As I write this never to be published book on our travels round Spain, I worry sometimes that I come across as a bit of a travel snob. Always ‘get away from the other tourists this way blah blah blah…’
So, for the avoidance of doubt, I really don’t care how you want to experience Spain. It’s a spectrum of authenticity, or maybe ‘authenticity,’ isn’t it? At one end, you can go to one of the Costas, stay in that place run by Pat and Mike from East Grinstead again, who do a lovely full English in the morning to set you up for a day of donkey rides and John Smith’s bitter. Blackpool in the sun, some folks call it. If that’s your bag, that’s absolutely fine. At least it gets you out of the house and it means Pat and Mike don’t have to see East Grinstead ever again. And vice versa. Maybe there was a reason they had to leave town.
Or, for a city break, you could go to Barcelona. You can probably get by pretty well without a word of Spanish, since the locals (or those of them that haven’t immigrated from different parts of Spain) speak Catalan anyway, and would rather you spoke English than castellano, which to some of them is the language of the oppressor.
Next on the spectrum, these days, I’d probably recommend a flight to Madrid. Over the years we’ve been going, it’s definitely become more … I’m going to use that word … touristy. Let’s face it, there’s far more of us Brits would rather go somewhere where they can get by with a quick glance at a guidebook, or a fruitless few hours on DuoLingo, than those strange folks who actually prefer full immersion. Madrid is Castilian in the same way that Barcelona is Catalan, and its centre is easily navigable, relatively small, and stocked to the gunnels with good places to eat and drink.
And while we’re on essentials, all over Spain I’d say the attitude to when you want to eat and drink has become a lot less formal. Sure, if you go to a proper restaurant with white tablecloths for lunch, don’t expect the place to fill up with Spaniards until 2 or 3 o’clock: but elsewhere you can snack or guzzle your way through most of the day and night.
Madrid and Barcelona are the twin big cities, with football and most other kinds of rivalries going on between them. However, lots of people have been going to Seville this year, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just for the love of Ryanair.
Like Madrid, Seville when we first went was much less set up for tourists than it is now. However, now it is, and you can hear lots of English, German and, perhaps especially, French being spoken in the streets. That being the case, I’m not going to recommend a lot of places, but usual rules apply: if you eat near the Cathedral or one of the other tourist areas like The Setas, expect it to be more pricey – although not usually anything near what you’d pay for the same quality back home, at least in the UK.
So having said head away from the Cathedral, a street with good hunting in it is Calle Alvarez Quintero, just to the north of it. One place we really enjoyed was called Antiguedades (Antiquities) which was atmospheric, without being too Disneyfied. There’s another place just uphill from it whose name I’ve forgotten that does carnes a la brasa (barbecued meat) which is also superb. It has guns on the wall (see pic below) although I’m fairly sure they’re non operational.
For an example of what I mean by Seville having become more set up for tourists, go across the Puente de Isabel II, the nearest bridge to the Cathedral, and cross into the barrio of Triana, a down to earth district that clearly takes its own identity seriously. Straight ahead of you is a main street of restaurants, where, again, you’ll eat perfectly well. They’ve long ago found their way into the guidebooks and TripAdvisor as the other place you should go apart from the Old Town.
However, the first time we came to Triana, we took a right just after the bridge on instinct, on Calle Callao, just behind the covered market (also worth a visit). A short way along there’s a ceramics shop if you’re into that sort of thing, and then, just in a bend of the road, a few restaurants that, the first time we went, were locals only kind of affairs.
Now, that was ten or twelve years ago of course, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve become multi-lingual, menu-wise. Again, nothing wrong with that, although the stuff on the menu tends to become a bit homogenised, too, into what they think the tourists will recognise as Spanish Food – paella, calamares, all that sort of stuff.
So this time we went further along the street where a little place with particularly smiley waiting staff served tortas de ines rosales – basically a local type of cracker, some sweet flavoured, some savoury, topped with all sorts of great combinations. I’m not going to tell you the name of the place. You’ve going to have to find it yourself. What kind of guide do you think this is?
Lastly on this subject of Spanish holidays being on a spectrum. On the train down to Cadiz (of which more in the next blog) we got talking to a fellow passenger, an Englishman, who had ended up booked at the other end of the train from his wife due to Renfe’s Byzantine online booking methods. Despite – or because of – that, he seemed quite cheery, and was going to Cadiz, then Jerez, with only the most basic phrase book Spanish to get by on. Is that a great idea? Who knows, but who am I to judge? This year I’ve been to Sweden and Slovenia (admittedly only very briefly on business trips) and spoken nary a word of either.
The only thing I would always say is, at least in Spain, even trying a few words gets you brownie points, big style. So please, please, give it a go. And if you try to communicate by speaking VERY LOUDLY IN ENGLISH, and you see a bloke at the next table that looks a bit like one of the Proclaimers giving you a Look, that’ll be me. And if you pipe down and play nice I’ll translate for you.
Unless it actually is one of the Proclaimers. I have no idea what standard their Spanish is.