jueves, 31 de mayo de 2012

Andalusia for beginners: Cordoba

Unlike in Malaga and Granada, in Cordoba we weren’t going to stay with local friends – we organised couch surfing (which was my first experience with this website ever). So I found a nice-sounding Greek who offered the three of us a place to sleep for one night. When we arrived in Cordoba in the early afternoon it turned out he is not in the town at the moment and he texted me he would send a Greek housemate to pick us up. We felt a bit discouraged and drowned our disappointment in Haribos gummy bears. We decided to leave our stuff in the lockers at the bus station and book the earliest bus to our last destination, Seville. It was at 5am so we figured we can just go to some bar later and drink the time away. Eventually, when we gave up on the entire couch surfing thing, an Italian friend (where’s the Greek?!) of the Greek arrived and hosted us in his shared flat. After initial awkwardness we went to see Cordoba with our host and his friends and by the end of the afternoon we were basically best friends. 

After dinner (delicious pasta made by Italians) we were taken to Feria de Cordoba, a huge crazy festival on the other side of the city. It was great fun; there were thousands of people there. We drank sangria, danced and really regretted we had booked this 5am bus… So all in all my first couch surfing experience – although we did not actually sleep at all in the end – was very positive. And Cordoba? I will probably remember it as the crazy day rather than anything else!

viernes, 25 de mayo de 2012

Andalusia for beginners: Granada

Warmed up and a bit suntanned we headed to Granada. The bus between Malaga and Granada was cheap and comfy, and the views on the way were good as well: olive groves, hills, little villages. I even spotted The Bull! 

I had quite big expectations as to this city because many people had told me it’s the best of Andalusia – and it was, I definitely fell for Granada.
The architecture is absolutely charming there. White houses, tiny narrow streets, balconies decorated with flowers, little patios and sunny squares… It was like a totally different world and I loved it. The influence of the Arabic culture is immense and it fits in there perfectly. 

What we were also looking forward to was the food. Granada offers loads of cheap bars with yummy tapas. The first night we went for drinks (and free tapas, something that kept startling me until the very last day) to a bar on the top of a hotel which was followed by a great flamenco show and honey and almond pancakes and shisha in one of the popular teterias. The second night we hit the centre to enjoy the local nightlife. It was buzzy and happy, loads of students around. We went from one bar to another drinking and eating, finally ending up in a nice little bar where for 1€ you get a glass of tinto. The bartender showed us some magic tricks and it was a bliss.
That’s another amazing aspect of Granada (and actually other cities of Andalusia we visited) – the people. Very very different to Catalans and even Madrilenos. People on the streets talked to us and smiled, cars always let us cross over and there were no obscene piropos! I will write a separate post on this phenomenon, for the moment let me just explain that piropos are ‘flattering comments’ girls get from men, usually when they walk past them on a street. Also in Granada the southern accent is very strong and I find it extremely cute!
We couldn’t say we have been to Granada if we didn’t see the famous Alhambra. Unfortunately we could only get tickets to see the gardens – it was still impressive.  Massive massive constructions and lots of green combined with breathtaking views – what’s not to love? 

I genuinely felt upset when we had to leave. Granada is so far my favourite city in Spain!

Andalusia for beginners: Malaga

Following advices of more experienced friends we decided to spend only one day in Malaga – from what we had investigated there wasn’t that much to see there. So what we did first was discovering the Malagueta beach. Maybe not the best one around but there was the sun, some sand and cool water so we were happy. I absolutely loved the fact they have the sea AND the mountains. It wasn’t as busy as the main beach in Barcelona and also there were no ‘cerveza-beer’ guys. Also, the entire city smelt nice. I cannot explain it but somehow the moment we left the airport the air just smelt very fresh and simply pleasant. 

Later we wandered around the old town which was lovely. The prices of food were one of the first things to catch our attention – we could not believe it when we were charged 1,50€ for a beer AND quite a decent tapa.
Malaga is visually pleasant; the architecture of the old quarter is beautiful and full of vivid colours. You don’t get such pink, blue or orange buildings in Barcelona. Not that many in one place anyway.  We also walked through the amazing Parque de Malaga, a jungle-like park decorated with sculptures. 

Another surprising thing was the lack of the accent – or at least I did not notice any big difference in Malaga. Maybe we didn’t talk to many locals but those we spoke to had quite ‘normal’ accents and I could understand them perfectly.
In general though I can see myself getting a bit bored there if I stayed for longer than a couple of months. Maybe it’s one of side effects of living in such a buzzy city like Barcelona for a year… 

domingo, 6 de mayo de 2012

Fashionable Barcelona

I know the word fashion has been in happy marriage with Paris for centuries now but there is definitely something going on between fashion and Barcelona. The latter is like a fluorescent adolescent in comparison to chic Paris yet that’s what makes it interesting.
Fashion in Barcelona seems more relaxed and laid-back. Heels, women’s suits and little blacks are almost extinct here. The seaside climate encourages hippie loose trousers, colourful patterned skirts, cotton maxi dresses and all sorts of flats. Lots of dreadlocks, piercing and tattoos give Barcelona kind of an alternative hint. You can easily spot tourists when going out – they are usually overdressed.
Still, you can successfully shop in Barcelona no matter what your likings are.  
For posh and expensive stuff you’ll go to Passeig de Gracia. Famous designers, expensive high street. Worthwhile just to peek at shop windows, Replay’s jungle or Vuitton’s elephants are very plesant. If Holly Golightly wanted her breakfast at Tiffany’s in Barcelona this is where she would go. 
Vintage, cute and one of a kind clothes can be found in little boutiques all over Gracia and l’Eixample. The ones I particularly like are:
Padam (Gracia, metro Fontana, c/ Ros de Olano 4bis)
Modart (Gracias, metro Fontana, c/Asturias 34)
La Coqueteria (L’eixample, c/Girona 60)
When you’re on the budget, outlets are your friends. Apparently there’re quite a few in the town, especially around c/Girona. Mainly Spanish brands, such as Mango (c/Girona 37).
The most original things are to be found on street markets. You can spot there some reasonably priced handmade goodies – particularly jewellery and accessories. There are markets in Gracia, Raval, by the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya – to name just a couple!
An event to go to is The Shopping Night. Held in the centre (in December) it’s a great opportunity to buy something on sales, get free samples and shop until midnight. Streets full of people, music, stalls with local food and sangria to warm you up – in the very heart of Barcelona (Passeig de Gracia).

sábado, 28 de abril de 2012

Sant Jordi

There comes a day in Catalonia when all the streets are full of roses and books, and you can’t help but join the common madness. Sant Jordi – Saint George’s – is one of the most important holidays in the region, even though it’s a labour day (unless you study at Pompeu Fabra who chose Jordi for its patron and so the classes are cancelled). It’s celebrated on the 23rd of April and it is compared to the tradition of St Valentine’s. ‘As if one Valentine’s Day wasn’t torturous enough’, was my first thought when I heard about Sant Jordi.
Turned out, the Catalan celebration is not at all a lovey-dovey-sickishly-lovely-full-of-red-hearts day to show how much you adore your loved one – this one day in a year. It’s a days of books and roses, traditionally women would give books to men and get a rose from them. Nowadays the tendency is a book AND a rose for girls and a book for guys. Improvement, if you ask me! And it’s not an exclusively couples exchange – you get books and roses from friends or even relatives.
Why rose? There’s a legend about a dragon pestering Montblanc in medieval times. It would eat all the animals and so people had to sacrifice themselves to keep the beast away. One day when they were drawing lots it was the princess’ turn to be eaten. In the last moment a knight on a white horse saved her and killed the dragon. In the paddle of the animal’s blood there grew a rosal. Jordi – the knight – gave one of the flowers to the princess. Kinda cute, right?
And why a book?  In the 20th century some book seller decided to commemorate deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes (both died on the 23rd of April 1616) so he came up with a Book’s Day.
Sant Jordi in Barcelona is quite impressive; there are books and roses stalls behind every corner, lots of people on the streets and the atmosphere is cheerful. The best spot is La Rambla. The prices of books might scare you off – they do have some second-hand ones too though – but it’s so vivid there it’s worth it to pop by just for a moment.

jueves, 5 de abril de 2012

The foreign identity

My perpetual research on Catalan identity made me think about my own position in the Catalan society and my conclusion is: I am not a part of it. I live here but I don’t live Catalonia. Firstly, and obviously, I am a foreigner. And it’s not just blue eyes, weird accent and wearing shorts in February. Being ‘Erasmus’ I don’t have much contact with the locals so I haven’t really immersed in the culture and the local lifestyle. I haven’t even changed my eating habits – I still have dinner the ‘English time’ - unless I go out. What comes next is something that for me, as a language student, is crucial – Catalan. I have never learnt it simply because I don’t want to confuse my brain any more – it’s enough hassle with Spanish and Italian, but also because I know I’m here just for a little while.
And I know it because, although I am aware that I’m very lucky to be living here for a year and I do think Barcelona is one of the most amazing cities in the world – I cannot quite imagine myself living here permanently. It’s not that there is something in particular that makes me wanna leave, it’s rather lack of things take make me wanna stay here. Still, being an alien here made me realise where I actually belong – at least at the moment – and this makes Barcelona special for me too.
The last element that constitutes my foreign identity is the Catalan legacy. It’s something you’re exposed to from the very beginning and is transmitted through the language, the traditions, the food, the mentality. I have noticed the same trait in – if not every, at least the most of – Catalans I have met and it’s this rich heritage, the local identity and pride. I can be aware of it, understand it and admire it but I will never be a part of it. And that’s what really makes me a foreigner here.

lunes, 26 de marzo de 2012

The Catalan identity (part 1)

Apart from sunbathing, drinking sangria and napping in the afternoon my activities while on year abroad in Spain include writing a so-called ‘year abroad research project’ on a chosen topic. Pick a topic, research it well, write 6000 words in Spanish. Easy peasy. So I chose what seemed to me like a fascinating issue that can be deeply investigated, did some basic research still in England and flew to Spain all happy and excited about it. I had my master plan plotted: go to museums, read newspapers, prepare questionnaires and do interviews, I’d be done way before the deadline in May and then I can just sunburn my happy face on the beach. Little did I know in reality my topic is a cheeky monkey. Not to mention I was being optimistic about the time: for Erasmus students it is a law of nature to do things as late as possible. Luckily I’m one of those who work better under the pressure, so that has been my excuse for the last couple of months too. The point is, somehow I managed to choose one of the most controversial and difficult topics – identity amongst young people in Barcelona. My job is to find out if they feel more Catalan, more Spanish, both – or none of those. I decided to focus mainly on the language as it’s a great part of one’s identity but also for pragmatic reasons – words limit won’t let me write about much more than that.
So, having in mind my dry theoretical research, I expected to obtain quite balanced results confirming my expectations that the target group would decide their identity is dual. So far only one person said so. It seems like patriotism as such does not really exist in Spain – or maybe it does but only in Madrid although I’m guessing even there people are more proud of being madrileños than of being Spanish. So – local identity seems to be a more popular concept in Spain. The problem with Catalonia is that it is more distinct than any other region – which is perfectly understandable considering its independent traditions in the past – and quite desperate to become a separated country. Up until now I haven’t met one Catalan person that wouldn’t agree – at least to some small extent – that Catalonia should be a rightful independent country. Yet, it doesn’t mean that my respondents describe their identity as totally ‘Catalan.’ And, as I expected, no one described it as ‘Spanish.’ Some said nationality is about where you were born, some said it’s about where you love to be, about the culture, about the background… So, at this stage of my work I can be nothing but well confused. Catalan, not Catalan, Spanish, not Spanish, both or neither? Investigation in progress. 

domingo, 18 de marzo de 2012

Las Fallas in Valencia

Like a million other people on the 17th of March I headed to one of the biggest Catalan cities, Valencia, to participate in the annual festival – Las Fallas. It’s a celebration of fallas, massive dolls-constructions-kinda-thing which are later burnt.

First we went to see La Mascleta which I can only describe as a LOT of noise. Responsible for it were firecrackers, fireworks and some crazy pyrotechnicians. Firecrackers followed us all day long and – against all the health and safety rules - even children played with them. I held my breath anytime I saw a child exploding one. The party went on all day. There were parades with musicians, girls wearing gorgeous dresses and children with flowers. What will never cease to impress me in Spanish festivals is enthusiastic participation of the citizens: the elderly, little kids, teenagers – everyone gets involved. I don’t think I’ve seen such sense of community in any other place so far. 

The fiesta culminated in one of the best bonfires I have ever seen.
The fallas were actually really nice too, impressively creative. There were caricatures of   politicians, an Elvis, lots of animals…

And the city itself, at least the bit we managed to see, is pretty, spatial and palmy, just to my liking. 

It is definitely worth going there again to discover some more of this city – and to enjoy the beach which is supposed to be fantastic.

lunes, 5 de marzo de 2012


Although it is never included in the top 10 things to see in Barcelona, the district of Gràcia is definitely worth visiting. The moment you sidetrack from Passeig de Gràcia you enter a totally different world. Gorgeous buildings and tens of squares, loads of trees and narrow streets distinguish this barrio from all the others. Although there is no Sagrada Familia, no beach, nothing to make tourists come here in – or maybe for this reason exactly – I would probably choose this place to live, if I was to live in Barcelona.

Gràcia used to be an independent village until late 19th century and some people, especially those whose families have lived there for generations, still do not consider it a part of Barcelona.

The atmosphere in Gràcia is truly unique. Rather quiet, rural, decadent. It’s full of cafes, bars, bakeries and shops. What particularly caught my attention were obviously candy shops. Dangerously for my waist and wallet I have to pass one of those every week. It’s cheap and pretty well-stocked, and by now I have probably tried every kind of Haribo and fudge. Twice.

The second type of stores I cannot pass by indifferently are clothes shops. If you fancy enriching your wardrobe with something new and unique – this is where you should head. Spanish brands, such as Zara, Pull&Bear, Stradivarius or Mango are definitely amongst my favourites but I remember one morning when on my 15 minutes way to work I saw two girls wearing exactly the same jacket I had bought a couple of days earlier. Little boutiques in Gracia offer more original clothes, and although quite a lot of them promote casual hippie style, you can easily find elegant suits, cute skirts and slinky dresses.
Sometimes you can bump into a real treasure island, like this shop me and Alicja (magnoliacelebrationinspain.tumblr.com) found the other day. The quality of their shoes probably leaves much to be desired but for Erasmus students what really matters is that the price consists of a single figure.

Another thing young financially-limited people love about Gràcia are its squares, particularly the most famous Plaza del Sol. It is the destination for summer botellóns – mass open-air drinking. It’s a more economical way to get merry and although technically not legal, botellóns are rarely disturbed by the police.
Finally, I have to mention Gràcia’s celebrations. The most important one is Fiesta de Gràcia, celebrated in September. Inhabitants decorate streets and then choose the most beautiful one. There are stalls with drinks and foods, concerts, games and general happiness. 

Another interesting festival took place on the 3rd of March, La Festa de Sant Medir, known as ‘the Sweetest Festival’ because of 100 tons of sweets given away during the parade. Unfortunately I arrived too late and all that was left were wrappers…

miércoles, 8 de febrero de 2012


There are places you know you will love, places you fall in love with at first sight, places you get used to but Madrid wasn’t any of those. I went there without high expectations, for what I had known it was just another capital – a couple of average monuments, lots of museums and it takes ages to get from A to B – nothing particularly special. I don’t know when exactly I actually started to love the city; it happened in the meantime, unexpectedly and progressively, not a bold from the blue. There’s something about it, maybe the architecture, the atmosphere, nice bars and cafes, the people.

Although weird at first it felt great to be able to understand everything around – no Catalan, just the most Spanish castellano. Only Spanish flags.

In an inexplicable way people seemed different too. Somehow I thought they were more relaxed but maybe it’s just because I was carefree and on holiday. What is definitely different is Madrid’s sense of fashion. I saw high heels! People dress more elegant in comparison to ‘alternative’ and ‘arty’ citizens of Barcelona. 
Food isn’t much different from what we have here. They seem to like puddings more; churrerias and pastry shops are all around the place. Cakes in San Miguel market are heavenly.

We visited Retiro park twice, it’s a massive complex and must look fantastic in spring. Even in February though it is pretty impressive.

The museum are very impressive too. I visited Prado and Reina Sofia and it was a really really good dose of art.
Other random but amazing thing in Madrid was traffic lights. The sound they make is just like the sound of shooting in one of the good old Pegasus games. Purely beautiful.
I can’t deny it, Madrid has seduced me. Many times I asked friends who had visited the capital: do you prefer Barcelona or Madrid? Now I see it’s impossible to say – the two cities are too different, too unique to be compared. It was not love at first sight but I know I want to go back.