10 Things I’ve Learned About Spain (Since Being Here)

photo of a castle wall and turret with a Catalunyan flag flying on top, overlooking blue ocean, with rocky hills and high-rise beach apartment buildings in the background

What is it like to live in Spain? The longer we are here, the more we realize that it takes more time than ten months to answer that question. When we started this adventure, ten months in a place seemed like an incredible luxury and plenty of time to get a sense of a place. It’s still an incredible luxury, but even in a country smaller than Texas, there is so much left for us to see and do. We certainly don’t have the knowledge of a local, but we do have observations. We are voyagers who spot the differences between a new-to-us place and what we’re used to without really understanding them. So without pretending that this is any more than random observations, it seemed like a good time to follow up Rachel’s October post called “5 Things I’ve Learned About Spain (without even being there)”.  Here goes!

photo of a light brown sandy beach with a white and gray seagul standing on it and clear water lapping up to it, with a rocky outcropping and hills in the background

1. There are beaches for everyone here. Back in October, we had read about the beaches, but experiencing even a sampling of them makes the full spectrum of options real. You can find beaches that are small rocky coves or wide with soft sand (white, brown, red, yellow: pick a color!), placid or rough, hike-in, drive-up, lined by rustic hiking paths or paved paseos, equipped with volleyball nets and bocce courts or feet-in-the-sand bars, framed by jagged cliffs or glass towers, and popular with families, nudists, partiers, sunbathers, surfers, sailors, tourists, LGBTQ+, kite-boarders, and fishing enthusiasts. We have not been here in full-on summer, when I expect they get crowded, but there are so many beaches I imagine we could find one somewhere that is not overbrimming with humanity.   

2. For a country with so many beaches to also have so many hikeable mountains nearby also seems rare to me. Again, we knew this from reading about it, but the truth is even more amazing. Even the islands have mountains to hike! Like the beaches, the variety of mountains is staggering: jagged spikes, rolling hills, rocky cliffs, deep gorges, gladed slopes, and views of lakes, oceans, forests, cities, monastic hermitage buildings, and of course castles. They are laced with gravel roads, rocky footpaths, mountain goat trails, bridges clinging to cliffs, tunnels for hikers and trains, sluices for boats, and narrow, hairpin-turn, hang-on-for-dear-life paved roads shared by bikers, cars, and trucks. 

photo of two snowy, jagged peaks with hills and a valley in the foreground, lightly covered in snow, and blue sky with puffy white clouds

3. Did I mention castles? Seems like every village has a castle on a hill. They’re like Starbucks with 500-year-old stone towers. They are as prevalent as city or town hall buildings in the U.S., except they were designed for royal protection rather than civic participation. They were nearly always built on the highest point, so they can be seen from miles around—high walls of imposing grandeur scared off invaders, and building on steep cliffs added a man-made barrier on top of a natural one to double the challenge for attackers. Many of them can be visited by tourists and they are nearly always worth a spontaneous (or planned) side trip—some can even be stayed in! (See our Pueblos Blancos photo gallery…). There’s just something about imagining life in and around a medieval castle that is completely foreign and magical to Americans, given that our only exposure to them is history classes and fairy tales. 

photo of the front of a train painted orange with a large round windshield and a capital R on parallel train tracks by a brick platform.

4. Spain is connected by an impressive network of trains. They may not be as precisely on time as the Swiss or German trains—in fact, they are predictably unpredictable much of the time—but they are an asset that just doesn’t exist across the vast distances of the U.S. Where we live here, it’s common to take the train 50 minutes north into Barcelona, or 20 minutes to any number of towns up and down the coast. That makes it relatively easy to go see a world-class museum, take a day trip to a beach, hike Montserrat, or get to the Pyrenees or Costa Brava. High-speed trains are even more impressive, linking Barcelona and Madrid in just a couple of comfortable hours. And the Spanish government is trying to incentivize people to use the trains, so there are 10-euro passes for frequent short-trippers that are reimbursed fully after 16 rides, “golden passes” that cut fares dramatically for people over 60, student fares, and more. 

5. Long lunches and afternoon siesta time (typically more “quiet time” than actual sleeping) are real things here, and contribute strongly to a life that feels relaxed. I’m not sure how non-retirees get much work done, but I’ve read that (a) the long lunch is occasional rather than typical for people who work; and (b) the work day is the same length as ours, just broken up in the middle. So someone might work from 9 to 2, get some lunch, have some quiet time, and go back to work from 5 to 8. Schools are typically 9 to 12 and 3 to 5. Try figuring out that schedule with two working parents! The plus side of this schedule is relaxed afternoons. The down side is trying to get anything done in the afternoons. Since many stores and businesses are closed, trying to run a simple errand between 1 and 5 often ends in a frustrated “Argh! I forgot they’d be closed now!”  

6. Related to this is the odd story of Spain’s time zone. Geographically, it should be Greenwich Mean Time, same as England. Madrid, in the center of Spain, is actually west of London. But current-day Spain is one hour ahead of England (GMT+1). Why? Because in 1940, Hitler tried to enlist fascist Spain along with Italy as an Axis power. Even though Hitler’s military support had made it possible for Franco to seize control during the Civil War, Spain’s economy was in tatters, so Franco had nothing to give the Führer—except the symbolic gesture of aligning his country’s time zone with Germany’s. Legend has it that, perhaps as a form of passive resistance, the people didn’t change their habits; they just moved them later. So they eat lunch at two instead of one, eat dinner at 9 instead of 8, go to bed at midnight instead of 11. And after 60 years, it has become part of the fabric of Spanish life and culture, so now there’s resistance to changing it back.

7. Apparently Spain didn’t get the memo that smoking is bad for you. The World Bank reports that 28% of Spanish adults smoke tobacco, compared to 19% of US adults and 15% of UK adults (2020 figures). France and Greece have the highest rates in Western Europe at 33%. Based solely on observation in Spain, I would have thought it was more. Maybe it’s just that the smell of cigarette smoke is so noticeable, but our neighbors light up on their balcony; people light up on the train station platform, on crowded sidewalks, and at the playground with their kids; outdoor seating areas at restaurants always have ashtrays (and they are frequently in use). Spain has stores that sell only tobacco and lottery tickets, and we often see lines out the door, despite the gruesome images of cancerous lungs that tobacco companies are forced to put on their packaging. I admit I live in a smokeless bubble, but I’m just not used to seeing and smelling so much of it.   

8. There also seems to be a love/hate relationship with graffiti in Spain. It’s everywhere, and it’s almost as if the authorities have given up, though I’ve read that Barcelona has made it punishable with hefty fines. I have no artistic credentials to base this opinion on, but some graffiti really is impressive “street art” that I appreciate, while a lot of it is just “tagging”—spray-painting someone’s signature nickname on public property—which just seems like a self-centered nuisance. Of course, there’s a long history of graffiti here. There are paleolithic caves whose painted walls depict hunting glory; some of the castles and prisons have carved graffiti dating back centuries. So, who knows, maybe someday we’ll look at graffitied trains from 2023 for their historic value.    

9. Flamenco is not just a dance. It’s a blended culture, a signature guitar style, a type of specialized clothing, and a way of storytelling that expresses passion, anger, love, and strength. Sure, there are touristy flamenco shows in many major cities, but there are also many modern twists and innovations on the genre. We saw a jazz-flamenco fusion band, a family festival with children and grandmothers dancing, and a holiday-themed folk music show with flamenco clapping and dancing. In its rhythms, hand gestures, postures, and outfits, flamenco blends influences from North Africa, the Middle East, Iberian cultures, and Eastern Europe (from the migrants known in earlier days as Gypsies). I would not say I’m ready to learn how to do it, but I do have much greater appreciation for it now that I’ve gotten beyond the caricature that was in my mind before we arrived.  

10. There’s a lot of pride in the country, but much of it is local pride, and sometimes it is pride with blinders on. The Civil War and Franco dictatorship are one of the most glaring gaps in the public record. Areas that resisted the longest do have some monuments honoring local fighters, and those areas that supported Franco tend to have nothing (other than a massive, controversial monument to Franco outside Madrid that many would like demolished). Locally, there’s a proud streak of independence in Catalunya that has occasionally turned violent and has historically been repressed, also violently. There are Catalunyan leaders in jail or exile even now from an attempted independence referendum in 2017. Their language (along with other regional languages around the country) was nearly stamped out by Franco’s brutal regime, but since the late 1970s it has made a remarkable comeback, and people are justifiably proud of that. But mostly it seems like Spaniards felt beaten down and exhausted by the Franco years and just want to move on—which they have done quite successfully. 

So those are my completely unscientific top ten. I could go on — the food, the language idiosyncrasies, the parakeets, the rampant small-dog ownership, the way pharmacies and eye care work, the way supermercados are not super but hipermercados are…. But no one does top 16 lists. Perhaps the point is that there’s so much to learn about any country that we should never limit ourselves. And that, of course, is exactly why we’re doing this Ten Year Travels thing!

photo of Al and Rachel sitting against a gray rock on a peak looking across a valley to another peak

7 thoughts on “10 Things I’ve Learned About Spain (Since Being Here)

  1. Lane klein says:

    Another fabulous essay that brings us the gift of seeing life in Spain in all its richness. Thank you and thank you for your hospitality during our month with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jamie says:

    Another great post! I’ve definitely been learning a lot from these and it’s great to read your perspective on some of the things you’ve learned about Spain since being there! Hope all is going well!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shirley Wargon says:

    Nobody does it better! You guys are the poster people for engaging with, absorbing all and appreciating life wherever you land. Grateful you are taking us along on the journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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