Simon Huggins's blog

Wed, 27 Aug 2014

Spending five weeks in Spain

In July I quit my job as the Guardian's Digital Operations Manager and went off to Spain for 5 weeks. I'll probably post per city I stayed in but I thought I'd set off with a general post about my time in Spain.

I had a great time in Spain. I tried to do everything touristy I could in the various places I stayed in and so I saw lots of amazing museums and lots of mosques/cathedrals. It did seem like every other place was either a cafe or a religious building of some kind.

I travelled around a lot; I spent the first two weeks learning some Spanish in Salamanca, then went on to Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Toledo, Barcelona, Girona and Figueres all via train. My Google location history looks like this:

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I guess if you haven't spoken to me then you might not know why anyone would do this. I left the Guardian for a variety of reasons but mostly that I didn't really feel there was anywhere for me to go next inside that department. They're an amazing team and I'm going to be following what they do next. I was lucky that I had some savings and we'd come to a good point with my new boss nicely settled in and stability restored to the platform that it made sense to do new things. I haven't worked out what I'm going to do next; I've been back in the UK for two weeks but I've been away for both of those weekends and haven't really stopped yet!

So why such a long break and why Spain? Well I speak fluent (if rusty) French given I spent two years of my life there one at school and one working and I'd always thought that I should learn another language. Spanish was a natural choice; a romance language so not too far away from the latin and French I learnt at school and very widely spoken. I'd also wanted to visit the Dali museum in Figueres again as it's the first museum that as a kid turned me on to modern art. So I resigned and once I'd negotiated a leaving date I booked a flight to Madrid, two weeks of an intensive language course in Salamanca and a Eurostar back from Paris. The next week I panicked.

Friends will tell you I'm a bit of a control freak and I do like to know things like where my next meal is coming from so not knowing what I was going to do for the 3 weeks in between being in Salamanca did freak me out a little but I took advice from people who had been to Spain (thank you Natasha, Diego and Lydia) and came up with a plan of places to visit. And then I booked all the hotels and trains I'd need to get me where I needed to be when.

I picked places that were easy to get to by train and looked interesting and it really did work out. Ambitiously I had planned my leaving drinks from work the night before I flew to Spain but given it was an early evening flight even that worked out.

I mentioned I'm a control freak and I normally go on holiday in France which given I speak French is quite easy. So it was a bit of a shock when I realised I was in Madrid with basically read-it-from-a-phrasebook level Spanish but I survived my first nights.

Travelling in Spain

The trains were all fine. RENFE's website is terrible to try and book trains but Rail Europe's site was also pretty bad. Essentially "simple" things like needing to change trains didn't work when searching for journeys so unless you knew that you needed to change at Madrid you would think there weren't any trains that did that journey at all. The Deutsche Bahn site is excellent for working out times of trains all the way across Europe as you might expect. I got lots of advice from the man in seat 61. If you need help booking train tickets in Spain then this is a skill I have acquired so bribe me with beer/coffee!

The AVEs, Spain's high-speed trains, were great and the other medium distance trains were all very clean and smart too. Spain has two different railway gauges which means you sometimes stop and go through a shed which is odd but seems to work. I had to book first class from Madrid to Cordoba and it was a lovely experience where they brought me food and drink and I had lots of room. The rest of my trips were all standard though.

The boarding of the TGV to Paris in Barcelona Sants was an utterly laughable experience. Imagine two countries not perhaps reputed for their efficiency both with their own staff, both with in station, print your own tickets at home and mobile ticketing options which all require different machines to check them. There aren't really any useful signs and they have two trains leaving from the platforms that serve these TGVs within 10 minutes of each other. Then add lots of tourists with lots of bags and that probably don't speak Spanish or French and you end up with a big mess.
At one point a member of staff told me that it was obvious that the queue under the sign that read "e-ticket" was only for people who had e-tickets bought and printed in France with absolutely no hint of sarcasm. There wasn't a separate Spanish e-ticket queue of course. Somehow they did seem to manage to get people onto the train before it left though I can only assume this was due to luck.

Things I learnt about Spain

I hadn't spent really any serious amounts of time in Spain before my trip and I didn't know much about their culture or history really so I was definitely there to learn. I was quite surprised about how many cafes there were and how they all did at least a little bit of food. They were also mostly open for breakfast and eating breakfast out seemed to be a normal thing for people to do before work even.

I wasn't very impressed with the food I had in Spain. I did have some really good meals but I had a lot of pretty average ones. I think that was partly not knowing where to go or what to order and partly that I was mostly in very touristy places. The thin cut cured ham was really amazing though and always seemed good and a good Spanish tortilla is hard to beat. I guess because I was eating out I didn't seem to eat many vegetables either so I had the usual travelling thing where I started craving them.
I did really enjoy tapas. Both the free-with-a-beer type and the ordering and paying for small plates seemed an excellent idea and I don't know why we don't do that more in the UK. I have ex-colleagues in the US who mock the Brits for going out drinking without eating and this would be a perfect solution for post-work drinks.

I knew very little about Spain's history and whilst I was there I certainly learnt more about the Moors, the Spanish civil war and the time under Franco along with a bit more about the struggle for Catalonian independence. It's fascinating and it helped me make sense of some of the historical museums and art I was seeing.

I thought it would be ridiculously hot in Spain and it was but I survived a lot better in the hotter, drier places than I did in Barcelona where it seemed just as hot but also humid. There were were a few times that I couldn't cope and retreated to air-con'd hotel rooms.

Service in cafes/restaurants was almost universally terrible in Spain but that seemed to be because of the hordes of tourists and that the waiters didn't seem that bothered by customers. I saw a bunch of people just walk out when they didn't get anywhere near ordering in all sorts of places.

Really going in July and August is very silly. Partly because it's full of tourists and partly because it's very hot but also because the Spaniards know this and take some of that time off to go sit on a beach leaving their recommended restaurant/museum shut. That was sad a couple of times but each time serendipity came to the rescue and I found some lovely places that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Dropping your camera early in a long holiday so it stops working is a very silly thing to do but I managed through miming and bad Spanish to buy tiny screwdrivers, take it apart and by a miracle put it back together again so that this time it worked. That was almost very expensive.

I also definitely had some down times which I was expecting. Often just after a particular terrible failure of speaking Spanish but I managed to get through them and move on to the next exciting thing to see or eat.

Must see things in Spain

You all have to go and see La Mesquita in Cordoba which is a cathedral inside an enormous mosque. It's truly amazing and the way they've kept lots of the original artifacts rather than just razing the place to the ground and building a cathedral instead is brilliant.

I would also recommend the Sofia Reina museum in Madrid and the Picasso and Joan Miro museums in Barcelona along with the Dali museum in Figueres. I loved the art I saw and they had brilliant collections.

I'll blog a little more about each place I went on other days I think but I've put all my photos up on flickr.

I blogged about the places I went to:


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