8 Things You Should Know Before You Go To Spain
Because patatas bravas is just the beginning.
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Spain isn’t all patatas bravas, bull fights and enough sherry and sangria to make your lips bleed. With a history stuffed with everything from prehistoric humans to Roman emperors, invading Moors and the Spanish Inquisition, Spain is probably the best living history lesson you’ll ever have. Obviously, a glowing Mediterranean, generous exchange rate and carnivalesque lifestyle also helps.
But if the hours I’ve spent scouring Spanish streets for an open anything at midday has taught me one lesson, it’s that ‘rocking up’ isn’t exactly an option. You need to do your research before arriving in the Kingdom of Spain. That’s right republicans, it’s a kingdom – so no slandering of the Bourbons unless you fancy two years in jail.
#1 Not everyone speaks Spanish
Think six months of high-school Spanish is enough to get you through your holiday? Think again. After regional languages like Basque, Catalan and Galician were banned by fascist douchebag Francisco Franco after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the nation celebrated his death by restoring autonomy to the 17 regions of Spain in 1975. Regional pride became cool again, as did regional dialects.
#2 Know how to deal with the hangry
Everyone knows the Spanish are geniuses when it comes to lifestyle: late starts, two-hour lunches, afternoon naps and long, steamy evenings of drink and tapas make it one of the better countries when it comes to work-life balance. In Ador, near the eastern Mediterranean coast, the siesta is now legally binding.
But for unrefined Australians, conditioned to a strict 12 to 1 pm lunch break, this can take some getting used to. In Spain, lunch runs from 2pm with dinner after 10pm, so get used to sleeping in. Spain only really comes alive in the evenings anyway, so there’s no need for FOMO. If in doubt, always carry snacks. Chances are everything will be closed when you’re hungry anyway – so it pays to avoid the hangry.
#3 You have not had tapas before
I know you think you’ve had tapas before – maybe plenty of times – but I promise you that you have no idea until you’ve been to Spain. There will be smells, textures and tastes you didn’t even think existed in food form. I’ve even eaten something that I now suspect, years later, may’ve been a snail rolled in sand and deep-fried. The best advice I can give is be open-minded, adventurous and really good at saying “No para mí, gracias.” A few to keep an eye out for; botillo is boiled pig’s intestines, oreja are usually pig’s ears, and (keeping things porcine) Morcilla de León is a big old pot of pig’s blood. Angulas are baby eels and gulas are fake baby eels that are made out of fish. Got it? Bueno.
#4 Keep your mind on your money and your money on your mind
While Spain is a fairly safe country, tourist theft is rife in the major cities. If you haven’t taken a refresher course in dodging the Artful Dodgers and tourist scams already, then definitely do that.
It’s also important to learn how to keep safe from bank fees. Deutsche Bank ATMs are dotted throughout Spain, and – if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, which in Australia is Westpac – then you should be able to use these without incurring any international fees. You can also use travel money cards like Qantas Cash which you can load with Euros at a locked-in exchange rate at home, use like a regular credit card overseas, and earn Qantas Points as you spend. Before you go, find out the withdrawal limits imposed on your card, which ATM will give you the cheapest currency charges, and let your bank know that any dodgy international purchases from now on are from you and not someone else. Frozen cards won’t buy you paella.
#5 Escape the winter
The most glorious months to frolic around Spain are in spring and autumn, so look to head there between May and June, or September and October, skipping the tourist-heavy months of July and August. If you’re heading to Spain’s northern parts, it pays to look into opening hours, as many resorts are closed for autumn. Climate can make or break a holiday – so do your research buddy.
#6 Start booking train tickets
If paying for parking, getting lost, or seemingly nonsensical road rules make you testy in general, then you should definitely take the train. Spain’s high-speed trains are part of what makes the country so great. Want to travel from Madrid to Barcelona? Just hop on one of Spain’s AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) trains for an easy two-and-a-half hours. That’s pretty much the distance from Melbourne to Canberra, except actually possible to achieve on public transport.
You can get massive discounts if you book ahead through the national train network, Renfe, so stop procrastinating and get clicking. On a budget? Regional trains (also operated through Renfe) and overnight buses, while slower, are even cheaper.
If you insist on driving, make sure you have an International Driving Permit and remember that we told you so.
#7 Prepare to carry your own TP
Newbies to Spain will quickly notice the absence of one very important amenity: public toilets. Get used to sneaking into hotel lobbies or stopping for a mid-day drink or ten to make use of bar toilets, especially if you spot a sign saying ‘Uso solo para clientes’. That said, when you do find a public toilet – usually in airports and train stations – they can be phenomenal. Or missing toilet paper. In any event, it pays to carry some tissues in your handbag.
#8 Heading to Barcelona? Learn to recognise the Catalan flag
Back in the day of kings and castles and epic sea battles, the region of Catalonia was a separate kingdom to Spain. After the Catalan-hating rule of Franco, the revival of Catalan nationalism not only led to fierce football matches between the FC Barcelona and Real Madrid teams, but – since the economic crisis – to the region seeking independence from Spain. Once you learn to recognise the Catalan flag, you’ll begin to spot it everywhere. Obviously, the Spanish government isn’t very happy about its richest and most popular child moving away from home, but the fiercely independent Catalans are proud of their distinct identity and language.