In March, I went to Spain for spring break. When you’ve chosen a career that allows you to have a “spring break,” you still have the privilege of going “on spring break.” While I’m not venturing to Cancún or enduring a cruise, like a decent percentage of my students, I did go to three cities in Spain.
I had never planned to go to Spain. I have a list of countries that I’d like to visit. Spain has never been on the list. I can’t entirely explain it. I figured that I’d make a stop in Spain, but never make it the destination.
Yet, I had the opportunity to visit a kindred sprit in Valencia. My friend was working at an elementary school, as an English-language teaching assistant, for a half the year. In my planning, I chose to start with a weekend in Barcelona, spend most of the work week in Valencia, and finish with a weekend in Madrid.
I flew to Barcelona and my friend took the train up from Valencia to meet me. We made two official Gaudí stops: an early morning at Park Güell and a tour of Casa Milà. I recommend arriving at Park Güell as early as possible, as it quickly became overrun and maddeningly crowded. Later, we walked by La Sagrada Família; everyone has told me I should have properly visited the church. Following an afternoon break, we went out for tapas and late-night churros.
The next day my friend and I went to the tiny Picasso Museum (free on Sundays) and took the train to Valencia. Overall, Barcelona is alive; the Gothic Quarter is very much like the meandering and disorienting alleyways of Venice. I know I have more to see and experience there, but at least I understand the city’s appeal: enormous palm trees, the sparkling sea within view, and a vibrant, if transient late-night life.
With four days in Valencia, I spent my daylight hours walking around the city. I traversed the city and walked miles upon miles. The sunny, 70-degree weather was an opportune break from a Philadelphia winter. I strolled and took pictures. I woke up early one morning to shoot large-format pictures of the main square. I receive looks of curiosity when I walk around with my large format camera on a tripod. Often, I see acknowledgement of the form, in the eyes of older individuals; this was also the case in Spain.
In my Valencia wanderings, I went to the modern art museum (IVAM), walked through the sunken Turia River Park, and, twice, shuffled through the City of Arts and Sciences, at the southeast end of the park. The City of Arts and Sciences is comprised of several buildings, designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela. The first building, L'Hemisfèric, a planetarium, IMAX theater, and laserium, was completed in 1998. Several other buildings were added to the complex over the next ten years. I was mesmerized by the futuristic feel of the buildings: Star Trek come to life. The structures are well kept and clean. Hailing from a city with limited park integration, despite William Penn’s best efforts, I found it freeing to wander a park very near the city center.
I happened to visit Valencia during the preparations for Falles. This annual festival, held in March, features fireworks, streets strung with Christmas lights à la South Philly, costumes, the construction and burning of giant-wooden structures, and, perhaps most importantly (for me), churros stands on every corner. Indeed, I ate many churros and learned that “relleno” (previously, I thought this meant something about peppers), translates as “stuffed,” and that you can find churros rellenos (churros stuffed with a thick cream or chocolate). These churros are similar to a cream-filled donut, but with much more sugar and a crisp shell. I ate so many churros that I will not eat them again for a while.
Overall, I appreciated the authenticity and lack of touristiness in Valencia. I struggle with being a tourist. I’ll avoid a David Foster Wallace detour on being a tourist; I’ll jam the thoughts that I often reference to friends, on postcards, in a footnote. I’m glad that I spent four days wandering the streets. While going to bars and restaurants was easy with a Spanish-speaking friend, there was a familiarity that went beyond language. Valencia felt like Philadelphia: a city easily passed over and underrated, but with a real-life character to it.
Next, I went to Madrid on the high-speed train, alone for a night. I spent an afternoon/evening walking around in the rain and passed through the International Women’s Day March. The following day, before my friend arrived, I went to the Prado Museum and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The Prado isn’t my style (old masters), but I had to go. The collection is overwhelming and the building is beautiful. I enjoyed the Thyssen much more, given the 20th-century collection and a video installation by an artist I found at Art Basel, last summer: John Akomfrah. I spent more than an hour watching the entire length of his six-screen installation, “Purple,” in the museum’s basement. I was alone for most of the time, as it wasn’t entirely clear where to find his video installation. Later, still in the rain, I went to the Plaza Mayor for a calamari sandwich (bocadillo de calamares): fried calamari on long, thick, French bread. I understand why this sandwich is good; I like cities with a signature sandwich. But, I also wanted to add aioli.
The next day, when my friend arrived, we went to the requisite, crowded, touristy-but-worth-it, La Mallorquina bakery/pastry shop. The chocolate napolitana de crema (chocolate croissant) was amazing. Fueled only by chocolate and (weak) Spanish coffee, we walked to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Their collection is endless and worth visiting. We stopped for afternoon tapas at Cervecería Alemana; it was a Hemingway haunt. Late in the evening we went out for dinner at Restaurante Casa Salvador. A step back in time, the restaurant is adorned with bull-fighting memorabilia. Oddly enough, I had sent my friend from Philly to this restaurant, last September. I had never been to Spain, but she asked for restaurant recommendations (research of the food kind, or any kind, is my specialty). My friend and her family enjoyed the restaurant and so did I.
The next morning, I woke up at 3:30 to take a cheap bus to the airport. Overall, I had an adventurous spring break. I ended up at an open-mic night, at a university bar, in Valencia. I ate sardines, olives, cheese, and churros with abandon. I saw modern art and architecture. I found Spain distinctly different than other places in Europe. That sounds (and is) obvious, but as a newer traveler, it’s exciting to feel the variances between countries. The diverse foods. The conflicting degrees of what “on time” may mean. The alleged reliably of trains. The indigenous flowers and trees. The way the afternoon light strikes the sidewalks and buildings. The alleyways and graffiti.
Many thanks to my friend for the invitation, as I went somewhere that may have taken me several more years to visit. None of these experiences would have been possible without her encouragement to make a spring-break visit.
David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown and Company), 2005, p. 156: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”