My name is Nick, and I want to share a little of my story with you.
When I was 22, I moved to Valencia for two years. It was my first living-abroad experience, and I thought I had it all covered. I believed my Spanish was strong. I thought my previous holidays in Spain prepared me for this experience.
I couldn’t be any more wrong, what a fool!
I realised I got Spain wrong when I used my hands to communicate or was it my dismissal for siestas?
Before starting my master’s program, I didn’t have many Spanish-speaking friends. I didn’t know the language and struggled to fit in.
The reason I am writing this piece is:
We all are travellers on our journey.
Sharing is caring, and I hope sharing my journey can help you with yours!
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1) Cities that changed my life
Spain is a top destination on many people’s bucket lists, and it’s not hard to understand why. It is a varied country, home to a plethora of cultures, traditions, and suggestive environments.
I slowly fell in love with Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia; I left a little piece of my heart there.
The memories from Spain are alive in my mind, and I have shivers all over. I had the time of my life there.
1. Experience Barcelona: The City of Wonders
Barcelona is surrounded by beauty, history, and timeless charm. The Catalan capital is home to Antoni Gaudi’s most exquisite works, architectural masterpieces as La Sagrada Familia, Parque Guell, among others.
Don’t be fooled by the Gaudi style. Barcelona is a kaleidoscopic city with different facets by day and night.
Barrio Gòtico is the heart of the Old City. It represents the everlasting dialogue between the City’s history and its future. This neighbourhood will cast a spell on you. If you visit during the day, take a walk down to Mercato de Santa Caterina to try the local delicacies.
Ever wondered how Coachella feels by the sea? Sonar is the answer!
The Sonar Festival is one of the most relevant music experiences of this generation.
Make sure to book your tickets well in advance!
The Sonar returns in 2022 from the 16th to the 18th of May in Barcelona.
To fully embrace Barcelona’s Movida, you need to go clubbing at the Razzmatazz, one of the City’s finest clubs, along with Sala Apolo.
2. Feel Madrid: The City That Never Sleeps
Madrid is a fantastic fusion of ancient and modern history, the perfect city for art lovers.
Madrid never sleeps. It is a city of artists, executives, entrepreneurs, and Mondunity.
Whenever I walked on Gran Via, whether 6 am or pm, the place was always crowded.
The City is full of treasures. Every barrio has its identity; Lavapies and Chueca are the pillars of the nightlife. If you are a vintage clothing lover, you should browse around Malasaña; you won’t be disappointed,
If you are in Madrid, you have to visit the Golden Triangle of Art. This group of three world-class art museums, Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Museo Reina Sofía, are located 20 mins away from each other by walk.
After you have filled your mind, you have to go for the stomach. Lucky for you, in Madrid, you can find some of the finest restaurants in the Country.
Fancy an aperitivo or gourmet lunch? You need to try Saona. Mama Campo and 80 Grados have the best tapas. If you have a more refined palate, add Amazonico to your bucket list. Casa Dani will do you right if you are like me and know how to enjoy a fancy dinner but also like to get your hands dirty with a tortilla.
3. Welcome to Valencia: My Second Home
Valencia is exceptional, notably one of the most open and welcoming cities in Europe.
The Valencian Community is drenched in history and pride for its heritage. The region is home to different secular traditions that survived modern times.
The doors of the City are open to everybody, and the residents will make you feel like you belong there.
Three reasons to visit Valencia?
- Las Fallas
- El Turia/ City of Arts and Science
(About Las Fallas and Paella, we’ll talk later)
El Jardin del Turia is a public park that initially was a branch of the homonymous river.
The park begins with the zoologic garden, and it extends vertically, for almost 10Km, towards the sea. Inside, there are skate parks, football and baseball fields, exercise spots, bike pathways, incredible architecture, and most notably, the City of Arts and Sciences.
The City of Arts and Sciences is composed of 7 parts:
- The Oceanogràfic is Europe’s most giant aquarium.
- The Hemisfèric is a digital 3D cinema.
- The Science Museum is a showcase of the history of science.
- The Opera house where you can enjoy concerts, zarzuela, and ballet.
- The Umbracle is where you can wander around Mediterranean plants and contemporary sculptures by day, and one of the largest clubs in Spain, by night.
- The Ágora is a forum dedicated to public events.
- The Assut de l’Or is a bridge connecting the two banks of the river Turia.
The rest of the Valencian Community is breathtaking. Javea and Montanejos are natural spectacles. Benicassim has it all: fantastic sea, mountains, desert and is home to Rototom, the largest Reggae Festival in the World.
2) Let’s have a word about Paella
One pillar of Spanish national and regional identity is cuisine. Every City, barrio, and pueblo has a distinct speciality, a recipe embedded within their DNA.
Spanish cuisine is local. You can have a good Paella everywhere in Spain, but no paella tastes like the one in Valencia.
Why? According to the original recipe, the rice has to be cooked with crop water from Albufera, where it grows. Because of the locality of the ingredients, it’s impossible to replicate the same flavours.
The traditional Valencian Paella is made with rabbit, chicken, different varieties of green beans and saffron.
The only variant is Paella de Marisco, where meat is replaced with fresh seafood. Both variants are unique, and it really comes down to personal tastes. I strongly discourage going for a mixed Paella; it really kills off the taste of the dish.
There may be only two original paellas, but there are several variations worthy of mention. I’m a seafood lover, and my favourites are Arroz del Senyoret, Arroz Caldoso and Fideua.
Arroz del Senyoret translates to the Gentleman’s rice.
Rumour has it, a wealthy man went out for dining and asked for a Paella de Marisco, but he didn’t want to get his hands dirty and asked the chef for a solution.
The result was the same Paella but with shelved crustaceans and shredded fish. This recipe is extraordinary and really elevates a Paella de Marisco into something exquisite.
Arroz Caldoso is the brothy variant of Paella, including its fish and meat iterations. Broth translates to Caldo in Spanish; that’s where the name comes from. This dish is perfect if you visit Valencia during the winter; it will fill and warm you up.
Fideua is the noodle version of Paella de Marisco. Fideos translate to noodles in Spanish.
This variant is as succulent as the rice one. Adding a little Aioli sauce to the Fideua makes all the difference and enriches the overall gustative experience.
I love Paella in every shape and form. My advice for you is to try authentic Paella in Valencia, avoiding any tourist scam. When it comes to which Paella, just try them all!
3) My favourite Spanish celebrations
I mentioned before a few events like the Sonar and Las Fallas.
The list is embarrassingly long, from north to south throughout the whole calendar. The truth is every City and pueblo in Spain have their own celebrations.
The first year in Spain, I couldn’t keep up with all the public holidays and festivities, but I managed to attend quite a few.
In this Guide, I address two events that represented the peak of my Spanish experience.
The first is Las Fallas de Valencia (Las Fallas). In my humble opinion, Las Fallas is the best holiday in the entire World; nothing compares.
The second one is La Capea. A very Spanish way to celebrate birthdays, where bull calves enjoy their payback.
1. Las Fallas
I have never been part of anything more significant and larger than life than Las Fallas.
Do I need to say it is part of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage? As you can tell, I stan hard Las Fallas.
Can you believe this festivity lasts for a month? Trust me when I say the last week is literally explosive!
Las Fallas begins with La Crida on the last Sunday of February. Where all the City gathers at las Torres del Serrano. It starts as a street fest, with food and drink stands and a lot of music. By dusk, an audiovisual show begins, and the Mayor gives the City’s keys to the Patroness of the event. Soon after, an incredible firework show closes the event.
After the Crida, until the 19th of March, at least one, Mascleta takes place every day. A Mascleta is a pyrotechnical show made with petards; some may need earplugs, and that’s totally fine!
Did I say it already? There is a lot of petards going around.
During Las Fallas last five days, it’s a petard battle royale. Valencian people know how to do petards, and it’s way less dangerous than it sounds! People will throw petards at you, and you should do the same.
Let’s talk about the main event.
From the 15th to the 19th of March the real party begins! Schools and offices are closed, and in every corner, you can see people building up beautiful sculptures.
In a matter of days, the City is transformed into an open-air museum.
For five days and five nights, bands are playing in the street, there are open discos everywhere, and an awful lot of Mascletas and petards.
Las Fallas is not for the faint of heart. Trust me when I say you can feel the City’s energy in every cell of your body.
Las Fallas ends on the 19th of March, with the craziest spectacle I’ve ever seen. The last night is called La Quema, easily translated into The Burning. All the beautiful sculptures are set on fire, one by one.
If you think there’s a sculpture every 10 meters, the whole city turns into a bonfire.
Don’t worry; you won’t witness the largest arson in Spanish history.
As soon as the sculptures are lit up, the fire brigade puts them off. As the last sculpture, opposite the City Hall, is consumed by the fire, Las Fallas ends, and Valencia is covered by dreamy clouds of smoke and ashes.
Las Fallas is an outstanding show, which takes a whole year to bring to life. As soon as the festivity is hushed by fire, the preparation for the next Fallas begin.
2. La Capea
If you ask me what a Capea is, I am still not sure!
When a friend invited me to her birthday party, somewhere outside Valencia, to fool around with calves, I had my reasonable doubts.
Reasonable, yet, not strong enough doubts for me not to sign up for it immediately.
When we arrived, we had a quick Paella for lunch, just in time to change into our carnival costumes. When we were finally ready, we were welcomed into a small sand arena, where two lovely calves were waiting for us.
The rules of the game were simple:
- You can’t touch the animals
- You can only run!
After a few drinks, it started to make sense; I found my strength and gave it a shot.
It was weirdly entertaining being chased by a calf, stumble, fall and continue running before being crushed by an animal three times my size (I guess?).
After a few hours, we were all too drunk to play with bulls, and the place turned into an open-air disco. It was the perfect closure for a wild ride of a day when friends gather around for the last dance and start showing drunk signs of affection.
This party was the wildest, weirdest birthday I have ever attended, and I absolutely loved it.
My Only Wish
I’m delighted I was able to share a piece of my story with you.
I hope this Guide will help you in your journey, and you’ll think of me during your next trip to Spain.
My only wish is this Guide inspired you enough to share your story with the rest of our community.
At ZIM, we are building a global borderless community. If you want to join us and help other travellers along their way, we are here to give you a platform.
If you want to share your journey with us, don’t hesitate to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wish you all a fully immersive Spanish experience and the best of luck during your journey. Hoping one day our paths will cross.