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Brilliant Discovery of Spanish Cities

Updated: Jan 22

✦ And it's not what you think. Spain is so much more than the cringe-worthy stereotype of Flamenco, Bullfights and Siestas.

Finding myself in Luxembourg recently on a family visit to see my new granddaughter, I decided to treat myself to a little break and run away to the sensual land of Spain for ten days. After all, it's not every day that I find myself in Europe. So carpe diem was the mantra of the day and, since I had never been to Spain, thought why not hop over and see if the rain in Spain really falls mainly on the plain?

Truth is, those who have a strong wanderlust (which has been very much stifled during the pandemic) will find any reason to travel. I've always felt a curiosity and hunger for new experiences. Any chance to see and learn something new, I'm right in the front of the queue ready to sign up. I don't believe we ever stop learning, and close friends, family and colleagues know me well by now - I simply do not know how to stop! There's a reason why I've earned the nickname of Speedy Gonzales.

And by the way, before anything else, one vital detail I need to clarify having been to Spain is this - Speedy Gonzales is NOT Spanish! The next famous mouse after Mickey is actually Mexican.

Those who have wanderlust in their DNA can attest to this, that travelling opens up your mind and heart. It can be a very humbling experience where you get first hand experience of your own prejudices or misconceptions being torn down. Like any other country, Spain has its myths and stereotypes, and my little journey through the country has given me a fresh new perspective of the country. And yes, it really goes way beyond flamenco, bullfights and siestas.

COVID certificate

Note: While countries are opening up with COVID-19 restrictions waning, remember if you travel to Spain you now have to fill in an FCS health form as dictated by Spain Travel Health if you do not have an EU digital COVID certificate.

¿Hablas inglés?

Patience if the true language while travelling by Veronica Lind, Brilliant-Online
Patience if the true language while travelling

One thing that stops people from visiting certain countries is the mistaken conception that because their native language isn't English, the locals there must growl and bark like some undiscovered tribe with an unknown language and that one would struggle to survive and navigate a tour through the cities.

One of the ironies of globalisation is many are still trapped by language prejudices about how certain groups of people either do not speak English, don't speak it well, or hate English. Spain unfortunately has a somewhat negative reputation for not being the strongest when it comes to English, compared to its neighbour, Portugal.

I've done my fair share of globetrotting throughout my career, so language is not something that intimidates me. With a few languages under my belt (English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Bahasa Indonesian, Malay, German) I'm sure I can make myself understood somehow! There is always a way to make ourselves understood if we genuinely wish to communicate. Patience is the true language here.

I found it fairly easy to ask for what I wanted and needed through my travels in Spain, having passed through cities and towns such as Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Sevilla, Zaragoza and Barcelona. To be fair, I did not venture into deep Spain where the tiny villages are. Still, I believe our common needs are basic - it's not like I wanted to strike up a philosophical conversation about existentialism.

From room mix ups in a hotel, or finding a charger for my phone, I found that all I had to do was go up to someone, speak normally to them in English, and they all naturally responded in the best English they had and it was more than enough to get the problem solved. One of the clearest and most respectful ways of communicating with another person is to behave as if you trust they do understand you and not feel the need to 'dumb down' anything. Keep your speech clean and clear and you may just find yourself having a rather interesting conversation even if you don't share the same native language. And when you show you trust in the other person's wish to communicate, it sparks off a genuine desire and effort in the other person to connect, and not spiral into self-esteem issues about how well or badly they speak a language. In an age of globalisation, it is no longer in fashion to stick our noses in the air at anyone who doesn't speak our language, and to be condescending if they don't speak it as well as we do, or assume they don't speak it well just because they're a foreigner.

Fear of communicating in a different language stops many of us from wandering further than our backyard, when the world is really full of amazing sights to see, adventures to experience and people's stories to hear.

Discovering modernity amongst palaces, castles and cathedrals

Spain is clearly a country rich in history, so we can romanticise and imagine a city from the novels of Cervantes but that is actually not realistic. In modern day Spain, there are no Don Quixotes galloping around on his trusty steed fighting windmills and imaginary villains.

Yes, there are tons of palaces, castles and cathedrals generously sprinkled around the country, and if that sparks your interest you'll soon find yourself with one too many castles coming out of your ears. And truth is, you do get to a point where you've seen so many cathedrals you can't quite distinguish which one you saw where.

Some must visit palaces, cathedrals and castles in Spain

La Sarada Familia Barcelona. Photo: CZ Connect as featured in Briliant-Online
La Sarada Familia Barcelona. Photo: CZ Connect

Some awesome Spanish buildings and architecture

But Castles and Cathedrals are not all there is to Spain. I was also really impressed by the blend of the old and the new, the quaint and charming with the sleek and fancy.

When I was in Barcelona, I took an unusual liking to the unique art nouveau buildings there. I found it rather refreshing and quaint to be able to see both really old, classic historical architecture in the façades of some buildings, and at the same time, to see an art nouveau architecture looming ahead of you. Perhaps that is one of the purposes of such buildings - to make you take a step back, really look and be awestruck for a while.

There is something in Gaudí's creations that draws your eye to every curve, every spiral, every unusual detail, like a seductive invitation to get to know the building better. And if you look long enough, the building seems to embody movement and feel organic, like a strange animal coming to life.

Madrid is also a treasure trove of modernity. And this can be seen in some of their business, sports and health industries.

As you fly into Madrid, you may catch a glimpse of four skyscrapers towering over the city. This is the Cuatro Torres Business Area (CTBA). It is quite majestic when you see them as in general there aren't that many skyscrapers or tall buildings in the city. The Cuatro Torres or Four Towers are the largest skyscrapers in Spain. The tallest of them stands at 250 metres and these four towers house companies, embassies and hotels.

The Wanda Metropolitano Stadium is the stadium of the Atlético de Madrid football team and they are the first smart stadium in Europe. The football club partnered with Telefónica to help them digitalise their new stadium. Benefits of their digitalisation included improved venue security, reducing waiting times, becoming a fully IP-based stadium and optimising the full visitor experience.

A health giant

It may not be the first thing one would think of when Spain is mentioned, but their medical services, facilities and expertise are actually one of the best in the world.

Hospital Universitario La Paz (HULP) is one of the largest hospitals in Madrid and was named the best-valued public-owned hospital in 2018. HULP's headquarters are in a campus at the northern end of Paseo de la Castellana, and it comprises 18 buildings that make up three major separate hospitals - General, Children's and Trauma.

Clínica Universidad de Navarra is a private hospital with locations in both Madrid and Navarra. They have approximately 46 different medical specialities. Clínica Universidad de Navarra is featured in the World's Best Hospitals 2020 rankings as one of the 50 Best Hospitals in the World. The hospital holds some of the most advanced technology in the world in the field of cancer treatment.

And many may not know this, but Spain has been the world leader in organ donation and transplantation for 28 years straight. In 2019, it reached 48.9 donors per million population with 5,500 transplants carried out.

Spain is known for their sustainability actions too. Check out this article - Sustainability is a Reality in Spain

Food, drink and siestas

And no, the Spaniards do not have a siesta every day, unless you're two years old and your parents or babysitters desperately need you to be asleep so they can have that one hour of precious peace to shower, feed themselves and get the day's housework done!

Spain is a gastronomical paradise, not just because the Mediterranean diet is rich in flavours and healthy to boot. Everything always comes down to the people. The Spanish love their food, they love the whole culture of feasting together and food brings people together on special occasions and on weekends. People always ask for recommendations to a good Spanish restaurant where they can taste 'authentic' Spanish food. I think the best way to get authentic Spanish food is to borrow somebody's Spanish grandmother, who will be more than delighted to cook up a big pan of paella, or a rock solid cocido stew and feed you till you keel over with satiation.

The Spanish sense of family and community is very strong. Speak to any Spaniard on the street and you'll find they are with family or friends, or on the way to meet family or friends, or they have just come from a gathering of family or friends. In fact, even walking down the streets you'll notice you can never overtake them, because they literally walk as a family side by side filling up the entire width of the pavement! One can never really feel lonely in Spain. Restaurants and bars are open and welcoming and people love having a good chat. They are very welcoming of foreigners and, even if the waiter may seem a bit brusque or grouchy when he's getting your order, most are teddy bears when you get to know them. For the Spanish, the food is as important as the company they keep.

Some wonder why the Spanish can spend so much time drinking and consuming tapas through the evening and night from one bar to another. It's not because they are that thirsty or hungry. They simply enjoy being outdoors, with good company and living life to the fullest. And if you've experienced what Spanish weather is like, you'll understand why. It makes you simply WANT to be outside. If it's one thing people wish they could take with them from Spain, apart from the Rioja wines and jamón ibérico, is actually the Spanish weather.

Spanish tapas is not an easy one to explain. Tourists have often been told they MUST try Spanish tapas, or that they can get them for free when they go to a bar, which is rather misleading to say the least! Think of tapas like little Chinese dimsum. They are different kinds of food served in small portions. Yes, in some bars they do serve you free tapas when you order a beer, but it's not a given in every single Spanish bar. And in case you are expecting to be served some exotic food, remember that there is a variety of tapas and some could be a small simple dish of patatas bravas (fried pieces of potatoes in a spicy sauce). Or sometimes you could be served a little dish of paella which would be quite a treat. Some tourists get disappointed when they see a small plate of humble potatoes and feel they've been shortchanged when they see this. It makes for a much more pleasant trip to really research, and the best is to speak with a native there or someone who has lived there to really understand what to expect.

If you want to experience sampling a variety of Spanish food and not feel like you need to go bar-hopping through the night and take a gamble at what tapas you could be served, why not go to the Mercado de San Miguel in the centre of Madrid? (Highly recommended by my new friend, Suzy) This is a charming market that has been around for more than 100 years and it has been refurbished and revamped to become a place of gastronomical delight. Take a turn around the market to sample the flavours of Spain. Whether it is fresh seafood from Galicia or smoky cheeses from the Basque Country, you can pick and choose your choice of top quality exquisite tapas and other types of pub fare. Be warned though, you'll be spoilt for choice here, and the food served in each stand all look so good you may just get too carried away trying to squeeze everything into your Instagram account! The food's not going to run away, so put your phone safely in your pocket, toss a coin if you can't decide what to start with, and simply relax and enjoy the flavours of Spain for an hour or so. After all, an important part of the whole tapas experience is really the atmosphere!

Before travelling to Spain, you may be warned about meal times there, i.e. they eat really, really LATE! Lunch could be at 2pm... 3pm... and dinnertime is at a stomach-growling time of 8pm or even later. For some, the digestive juices would have sizzled a hole in the stomach by this hour. As a tourist, you do not have to worry so much about that especially in the touristy areas where the restaurants and bars understand they really cannot starve tourists who are not used to Spanish meal times! You will be able to hunt for something to feed, and not feel like you are doomed to eat only at MacDonald's or Burger King.

How we eat bread in Barcelona - rub fresh garlic on bread, rub tomato, dip in olive oil - yummy!

I'm one of those who is willing to try most foods, and really, you suffer a lot less if your stomach is open to experimenting (as long as you haven't got any medical issues). I rather enjoyed the typical breakfast when I was in Barcelona. I may just bring that habit back with me to Australia. Just grab a piece of toast, cut up a fresh tomato and a small piece of garlic and rub them across the toast. Add a generous sprinkle of olive oil over it (see video below as demonstrated by Suzy) and you have a healthy breakfast to start your day! Okay the garlic may not give you the most romantic of breath but hey, it keeps vampires at bay and it's really healthy especially during winter!

Remember Plácido Domingo?

Going to the opera may not be on the Bucket List of your average traveller to Spain, but it is actually a deeply-rooted element of the country. Opera has existed in Spain since the mid-17th century and continues to grow strong today. What is interesting to note is that in Spain, opera and theatre have blended together to create a distinctively Spanish art form called zarzuela. It is something that is very closely linked to traditional Madrid. Think of the zarzuela as a Spanish opera that is a theatrical play with musical acts. The stories deal mostly with the social landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Australians would be familiar with the opera The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia), a story set in the town of Seville, Spain, based on a trilogy of plays written by a French author Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The opera was composed by the Italian Gioachino Rossini. Talk about a melting pot of nationalities! Why not get inspired and have a listen here to Plácido Domingo's version of the opera?

There are opera houses across different cities in Spain, and before you dismiss them as stuffy and boring, you may well be surprised by a tour of one of these opera houses. The Teatro Real in Madrid for example may simply look like a classical sort of building from the outside, but you'd never guess the building actually has 22 floors, 8 of which are underground! That gives a whole new dimension literally if you were to watch Gluck's opera of Orpheus descending into the underworld to look for Eurydice! If Orpheus is descending in the Teatro Real he may just get lost in one of the eight floors!

Flamenco dance in Seville, Spain

While in Spain, you might want to participate in their Flamenco Festivals. It's like a music festival and everyone gets dressed up and party the night away. For me, I watched the Flamenco dance in Seville :)

Brilliant meet-up in Toledo

Our Brilliant team is actually all over the world and it was another reason why I thought it would be a good idea to hop over to Spain for a visit. Our Content Writer, Yanntyng is based in Madrid and has been trying to learn the Spanish art of living in the moment for the past 16 years.

We met up in the Spanish capital and took a little day excursion to the nearby town of Toledo as well. Toledo is rich in monumental and cultural heritage. It is known as the City of Three Cultures because of its mix of Christian, Muslim and Jewish influence in its history and architecture. It is also famous for its production of bladed weapons, which have become a hot favourite with tourists to take home as souvenirs of the city. Game of Throne fans, you may just find your perfect blade here. Toledo was also home to the famous painter El Greco, and one of his most famous paintings The Burial of the Count of Orgaz can be found there in the Church of Santo Tomé.

As our Brilliant Team works across different time zones, it was good for those few weeks to actually be in the same time zone as Yanntyng for once! As much as the idea of remote working from any corner of the planet has been idealised, it has its challenges. One can always fantasise about working on a laptop surrounded by the turquoise waters of Bora Bora, but aligning time zones for meetings and keeping to deadlines is not so easy. We find ourselves either having a really early breakfast meeting or a late night supper meeting depending on which side of the globe you're at. Still, we have managed to make things work, and there is something brilliant about being connected even halfway across the globe and share a common goal to bring Brilliant stories to the rest of the world.

Veronica making new friends Suzy Morrison and Amanda who are pharmacists in a hospital in Maryland
Veronica making new friends, Eileen, Suzy Morrison and Amanda who are pharmacists in a hospital in Maryland

It may be a while till I next pack my bags and travel again. With restrictions lifted I was eager and excited to stretch my feet and smell a different air and see new landscapes, but the call of home is strong and it did not take long for me to long to be home again. As they say, you want to create a life you do not need to run away from, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones to feel home is still the gentlest place to be. It's not because my wanderlust is waning. It's simply because the more you travel, the more you appreciate home. You can make new friends on your travels, stay in lovely hotels and see exciting sights, and have a great time. And still feel the tug of Sehnsucht for home. There is a charm in the coffee stain on the carpet in the living room, the closet with the missing knob knocked off by the dog and the creaky armchair in which I find my favourite person that cannot be found anywhere else. I am glad to be home.




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