Spain through the looking glass

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Other Spains: Bilbao

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I’ve always had a bit of a thing for second tier cities — the sorts of unglamorous places you make a detour to if your holidays are a little longer than usual fortnight, or that you visit if you just happen to be in the area, but which otherwise drop off the list.

Perhaps I like these places so much because my own home town of Melbourne, Australia is such a perfect example. Melbourne always plays second fiddle to Sydney: it’s Australia without the good weather, without the opera house, and without the stunning ocean beaches. Everyone is dying to go to Sydney, but very few people have died wishing they’d visited its less pretty sister.

My home town befuddles tourists; they wander around and take photos of our ‘sights’ —a clock made of flowers!  a lane with cool graffiti! — and puzzle over why the locals seem so damn cheerful all the time. “A great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit” is my standard line when people ask me about Melbourne. And the same could probably be said for all sort of overlooked places around the world, cities like Indianapolis or Nanning or pretty much any town in the Low Countries which isn’t Amsterdam.

Spain’s Bilbao is another proud member of this second city club. While this Basque city isn’t exactly a secret, especially since the Guggenheim Foundation decided to plonk a massive architectural flight of fantasy here, Bilbao is still some way down the Spanish tourism food chain. Poor Bilbao has to compete not just with limelight stealers Madrid and Barcelona but also with heavyweights like Salamanca and Seville and Santiago de Compostela.


No one in Bilbao seems particularly worried about their secondary status, though. Indeed, on a preternaturally bright weekend in early December, the city has its chest well and truly puffed out. The banks of the river brim with cheery dogwalkers and the usual mass of families with their glamorous mothers and heavyset but happy menfolk.


I know I am in the Basque Country here, and I am therefore in one of the other ‘Spains’. For there is no one single Spain, or even the “two Spains” (left versus right, for example, or monarchist versus republican) so beloved of Spaniards. Instead this country sometimes feels as stitched together and ill-fitting as any post-imperialist nation in Africa. Spain’s 1812 constitution even reflected this plurality by calling the country ‘Spains’ and it wasn’t until the 1876 constitution that the founding padres settled on the singular form.


But even in this country of contrasts, the Basques are notoriously different. To begin with, they live in a very un-Spanish and fairytale-like landscape of steep wooded slopes and misty valleys. Then there is their character. They are typically portrayed as dour and hardworking, traits you don’t associate with this country. Strangest of all, though, is the Basque language. Full of jagged ‘x’s and ‘k’s, it appears to be related to no other language at all. How exciting. On a Saturday afternoon in Bilbao though, I have to say my predominant feeling is one of being still very much in Spain. I am just an ignorant tourist of course, but the differences all feel cosmetic.

Arriving here from Madrid reminds me, say, of travelling from the German-speaking part of Switzerland into the French part. Crossing that border in Switzerland, suddenly you are hit by the fact that the signs are in a different language, or that the sausages are fatter (or thinner), and the people greet you with different words. But at the same time the architecture is still pretty much the same, people shop in the same supermarket chains and there is the identical Swiss politeness about the business of living.


In Bilbao, these superficial differences are: the occasional distinctive green, red and white Ikurriña, or Basque flag; old men in black berets, and the pincho-style tapas. There is the geography too. The city crawls discretely up a succession of greener than green hills, again making me feel like I am back in The North.

But I don’t feel I’ve left Spain. Rather, seeing Bilbao is expanding my idea of what this country is, and makes it seem even more amazing. Though of course my perception is distorted, because this is a holiday weekend and many of the people on the streets of Bilbao right now are tourists. Also, I really know very little about the city, and certainly not enough to know whether or not it is fundamentally different from the Spain I think I know.  My Swiss comparison isn’t really fair either. Switzerland has had almost a millennium to work out how to live with its many contradictions, and there have been plenty of wars along the way, while modern Spain is a 40-year-old democracy with a very recent civil war to come to terms with. Franco did this country few favours, and in the case of the Basques, even less. By trying to oppress the language and the regional culture — as invented as much of this may be — he gave rise to ETA.


Bilbao seems to have stepped away from this history though. The city has experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, thanks to the arrival of the Guggenheim museum, yes, but also thanks to its mayor Iñaki Azkuna, who currently holds the title of the World’s Best Mayor. There are urban renewal projects everywhere. The place feels well cared for, and the people seem to have reached a happy comprise with nature. In short, I left Bilbao with a positive feeling about Spain, something which hasn’t happened a lot recently.


Written by georgemills25

December 29, 2013 at 10:51

Posted in España, society, Spain, travel

Autumn 2013

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And suddenly it was almost winter…




Near Cuenca


Sierra de Guadarrama, Madrid


Sierra de Guadarrama, Madrid


Avila province, SPain

Written by georgemills25

November 24, 2013 at 09:32

Posted in Madrid, Spain, travel

The Good Book

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I went to Toledo a day late.

I visited Toledo on Sunday instead of Saturday because Spain’s national railway company Renfe couldn’t get its act together to sell me a ticket.

Whole volumes could be written about the vagaries of of rail travel in Spain but I promise to keep my rant as short: my trip to Toledo was delayed a by 24 hours because none of the ticket machines at Madrid’s Atocha station were working, and because the staff in the ticket office seemed more interested in chatting with each other than flogging off tickets for the 10:20 to Toledo.

You can imagine the scene: crowds of confused tourists, irate Spanish grandmothers in fur coats, a slightly nervous, slightly overweight security guard. The minutes ticking away. I missed the train.

My first official complaint in Spain.

My first official complaint in Spain.

Anyway, it turned out the Saturday trip down to Atocha station wasn’t entirely fruitless. I didn’t make the train but I did have the pleasure of filling in my first bona fide complaint in all my years in Spain. That’s right: I actually resorted to the hoja de reclamaciones, or the official complaints book.

If you’ve spent any time in Spain, you’ve probably been vaguely aware of the existence of such things. These books — part of this country’s rickety consumer rights infrastructure —provide a way for people to vent their frustrations over anything from cheating taxi drivers to churlish taxidermists. In Andalusia, for example, the hojas are actually obligatory for all businesses, whether they be a religious artifacts shop or a first communion fashion store or a flamenco designer’s boutique.

After a while, you don’t really see these little signs, in that same way you don’t — in a bar — notice all the posters of waxy-looking Jesuses decked out in crowns of thorns or the mouldering stuffed bulls’ heads that line the walls. So it is with the hoja de reclamaciones.

But last Saturday at Atocha station I entered into the fray of civil society and demanded The Book. Driven along by indignado rage, I stormed into the Renfe customer service centre and noted down my litany of frustrations into a purple A4 jotter which felt like something you might use to decorate the set of a television show about a 1950s advertising firm. My complaint was then carbon-copied in quadruplicate — seriously – before each individual copy was decorated with a seal.

The Renfe staff on duty could not have been less interested. They handed me the book almost wordlessly and then silently presented me with two copies for my records. It set me wondering how many millions of these complaints forms have been filled out and filed away in dusty cabinets over the decades. Will anything ever come of my grievance? I wait with not-very-bated breath.

And Toledo? Well, given that – for reasons which remain mysterious — all Spanish towns have to be the capital of something, I can safely report back that Toledo appears to be the capital of Marzipan and swordmaking. Neither of these were items that I particularly felt like buying last Sunday, but it did occur to me a day or two later that some sort of sabre might have come in handy at the ticket office at Atocha station.

Written by georgemills25

March 16, 2013 at 10:14

Spring in my step

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I’ve just had my first morning in Madrid after three weeks of living here. That’s to say, I’ve just had my first morning which didn’t involve alarm clocks and rapid-fire ablutions and gulped-down cereal before traipsing off to an office to sit before a computer.

Today, instead, I had one of those real mornings where sleep ebbs and flows and it takes you hours to climb out of bed and only then because it’s time to saludar al señor Roca, or greet Mr Roca, as the Spaniards sometimes put it, referring to the company that makes so many toilets here.

Anyway, this morning there were no mobile phones and I didn’t go online and the sun was shining so brightly in this city of Cervantes that I knew I would end up walking.

When I left the house, I thought I was going to the river. I’ve been staying in Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood this week and each day I’d look at the map and see the tell-tale little sliver of blue and think: ‘I must get down to that bloody river’. So that’s where my feet took me first.

And actually it was just slightly disappointing. Because despite the impressive black fish and the solid bridges, the Manzanares is little more than a trickle really; it’s no Seine, and it’s certainly no Mekong. The city is re-landscaping the zone too, so that the river banks are dotted with a multitude of rather sad-looking saplings. Like upturned brooms, and worn-out ones at that.

But it turns out that I wasn’t destined for the river anyway. Apparently my subconscious mind had been busy fomenting its own plans these last seven days. Because after the river I continued on and into the vast green space that is the Casa de Campo, Madrid’s biggest park. It’s huge and very popular too, especially on bright Saturdays like today, I suppose.


Casa de Campo, Madrid. Photo: Luis Pabon

For the first kilometre or so I was dodging alls sorts of odd people in neon costumes (joggers mostly and whooping, pumped-up bike mountain riders). Then I arrived in a whole other landscape, a sort of a park within a park. This mini-dehesa, or Mediterranean forest, was almost silent and dense with gnarly old oak trees, not to mention a sparse population of solitary forest philosophers doing very un-city like things like admiring sticks or gazing up into the sky at passing herons.

I started to climb and after a while I reached the top of a pine-capped hill from which I had views of Spain’s jumbled capital with its oddly-muted palette of cream and terracotta and Colombia blue and forest green.

Anyway, as the perfect morning slipped into history, and as I walked and my body started to remember what it was actually designed for, I had a delightful creeping realisation. Taking in the milky blue sky and the chattering parrots and the drifting storks, I became aware that this was spring welcoming me to 2013.

Written by georgemills25

March 2, 2013 at 22:40

Posted in España, Madrid, Spain, travel

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Madrileño by stealth

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For the last couple of weeks, I have waking up in Seville on Monday and getting on a train to another country called Spain. Or at least that’s how it feels.

After a period living in the capital of Andalusia, I now find myself commuting to Madrid for work. At the moment, I am in the national capital from Monday to Friday but soon my transition will be complete and I am even to become a citizen of this fine communidad.


Madrid at dusk. Photo: Moyan Brenn

To be frank, it’s all quite disorienting. After last year’s sojourn in Saigon, I’ve been enjoying the relative intimacy of a city with just 700,000 souls, give or take a few. In Seville you get to know lots of faces, and can amble from one end of the old town to the other in a pleasant hour or so. In Madrid, by contrast, my fold-out map comes with more creases than a tramp’s spare pants. The sheer number of neighbourhoods here is staggering. Will I ever know my Chamberis from my Chuecas or my Legazpis from my Listas? It seems highly unlikely.

Anyway, last Friday evening, I caught the fast train back from Madrid and stumbled out of Seville’s Santa Justa station a little after midnight. Home. The city smelled of olives and a vacant lot was flush with flowers.  I thought: I will miss this place.

But the capital does have its virtues and delights. One advantage to being here in the centre of Spain – here in this city on the River Manzanares – is that they speak Spanish, rather than the language approximating Spanish which I have become accustomed to in Andalusia. I no longer feel quite so foolish with my highly correct Castillian.

I’m enjoying, too, the boulevards of Madrid, and the gentle slopes, for Madrid is a metropolis of inclines and slides. It’s an elegant old beast as well. On Gran Vía, there are shades of London’s Pall Mall while the residences around the Retiro are as slim-hipped and stylish as any Parisian apartment block. Then there are the armies of mincing long-legged women and – in winter – dark-coated old men who might be taking a break from the set of a fifties film.

But —but — will I ever feel at home here? Train rides have become such a metaphor for my life: all these cities as stations, apartments like luggage offices, a constant swapping of keys and letterboxes and corner stores and then a quick look over the shoulder as the place recedes. Next stop, señores pasajeros, Madrid.

Written by georgemills25

February 21, 2013 at 21:29

Green tape/red

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A few days ago, a friend and I decided to escape an increasingly malodorous Seville (see my previous post about the city’s rubbish strike) and take off for the hills.

Our plan was simple: we would take the 2-hour bus ride south to the Sierra de Grazalema National Park and tackle as much of the spectacular Pinsapar track as we had time for.

The Pinsapar route takes you up into the mountains and then leads you through a stand of ancient ‘dinosaur’ pines. This is a world of rocky outcrops, circling vultures and – on clear days – views over to Morocco. The route is also pretty popular so the powers-that-be make you apply for a permit for a permit before setting out; in this way, they can cap overall numbers.

The first time I went up to Grazalema, I didn’t know about the paperwork, and was never challenged. The second time, however, I got to the head of the trail only to be sent back 20-kilometre down the road to get the necessary paperwork. Not much fun, especially if you don’t have a car.

So this week I didn’t want to take any chances: our first stop would be the national park visitors’ centre in the village of El Bosque. Once there, we had to wait a while before we were served. Eventually, though, a very nice young woman with very bad English took out details and filled out a lengthy form with all our details. This was then duly stamped because nothing official in Spain – and I mean nothing – takes place without the all-important sello, or seal.

Eventually Rosa – or Margarita or Hortensia – she shared her name with a flower, I remember that much) – gave us a piece of paper.

I thought we were finished. Fat chance.

‘Now hab to take thees to the otra office for the permit,’ said our flower, pointing at our form.

‘This isn’t the permit?’

She shook her head and then proceeded to take out a little map and draw us the route to another office nearby. So around the bullring we walked (for about the third time), and down a hill to where we found office number 2.

There was no one there. Or rather, there were several people there, but nobody who looked like they might be able to provide us with the all-important second stamp. Soon, though, a little man little even by Spanish standards – and with what looked like two glass eyes – snatched my form from me.

He then ducked into another office with it and while we watched through a little window he laboriously filled out all the same details that the woman in the first office had just written up.

‘Um, why do you have two offices?’ I asked, unable to help myself. ‘I mean, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.’

He rolled his glassy eyes. ‘To you, maybe not. But to us, yes!’

‘But,’ I suggested daringly, ‘the offices seem to do – you know – the same thing.’

‘Ah hah! But the other office is run by a private company. This is the more technical part.’

‘So why don’t they just hand out the bloody permits at the first office,’ I wanted to say. But I was nervous that we might be sent packing with no paperwork.

We got the permit.

A few minutes later, my friend and I walked off past the bullring of El Bosque for the fourth time and studied our hard-won prize. The form I was holding was known as an “Autorización para la realización de itinerarios por la zona de reserve del parque natural Sierra de Grazalema”, or to translate that into something approximating English: “Authorisation for the realisation of walking routes in the conservation area of Sierra Grazalema National Park”.

In other words, a walk in the park.

Written by georgemills25

February 12, 2013 at 20:18

On the blink

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Of all the useful Spanish words to learn before arriving in this country, averiado must be very near the top the list.

Translated directly, averiado means something like ‘out of order’ or ‘defective’, or just plain ‘not working’. In Spain, however, it actually signifies more like ‘used to work once’ or ‘may possibly work again at some future date’.

Ah! the strange poetry of averiado. In Spain, you will encounter it everywhere, generally scribbled on pieces of paper which have been tacked on to everything from bathroom taps to automatic doors. You will also see it near stationary lifts and escalators, or on automatic teller machines and — very commonly – on toilet doors. And if you prick your ears, you will hear it often in train stations and airports too.


Sometimes, these little ‘averiado’ notices will be crisp and new, as if placed mere minutes ago. On other (more frequent) occasions, the paper will be yellowed and curling at the edges like some child’s treasure map.  Perhaps there were good intentions once. Maybe the service people were all set to swing by to fix the bubblegum dispenser/public phone/cigarette machine but discovered at the last minute that their van was – well – averiado.

Perhaps the only positive to finding those little notices is that you don’t fruitlessly waste energy and money. At least the announcements stop you from depositing your money into a dodgy vending machine or, worse, pissing into a blocked urinal.

Unfortunately, much of what is on the blink in Spain is not advertised as such. President Mariano Rajoy continues to maintain that the country doesn’t need a financial bailout from Europe while everyone else knows it’s just a question of timing. Rising taxes are punishing a struggling middle class and parts of the country are looking to quit the unholy union of autonomous provinces.

Come to think of it, perhaps the Spanish flag should temporarily be changed to include some kind of warning to locals and visitors alike. I can see it now: AVERIADO in bold black letters right where the Royal Coat of Arms now stands.

Written by georgemills25

February 1, 2013 at 09:20