10 Unexpected Things You’ll Learn as an Expat in Barcelona, Catalonia

I’m going on my second year living in beautiful Barcelona, obviously because I love it enough to stay. However, as any expatriate knows, there are certain cultural differences that you just have to get used to. Some are only slightly different than your own customs, and others catch you completely by surprise. There were some differences that I expected: obviously there would be different food (and I was super excited for it, the Mediterranean is world-renowned for it’s delicious and healthy food), the bars and clubs would be open later than in America (because the Spanish infamously party until sunrise), etc. But there were some things that most people just don’t associate with Catalan or Spanish people.

1. They are obsessed with pasta and pizza. 

Who isn’t though, right? But this is no joke. Sure, I had my fair share of pizza and pasta back in the states, but people LOVE it here. When I first arrived last year and moved in with my host family, they served a big plate of pasta for lunch. When I moved back to Catalonia last month and moved in with a different host family, what did they serve for the first meal? Pasta, of course.

Pasta Carbonara (Photo Cred: fotom.xyz)

Macaronis

And they really only have 2 varieties: “Macaronis” (normal rigatoni type noodles or the swirly kind) and Spaghetti Carbonara (white sauce with bacon). It isn’t common for families to use any other type of sauce, let alone order it in a restaurant. When they take their kids out for lunch and dinner, what do they order? Macaronis or Carbonara. Seriously. I don´t know about you, but when I thought of Spanish/Catalan culture, I did not expect that.

Cannellonis (Photo Cred: http://www.johnsonville.com)

They also have another variety of pasta that they call “Cannellonis.” It is basically lasagna noodles rolled enchilada style, stuffed with meat and cheese, and covered with a white sauce (bechamel) and more cheese.

Sounds super healthy, right? Like what you envisioned of a Mediterranean diet?

2. They eat sandwiches almost every day, but refuse to add more than one ingredient.

I know, I know… when you think of Spanish/Catalan culture, you automatically think of sandwiches. Oh, no? You never associated it with sandwiches? You’re not alone. I work in a school, and also live with a host family. I see what the kids and even parents eat every day. And honest to God, it is sandwiches all the time. For breakfast? Sure, why not. For their ‘second breakfast’? (see #3 below) Of course! For their afternoon snack? Well duh, what else could you possibly eat?

Bocata de Jamon aka Ham Sandwich (Photo Cred: http://www.20minutos.es)

But what gets me the most is what they put inside of their sandwiches. Back home in America, we eat sandwiches decently often as well. But for lunch. Or sometimes if we’re lazy, dinner. Or if you really want to get crazy, for breakfast. But we put meat, cheese, condiments, vegetables, etc… the only limit is your imagination. There is an art to sandwich making.

Bocata amb Formatge aka Cheese Sandwich

Here? Meat. Or cheese. Both? Oh, heavens no! What kind of a heathen are you?! And they don’t even add a lot of meat or cheese, either. They buy their bread fresh in the mornings, sometimes smother a little bit of oil and tomato on the insides of the bread in the typical “pa amb tomaquet” style, and then add a single layer of meat or cheese. And ya está. For a person like me who isn’t a big fan of bread, it is a tiny nightmare. The bread is often quite tough, so you really have to gnaw on the bread in an animal-like fashion to eat this thing. And your reward? A mouthful of bread with just the tiniest of hints of meat or cheese. Yum.

Pa Amb Tomaquet aka Bread with Tomato (Photo Cred: cadenaser.com)

On one of my first days with my current host family, I was making my sandwich for my second breakfast later (like a good Catalan girl) and they were showing me where the meat and cheese was. I decided to have sobresada (a red meat & spice spread, also a strange thing for expats), and then I went back to the fridge and asked where the cheese was. The host father looked at me in confusion.

Sobresada (Photo Cred: pequgourmet.com)

Him: “But, you have sobresada. Do you want another sandwich?”

Me: “Oh, no. I was just going to add cheese to this one.”

His face was priceless.

3. They eat more than you can imagine, yet somehow stay skinny.

As an American, you know that the world looks at you as if you eat hamburgers and fries every day. As an American moving to Barcelona, I was expecting to lose 20 pounds the first couple of months and eat fresh meats and vegetables every day. Boy, was I mistaken…

A typical day in the life of a Catalan:

  • 7am – 9am: Breakfast, most commonly cereal, bread, meat, cookies, etc (never eggs).

Their idea of cookies, suitable for breakfast, second breakfast, afternoon snack, or dessert. (Photo Cred: http://www.lauravivet.com)

  • 10am – 11am: ‘Second Breakfast,’ as if one isn’t enough. Most commonly a plain sandwich of some sort (see #2) or fruit. But usually a sandwich.

Arroz a la Cubana, a popular dish for lunch. (Photo Cred: http://www.fiesta1037.fm)

  • 1pm – 3pm: Lunch, often consisting of 2-3 courses. And with giant portions that put Americans to shame. Common first courses: soup, pasta, boiled potatoes and peas, lentils with chorizo, garbanzo beans, rice, etc. Common second courses: salad, meat, french fries, rice, another type of pasta… And on top of all of this, a dessert. It is extremely common to have something for dessert after both lunch and dinner. Common desserts: yogurt (never for breakfast), fruit, cookies, ice cream.

Carne Rebozada aka Fried and Breaded Meat, another very popular item for lunch and dinner. Often accompanied by French Fries in a restaurant, like any other meat unless you specifically ask for salad. They’re not much for side dishes in Catalunya(Photo Cred: realworldmeetsgirl.wordpress.com)

  • 5pm – 7pm: Snack, usually more cookies, a mini sandwich, or in some cases, yogurt or fruit. Bakeries are also an extremely popular stop after school, to grab some croissants, ensaimadas, or anything with chocolate. So much sugar!

An ensaimada, basically a puff pastry with powdered sugar.

  • 9pm – 11pm: Dinner, also 2-3 courses. Very similar to lunch, but often just slightly lighter since they eat right before going to bed. They always have a dessert, and I noticed this happens even if the kids are “too full” to finish their dinner.

Photo Cred: http://www.800.cl

OH, and I forgot to mention that they eat bread with everything. So in addition to the sandwiches they always have, they eat sliced french bread with both lunch and dinner as if it’s candy. They can even eat it plain for a snack. Silly Americans, thinking that bread makes you fat…

4. They can NOT handle spicy food. Like, at all.

The Catalan and Spanish people don’t like to add a lot of spice to their food, and that includes pretty much everything except salt, pepper, and oregano. They pride themselves on buying their food fresh, sometimes every single day. Texture is also very important to them. In some ways, I like this a lot. But in others, some of the food is just incredibly bland. For instance, it is quite common, especially during the fall and winter months, to make a puree of fresh vegetables. I really enjoy this in fact, and it is super healthy. They make it from pumpkin, zucchini, carrots, etc. The pumpkin one especially is incredibly rich in flavor, I love it. However, last year one of my host families made a puree of spinach. Now, normally I adore spinach. But it was my first encounter with it in this form, and without salt. It made me gag.

From my Mexican fiesta, including fajitas, enchiladas, guacamole, salsa and rice.

Anyways, I happened to mention to my first two host families that mexican food is my absolute favorite food, and that I make a meannnnn guacamole. So they decided to put me to the test, and gathered a bunch of their friends together to try out my mexican cooking (see how it went here). I tried to make everything super mild, because I had noticed they never eat anything spicy. But even with this, the moment they put a bite of my enchiladas into their mouths they exclaimed in horror “Pica! Pica! Pica!” No joke.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But very few. One of my friend’s husbands is obsessed with spicy food, and even grows a garden of various peppers. But good luck even trying to find a jalepeno in the grocery store.

5. Water is often more expensive than beer and wine.

In America, water is free at almost every restaurant you go to. I am pretty sure it is illegal not to serve someone water from the tap if you ask for it. However, here in Catalonia and Spain (along with most places in Europe, I think) they charge you extra for water. And often they expect you to buy their expensive, fancy glass bottles of water. Whereas, on the other hand, you can get a glass of wine or a beer for between 1-3 euros. But hey, that’s okay with me… wine it is! No wonder the Spanish have a reputation for drinking. I can’t find a beer at a restaurant in America for under $4!

6. They prefer darker colors for clothes, unless it is Desigual.

If you haven’t heard of it, Desigual is a brand of clothing that is very popular in Barcelona and translates to “unequal.” Their clothes often use black or grey as the base, and then emphasize with bright pops of color, sometimes with one sleeve a different color than the other. Super quirky.

I’ve noticed, and I’m not the only one, that most people in Barcelona tend to dress in darker colors, such as black, grey, and brown. Occasionally, of course, you’ll see someone wearing other colors, but I dare you to jump on the metro one day and tell me what you see. The exception to this, of course, is Desigual. Here and there I will see (mostly) women in a brightly colored dress that proudly has Desigual written across it, or someone sporting a quirky bag or jacket with the typical Desigual designs. But even they are a minority compared to the rest in black.

Another friend and I noticed a vast contrast between Barcelona and Valencia, which is a 3 hour drive to the south. If you get on the metro there, everyone will be dressed in bright, spring colors (and not usually from Desigual). The minority are the ones wearing darker clothes. What causes this change? Who knows!

7. They are obsessed with their digestion.

When you sit down to eat, you will always hear someone saying “Bon profit,” which translates roughly to “enjoy your meal” or “I hope you digest it well.” This, in and of itself, isn’t strange, but the emphasis Catalans put on their digestion is amazing. Normally when I eat, I won’t necessarily rush, but I will eat and then go on about my day. It is very common for a Catalan to sit there for awhile afterwards, chatting with their friends. Sure, they are very social people, and this gives them an excuse to talk and relax. But they have an ulterior motive.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents told you not to swim after eating because you could drown? Well, while there is some truth to the benefit of waiting, it is definitely an exaggerated wive’s tale. But Catalans take this seriously. They don’t like to walk around after eating, or do much of anything really if they can help it.

Last spring break, I went with a couple friends (one of which is Catalan) on a trip, where we toured through Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg). Because we only had a little over a week, we pretty much did a different city each day, which required a lot of walking (and definitely not relaxing). My Catalan friend wasn’t happy. She would walk as slow as possible without losing us in the crowd, and when we were together in a group, she’d mutter how “unhealthy” we were being by walking so fast after eating and basically implying that we’d die young. Harsh.

I brought this up in class recently to a group of 14 year olds. When I mentioned how I found it comical, they lashed back insisting how important it is to plan your meals each day, when you can eat one thing but not another, and to rest after eating. This came up after we were discussing the school schedule for a project, where I said that 2 hours for lunch was just ridiculously long. They said I was wrong, that any less time and we’d all have indigestion. I told them that in my high school, we had about 40 minutes to eat. They were in shock. Let me just say that I’ve never met 14 year olds who were so concerned about their digestion.

8. They try to wear their winter clothes as much as possible.

The people of Catalonia seem to constantly be cold. I showed up my first year in late September, and it was still incredibly hot outside. I was sweating walking around in a summer dress. Yet, I started to notice that pretty much everyone else was wearing jackets. What the…?

As soon as mid-September hits, people start breaking out their winter wardrobe. And they wear it for as long as humanly possible. Even in June of this year, when I was sweating bullets in my classes, I saw people walking around with heavy jackets and scarves. As a Californian, I was especially uncomfortable because I didn’t even have winter clothes when I came, so I would wear my summer clothes as much as possible. Since they hate the cold so much, they turn the heaters on high at the school during the winter, to the point where I could wear a short sleeved shirt and a skirt and still be sweating. Everyone thought I was crazy, cozy in their sweatshirts.

In fact, my second host family would get frustrated with me for not wearing scarves or heavy shoes during the winter, saying that I’d inevitably get sick. Has no one here heard the news that the cold itself will not make you sick?!

Another thing – slippers are huge here. Everyone has them, and they wear them all the time. I’m not a big fan of socks myself, so if it’s warm, I am happy to walk around barefoot. In fact, unless it is super cold and I can’t bear it, I walk around barefoot as much as possible. But even in the intense heat of summer, you will see people in Catalonia walking around their homes in socks and/or slippers.

One day, I was teasing my boyfriend for always wearing his slippers, even though it was in the 80’s outside. So he took off his slippers. Soon later, he got sick. He exclaimed “See?! I knew it! Because I didn’t wear my slippers that day, now I’m sick!!!” Silly boy.

9. They go out as much as possible.

The Spanish and Catalan people are infamous for being partiers. So, this shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. But I was amazed at just how much and how often people are out of their homes here, and not just to party. Their schedules are insane! I understand now why they feel the need to party until 7am.

Photo Cred ip-hostel.com

For families with children, school goes from 9am – 5pm (sometimes it can go even earlier or later for older students). That in and of itself is crazy to me, because when I was in elementary, middle and high school, the latest we would ever get out of school is 3pm. After school, the majority of kids have after school activities, such as sports, language lessons, or dance. In all of the 4 families I have lived with, the children and parents don’t generally get home until between 7pm and 8pm. Where is there time for resting? For doing homework? For cooking? It is insane, no wonder they eat dinner so late at night!

Even young adults like to keep busy. Like in the States, most jobs go from 9am – 5pm, or sometimes the night shift, depending on the position. But it is incredibly common for even adults to have activities after, such as dance, volunteer work, band practice, etc. And if they’re not doing that, then they’re going out to a bakery or a cafe for some sweet treats, cafe con leche, or a cerveza. And if it’s the weekend, then they’re out trying to forget about the crazy week they’ve had.

10. They go grocery shopping every day.

Okay, so I can’t make a generalization about every family. But I think I can safely say that at least half of Catalans go to the grocery store or bakery every single day. Whether it be to buy fresh bread in the mornings, or go to the fish store for the freshest catch they can find, they spend an incredible amount of time running back and forth from the store.

And while many of the meals that they prepare on a daily basis are by no means complicated, the Catalans I have spoken to don’t seem to understand the idea of planning meals ahead or buying more things so you only have to go when you run out. I explained that in America, it is very common for us to go to the grocery store maybe only once a week and buy the staples, such as meat, fish, potatoes, rice, etc. If we happen to make a recipe and don’t have something, of course we’ll go to the store again. But it definitely isn’t common, at least where I’m from, to go to the store every single day.

Fresh catch of the day, head, eyes, tail and all. (Photo Cred: travelandtravails.com)

One of the first things that I noticed when I moved here is that they have a different store for everything, not like in the States where we have giant department stores where you can buy pretty much anything you can think of (I’m looking at you, Walmart SuperCenter). There’s a store for vegetables. And another store for fruit. And another store for meat. And yet another for fish. Of course, they do have small grocery stores with a mix of everything, and the occasional warehouse which is the equivalent of a normal grocery store in the States… but they pride themselves on buying things fresh, which is something that I really admire. But dang, it would take so much time!

In closing…

I absolutely love living here, and I’m so happy that I’ve returned for another year in this amazing place. When you travel, one of the most interesting things to see are the various habits of people from other cultures. None of this is intended in a negative way, and I have really enjoyed learning about the Catalan culture!

Are you an expat living in Barcelona? Any other strange things you’ve noticed? Please feel free to comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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Your Guide to San Sebastian, Basque Country

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

I was dying to visit Basque Country, and when a 4 day weekend came my way, I decided to take advantage of it. I had heard so many amazing things about San Sebastian in particular that I decided to spend two of my days there, and I wasn’t disappointed. You could easily spend a week here! Just expect to gain more than a couple pounds… But I promise, it is worth it.

Getting There

From Barcelona, it was about an 8 hour bus ride. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it? I took it overnight, hoping to get in some Zzz’s before exploring the following day. Even with melatonin, it was nearly impossible. It didn’t help that there was a crazy guy on my bus who thought he had boarded the party bus, and started playing music loudly on his phone and fist pumping the air. Now, why ever would I put myself through the torture of taking an 8 hour bus overnight there? Because it was much cheaper than both the train and a flight. Plus, I wanted to challenge myself. Now I know that I can do it, I just might consider not doing it again in the future.

Zurriola Beach, my first morning.

The train was the next cheapest option, but it would have still taken at least 6 hours that way. I decided not to fly there because airports are awful, by the time I got to the airport and had to wait for my flight, the time wasted probably would have been similar. My friends did end up flying there and meeting me, but they also paid twice as much and didn’t have as much time there.

As you cross the bridge from the Zurriola Beach side towards the center.

Another problem with taking the overnight bus, however, is that it arrives ridiculously early in the morning to San Sebastian. We arrived at about 5am, and what can you do that early in the morning? Nothing. Nowhere is open, including the hostel I was going to be staying at, so I decided to just wander around with my luggage. I ended up on Zurriola Beach (yes, with my luggage) and watched the surfers come one by one to take advantage of the early morning waves.

Where to Stay

San Sebastian is pretty small, so no matter where you stay, you will probably be within walking distance of all of the important places. If you’re on a budget like me, hostels are a good way to go, but be sure to book ahead of time! Even though I booked a few weeks in advance, there were very few beds left. I stayed at the Surfing Etxea Hostel, and enjoyed my stay.

As the name implies, it is catered towards surfers and even allows you to rent out boards and gear. It is also only a block from Zurriola Beach. I met a lot of really nice people there, and the facilities were clean. My only complaint is that the employees there were always gone. If you were trying to check in or check out, for instance, you might have to wait awhile because they were often out walking their dog. One guy had to give up his 20€ deposit because he had to catch a train and the employees were nowhere to be found.

Parte Vieja (Old Town) The old part of town is where it’s at. See the above map? I starred all of the major things that I wanted to see/do, and they’re all clustered in that central part of Parte Vieja. Granted, the majority of the things I wanted to involved eating, but still. That’s pretty important business when you’re in San Sebastian.

Interesting modern art in front of the Parroquia Santa María

As you walk around this area, you will see some lovely boutiques, plazas, a couple churches, and of course… pinchos (pintxos) bars. It is super common to do a pincho crawl, where you have a drink and a pincho at one bar then wander down the street to the next place… and repeat. Again. And again. We ate and drank so much food here it was ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Pintxos

Now, there are good pinchos. And there are meh pinchos. It is important to do your research so that you can avoid the latter! All of the businesses in this area know that tourists are coming for the food, and they often put together cheap ingredients with a slightly inflated price and try to convince you it is legit. It isn’t, don’t fall for it!

Another thing to keep in mind when going for pinchos is that most of the (legit) places do not have much room to sit down. The typical pinchos places are very small and require you to crowd around whatever little counter space is available, so be prepared to stand for awhile! The beer helps, I promise. My friend and I were super hungry after walking around for awhile, so we just stopped inside one of the first places we came across. This was San Sebastian, it had to be good, right? Wrong. The flavors were very bland, and everything was just a bit too fried for my taste. And the beer was more expensive than it should’ve been. One red flag for this place was that it was rather big and had a decent amount of sitting space. I think this is a pretty good indicator that it is more corporate and geared towards tourists.

Our bland, not so bueno first pinchos… Don’t go there!

After that disappointing experience, I looked to my list of recommended restaurants and we decided to heed the online community’s advice. We headed to Borda Berri, which had shown up numerous times in my research as being the best pinchos bar in San Sebastian. When we were at the hostel, also, I overheard some people talking about how amazing it was. When you enter, it is surprisingly small and it can be a bit overwhelming when it’s crowded. Luckily we came at an off-time, so there was plenty of room at the counter. They have a chalkboard with all of their specialties of the day, and pretty much everything there is fantastic. You can’t go wrong, just keep an open mind! I had heard that the gazpacho (on the right) was great and I chose the mushroom risotto (on the left) as a second. My friend loved the gazpacho, but it was a little too strong for me. The risotto was tasty as well. However, I think I played it a little too safe here. I ordered what I knew. As we were eating, we met two lovely ladies from Canada. People are so friendly here! They recommended that we try the local beer (we were upset we hadn’t noticed it before), and it was absolutely delicious. They also recommended us two other dishes that we returned to try the next day.

The octopus at Borda Berri.

I went out of my comfort zone and ordered the octopus and ribs, as recommended by the girls we had met. It was AMAZING. I had tried octopus before, but it had just been meh. This was on another level entirely. It was so delicious, I found myself closing my eyes and savoring every morsel. It was perfectly cooked and practically melted in your mouth. All of the different sauces perfectly balanced with the delicate taste of the octopus, I was tempted to order a second.

The ribs at Borda Berri.

The ribs were also amazing. It was super tender and full of flavor, and all of the sauces along with the flakes of sea salt were just too perfect to describe. You will not regret ordeirng this! And it is a little more in the comfort zone of most people. My friends ordered the gazpacho again and then also tried the stuffed tomato, which they said was delicious. But I don’t think they loved it nearly as much as I loved mine.

Borda Berri is a little more pricy than the other pinchos bars, but it is worth it… I swear. Nearby, there is a quaint and lovely square called Constitución Plaza. It is lovely to walk around and there are also many restaurants and pinchos bar surrounding it, but everything we saw there didn’t look too great. Be forewarned! Go for a quick stroll, but not really anything else. The buildings are really lovely. Nearby, there is a lovely pinchos bar that came highly recommended to us called Taberna Gandarías. One of my colleagues told me that while she was in San Sebastian for 3 days, she went there 4 times… do the math! We were only able to make it once, but we were very impressed by the pinchos. There isn’t much space, and this place in particular had quite a lot of people crowding the counters. Oh, and there’s very little counter space as well. But the prices on tapas and wine are fantastic, and it is definitely worth checking out! Just expect to wait a bit before they can assist you. My friends were super impressed with Gandarias, and I enjoyed it too… But honestly, Borda Berri topped my list for the entire trip.

On the last day, we decided to try something new that wasn’t on my list. We ended up at La Montanera Kota 31, which despite breaking some of my rules, turned out to be fantastic! When we entered, there weren’t many people there and there were lots of places to sit. Normally a red flag. But literally everything we tried here was amazing, including the house wine. We had about 4 pinchos each (totally against the rules for a pinchos crawl, but our feet were tired and we had a table!) and an equal amount of wine, because the wine was actually one of the best ones I have ever tasted. I highly recommend this place!

Another thing, and this is important: Try to plan to be in San Sebastian on a Thursday night. Near Zurriola Beach and along Gran Via Kalea they do an amazing special: 2€ for 1 pincho and one drink of your choice. Is that amazing… or amazingly amazing?! Many pinchos bars around this area participate, and everywhere will be crowded. But it’s worth it… I promise! Some of the pinchos were just alright (I mean, you can’t expect much for such a cheap price), but some of them were absolutely delicious. Definitely take advantage of this! But be careful… it tricks you into drinking more than you probably should… if you can’t resist trying every delicious-looking pincho, like us.

Monte Urgull

View of the bay from Urgull

On the far side of the Parte Vieja is Monte Urgull, one of the two main large hills in San Sebastian. You can climb up this for some lovely views of the city, and can also visit the large Jesus statue at the top. There’s a free museum you can enter, but it didn’t prove to be all that interesting. It isn’t too difficult of a walk, but in the heat, you will definitely start sweating a bit. Dress accordingly! Good thing is, after your hike and working up an appetite, you have loads of pinchos at the bottom of the hill to look forward to. Give yourself about two hours to walk around and explore. There are many different paths that lead to the top, and the occasional bench to take a rest. You will be awarded with some gorgeous views! Don’t miss it.

A peek at Monte Igueldo across the bay. Also worth the visit!

The Beaches

Now, San Sebastian isn’t really known for its beaches in the way other places in Spain are. However, they are lovely and worth a visit! The two main beaches are Playa de la Concha and Playa Zurriola. It is important to know that the North of Spain (or Basque Country, excuse me) rains quite a bit, which is why everything you see is unbelievably green. It did sprinkle a little bit while we were there, and the people we spoke to at the hostel said it had rained all that week. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty, and hey, you can just run into a pinchos bar to ride out the rain!

Playa de la Concha, the main beach in San Sebastian.

If you continue walking along the boardwalk towards Monte Igueldo, you will find many places where the beach disappears and there’s a cliffside instead (depending on the time of day, of course). There are also plenty of places to sit on the rocks to enjoy the waves crashing against the shore. At one point, you’ll come across a little underpass with a pretty building on top and a pretty green garden. You can take the stairs up and picnic there, it is a lovely place to rest and take in the views. The name of the place is Miramar Palace. On the other side of this underpass, you will find the other half of Playa de la Concha.

Miramar Palace

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually make it to the beach during our trip. We were too busy stuffing our faces with pinchos, and probably wouldn’t have looked too hot in a bikini after all of that anyways. But even with the clouds, it was quite warm outside and a few hours later the sky cleared up and it was lovely! This picture below was taken the same day, just about an hour later.

Since San Sebastian is on the northern coast of the Basque Country/Spain and is surrounded by hills, you won’t really see sunsets here. But the views on the beaches are lovely  nonetheless at night!

Monte Igueldo

On the other side of Playa de la Concha, farthest from Parte Vieja, is Monte Igueldo. You have the option of walking up (expect a decent walk), driving up, or taking the funicular up. For the funicular, it only costs about 3€ and includes admission into the mini amusement park at the top (but going on the rides is extra).

The funicular going up Monte Igueldo.

Once at the top, you have some breathtaking views of San Sebastian. I’m pretty sure all of us literally gasped at just how beautiful it was, even though it was sprinkling at that time. It is definitely worth the visit! We came across this cute little boat ride that went along the mountainside, and we just had to try it out. The boats are super small but can fit 4 people. It was about 2€, which was a little pricy considering how short of a ride it was, but it was still fun. There are many other rides there as well, which would be fun for the young ones on a sunny day. However, it isn’t the greatest amusement park in the world and it’s rather pricy. I noticed they also sell beer, wine, and pinchos up there as well for the adults! On the other side of Monte Igueldo, facing away from Playa de la Concha, you can get a sneak peek at the coast. It was so gorgeous, I wish I could’ve just rented a car and spent days exploring all of the small towns along there. It is beyond beautiful in Basque Country.

Pasai and Pasaia (The Fishing Villages)

The fishing villages are to the right of San Sebastian.

Nearby San Sebastian, there are two little fishing villages on the bay. It is popular to go hiking there and take a stroll. We were feeling lazy, however, and didn’t have much time anyways, so we just took the bus. We had google maps at our disposal to figure out the buses, but if you don’t have that just stop into your nearest tourist information point and they’ll give you a heads up. It took us about 25 minutes by bus to get there.

There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re there, but it is very beautiful and old-European looking. It doesn’t even feel real as you walk along the small cobblestone corridors. There are little restaurants and ice cream shops all along the way that you can stop at for a rest (especially if you decide to do the hike, which can take anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on your pace).

There’s a small boat that you can ride to get to the other side, at a cost of only about 70 cents per person. It is very quick, but a fun experience nonetheless.

There seemed to be more to see and do on the Pasai side, so keep that in mind! If you’re looking to save money, it could be a good idea to pack a picnic lunch and eat along the waterfront.

The Basque Culture

I honestly didn’t know much about Basque people before I left for this trip, and I still don’t. But here are the basics: Basque Country is NOT Spain. Do not talk about Spain here. They have their own very distinct language and are very proud of their culture. In the recent past, there was a terrorist group here called ETA that fought for the independence of the Basque Country and harmed many people. Today, it is safe to visit, but please be respectful of their culture and wishes to be independent! Of course, everyone there also speaks Spanish, so you can get by using your basic Spanish phrases. While we were there, we saw a protest march go through the streets. It was very calm, but later we noticed that there was graffiti placed around some prominent places, and it was such a shame to see that they felt the need to deface private property… but oh well.

List of What to See

  • Playa de la Concha – lovely, where most of the tourists go for a nice beach day.
  • Parte Vieja – right in front of Monte Urgull, this is where you will find all of the amazing pinchos places.
  • Monte Urgull – the hill to the right of Playa de la Concha, with a statue of Jesus at the top. A lovely walk, give yourself a couple of hours and bring some comfortable shoes. Free museum at the top. Amazing views of San Sebastian!
  • Peine de los Vientos – translates to “Comb of the Winds.” This is a sculpture along the waterfront. We weren’t actually able to make it here (to my dismay), but it is definitely worth a visit. It is near Monte Igueldo.
  • Museo San Telmo: Plaza Zuloaga, 1
  • Zurriola Beach – Lovely, less crowded beach for surfers.
  • Monte Igueldo Teleferico – Take the funicular up Monte Igueldo for some amazing views of San Sebastian and the bay. There’s also a small theme park at the top. Only costs about €3 to go up, but it costs extra for the rides.
  • Miramar Palace – Amazing views from the top of the gardens, in the middle of Playa de la Concha.
  • Ayuntamiento de Donostia San Sebastián: Zuhaizti Plaza, 0 – pretty city hall in the center of the city.
  • Plaza de Guipuzkoa
  • Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro: Calle 31 de Agosto, 46
  • Alderdi-Eder Park – Lovely park for all ages.
  • Plaza de la Constitución – beautiful to people watch and have a drink, used to be an old bull ring.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • La Gintoneria Donostiarra: Zabaleta Kalea, 6 – Some of the best gins you will every find.
  • Bar El Doce: San Francisco Kalea, 12 – great food, underground bar at night.
  • ***Bar Nestor: Calle Pescaderia, 11 – Claims to have the best steak in the world, and reviews back this up. Also try the tomato salad. Arrive early to get space, and expect to have to stand. We tried to go there but there was no space.
  • Museo del Whisky: Boulevard Zumardia, 5 – great whiskey bar, live piano music sometimes.
  • ***Bar Borda Berri: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12 – AMAZING tapas and local Basque beer! You NEED to come here!
  • Bar Azkena: De la Brecha Enparantza, 2 – Great bacalao
  • ***Gandarias: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23 – Delicious, and great variety! It gets extremely busy here, but it is worth it.
  • La Cuchara de San Telmo: Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 – on NY Times List, delicious veal cheek, bacalao and bonito
  • ***Kota 31: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 22Absolutely amazing tapas and wine. A must try!
  • Goiz Argi: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4 – try gambas a la plancha with Txakoli wine
  • Txepetxa: C/ Pescadería, 5 – try Gilda and drink Sidra
  • Zeruko: Calle Pescaderia, 10
  • La Mejillonera: Calle del Puerto, 15 – delicious mussels, mejillones picantas, calamares

Spanish Idioms, #10: Como Si Nada Hubiera Pasado

I was tutoring a girl the other day when she accidentally spilled the glass of water she was drinking. She quickly cleaned it up and said:

Vamos a continuar como si nada hubiera pasado.

I asked her to repeat this a couple of times, since it was the first I had heard of it (and I knew it’d be good for her to know in English as well). This isn’t really an idiom, per say, because it actually translates quite literally. It means Let’s continue as if nothing has happened” or “carry on as if nothing had happened.” Another way of expressing the same sentiment in English is “business as usual.”

Some examples:

“Tropecé cuando vi mi enamoramiento, y traté de actuar como si nada hubiera pasado.”

I tripped when I saw my crush, and I tried to act like nothing had happened.

“Mi novio sabía que yo no era feliz, pero él actuó como si nada hubiera pasado.”

My boyfriend knew that I wasn’t happy, but he acted as if nothing had happened.

Spanish Idioms, #9: Poner Los Cuernos

Apparently this is a very common expression in Spain (which is unfortunate):

Poner los cuernos.

Literally, it translates to “Put (on) the horns.” The expression is used to signify that someone in a relationship has been unfaithful to their partner. More casually in English we would say that the person cheated on the other. In old English, it was common to say that a person was being cuckolded.

To conjugate in context, here are some examples:

Su novio le ponía los cuernos.

Her boyfriend was cheating on him.

“¡No me pongas los cuernos!”

Don’t cheat on me!

It is also common in Spanish to say:

Engañarle a alguien.

The above translates to “to fool someone” and often signifies an unfaithful partner. I think I prefer the horns, however, because it gives you the image of a devil (at least for me). In context, here are some conjugations:

“Ella me engañó.”

She cheated on me.

“Él no sabía que ella lo engañaba.”

He didn’t know that she was cheating on him.

Spanish Idioms, #8: Es Más Vale Pájaro en Mano que Ciento Volando

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During one of my many language exchange conversations, a woman told me this phrase:

Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando.

In English, it translates literally to “It’s worth more to have a bird in hand than a hundred flying.” The expression we normally use in English is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This is not a very common expression in English though, I think… the only person in my life who I have heard say this besides dead Presidents is my grandmother. I think that it is more common to say in Spanish, and I actually think I prefer the birds flying rather than in the bush.

For those of you unfamiliar with this old proverb, it means that it is more valuable to have something for certain (a bird in hand) than having other uncertain options (like flying birds that’ll be very difficult to catch).

Spanish Idioms, #6: Es Pan Comido

I was listening to the radio with my host dad as we were on our way to the school. It’s an English station that aims to teach conversational English to Spanish speakers, and it actually turns out to be pretty helpful for me as well (he explains common colloquial sayings in Spanish, so I end up learning, too!). The announcer used this expression and I was really confused – luckily the host dad was able to explain it to me:

Es pan comido.

Literally, it translates to “It is eaten bread.” He explained that you use this expression when something is really easy, such as an exam or riding a bike. The english equivalent would be “It’s a piece of cake” or “It’s a breeze.” I think this will come in handy for me! Especially as a teacher of some whiny students 😉

Spanish Idioms, #5: Media naranja

In class one day, we were working on making personal goals and objectives in English. After about 5 minutes, two girls called me over and asked me what “Media naranja” meant in English. Confused, I replied “Err… half orange…?” and wondered how the hell that had anything to do with their goals.

“Media naranja.”

Their usual English teacher, also a good friend of mine, overheard this exchange and started laughing. She explained that ‘media naranja’ is actually the Spanish way of saying soul matebetter half, or other half. I almost melted, I loved the expression immediately! It’s such a cute way of saying it. But why an orange?!

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However, after discussing it with another Catalan friend of mine, she told me she absolutely hated it. She says it implies that we’re not complete until we have a partner in our lives, but really, we should be whole on our own. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but she makes a very valid point. If you come into a relationship hoping that the other person will fill what’s missing in your life, I doubt that relationship will last very long.

Regardless, I think this is such a cute idiom ❤