Spain. The land of tapas, flamenco and sunflower fields. And now one of my favourite countries in the world. I do not claim that lightly – those who know me well will understand how much weight that statement carries! I’m not quite sure how Spain had managed to stay under my radar for so long. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Europe, living in France and the UK, with quite a bit of travel within the region too. For some reason, I never had a strong calling to visit Spain and it’s only now that I realise how much of a missed opportunity this had been.
35,000 feet in the air, surrounded by dusty pink skies and spoiled with the impeccable service of Cathay Pacific, I began my Spanish adventure with little knowledge about the country I was visiting, except for the embarrassing stereotypes and traits I had ascribed to the people of Spain (essentially that their life consists of eating jamon and paella, waking up late, having siestas and partying). To be fair these things may be true but it soon became clear how much of a disservice I was doing to myself and the country by not realising what more it had to offer.
Right after landing in Madrid, our group went straight to Alcalá de Henares, a beautiful little city only 45 minutes away by car. After settling in at our first stop, El Casino we were swiftly served with sangria (because, Spain) and with the clink of our glasses, we went around the table and introduced ourselves to the rest of the group. There were writers from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and of course Kim and I were visiting from the Philippines. Turns out there’s nothing like a bit of sangria to ease some of the awkward getting-to-know-each-other stiffness, and it didn’t take long for everyone to relax and start cracking jokes.
With full tummies and energised with new friendships, we ventured through the cobbled streets of Alcala de Henares to the university which also happens to be a UNESCO world heritage site. I was awestruck and disheartened as it dawned on me that I studied in a place which is lovingly referred to as the ugliest building in Sydney.
I was fascinated by the walls of school’s chapel, which were fitted with intricate, Islamic style design. As it turns out, like many areas of Spain, this city (and birthplace of the prolific writer and poet Miguel Cervantes) is a beautiful hybrid of cultural influences. You can see it in the mix of architectural influences or by walking around the different quarters of town, where people were once segregated by religion (Jewish, Christian and Islamic).
Back in Madrid, the capital and most populous city of Spain, I was reminded how much of a difference an enthusiastic tour guide makes when you experience a place for the first time (you can read about my guide Youseff in my Morocco post). I had the pleasure of being toured around by Sean, who with his perfect English you could be initially deceived into thinking was Irish (apparently he speaks like his Irish mother), but is clearly Spanish to the core. His passion and enthusiasm was contagious and I soon found myself falling in love with his country and people. One of the first things we did was walk through a marketplace selling gorgeous produce, inciting a few squeals on my part. Never have I seen tomatoes of so many varieties and in such size and colour (yes tomatoes excite me). My mind was abuzz with all the recipes I could make with such beautiful produce. Then I realised, you don’t really need to do anything to it. As we capped off the night with a ‘tapas hopping’ tour, I noticed that the food that was served was, more often than not, simple. The meaty tomatoes would be sliced thick like a slab of steak, drizzled with fragrant grassy olive oil and topped generously with sea salt. That’s all you need to do when the hero of your dish is the produce itself.
What is nearly as outrageous as the quality of the food is the price of a drink at a bar in Madrid. A glass of wine could cost 1.5-2 euros, in Sydney you couldn’t get bottled water for that price!
Alcalar de Henares
As I sat on a high speed train to the city of Malaga, I couldn’t help but notice how much Spaniards like to talk. It’s as if they could talk anywhere and for any length of time (and at any volume, louder being the more common occurrence). I was particularly endeared to this – I love when people talk with zest and passion, it’s what made me fall in love with France all those years ago. They seem to be so engaged with one another. It’s something I crave for, but unfortunately, I think it is quickly disappearing from many cultures around the world with the pervasiveness of gadgets and distractions that surround us in everyday life.
In the beautiful coastal city of Malaga, I particularly enjoyed wandering around the Alcazaba (the best preserved citadel in Spain), which was peppered with beautiful flowers and a stunning view. I was also pleasantly surprised to find the Pompidou Centre, which I used to frequent back in Paris. In my opinion, the colourful cubic structure of the Spanish Pompidou is much more beautiful than its Parisian counterpart (if my university was the ugliest building in Sydney then the Pompidou is certainly a contender for the ugliest building in Paris). That aside, I’d definitely recommend dropping by if contemporary art is your jam. After a short and sweet introduction to Malaga, we bid adieu to the city and boarded a bus to Ronda, which turned out to be one of my favourite stops on this trip. Imagine a picturesque town with winding cobble streets and flower pots adorning windowsills and terraces. A change of scene from the larger cities of Spain, where it’s hard not be charmed by the rolling hills and rocky mountains.
Leaving Ronda with the sounds of Flamenco guitar reverberating in our bones from a concert we attended the previous night, we made out way to Jerez de la Frontera to see the music manifest in the form of dance. Our arrival happened to coincide with the annual Horse Fair (Feria de Caballo), where women in bright flamenco costumes twirled around the square whilst smiling onlookers sipped on sherry (myself included). I never thought the words ‘man’, ‘horse’ and ‘sexy’ could be used in the same sentence until my time in Jerez. Never say never (disclaimer: it may have been the sherry).
It was in the Extremadura region where I learnt how seriously the Spanish take their jamon, especially their most prized jamon iberico. Don’t even dream about likening jamon to prosciutto by the way, which is akin to blasphemy. After learning about the lengthy process of curing meat, we visited a beautiful family-run winery to sample some traditionally made (no machinery used) wine, and sat down to witness the holy slicing-of-jamon ceremony. Apparently, as with sashimi, the way a piece of meat is cut has a huge impact on the overall taste and texture, thus creating an extra job in the hospitality sector (jamon slicer).
It was in the world heritage city of Caceres, where narrow cobbled streets and medieval fortified homes gave the impression of being on a film set, that I wandered around at sunset imagining how people went about their daily lives back in the middle ages. How extraordinary that humans, not so long ago, really used to live in places like these. Their lives could not have been further apart from mine. What I would give to go back in time and have a conversation with a local.
Salamanca, our final (and ridiculously photogenic) stop, was also one of my favourite destinations in Spain. Even if you walked around aimlessly, it was hard not to come across something magical, whether it be an ancient library filled with old knowledge and wisdom, the colourful refracted light passing through the stained glass windows of a towering cathedral, or the somewhat irregular and mysterious font that was used to inscribe Latin on to the golden sandstone.
What a trip! An exciting, enriching, exhausting experience. As I was drinking a green smoothie in the Cathay lounge at my stopover on the way home (wishfully thinking that it would somehow balance the sudden onslaught of food in my diet from the past 10 days) I started to reflect over what it was about Spain that I truly love.
I suppose the things that really left an impact on me are the people and the produce. These days, I have a growing appreciation for human connection and I’ve also realised that people really inspire me. Speaking with someone both similar and unlike myself makes me to confront my values and the things I am currently doing with my life. I find Spaniards particularly warm, charming, open and passionate. I love that they speak with as much vigour as the French but perhaps take themselves a little less seriously. Also, their pace of life amuses me – as a visitor I didn’t mind that everything was slow and took time (prime example: the lack of a ‘close’ button in the elevators). The way I see Spanish cuisine will forever be different to my initial assumptions. There are regions in Spain that are blessed with a climate conducive to growing such excellent produce, from the juiciest cherries to delicious and inexpensive wines. As someone who appreciates the simplicity and quality of the produce itself, this was major. As always, I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to discover another country, and I look forward to revisiting Spain and to see some of the northern parts of the country next time. There are 4 flights weekly to Madrid via HK on Cathay, so there’s no excuse to wait too long! Muchos gracias, Spain!
** I’d just like to say a huge thank you to Chet from the Spain tourism board, Luna from Cathay Pacific, and all my co-travellers for not only making this trip happen, but for the wonderful company and memories we made. **
The Pier Business Class Lounge, Hong Kong Airport. Located in terminal 1, near gate 65.