In my previous blog post, I mentioned I was travelling solo in Spain. Since I am almost at the end of my stay here, scheduled to fly back home tomorrow, I thought I would do a follow up to my earlier post. So, here goes.
My 1st destination was Barcelona. My goodness! What an introduction to Spain! The architecture, the art, the FOOD, the culture, everything was beautiful! But to me, as an Asian from Sri Lanka, the thing that impressed me the most was how SAFE it was for a solo female traveller!
Not everyone can speak English. Sad but true. However, don’t let that be a deterrent to you! As long as you know “Ola” (hello), “Bon dia” (good morning) and you have a smartphone with Google Translate, you’ll be fine! As long as you smile, and speak with your hands and feet as well as your mouth, you will get on just fine.
Food & Drink:
You can get a beer or a glass of wine or something a bit stronger even, at 8 in the morning! Don’t you just love that? Well, I do! Breakfast and lunch in Spain is important as meals, and you can take your time with these. Dinner, on the other hand, is a more light, yet social, meal. Tapas (small bite sized plates of goodness) is very typical for dinner, and even as a single female traveller, you can enjoy this very Spanish experience.
A very broad subject, but I will touch on just a few things that resonated with me. Clothes wise, you can wear whatever you want! It’s as simple as that. No one is going to stare at you if you wear those butt cheek showing hot pants during the day or night and take the metro or bus or any form of public transport. If you are like me, brown or dark skinned, you just cannot disguise the fact that you’re not Spanish. So my advice is to blend in as much as possible. But don’t let this stop you from dressing sexily either. It is quite safe here and no one bothers you simply because of the way you dress. You can happily dress according to your personal preference or style. Just keep in mind that it is required that women cover their shoulders when entering a church or cathedral. Obviously! It’s a place of worship and it is necessary to be decent in such places. Goes without saying, right??
If you’re a smoker, well then, you’re in luck. Most hotels, motels, Airbnbs will have no smoking notices. But if needed you can always go to the street and have a smoke or 3! It’s fine! Most Spaniards, male and female, old and young, smoke. And if their building has a restriction due to age of building or some such, rest assured, they would have worked around it. So, fret not. You’re fine.
Safety for a woman. Now this is always a big thing for me when I travel. Obviously I don’t want to be harassed or worse, while travelling! It is VERY SAFE for female travellers! As long as you take necessary precautions to safely hold your bag, you’ll be fine.
At this point though, I need to mention that I nearly got mugged twice. Both times were by kids no more than 18! The 1st time was on the day of Barcelona’s Festival of Fire, which is the feast of the city’s patron Saint (more on this afterwards). I was on the sidewalk with a friend when a young kid who walked past me, tried to grab my bag (or my arse) from behind. If not for my friend, I might be minus my handbag! The 2nd instance was also in Barcelona, when I was lugging my bag up the stairs from the metro, headed for the train station Barcelona Sants, when a young girl no more than 18, lifted my bag from the wheels pretending to help me, and then pushed me towards the wall while her friend was behind me trying to have a go at my backpack. They gave up and went away back down the stairs into the metro. All this took perhaps 30 seconds. I didn’t even have time to react! I just kept smiling at them and saying, “no thank you I’m good”! It was a few seconds before it dawned on me what had just transpired!
Now, as I mentioned before, I was lucky enough to be in town for the Festival of Fire. It’s bigger than new years eve for them, and the celebrations are like our typical NYE celebrations, with fireworks and parties on the beach and all over the city, and everyone spending time together till sunrise or beyond! Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll seemed to be the modus operandi on the beach! It was quite the experience for someone from a backward and immensely conservative country like mine! I think it’s the one day of the year where everyone gets a sort of free pass. My advice? Experience it! If you’re lucky to be around when this is happening, go out and have a blast! Just be sensible about it of course! I think that too goes without saying!
Pre-Book Bus / Train / Domestic Flight Tickets:
I used an app called Trainline EU to book my train and bus tickets within Spain. If you’re travelling within the EU region, you can get train tickets for journeys that will take you over borders. It was convenient for me, plus, you almost always get cheap options based on the times of travel. I definitely recommend it.
Buses and trains run on time, so please get to the station at least a good 30-45 minutes before your train or bus is scheduled to leave! Your luggage will go through a scanner, so be prepared to be asked to a side for the security officer to do a manual check of your bags. The platform number (if going by train) or the loading dock number (if going by bus) will be put up on the big LED screens with all the schedules on them, just 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time. So always keep an eye out for these screens, because they don’t announce anything over the PA, and besides, it’s not like you would be able to understand them anyway! So just track your bus or train number on the screens and get to the gate in time! These stations are so big and have to handle so many passengers on a daily basis, they operate almost like mini airports. This is where pre-booking tickets is very important, because if you think of going to the bus or train station and buying a ticket there, the chances are that you will get a later scheduled bus or train because the seats are all sold out in advance.
Be smart! Don’t be like me and end up sitting in station for 6 hours, losing money to vending machines and lockers!
There are vending machines all over, especially at bus / train stations and even in small cafes and shopping malls. You can get anything from vending machines – from soft drinks / water, to fully charged powerbanks, phone headsets, data / charging cables, to cigarettes! Even tokens to storage lockers at bus / train stations are from vending machines. Of course, even though most have instructions in English, not all instructions are CLEAR! I was at the Granada Bus Station, I had 6 hours to kill before my bus to Seville, so I thought to myself I’ll just store my luggage in a locker and go exploring a bit more. Went to the locker area, saw there was a vending machine to get the token for the locker, put in 3.50 Euros, got myself a token, found an empty locker, chucked my bag in, put in the token, locked the door, and tried to take the key out. But it wouldn’t budge. So I unlocked the key and tried locking again, and it locked! But the damn key just refused to leave its snug keyhole! So I unlocked again and opened the door and to my dismay, I heard the token fall in to the main cavity. I knew then that I got screwed. So no more token and no more locked locker. So I just took the bag out and decided that this was a sign for me to stay put in the bus station.
So, I found an empty seat and parked myself there. Had at least 5 more hours to go, so I just settled in with a book and that’s when I remembered I had busted my earphones, which meant I couldn’t listen to any music. That’s when I noticed the vending machine with the fully charged powerbanks and headsets. So I went up to it, looked at the instructions, which were essentially 2 lines that basically said, insert money and punch in the number of the item you want. So, that’s what I did. Found the cheapest pair of earphones for 5 Euros (yes yes I’m a cheap traveller!), inserted the money, punched in the number of the item, listened (again!) to the money fall into that cavern inside, and waited for my item to come up. But it didn’t! Punched in the number a few more times just for good measure! Nothing! Now I understand why people physically attack vending machines in movies!!
So vending machines basically swallowed up 8.50 Euros! But hey! You might have better luck with them! So give it a go! And just to give you some insight, 8.50 Euros in my local Sri Lankan currency is roughly about Rs. 1,800/-, which is a fair bit of money to lose to a bloody vending machine!
Walking Food / History Tours:
I highly recommend signing up for some sort of walking tour on your first or second day of the trip! It’s a great way to get your bearings in a new city, and if you’re lucky, you might make friends on these tours and end up exploring other destinations together!
In Barcelona, I signed up for a free walking tour on this website, https://freewalkingtoursbarcelona.com/en/ which I found out about through a YouTube vlog! Our guide Misha, was super awesome! The tour was 2.5 hours long, started from Placa Catalunya, and took us through the Gothic Quarter and ended there. I loved the tour! Gave me a sense of confidence to venture out on my own after that! Met some lovely people, and got some interesting tips as well (bonus!)! To sign up to any of their tours, is free. However, at the end of the tour, you can pay what you feel was worth the tour. It was suggested in the video, that it would be acceptable to pay around 15 Euros if you were happy with the tour.
In Madrid, I went on a Wine, Tapas & History Tour with Devour Tours (https://madridfoodtour.com/). Again, I stumbled across them on YouTube. Our guide was Jake. Half Spanish, half Irish, a teacher by profession, he was simply amazing! I would call him a great host, rather than call him a tour guide, because he made us feel like we were his guests, his friends. The group I was with was also amazing! So win win! Since I was scheduled to spend only 1 night in Madrid, I figured, a tour like this would be the best way to see the main sites of the city, hit the markets and tapas bars and sample the city’s culture! I must say, these tours were probably the most intelligent decisions I made in connection to this trip!
My last 3 nights were spent in Granada and Seville. Before my trip, I had earmarked La Alhambra in Granada, and the Royal Alcazar in Seville as my must-visit sites! Accordingly, I booked myself for 2 nights in Granada and 1 night in Seville. Unfortunately, due to my bad luck at the Granada bus station with getting a bus only at 4.30pm, I couldn’t visit the Royal Alcazar.
First, Granada. Granada was a bit too touristy I felt, but don’t get me wrong! It was still nice! My AirBNB was in the old neighbourhood of Albaycin. Narrow, climbing, winding cobblestoned streets and old buildings, and small secret squares ever so often, it was a cosy, lovely feel! The higher you went, the less noisy it became and more intimate almost. Even the bars were less busy. This suited me more than the busier ones at main road level. I spent a fair bit of time, going from bar to bar and sampling their different beers and wines. I especially loved their summer wine – Tinto de Verano! Refreshing, cooling, and oh so yummy! Let’s not forget the humble tapas that they serve you with your drink! I had some of the best chorizo and bacalao (salted cod fish) in these small nondescript hole in the wall bars! Not just here in Granada, but even in the big cities!
My 2nd day in Granada, I went to the Alhambra and my mind was officially blown! Simply wow! Within the complex, the Nazarin Palace is a must! However, they allow only a limited number of visitors and there are time blocks. If you miss your time block, you are denied access. So, I tried to buy my ticket off the official site, but it was sold out for weeks past my last day in Spain. That was when my AirBNB host told me about the Granada card. As with any big European city, the Granada card gives you access to a bunch of historical sites as well as public transport. When you buy this, you can choose the time and date of your visit for the Nazarin Palace. This is the only sure-fire way of getting in. Get to the entrance well in advance of your time block because you need to take into account all the other visitors who will be there in the queue. My suggestion is 1 hour in advance. The Alhambra is the entire complex. But the real tear-jerking architectural beauty is in the Nazarin and the Generalife. A visit to La Alhambra simply would not be complete without seeing these!
Next stop was Seville, but as I mentioned earlier, because I didn’t get my ticket earlier, I was able to get a seat only on the 4.30pm bus. It’s a 3 hour bus ride from Granada to Seville. 2 hours into the journey, our bus broke down and delayed us a further 1.5 hours! So, by the time I got into Seville it was 9pm. Now I had even less time to explore the old part of Seville and I was really sad about this because, the moment I got on to the streets of Seville, I fell in love with her! I fell in love with her energy!
Thanks to my bus breaking down, I made a friend. She and I ended up rendezvousing at this bar called La Carboneria, which is known to have authentic, almost reverential flamenco performances. From there, we went on to explore, finally trudging back to our respective accommodations at about 2am. This particular day, they had their annual gay pride, so the streets were filled with revellers, visitors and locals alike! Even at 2am, there were people still out, and you got the feeling that the night was still very very young!
At this point, I want to revert back to my observation on safety. Of all the places I visited in Spain, Seville was where I felt the safest! I know that I was there only for 1 night, literally, but I always follow my intuition when I travel, and the vibes I get when I walk into a city or neighbourhood, is my guide. It felt as if Sevilla was simply oozing good vibes! As I said, I was there for only 1 night, but I found myself regretting having not booked myself for a longer period in Seville. In fact, I should have just stayed 1 night in Granada, and made Seville my big bang finale to my 10-day Spanish experience! But I’m just looking at this as motivation to revisit Spain, and explore the Basque and Andalucia more! As I listened to stories from fellow travellers I met along the way, who were either in the middle of their travels through Spain or at the end, or on a repeat visit, the one thing I saw in all their eyes was this wistful look, a dreamy faraway look, that even the heat wave couldn’t burn out. The fire of Espanya had most definitely infected their soul!
And personally, I think it infected mine as well.