Fin.

Yesterday, I had a drink with a girl who has just arrived in Madrid. We chatted about a number of things, but the conversation was primarily focused on beginnings and endings. We discussed the process of getting settled in a new country and I advised her on a few things that I wish that I had known when I arrived back in September. I walked home afterwards with a huge grin on my face. Without wanting to sound too clichéd, an interaction with someone who was just at the start of the year abroad hammered home to me how much I have learnt this year, about both the country and myself. Madrid has evolved from being a constant challenge to become a constant joy. Having spent less than three weeks in the UK since September, it has become my home. And it’s going to be really difficult to leave.

BUT instead of wallowing, I’ve decided to make this final post a brief homage to the adventures I’ve had this year and the 40,000 (!) words I’ve used to record every detail of them.

So, with no further ado:

I’ve visited Toledo, Segovia, La Granja, Córdoba, Cádiz, Sevilla, Granada, Malaga and Guadalajara, as well as Paris and Rome.

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I’ve been stuck behind religious processions and stumbled across education strikes.

I’ve jogged around an Egyptian temple, done yoga in the Sierra de Guadarrama and paddled in the Mediterranean.

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I’ve attempted to teach English to around 550 Spanish students and have no idea whether any of it has actually sunk in.

I’ve learnt how to mix the perfect gin and tonic and the cheapest tinto de verano, sampled the best coffee in Madrid, Paris and Rome and polished off several jugs of sangria.

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I’ve cracked into langoustines (with extreme difficulty), eaten several meals worth of free tapas, sampled homemade paella, consumed my body weight in cake and developed a dangerous addiction to frozen yogurt.

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I can touch type on a Spanish keyboard and bash out a PowerPoint Presentation in 15 minutes.

I’ve seen a world famous rock band play to a packed stadium, an up-and-coming blues singer in a crowded bar and attended a private piano recital in a front room.

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I’ve sat ten rows from the front in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium and enthusiastically cheered on Real Madrid against Manchester United.

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I’ve seen a bizarre Spanish play about Hamlet in an intimate studio and cheered on a friend performing Shakespeare in a Madrid theatre.

I’ve sunbathed in several parks, on a beach, on a hill above a lake, next to an outdoor swimming pool and (most unusually) at the side of a main road.

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I’ve mastered the Madrid metro and managed not to fall asleep on the morning bus commute.

I’ve taught a class of 15 year olds how to hit on someone in a UK nightclub and instructed sixth-formers on the art of queuing like a Brit (“If you push in, people WILL hate you”).

I’ve learnt how to live alone – how to enjoy my own company and when to seek other people’s.

I’ve perfected the art of rolling my ‘r’s and know how to swear like a Spaniard (clue: little and often).

I’ve read and read and read for pleasure.

I’ve watched countless sunsets from rooftop terraces, an Egyptian temple and my apartment balcony.

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Most crucially, I’ve met some truly wonderful people who have been silly with me, laughed with me, eaten and drank a LOT with me, cried with me, advised me and listened to me, complained about the weather with me, celebrated my birthday with me and shared all the experiences that have made this year so unexpectedly life-changing.

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This blog is really one long, rambling love letter to them. And to Spain of course.

Writing this final post, like every part of the leaving process, has been bittersweet. I can look back over my year abroad with enormous pleasure but am also astonished by how fast the time has flown. I’m not sure what I would have done if I were a recent graduate with no immediate obligation to return home. Perhaps the temptation to stay would have been too great and I would have remained in Spain for another year, embarking on some new adventures.

But, dream as I may, I am not a recent graduate and it is time take up my old spot in the corner of an Oxford library. In some ways, it’s comforting to think that in six months time, when I’m gazing absentmindedly at a stack of books in a half-hearted attempt to revise, my spiritual self will be sitting in a sunny plaza with a cold caña in hand.

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La Crisis

At my final department lunch (a three-course, five hour affair), I met a teacher who had worked at the school the previous year. Her English was perfect and she confessed that she had worked as a Spanish teacher in the UK for seven years. An hour or two (and a drink or two) later, she began to open up about her current situation. Although she is a fully qualified teacher, has jumped through every bureaucratic hoop, has almost native fluency in English and is very popular with her students, the government are refusing to give her a full-time job. Instead, she is forced to make do with sub-work, occasionally covering for teachers on sick leave. Next academic year, she will be forced to survive on the dole. All this, because according to a technicality in the state education system and a discrepancy between the English and Spanish education systems, she has ‘no experience’ as a teacher, despite her years of experience teaching abroad. This is just one of the many visible examples of Spain creating its own problems. This is a woman who is undoubtedly capable and perfectly willing to make a career out of educating the next generation of Spaniards. Instead, her mental talents are directed towards the odd job here and there and in order to survive she takes governmental money for doing nothing at all, instead of for providing the service that for many years has not only been her livelihood but her passion. In short, the whole situation is highly illogical – distressing for the woman in question and damaging in the long term.

This encounter got me thinking about la Crisis (as it is known here) and the effect that it has had, and is still having, on the lives of ordinary Spanish people. Every time you step out of your front door in Madrid, there is evidence of economic disaster. Everywhere, from cheap shop fronts to elegant buildings, is covered in graffiti that the council has no money to remove. The city centre is swarming with beggars. You can’t walk down Gran Vía or around Puerta del Sol without being repeatedly accosted by person after person requesting una ayuda (monetary help). Some are severely disabled and use their missing limbs to gain the attention of passers by. Others hold up signs with scribbled pleas for help to save their family from starvation. A journey on the metro is often interrupted by one or more buskers playing a song between stations and walking up and down the carriage collecting money for their efforts. Sometimes, a man will attempt to sell tissues, lighters or biros to commuters. Less inventive but more depressing are the people who declare their life story, hoping to inspire sympathy. They hold out a paper cup as they move along the aisle, before performing the very same speech to the neighbouring carriage.

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What slightly disturbs me about living in Madrid is how quickly you become accustomed to these sights of extreme poverty. Whenever a loved one visited me and noted the profusion of people sleeping on the streets, it would jerk me out of automatic pilot and remind me not to take my own lovely flat for granted. I once heard someone say that we are all 6 steps away from homelessness. In Madrid, it feels more like 1.

As of April of this year, the unemployment rate in Spain is 26.8%. I have met many recent graduates who not only don’t have a job, but seem to have little motivation for getting one. There is an attitude of resignation that puts across the idea that, as there are very few jobs available, there is no point in chasing the dream. It is the custom here for children to live at home throughout their university life and study at a local institution. With no job and no prospect of an income, many young people are staying with their parents well passed that. Of course, this is not true of everyone, especially not of those who have been fortunate enough to have a decent education. But in conversations with students of mine, I have frequently found their ambitions for the future to be to get out of Spain, and very little else. In my first few weeks, I did a presentation introducing myself, and the students asked questions afterwards. Almost without fail, at least one student would ask me why I would come to Spain when I am from the UK (which to them is haven of privilege). They seemed to be unable to comprehend that there might be positives to living in their country. Instead, they chase the American dream. When asked where they would live if money were no object, at least half of the class would say the USA. Even more sadly, almost all of them would answer ‘Anywhere but here’.

Having English as my mother tongue gives me an enormous advantage. There are hundreds of young Brits and Americans living in Madrid and there is more than enough work available for each and every one of them. Around three quarters of the students at my schools have private English tuition and many parents hire English-speaking au pairs so that their kids are immersed in the language from their primary years. What with the trend for tutoring and the long-term government scheme to turn every state school into a bilingual institution, Spain is not just encouraging its young people to work internationally, it’s practically booting them out of the door.

Another advantage I have over my local counterpoints is the inevitable capital city price comparison. London is extortionate compared to Spain; for example, my monthly rent for a flat in the city centre would be my weekly rent for a flat in the equivalent location in London. I can’t get over the fact that beer (and sometimes even wine!) is cheaper than water, that you can get a decent coffee for €1 (86p) and that my monthly travel card is €50. And that allows me to travel an hour out of the city for work. To a Spaniard, however, the Madrid prices are scarily high compared to what they were. Restaurants and shops use the phrase ‘anticrisis’ to advertise their low prices and locals talk lovingly of the good old days of the peseta.

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The schools are also haunted by la Crisis and the struggles that come hand in hand with poverty. The students I’ve taught this year are from a mixture of backgrounds, some wealthier than others. In one particular class there was a 12-year-old boy who was notoriously difficult. He had zero interest in learning anything at all. Instead, he would throw balls of paper at the backs of people’s heads, sit with his feet up on his desk and blatantly talk over everything that I or the teacher said whilst staring arrogantly at us, as if daring us to tell him off. Needless to say, he drove me absolutely crazy, especially as the teacher in question was not particular adept at discipline (her punishment of choice was a weak ‘shhhh’). One day, I lost my temper and slammed my books onto the desk, glaring violently in his direction. For the rest of the class he sat in sulky silence, doodling on a piece of paper. After the class, the teacher and I went for coffee and I ranted on about this annoying kid and his terrible behaviour. The teacher agreed with me, but then she told me a little of his history. He was born in the slums on the outskirts of Madrid and had a traumatic, severely neglected early childhood. He now lives with his grandmother who, although not cruel, pays very little attention to his schooling or personal interests. I, of course, felt terrible. I never looked at that kid the same way again. Yes, I still found him incredibly rude and irritating. But it dawned on me that those few hours at school were the only moments of discipline that this boy was getting. My role in his life suddenly seemed a lot more important.

This year has also been characterised by strikes. Harsh governmental cuts have led to the Spanish fighting back in the only way they know how. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to leave for work half an hour early because of a metro strike. Sol, the iconic central point of Madrid and the location of Spain’s ‘Kilometre 0’, has recently been auctioned up to the highest bidder, sponsored by Vodafone and renamed Vodafone Sol. This grating new name, blasted over metro speakers and plastered onto signposts, acts as a constant reminder of Spain’s lack of funds.

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On a few occasions, I’ve not been able to go to work at all because of teacher or even student strikes (yes, they were just an excuse for kids to spend a day playing Xbox instead of studying).  Anti-LOMCE posters (LOMCE is the law introducing major changes to the Spanish education system) are plastered all over the schools where I work, from the front gates to the desktop background of the staffroom computers. Many of my colleagues have taken part in the national strikes this year, missing work to participate in protests and marches in the city centre. For every day that they strike they lose €100, plus that day’s pay. For this reason, many of them literally cannot afford to miss a day off work, especially as they are not allowed a single day’s paid sick leave. Yet, the majority strike nonetheless. After a nationwide education strike on May 9th, the Head of English at my school in Madrid city came in looking grim, but satisfied. After two years of regular strikes and protests, the LOMCE bill had been pushed back. “It’s not much”, she admitted, “but we hope it’s the start of a bigger change.” Whether or not you agree with the proposed cuts, or believe that striking is an effective method of bringing about political reform, you can’t help but admire their persistence and passion.

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This all sounds terribly depressing. Well, it is and it isn’t.

‘La Crisis’ is affecting everyone to some degree. Even the pijos (wealthier members of the community) suffer everyday from the troubled economy. And yet, I have repeatedly seen displays of generosity, courage and hope from the Spanish people. Time after time I am surprised by the amount of people who dig in their pockets to give change to a desperate man on the metro. Whenever I am tempted to stare at the floor and act oblivious, I am jolted out of my selfishness.

The thing is, it’s not about feeling guilty. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The Spanish attitude is that life is for living. Yes, the economy may be in dire straits, but what’s the point in moping around when you could be pooling your last 50 cents with your friends, buying the cheapest caña you can find and watching the sunset over the Templo de Debod? La Crisis is not a cause for curbing your social life and desperately saving your pennies. It’s the time to enjoy the sun in Plaza Dos de Mayo, spend three hours chatting with friends over the same tiny plate of tapas and dance until 6.30am at some tiny, grubby club that is the only place where you can afford the entrance fee.

In short, despite its political, financial and social issues, Spain is fundamentally an optimistic country and this makes it a wonderful place to live.

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El Retiro/The Retreat

Back in October, I contacted a woman called Teresa about yoga classes. A friend of mine had been browsing on the Internet and her attention was caught by Teresa’s claim to hold ‘bilingual’ classes, which provided a great opportunity for extranjeros to practice their Spanish. After speaking with her on the phone, I decided that the classes were a little too far away for me to go every week (they required a bus ride to the city outskirts and a long walk) and so I had to give up the idea and later began classes elsewhere. However, Teresa kept my details on her mailing list and for the last few months my inbox has been inundated with invitations to workshops, special classes and retreats, all punctuated with dozens of exclamation marks to express Teresa’s boundless, welcoming enthusiasm. I found myself becoming interested in the idea of a retreat; I have always had a spiritual streak, a side of me that naturally inclines towards long and solitary country rambles, periods of lone contemplation and the connection between mental and physical health. I felt that I would be well suited to a weekend away from the chaos of city life and Teresa’s virtual promises of relaxation, laughter and homemade cakes seemed too good to pass up. I am, after all, a country girl at heart, and there was a part of me that was longing to get out in the fresh air.

Despite my initial enthusiasm, the first few retreats I heard about were held when either any willing friends or myself were busy, and having never met Teresa, I was reluctant to brave it alone. I held out until I could persuade someone to accompany me and finally, last month, I succeeded in finding a weekend when I had nothing important to do. With my regular travel companion on board (she was leaving Madrid a few weeks later and so was up for squeezing in as many new experiences as possible into the time remaining in Spain), I signed up for a weekend retreat in Pozancos, a tiny village in the north Madrid sierra, Castilla La Mancha. We decided to attend a yoga class with Teresa in the week before the retreat so that we knew what we’d got ourselves in for. To my relief, we found her to be a youthful, energetic and very generous person with enthusiasm for the world and everything in it oozing out of every pore on her well-toned body. She is petite with dark brown hair lightly streaked with silver, and permanently dressed in comfortable, stretchy trousers and jumpers in lurid oranges or blues. Her joy at our presence in the class, and later in the retreat, was infectious. She is a natural teacher and leader.

On Friday afternoon at 5pm, my friend and I were huddled under a shop canopy by Pueblo Nuevo metro, trying to shelter from the May rain whilst keeping an eye out for Paz, the mystery woman who was to give us a lift to the retreat. Although we had never met her, it was easy to pick her out from amongst the sea of cars and pedestrians marching purposefully under enormous umbrellas. She pulled up briskly alongside us and jumped out of her car, green fleece zipped up under her chin and the eyes under the thick, dark fringe obscured by a pair of pink tinted sunglasses. We squashed our bags, yoga mats and blankets into the boot and set off on the North road out of Madrid. The journey passed surprisingly quickly, as we discussed the places we’d been and the languages we spoke in Spanish. The city and the traffic eventually died away and the sierra rose around us.

The Journey Up to the Mountains

We pulled into the village of Pozancos, up a hilly road that was really little more than a dirt track, past shrunken houses with enormous wooden doors. We spotted Teresa on the road ahead of us and followed her up to Los Lilos, the house rented for the retreat. The front door was up a set of stone steps lined with flowerbeds and the door itself was divided into two parts which could be opened separately, like the door to a stable. The house was gorgeous, exactly what I had envisioned for a rural weekend away. It had stonewalls and exposed beams and brickwork, with a very rustic and cosy feel and the living space and kitchen are open plan and illuminated by an open fire (which was kept stoked for the duration of the weekend). There are two twin bedrooms and a bathroom off the main living space, and two more bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. As the only people (except Paz and Teresa) to have been friends beforehand, my friend and I were given the double bedroom to share. It turned out to be beautiful and by far the best bedroom in the house, dominated by an enormous and extremely comfortable iron framed bed. From the square window, we could see across to the little stone houses opposite and beyond them to the mountains. The setting was idyllic, a perfect antidote to Madrid.

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After exploring, we relaxed in our room and waited for the others to arrive. They showed up an hour or so later, at about half past nine, and we all settled down to a meal of empanadillas and salad (all the food served was vegetarian and very healthy, but delicious). Over dinner, Teresa asked us to introduce ourselves and to give an idea of what we wanted out of the weekend – escapism, relaxation, fitness or novelty. There were nine of us in total staying at Los Lilos that weekend. Aside from myself, my friend, Teresa and Paz, there were three women and two men. Laura was an Argentinian woman in her mid-forties with dark curly hair, a strong build and a nutmeg brown, flawless complexion. She practiced yoga regularly and is currently surviving on a diet of tofu and rye bread for health reasons. She was dignified and initially a little frosty, but became friendly and amusing on closer acquaintance. The other native Spanish speaker was César. I believe that he was in his thirties, although I can’t be absolutely sure as he was full of youthful, even childish energy and bounded about the house doing crazy dance routines and cracking jokes. He was tall and dark haired with braces on his teeth. He was also a regular yoga practitioner and gave us an impassioned speech on his belief that ‘el camino es todo’ (the path is everything). Rachel is from a small town near Norwich, but has lived in Madrid for five years working in a language school. She has also lived in Greece and Italy, so is distinctly well travelled. At first I thought that she was in her early thirties, but we later discovered that she was actually a decade older. She was small with short, dyed blonde hair. Nicole is from California and is also an English teacher. She is pale and her hair is strawberry blonde. She seems friendly but out of all the people in the retreat, she was the one who I felt I knew the least when the weekend was over. Finally there was Tadhg, pronounced ‘tiger’ without the ‘er’. He was tall with blonde hair, originally from Dublin and moved to Madrid a couple of months ago. He knew hardly any Spanish but was very good-natured about it and we had many amusing moments when the conversations in Spanish became too fast flowing. And there you have it – a mishmash of genders, cultures and languages temporarily stuck together in a house in the middle of the countryside for 48 hours.

That first evening, we finished eating and Teresa led us in a half an hour relaxation exercise before bed.

Our first yoga session was scheduled for 9am on Saturday morning, pre-breakfast. My friend and I woke up to the sounds of tables being scraped across the ceiling above our bed at about 8.53am. Throwing on our clothes in a panic, we raced upstairs, unrolled our yoga mats and lay on our backs, ready for the session to begin. After an hour and a half of deep breathing, a salute to the sun and some meditation, we were all starving and demolished a breakfast of toast and homemade jam, cake (yes, cake is an acceptable breakfast food in Spain) and herbal tea. After breakfast, the group minus Laura and César – who opted to stay in the warm – wrapped up, grabbed umbrellas and headed out into the rain. We went on a long walk around Pozancos and the surrounding countryside. When the rain stopped, Teresa asked us to walk very slowly and then very quickly in silence, alternating our pace to bring our awareness to how we walk in our daily lives, forcing us to contemplate each step whilst listening to the sounds of nature around us.

The Warrior Pose

 

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Feeling chilly but refreshed, we piled back into the house after an hour’s exercise and sat around the fireplace, listening to Teresa read proverbial stories of love and spirituality from a small book. Some of the group debated the meaning of life, what gives us purpose, whether we should have life goals and how true love really feels (we were all there to get in touch with our contemplative side after all), whilst others sat and listened. Realising that we were starving, we then demolished a lunch of rice and vegetables, toast and hummus and cake and fruit.

Relaaaax

After lunch, we sat around chatting about Spanish swearwords and singing ‘California Dreaming’. Then we went out on another long walk, this time in a different direction, trekking across muddy crop fields. At one point, we passed a grove of trees, silver birches I think, each trunk covered in yellow moss. Teresa asked us to each choose a tree and move to stand by it. I tried to choke down my own involuntary giggles and quash my feelings of ridiculousness as she instructed us to examine every inch of the tree, to get to know it intimately, gazing up into the branches and down towards the roots. We then had to hold our tree in a close embrace, as we closed our eyes and breathed deeply. Strangely, the bark felt warm against my cheek and the tree seemed to be breathing and embracing me back. I don’t know whether it was the breeze or Teresa’s soothing voice, or that I was beginning to be drawn into the spiritual vibe, but I could have sworn that I felt a pulse.

Putting down Roots

 

The Hobbit House

We then walked down the main road to Ures, a tiny hamlet next to Pozancos. We sheltered in a corner from the hailstones thundering down and walked back past a Hobbit-style eco house on the edge of the village, apparently built by a German horse trainer who lived there. We continued onwards in silence, each contemplating his or her own thoughts, before pausing again by a brook in a shady clearing. We stood with our eyes closed, listening to the trickling water. Teresa asked us to imagine the water running through our body, cooling and cleansing. At first, I was able to picture this quite vividly, but after a few minutes my overwhelming sensation was not of a body refreshed but of needing the loo. I spent the subsequent minutes squeezing my legs together and struggling not to hop about too much. To my relief, the exercise was soon over and we moved back towards the house, my friend and I hurrying ahead (upon conferring with her in whispers, I discovered that she was having the same problem as me). To our dismay, at the meadow by a the little church near the house we were made to pause again and wade through the long grass to stand facing the distant mountains, with eyes closed and arms outstretched, feeling the breeze rustle the grass around our legs. After a few more minutes of contemplation, we were finally allowed to return to the house.

Larking About

 

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If I have one complaint about the retreat, it’s that it was lacking in free time. At that moment of re-entering the house, I had gone down to the bedroom hoping for a few minutes to myself to do some writing. However, it was not to be. No sooner had I picked up my pen then there was the tinkle of a little bell from upstairs, calling us to another activity.

The activity in question was meditation, beginning with deep breathing and ending in the repetition of ‘Ommmmm’, a noise chosen for the way it vibrates around your body, warming and energising. I didn’t drift off completely on this meditation, but neither did I panic and sit completely restless. Instead, I spent fifteen minutes contemplating story ideas, following various plot lives and characters. This is how I like to relax.

Dinner was a delicious courgette soup with croutons, followed by toast eaten with a mushroom dip and baba ganoush and finished off with the rare treat of some chocolate. It is fascinating to observe people in a group dynamic; to notice which characteristics a person chooses to project first and which emerge more gradually as they grow more comfortable and begin to let their guard down. The retreat was an unusual situation in terms of how little we all knew each other and the intensity of the time we were spending together and mealtimes in particular provided an excellent opportunity for people watching. I will not remark more openly on the individual qualities that came to light during the weekend, but suffice to say that my opinion of each and every member of the group underwent more than one transformation before the retreat was over.

After dinner we had a session of Yoga del Sueño before bed. Unlike the meditation session earlier that day, I struggled. I was exhausted and just wanted to go to bed and this frustration led me to subconsciously resist the relaxation into the process. Yoga del Sueño requires you to lie motionless as the guiding voice instructs you to do different exercises with your mind. I felt uncomfortable and my limbs ached. The others quickly fell asleep straight away, but every time I started to drift off Teresa would say ‘no te duermes’ (meaning ‘don’t fall asleep’) and I would jerk back to consciousness. When we were finally allowed to go to bed, my relief was overwhelming.

The next morning, we once again convened at 9am for pre-breakfast yoga. This time Teresa incorporated a breathing exercise in which you had to cover one nostril and breath in through the other, then cover the other nostril and exhale through the opposite nostril. This was going ok until my right nostril became blocked and I found myself in some strange farcical mime, moving my fingers from nostril to nostril whilst breathing through my mouth, eyes flitting furtively from side to side like a guilty child, hoping Teresa wouldn’t notice that I was doing it wrong.

Trying to Look Casual

Breakfast was more toast with tomatoes and olive oil (I’ve become addicted to this traditional Spanish breakfast), cake and herbal tea. After breakfast, César had to leave to drive to Barcelona for work. We exchanged besos (a kiss on each cheek) and he left in a flurry of philosophical phrases.

Miraculously, it wasn’t raining as we set off on our third long walk of the weekend. We stopped by another large tree that Teresa nicknamed ‘nuestro abuelo’ (our grandfather) and admired its strength and age. We joined hands in a circle around it and embraced it as a group, before wishing it well and moving on. This time the tree hugging didn’t seem quite as strange or embarrassing. It was actually quite peaceful and even comforting. I could even grow to enjoy it.

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The next exercise we did was called ‘Cadena de Afectos’ or ‘Chain of Affection’. We stood in two lines in a grassy meadow, four facing four. Teresa gave us four numbers to signify four levels of affection: one was eye contact, two was a smile, three was an embrace and four was dos besos and an embrace. One line was asking for affection and the other line was bestowing it. The asking line had to hold up their hand to show a number of their choosing. The person opposite them would then bestow the level of affection requested, holding the position for a minute or two before taking a deep breath and stepping back. The bestowing line would then take a step to the left, so that they changed partners. This sounds simple enough but it was quite challenging, both physically and mentally. A smile for example; easy enough for a few seconds, but after half a minute of staring into someone’s eyes with a wild grin on your face, your cheeks begin to ache and your smile starts to feel completely unnatural on your face. Likewise, staring into the eyes of someone that you hardly know and trying not to break into uncomfortable giggles is also surprisingly testing. After completing the exercise, we decided that simple eye contact was actually the most difficult state to maintain and that a hug was the easiest (probably because of the lack of eye contact involved). I found this exercise quite enlightening and it stimulated an interesting group discussion about the nature of daily human interaction.

After our walk, Teresa began preparing lunch whilst we did another exercise. We sat around the table, upon which there was a pile of plain patterned drawings to colour in (like the ones found in children’s colouring books) and a selection of coloured pencils and pens. We each had to choose a drawing and begin to colour it in. We looked at each other, each seeing their own expression (a mixture of embarrassed confusion and reluctance) on the others’ faces. Perhaps sensing our lack of enthusiasm, Teresa instructed us not to analyse or judge, but to trust our instincts and choose whichever colours feel right. I began. To my surprise, I was quickly absorbed in the task. Unlike during formal meditation exercises, my mind didn’t wander or flit from thought to thought but rested quietly on the choosing of colours, the movement of my hand, the slight ache in my wrist as I carefully stayed inside the lines. We sat in relaxed, companionable silence. After about ten minutes, Teresa asked us to pass our pictures to the person on our left for them to finish. We all looked up at her in horror, comically clasping our artwork to our chests. It was hilarious how attached we’d become to our work in such a short time – I had planned out which colours I was going to use next and felt strangely angry at the idea of someone else messing up my plan. But she insisted, so reluctantly the drawings were passed around the table. Tadhg was on my left and I tried not to wince as he chose a bright yellow highlighter and used it to shade in the flowers on my delicately sketched background. When we had finished, our original drawings were passed back to us and we signed our names with a flourish. For such a simple task, it provided an interesting and insightful lesson; we had to learn to engage with our inner child without adult judgement or embarrassment, to quiet the analytical voices in our heads and to learn to relinquish control and trust the judgement of others. It was my favourite task of the weekend.

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Lunch was a feast of pasta and pesto and some leftovers. Over the food, we discussed what we had enjoyed about the weekend and what we had learnt. I admitted that I still had difficulty letting go in the breathing exercises and Teresa reassured me that yoga is something that needs continuous practice and not something to be perfected in 48 hours.

After the food had been demolished and we had taken part in a final farewell meditation, we packed our things and said goodbye to the Casa Rural. My friend and I piled into Paz’s car whilst the others went with Teresa. We all stopped briefly at the (apparently famed) honey store just outside the town of Siguenza, which sold a range of honey-based products. It smelt delicious, but sadly I hadn’t brought any cash with me so had to be satisfied with numerous free tasters of the different honeys on offer.

Then it was a final goodbye to Teresa and the rest of the group and the long drive back to the city. Sadly, I felt a little stressed when I got back home, as I had work to do for the following day and was overtired from all the fresh air and exercise. Later that night, however, when I was fully prepared for Monday morning and lying in bed, I reflected on the experiences of the weekend and felt a strange calm spread over me. As much as my mind had resisted the exercises and activities at times, I had inadvertently switched off and allowed myself to feel the benefits of the natural surroundings. Despite my grumbles about a lack of free time, I had enjoyed 48 hours of gentle exercise, gorgeous countryside, delicious food and constant Spanish practice. I had very little right to complain.

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Málaga

 

1st May in Spain (primer de Mayo) is a celebration. And, as Spain is nothing if not liberal with holidays, Spanish celebrations have inevitably come to symbolise free time. And free time means travel.

1st May this year was no normal bank holiday; it was a super puente, with the working week slashed to two days so that the holiday lasted from Wednesday – Sunday. With the prospect of so much free time on our hands, my friends and I decided that this holiday had serious potential and necessitated some forward planning. It being May, and the start of summer, our main requirement was a beach. After investigating (and subsequently rejecting) a few hundred holiday resorts, including the Algarve, Mallorca, Barcelona and Ibiza, we finally chose Málaga, the seaside city that would provide us with a touch of culture and (as we desperately hoped) a lot of sunbathing opportunities.

On the Wednesday morning, we set off on the coach from Méndez Alvaro bus station and prepared ourselves for the six-hour journey down South. The coach was relatively comfortable and, anticipating my instinct to eat whenever I get bored, I had packed an ample supply of snacks. The first hour was torture as the entire city was self-evacuating for the long weekend. We crawled along the motorway through suburb after suburb, unable to penetrate the bubble that is the region de Madrid. Finally, the traffic dispersed and the scenery began to change, as flat plains transformed into luscious green mountains. 

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Seven hours and two terrible movies later, we caught our first glorious glimpse of the ocean. Fifteen minutes after that, the bus pulled into Málaga bus station. We disembarked. A thermometer on a bus stop informed us that it was 28 degrees. ‘Heavenly!’ we thought. As we began to stroll towards the city centre, heavenly had become mildly irritating which quickly became hellish. By the time we had walked for twenty minutes, I was panting for breath, embarrassingly sweaty and struggling to keep hold of my bag and the two coats I had somehow been convinced that I would need. When we finally found our hostel, nestled in a corner of a plaza, I dropped everything I had been holding with ill-disguised relief.

 We were staying in a place called Feel Hostel, in Plaza del Carbón. Coincidentally, two more of my friends had also decided to come to Málaga and so we had all booked into the same hostel, the bus crew in a 4-bed room and the others sharing a double. Our room was small but bright and clean, with the extra surprise of a small balcony to liven up the inevitable steel bunk beds. We had hoped to have the room to ourselves, but later that night the fourth bed was taken by a middle-aged lady from California, who had travelled to Málaga on a whim to see Picasso’s birthplace. We had only a few interactions with her over the days we were there, most of which involved us trying to make polite conversation whilst awkwardly rubbing aftersun into each other’s backs.

That first evening the sun continued to shine, so we strolled down to the port, which is lined with shops and cafes and usually buzzing with people. We sat at an outside table and enjoyed cocktails and Italian food with enormous grins on our faces.

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ImageLater that evening, we decided to enjoy another drink before going to bed. Our hostel was in a very central location close to a lot of bars and shops, and we were quickly accosted by promoter after promoter, all desperate to bring business to their bars. Drawn in by the cheap drinks, we decided to take one of them up on their offer and followed the promoter in question into a nearby bar.

Pushing open the door, we entered into a small club, with neon lights, pulsing music, and a projector showing music videos on the far wall. At first we thought the club was completely empty. Then we spotted a group of four people loitering by the bar, comprised of two dumpy middle-aged couples, the women in crop tops, bopping to the beat. It was hilarious.

Perhaps surprisingly, we didn’t turn around and walk straight back out again. Instead we headed for the bar. The €3 gin and tonics more than made up for the shabby atmosphere! The music turned out to be brilliantly old school, and we ended up having a ball dancing around like lunatics to ‘Man I Feel Like a Woman’ and ‘Lady Marmalade’. At last, exhausted from our mental dance moves, we returned to the hostel and piled into bed.

 The following morning we headed to a small café (ironically called Café Madrid) for breakfast and were given free heart-shaped churros along with our toast and coffee by the flirtatious waiter (moving as pack of girls in Spain guarantees you attention).

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First stop was the cathedral, which, handily, was right next to our hostel. We walked around the outside and peered in through the door but none of us were particularly interested in going inside, especially as Málaga seems to be another Spanish city guilty of overcharging for its attractions. Instead we powered onwards towards the Picasso museum. There are two museums in the city dedicated to Málaga’s most famous export; the first is a gallery showcasing works from across his career and the second is the house where he grew up, where you can see articles belonging to his parents and read information about the Spain of Picasso’s childhood and admire a few of his works.

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We headed to the first museum, the Museo Picasso Málaga, located in the Palacio de Buenavista, a beautiful Moorish building organised around a courtyard. Student entry was only €3, although we would have gladly paid more. We spent a leisurely hour strolling around the museum admiring the spectrum of works. The only Picasso I had seen in the flesh before was the Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and it was amazing to see the progress from his early sketches to paintings finished in the year before his death.

After we had finished in the museum, we visited the Alcazaba and power-walked up the steep hill overlooking the port lined with cruise ships and out to the Mediterranean beyond. The Alcazaba de Málaga is the best preserved of its kind in Spain and is positioned on an inland hill in the city centre. The ancient walls line a winding pathway that leads you through decorative gardens up towards a network of towers, which provide you with beautiful views over the city. Like most of the Alcazabas in Spain, the building was built originally for defence purposes (in this case, to protect the city from pirate attacks) but was later used as a palace by various Moorish rulers. What differentiates this Alcazaba from its Andalucían relatives is that it was constructed on the ruins of a Roman fortification. Evidence of this immense cultural history can be readily found in the 1st century BC Roman Amphitheatre, which lies adjacent to the Alcazaba and is now undergoing restoration. On the day of our visit, the theatre was being used by a group of people in Roman dress, performing some kind of strange play to a group of students and a couple of stray tourists. We peered through the barrier for a while (you can see the theatre from the street through wide fencing) and laughed at the camp dramatics, but it was actually quite reassuring to see the people of Málaga making use of their ancient heritage, even with a low-budget production.

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The sun was peaking out from between the clouds and we decided it was finally time to hit the beach and try some sunbathing. We stopped at La Sureña on the port for lunch (La Sureña is a tapas chain which became our go-to food place for the duration of the holiday) and then went round the corner to Playa de la Malagueta, the closest beach to the town centre. We set up our towels in to make a giant blanket and relaxed in the intermittent sunshine. With the constant clouds it didn’t feel particularly hot, but we lay there for about two hours, chatting, listening to music and napping. When we finally decided to go back to the hostel, we realised that the sun had been a little stronger then we originally thought. In our complacent state, my bus friends and I hadn’t put on any sun cream and were now turning pinker and pinker. By the time we got back to the hostel, certain parts of my body were a violent shade of red and radiating heat. My friends and I spent an intimate 15 minutes or so with an enormous bottle of moisturiser, smothering into our poor burnt skin and resolving to buy some aloe vera in the morning.

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That night, we found a cosy restaurant for dinner and ordered a mound of tapas and a jug of sangria, chomping our way through it all in record time. We then went to another bar for a glass of wine, but were all so tired from the sightseeing and the sunshine that we soon decided to call it a night.

After breakfast the following day, we went to the other Picasso museum. The Museo Casa Natal de Picasso is in Plaza de la Merced, in a white building with yellow and dark green shutters. As well as housing a selection of works by Picasso, the museum has a wide range of work by other artists, many of them Malagan locals, with a particular focus on engravings. We explored and admired, reading quotes by Picasso painted on the walls and studying newspaper clippings and advertisements detailing events in Málaga in the late 19th and early 20th century.

We then met up with another friend from Madrid who was spending the Puente in Nerja, a town just around the coast from Málaga and her American friend who was staying in Málaga with friends (and who, as the only male in our little group, was significantly outnumbered by the girls). We enjoyed a menú del día lunch on the port before deciding to take the long trek up to the Castillo de Gibralfaro (the Moorish castle). The Castillo is located on the top of the enormous central hill in the city, connected to the Alcazaba by a double wall. The building is famous for a three-month siege against the city of Málaga by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. Finally the starving Malagueños were forced to surrender.

There are a few ways to reach the Castillo entrance, but we chose the most difficult – the zigzag steps leading up from the Plaza del General Torrijos. It takes some serious energy to reach the Castillo building itself, especially in the sweltering heat, but it’s the most direct route to the top. The castle ramparts have been restored so that you can walk all around them, which is exactly what we did, pausing at the various viewpoints to photograph the pinewoods, ocean and bullring. At the entrance to the Castillo is a small military museum, with a map of the old Malagan defence system, uniforms from different nations and various military artefacts. We had a little wander around before going up some of the towers and admiring the city panorama.

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ImageAs the sun was burning overhead, we agreed to follow the recommendation of the group’s token male and catch a bus along the coast to Playa de Pedregalejo. This is a true locals beach, lined with small bars all crowded with Malagueños enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We found an outside table facing the sea and sipped gin and tonics as the sun went down. It was heaven.

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Hours later, we began walking back to bus stop but became a tad distracted by the beach playground. As there were no kids around, we gave ourselves free reign and ran wild, swinging on the swings, jumping on the zip wire and hanging upside down on the climbing frame. Eventually we remembered that we were supposed to be catching a bus, and dragged ourselves away from the childhood flashback and headed back towards the city centre to another La Sureña dinner and bed.

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Breakfast the next day was in the upstairs café of a patisserie, where you had to press a little button to summon the waiter (who then took his time to arrive – a little overworked, bless ‘im). After breakfast, we headed out for a spot of shopping and left the shops armed with new bikinis, blouses and shoes. Despite it being only a few hours after breakfast, we were dangerously tempted by a road-side ice cream shop and sampled a few delicious flavours on our way to the beach to try out our purchases.

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We had learnt our lesson from the other day and coated ourselves in sun cream, ready to enjoy the incredible weather. We spent most of the day on the beach, sunbathing, paddling in the sea and frolicking in the sand. Lunch was a picnic from La Sureña, which we enjoyed lying on the beach, too happy to move.

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That evening, we pushed our way through a party outside some student halls to have dinner at a vegetarian restaurant and ate an incredible amount of incredible food, including hummus, homemade pasta and empanadas (pastry stuffed with spinach and ricotta). By the time we were finished, none of us were able to move.

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We then met the token man and a friend of his for drinks at the Plaza de la Merced, before heading to the infamous Bodegas El Pimpi Málaga wine bar. This bar, nestled down a small side street, is a Málaga hotspot, completely rammed with locals and tourists in the know, all enjoying glasses of Iberia wine. With a front room, a back room and an enormous upstairs area, the bar seems to go on and on and the atmosphere is buzzing. The walls are lined with photographs of visiting celebrities, including John Malkovich, Antonio Banderas and Sean Connery. The strange thing is, for all its popularity and glamour, it is surprisingly untouristy. We had no idea that it even existed until a local recommended it to us. The fact that it has managed to stay out of the guidebooks means that it has retained an old-world charm that clashes amiably with its youthful clientele. I personally enjoyed the wine (although many of my companions didn’t), but even if you’re not a fan of sweet sherry, the bar is worth a visit for the atmosphere alone.

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The following morning was the final morning for my bus mates and I. After a final breakfast, we bid a sad goodbye to the girls who had arrived ahead of us and watched glumly as they headed off to a final day of sunbathing, whilst we mooched off to the bus station. Seven hours later, we arrived back in Madrid, already missing the smell of the ocean.

Granada

Granada and I got off to a bad start. Our coach arrived five minutes ahead of schedule (a welcome contrast to the Sevilla-Cádiz disaster) and we quickly found a bus to take us into the centre. We even overcame the slight obstacle of having no further instructions than ‘get off at the cathedral stop’ – vague to say the least. We decided to embrace the sheep mentality and jumped off when a large proportion of our fellow passengers seemed to be heading for the door. We acquired a map and marched purposefully in the right direction. Which is when the problems began. When we were almost at the hostel, we heard the familiar banging of drums coupled with a whiff of incense. It could only mean one thing: our path was blocked by a procession. Disgruntled but unsurprised, we studied google maps and found another route, which brought us to the main road through the city. This plan was also thwarted by the enormous crowds spilling out onto the pavements as they waited for the procession to pass them by. Frustrated, we decided it would be easier to jump in a cab and promptly flagged one down. The cab driver waited until we had got our bags in the boot and were sliding onto the backseat before informing us that he couldn’t take us where we wanted to go. Apparently the road was barred to both people and traffic. By this point, we were sweaty, exhausted and very, very grumpy. After lugging our bags out of the car, it took us another half an hour to barge our way through the procession using the ‘head down, elbows out’ school of walking, work out where the hell we were and finally (FINALLY!) we found our hostel. Which, as the crow flies, was only about ten minutes from the bus stop.

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Luckily for the man on reception (who, as the first human we had verbally interacted with since the incompetent cabbie, would have been on the receiving end of an overemotional rant), the hostel was beautiful and stunned us into impressed silence. The hostel is designed like an Arabic house with dark wood fittings and open corridors overlooking a mosaicked central foyer. As it was very newly opened when we stayed, the price was incredibly low for the quality (€12 a night) but I have no doubt that the price will begin to rise as word spreads. We had booked into a four-person room, but miraculously had it to ourselves for the duration of our stay. This was particularly lucky as the room was clean but small, the perfect size for us but potentially very cramped with two strangers. It also had an en-suite bathroom with an enormous shower. Undoubtedly the Marriott of the hostel world.

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We were starving after all that unexpected exercise, so headed straight back out in search of nourishment. Whilst the majority of bars in Andalusía are slowly heading the same way as the rest of Spain and charging for tapas, Granada is still infamous for handing out free food with your drinks order. The knack here is not in finding the free stuff, but the GOOD free stuff. We settled for the nearest likely looking bar, and ordered glasses of Rioja from the moody barmaid. Partly to wind her up and partly because we were hungry, we developed the tactic of buying drinks ten minutes apart, so that she was obliged by the unspoken ‘one plate per order’ rule to give us individual portions. The problem with free tapas is it inevitably inspires food envy; on more than one occasion we stared longingly across our neighbours chowing down on some delicious looking meat stew and so eagerly ordered another drink, only to find a plate of dodgy looking gulas slapped down in front of us. Like most things in life, the quality of the food comes down to a combination of luck and who you know. After multiple tapas and glasses of wine, we were ready to drop and so gracefully retired.

The following morning, we each spent so long in our luxury shower that we missed the free breakfast on offer at the hostel, and grabbed a ‘cafe, zumo de naranja y tostada‘ deal at a nearby cafe (you can find this for between 2.50-5 euros in almost every cafe in the South). Our plan for the day was to explore the city on foot and take in as much as possible before heading up to the Alhambra at 18.30. Tickets for the Alhambra sell out well in advance and come with an allotted time slot (thankfully we had been warned about this, so booked ours a month or so before our trip).

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Our hostel was very close to the Cathedral so we headed there first, dodging the swarms of gypsy women forcing ‘lucky heather’ onto passers by. We walked down a little gated passageway and admired the external architecture of the cathedral, but didn’t go in as they were charging a fortune in entrance fees. Instead we strolled around the outside of the building, peering into shops and down alleyways. We quickly became distracted by the colourful glass lanterns glinting in the sunlight, which decorate the Arabic market, known as the Alcaicería. The musky scent of leather mixed with warm clouds of spicy incense wafted down the alleyway to greet us. In a trance, we wound our way through the piles of goods,as faces appeared in doorways, calling out the prices of their woven satchels and beaded slippers and painted tiles and bags of tea. It’s a truly magical, evocative place.

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When we emerged from the market (naturally in a completely different place from where we had entered) we were near an old monastery. Two old men stood outside its gates putting the world to rights, blending into the scenery as naturally as if they had been there for years. We turned into Plaza de la Universidad and stumbled upon an old nearby hospital, arranged around a courtyard with intricate painted designs and letters fading from the crumbling walls.

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Granada is a fascinating clash between ancient and modern cultures. As we walked around the city, I lost count of the amount of times I saw graffiti covering stately buildings or magnificent houses lying open to the curious public. Almost nothing seems to be closed off or behind glass, and yet the city has the strange effect of making you feel as if you are catching a glimpse of something sacred and untouched.

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We did a giant loop, walking back up Calle Reyes Católicos to Calle Cárcel, a small, hilly street, filled with bright Arabic shops and teterías. We powered on further and further up the hill until the scenery began to change. The houses became narrower and were all painted white. The paths were steep and winding. The views were spectacular. This is the Albayzín.

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The Albayzín (or Albaicín) is one of the most recognisable parts of Granada. A district raised some 700-800m above sea level on a hilltop to the East of the city, it is easy to see why it is a World Heritage Sight. The streets have retained their Medieval Moorish design and many of the original houses still stand. The district is infamous for housing a population separate from that residing in the rest of the city – over the years it has housed Moors, Jews and Romany gypsies. Now the district is a popular tourist destination, not only for its beautiful architecture, but also for the wonderful view of the Alhambra, which stands on a hill directly across from it.

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After climbing for some time, we rested on a wall in a small park, gazing down at the city as a funk band had an impromptu open-air practice behind us. We then continued on up until we reached an even better view. As we were balancing precariously on a wall, attempting to get a good shot of the incredible scenery, a man – clearly a local – approached us, cleared his throat to get our attention and informed us that the viewing point was about 50 m to our left. We thanked him and rounded the corner, only to discover (to our embarrassment) that we had been right next to Mirador San Nicholas, the most famous viewing point in Granada, where hundreds of tourists stood photographing the Sierra Nevada and the Alhambra. No wonder the man had looked at us like we were insane.

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When we had posed and snapped away to our hearts’ content, we moved on. Just round the corner is barrio Sacramento. During the day, this district looks like a stunningly beautiful but relatively quiet continuation of the Albayzín, but at night it becomes the heart of Granada’s flamenco scene. Having seen a flamenco performance in Sevilla, we didn’t attend a concert here, but I have heard wonderful things and apparently it is a very special experience.

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By this time, we were starving again, so we began the long descent to the city centre. En route, we saw our first silent procession; lines of people in funeral dress were traipsing along behind an enormous statue of the dead body of Jesus, and as we passed they entered a small church at the base of the hill. We crossed Plaza Nueva and looped back round to Calle Cárcel, having passed a tetería that was offering a tempting menú del día. The place was called Kazbar and it was decorated in the usual Arabic style, with low tables dotted with the occasional shisha pipe, jewel colours, and tiled surfaces hung with mirrors. Although the vegetarian food was delicious, the most memorable thing about Kazbar was the ever-so-slightly insane waiter who served us. He kept hiding around a corner and jumping out at us, forgetting our order and so having to come back and giggling hysterically at his own attempts to speak English (despite the fact that we were ordering in Spanish). In one particularly memorable incident, my friend – who has a mild nut allergy – asked if the falafel contained peanuts. He looked at us scandalised, saying ‘Whaaaaaat you say?’ When I repeated the question in Spanish he giggled and said ‘Oooohhhhh, I hear something else!’ Ten minutes later his grinning face appeared around the corner and he reported back ‘Yes, it does contain…penis?’ He seemed so proud of his English that I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

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After the hilarity of lunch, we went for a nose around Plaza Nueva to wile away the couple of hours before our slot at the Alhambra. We walked up an alleyway just off the plaza and paused to gaze at posters with painted Arabic names hanging outside a small shop. Meanwhile, unseen by us, a figure was creeping out of the shop and moving to stand behind us. Suddenly sensing a presence, I swung round to see an Arabic man, I’d say in his mid-sixties, small and rotund, in loose printed trousers and a waistcoat, grinning broadly at us. Immediately expecting an enthusiastic sales pitch, my natural instinct was to smile politely and move away. However, something in his tone encouraged me to listen, and as my ears adjusted to his heavily accented Spanish, I realised he was pointing out the different kinds of calligraphy he had used for the posters and relating the history behind each one. I was unintentionally drawn in to what he was saying, and before long we had followed him into his shop and agreed to let him paint our names in Arabic. We settled onto woven stools and chose our preferred paper and ink, as he expounded on everything from the history of the Spanish conflict between the Christians and the Moors to why we never judge potential lovers by their religion, passport or CV (to use his words – ‘Sólo piensas “Qué guapo!”’ roughly translated as “You only think ‘Hey there, good-looking!”’). Every so often he would interrupt himself to ask our opinion on his design or get us to trace a dot-to-dot of our names in Arabic, and once a younger man who owned a neighbouring shop came in to speak to him, and was told to leave and seek permission to enter from the ‘princesas’ (us, apparently). I have no idea how long we spent there, but when the final flourish had been added to the calligraphy and the last drop of ink had dried, we paid him a couple of euros (more for the conversation then for the work itself) and he sent us on our way with a blessing and bow.

We had spent so long philosophising with the shopkeeper that it was almost time to go to the Alhambra, so we began the commute uphill from Plaza Nueva. The Alhambra lies at the top of the hill al-Sabika, to the west of Granada. A steep woodland path begins at a huge stone gate on the edge of Plaza Nueva and winds its way upwards to the equally enormous gated entrance to the Alhambra. The word Alhambra comes from the Arabic ‘qa’lat al-Hamra’ meaning Red Castle and the building is so named for its reddish walls.

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For those who are unaware, the Alhambra was originally built as a fortress in the 9th century and was later converted into a palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, used by the last rulers of the Nasrid dynasty. Because of this divided heritage, the Alhambra is comprised of a complex of buildings rather than being the one enormous structure that I had imagined. Parts of the Alhambra are open to tourists for free – anyone can wander around the grounds and visit the Charles V Palace – whilst others require a ticket and a specific time slot. Our tickets were valid from 18.30 and we optimistically arrived almost an hour early, hoping that the time slot was more a guideline then a steadfast rule. After queuing for 20 minutes, we discovered that this was apparently the one place in Spain where punctuality applied and were unceremoniously told to wait.

Luckily there was plenty more to occupy us; we admired the Charles V Palace (notable for the circular courtyard inside a square building) and climbed the Justice Tower, which provided the most exquisite panoramic views over the city and the hills and plains beyond.

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When our turn came, we re-joined the queue and entered the Nasrid Palaces. We followed the crowds round the rooms in awe, as a hall opened onto a courtyard which turned into a bedchamber and then back into a hall, all marked by calligraphic carvings in the stone, too intricate to capture on camera, although many people tried. From the Palaces, we wandered into the gardens of the Generalife -in Arabic, the ‘Garden of the Architect’- which were predictably luxurious, with fountains spilling into long pools and engraved terraces overlooking the hillside.

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When we had absorbed all we could of the spectacular scenery, we set off back down the hill and to our hostel for a rest before dinner.

We went to Calle Elvira for dinner that night, infamous as Granada’s go-to street for nightlife. We picked off bars, judging them by the quality of the tapas (we had a particularly nasty experience with some dodgy deep-fried squid tentacles which put us off one bar for the rest of the trip). Eventually we stumbled across a gem. Although it seemed to attract a slightly older crowd, the drinks were cheap and it was a food-lover’s dream – large portions, constant variety, impeccably presented, the taste of a high-end restaurant and completely free. We were given a variety of tapas, from melted goat’s cheese and tomato relish on toast to a spicy lamb crepe.

On Thursday morning, we had breakfast in Gran Vía café (a place recommended by my guidebook which, unusually for Lonely Planet, was nothing special) and discussed our plans for the day ahead. After studying a map, we came to the realisation that we had walked almost the entirety of the city the day before. However, we had luckily left ourselves a few spots to check out and so set off at a gentle pace towards El Parque Federico García Lorca in the South. The park is about a 15-minute walk out of the city centre and is home to Lorca’s summer house, Huerta de San Vincente, now a museum dedicated to the writer. We found the little house quickly, but had somehow managed to miss the fact that today was a Puente (one of a numerous list of Spanish bank holidays) and so sadly the museum was closed. Although we didn’t get to look inside the building, the outside was beautiful. It took little imagination to picture Lorca as a young man in the sweltering summer heat, sitting at a desk in the white house with green shutters, absent-mindedly gazing at the Andalusían countryside through a window crowned with vines. Once upon a time, the house was surrounded by fields, but now the park is the only stretch of green in a landscape dominated by concrete.

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After a dose of literary history, we walked in a diagonal line across the city, ending up in a North Eastern area infamous for graffiti. One wall in particular is covered from head to foot in enormous, elaborate paintings. The mixture of designs and styles seem to indicate that a variety of artists have contributed to the display over time. Although the visual impact is undeniable, the burst of colour feels surprisingly appropriate amongst the historical setting.

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For lunch we were feeling paella. We found it on a small pedestrian street, at a roadside café that provided excellent people watching opportunities. The paella was enormous and delicious, if somewhat tricky to eat. The challenging element arose from the shellfish piled high on top of the rice. I acquitted myself reasonably well with the smaller models of prawn, but try as I might, I couldn’t get past the razor sharp claws and armour-like shell of the langostinos. After finishing everything else on my plate, I managed to scrape out a teeny-tiny amount of pale flesh from beneath the rock-hard surface and savoured it with triumph. By the end of the meal, our plates resembled an animal graveyard, covered in broken pieces of shell and little prawn legs. The smug grins were wiped off our faces when we received the bill; naively, we had read the menu as saying paella for 15 euros, but on a closer re-reading, it was 15 euros per person. Not the bargainous meal we had been expecting but oh well – the seafood was undoubtedly fresh and undeniably tasty.

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In the afternoon, we returned to the Alcaicería for a spot of shopping. To my immense pride, I successfully haggled a leather bag down to half price (no small feat for me, the girl who punctuates every disagreement with a chorus of apologies) and walked away from the market with a satisfying sense of achievement.

The final evening of our holiday was suitably eventful. We went back to Calle Elvira and began another tapas bar crawl, before being realising that nothing was living up to the food at the bar from the previous evening. Inevitably, we went back. After eating our fill, we tried out another place, where the bartender was a lovely man dressed all in black who recommended his handmade sangria and allowed us to choose the music. We were also gifted a free shot of ron miel (honey rum) before we left, a delicious Andalusían special.

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We also got chatting to a group of guys from Santander, who miraculously allowed to us to speak to them in Spanish rather than attempting to practice their English – something that never happens in Madrid. We went with them to a bar playing incredible soul music (which was criminally empty) and spent an hour or so chatting about all manner of things. At about 3am, as we were making our way back to the hostel, all the late-night noises suddenly fell away and we realised that we had stumbled across another silent procession. This one was much larger than the one we had seen a day earlier, with crowds of people squashed onto the pavements to pay their respects. It was a wonderful final flash of the Andalusían spirit; in that moment, with people of all ages watching in silence as a line of mourners trickled down the street behind the inevitable statue of Jesus, there was really nowhere else in the world that we could have been.

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Cádiz

Monday was one of those mornings that you dread as a traveller, when all the powers in the universe seem to be working against you, scuppering any chance of a smooth journey. Although I am a great advocator of hostels as a cheap and sociable accommodation option, there are definite risks to sleeping in an 8-bed room with a load of strangers. In Sevilla we ended up sharing living space with a textbook weirdo; he walked around the room with no obvious purpose, hugging himself and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like a satanic curse. Plus, he snored. Needless to say, we didn’t get the best night’s sleep and woke up on Monday morning grumpy and rushed for time. I somehow managed to lose my key card in the room whilst I was packing and ended up having to fork out for a replacement, despite knowing that it was hidden in my luggage somewhere (I later found it nestling in the centrefold of my Lonely Planet guidebook).

We rushed out of the hostel and spent ages searching for the right bus stop. When we finally got on a hot bus packed with sweaty commuters, it took us until 20 minutes into the journey to realise that we were in fact travelling the wrong way. Panicking, we jumped off the bus and –in our first piece of good luck that day – managed to grab the attention of a taxi driving past. Miraculously, we got to the bus station just in time to buy an overpriced, bland sandwich (having not had any breakfast we were starving by that point) and jump on the bus to Cádiz, feeling distinctly frazzled.

Luckily, once we arrived in Cádiz things started looking up. The directions I had from the bus station to the hostel were very vague, but after a short walk we found the place easily. It was smaller, cleaner and brighter than our previous hostel, with the added benefit of a roof terrace. The only other person in our 4-person room was an American girl who turned out to be very sweet (and a non-snorer).

After dumping our bags, we went to explore the city. Cádiz has installed an unusual aid to orientation, in the form of different coloured lines painted on the pavements, creating intersecting tourist trails around the city. We began by following the purple line, leading us towards the cathedral at the centre of the city. The building was lovely but temporarily shut for Semana Santa, so we didn’t look inside (if architecture is your thing, Semana Santa is probably the worst time to visit Andalusía, as most of the important buildings are closed to tourists whilst they prepare the celebrations).

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 As well as being a small city, Cádiz is a fishing port and almost completely surrounded by the ocean. A little known fact is that Cádiz is also the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe. Although at first glance the ancient landmarks are relatively well hidden, we stumbled across the Roman Theatre as we were walking along the southern coast of the city (incidentally, it is the second largest Roman Theatre in the world). The theatre was only discovered by accident in 1980, after a fire destroyed the buildings that had previously been constructed on the sight. Sadly, we weren’t able to explore the theatre as it was closed for excavation works, but we had a good peer through the fencing and caught a tantalising glimpse of the ancient architecture.

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Our main mission that day was to find lunch, whilst having a nose around the city. My trusty guidebook recommended the Viña barrio as one of the best places in Andalusía for fresh fish. We strolled through the streets, battling the ocean breeze whilst attempting to read the map, which was constantly threatening to tear itself out of my hands and fly into the water. The streets were eerily quiet and we were a little disappointed with the lack of atmosphere in the city. We walked down a side street, and as we turned a corner we were almost knocked sideways by an eruption of light and colour. Calle Vírgen de las Palmas is one of the city’s most infamous streets; coloured cafés lead up towards a small church and the pavements are lined with families eating fried fish at outside tables and putting the world to rights. It is crowded, noisy and unmistakeably Spanish.

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Lunch was chocos fritos (fried calamari pieces), gambas al ajillo (prawns sizzling in garlic), pimientos asados (peppers cooked in olive oil and garlic) and papas aliñas (potatoes with onion, garlic, olive oil and parsley), washed down with tinto de verano. It was absolutely delicious and so fresh that you could taste the sea salt.

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As we were finishing our food, we noticed that tables were being cleared away and people were gathering on the side of the street. As we paid and moved closer, street vendors appeared out of nowhere, pushing small trolleys lined with snacks for sale. We pushed through the crowd and began to move down the street, trying to reach a turning back towards the city centre, but before we were even halfway there, the faces of the locals began to turn towards the left. Following their gaze, we peered down towards the church and saw a movement in the doorway. Moments later, people began to emerge. The Semana Santa processions were beginning.

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We stood there for almost an hour as line after line marched past: children and adults in those strange robes and pointed hoods (this time in dark blue velvet instead of white cotton), an enormous marching band with tiny music stands clipped onto their instruments and their sheet music flapping in the breeze, women dressed in traditional mourning clothes, their faces covered by black lace veils, hooded figures dragging wooden crosses or bound up in chains, and giant altars bedecked with flickering candles and a model of Jesus on the cross. Underneath the altars it was just possible to make out the thirty pairs of shuffling feet belonging to the men whose task it was to carry the altar around the entire city, bearing its weight for over two hours. In typical Spanish fashion, the processions are conducted leisurely, with pauses every few minutes. This particular one took even longer than usual, as the narrow street posed a problem for the altar, which needed a 20-point turn to go round the corner. Eventually, the religious figures passed us by and we squeezed sideways through the still-watching crowd, back into the deserted surrounding streets.

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Having explored the southern edge of the city, we decided to head north, towards Plaza España. The northern coast of Cádiz does not provide an attractive seaside walk; lest you forget that the city is also a working port, the view is dominated by ships and cement and the buildings become gradually more modern and less aesthetically pleasing. However, we persevered and in a moment of happy chance stumbled across a derelict and graffiti-smeared platform above the sea, which obviously used to play host to a variety of bars and cafés but which was now completely abandoned, save for a couple of tramps sitting on the narrow strip of beach directly below the platform, muttering inaudibly to each other.

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We sat in the late-afternoon sunshine with our feet dangling towards the water and listened to the distant music of the on-going processions echoing across the bay. It wasn’t until the tramps wandered up onto the platform behind us, swinging plastic buckets filled with saltwater and unidentifiable fish, that we remembered our mission and continued towards Plaza España.

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After that we found it quickly, but although the grand statues and pink blossom were ornate and pretty, they seemed unremarkable compared to our private ocean viewing point.

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After a brisk walk back to the centre and a glass of sangria in Plaza San Juan de Díos (Cádiz’s main square), we headed back to the hostel to get ready for dinner. It was then that we met our roommate and fellow traveller, an American girl also living in Madrid. We invited her to join us for dinner and headed to an incredible place, also recommended in my guidebook and right around the corner from our hostel. We shared a variety of dishes, including spinach and pine nut crepes and seafood lasagne. It was just divine!

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We walked back to our hostel along streets strewn with rose petals and spent the hour before bed taking turns to lie in a hammock on the hostel roof, sipping wine under the stars.

The next morning, we grabbed a free breakfast at the hostel and checked out. Our roommate joined us for a coffee at a local café and then we strolled to the beach and spent our last moments in Cádiz sitting on the sand, watching a group of boys playing football and dogs chasing the surf.

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All too quickly it was time to return to the hostel, grab our bags and walk to the bus station. This moment was extra sad, as one of my friends was going to visit her family in Nerja instead of travelling on with us. My other friend and I waved goodbye as her bus pulled out of the station and then climbed onto our own, mentally preparing ourselves for the five hour journey to Granada.

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Sevilla

I was a little baffled by Sevilla. At first I thought it was a relatively straightforward, typical Andalusían city – we arrived in the evening, passing lively crowds of people eating, drinking and chattering away in the glow of the orange street lamps as we found our way from the bus station to the hostel.

I soon discovered that Sevilla is anything but straightforward; in fact, it is very much unique, with a vibe unlike that of any city I have ever visited. It is also more than a little confusing.

I quickly gave Sevilla the nickname ‘The Spanish Hogwarts’, for its uncanny knack to simultaneously bewitch and bewilder. On that first evening, as we attempted to find a place to grab a quick dinner before falling into bed, I learned the number one rule of the city: never try to get anywhere in a hurry. I am convinced that the narrow, twisting streets change direction when you’re not looking, forcing you to wander in circles, so that you never move any closer to your destination but instead stumble across a beautiful building or tiny plaza that disappears as soon as you leave it behind and can never be rediscovered on purpose.

Posing in the hostel lift!

Posing in the hostel lift!

The second rule followed hastily behind the first. We eventually found our way to the cathedral and ate in a small tapas bar nearby. The food was substandard but necessary after our seemingly endless wanderings, and we wolfed it down gratefully. Except for the three of us – and the bar staff – the place was almost empty, a fact that was a little perplexing for a Saturday night in a – supposedly – buzzing city. As we left the bar and went for a short stroll around the cathedral, we realised that the whole city was eerily quiet. Clearly the streets around the bus station were an anomaly. The only locals in sight were a handful of smartly dressed OAPs, who emerged from a church at around 11pm. It was then that we realised our error; it was the Saturday night before the start of Semana Santa, arguably the most important week in the Catholic calendar and particularly key in Southern Spain. A time for families to eat together, pray together, and get an early night to prepare for the celebrations ahead. And thus we learned rule number two: never look for a party in Seville the night before Semana Santa kicks off. It is apparently the one night of the Spanish calendar when la fiesta does not exist.

The following morning we enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and pastries at a café across the road from our hostel. Sitting at our outside table, we watched the locals flooding out of the church opposite, all dressed to the nines and many carrying palms. As we finished breakfast and embarked on our own walking tour of the major sights, we realised that the dapper dressing was not limited to our particular area – the entire city was in their Sunday best, something perhaps unremarkable on paper, but incredibly surreal in reality. The only people on the streets not in suits or sporting enormous hats were the tourists. To our amusement, we also noted that the teenage girls seemed to be treating Palm Sunday as an excellent opportunity to get their legs out. With every church we passed the skirts got shorter and the heels got higher.

Our improvised tour took us underneath the Metropol Parasol, an enormous modern sculpture in La Encarnación square, reportedly the biggest wooden structure in the world. Bizarrely, the building is popularly known as Las Setas de la Encarnación – ‘Mushrooms of the Incarnation’. We emerged into the cathedral square, admiring the intricate Gothic engravings and nosing past the queues of people emerging from mass to glimpse the grand arches inside the enormous structure. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See (more simply known as Seville Cathedral) is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third-largest church in the world. It is incredibly ornate and beautiful and dominates the centre of the city. We used it as a navigational landmark to help us avoid repeating our experience of the first evening, as the sheer size of the building means that it can be glimpsed from almost anywhere in the city.

The biggest all-wood sculpture in the world

The biggest all-wood sculpture in the world

The cathedral in the sunshine

The cathedral in the sunshine

The Cathedral Courtyard

The gothic carvings on the cathedral tower

The gothic carvings on the cathedral tower

The crowds leaving Cathedral mass

The crowds leaving Cathedral mass

The Gothic Arches inside the Cathedral

The Gothic Arches inside the Cathedral

Opposite the Cathedral is the Alcázar, a Moorish fort that is now the oldest palace still in use in Europe. Sadly, we were put off from looking inside by the enormous queue of people that stretched all the way across the square. We did, however, have a quick peek into the stables and cooed over the infamously beautiful Andalusían horses (the entire city is filled with horses and carriages, driven by men who prey on the collective tourist weakness for these magnificent beasts).

Andalusían Horse and Carriage

A less magnificent beast!

A less magnificent beast!

Enjoying the glorious sunshine, we walked along the river towards Plaza de España, Seville’s most beautiful plaza, nestled in the Parque de María Luisa a little way out of the city centre. Plaza de España was my personal highlight of Sevilla. The plaza was built in 1928 and its one of the most important examples of the Renaissance Revival architecture style in Spain. Buildings are arranged in an enormous half-circle around the edge of the plaza, accessible by bridges arcing over a moat. The walls of the plaza are divided into small alcoves covered in tiles, each representing a different Spanish province. Most of the buildings are now used by the government – for the town hall, amongst other things.

The main plaza

The main plaza

My two travelling companions!

We sat by the fountain in the centre of the plaza and immediately got soaked by spray, prompting an embarrassing show of running and screaming across the square. There is something old-worldly and almost Venetian about the gorgeous, ornamental bridges and the palatial buildings with their sweeping staircases. We had a leisurely explore and photographed to our hearts’ content.

The Central Fountain

The Ornate Bridges

Little Girl at a Bridge

Boating on the Moat

One of the alcoves for every province in Spain

One of the alcoves for every province in Spain

The Square Sillhouetted

The Three Girlies!

For lunch, we returned to the centre of town for tapas and sangria. Giddy with sunshine, we then decided to sit at a street-side table and indulge in another jarra de sangria as we did some serious people-watching, laughing at the girls tottering past in sky-high stilettos, the cute little kids in their 1930s flannel shorts and knee-high socks and even a few people heading to a Semana Santa procession in KKK-style outfits.

Our lunchtime sangria break!

Our lunchtime sangria break!

A man in a traditional Semana Santa outfit, going for a stroll!

A man in a traditional Semana Santa outfit, going for a stroll!

Kids distract themselves at lunch

Kids distract themselves at lunch

A Surreal Stroll

Our plan was to have a look at the Plaza de Toros. Then the rain came.

When it rains in Andalusía, it rains. Umbrella-less, we sprinted along the streets, passing scores of families huddled in doorways and glammed-up girls screeching about their ruined hair. Soaked to the skin, we squeezed into a tiny bar in a conservatory-style building on the side of the road and waited out the storm. Perhaps it was the time of year or perhaps it was the rain, but my overwhelming impression of Sevilla in that moment was of a tight-knit community. In this tiny bar, strangers were laughing and joking together, welcoming each other in from the rain, making space where there was none, buying drinks and generally showing kindness in an unusual social situation. This sense of community and compassion is one of my favourite things about Spain and it is particularly evident in Andalusía. Even more remarkably, as tourists in Sevilla, we were welcomed into that bar like locals.

Caught in the Rain!

A Stormy River

Hiding in the conservatory bar

Hiding in the conservatory bar

As the rain eased off a little and we began walking back to the hostel, we passed a flamenco venue and decided to go in, on the off chance that they would have tickets available for that evening. Flamenco is an iconic part of Sevilla and although I had been living in Spain for around 7 months, I still hadn’t seen any live performances. Although the late evening show was busy, there was a show starting at 7 that was almost empty. We took our seats and settled down with our free drink to watch the show. It was a shame that the venue was so empty (the only other people in the audience were a mother and her son, a group of Japanese tourists and a Spanish family celebrating a birthday) but the show was wonderful, with some passionate solo and group performances. My particular highlight was the dancing to a small selection of music from the opera ‘Carmen’ – it was amazing to see how expressively and energetically the dancers were able to get the story across, especially with such an empty audience. We applauded rapturously.

Flamenco Solo

An Elegant Pose

A moment from Carmen

After a dinner of more tapas (because of the variation in dishes from bar to bar and city to city you can never get bored of it), we headed back to the hostel, accidentally stumbling across an enormous procession en route! Unluckily for us, our hostel lay across the path of the procession, and the thousands of people lining the streets made it more then a little difficult to cross the road. I asked a nearby policeman if there was a way round and received a blank stare in response. There was nothing for it; we waited until there was a brief pause, joined hands and elbowed our way through the crowds to the other side, trying not to look left or right or see how many people we had knocked over on the way! We were completely knackered after all the walking and so stumbled into bed, as we had to be up early to catch a bus to destination number 3 – Cádiz.

Very intimidating at first - and almost impossible to cross the road!

Very intimidating at first – and almost impossible to cross the road!

We were given an evil glare just before we crossed the road...

We were given an evil glare just before we crossed the road…