Monday, 27 April 2015

Visiting Spain in Spring: Where to go, What to do


If you take one trip to Spain, take it in spring. From the confetti-like petals of almond blossom in early spring to the beach-ready temperatures towards the end of the season, spring can do almost no wrong in Spain. Not withstanding the odd April shower, we are often blessed with warm, bright days at this time of year. And as if that wasn't enough, there's also a packed calendar of festivities to keep you entertained.

Where to go in Spring

 

Welcome to La Malagueta, Malaga's city beach

 

In short, anywhere you like. Those chilly cities in Spain's heartland have shaken off their winter frosts and their trees spring back to life; interior cities like Madrid and Seville that broil in summer languish at almost ideal temperatures. If you prefer to escape the coastal crowds, it's a good time of year to hit the beaches of the Canary Islands, the Balearics, Málaga and around Valencia. Beach weather's not always guaranteed on the peninsula, and you may not be brave enough for a dip off the Costa Brava unless you like things icy. If you're planning on taking an active holiday involving walking, cycling or horse riding, spring's a great time to do it: generally warm enough to be pleasant, but little risk of sweating buckets.

The Costa Brava is a good choice for spring breaks


Although the whole country's a good bet in spring, a few areas in Spain stand out for their festivities, notably Córdoba in May (see below) and Andalucía in general for its Semana Santa celebrations closely followed by all the fun of the fair.


Spring fiestas

 
Falla ready to go up in flames

Spring is a fine time to shake off the winter slump with some Spanish-style festivities. One of the first is Las Fallas, Valencia's fire-cracking, sculpture burning festival which takes place from 15–19 March each year. Fallero groups construct huge multi-coloured papier-maché figures, nowadays often representing politicians or other contemporary figures of fun. For several days these are displayed around Valencia, as locals and visitors alike tuck into paella, enjoy street parties and gawp at fire works. On the final night of the fiesta, all but the winning falla is set alight. It's an intense festival I've yet to experience: the constant noise of firecrackers and the idea of burning these elaborate works of art has so far put me off.

Semana Santa usually falls after fallas. Holy Week is celebrated around the country, with particular fervour around Andalucia and in Toledo, Valladolid and Zamora. Visiting the Caminos de Pasion towns in 2014, I was surprised to find Semana Santa a much less religious affair than I'd imagined  for most capillitas and costaleros I encountered, the celebration was far more about culture and tradition than Christianity. Obviously this is not always the case, but it certainly makes Semana Santa more accessible for those who don't consider themselves religious.

Spring means feria time


After any Semana Santa solemnity is shaken off, feria season begins. The first of these huge Andaluz parties filled with flamenco frills, sleekly-groomed horses, jugs of rebujito and fairground rides is Seville's Feria de Abril. This is also the most exclusive, with most of its casetas (marquees providing food, drink & dancing opportunities) open to members only. It's worth a visit to marvel at its grand scale, but for guiris other ferias are more welcoming. Other notable spring fairs include the Feria del Caballo in Jerez de la Frontera and the Feria de Nuestra Señora del Salud in Córdoba, both in May.  I'm also a big fan of small-town affairs: they can often be less commercial and more welcoming. You can find a full calendar of ferias here.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Catalan-speaking cities: Girona, Barcelona & Palma



The month of March took me to Girona, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca. These three cities on Spanish soil have one thing in common: an additional language. Although castellano is the most common language in Spain, there are several regional tongues spoken in different areas. These include Gallego (spoken in Galicia) and Euskadi or Basque, but the most widely-used is Català, or Catalan.

Catalunya is the region in the north-east of Spain which runs down from the French border to Alcanar, just above the Valencian Community. Currently hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis thanks to the independence dreams of its regional president Artur Mas, Catalunya has long had a stronger identity than some other areas of Spain. This could be partly down to linguistic reasons: Catalan and other regional languages were banned during Franco's regime, and have come to the fore again in recent years. Cultural activities in Catalan have increased, and there's now a bilingual Castilian-Catalan education system in Catalunya. But Catalan isn't just spoken here: regional variants Valenciano and Mallorquín are used to communicate in the Valencia region and on the Balearic islands. There's some controversy over naming and difference, but essentially a Catalan speaker and a Valenciano or Mallorquín speaker can understand each other without any problem.

Catalan is most widely spoken outside big city centres, but even in the heart of Barcelona you'll hear plenty of passers-by chatting away in the local language, and all street signs are written in Catalan. Once you reach the regions' smaller cities, towns and the countryside, you'll usually find that Catalan predominates over castellano. As a tourist, you'll still be fine with Spanish, as the vast majority of people are bilingual. Arriving in Girona, I was pleased to be momentarily mistaken for a local and managed a few transactions in Catalan, a language I've been studying since late 2014. Just 40 minutes by high-speed train from Barcelona, Girona's a stunningly photogenic little city, perfectly placed between the mountains and the sea.

Girona Cathedral, in the heart of the old town


Having seen multiple pictures of Girona's rainbow-coloured riverside houses, heard about its world-class cuisine and imagined wandering its beautifully-preserved old town, it was a wonder it took me so long to visit. The brief introduction offered by this work trip didn't disappoint: Girona is petite enough to explore in a day, but its good looks and tempting-looking restaurants showed me it merits further exploration, so a return trip has been booked.

La Pedrera: One of Gaudi's most famous designs


Catalan city number two was Barcelona, a destination that needs no introduction. A city that's as cosmopolitan as it is Catalan, Barcelona boasts gorgeous Gaudí-designed architecture, sights aplenty, a food scene that's strong on both local and world offerings – and a beach. The vibe here is much busier and more dynamic than laid-back little Girona, and its big city status has linguistic effects too. In Barcelona, Catalan and Castilian co-exist comfortably, with speakers often changing languages mid-conversation. Here, my practice was limited to listening and reading, as I interpreted the menu in cosy Bar del Pla in trendy El Born.

Monday, 6 April 2015

5 Years of Travel Blogging: Lessons Learnt



I can't quite believe it's now been 5 years since the Sunday night when I sat down, decided to start a blog and didn't stand up again until the first post was online. Of course, this impulsive decision is how I ended up with the name Tales of a Brit Abroad, but that's been remedied now. Back then I certainly didn't think I'd still be putting fingers to keyboard in five years' time; I wasn't even thinking beyond post number two.

So what's changed since then? On the face of it, little apart from my blog's name and design. Oh, and I don't try and embed photos within the text of the post. Not sure what that phase was about. But in the past five years of blogging and four years of living in Spain (not concurrently), I've learnt plenty about being a blogger and about being an expat.

But before we get down to my lessons learnt, I'd like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has ever read this blog, shared a post, subscribed or commented. I do this for the love of writing and sharing my experiences with everyone in the hope that someone somewhere will find it useful, amusing or entertaining. I really appreciate all the support my readers have shown me since 2010, and I hope you keep returning to Oh hello, Spain for many years to come!


Then: Posing with Madrid monuments

Lessons learnt: Blogging

1) Consider your reader

When you read blogs, do you want a thousand-word waffle peppered with pictures or a post that gets to the point, with useful information or a carefully-considered idea? Yep, the latter. At the beginning I definitely tried to do too much; now I attempt to keep to the essentials. It's still easier with some topics than others, though. As a general rule, I find that posts that range from 500–700 words are the most successful. 

2) Aesthetics matter

Bright, well-lit photos of an interesting subject draw the eye in. Which means people stick around to read the words. When it comes to blogging, images are practically as important as the text. It took me a long time to grasp this one, and it's still a bit of a work in progress. Even if you don't have a swish DSLR camera, these days you can do a lot with a simple smartphone. I edit my Instagram images with free app Snapseed, and my blog photos with Picasa. Picmonkey's great for adding effects and making collages.
It's not just photos that count, though: design is key. Since I switched to a simple, clean blog design my readership has increased. If people see a cluttered page drowning in sidebar widgets and a dodgy font fighting through a coloured background, they're going to click away. I don't have the time or inclination to get involved with Wordpress at this stage in the game, so I purchased a blog template from Etsy. Minimal outlay, maximum result. If you do want to pimp up your posts or shake up your design with some DIY, this site is really helpful.


Now: Still posing with Madrid monuments


3) Do what you feel comfortable with


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