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A Journey Around Spain

Experiencing its Culture, History, and Hospitality

The author with Evelyn and her mother, aunts, uncles and cousins in Toledo for a family lunch.

Recalling the family and their friend whom I met in Spain conjures up a plethora of images and memories. I went to Spain during Christmas break of my study abroad year in Sweden, in December of 1997 and January of 1998, with my friend Evelyn, who was studying at Uppsala University along with me. Evelyn invited me home with her for Christmas and took me on a tour of her country that included stays with her family, relatives, and friends. Our itinerary began when our flight landed in Madrid. We stayed in Madrid for three days and then we went to a family lunch in Toledo. After that we traveled to Salamanca for three days, and returned to Madrid for three days. Then we took a bus to Barcelona for four days and returned to Madrid and celebrated Christmas. After a few days in Madrid, we took another bus to Alicante for three days and then returned to Madrid for a week before flying back to Stockholm.


On our first night in Madrid, Evelyn and a group of her best friends as well as some of our friends from Sweden went to a restaurant in downtown Madrid. Walking along the tiled walls of building reminiscent of Moroccan houses, Evelyn’s friend Javier told me about the discotheques open around the clock, the tapas bars, Spanish red wines and the Madrid nightlife which he boasted was more alive than any city in the world. At the restaurant we were treated to a passionate flamenco dancer, whirling in a red blur, tapping rhythmically to the gypsy guitar music. I was mesmerized while the flamenco dancer and gypsy musician spun a tale of music on the Spanish guitar that filled the air with a fast moving tune in a slow paced world. Elevated to a trance-like state, we had Paella for dinner. The next day, because I told Evelyn’s mother how much I enjoyed the Paella, she made it for lunch especially for me—complete with a demonstration on how it is prepared. Other sojourns into the city with Evelyn’s college friends revealed a tendency for time to stretch and lose its constraints in the city, flowing ever so slowly. We walked past narrow cobblestone streets between tall lovely apartments—where the wrought iron balconies were only a few meters apart—talking about Spanish history on our way to enjoying tapas and dancing each night.

On Christmas Eve, Evelyn and I walked through Madrid with friends, The city was pulsing with the night life, thronging crowds, all night-long club hopping, people eating tapas, and drinking Spanish wine. The energy, the light, the sheer number of people, along with the vibrancy sets the Christmas Eve celebrations in Madrid apart from other cities of the world in my experience. Evelyn and I bought warm chestnuts from the stands and walked by life-sized nativity scenes, watched Christmas reenactment plays performed in the street, and joined in with Christmas Carolers on the Gran Via—who taught me how to sing Christmas carols in Spanish. All the while we were patronizing four different tapas bars and discussing life in Spain compared to other countries with her friends.

As a treat between the travels to different cities, Evelyn took me to the famous Prado Museum where we passed the classic booksellers market. According to Evelyn, the Prado is full of historical and artistic secrets that hide a story of intrigue and suspense that only a traveler who spends a week at the museum can unveil.


Next we headed northwest towards Barcelona for a taste of Catalonia and the modern Eastern coast. Barcelona is in the Catalonian region where Catalan is spoken more than Spanish. Catalan is a separate romance language from Castilian Spanish which belongs to a branch of Gallo-Romance similar to Provencal, the language of medieval southern France. Although Ramon, a pharmacy student, made clear to us his Catalonian identity, it was obvious from our walks through the city that Barcelona was at once classically influenced by Romanesque elements and yet truly an original city with Catalonian and Spanish brushstrokes interplaying on the city’s canvas of culture—much like Ramon himself. In Barcelona we stayed with Ramon’s sister and parents, who made warm milk with sugar for us every evening before bedtime. Ramon made sure to introduce me to the marvels of the esoteric Antoni Gaudi, an architect of incomparable achievement. Gaudi was influenced by often contradictory architectural styles such as Gothic, Moorish, and Art Nouveau. Gaudi created a unique synthesis of these three distinct styles into his own creative vision, nearly transcending the boundaries of the laws of physics, yet revering them with grace. Walking along the top of La Pedrera, between the four and five-sided faceless sculptures reflecting Christian and Muslim armies, the history of Spain is etched upon the roof, and its impact on the Spanish psyche is undeniable.

A picturesque photo of Barcelona taken by the author.

Ramon took us to Park Guell, with its elevated winding path through the park constructed of stones in the shape of pine trees. Underneath the path were columns that leaned, defying gravity, making the spaces curved rather than linear. A man played melodies on a harp so hauntingly beautiful that I was transported to a dimension outside space and time, perhaps just as Gaudi intended all citizens of Barcelona to experience through his architectural style. Ramon drove us the La Familia Sagrada, the Gothic Cathedral that is still in the process of being built, but will never be completed, he said, because the sins of the city are too many. As we walked around the outside of the cathedral he pointed out the intricate carvings of the Holy Family and religious icons. Inside, though the cathedral interior was darkened, the air of meditative contemplation matched the wide open hall that curved around the outside pews and the candlelit gallery. It is the most unique cathedral in the world, according to Ramon.

View of Barcelona from a hill.


One day, Evelyn and her mother and brother decided to take me to a family lunch in Toledo at her aunt’s house. Her aunt wanted to show me around town so she took us to the Toledo Cathedral, which she said was a symbol of Spain’s sense of religious worship, with a picturesque layering of styles that are a result of five centuries of unceasing architectural activity. She reminded me that it is this sort of vigorous assimilation combined with diverse art styles that gives Spanish architecture its unique character. On New Years Eve, Evelyn invited me to dinner with her own entire family as well as her extended family at one of her aunt’s homes in Toledo. Everyone was there, including aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and grandparents. I was welcomed as another member of the family. The dinner party was alive with the New Year traditions of telling family stories, jokes, listening to the famous clock chime at the Gran Via, and eating grapes as fast as possible for each of the twelve chimes—all accompanied by champagne. The dinner party ended at 1 a.m. Then, Evelyn invited me to a private party hosted by her best friends in a Madrid suburb were we listened to music, danced, sang, wore party hats, and tooted celebratory horns to usher in the new year. As the party ended at 8 a.m., I thought we would soon head home. But Evelyn and her friends had a time-honored tradition of going dancing at a disco in downtown Madrid, pointing out the fact that the nightlife does not begin at 1 a.m. as the guidebooks claim, but at 8 a.m. in the morning. We left the club at 1 p.m., with the warm sun shining brightly upon us. 

The author with Evelyn and her mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Toledo for a family lunch.

The author with Evelyn’s brother and cousins at a relative’s house in Toledo.


We left Toledo to head due north and southwest through Avila to Salamanca in Old Castile. As we traveled to Salamanca—with Evelyn’s little brother listening to music on his walkman—I watched scenes of the green rolling hills of central Spain, dotted with farmland with sheep and olive trees in the distance. After we arrived in Salamanca at nightfall, Evelyn’s friend Lydia took us around the town. Lydia was keen to show us the Roman influence on her town. Lydia explained how the Romans adorned Spanish landscape using their unique system of construction based on stone masonry, the arch, the vault, the built walls, triumphal arches, temples, forts, bridges and aqueducts, theatres, and arenas. Moorish architects combined their traditional architecture with Romanesque (a style different from Roman) Gothic elements creating the Mudejar style. Lydia told us one of the most representative examples of this is the University of Salamanca, where she took us on a tour the next day before lunch. She pointed out the long thin olive trees, a roman bridge, the cathedral, and a small downtown area. There the Plaza Major was built between 1729 and 1733, as well as the river Tormes, and the ranches of Cuidand Rodrigo that raise bulls. She was particularly interested in a Roman bridge and the fact that it has survived to this day. According to Lydia, in the old part of Salamanca, the whole city is built entirely of the same color of sandstone, once a rich peach color—now after centuries of dust and grime is a pale gray. She was keen to tell us that the law requires that all new buildings within the city must be made of the same material and color in order to preserve the historical and architectural unity of the city.

Lydia’s father was proud of the University and spoke at great length of its prestigious standing as one of Europe’s earliest and most highly ranked universities, saying that it was built in 1220 and achieved the status of a great European university, one of the oldest and most influential, where even Italian nobles sent their sons to study. Lydia’s father was a painter who lived in America for a year where he continued his work. The father’s deep love for his native land and all that it embodies in terms of life and tradition is captured in his paintings; steep cobblestone alleys, old houses, fishing boats, graceful women and fruits colored in contrasting hues of orange and rich reds, warm yellows, deep shades of ocean blues and greens, exuding life, abundance, and tradition—all revealing the soul of Spain.

My long conversations with Lydia’s mother after lunch demonstrated to me how Spain’s dynamic historical events bestowed substance and elegance to the Spanish character, one that is marked by contradictions, as exemplified by the tomato wars that occur in a certain village to protest against the widely acclaimed sport of bullfighting, so dear to many passionate Spaniards. When I told Lydia’s mother about my favorite novel by Ernest Hemingway, and how he writes of Pamplona and the Running of the Bulls—praising the art of bullfighting passionately—Lydia’s mother said that I had the heart of a Spaniard, a true Aficionado.


Finally, from Salamanca we traveled southeast to the sparkling coast of Valencia, to the picturesque port of Alicante. Turron, a delicious candy made of desert and Horachata, a unique seasonal and tropical fruit blended into juice is popular there. My favorite meal, which we all enjoyed at a café on the beach, was the simple Mussel dish seasoned with lemon juice, a perfect complement to life on the Mediterranean. In Alicante, we stayed with Oscar’s grandmother and aunt. Although I was only a friend of Evelyn’s and Oscar knew her, her family did not know me, yet they opened their hearts and home to me. At lunch, Oscar’s aunt lamented that I did not study Spanish and could not talk to her because she could not speak English. Nevertheless, she told me that I must learn Spanish.

As Oscar took us on a tour of his hometown, we passed whitewashed walls of Andalucian houses, set high above the exquisite grandeur of domed Mosques and pointy Gothic Cathedrals, reflecting profound aesthetic differences. As we walked, I reflected on the fact that the highlight of the region is not just the marriage of Moorish and Hispanic elements blending into the art, culture, and customs of the region, but also a more simple, gentle beauty revealed in the little white houses built in rows on steep cobblestone streets, decorated with flowerpots of pink and red outside almost very doorstep.

One sunny January afternoon, Oscar and his friends gathered with us on the dock where all the boats are harbored. Dangling our feet into the Mediterranean, Oscar wore his beret while playing Spanish guitar. He sang with Evelyn while churchgoers in their Sunday best strolled downtown. The sun warmed our backs. It would have been a perfect scene for one of Lydia’s father’s oil paintings. As Evelyn, her brother, Oscar and his friends and I all walked along the Mediterranean, the pure blue waters called out to us and we decided to go for a swim right then and there. Oscar took us up Mount Benacantil to tour the Carthaginian fortress of Santa Barbara’s castle, built by Hamilcar Barca in 238-229 B.C. From the top of the hill Oscar pointed out Morocco and told me how his great-grandfather was once jailed at the castle, which was used as a dungeon for political dissidents during Franco’s regime, but is now overrun with cats.

An appreciation of the diverse historical forces impacting the various regions and subcultures revealed the true soul of Spain to me. The perspective afforded by the journey enabled the development of a deeper understanding of the country as well as a more profound understanding of the people I encountered. I found that it was impossible to separate Spanish history, architecture, and culture from the personalities of the people I met and with whom I developed friendships. So connected were these Spaniards to their rich and layered heritage that I believe that their characters were as strongly effected by the combination of history, culture, and architecture as by the country itself. Buildings had souls and were as alive as other human beings.

But the most noteworthy aspect of the entire trip was that people who were complete strangers welcomed me into their homes and hearts, as a member of their family and an honored guest, with generosity of spirit, happy to share their culture, their country, their food, their homes, and theirselves. This is the warmth of Spain that I shall never forget.

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