By LAURA SANCHEZ, Staff Columnist
Sometimes you can’t stop a girl from traveling. Sometimes a girl has to realize that she’s in a huge, foreign country for an entire month, a country whose scenery, people and even languages differ so greatly from coast to coast. And naturally, the logical conclusion that came to this girl’s mind was this: to explore as much as possible. Aside from living in the lovely city of Valencia, I got the opportunity to travel a bit more in Spain with my friends, and discover more of its grandeur.
I learned a lot through these trips and excursions. For one, Spain is not this one, unilateral country that can be easily defined. Just like any other country (and any other place, really), it’s extremely nuanced and complex and just so utterly distinct from anything I’ve ever really seen.
One of the best parts of my program was that three excursions were already included within my tuition. We visited the cities of Gandía, Cullera, Peñiscola and ‘La Albufera’ lake to explore castles, cobblestone-covered corridors and sandy beaches by the Mediterranean.
We even took in a random (but lovely!) Japanese tea ceremony, a boat ride on a lake, and walked by the cutest house covered in seashells. These places were quiet, quaint, and their beaches were stunning, with crystal-blue waters and the softest (and hottest!) sand. They were a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of Valencia and the other main cities that we later visited later on in the trip.
The Bigger Trips
But of course, we couldn’t leave Spain without visiting some of the larger, more popular cities of Barcelona, Sevilla, and Granada. Each city is unique because of its food, architecture, and history. Exploring these cities really magnified the fact that Spain is so diverse – each city had such distinct vibes and history from each other, and sometimes I couldn’t believe that I was in the same country.
Barcelona is often critically acclaimed for hosting famous architect Antonio Gaudi’s works of art, for having beautiful beaches and a myriad of different neighborhoods and for being a famous transmitter of the ‘Catalán’ culture. The city was extremely hyped up, but it didn’t disappoint.
Since we only had a day and a half in this city, we tried to sightsee as much as we could. We explored the beachfront area at dusk and took in a couple of intense beach volleyball games. Later, we sat down and really absorbed the fading sunset, the lighthearted ambience and the eternal thought of, “Wow. We’re in SPAIN.”
The next day, we took in the more famous sights. Of course, the number one item on our list was La Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous churches in the world that architect Antonio Gaudí designed and directed himself. It was impressive. There is no other word to really describe the church. Every single person will undoubtedly go through a religious experience when walking by the intricate exterior and absorbing the breathtaking exterior, devotee of the Catholic faith or not. The stained glass windows, in combination with the Spanish sun’s splendor, produced such vivid light that permeated throughout the building. Each detail – every geometric figure, every religious symbol, every metaphorical and figurative and literal figure was so intricately thought-out and astounding. There’s not much else that I can say when describing the church. It’s just one of those things that people annoyingly describe as, “You just have to see it yourself.”
We then paid a few extra euros to take an elevator into one of the church’s towers. From there, we could observe some of the best views of Barcelona, and were able to walk into some balconies and see how we were part of the building façade. It was extremely cool. To get down, instead of the easy use of the elevator, we had to walk down a winding staircase to get back into the church. And walked and walked and walked – it was truly a workout, but the views were SO worth it.
After quickly walking through a couple of neighborhoods, including famous La Rambla walking strip, we headed to another one of Gaudi’s impressive projects: Park Güell. After a long trek up a hill on foot (and on escalators! – specifically installed for the plethora of tourists visiting the site, I presume. Not complaining here!), we reached the park. And then we walked more. The walk was worth it. In what I can only describe as a playground for the visual arts, the park was a complete and utter surprise at every turn. There were beautiful tiles of every color, and installations that surpassed every creative bone in my body. Gaudí was a crazy, creative genius, and I do think I fell in love with him in Barcelona.
“You HAVE to go to Sevilla,” people would say. Strangers, host families and new Spanish friends said the same thing. “There’s nothing like it.”
Of course, they were right. Sevilla was what you would think Spain to be. A bit quaint, a bit rustic, colorful, and full of architectural wonders. (And hot. Very, very hot. At some point, we saw a sign that said that it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently, that’s not an odd number to see.)
But all in all, Sevilla was pretty much the epitome of beauty. Plaza de España – the number one place to visit according to the Holy Grail of the travel website, tripadvisor.com – was nothing short of a fairy tale. The plaza comprised of sets of buildings, bridges, and moats beautifully adorned with bright tiles. It was such a serene place. Even though there were a good number of tourists at the plaza, the place was so big that I hardly felt their presence.
Best of all, in the middle of the plaza, there was a gigantic fountain sprouting water into the air. As we approached it, we realized that dozens of tourists had taken off their shoes and were walking in the fountain. Dehydration, the sun and heat must have been messing with my head, because without any hesitation, I took off my shoes and walked into the fountain, discarding all thoughts of hygiene and cleanliness. The cold water was sheer bliss.
As we wandered off afterwards, we stumbled into some other parks, other beautiful buildings, and winding corridors that spread throughout the city. We sat down to have tapas, wandered into tourist trap souvenir shops, and enjoyed the quiet ambience. Even though Seville is one of the most populous cities in Spain, it felt small and enchanting.
If Sevilla was a fairy tale, then Granada was otherworldly. Granada is in the southern part of Andalucia, a region that has been historically famous for having tremendous Arabic influence upon its architecture, people, neighborhoods, and food. As we walked through its cobblestone-covered corridors and famous neighborhoods, like the Albaicin, we honestly felt like we were transported to a different country. We could have been walking the streets of Morocco or Turkey, as we heard fluid Arabic being spoken among the inhabitants, observed Arabic and Muslim symbols on buildings and shops, and saw numerous Arabic restaurants and teahouses. The bazaars that lined the streets displayed colorful lamps and scarves; each item looked unique among the wide collection. As we sat down for dinner on an outside terrace under the glistening stars, overhearing Arabic-inspired music, we still felt awed at Granada. I was not expecting to feel as ethereal and overwhelmed as I did in that moment, and it’s not a feeling easily translated into words. It felt magical.
Another main tourist attraction was the Alhambra, an old Muslim palace that throughout the years was redesigned with many Mudejar elements, when Christian features were added to the design after the Reconquista period of Spain (when Christianity was cemented as the only religion in Spain). As every other place I’ve tried to describe, the Alhambra is beautiful. There are colorful tiles lining the walls, Arabic words and phrases engraved in the walls, and lush, beautiful gardens. The palaces, baths, and gardens are spread for miles, overlooking the entire city of Granada.
There was honestly too much to see and absorb here, and I fear that heat, hunger, and slight dehydration may have prevented us from visiting every single site we could have seen during the visit. However, I don’t think we missed out on anything too important, and I know that I’ll forever remember the majestic feeling of seeing these palaces in real life.
Some of the best things about traveling in Europe are two things: cheap transportation and accommodations. We took train rides between cities, and these trains were usually fast, modern, and even offered in-seat electric plugs (a blessing after walking around with 5 percent battery on my phone, unable to use Google maps and to take pictures).
In order to cheapen our trips, we stayed in hostels. However, when mentioning the word ‘hostel’ to some people, they immediately get the same mental image in their minds: Cheap accommodations. Flies. Dirty mattresses. Bunk beds in a room of twenty. Communal bathrooms. Huge, dusty backpacks. Weary, rude travelers.
Sure, some hostels may very well have some of those features. But the hostels that we frequented were part of this burgeoning community of clean, safe, variety of hostels that exist globally. We did some research and read reviews before booking each hostel, and we weren’t let down. For about twenty euros a person per night, we were pretty amazed.
Our hostels were hip; the managers were so amiable: they hosted free walking tours, a plethora of resources for traveling on the cheap, social nights, lounges, air conditioning (a rarity for us!) and of course, the Holy Grail of FREE WIFI. None of the rooms we stayed in was a haven for insects, creepy people, or mold. They were quite clean and each bed had fresh sheets and a blanket. The communal bathroom (which we just shared with each other) wasn’t bad at all. I’m glad we decided to go the hostel route; it seemed more authentic, and hey – we’re young – the bunk beds won’t mess up our backs until a few more years down the road.
All in all, traveling by ourselves in Spain was some of the most hassle-free traveling I’ve done in my short life. Everything went according to plan, and even when we didn’t have a plan, we made it work. All we needed to travel was a bit of confidence, a bit of research, large bottles of water, a vague idea of where our next tourist attraction was, and a mindset that everything would work out in the end.