5 Things I’ve Learned About Spain (without even being there)

photo of red-and-yellow flag of Spain on a flagpole, waving in a wind, against a dark blue sky

For those of you who have been awaiting news of our visas, we have a great update! We were approved a couple days ago and we are scheduled to pick them up on Tuesday. Not a moment too soon, since we depart for Spain on Wednesday. Phew! Our planning will soon become experiencing.

Since our most recent post, we’ve been asked which one of us is on the affirmative side of the “planning is part of the traveling experience” debate and which one of us defends the negative side. I fall solidly on the side of “to plan is to travel (planear es experimentar).” And while we have been waiting for our extended visas, I have been busily planning. Among other things, we have both been studying Spanish and learning about Spain. One of the first things we learned was that, unlike Ecuador, it seems that everyone we talk to has either been to Spain or knows someone who has. Therefore everyone has much-appreciated advice on where to go, what to eat, what to see, etc. In 2018, we went to Barcelona for a few days and have read the Barcelona-centric books by Carlos Ruiz Zafrón, but otherwise knew little else about the country before this summer. So what I’ve learned so far may fall into the “well, duh” category for those of you who have visited Spain, but I am scratching my travel itch and exploring Spain in my mind while I wait to board that plane.

Here are a few things we have learned:

image of a map of trails leading into Spain from France, Italy, Germany, and beyond, with the insignia of the Camino de Santiago(a yellow shell surrounded by stars on a blue background) in the upper left corner.
Caminos converge on Spain.
Photo source: Wikipedia
  1. There is amazing hiking all over the country, not just in the Pyrenees. The Caminos de Santiago get the most press, but there also appear to be spectacular hikes in the Picos de Europa (north), outside Madrid (central), and in Parque Natural de los Alcornocales and Grazalema Natural Park (south), not to mention long walks bordering the Mediterranean coast (east). By the way, did you know that there are actually many different Caminos de Santiago de Compostela, including one that originates in Poland? The most famous and crowded is the Camino Frances, which meanders 500 miles from France through the Pyrenees mountains and across northern Spain, but there are more than a dozen others to explore.
  2. There is beautiful coastline on three sides of the country. (The fourth side is mostly bordered by Portugal.) There’s the rocky, cliff-lined Bay of Biscay in the north, sweeping sandy beaches on the Mediterranean in the east, the windiest coast in all of Europe to the far south in the Strait of Gibraltar, and cold-water, white sand beaches in the Atlantic just south of Portugal. Then there are the Balearic islands off the eastern coast known as playgrounds for the wealthy (think: Ibiza). 
  3. Morocco is a short ferry ride away from the southern coast. The influence from North Africa is powerful, especially in the south, in Spain’s architecture, art, and history, and the opportunity to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to visit Morocco seems too good to pass up. In addition, there is a small piece of Spain on the continent of Africa called Ceuta and ferries run between the European mainland and Ceuta daily. And guess what: They began building a border wall, which is still in use today, in the 1540s to keep out the African people trying to enter Europe through Ceuta. Go figure!
  4. Gibraltar itself is not in Spain – and in fact, after Brexit, is not even part of the E.U. It’s a British territory that shares a border with Spain that is all of ¾ mile. It’s not clear whether Spain agrees with the UK on this situation but apparently there’s a border nonetheless. There’s also a border with another small country in the north, above the Pyrenees mountains, that’s much longer: 40 miles. It’s Andorra, nestled between Spain and France, and it is also not a part of the Schengen zone, so a passport is required to enter and leave it if you happen to drive through it to France (where a passport is not required). The story of how Spain’s borders became established historically and shifted over time is fascinating and a testament to point #1: massive mountain ranges for centuries separated the Iberian peninsula upon which Spain sits from invaders coming from the north, and also separated regions of what is now Spain from each other. I won’t get into all the conquests within Spain and by Spain, the expulsion and victimization of all kinds of people who were not in power at the time, and so much more that is bloody, cruel, and shocking. Let’s just say history repeats itself everywhere.
  5. Cider is a big deal (at least in the north). So are vermouth, wine, and sherry. Cider is poured from above one’s head into a glass held below one’s hips in order to aerate it in its journey from the bottle. I can only imagine that the deeper you are into your cups the harder it is to make the target. Sherry is a fortified wine that comes from one small region of southern Spain and has a long and interesting history of its own. Being craft beer fans, we will be on the lookout for how widely that trend is spreading in Spain!
photo of a main pouring cider from a green bottle above his head into a glass by his waist, against a backdrop of green mountains.
Pouring cider in Asturias.
Creative Commons image.

Clearly there is so much more to be learned and we are eager to do it on site. Our plan right now is to spend the first couple months traveling around the country exploring with an eye to where we most want to plant ourselves for the remainder of the time. We are looking forward to being joined by friends and family in the coming weeks and beyond. Although Spain is larger geographically than Ecuador, we expect that moving about the country will be easier with their advanced transit system and well-maintained roads. We are open to your suggestions, recommendations and useful tips (books, movies, locations, restaurants, sights…).

One of the most interesting things about the full travel experience is comparing what you’ve learned during the planning stage to what you experience when you get there. I hope I never lose the feeling of excitement and awakening when I arrive in a new place and begin to put all of my planning into action. On Thursday morning, that will begin for us in Spain. Hasta la próxima vez! (Until next time!)

9 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned About Spain (without even being there)

  1. April Holland says:

    So glad to hear you got your passports! I can’t wait to hear about your adventures. Spain has been on my dream list. Maybe some day… in the meantime, I will enjoy the country vicariously.


  2. Beth B. says:

    Hurray! I’m so glad to hear your got your visas! A general recommendation/warning about visiting Morocco from Spain: 1. Don’t take the wrong ferry, you’ll end up in a weird shipping yard with no way to get to Tangier 2. Get a tour guide. Without a tour guide, you’ll be hounded by want-to-be your tour guides and it’s annoying. 3. Don’t go during Ramadan. Everyone is hangry. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures!


      1. Beth B says:

        On the Morocco side. My aunt took a trip that was fully guided and she had a much nicer experience. Our time in Morocco was stressful without a guide.


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