In fact, I’m enjoying my time so much that I never have any time to simply sit down and write. But, that’s okay. I can give everyone the full report, down to every miniscule detail, when I’m back home and bored in the United States.
Now, for the past three months, I’ve been traveling non-stop, visiting a new location almost every other weekend. I’ve gotten to see just how diverse southern Europe is with my own eyes. I’ve spoken languages that I didn’t even know existed, tried foods whose names I couldn’t even pronounce, and visited plenty of famous beaches.
Travelling all over Spain, Italy, and Portugal has not only shown me how different these three countries are, but also how diverse the regions are within them.
The largest differences occur in Spain, where you go from one region to the next and you’re in a completely new climate and speaking a completely different language. From Bilbao, I went five hours east to Barcelona, where sunshine replaced the constant rain, Catalan replaced Euskera, and Gaudi’s modern architecture replaced Gehry’s contemporary style. I also went five hours southeast to Valencia, which was an even bigger contrast. There, I found myself in a dry, coastal city. First, I couldn’t begin to pick up the Valencian language. Sometimes it seemed more similar to French than Spanish, and other times it seemed like its own unique beast. Second, I finally got my first view of Spain’s economic troubles. Just by looking at the overall appearances of the cities, their buildings, and their streets, it became very apparent that places in northern Spain like Bilbao and Barcelona are doing much better than southern cities like Valencia.
Besides language and terrain, the traditions and customs I’ve experienced also greatly exemplify the diversity in Spain. Take recreational activities, for example. In the Basque Country, people regularly play pelota, a traditional sport that jai-alai is based on. Valencia also has their own variation of this game; however, it is more similar to tennis. In Barcelona, I got to see a castell, which is the Catalan tradition of building a human tower. This was something I’ll never forget, as I watched in complete fear. Children form the top part of the tower, so I watched a 5-year-old girl climb up 40 feet of people without any reservations. Finally, I also got to take part in Valencia’s largest festival, Fallas. With this, Valencians work on building giant paper-mache floats all year, showcase them in parades for two weeks, and then on the last night, burn them all in massive bonfires. This all happens amongst non-stop parties and firework displays. Watching the burning fallas also was a terrifying but exhilarating sight. I still don’t know how the city didn’t completely burn down! I could go on for pages about the different customs, but all in all, no matter where you are in Spain, the people still celebrate their unique traditions.
Moving away from Spain, I was fortunate to visit Lisbon and its surrounding towns in Portugal. I went to Lisbon not expecting very much, but I was blown away by its beauty. Every building was a bright shade of yellow, orange, or red or covered in the famous Portuguese azulejos, intricate blue mosaic tiles. Every street was lined with wires for their system of adorable cable cars. And because the city is placed on top of hills, every view was absolutely stunning, as picturesque and romantic as can be. Cintra, a town one hour outside of Lisbon, was filled with gorgeous castles and even better views of the entire area. The last highlight of this trip was visiting Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe. Unfortunately, within Lisbon you could also see Portugal’s economic woes, for the city was not well maintained. Some streets and buildings were more rundown than others, but Lisbon was still very much full of life. It was definitely worth the visit!
For Semana Santa, I traveled to Italy for twelve days by myself. It was a thrilling whirlwind of an experience that I will have to devote a separate blog post to. From Milan down to Rome, I made a grand tour of Italy, visiting all the major sites. It was absolutely incredible. Not only was I able to learn so much about Italian art, history, and language, but I also learned so much about myself. However, now, I need to take a brief hiatus from eating pizza, pasta, and gelato. I consumed more than my fair share of these! I was definitely taking advantage of the gastronomic culture! Anyways, as stated before, I’ll have to summarize my experiences during this adventure in greater detail another time.
Interestingly enough, I was able to observe some general trends about Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian cultures. The southern parts of these countries all have a much slower, relaxed kind of atmosphere about them, while their northern counterparts seem to be relatively more direct and fast paced. For example, Milan was filled with bustling streets, people who kept to themselves and their cell phones, and a culture centered around the ever-changing fashion world. In contrast, in Siena, it didn’t feel like anyone was in a hurry! Lisbon and Valencia also shared this same kind of vibe. All these cities exuded a very laid-back atmosphere.
Another similarity is that they all take great pride in their food and drink, especially their wines. There is absolutely no trouble finding a nice bottle of wine in one these countries. Oftentimes the wine list was longer than the actual menu in restaurants! Whether it’s spaghetti alla carbonara in Rome, pastéis de Belem in Lisbon, or paella in Valencia, the most famous food of that region will be advertised everywhere, and it will be just as delicious as you anticipated! Lastly, dining is an experience of its own. Unlike in the United States, you can sit down at a table and enjoy a meal for as long as you like without having to continue to order more food. No waiter will ever try to pressure you to leave or try to rush you through a meal. In fact, you have to ask your waiter for the check everywhere. It’s seen to be very rude if a waiters brings the bill to the table without being prompted first.
Although, I’ve loved all my trips to new places. I’ve realized that I really enjoy living in Bilbao. The Basque region is absolutely gorgeous with lush, emerald green mountainsides that frame its famed coast. But, beauty is not its only attribute. I’m convinced there’s not a more charming town than San Sebastián, a more beautiful view than from the top of the cliffs in Sopelana and Larrabasterra, or a more humbly experience than a visit to the Museo de la Paz en Guernica. This region that I knew so little about before my exchange has most definitely stolen my heart.
I’ve gone in all directions, but I know there’s still so much more to see.
So, I’ll continue living, exploring, and absorbing as much culture as I can over here. My computer can wait.