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Country Profile: Spain

If you’re moving to Spain will find a country steeped in a rich and eventful history.

1 November 2016

The allure of a vibrant country famous for its food, architecture, and music nonetheless makes for an attractive expat destination.   Let’s start the journey!

Excursion Spain…..

Where to go?  That is the most difficult question. You have a whole country to explore.  It would be impossible to cover everything, but we can at least mention some notable spots and leave the rest as a surprise for you to discover.

Spain’s architecture ranges from prehistoric monuments in Minorca in the Balearic Islands, to the Roman ruins of Merida and Tarragona, the decorative Lonja in Seville, Mudéjar buildings, Gothic cathedrals, castles, fantastic modernist monuments and intricate sculptures in Barcelona.

Be captivated by culture in Spain’s capital, Madrid. Museum del Prado is a must.  It boasts one of Europe’s finest collections of art. Also worthy of a visit is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which focuses on modern art and houses Picasso’s famous Guernica. Don’t miss the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid’s Royal Palace, the Puerta del Sol and Madrid’s historic square, the Plaza Mayor.  The Mezquita, Great Mosque, is a mystical wonder. Originally a pagan temple then a Christian Church, the Moors converted it into a mosque. Just outside the city, there’s the ruins of Medina Azahara.  Explore the Caves of Drach on the Island of Mallorca. There you can travel through three caves, Cueva Negra, Cueva Blanca, and Cueva Luis Salvator, as well as Lago Martel, one of the largest subterranean lakes in the world. Take a boat ride to this otherworldly spot and see the beautiful limestone formations.

If you’re looking for something more exhilarating, the controversial tradition of bullfighting is still very much alive in Spain, especially so in Madrid.   You can’t think of Spain and not think of the Running of the Bulls.  Developed out of the bloody gladiator traditions formerly practiced during the time of the Roman Empire, bullfighting gradually rose to national prominence.  Most towns only hold bullfights during their annual spring or summer fiestas, but Madrid’s Las Ventas Bullfighting Ring holds bullfights throughout the year.  If an actual bullfight seems too much, Las Ventas also offer guided tours for those that wish to understand the history of this traditional event.  Or for a jolt of excitement, you can run with or rather away from, the Jandilla fighting bulls..…..depending on your point of view.  You can also mingle with the crowds at the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona and avoid any possible impaling. The world famous Running of the Bulls through the streets of the center takes place in July and attracts huge numbers of tourists.

Located at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains of southern Spain, is Granada.  Here you will find the Alhambra.  This medieval complex overlooking Granada is one of the great architectural sights of Europe with many visitors coming to Granada solely to see the Alhambra. The last Moorish stronghold in Europe, the Alhambra offers the visitor splendid ornamental architecture, spectacular and lush gardens, and breathtaking views of the city below.

Perched on a mountaintop in central Spain, Toledo served as the Spanish capital until the 16th century. Because it was inhabited by Jews, Christians and Muslims for many centuries, the city is sometimes called the “City of Three Cultures.” Today, Toledo is a popular destination for its wealth of historic art and architecture that dates back to the Roman Empire.

The capital city of the Galicia in northwestern Spain attracts thousands of visitors every year for both its religious tradition and history. Situated in the heart of the city is the Santiago Cathedral where the tomb of St. James is located.

San Sebastian, located off the coast of the Bay of Biscay is a beautiful seaside city, well-loved for its excellent beaches. The Old Town features many historic buildings reconstructed in the 19th century after the city was nearly destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars. San Sebastian boasts also some of the best beaches in Europe with the most popular of these being Playa de la Concha, which offers plenty of sunbathing, swimming, kayaking and water skiing.

Situated in the very center of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, Garajonay National Park offers stunning scenery set amongst rocky vistas. Measuring over 9,000 acres, the area was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1986 in recognition of the its outstanding natural beauty. Well marked trails make it a highly popular visit for outdoor enthusiasts.

Check out Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Science Park in this forward looking southeastern city. The Hemispheric, an amazing glass structure, houses a planetarium and IMAX dome.  While in Valencia, visit the Valencia cathedral, it claims possession of the Holy Grail, the chalice used at the Last Supper.  Seville is another city worth a day of exploring. The city is home to many beautiful and important historic landmarks, one of which is the grand Cathedral of Seville, where it is believed that Christopher Columbus is buried. Another significant stop is the Alcazar, an extravagant Moorish palace with luxurious gardens.

There are so many wonderful and truly magical places to visit, but these should get you off to a good start.

Spanish sophistication…..

Spanish culture is widely known for Flamenco music, bullfights, fantastic beaches and lots of sunshine. It is and has been for thousands of years, one of the cultural centers of Europe.  The people are one of its cultural treasures.

Spaniards in general are a very friendly, warm and fun loving. People seem to think that they are lazy but this is simply not true.  In general, Spanish people are hardworking but they definitely know how to enjoy their free time.  They are very passionate and family life is very important and this mindset is country wide.  Perhaps one of Spain’s best known cultural facets is la siesta. Many Spaniards take care to balance their workloads with time to relax. Originally started as a practical means of avoiding the blazing midday heat, la siesta has remained a popular tradition in Spain. However, people in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona have mostly moved on in favor of full work days. Still, la siesta remains prominent in smaller towns and cities throughout the country.

Spanish people are very proud of their history and culture and are very happy when foreigners take an interest. They love to make a show of things and this is so evident in their dance such as the flamenco. They need little excuse for a party or a fiesta which is pretty much a part of everyday life in Spain.  You can describe them as exuberant but reserved.

When it comes to technology in Spain, they are behind most of Europe with this, but catching up fast. Spain has been a little slow to realize the potential of the internet.  New technology is interesting to Spaniards but they are a little apprehensive to take it up so don’t be surprised if you come across someone who does not have a cell phone! To Spaniards, new technology is far less important than socializing and enjoying life. The Spanish way of life is somewhat slower than the rest of Europe. This may be seen as lazy, but when the Spanish work, they work hard. They have play hard too. It is quite common for life to begin when the sun goes down, especially in the summer. They love music, dance and food. In general, the Spanish are unhurried and do not readily hurry to anyone else’s urgency.

Family is very important to Spaniards.  Many families still eat most meals together….remember when we used to do that in the US?  And the people are known to welcome you into their family as if you’re one of their own.

Any way you look at it, Spain is amazingly diverse. And not just its people.  Beaches, mountains, vast plains, year-round mild weather or four distinct seasons, even snow….Spain has it all. Pick whatever climate you like, and unless your favorite is year-round snow, you’ll find it in Spain.

The culture itself is very diverse, too. Today’s Spain was formed from several separate kingdoms and those regional differences are alive and well today. Cataluña, the Basque Country, Galicia, and Valencia, all feel delightfully different and they each have their own localized language and customs.  Though Spanish is spoken everywhere.  Visiting any of these regions can practically feel like visiting another country.

Let’s get practical for a moment – life in Spain is very affordable.  Spain is one of the least-expensive countries in Western Europe. And that’s particularly true today, in Spain’s recession battered economy.  If you’re relocating here, it may help you save some money!

Savoring Spain ……

Spain’s cuisine is as vivacious as it’s people.  It’s common knowledge that the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ is among the healthiest and you might think Spaniards have a large breakfast. Wrong!  Breakfast in Spain is the smallest meal of the day. And it almost never includes hot dishes.  In Spain it is quite common to start the day with a Café con Leche, espresso and milk and a croissant or Pan con Tomate….a simple olive oil and tomato toast.  Or give your breakfast a kick and drink a Café Bombon, espresso with steamed condensed milk.

One of the most popular dishes that has made its way around the world is Paella.  It could be called Spain’s national dish.  This hearty rice dish is traditionally made with rice grown in Spain and with the fragrant rare spice, saffron. Different regions of Spain have their own variations….in Valencia, you will only find it made with rabbit, chicken and snails.  However, you will most likely find it made with sausage and seafood.

Tapas is widely served everywhere you go.  Tapas is in a nutshell, a variety of appetizers or snacks, hot and cold.  However, tapas have also come to evolve into an entire sophisticated meal.  One of the more common Tapas dishes is Gambas al Ajillo. This dish of sizzling prawns with garlic in olive oil is equally as delicious, as it is easy.  Another tapas worth a sampling is Albodingas…because forget Swedish meatballs, Spanish meatballs are where it’s at.

We cannot talk about Spanish cuisine and not mention Jamon Iberico.  Rare and expensive, this ham made from the hocks of Pata Negra pigs, has only recently become available in the United States. The robust meat is streaked with a sweet, nutty fat which it gets from a combination of the pigs’ all-acorn diet, and their moderately active life roaming free-range through oak forests on the Spain Portugal border.  It’s a delicacy and should be savored by itself.  Or maybe with a side of Gazpacho.  They definitely one-up our cheesy fries with the tapas dish, Patatas Bravas.  The simplicity of friend chunks of potato covered in a sweet and spicy pimento sauce.  It’s a go-to tapas and street food.

Spaniards do like sweets and devour massive amounts of Turrón, an almond nougat, at Christmas.  Although it is available and consumed all year. Most of it is made in the small town of Jijona using locally grown almonds mixed with honey and egg white.  Having tried it, it’s verifiable that it is quite tasty.  Another favorite is Crema Catalana.  Spain’s version of the Crème Brulee.  Some say Spain’s version inspired the Crème Brulee but that is debatable depending if you ask someone from France.  There’s also the great tried and true combination of Churros and Chocolate.

You can’t go wrong with anything you eat.

Spanish in Spain…..

As you might guess, Spanish is the official language of Spain.   There’s no better way to learn Spanish than by living in a Spanish speaking country.  As is true with any language and country.  Due to its proximity to Portugal, Portuguese is als0 spoken.  You’ve most likely learned some Spanish throughout your life, maybe in high school, and one thing you should know about that – be prepared for some slight differences.  For example, in Spain you might hear someone call their brother, “tio”, but tio in your high school Spanish class actually means uncle.  Think of it as the subtle differences between American English and British English….British lift, meet US elevator.

With that being said, there really is no sure fire way to know the idiosyncrasies that are localized to regions in Spain that differs from the Spanish you know.  Dealing with day-to-day tasks will help you radically improve your spoken Spanish, particularly if you’re in a smaller city where there are fewer expats who speak your language.  It will be something you will have to learn so pay attention to what the locals say.  Just go for it…dive in, talk to everyone, and don’t be embarrassed about making mistakes.

All in all, you should be able to get by, temporarily, with the Spanish of your high school years. Here’s a refresher:

Hello – Hola

How much is this? – Cuánto cuesta este?

Thank you – Gracias

Excuse me – Disculpe

Can you please help me? – Puede usted ayudarme por favor?

Where is the bathroom? – Donde esta el bano?

What time is it? – Que hora es?

Good morning – Buenos Dias

Good afternoon – Buenas tardes

Good evening – Buenas noches

My name is – Me llamo es

What is your name? – Como se llama usted?

I do not understand – Yo no comprendo

I’m sorry – Lo siento

Nice to meet you – Mucho gusto

Let’s take a siesta – Vamos a echar una siesta

Ways to become a Spaniard…..

So how do you fit in!?  Go to the market!  Although large supermarkets are starting to gain a presence in Spain, most Spaniards still prefer to get their food from local markets and family owned shops.  Take a long lunch hour….or two, or three and enjoy the siesta.   Another way to fit into the local crowd, catch a game. Like in many places around the world, soccer isn’t just a pastime, it’s a representation of both national and local pride. Not taking an interest is not only a guaranteed way to be branded as a tourist or expat, it’s also practically a sin.

Something you may find rude, but it’s actually quite common is being interrupted while speaking.  In contrast to how you might perceive it, it’s a sign of interest.  This is also common among Italians. So don’t be offended if you’re cut off mid-sentence. Look at it more like you’re fitting in. Along those lines….Spaniards are also quite blunt.  It’s not you, it’s them.

Something else to know about Spain is that siestas we talked about, are as real or mythical as you make them.  Whether or not everyone partakes in the almighty Siesta, just know you will not be running errands anytime between typically 1 and 4 pm. You will find that most business are closed during these hours.  This ties back into that taking a 3 hour lunch mentioned before. And be prepared to eat lunch at 5 pm and dinner at 10 pm.

Expatriate life in Spain is suited to those who seek a relaxed and laid back life. The locals are friendly and trusting and family friendly.  Overall, the Spanish are renowned for both their relaxed attitude to life and love of it along with their exuberant social personalities.

If you find yourself in Spain, remember that here, life is savored with time taken to enjoy all of life’s pleasures.  So savor life, savor Spain.

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