair. I guess it helps that I only remember the photo and not so much the holiday and the rain itself.
el idioma | the language
My next encounter with Spain was through its language. I was slightly bored in primary school, but luckily one of the teachers spoke Spanish. Every week we would have a lesson on the basics. I love languages, linguistics and everything related to it. It helps that I am pretty good at learning them (in Dutch we would say that I have a talenknobbel, a knack for languages). So I was fascinated by the Spanish language and have spent much time learning it since. After high school I decided to move to Spain for a year to take a Spanish language course. That means 25 hours of class a week and an additional 25 hours of private lessons when going out to the pub or the supermarket.
I picked it up quite quickly and after half a year I noticed that I was speaking to fast when asking Spanish grannies the way to the bus station. They say you have really mastered a language once it appears in your dreams, which I believe to be true. After quite some time I did have some dreams in Spanish. Just like I had more dreams in English when I was living in Uganda and spoke English all of the time. Another way to know that you have mastered a language is when people think you are a native speaker. One night, we were out in a club and I was talking with a Spanish guy. He started complaining about all the giris (foreigners) that were there, not realising he was actually talking to one. I mean, I am almost six feet tall, did you really think I was Spanish?! Great compliment though.
When moving back to the Netherlands I wanted to continue using the Spanish language (because if not, you lose your proficiency pretty quickly). So I joined the first year students of Romance Languages and Cultures at Groningen University. It was quite interesting to better understand the Latin roots and the reasons why French, Italian, Romanian and Spanish sound so differently. I learned that linguistics (anything to do with the grammar, syntax, or let us say engineering of a language) has my interest whereas literature does not. Spending hours dissecting a poem written by some unhappy Spaniard 400 years ago? Not for me. Though Don Quixote de la Mancha was fun! I completed all first-year courses and was quite content with this way of keeping up with the language.
Unfortunately, things have digressed since then. Sure, I can watch Casa de Papel with Spanish subtitles only and still understand pretty much everything. I can manage my groceries in a Spanish supermarket and can definitely handle casual conversation in the pub (all those hours of practice pay off). However, reading a book is already more challenging. I have started re-reading ‘La sombra del viento’ and have come to the sad conclusion that there are now too many words on one page of which I cannot remember their meaning. Which makes it much more difficult to enjoy the story. But I soldier on in the hope that it will get better by the time I get to the fourth book in the series.
It is funny, ever since I spent a year in Spain learning Spanish I seem to have forgotten all other languages except English. After that year I went on a holiday to Hungary with my friends and at some point ended up having a conversation in German with the local baker. I was trying my best to locate my high school vocabulary but Spanish words were the only ones to come out of my mouth. Years of going to Austria for skiing helped but a bit, but English and Spanish are still the only languages that I can speak properly. Having said that, my knowledge of Spanish helps a lot when reading French or Italian so finding my way through those countries pretty much works out.
el sur | the south
I have lived in three different cities in Spain: four months in Salamanca, three months in Granada and two months in Sevilla (I know it is spelled Seville in English, but as this is an ode to Spain I will use as much Spanish as I can). I have visited the east coast on short trips to Barcelone and Valencia and spent quite some time exploring the northern coast line. It took about thirty years before I finally went to Madrid properly (I have seen plenty of Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport). I have been to Malaga, even took a boat from the southern tip (Algeciras) to Tangier in Morocco. All in all, I have seen quite a lot of the country. The south is by far my favourite place to be. Lots of sunshine, places that are nice and warm throughout the year and the people are amazing. Sure, it can be horrendously hot in summertime, but I can get used to that. While living there I fell in love with daily life in the south. Eating tapas, strolling towards the city centre along the shores of the Guadalquivir river, dancing until 9 in the morning or watch the sunrise above the Alhambra. Every time I return, it feels like a comfortable coat that fits perfectly.
From all the places in the south I would have to choose Granada as my favourite. A bit of a grubby city, it is a wonderful place to live. Tourists usually come just for a day to visit the Alhambra, an 1,100-year old fortress with impressive palaces and lush gardens situated on top of a hill against a backdrop of mountains. But Granada is so much more than that. Enjoy the narrow streets of El Albaicín, the white neighbourhood. Be careful not to trip over one of the many hippies walking around barefoot, making music and forgetting to wash their hair. Seriously, what is it with Granada that it attracts so many hippies?! Anyway, there is also the more modern site of the city centre with lovely squares filled with terraces and shops everywhere. Get lost in the odd, medina-like streets around the cathedral. Sure, Sevilla is gorgeous with la giralda, the river and its other sights, but Granada is the best place to live, period.
And to dance. A bailar! Nothing compares to Granada nightlife. When living there I spent roughly half of my time in an Irish pub called Hannigan & Sons. It was the epicentre of my social life, we were there at least three or four times a week and befriended all the staff. My roommate, who did not really speak Spanish, dated one of the bartenders, who did not really speak anything but Spanish… At some point I even came to the pub in the afternoon to do my homework. Granada also has nightclubs in the weirdest and most amazing places. El Camborio combines pop music in a greenhouse structure on the top of the hill right opposite of the Alhambra (best view ever) with Spanish hits in the caves below. Mae West is a huge place with high ceilings in what is probably the only mall in the city. Granada Diez is located in an old cinema. Sala Vogue has the best music in an otherwise very creepy-looking basement.
If I ever were to live in Spain again I would most definitely choose Granada. I mean, where in the world can you combine tapas and ski and end your weekend enjoying a glass of cava on the beach? I love the concept, which I learned from a few Irish friends. You book a hotel in Granada city centre, go skiing during the day and enjoy free (!) tapas at night after which you stay up dancing until beyond the wee hours of the morning. Flying back from Málaga you can catch some rays at the beach and soak up some well-needed energy. Because to be honest, I would not last a week on this schedule, but a weekend I can manage.
la comida | the food
Even if you do not like Spanish people, the language or the climate, the food alone would justify visiting Spain at least once in your life. Because all those tapas bars in the Netherlands or wherever can never do justice to the diverse culinary treasures on offer in pretty much any bar in Spain. Okay, this is not entirely true, I have had bad food in Spain as well. And if you do not like meat, garlic and red wine (impossible!) I can imagine the enthusiasm is not overwhelming. But boy, do I love the Spanish cuisine. Especially in those few cities that stick to the tradition of offering a free tapa with your drink.
I have tried tapas in many, many bars around the country, but the best place to go to by far is San Sebastián. When I lived in Spain, I met two of my best friends. We all fell in love with the country and can still spend evenings reminiscing about those days. We also jointly fell in love with Ireland by the way, but as said, more on that later. One of them spent a few months living and studying in San Sebastián so naturally we had to go visit. The culinary treasures I was talking about, this is where you will find them. Pintxos in Basque, when ordering a tapa you are served a work of art. San Sebastián is unique in this and I can recommend anyone to travel there at some point. Covid-permitting I have a wedding in Bilbao next year and I certainly hope to catch some delicious pintxos on the way. In the meantime, tapas in any other place in the country works just as well. Jamón (ham) melting on your tongue, baby squid, mushrooms with heaps of garlic, it is impossible to list all the wonderful bites I have had. Just go and eat!
Besides the food I am also a big, big fan of Spanish wine. I prefer red wine over white any day and if that red comes from the Rioja than all my wishes are fulfilled. You can serve me a glass of tempranillo on a warm summer day and I will not complain. A couple of years ago I visited the Rioja region in the northeast. We took a tour through one of the many vineyards and learned all about making wine. The Marqués de Riscal family had Frank Gehry (the guy from the Guggenheim) design an otherworldly hotel hosting a Michelin-star restaurant in a tiny little village. We were not aware of this, so unfortunately we were too late for a reservation and I will have to return at some point. Really too bad. My father always says that Spanish red wine is farmer’s wine, not as complex as for example French wines. I do not care, I love the strong flavours of oak, … ah well who am I kidding? Even with my knack for languages I lack the vocabulary to describe this.
España, te amo | Spain, I love you
Writing this piece I realise a few things. Firstly, that I have really spent quite a lot of time in Spain. After spending a year living there, I have returned at least five times since. Looking through my photos there are so many other things I could talk about. Like how Plaza Mayor in Salamanca is the best square in the world. Or how Spanish people are really short and do not really know how to deal with women that are six feet tall. Some other time maybe. Secondly, though I love it, I do not think it is a country where I would want to live forever. However, I can definitely see myself buying a nice apartment somewhere in Andalucía to flee the cold winter days in the Netherlands. Finally, I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Spain, which is the driving force behind my love for this country. It is impossible to convey this through a 2000-word article, but I treasure these memories and am grateful for all the people that were part of creating them. I hope this whole covid-thing blows over soon and we can go for tapas & ski again!