This June, I studied abroad in Seville, Spain on a five-week biology program, and I've decided that Spain is the best country I've ever had the pleasure of touring. That being said, it's always best to prepare and plan ahead for any study abroad trip. This is a one-stop guide for basics facts, important questions and travel recommendations for your time in Spain!
Introduction to Spain
Maybe you're looking to impress your fellow students with your knowledge of Spain, or maybe you just need help putting the culture you're witnessing into context. No matter the reason, here's a quick summary of Spain's core facts.
Spain is located on the westernmost peninsula of Europe, the Iberian peninsula. Its neighbors are Portugal, France, Morocco (across the Mediterranean), the city-state of Andorra and... the United Kingdom! That's right, the UK still owns a small piece of the Iberian Peninsula in Gibraltar (which they took from Spain hundreds of years ago), and many Spaniards are still pretty salty about it.
Spain is a member of the European Union, meaning that you can also quickly pop over to other EU countries without having to switch currencies or have your passport checked. Spain's only currency is the Euro.
It's a parliamentary monarchy with four major political parties currently controlling most of the Spanish parliament (in past years, it was only two). Spain's Prime Minister is Mariano Rajoy, leader of the right-leaning People's Party. Many minority cultures and demographics in Spain were oppressed until dictator Fransisco Franco's death in 1975, after which Spain's 17 cultural regions of Spain were granted partial autonomy.
The current king is Philip VI (Felipe sexto), and the country is currently discussing changing the constitution to allow his eldest daughter, Princess Leonor, to take over after his reign, instead of giving the crown to the next male in line.
Spain is arranged almost like a federation (for example, the United States) in that it is split up into 17 cultural/historical/political regions, known as autonomous communities. Each autonomous community has its own provinces and government. Spain receives many immigrants seeking economic prospects from Africa and is part of the European deal to take in Middle Eastern refugees currently residing in Greece and Italy. Spain also has large numbers of Latin American, Eastern European and Chinese immigrants.
Spain's history started with Phoenician colonization, followed by rule under the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors (Islamic Caliphates) and, finally, the Crown of Castile (Spaniards). Although much of Spain's culture is closely tied with Islam, having been under the rule of caliphates for several hundred years, Islamic reign was ended by a Catholic reconquest—followed later by the bloody Spanish Inquisition, which strove to silence all religious dissent.
After the reconquest was completed in 1492, Spain sent Christopher Columbus on his journey across the Atlantic, which would eventually lead to Spain controlling a vast colonial empire. In the turbulent years preceding World War II, Spain was engulfed in a civil war between left-leaning revolutionaries and right-leaning counter-revolutionaries (for simplicity, a democratic alliance vs a fascist alliance). The fascist faction, led by Francisco Franco, eventually won. Spain became a parliamentary monarchy after Franco's death (due to heart failure) in 1975. In 2008, Spain was wracked by an economic crisis whose effects are still felt to this day. Many young Spaniards left the country in search of work in other EU countries, and the only sector that went unaffected was the tourism industry.
Most Spaniards identify as Catholic (70%) or atheists (25%), with only 2.9% identifying another religion of worship (including Protestant Christianity). Most Spaniards are white, though it is common for Americans to mistake a Spaniard's olive skin for being Latino (though the Spanish language does mean that Spaniards are Hispanic). The national language is Spanish (Castilian), though certain regions also recognize other languages. Being a modern conglomeration of several smaller kingdoms and ethnic groups, many Spaniards still speak minority tongues such as Galician (galego), Basque (euskara) or Catalan (catala). Spain is a developed nation with a steadily aging population. Emigration and fear of familial instability during the economic crisis has caused Spain's population to fall in recent years.
Should you learn Spanish?
Yes! In Spain, it was almost a running joke that Spanish schools were falling behind other European countries in terms of teaching foreign languages, including English. Most waiters and government workers in Spain can understand phrases and words pertaining to their jobs, but the Spanish speakers on our trip quickly became highly sought-after chaperones for all the non-Spanish speakers.
What clothes should you pack?
If you'll be in southern Spain, pack a portable fan and sunblock. It's not as bad as my home state of Texas ... but that doesn't make it good. Spaniards use less energy than Americans, so air conditioning won't necessarily be provided! If you're in northern Spain, especially north of the Cantabrian Mountains, you should enjoy a much cooler and rainier climate. From what we've seen, Spaniards tend to dress a bit nicer than Americans do in their everyday life, so if you're looking to blend in, t-shirts and shorts may not be your best bet. Pack boots or dress shoes in addition to your walking shoes, and a hidden wallet should always be used in lieu of a fanny pack.
Mah-ro K., a UT Austin student who studied abroad with me this past summer, also suggests you "count how many pairs of socks and underwear you have because your stuff will disappear in the laundry." Making a list of clothing you pack is generally a good idea—accidentally leaving clothes behind is not fun!
Should I bring a map/dictionary?
Welcome to the 21st century, where you can use Google on your phone. With the Google Maps app, you can download city maps so that you can view your location even without wifi. You can also download Spanish on the Google Translate app. Both of these are less intrusive, since you don't have to worry about using up packing space/losing things...and you look less like a tourist! Most restaurants in Spain have decent wifi if you ask for the password and like them on Facebook, but there are also enough Starbucks and McDonalds around to get their free, unpassworded wifi if you're traversing a city.
Traveling to and within Spain
In Spain, you'll find much more abundant and affordable public transportation than you might in the U.S. The country's major cities and regions are connected by vast networks of high-speed trains, metros and buses that you can either take on a whim or book in advance. Non-Spanish speakers should try to book in advance, in case the ticket salesman's English isn't the best.
If you have a few free days to yourself to explore Iberia, then you may want to look at a program called Discover Excursions. Discover Excursions is a company that sells pre-planned group trips, such as a day-trip to a popular beach or a weekend in Portugal. They provide transportation (an airconditioned bus with movies and music), food (either lunch or a snack bag, sometimes including sangria wine) and lodging (wifi and air-conditioning not guaranteed!) for a single, up-front fee. We took several trips with them and were overall satisfied. Discover Excursions will lump your group together with other touristy groups, most often other Americans studying abroad, until they fill up that bus! This way, you can travel with them either alone or in a huge group, with the same level of safety.
Can't figure out where to visit? Here are the names that kept coming up while I was in Seville:
The capital of Spain, located in the very center of the Madrid region.
Known for: being Spain's capital.
Things to do: Visit the Royal Palace, Prado art museum, Retiro park, the Reina Sofia art museum, Grazalema national park, the Royal Botanical Gardens and engage in the night life (recommendation: El Tigre).
The capital of Catalonia and the de facto NYC of Spain.
Known for: being the most visited city in Spain.
Things to do: Go to the beach, walk along Las Ramblas, visit the Sagrada Familia cathedral and tour the Picasso art museum.
The capital city of Andalusia, Spain's southernmost mainland region.
Known for: stereotypical Spanish culture such as bullfighting, flamenco and siestas.
Things to do: Visit the Seville Cathedral, the Alcazar, the Plaza de Espana and its vast gardens, the Plaza de Toros, take a nice walk along the Guadalquivir river and go tapas-baring. Personally, I also enjoyed spending a day at the theme park, Isla Magica.
Former capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba.
Known for: the Mosque-Cathedral, a church turned into a mosque turned (partially) into a cathedral.
Things to do: Visit the Mosque-Cathedral, tour the narrow streets and historical Jewish district, view the old architecture along the river.
The capital city of Andalusia's Cadiz province.
Known for: being the oldest continually-inhabited city in Spain, founded in 1104 B.C.E. by the Phoenicians.
Things to do: Go to the beach, architecture tourism, view the Roman ruins.
The southernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula, owned by the United Kingdom.
Known for: being the passage between Africa and Europe and one of the mythological Pillars of Hercules. You can see Africa from this vantage point!
Things to do: Explore the military fortifications within the Rock of Gibraltar, go to the beach and interact with the local macaques.
Santiago de Compostela
The capital of one of Spain's northernmost regions, Galicia.
Known for: being the endpoint of a yearly pilgrimage across northern Spain.
Things to do: Visit the Plaza del Obradoiro, tour the cathedral and check out the Museo Catedralicio.
The historical capital of Visigoth Spain, current capital of the Castile-La Mancha region.
Known for: being the "City of Three Cultures" (coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims) and for its bladed weapons.
Things to do: Visit the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, the alcazar, the El Greco art museum and the synagogue.
Former capital city of Navarre, an eastern region of Spain.
Known for: the running of the bulls, which takes place in its annual San Fermin festival.
Things to do: Watch the running of the bulls (in July), visit the Plaza del Castillo and explore Taconera Park.
Current Political Controversies
Cultural heritage or barbaric blood sport? Does the bullfighting industry allow bulls to live longer, healthier lives on the dehesa (the Spanish "savanna" used as grazing land for pigs and fighting bulls), or does it perpetuate the notion that animals are ours to torture as we please? Different regions of Spain, as well as different individuals, make many different arguments on the subject. Some regions, such as Catalonia, have outlawed bullfighting, whereas bullfighting is still practiced in Andalusia.
Catalonian and Basque Succession Movements
Catalonia and Basque Country are two regions of Spain whose unique languages and cultural heritage survived the oppressive years of Franco's regime. Under Franco's rule, they became the most highly industrialized parts of the country, meaning that after the economic crisis, they are some of the only regions still going strong. Both economic and cultural factors have prompted the two regions to try and succeed from the country. Proponents say that any nation, especially oppressed ones, should be allowed its own state and own destiny, whereas critics cite that Spain's federalism-esque distribution of political power already allows the two regions much cultural autonomy, and that the succession movement suspiciously didn't take on momentum until the economic crisis. Some argue that Basque Country and Catalonia are culturally distinct from Spain, while others claim that all of Spain's regions are culturally unique, and that the regions' shared history with Spain is stronger. Nationalist sentiments in Basque Country led to the creation of a domestic terrorist organization known as the ETA, which was only recently stopped from wreaking havoc on the country. A referendum deciding if Catalonians wish to stay or go will be held later this year.
Corruption and the End of Bipartisanship
Corruption within both major political parties (the Popular Party/People's Party and the Socialist Party) combined with the economic crisis led to the rise of two more major parties (Citizens and Podemos). The Spanish parliament is now split between four political parties, with the People's Party holding the Prime Ministry by a slight lead. It is yet to be seen if the end of a two-party system, aka bipartisanship, will lead to healthy competition or intense gridlock.
Alcohol is relatively cheap in Spain, and you only need to be 18 to legally buy alcoholic drinks. However, young Spaniards do not go as crazy as booze-starved American college students tend to; if you go crazy and get black-out drunk in the street, Spaniards are not amused, and can smell the American on you from miles away. If you care about blending in or being respectful, drink in moderation. If you don't, Spain's 911 equivalent is 112.
Small, but probably incredibly relevant to your stay: Spanish restaurants never split checks. You can ask all you want, but no place will do it. Be prepared to Venmo a friend or pay them back later. Additionally, lines at cafes do not exist. People instead crowd around the counter and try to get the waiter's attention. You do not have a "turn," only a chance to get your coffee. A late note on food culture: Vegetarianism doesn't appear well-established, and with veganism, you likely don't have a shot. If you're staying with a host family or out at a restaurant, you need to be incredibly proactive to make sure that you're not consuming unwanted products. This goes for halal and kosher, as well: Most Spaniards are going to have no idea what foods you can or cannot eat.
The dating scene is slightly more aggressive in Spain; flirtatious men are pushier, and normal kindness can be taken as flirtation. Despite Spain's strong Catholicism, the younger generations are gravitating towards open relationships, polyamory and not getting married. Strangers do not smile at each other on the street in Spain, so you will look like you're flirting if you grin after making eye-contact with someone.
Dogs are often kept off-leash in Spain, but this does not necessarily mean that the dog is reliably friendly. They won't charge at you or anything, but do not walk up to a stranger's dog before asking permission (speaking from personal experience!). If you are afraid of dogs or cannot touch dogs due to religious preferences, you have been warned.
Like many European countries, smoking is still going strong. It's difficult to avoid inhaling secondhand smoke outside, and many airports and train stations have booths where smokers gather for a quick light. If you're out later at night, you may also be asked if you have a lighter or a piece of paper to roll up.
The word "siesta" directly translates to "nap," but in Spain it also means that around lunchtime every day, many shops and schools take a break and everyone goes home for a few hours. Actually napping during siesta hours is a personal choice, but often the streets of southern Spain will be deserted for a few hours in the afternoon, on account of the unbearable heat. Even after setting your watches ahead seven hours (for students currently in central time), time in Spain is still two hours off; Lunch is at 2 p.m. Spanish time, dinner is at nine and prime time TV starts around midnight. Why? Because geographically, Spain should be in Great Britain's time zone, but has been on Germany's time zone ever since Franco's dictatorship (during which time he wanted to show camaraderie with the Nazi party). Yep, they still haven't changed that little hiccup. Just don't be alarmed if you sleep in until noon or find that sunset is at about 10 p.m.
Food and Drinks
Open mind, open stomach! -Chloe N.
Studying abroad is pointless if you don't learn a thing or two about the local culture. So try a sip of the sherry, spend a few extra euros on some salmorejo, dip your bread in olive oil instead of butter, split a paella with some friends. You might only be in Spain once, so keep that stomach open!
Not everyone is a teetotaler like me, and American college students in particular are known for going overboard with alcohol, having been strictly denied it most of their lives. In Spain, the drinking age is 16 and the buying-alcohol age is 18, so you will be allowed to drink. You will be allowed into (most) bars and clubs, and your program or services like Discover Excursions may just give you local drinks, for culture's sake. So if you're going to drink, at least do it right. The Spanish beers were generally pretty nasty, but popular drinks among our group included Sangria, Tinto de Verano and Sherry.
Popular dishes vary by city and region, but a few are universal; jamon iberico (Iberian ham) is heavenly (and surprisingly humane), and every region seems to specialize in its own type of paella (a versatile rice dish, typically with seafood and saffron). If you're in Andalusia, you should also try some flammenquin, salmorejo and calamari sandwiches.
Spain also retains its strong tapas tradition. Tapas are, well, anything really. Traditionally, tapas are small portions of food that came complementary with a drink at a bar. A fun activity many older tourists partake in involves bar-hopping; buying a drink at each bar, and being served a free tapa at each bar. Nowadays, you can simply order a tapa at a bar like any other meal. Tapas are not a specific dish, like an empanada or quesadilla, but rather a type of meal, like a snack or appetizer.
If you're staying with a host family, here's what you can expect: endless potatoes, gazpacho, orange juice, seafood and olive oil. Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil in the world, and the stuff is everywhere. Even in restaurants, they don't give you butter with your bread: they give you olive oil (and it's actually pretty good, not to mention healthier). Spain's orange and fishing industry are huge, and you can be sure that you'll quickly get tired of eating potatoes twice a day.
Corte Ingles is basically the Target of Spain. It's a large department store featuring every home good you could possibly need, all of it just a little overpriced. Most locals do their shopping at smaller specialty stores or markets, but Corte Ingles is the perfect one-stop shop for groceries, furniture, garden supplies, holiday decorations and more.
Spar is a Dutch-owned supermarket chain common throughout Spain. If Corte Ingles is Target, Spar is Kroger. You may wonder why we would ever bother going to Spar when smaller "supermercados" are common (and closer) in most Spanish cities. But you've forgotten that most small businesses close on holidays! And despite Spain's delayed time zone, the food shops are not necessarily open into the evening, making Spar the latest and most-reliably open place to do some late-evening grocery shopping during our stay in Seville.
Desigual and Zara
As long as we're making comparisons to American companies, I'd peg these as the Forever 21s of Spain. You can buy a touristy t-shirt or fanny pack anywhere, but Zara and Desigual are the places to go if you want to blend in with the local crowd in terms of dress and fashion.
Lily A., a UT Austin student who studied abroad with me this past summer, leaves us with some sound advice:
Have fun and treat yo'self because when are you gonna be abroad again!
As the Discover Excursions chaperones frequently reminded us: You only Spain once. Studying abroad is not cheap or convenient, and you may not ever go to Spain again. Therefore, treat yourself in order to embrace more culture and fun, and to take care of yourself as you spend all your energy exploring, taking the world by the horns.
Lead Image Credit: Pixabay