BIDDING EUROPE FAREWELL AS WE HEAD TO THE FAR EAST…
We’re in the midst of a long travel day at the moment, sitting on a flight bound for Bangkok. It’s a Lufthansa flight we caught from Frankfurt after a short hop from Madrid, and we’re sharing the flight with hundreds of excited Germans all keen to start their Thai beach holidays. How do we know they’re excited? Because they’re all half drunk and rather loud and boisterous. It’s all rather amusing really. We’ve been passing the time and distracting ourselves from the boredom of the long-haul flight with movies, books, and looking over our photos from the last 6 weeks. We had a great time touring around Andorra, Spain, and Portugal, although Spain occasionally frustrated the hell out of us occasionally. It was the first time either of us had visited this Western-most part of Europe and we really enjoyed the sights, flavours, and wonders of the Iberian peninsula.
Of the 3 countries we visited over the past 6 weeks, Portugal was easily our favourite. Things we loved the most about Portugal:
• The colours. From the vivid blue of its rivers and ocean; to the warm yellows, oranges, and reds of the buildings; and iridescent green of its forests and vineyards, Portugal is awash with colour.
• The food. Simple, rustic, and wholesome, Portuguese food is wonderful, especially if you like seafood. Portuguese tarts (the edible kind) were especially awesome.
• The history. Paving the way for other European nations, the Portuguese sailed the world. Learning more about the Portuguese Age of Exploration was fascinating.
• The people. Everywhere we went we found the Portuguese to be very welcoming, friendly and easy going. As is often the case, Portugal’s people are really its biggest asset and made our stay in their country both memorable and pleasurable.
We had a great time cruising down the Duoro River; walking through the Bussaco Forest; strolling through the streets of Porto and Lisbon; wandering around the palaces of Sintra; and exploring the old buildings of the University of Coimbra. Our experience of Portugal was very authentic and genuine, and just made us want to go back and see more!
Andorra was a great discovery – this tiny country really is like the land that time forgot. With its tiny Romanesque churches, cute mountain villages, and stunning alpine scenery, Andorra is a gem. It amazed us to see how far the country has come in just 40 years, considering much of the nation only got electricity in the 1970s!
Ignoring the tacky duty free shops that line the streets of Andorra la Vella, there is a beauty to the mountains of Andorra that’s hard to beat. We would love to go hiking in Andorra again, especially through the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley. This isolated valley is completely unspoilt and villagers there still live traditional agrarian lifestyle. It’s supposed to be pretty spectacular as far as scenery goes too. The valley has survived untouched because there are no roads leading into the valley – the only access is via mountain trails that you have to negotiate on foot (or by donkey if you happen to have one handy).
And then, of course, there’s Spain. It was one of the most interesting countries we visited on this trip so far, but also one of the most irritating. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but suffice to say we always felt like we were just half a step out of time with the rest of the country and so never really found our rhythm, so to speak. We loved the sights, and are really glad we went and saw what we saw, but never quite felt welcomed or entirely comfortable in Spain.
We’ve discussed this between ourselves and with a few other travellers we met, trying to discern why we felt this way whilst in Spain and it seems to come down to a few things:
• People aren’t very friendly. Spanish people love their family and friends, and if you are in their “inner circle” they would no doubt do anything for you – they seem very generous in that sense. As strangers, however, we found that most Spanish people treated us with a level of ambivalence that left us feeling quite unwelcome. This was evident in many small interactions we had, and whilst we were never treated overtly rudely, we were also never made to feel entirely welcome either. It could be that Spanish people have just had enough of tourists, or perhaps there’s something about us that puts them off. Whatever the reasons, we spent most of our time in Spain feeling like the locals were happy to have our money but not us.
• People are quite formal and insular. Most of the Spanish people we did meet and get to interact with were quite insular, traditionalist, conservative, formal, and inward-looking. Beyond the immediacy of their family, friends, jobs and community, most people we met didn’t really seem to care about anyone of anything else. We didn’t expect such a closed-minded, insular view of the world from Spain and it just left us a bit baffled. The conservative, formal aspects of Spanish life was awkward for us too; Australian are so informal and casual (to the point of rudeness sometimes really) that the level of formality and religious conservatism inherent in Spanish culture was just alien and awkward to us.
• The pace of life in Spain is just too slow. They just take so long to do anything! And the infamous Spanish siesta just made things so difficult! Honestly trying to accomplish things in Spain was often like like swimming through treacle. Not something that’s unique to Spain, by any means, but our expectations were that Spain would be as modern and efficient as other Western European countries. It’s not.
• Nothing worked like we expected it to. Spanish systems are seemingly functional and trustworthy but often failed us at crucial times. We learned that appearances can be very deceiving in Spain (e.g. many of the towns we visited had very modern, fancy train stations, but no trains), and that infrastructure and systems that we thought would just work (like every where else in Western Europe), didn’t. We constantly had issues with train strikes, buses being over-booked, and basic systems not working. Things always worked themselves out and it was never a huge issue, but together these added to up to a lot of small petty annoyances that left us feeling vaguely frustrated by the whole thing. Again, these sorts of issues are nothing new to the seasoned traveller, it was just that we expected Spain to something it isn’t. Maybe therefore the issue was just with us and our preconceived notions of what we thought Spain SHOULD be like.
None of these things are in and of themselves a big deal and they certainly didn’t stop us from enjoying the sights, they just stopped us from LOVING Spain like we LOVED Portugal and Andorra. There’s a lot we really enjoyed seeing in Spain, though, things like:
• Barcelona’s incredibly blue ocean and fantastic Gaudian architecture.
• Andalusia’s Moorish architecture, especially Cordoba’s Mesquita, Seville’s Alcazar and Granada’s mighty fortress, the Alhambra.
• The verdant hills of Spain’s Basque country, around San Sebastian. The ocean there was also quite spectacular too.
• The mighty cathedrals of Leon, Burgos, Zaragoza, Santiago de Compostela, and Segovia.
• The old towns and Jewish districts in towns like Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville.
• From the high, dry plains of the Meseta, to the mountains of Catalonia, and green hills of the Basuqe region, Spain is beautiful.
Obviously everyone’s experience of a place is affected by their own beliefs, expectations, and past experiences, as well as by external factors like the weather and time of year. This is one of the reasons travel fascinates so many of us – it doesn’t matter how many photos you see or other people’s travel stories you read, you need to experience a place for yourself to know how it is going to affect you. So even if Spain didn’t overly excite us, we’re still glad we went and had the experiences we had. For now though our thoughts are turning to South East Asia and what experiences await us over the next couple of months. Because starting tomorrow, we get to learn about Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, and Singaporean culture!