Living in Spain

Happy to be Home Again – Reflections from a Trans-European Road Trip

San Sebastian, Playa Gros

We just finished a 6,500 Km drive from Madrid, via San Sebastian (above) to the North of France, across to the UK, over the channel to Germany via Belgium, and back to Madrid via France and Catalonia again.

Here are some thoughts from the trip…

Collective Conscienciousness…

Every neighbourhood, town, region, city, and country, has it’s own feeling, a collective consciousness, based on many factors like standard of living, wellbeing of the population, employment levels, government, economic optimism and more…

Of all the countries we passed through this summer, including Spain, Germany far and away had the best street-level feeling about it. There was a sort of optimism in the air that you couldn’t help but notice, that wasn’t nearly as present in the other countries we visited.

In fact Germany seemed to be streaks ahead of the rest of Europe on many levels – prosperity, recycling, eco-friendliness, organic food, city streets clean enough to eat off! There was a palpable sense of industry, of forward motion.

After 5 days we were ready to abandon Spain and move there! But when we drove back across France, and finally crossed the huge mountainous divide at the Catalan border with Spain, the moment we passed the blue ‘España’ sign on the motorway, we smiled, and said ‘Home, at last!’

Back in Madrid things look very different to Germany. Apart from the grubby state of the pavements in our barrio, at least one more shop (a perfumería) has closed on our street since July, to add to the two (the photolab and the printers) that shut down for good at the end of June, knowing that with things as bad as they already were, they just couldn’t afford to make it across the empty summer divide to September.

The ‘feeling’ in our barrio though is still good. People seem to be happy. It’s nice to be back in a country where people hang out to chat on the street, where kids can make as much noise as they like and stay out late at night.

Where you can buy just one drink at a bar terrace table but sit there all night to chat to a friend if you want to, long after the waiter has taken your empty glass.

It’s nice to feel the hot afternoon air at the end of August, and the cool breeze at night. It’s nice to eat croquettas and tortilla, olives, calamaris, to not feel weird about ordering cerveza sin alcohol

I arrived in Spain exactly 13 years ago. After our long haul around Europe, it’s good to be back.

Other Things…

Read: The wonders of a downsized life in Asturias…

Living in Spain

Us and Them, Me and the Locals

Mayfly Lava Skin, Spain

Above, another picture from our recent trip to El Boca del Asno. When you get down to rock and water level, nature is quite endlessly surprising!

Right, what I want to talk about: In the Boca del Asno post, I wrote the following…

…as usual so many people stick close to the car park, that within a few minutes walk up the river, you find yourself with plenty of riverside space…

But what I nearly wrote quite automatically was “as usual the locals stick close to the carpark”… until I suddenly realised how totally ‘us and them’ the locals sounds.

Hang on, I thought, I’ve been living here for nearly 13 years, I’m married to a Spanish woman, most days I’m fluent in Spanish, I eat, live, and pay taxes in Spain, hang out with Spanish people all day long, my son is going to a Spanish school… how on earth can I keep on talking about ‘the locals’ when I am one!

I may not be Spanish, but I certainly can’t continue to set myself apart from the Spanish by using language like that anymore, that much became totally clear in the instant I was about to write about ‘the locals’ again.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve become a local after all this time, or, more importantly, allowed myself to feel like one.

Perhaps the key question then is ‘How long does it take to really feel like one of the locals?’… and in my case, despite the fact I’ve been totally happy and integrated here in Spain for so long, the answer to that exact questions looks ridiculously long at ‘about 12 and a half years’!

Do you feel like a ‘local’, if you aren’t living where you originally came from, did it take you long to become one, will you ever become one? Answers welcome in the comments!

Everday life in Spain Spain Travel

Insomnia, Heat, and La Boca del Asno

It’s hot. 38º Celsius (100ºF) hot. No one can sleep hot.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, this happens every year in Madrid, and every year I swear it’ll be my last summer living in the capital. Oh well, perhaps we’ll all get used to it in a week or two!

Luckily we’ve discovered the most perfect escape, just an hour and a bit from the city, high up in the Sierra de Guadarrama.

La Boca del Asno is a vast area of pine-covered mountainside, with a freezing, shallow mountain river, and a huge number of fellow picnicers. In fact, when I arrived at the already overflowing car park at midday last Saturday, my first thought was to run a mile – it seemed like the whole city had followed us up the hill! (N.B. Get there before midday if you want a spot in said carpark!)

El Boca del Asno

But there is so much space, and as usual so many people stick close to the car park, that within a few minutes walk up the river, you find yourself with plenty of riverside space to sit down for a picnic and a long day’s paddling.

The trick is to cross over the river at the bridge below the bar, and keep heading up stream until you feel you have enough room between fellow picnicers to really relax.

El Boca del Asno

It’s 8 degrees cooler than Madrid, (being about 800 meters higher), and if you wander up the hill away from the river, you really can escape humanity completely, lie back in the long grass under the pines, and contemplate the wonders of nature. Like this, for example – any ideas as to what it is, gratefully received:

Lava - El Boca del Asno

To get to the Boca del Asno, drive up to Puerto de Navacerrada from Madrid, head over the top and down the hill towards San Ildefonso, wind down the 5 or 6 hair pins, then look for the big ‘Boca del Asno’ sign and car park:

NFS Spain Photos Notes from Spain Podcast Spanish Culture and News

The Spanish Revolution Continues – Notes from Spain Podcast 79

[Download MP3]

Ben and Marina discuss on-going events in “The Spanish Revolution”.

Other links mentioned in the podcast:

Our Cazorla coverage
The 150 posters and slogans from the Sol encampment
The best one of all, from this South of Watford post
– Rosa Diez’s party mentioned in the podcast (that we couldn’t remember the name of!) is Unión Progreso y Democracia (explained on wikipedia here)
Our Spanish learning site: Notes in Spanishnew videos up for Spanish learners!

And Finally… 2 Videos

The first, from 4Ojos, shows life under the awnings in the Puerta del Sol encampment at its height, just a day before the May 22nd elections:

And this wonderful video (in Spanish) that is doing the rounds at the moment that really explains the whole mess in Spanish politics and economics about as well as anyone could hope to:

geek stuff

6 Months without Twitter and Facebook

Apart from my 6 month blogging absence here at, I also avoided almost all interaction with Twitter and Facebook.

I would occasionally log in to both to post news of new updates at, our Spanish learning site, (as well as my personal Twitter we have a NIS FB page and Twitter account), but this almost felt like it wasn’t ‘playing the game’ – using FB and Twitter as a service to publish news without being ‘social’.

Now I’ve been dipping my toes back in the FB and Twitter water, and have come to the following conclusions.

1. Both services are a huge distraction to getting any real work done – and I have minimal time to work as it is!

2. Twitter is much better for getting news, and for getting pointed to interesting stuff going on around the net, but it’s also a place to get pointed to an awful lot of stuff you just don’t need to know about at all, ever.

3. It is kind of nice when Facebook tells you what an old friend is up to.

4. When I use twitter (mostly via the Mac’s Twitter App), and follow links from there around the web, my blood pressure rises very quickly – so I’m not sure Twitter is good for my health!

5. My life was not in any way poorer for not being engaged with these services for 6 months. Therefore, I could give them up again, but the fact that EVERYONE is now in there, and that they form such a firm part of the fabric of the net, will probably keep drawing me back every now and again. FB is winning over Twitter though, as the distraction factor is lower, and it doesn’t make my blood pressure go up so much.

6. As a wise person once told me, you have to give something up to really understand it, and what it does to you. He was talking about wine, though I think there are parallels with the long term effects of Social Media!

Spain Travel

Stunning Sierra De Cazorla

Last weekend we headed about 5 hours south of Madrid to the stunning Sierra de Cazorla. If you don’t know where it is, then don’t worry – hardly anyone does! Which is a very good thing, as there is hardly anyone there at this time of year. Here is our trip in photos, with accompanying notes.

First we did the Cerrada del Utrero walk, an hour’s circular ramble, the highlight of which is this stunning waterfall pouring from a vast, sheer rock face as vultures circle above:

La Cerrada del Utrero

We spent the first night at the lost-in-the-hills Hotel Coto del Valle – 4 stars, a bit more luxurious than we need, but at 60 euros a night we felt it was a good place to start. (Later we moved to self-catering accommodation down the road in Arroyo Frio.) Just outside the hotel gates a large family of wild boar wandered past, watched by a stag further up the hill:

Wild Boar in Cazorla - Jabalis

Our main excursion was a full days walk along the Sendero del Rio Borosa, a long dirt forest track beside a crystal clear, trout-filled mountain stream, than turns into the highlight of the trip, the narrow path known as the Cerrada de Elías, one of the most beautiful gorge walks I’ve ever encountered – filled with wild flowers and fig trees overhanging the stream:

La Cerrada de Elías

La Cerrada de Elías

Fly Fishing in La Cerrada de Elías

Here’s the map, below, of where to find the Sierra de Cazorla, and here are instructions for the Cerrada de Elías route. I hope you get to walk it one day!

Spanish Culture and News

The Spanish Revolution

I hadn’t bought a newspaper in a very long time until I heard about the incredibly exciting events of the Spanish Revolution last week – then I bought El Pais every day while we were out of Madrid on a short break, amazed by what has been happening in the capital’s Puerta del Sol and other parts of the country.

Rather than comment more on these historic events now, I refer you to two much better informed sources of information, that, unlike me, have actually been down on the ground in Sol to see for themselves what is going on.

Check out South of Watford’s reports from Sol, and Enrique Flores’ excellent reportage drawings and videos from the scene.

Everday life in Spain NFS Spain Photos

Photo Wander Madrid

A wander from Atotcha up to the Plaza Santa Ana this morning shows that, despite myriad changes, Madrid is still the same old Madrid, and Spain is still fantastically Spanish… Much of what I saw reminded me of the city as I first found it, 12 years ago…

Here a lottery seller stands in the Paseo del Prado, the week’s previous results pinned to the tree behind him:

Lottery Seller, Paseo del Prado, Madrid

And still the bright red, back-breaking Bombonas (gas bottles) are a viable source of city energy in 2011… Fiambres (ham, chorizo etc) and Frutos Secos (nuts) are a viable source of human energy too!

Fiambres and Bombonas, Huertas, Madrid

Nacional products, like these walnuts, are still considered to be highly superior:

Walnuts in shop display, Madrid

Spot the odd can out (hint, by Heinz!):

Canned food, shop display, Madrid

Posters on a closed-down fish market advertise a protest organised under the slogan “Joventud Sin Futuro – Sin Casa, Sin Curro, Sin Pensión, Sin Miedo” (Youth without a future – no house, no work, no pension, no fear):

Protest posters, Huertas, Madrid

The walk was roughly this:

More good stuff: Did you catch yesterday’s podcast?

Notes from Spain Podcast Spain Travel

Big Vultures in Sepulveda – Notes from Spain Podcast 78


[Download MP3]

Ben and Marina are back, talking about Sepulveda (photo above), the Hoces Del Rio Duratón, life in the Barrio and more…. Leave us a comment if you’ve listened, or have a question or topic for the next podcast.

More photos… A typical Castilla y Leon roadside landscape:

Castilla y Leon Landscape

A view over the valley below Sepulveda town:

View from Sepulveda town

Amusing sign on the wall in Sepulveda:

Sign on the wall in Sepulveda

Where to find Sepulveda:

Spain Travel Spanish Culture and News

A short history of Spanish cinema, and Spanish graduates heading abroad…

Cabo de Trafalgar, Near Vejer de la Frontera
Photo: Cabo de Trafalgar, near Vejer de la Frontera

Two very interesting articles in the Guardian have recently been pointed out to me by listeners at our Spanish learning sister site

First, A short history of Spanish cinema – loads of trailers.

Do read the Guardian comments too for more recommendations. (As the first comment points out, you might need a 3 hour lunch-break to watch all the trailers in the article!)

Secondly, Spain’s lost generation of graduates join wave of migrants in search of jobs tells the story of those fleeing the crisis in Spain to seek work in locations like London.

Finally, a quick plug…

…a very good friend of mine has put a website together to help his mother (also a great friend of mine!) rent her very nice house in Vejer de la Frontera. Even if you don’t want to rent a holiday house in Vejer, then I thoroughly recommend looking at the photos in the galleries, they are great! This is without doubt one of my favourite parts of Spain. Check it all out here: A house in Vejer