Spain

Granada

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I have now visited all the sights on my spring travel list! Last weekend I concluded my travels by celebrating my 21st birthday in Granada.

Granada is famous for the stunning Alhambra which sits in the centre of the city on top of a huge hill. It’s recommended that you buy tickets well in advance (we bought ours in March) because they sell out about as quickly as a One Direction concert.

The Alhambra experience was very special, and worth the planning. There are palaces, towers and gardens to visit – all with spectacular panoramic views of the city below. Like a One Direction concert there were plenty of people, however the site is so vast that other tourists are dispersed amongst the various buildings and foliage so it doesn’t feel too intense.

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You can easily enjoy many hours exploring the Alhambra, I was there all morning and I’m pretty sure I still didn’t see everything. The highlight is undeniably the Nasrid palace which is probably worth the entrance fee alone. it’s just as pretty as the alcazars in Sevilla or Córdoba but on a much bigger scale, I loved it.

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The rest of the weekend was spent eating and drinking in Moroccan style restaurants and tea rooms (another great thing about granada) and it was all kinds of wonderful. I enjoyed frozen yogurt, my favourite treat, and even had a wild night out (complete with mojitos, crazy dance moves and 5am hostel return).

I now have just two weeks left before it’s time to say goodbye to Spain..

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The Spanish summer has begun

photoExtremadura is known for it’s extreme temperatures (as the name suggests) and I am finally appreciating why. We are currently experiencing spell of extreme heat and its almost unbearable. It was 40 degrees today, it is also May. The locals are wearing shorts and all conversations begin with ¡Qué calor!, so you know it’s pretty serious. I checked the weather and it’s currently hotter than Morocco, Greece and Uganda. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the school classrooms were hotter than the Earth’s core.

The main problem is that it’s very dry and desert-like here; there’s no nearby beach, no lake and very few trees around the town. Unfortunately I walk to my students’ houses for private classes at around 3.30pm each day and I’m fairly sure I’m the only human braving the sunlight at this scorching hour. Everyone else is sensibly en casa with the shutters down. I actually have to apply sun cream for my ten-minute walk down the road, I also have to arrive an extra two minutes early to allow for cooling-off period during which I lurk outside the students’ house for necessary brow-mopping and water-guzzling.

I’ll try to find some silver linings to avoid sounding too whiny and spoiled: I’m lucky to be getting a healthy glow, I am grateful that this town is not at all hilly and I am pleased to have quite a decent deodorant.

But madre mía, any increase in temperature and I’ll have to be forcibly removed from the town fountain. Seriously.

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Thoughts about May

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I can’t believe its May already. I couldn’t believe it was March, or April and then suddenly here we are. May is my final month in Spain and it’s also the month I turn 21 so it’s simultaneously sad, exciting and strange.

This weekend I popped to Seville to see the Alcazar, a place I hadn’t visited but knew I needed to see before I left Spain. It was really, really beautiful, with sprawling gardens, fountains and courtyards. They use it as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series and you can definitely see why, it’s a magical setting and quite incredible that it all sits within a big city centre.

Unbelievably it was 40 degrees in Seville the day I visited. 40 degrees on the first of May, blimey. It was around 30 degrees on the first of November if I remember rightly, so I’ve probably had one of the shortest winters ever. I am now appreciating the perks of a Spanish apartment too. The white tiled floors may have been icy in winter but they now cool my feet all day long and it’s fabulous. Gone are the January days of me cursing the drafty windows and echoing rooms, mi piso was built for the summer and I now realise how great this is.

So, my final month in Spain will consist of a trip to Córdoba to see the famous los patios festival, a weekend in Granada – where I will celebrate my birthday in the beautiful Alhambra, then two final weekends of parties and goodbyes. I will be making the absolute most of the hot weather too because a British summer can’t always be relied upon.

**I’ll also be negotiating the cancellation of my wifi and phone contract, closure of my bank account, deep cleaning the apartment and packing my belongings into suitcases. I’ll then be lugging the contents of the past 8 months onto various modes of public transport before inevitably collapsing in a heap of emotion and exhaustion at Heathrow arrivals. But we won’t dwell on this.**

Time to enjoy the rest of the month!

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Feria de Sevilla

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Yesterday I visited my favourite Spanish city, Sevilla, for the famous April Feria! Every year the Feria opens it’s doors and the Sevillianos enjoy a week of dancing, drinking and tapas-eating whilst dressed in traditional flamenco style dresses or suits.

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On area of 450,000 square metres you can find endless streets of casetas (marquee style tents) which belong to various families or companies in the city. Each caseta is beautifully decorated in unique but typically-Spanish styles. Along the outside walkways between casetas, thousands of lanterns brighten the sky by day and glow at night.

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A British equivalent of the caseta is probably a beach hut – each owned by a different family, each with different character and style. They obviously serve VERY different purposes but it’s the only familiar concept I can think of.

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The caseta concept is quite unique to Spanish festivals, the casetas vary in size but they are essentially rooms with bars, seating areas and dance floors so that each family can have their own private party with friends. There are also large public casetas (for the riffraf like me) but the feria is first and foremost a celebration for the people of Seville.

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Seeing Sevillano dancing was a highlight. All men and women know how to dance Sevillano, they do it in pairs, they clap and stamp along, moving their arms in perfect synchronisation and looking at each other intensely as they do so. I wish we had a similar dance culture here, it puts the awkward shuffling that occurs in British clubs to shame. There’s also there’s nothing more attractive than a man who can dance, especially if he is well-dressed in a blue blazer like so many of the Sevillanos.

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The best thing about the Feria for me was seeing the beautifully colourful trajes de flamenca, the dresses worn by the majority of the women. Each dress was unique and they are so beautifully intricate, flamboyant and amazing. I also noticed an ingenious design on one woman’s dress which I imagine is a common feature. Under some of the bottom ruffles was a zipped pocket to store a phone, money and other essentials – these beauties are practical and stylish.

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The Feria is known for being quite exclusive and I suppose it probably was, but tourists like me can enjoy it too and I am so glad that I witnessed it whilst I’m here. For me the Feria epitomised Spanish culture and it was a brilliant spectacle to observe. I did do my fair share of participation too though; my friends and I didn’t return home until 4am (this was actually due to a cheap deal on buses rather than a desire to stay so long) so we saw the partying continue way into the night, we attempted to dance along AND we sampled the typical drink rebujito. A successful day all round!

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Expectations

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Back in January 2014 I attended a rowing ball with my boat club at Durham (yes it was as pretentious as it sounds). Unusually, to encourage mingling between members of different colleges, there was randomly allocated seating at this event. Now initially this situation filled me with great excitement at the prospect of being paired with a hunky oarsman who could later become my husband, passing his chiselled jaw line and natural athleticism to our future children (the dream lives on…). This expectation was soon dampened however, when the seat next to me was filled by a very posh, ponytail-wielding rower, who turned out to be a bit of an idiot. Despite immediate disappointment, I told myself that hairstyles were temporary and ploughed ahead with the small talk. We quickly covered the usual topics before moving on to discuss my impending year abroad.

The reason I’m telling you this anecdote is because when I mentioned I would be spending the Spanish part of my year in Extemadura, this boy, who we’ll call Charles, had a very strong opinion to declare. He raised his already up-turned nose a further two centimetres and loudly scoffed ‘That’s the ugliest of the Spanish regions, it has a bland landscape of nothingness and its not worth visiting at all’.

Now this was a bit of a conversation killer for me as I was soon to be not only visiting, but living in this ‘bland region of nothingness’ for a whole eight months. I didn’t bother asking, as I should have, just what evidence or experience qualified him to make that statement, instead I turned to focus on eating my garlicky chicken and wallow in self pity.

What Charles said went on to stay with me long after the garlic aftertaste that evening and I added his comment to my growing list of reasons to be anxious about my year abroad.

After living here for six months I can safely conclude that Charles was wrong. There are definitely more beautiful regions in Spain (the absence of a coastline is a bit of a downer) but Extremadura is still really, really beautiful. As I described in my previous posts about the waterfalls and cherry blossoms in Plasencia, the roman ruins in Merida, and the beautiful parts of my own town Zafra and nearby Badajoz. This region is actually really diverse, interesting and pretty. I am not sponsored by the local tourist board, but I have spent a lot of time in this part of the world and I now feel qualified to prove Charles, and anyone else wrong.

Yesterday for example I went for a hike with my friends and found fields and fields of wild poppies. The other beautiful thing is that the area is mostly untouched and sparsely populated, possibly due to Charles spreading his ill-informed message.

So, the moral of this story: DON’T trust men with ponytails and DON’T write off places before you visit for yourself. I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!

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Monday musings #11

Believe it or not, when I’m not travelling or sunbathing I’m actually working here in Spain as an English language assistant. Last week I helped in a class based on pronunciation. The teacher rightly told the students that they can get by in England with a Spanish accent but they need to pronounce words more or less correctly in order to be understood. In English there are so many words that sound similar but can give completely different meanings so it’s important that the difference can be heard. There’s a ridiculous amount of these words if you think about it and for those learning English these words sound mostly identical, causing all kinds of confusion. For example, bird, beer, bar and bear all sound the same to many Spanish students. English is a lot tougher than we realize.

So my job for the day was chief enunciator (or something), I had to read out lists of subtly different words and the students had to repeat after me. So there I was slowly repeating perk, park, peak, pick, peck and puck doing my best to emphasize the difference in sound. The students struggled so much with differentiating between park and puck so I repeated them with excessive emphasis paaaarrrk and puuuuuuck so many times that I sounded like I’d developed a speech impediment. After the 34th time I’m fairly sure the students pretended that they heard a difference between the two, to save hearing my drawn out vowel sounds for a minute longer.

We then moved on to ‘notoriously difficult words for Spanish speakers to pronounce’. This mainly consisted of the ‘sh’ sound in words like procession and a personal favourite, the adjective social. I had to repeat the word so many times that after a while I was struggling with the different ‘s’ sounds as much as the kids. They try to say sho-ssial and after the 50th attempt I was starting to mix up the sounds myself. Disastrous. I’ll probably never be able to say it normally again.

To make matters worse the teacher enforced silence (a rare phenomenon in Spanish schools) so that the students could listen intently to my pronunciation. I felt the responsibility of exemplifying correct pronunciation because I am effectively the only access most of them have to natively spoken English. It didn’t help that the teacher gave a long lecture about how I speak ‘standard’ English because I am from Surrey and it’s important for the students to copy exactly what I say. Under all this pressure I definitely crumbled and some questionable examples of correct English were given.

What I have concluded from this experience is that a) when standing in front of 30 pairs of expectant eyes it becomes difficult to function normally b) English is really very difficult and I am eternally grateful that its my mother tongue and not a language I have to learn.

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Plasencia

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This weekend I was reunited with three very important things: my Mum, my Dad and access to a car.

I have been without all three of these things throughout my year abroad and it has, at times, been tough. The three entities are mutually compatible, of course there’s always the odd moment when my Dad gets annoyed with the car, or my Mum gets frustrated with my Dad, but all in all it was a lovely treat for us to spend four days together here in Spain.

We explored the city of Plasencia first of all. We stayed in the beautiful Parador hotel where I enjoyed the luxury of a suite all to myself. After a year of hostel trips I happily slept like a starfish and maximised every corner of the double bed in all its crisp white sheet and plump pillow glory…

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We then ventured to the Jerte Valley in search of cherry blossom. Unfortunately we were about a week too early to see the valley in full bloom so we had to settle for photographing the same tree multiple times.The landscape was still wonderful though and waterfalls happen to be beautiful all year round so we enjoyed our day of adventuring anyway.

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Waterfalls in the Jerte Valley

The Jerte Valley is famous for the cherries it produces and so the nearby towns were full of cherry-related products like jams and liqueurs, there’s also the Jerte river which runs through the centre and pretty bridges all the way a long. I’d love to go back at some point in the future to see the blossoms and the cherries at their peak. It’s a lot closer to home than Japan and the airfare is definitely significantly less…

So it was another busy travelling weekend and now I’m looking forward to my Easter break for some relaxing. The hot weather is supposedly on it’s way and I am 100% ready. I’m also intruiged to see some of the Semana Santa celebrations here in my town, I have a feeling its going to be VERY different from the chocolate eggs and bunnies I usually witness – I’ll keep you posted!Untitled