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You don’t need to travel from Madrid to Provence to see lavender fields in bloom this summer.

Brihuega, a blip of a village in the Guadalajara province, has come to produce close to 10% of the world’s lavender. My parents had a few scattered plants in the backyard of my childhood home, and, along with lightening bugs and scrapes on my knees, the lavender bloom was the true sign of summer. During a rare weekend without my kiddo or the Novio, I stumbled across the Festival de la Lavanda, a touristic initiative in Brihuega to celebrate the town’s most famous resident.

Open road, the scent of lavender hanging over a village and a muggy afternoon ahead of us, Danny, Inma and I headed northwest on the A-2 motorway shortly before lunchtime. “¡Ponte algo blanco!” Inma urged, reminding me that the soft purple would pop more if I wore something white or light-colored. The two-lane highway was crammed with cars descending into a town of barely 2400, and the bars were much the same. In a province where fields are often tinged yellow by the sun and heat at this time of the summer, the lavender fields shone a vibrant violet.

Lavender is huge business in this little town – half of the shops are dedicated to selling products made with the flower, from cosmetics to lavender-infused cakes to handkerchiefs embroidered in violet. Although Brihuega has only been producing for around three decades, the festival has gained national and international attention in Spain – in fact, it has only been celebrated for seven years!

The story goes that the village and the pedanías surrounding it relied heavily on the Real Fábrica de Paños, or a linens producing facility, for work and commerce. When production was reduced, farmers in the area began to look for different business avenues to help keep Brihuega from becoming a ghost town. Andrés Corral reputedly went to France and, upon discovering that his hometown’s agricultural conditions were ideal for cultivating and harvesting lavender, began to plant.

To date, there are around 1000 hectares of lavender in Brihuega and Villaviciosa, and Spanish haute fashion house Loewe derives many of its perfumes from Brihuega’s aroma. Who ever said the Spanish weren’t innovative or took risks?

While in town, there isn’t much to see but the winding, narrow streets open up to small, cozy plazas. Since the bars were packed with other tourists, we ate most of our lunch a base de tapas – snacking on the morsels bars give you with your drink order. Apart from the lush Jardines de la Antigua Fábrica de Paños and old city ramparts, you can visit a smattering of old churches and convents, as well as the city history museum.

Post-coffee and souvenir hunting, the lavender fields were waiting. The sun was still high enough when we left that we beat most of the crowds and were able to park just a few feet off of the fields, which rolled over knolls with exposed earth, each hump bursting with violet blossoms. I went to Provence as a 16-year-old on the tail end of the lavender season, but this time, I was intoxicated by the smell and the stark way the color popped against the sky and the soil.

When is the Brihuega Lavendar Festival?

The typical bloom time lavender is in the summer, from late June through July. This, of course, depends largely on the climate during the spring, but it’s safe to assume that the booms are at their fullest around the second and third week of July.

The 2019 Festival de la Lavanda in Brihuega will be celebrated the weekend of July 19th with a series of outdoor concerts (you get seated among the rows of plants!), guided tours and street decorating contests. You can purchase concert tickets on the official website as well as reserve a spot on the guided tours for 4€.

How to visit the lavender fields in Brihuega

The best time of day to see Brihuega’s acres of lavender crop is around sunset, though this is the busiest time. There are designated parking areas if you travel by car, and the tourism office offers limited spots on chartered buses for 4€ during weekends in July at 7pm and 8:30 pm, just as the light wanes.

There are no facilities, so be sure to bring water and a fan if it’s hot. There are also swarms of bees, in case you’re allergic. Uh, and sandals are not the way to go because you’ll be jumping over the bushes and walking on uneven terrain.

Getting to Brihuega, Spain

It’s easiest to reach Brihuega via car – the pueblo is about 90 kilometers northwest of Madrid. From the A-2, take exit 73 and follow signs towards the village or the other town attraction, Mad Max’s miniature museum. This will also allow you to visit the lavender fields at your own pace.

If you’re coming from Madrid or Zaragoza, connections through Guadalajara offer regular bus service to Brihuega through Autocares Samar. You can find hours and prices on the village’s tourism page. The village is surrounded by over a dozen lavender fields (over a thousand hectacres of the beauties!) but also sunflower fields you should stop off at, if you have the time.

Summertime is rife with festivals in Spain, ranging from traditional to bizarre to well-known fètes, like La Tomatina or Los San Fermínes.

What are your favorite small town festivals in Spain? Share them with me in the comments!

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The 48 hours I spent in the hospital post-birth were a bit of a blur. Between doctors and nurses coming in and out, trying to figure out breastfeeding and the cycle of 20 minutes of dozing before I was interrupted by doctors or a hungry child, it wasn’t until I was back home and fumbling through the first few days and dozens of dirty diapers that the habits of Spanish parents – and just how different they were to my own upbringing – shook my baby-lagged brain.

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

I grew up without technology and in an American family in a large suburb of Chicago during the 1990s. Most of my childhood was shaped by the adults who had grown up in the 50s and 60s, and my mother stayed home with her two daughters until I, the elder, was seven years old. Summer camp, sports leagues and a part-time job in high school color my memories of growing up American, and they are also coloring the way I view child-rearing in Spain as I expect my second and push through the terrible twos of my somewhat terrible Spanish son.

The differences between parenting in Spain and parenting in the US are stark, and it begins with the fact that Spaniards tend to begin their families later. When I got married right as I turned 30, many of my friends back home were already parents or expecting; I was the first of my group of American girlfriends in Spain to have a baby, and many of my Spanish friends – including those older than me – have not made a foray into parenthood.

I’m a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

At home, I rule the roost and tread water between a full-time job, a toddler, a child on the way and a husband completing a master’s. It all feel imperfect yet under control, even if my American parenting ways sometimes clash with age-old Spanish upbringing habits – particularly with the older generation.

Ear piercing

When my husband and I found out we were expecting a boy, I breathed a sigh of relief: I would not have to make excuses for choosing to not pierce anyone’s ears. Most Spanish families pierce baby girls’s ears while they are a few weeks old or even at the hospital before being released. This is mostly due to the fact that the baby will not remember the pain, but it also aids in distinguishing boys from girls. I grew up playing sports and did not pierce my ears until my junior Prom, and at my mother’s insistence.

Even still, Enrique was a lovely baby who did not wear just baby blue, and many older women in the neighborhood mistook him for a lovely niña. I was always too tired to argue and just said a quick gracias to the nosy abuelas at the pharmacy.

Babies must be weighed at the same time every week

As Enrique grew, I became obsessed with knowing how much weight he had gained. It became a fun guessing game with my mother-in-law, who would take the bus to my home every Wednesday afternoon to weight him at the nearby pharmacy.

“Remember,” she said after a doctor’s appointment, “what he’s wearing and this time of the day, as you should always bring him into the pharmacy at the same time on the same day of the week and in the same clothing. That way, you get the most accurate reading.”

Imagine the horror when Enrique pooped shortly before the 5:30 pm weigh in one afternoon, or how much we laughed when he gained more than half a kilo in one week during a growth spurt.

Perfumes and perfect outfits

Babies are adorable and sleepy and smell good, they say.

They also spit up on themselves, poop constantly and get weird baby pimples as they fatten up. No matter – babies in Spain wear perfume and outfits that clasp, snap and buckle, both of which I find outrageous. I opted for buying newborn clothes that were soft, durable and well-priced. Enrique had a few beautiful pieces sewn and embroidered for him by family members, which I saved for special occasions and outings. Most of the time, he was in a zip-up pajamas in the cooler months and onesies that snapped at the crotch in the summer.

My mother-in-law dotes on my son and pleaded to buy a number of big-ticket items despite having a number of hand-me-downs. She was especially proud to buy him his first pair of shoes when he began to stand, but I was surprised when two came in the box. One pair were lovely brown boots to dress up a look, whereas the others were what we Midwestern Americans call gym shoes. “Well, because you don’t dress him like the other mothers. He’s ‘sporty.’”

While there was absolutely no malice, she was right: I didn’t dress my child like the rest of the mothers (and I didn’t always dress myself up to leave the house, either – gasp!). I found the clasps and snaps a hinderance during a blowout caca, and considered his comfort over being adorable.

Thankfully, all of the baby perfumes were re-gifted as soon as we discovered Enrique is prone to dermatitis. A baby who pooped himself still smells like poop, even masked by a thick veil of Tous perfume for newborns (and who spends that much money on a baby perfume?!).

Breastfeeding, solid foods and when kids eat

I breastfed Enrique exclusively until he was four months old, something I felt pressured to do. It was time-consuming and he had reflux, but on the flip side I could do it anywhere (out to lunch! At the movies! On an airplane!) without scrambling to find a microwave or shelling out money for formula. We moved on to cereal at four months and were advised to start solids at six.

Enrique is a pretty good eater, but I was shocked when the pediatrician suggested his first lean meat come fro her barnyard friend, the horse, and that he should try kiwi at six – which landed him in the ER with a rash. In the US, we typically start on mushed veggies and certainly do not eat horse (my mother was silently weeping when I mentioned this to her).

Don’t let this picture fool you – Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Kike’s favorite foods now are mostly kid friendly: fish sticks, yogurt and hot dogs. But he’ll also eat a full cocido marileño, is capable of eating an entire tapa of marinated olives and asks for bocadillos de foie for a snack. O sea, español when it comes to eating.

Bedtime and schedules

Spanish children go to bed extremely late. My friends – even the Americans – gasp when I tell them that my bedtime was 7:30 p.m. until I was 8, after which I could read until 8pm but that lights out was to be adhered to – no matter how late it got dark in the summer.

In casually mentioning that my kiddo is usually in bed by 9pm, I am met with bewildered looks. But when does he eat?! Around 7:30 or 8pm, right after his bath. Don’t you lay with him until he falls asleep? Nope, we have a bedtime routine after which I say, “Now Mommy is going to have dinner.” Enrique was not a good crib sleeper, but he leaves me to have some adult time in the evening.

Likely talking grandma into not having a nap

My biggest thing is that my son’s designated nap time at daycare is right in the middle of the day, which is when we’d ideally like to be outside on cooler days or taking friends up on plans for meals. I am moderately strict on the weekends with both nap times and bedtimes, even when there are some tears (even from my friends when I tell them the time won’t work for me).

We also let him sleep late on the weekends. There is nothing better than me waking up on my own at 8am and having a cup of coffee and mindlessly scrolling through social media before I have to start the trudge through changing diapers and clothes and fighting against the TV. Speaking of…

Having the TV on all the time

This is as Spanish to me as a tortilla – Spanish households seem to have the TV on at every moment of the day, and my kiddo asks for Pocoyo as soon as he’s lucid in the morning. I try not to use no TV as a punishment and encourage him to play with his toys or color before he’s pushing the remote buttons and mine.

Family roles and relying on grandparents more

When I was a child, we lived five hours away from both sets of grandparents, so my earliest memories of being at home are with my mother. When she comes, 100% of her energy is focused on my son, and he knows Grandma speaks English, and Abuela speaks Spanish. I have only gotten a babysitter once, and that babysitter was a family member who traded a Saturday night out for Netflix and a pizza.

Dueling grandpas

Grandparents are very involved in Spain, particularly because both parents tend to work in major urban areas. It’s common to see grandparents pushing strollers, at the pediatrician and hanging out at the park. Some of my friends’ children do not even go to daycare but spend all day with their abuelos.

More than two years in and expecting my second, I feel like I have struck a balance. A Spanish friend of mine once said, you either raise a child “a la alemana,” or according to a strict schedule, or “a la gitana” or with the kiddo in charge.

Not a politically correct way to call it, but I am trying to raise Enrique and Millan “a la sevillamericana” – a hybrid of American and Spanish ideals and parenting habits. This all goes out the window when we’re in casa de los abuelos: his Spanish grandparents let him stay up until he is falling over, force feed him chocolate and homemade pudding and allow the TV to babysit. Still, I appreciate the closeness they’ve developed with Enrique and their desire to be involved or let this frazzled mom go have a haircut in relative peace.

Advice for being an expat parent abroad

Being a parent is a hard job, no matter how you slice it. It takes patience, humbling and some commiserating. Add to that cultural and often linguistic barriers, and you’ll find that the highs are extremely high, and the lows can feel crushing.

I often ask other expat parents in Spain for their advice and ideas for exploiting the fact that my children will grow up as not only bilingual but bicultural – and likely without noticing the difference between the two.

Perhaps the hardest part for me is doing so with my parents so far away, and knowing that their experience raising two kids in the 90s was way different than the issues and challenges I’ll face in the new millennium. It’s a frequent topic of discussion when we have our weekly chats: “You know, Catherine, things were just so different!”

Seek out other parents – both expats and locals – to help you navigate and lend a hand if you need childcare. A friend of mine came to visit Seville with her husband and two girls, and I loved watching them while my friends had dinner out for once. She’s been inspirational and helpful in seeing what’s coming and having the shared experience as an American mother raising children in Spain.

Remember that your child needs the fundamentals first – food, shelter and your love and attention. The rest will figure itself out. If you lead by example and encourage your child, he will learn (even if that means a watch down the toilet, having the kid with a dirty school uniform because you forgot to run a load of laundry or a house littered with toys and crumbs).

Don’t compare yourself to what everyone else is doing. There is no handbook to parenting, and especially a handbook to parenting abroad. They say in Spanish, cada niño es un mundo, and it’s true: each child is different, and so is every family. You will do the best you can if you believe in the work you’re doing. And you will mess up, so get over that fast.

I’m 30 weeks pregnant with another little boy (have you missed me on the blog?) and preparing for a second isn’t so much about researching car seats and ironing onesies – it’s about making peace with the fact that chaos is coming, that there will be four of us, that my body will turn back into a milking cow, a pillow and a punching bag. Now, who has advice for not losing my shit when I’m nursing one and scolding the other?

Have you noticed any other odd parenting habits in Spain or the country where you live? 

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Like any traveler, I have pet peeves about tripping, from tipping to sipping to the fact that my SBB Swiss train app for trains in Switzerland when a ticket collector is hovering over me.

Perhaps the biggest are wasting time figuring out where I am (unless I am purposely wandering) or not knowing enough about what I’m looking at – or stressing out over where to eat something more than mediocre food. I find myself scouring in-flight magazines for insider tips (to then resort to tearing out pages) or scribbling notes on work documents as I attempt to catalogue my trip.

During my last travel season – one that saw me in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany twice and Austria – I wanted to maximize my time away from the virtual office without having to do all of the legwork ahead of time. I downloaded GPSMyCity thanks to an invitation to test drive the app and planned my afternoons loosely – from hitting a new neighborhood near the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris to tackling emails from quaint cafes in Vienna.

The best part? I could do it all without wifi and without using my data thanks to a nominal upgrade to the app.

GPSMyCity has more than 6500 walks and wanders throughout more than 1000 cities worldwide that are available straight to you device. You can add not just cities, but the type of trip you want – offbeat, cultural or something to hit all of the monuments. It’s easy to navigate and free to use with your data.

The app does more than just help you navigate around a new city: you can access thousands of articles from travel bloggers and read them in-app when you’re to touring or even download ahead of time for a small fee, without using your data or incurring roaming charges when you’re pounding the pavement (or are too far from a signal). I was exploring itineraries offline while at 20,000 feet and without trying to connect to the horrendous wifi on the Deutschebahn trains, a definite plus of the offline capabilities of GPSMyCity.

GPSMyCity is offering a FREE upgrade of three of my articles during this entire week (February 18 – February 25, 2019), and I want you to see just how these guides and articles can help you not run around in circles looking for monuments, hidden gems or a decent place to eat.

The following Sunshine and Siestas posts are highlighted this week:

Visiting Seville: Alternatives to the Tourist Beat, an article that explores by favorite off-beat ideas for a trip to the capital of Andalusia.

Where to Eat in Barcelona, which includes a few picks for great eateries in Barcelona that won’t leave you feeling empty (neither your stomach nor your wallet nor your soul after scouring the Barri Gotic for something semi-authentic).

Five Things to Do in Madrid with Kids, with my favorite things to do with little ones in Spain’s largest city.

You can also browse any of the following SandS articles in the app for free:

Why should I download a travel article for later use?

While most people stay connected while they’re traveling, there’s a clear benefit to downloading articles ahead of time: you can catalogue your findings without having to go back and try to search a particular website or topic. And because these guides and articles are written by other travelers, you get on-the-ground insight and the exact GPS coordinates of every place mentioned within the post. If your phone is anything like mine, not having to turn on your location finder is reason enough.

How can I upgrade for free?

First, you should download GPSMyCity to your preferred smartphone device; the app is compatible with both iOS and Android systems. Then, you can click on one of the articles linked above and either read directly for free this week, or upgrade to be able to save the post to your phone for future, non-data wasting use.

I’m headed to Zaragoza this week and have already downloaded a few maps and an article from my friend Kate from Kate’s Travel Tips to help me take advantage of my free time.
Disclaimer: if you buy any of the guides from GPSMyCity that I have published, I will receive a small commission that helps keep Sunshine and Siestas up and running. I use GPSMyCity myself when I’m traveling for work around Europe!
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The Epiphany is one of my most beloved Spanish Christmas traditions. Not only does it extend my holidays by a few days, but the Cabalgata parade means that candy literally rains down the streets of San Jacinto. Spanish children await their gifts from three wise men who travel on camels, distributing gifts (or coal) much like the Magi did when they traveled to see the Messiah. Santa Claus is making waves in Spain, but Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar are three of the most recognizable faces for a Spanish child.

Apart from collecting hard candies that will serve as bribes for my students until June, people also gobble up the Roscón de Reyes, a sweet cake filled with cream or truffle fluff that’s traditionally served during the afternoon of January 6th.

What it is: A panettone-like cake made from flour, sugar, eggs, butter, milk and yeast, plus a few spices. Sliced open in the middle, the cake also has cream in the middle and is decorated with sugar-dipped fruits and sliced almonds. It’s essentially the first cousin of a King’s Cake, traditionally eaten in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday.

Where it’s from: Roscón – and its variants – have long been served in Spain on the Epiphany. The tradition actually began in Rome, when cakes commemorating the Three Wise Men’s search for Christ were served first to the poor and then divvied up for soldiers on the 12th night after Christmas. He who found the lima bean within the cake was exempt from work that day.

Nowadays, the person who finds a small plastic baby is the King or Queen of the afternoon, whereas the unlucky recipient of the bean must often pay for the cake the following year!

Goes great with: Coffee – it helps cut down on all the sugar you just consumed.

Where to find it in Seville: Roscón is one of those dishes that you’re better off buying – without a Thermomix, it’s pretty laborious! Head to any confitería and reserve one (I prefer Filella and Lola in Triana), or even pick one up in a supermarket if you’re in a pinch – a cake for 8 people will run you about 20€.

The Three Kings have a completely new significance for me – my son was born on January 4th and received a visit from Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar before leaving the hospital. In fact, we were released from the hospital on the Epiphany, only to be told that the Cabalgata was passing right in front of the hospital. My first food at home after his birth was Roscón, and the small toy tiger my fatherin-in-law bit into that night will forever be treasured.

If you like the Three Kings Cake, try some other convent sweets like Huesos de Santos, Yemas de San Lorenzo or Roscas de Vino.

Have you ever tried Roscón de Reyes?

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Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or a lottery announcement that has you break down and run to your nearest Lotería stand (looking at you, Faustino in the mannequin factory) but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes.

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up according to Nancy’s standards. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts roasting on an open fire on every street corner.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights are officially on during the first weekend in December.

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aesthetic than actually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we Americans have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see livestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes in Seville are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. Just look for the signs that say “Nacimiento” or “Belen” and you’re bound to find one. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market in Seville that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Seville's Nativity Market - YouTube

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings along main thoroughfares. Expect your light bill to be less if you live near one of these streets – lights stay up until the Epiphany on January 6th and turn on as early as 6pm. It’s worth grabbing a cone of castañas and wandering around the center of town.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes as in America – what happens at work parties…

Most bars and restaurants put out special Christmas deals, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol, to entice companies to book at their locales. I usually do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and every subsequent Spanish Christmas, I can be found drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends. My mother was appalled when I suggested having lunch at a restaurant on Christmas Day this year!

…and those I don’t like

Los Peces en el Rio - YouTube

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE, though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior).

There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee).

And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. We’ve drank glühwein at Christmas markets, skiied in Colorado and even stolen grilled cheese sandwiches in Ireland!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

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Extremadura is one of those places you want everyone to know about, but also want to have entirely to yourself. 

Nestled between Madrid and Andalusia, it’s an oft-overlooked part of Spain and not easy to explore without a car. Rich in history, the western plains of Spain were home to the largest and most powerful Roman cities in Hispania, as well as the birthplace of the conquistadores who conquered much of Latin and South America. This legacy has been left in the jewels littered throughout the comunidad autónoma in Guadalupe’s sprawling monastery, the monument-rich Cáceres and Roman Mérida.

In many ways, spending time in Extremadura can make you feel like time has stopped, but even Spaniards look at it with disdain, citing poor transportation links and a lack of things to do. Just like Americans can’t place Iowa on a map, Extemadura to many Spaniards is a corner of Spain that serves as a gateway to Portugal and Andalucía, and little else.

Suckers.

When a free weekend came up in July, I called up two friends in Sevilla and one in Madrid, and we met in the middle. The town of Trujillo is equidistant between the capital of Spain and the capital of Andalusia, and an easy jaunt on the A-5 highway that connects the southwest of Spain and central Portugal to Madrid.

Follow the trail of the Conquistadores

Name any conqueror from the 16th Century. Save a select few, the big names all came from Extremadura – Pizarro, Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés. Loyal to the Spanish crown, they claimed a sizeable chunks of land, changing the course of history and effectively bringing the Spanish language, culture and communicable diseases to the New World.

Ever drawn the conclusion that of South America’s great cities are named for Spanish towns? Most of those pueblos, like Medellín or even Trujillo, are extremeño towns. On my first trip to Extremadura, a lifelong extremeña told me that the name of her comunidad autónoma came from these mean from the far-lying (extre) provinces whose lives were hardened on the western plains (madura). Take it for what you will, but extremeños have since been known for their gumption.

The cornerstone of an already gorgeous main square, the Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, the Palacio de la Conquista’s erection was financed largely in part by the riches Pizarro brought back from Peru. It sits at the bottom of a hill that is crowned by a crumbling alcazaba, and the stone mansions and plazas that tumble down are of note.

It’s honestly one of the most beautiful villages I’ve been to in Spain, and I’ve been to a lot.

Many of the palaces have since been converted into hotels and restaurants, but a morning walk will allow you to see the highlights. Aside from whether or not they pillaged or brought disease, the architectural legacy is staggering. Oh, and Pizarro reputedly brought over a Spanish food staple – tomatoes.

If you want to go further afield and have a car, Trujillo is about equidistant to Cáceres and Mérida, the administrative capital of Extremadura. The Tourism Board suggests the Ruta de los Descubridores, which traces from Plasencia to Trujillo before heading west to Cáceres. Continuing south, you’ll get to Villanueva de la Serena, Medellīn and Mérida; the outpost of Badajóz is a bit further out but is the last stop.

Day trips to Guadalupe and Yuste / the Jerte Valley

My first go at Trujillo was at the hand of a contest won by Trujillo Villas. We had a long weekend, a car and plenty of time to kill on our way up the A-66. Turning off at Valdivia, a small suburb of Villanueva de la Serena (surprise! home to conquistador Pedro de Valdivia), the road snakes into the foothills towards the town of Guadalupe and the Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe.

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to worship. It’s even one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is well-deserving of the nod. Seriously. Do not miss this one.

Further north and part of the Sierra de Gredos lie a number of small hamlets that look like they belong in Shakespeare’s novels than rural Spain. The Gargantas, or a series of natural pools in the foothills, and its largest town, Garganta la Olla, is worth a few hours’ walk to stretch your legs and lunch.

Just 10 minutes northeast of Garganta la Olla is the Monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste, one of Spain’s patrimonial highlights and where Holy Roman Emporer Charles V retired to live out his days. Formerly inhabited by Hieronymite and boasting picturesque views of the almond tree-covered countryside it’s no wonder he made the treacherous trip from Madrid to Yuste (and El Escorial wouldn’t be ordered to be built for another five years anyway).

While it was a disappointment to us with pushy tour guides and a steep price tag, the drive through almond trees in bloom and waterfalls was worth the extra kilometers.

Other towns you might want to explore are Zafra, south of Mérida, and Jerez de los Caballeros. Or, really any town with a castle.

Eat

Extremadura prides itself on its food – from hearty game and foul and some of the best jamón ibérico de bellota to Torta del Casar, the notoriously stinky cheese (believe me when I saw it smells like feet). Famous for its sweet, smoked paprika and hearty, little-consumed wines. For its sweets and earthy breads. Characterized by its simplicity and complexity (like all great Spanish dishes), you can eat on the cheap just about anywhere in the region.

In a small city like Trujillo, there are few options. I had been to famed Casa Troya, a locale famous for its location on the Plaza Mayor and its patronage, on a previous visit and was not ready to return. The first night, restless but tired after our early wake up calls for work and the drive, we settled on Hermanos Marcelo in the square for their croquetas and plenty of helpings of embutidos, or cured meats.

On Saturday morning, we were able to sneak on a last-minute tour of Bodegas Habla, located just to the south of the village.

In operation from 1999, Bodegas Habla is one of the newest and most innovative wineries in all of Spain – and it produces a table wine that can be drunk as if it was a special occasion. I don’t pretend to know anything about wine other than that it’s made from grapes and I like it less than beer, but I bought into the energy, the marketing and the experience of Habla.

The tour and tasting cost 13€, which included four wines – their signature Habla del Silencio, Rita, Habla de tí and a limited edition 13. You can contact the Bodega at habla@bodegashabla.com for more information and availability.

While there is parking on-site, please consider finding a designated driver or calling a local taxi. We opted for the latter and, true to his word, he came back in two hours for us and dropped us right off at the restaurant La Alberca.

Perhaps Trujillo’s biggest draw is their Feria del Queso de Trujillo, an artisan fair dedicated solely to cheese. Held around May 1st each year, around 200,000 people are drawn to the Plaza Mayor for activities and tastings centered around goat and sheep cheeses. Area restaurants create special menus in which local cheeses are the main feature. Considering how much I love cheese, I’m shocked I haven’t made it there yet.

Where to eat in Trujillo?

If you’re spending any time in Trujillo, skip Casa Troya and make sure to make a reservation at La Alberca (C/Cambrones, 8). Between the stone walls and the breezy patio, plus a selection of wines from the region – D.O. Tierra de Barro is a great choice if you’re feeling adventurous or want something hearty – this place delivered on food, service and experience. We got away with about 18€ a head.

The Takeaway

I first saw Trujillo driving up to Valladolid with the Novio after about four months living in Seville. The fortress seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the plains, and I pressed my nose to the window to see it from all angles. It may be small, but it packs that distinctly Spanish punch: the wine, the food and the cultural legacy make it worthy of stopping for a night or if you’re en route to Cáceres. In fact, put Extremadura in general on your list.

Have you been to Trujillo and Extremadura? Anything I missed on this list?

Here’s a little plug for our super cute AirBnB with two terraces and gorgeous views down to the Plaza Mayor. We seriously loved this place so much that we decided to not even go out but just drink wine and play boardgames! It’s a gem and you can park nearby.

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In a little old house that was covered with vines,
lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.

For as long as I can remember, I have been borderline obsessed with Paris. I blame my mom, who bought me Madeline books. Remember how the book started?

My house was neither old nor plant-covered. But I had a lamp shaped like the Eiffel Tower and black and white postcards of Paris in the 30s that I garnered at a rummage sale tacked to my bulletin board.

Growing up in the suburbs of a major city, my jaunts into Chicago seemed to go along with the soundtrack of a coming-of-age movie from the 80s: I wanted to live and breath the big city lights, maybe work for a glossy and have a string of good-looking boyfriends. Which is the plot to essentially every movie that came out when I was a teen.

When I asked my mom to let me study French in middle school, she told me Spanish would be far more useful in a future career. At 13, I didn’t know that learning another language would allow me to pivot from magazine editor to ESL teacher. Not as glamorous as I’d hoped, of course, but everyone starts somewhere.

“We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.”

Ever since I read Adam Gopnick’s account of expatriated life in the French capital, “Paris to the Moon,” I was resolute that I’d live abroad at some point in my life. I didn’t particularly love the book – required reading for one of my college courses about Parisian architecture – but I did love what it represented: freedom, adventure and a healthy dose of red tape.

My class was meant to be a study in Eiffel and Hausmann. Instead, it was two Midwesterners waxing poetic about the bistros and brasseries just steps away from the Sorbonne. Iowa City is 4,291 miles away from Paris, but that Spring 2005 class somehow seemed to push me towards Europe and towards a city that held so many of my teenaged dreams.

I’d had one of those soul-restoring deep sleeps and woke up early on the first truly autumnal Sundays in Paris. My work trips always fall on a Sunday – a godsend for catching Parisians at play but nearly impossible for eating anything decent. I put on a Mango dress that passed as a raggedy version of Chanel and some lipstick and took the RER down to Luxembourg.

Gopnick often wrote about taking his young son to the Luxembourg gardens – in fact, it’s on the cover of the original 2000 book, a collection of essays he wrote for the New Yorker. I’ve criss-crossed Paris on half a dozen occasions, but usually as the tote-along on a first timer’s foray into Paris, or as a 24-hour stopover punctuating a long work trip. I purposely booked the last Eurostars train out of London so that I could take advantage of a late September morning and visit the park.

Armed with a baguette (fine, it was left over from my London trip and a little soggy) and a jacket draped over my arm, I found the eastern gate of the gardens, constructed in the 17th Century by Marie de Midici. It was just before noon and the Eiffel tower peeked over golden-tipped leaves, reflected in the small, circular pool. My college professors has spoken about the Palace du Luxembourg – its history, its current use in the French senate – but I was contented to have it as a backdrop to the children sailing model boats, their flags and colors somewhat tattered, on the pool.

Olive green metal chairs ring the basin, some reclining towards the sky. I dragged a free sear on the southwest side of the park towards the sun and unwrapped my sandwich. A man crumbled the end of his baguette and fed it to a pigeon while a mother scolded her child in French for nearly climbing into the pool after the stick he was using to guide the boat drifted away from his fingertips. Chatter came from all around me in about half a dozen languages. I’ve always said said markets and plazas were the best place to catch Spaniards wrapped up in everyday life; in Paris, it’s Luxembourg.

Somehow, everything and everyone is picturesque and chic and unsoiled here.

Hell, even my soggy baguette tasted magical because I was eating it in Paris.

“This can shake you up, this business of things almost but not quite being the same. 
A pharmacy is not quite a drugstore; a brasserie is not quite a coffee shop; 
a lunch is not quite a lunch.” 

As a perennial American abroad, I now see my own adulthood reflected in Gopnick’s telling of the mundane – as well as the truly fantastic – parts of expat life. I didn’t know it at the time, but the cadence of my life in Spain would be similar: everything and nothing is the same as back home.

Later that afternoon, post-recruitment event and a few cheeky beers with colleagues, I returned on foot to the garden. Nestled between the 5eme and 6eme arrondisments, I had two choices: using Luxembourg as my anchor, I could follow a foot map along the highlights of the district, or wander around. My professors had laid out all of the 5ème for me, so I veered into the 6ème.

Snaking down the Rue du Condé that flanks the Odéon theatre towards the Sorbonne, some of the major highlights the professors talked about in class were suddenly right in front of me. Every alleyway offered me a glimpse into the allure of Paris. Long-legged university students pulled their jackets tighter as they glided down the steps of the Sorbonne’s medical school. It all seemed so Truman Show – until the cost of a beer and the snobbery when I asked to pay with a card brought this Midwesterner right back.

In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, 
and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.

Gopnick’s wife says, upon deciding to return home, that “In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.” I find my experience to be the contrary: my life feels fuller and far more rosy in Spain.

Since that class, ARTH 3020: Paris and the Art of Urban Life, the Parisian joie de vivre and, alas, European life and the string of attractive (foreign) boyfriends has alluded me. My life in Spain is often chaotic and has a noticeable lack of afternoons whiled away at the brasserie down the block. But the small victories and the sobremesa and the afternoons in a complete trance over how I ended up here are fuel. They’re what has kept me in Spain.

I’m sure that, had I chosen Paris over Seville, I’d be fighting the urge to look at my phone while my child played with a model boat at Luxembourg. And that I’d have stepped in something or spilled on myself or still gotten a zit at an inopportune moment.

Every time I return to my childhood bedroom, I switch on the gaudy Eiffel Tower lamp and drag a finger along the dozen or so books that I haven’t given away. Paris to the Moon is one of them, standing between the Michelin Le Guide Vert that was its class companion and a well-worn copy of a Let’s Go Europe book, published in the same year as the summer I spent in Spain. In an age where mobile phones dictate where we travel and what we share – and even prevent us from losing ourselves in a city – the book is a tangible reminder of the life I chose in Spain.

“There are two kinds of travelers. 
There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see, and the kind who has 
an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. 
The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more.”

If you’re my kind of traveler, you enjoy meandering around and taking it all in rather than ticking sites off of a list. I’ve been to Paris half a dozen times and have done all of the big draws, so this time I wanted to wander through a new arrondisment on a free evening I had in the French capital.

I used the GPS MyCity app for points of interest around the 5ème and 6ème during my afternoon off in Paris – you can easily download sightseeing or local haunts maps and use them offline in more than 1000 cities worldwide.

Comment below for your chance to win a year’s subscription to GPSMyCity and tell me a city you love to get lost in or hope to soon!

Disclosure: I was not paid for this post but GPSMyCity kindly offered me a one-year Premium Pass, which I’ll also us in Vienna next week. All opinions are my own.

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I have lived in Spain for eleven years – we are now in the double digits. The only things I’ve stuck to for longer have been gymnastics (12 years) and driving a car (17 years). As September comes and goes each year, the nostalgia kicks in as I remember lugging two overstuffed suitcases from Chicago to Madrid to Granada to Triana. What a long, strange, tapa-filled journey it’s been.

As I approached my ten year Spaniversary, I had planned to write a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the things that make me scratch my head about Spain, weaving in the acclamation process that took a good, darn year. But, parenthood and a busy work schedule meant that that post is still in drafts (I’ll get there by my 20th Spaniversary, promise).

Despite slagging blog and social media activity, I somehow still have page views, followers of my ho-hum #momlife and emails from readers and people who find me organically through Google. Don’t let the out of office message fool you – I love reading them and I appreciate them.

I always think, “I can should turn this question into a blog post.” But rather than eleven separate posts, I did a non-scientific study of what you guys emailed and Facebook messaged me about to celebrate 11 years of Spanish red tape and all that comes with it, and I’ve honed down my long-winded emails so that you’re not overwhelmed with word count or information.

Have more questions? Throw ’em in the comments!

How can I legally stay in Spain as an American?

Apart from emails about my favorite places to eat in Seville, I get several emails each week about how to work in Spain and how to legally stay in Spain. Many of you are language assistants or veterans of study abroad in Spain.

I get it. Spain got under my skin, too.

When I was considering making Spain a long-term thing, I looked into just about everything.

Guess what y’all: you have it way easier than I did in 2010.

I knew about the loopholes for getting an Irish passport (my dad was not listed on the Foreign Birth Registry, so that was out). There was a difficult-to-attain freelancer visa that I would have had to hustle to get – and I was still on blogger.com. I could get married, but that seemed like an awkward conversation to a Spanish boyfriend who proudly proclaimed he’d never get married (about that…).

I found out that I essentially had three options, apart from the whole ring thing: I could try and find a contract to modify my student status to a one-year work and residency permit, known as arraigo social; I could start working for a company under the table and rat them out under arraigo laboral, or I could continue on a student visa, obtained through a Master’s program I’d been admitted to, and start earning years towards residency as a civil partner. Modificación and cuenta propia were not buzzwords, nor were they paths to residency in Spain at that time.

So, I set out to try and find a job contract. I spend hours crafting cover letters, hand writing addresses of schools and language academies and licking stamps. Every 10 or 12, I’d reward myself with Arrested Development. I waited for the job offers to roll in but… they did not. In Spain, working legally is a bit of a catch-22: you need a work permit to get a job, and you need a job to get a work permit.

Very Spainful to spend a summer stressing out over staying legal, making money and not having to crawl back to America, tail between your legs.

Dreaming of being legal in Spain

In all fairness, I was up against a lot: the arraigo social was a long-shot because teaching contracts tend to be only for nine-ten months. I’d also been out of the Schengen Zone for longer than the allotted time (120 days in three years) and had passport stamps to prove it. I couldn’t denunciar the Spanish government for legally employing me, either. Feeling overwhelmed and in desperate need of 20 minutes in an air-conditioned office, I headed to the U.S. Consulate in Seville (which, by the way, does not do residency or visa consultations for Americans in Spain), and the then-consular agent told me to renew my student visa como fuera.

Thankfully, I’d applied to do a Master’s in Spanish and had an acceptance letter and enrollment certificate. I deferred my enrollment for financial hardship but it had bought me a bit of time to not let my residency card lapse. I’d discover later that you can apply for a TIE card renewal up to 90 days after its expiration, but I was in survival mode (and I seriously doubt that Exteriores even had a website at that time).

If my house ever catches fire, my mountains of extrajería paperwork means that it will burn fast.

An overnight bus trip later, I stood in line at the Foreigner’s Office in Madrid, only to be told I’d need an appointment. I plead my case, blaming it on the university taking its sweet time to send my documents and the lack of available appointments, and they told me to come back that following Friday. Back to Seville on the six hour overnight bus I went, returning three days later and having registered my padrón certificate with my brother-in-law.

When it was my turn at the eleventh hour, literally at 4pm the day before my residency card expired, I lied through my teeth and said I was going to begin a master’s program. I remember her making some snide remark about sevillanos. As soon as I had the stamp on my EX-00, I long-distance dialed my mom in the US and told her she could transfer all the money, used as proof of financial solvency for my renewal, back out of my bank account.

As all of this was happening, I attended an American Women’s Club tapas welcome party for new members, as I was considering joining anyway. The woman I sat next to casually mentioned something called pareja de hecho. Doing this would make me the de facto executor of the Novio’s will, and would make him my de-facto owner and keeper. I wasn’t cool with that explanation from the funcionario, but I rolled with it because it gave me residency permission, and I could work legally for 20 hours on my student visa.

Spanish bureaucracy is no cake walk

And so began the wild goose paperwork chase around Andalucía (including a brief pit stop in Fuengirola, Málaga).

You know the rest – a change in the stable partner laws while our paperwork was processing allowed me to work legally and build years towards permanent residency. But apart from that, it changed my mindset from taking Spain and my life here on a year-by-year basis, and it was a clear sign from the Novio that we were in this for more than just the language goof ups and someone to have a cheeky midday beer with.

So what is pareja de hecho?

Pareja de hecho meant no long distance relationship for the Novio and me.

The closest equivalent to pareja de hecho in the US would be a civil union; in fact, people seeking fiancé visas to the United States usually have undergone the PdH process. Simply put, you have nearly all of the benefits of being married, but without the financial implications (in Spain, anyhow) or the ring.

Pareja de hecho allows the non-EU partner to work and reside legally in Spain, have access to state healthcare and move about the EU without a passport. It’s assumed that your partner will not be your “keeper” but proving financial solvency is an element when you later apply for your residency card, and your finances will stay separate unless you choose otherwise.

Pareja de hecho is also called pareja estable or uniones de hecho.

I want to do pareja de hecho. How can I apply for pareja de hecho / pareja estable?

Want to legalize your love? Pareja de hecho is one way to stay in Spain legally as a non-EU citizen.

But ojo: paperwork and eligibility for pareja de hecho differs from one autonomous community to another. Some, like Andalucía or Navarra, will allow the non-EU partner to be on a student visa or even apply with just a passport, whereas Castilla y León will not. Galicia wins the living-in-sin game, as interested parties must have lived together on a registered padrón municipal for two years or more. Both sets of islands will only let Spanish citizens, and not other Europeans, apply.

Sometimes, crazy is the only way to survive (in Spain)

To qualify, both members of the party generally have to be 18 or older, not related and able to enter into a legal partnership on your own free will. From there, requirements vary by the community – and sometimes even the province – in which you’re applying. Your local government will have resources about documentation and application process. And don’t forget that once you have your certificate in hand, you’ll still have to apply for your shiny new residency card (tarjeta comunitaria)!

In hindsight, pareja de hecho was probably the easiest bureaucratic matter I’ve had to deal with in Spain – I’m serious. And if you don’t believe me, I co-wrote an eBook about it (use LEGALLOVE5 for a 5€ discount in COMO’s online shop!)!

All’s fair in love and bureaucracy, right?

How did you get into teaching abroad? Do I need to have a TEFL or CELTA to teach in Spain?

I proudly marched off the plane in July 2005 after a summer abroad and announced I’d be moving back to Europe after graduation. My parents even encouraged me to do a year or two abroad.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Senior year, after the obligatory flippy cup game and textbook buying, I visited the Office of Study Abroad on my campus to ask how to move abroad after graduation; one of the peer mentors told me about the Spanish government’s North American Language and Culture Assistant program, which would allow me to teach 12 hours a week in a public school in exchange for 631,06€ a month, private healthcare and a student visa. I was offered a position in Andalucía two weeks before graduation.

I needed a TEFL certificate to teach at an English academy

The auxiliar program was a positive experience for me, and I found that I was actually pretty good at teaching phrasal verbs and producing gap fills. My coordinator gave me free reign in the classroom, so at the end of my three years, I felt ready to make teaching my career, even going as far as applying for a Master’s in Secondary and Bilingual Education.

Remember all of those hand-written envelopes? I got a few bites, but the work papers was always the snag. When my pareja de hecho lawyer called to tell me I could get a Spanish social security number, I marched right over to the social security office and later that week, caught that damn overnight bus to pick up my residency card. I had a standing job offer and started work as Seño Miss Cat the following week.

When I left the private school – I was overworked and underpaid, and I didn’t have enough time for blogging and freelancing – I jumped into the English academy world. Having heard horror stories about payment and contract issues, I was wary but needed a way to work while completing a master’s program, so I figured the part-time schedule and academic year to academic year commitment was doable. I was offered the Director of Studies position midway through the year and stayed on until our move to Madrid.

When I get asked whether or not a TEFL or CELTA is necessary, I always give the same advice: if you want to work for a reputable academy, you should have a certificate. Not only does this make you more attractive to an employer, but it gives you footing if it’s your first time in front of a classroom. I agree that experience is the best teacher but Spain is the land of titulítis.

Is a CELTA or TEFL preferred to teach in Spain? While TEFL certificates are king in Asia and South America, many language schools in Spain will require a CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults). There’s good reason for this: the CELTA prepares you to teach the Cambridge Language Exams, which is a language level test that most academies offer.

I don’t really miss teaching as I thought I would, but mostly because I really like what I’m doing now. I do, however, miss my two-month vacation!

What do you do for a living? How did you get into university admissions?

After nine years in the classroom, a Facebook post changed my career rumbo. An American university in Spain was looking for an admissions counselor. I read the job description: people skills, basic computer skills, work permission in Spain. I could handle that. I wrote a fun cover letter, added a picture of myself on the school’s U.S. campus and sent off an email to HR and the Director of Admissions – less than a month later, I had an offer.

A clue to the institution I work for – from one oddball mascot to the next!

Working for an American-style company (it’s an S.A., which is why I got paid maternity leave and am in the Spanish social security system) is a serious dream. My role includes representing the university in recruitment events in my geographic zone, reading applications, counseling students on visas, and overseeing recruitment and marketing for our graduate programs. It’s a fun challenge, and I’m still in education – and I am using my journalism chops at long last. Like many elements of my life in Spain, patience and perhaps some karma helped tremendously.

Want to get into international student admissions? You should be personable, able to work independently and keep up with trends in enrollment, higher education and whatever social media a teenager would be into. You should also be willing to answer very, very mundane questions. Working for a small, niche school has its challenges, so every enrolled student feels like a win – especially when you met that student at a college fair, set up a campus visit, helped them choose classes, and given them a hug at orientation.

As schools begin to look abroad (Fall 2019’s cohort was born the same year as 9-11, eh, meaning less kids to go around), many universities are amping up recruitment efforts abroad. Even in Spain, think beyond study abroad!

What is your favorite post on your blog?

Sometimes when I hit publish, I am excited to see how my readers react. Most times, I’m like, “cool, cross that off my todoist app” because of the amount of work that goes into a post. Editing photos, choosing the right words and kinda caring about SEO. I can mull for days over how to frame a post – often choosing to wait a year so that it’s timely.

Asking me to choose my favorite post depends on what I have a craving for reading.

From itchy feet to firmly planted in Spain

Perhaps one of the posts I find myself going back and reading the most is The Guiri Complex (Or, why I Can’t Have it All). Pounded out on a keyboard shortly after an American food store opened in the same storefront where I’d bought a flamenco dress, I was wrestling with more than just an overpriced box of Cheerios and whether or not I wanted it: it was a moment where I was torn between the life I had built in Sevilla, and the life I thought I could have in the U.S.

Curious: do you guys have any posts you particularly like? I’d love to hear them!

What is the Novio’s real name?

I recently met up for a beer (well, like a dozen) with Joy of @joyofmadrid. As soon as we’d sat down, she said, “I’m so glad we can skip over the basics because we already know one another.”

Ah, youth. This was eight years ago.

I’m not exactly a public figure, but I realize that people know who I am, what I do and where I like to have a caña. But my husband is an extremely private person and someone who is not into social media, internet cookies (or regular cookies, actually) or sharing his personal life. I can respect that, and for this reason he shall remain nameless.

And, no, I did not move here for the Novio. But he’s part of the reason I stayed.

Will you ever return to the U.S.?

Great question. While I don’t want to close the door to returning to live..

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Croatia. The beautiful Mediterranean country has become the new Greece, and rightfully so: Croatia is full of seaside towns, gorgeous scenery and historical sites.

Tourism in Croatia is anchored around Dubrovnik: the impact of the HBO show Game Of Thrones on Croatia’s surge in popularity is impossible to ignore. Famously depicting a vast fantasy world, the show uses Dubvronik for some of its most stunning and iconic sets, and, coupled with social media, it has led droves of tourists to flock to the capital and experience the fantasy in real life.

As the Adriatic nation climbs up the world tourism ranks, there’s still a great deal to see and do beyond Dubrovnik. My first solo trip was to Zadar and Split – a RyanAir roulette had me on a plane to the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts for five days. From the first bite of cevapi, I was keen to return to some of the natural and cultural highlights of a broader exploration of Croatia.

Hvar Town

Hvar Island is not exactly off-the-beaten-path, given that it’s frequently mentioned as a top attraction in Croatia and located near the center of the country (Oh, and Lonely Planet named it “Best of the Best” in 2018, so go before it’s overrun with chain restaurants). From Split, it’s a quick ferry ride and my fondest memory of my night there were the cotton-candy pink sunsets over bobbing boats around an tucked-away bay.

The island boasts a beautiful seaside town where you can choose to soak up luxury or simply relax on the beach. The Old Town, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is crowned by an old fortress, red-tiled homes toppling down towards the bay.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Croatia has a few national parks, and Plitvice Lakes National Park is the crown jewel (and has an argument as Croatia’s most stunning destination). Essentially an opportunity for some nature-based sightseeing, it’s a lush area with over 90 waterfalls and 16 different lakes arranged like terraces – all with walkways winding through and around them. It’s hard to believe the area is natural, but aside from the walkways and a bit of grooming and upkeep, it is!

The national park is located inland, close to the Bosnian border, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pula Arena

Pula Arena, a 200 year old ampitheatre, is modeled after the Colliseum in Rome and is Croatia’s oldest monument. Dalmatian and Roman history is deep-rooted (Hvar was once an important commercial and military town), and Pula was at the center of their empire.

Today the arena is used for cultural programming but, architecturally speaking, it is noted for its four intact towers that once held cisterns that could be used for heat control. Do you think they could do that at the Giralda?

Casino Mulino

Romans weren’t the only people to settle in Croatia – Venetians made the Dalmatian coast part of their vast trading empire. When I spent time in Dubrovnik, it almost felt like I was in Italy – the cuisine and lifestyle echoed la dolce vita. In fact, the first known European casino was founded in the first half of the 17th Century in Venice, and many Croatian islands soon became known for scenery, beaches, and gambling.

Casino Hotel Mulino on Istria was recently hailed as one of the top casinos in the world to visit in 2018. This one has a classy European feel to it, and actually makes for a nice change of pace from more supercharged nightlife.

Diocletian’s Palace in Split

Another Roman relic dating back somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 years. This largely outdoor museum is believed to have been his vacation home in the beautiful area that is now the thriving coastal city of Split. It’s a fascinating historical landmark to explore and, like Pula Amphitheatre, is in surprisingly good shape.

Split itself merits time – as Croatia’s second largest city, it has traces of Venetian, Roman and Ottoman rule in its architecture and local culture and has brought up literary and artistic giants. The entire historic center is – you guessed it – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mljet

Mljet is another Dalmatian island (in fact, the country has more than 1000 islands!), but one to keep on your radar if you’re looking to get away from the major destinations, or even civilization to some extent. That’s not to say it’s by any means untouched, but  it’s an island full of forests and protected national park land, and with an intriguing connection to myth and history as a rumored favorite of the legendary hero Odysseus. In fact, you can even hike to a cave associated with this mammoth figure of lore! Your high school English teacher would be proud.

When should I visit Croatia?

You can get to Dubrovnik – as well as a number of other Croatian destinations – through budget airlines in Europe, and ferries operate from Italy and Greece.

Because of the surge in visitors, most would suggest shoulder season (May-June and Sept-Oct). My first visit was in early June, and I found half-empty ferries, cheap hostel beds and a lovely young Couchsurfing host who wasn’t yet jaded from all of the tourism.

If you’re in Dubrovnik, considering a pop down to Kotor, Montenegro. Europe’s youngest country is yet to be bombarded with tourists and is a budget alternative. Hayley and I did a road trip after getting our newly-minted EU licenses!

Have you ever been to Croatia, especially inland Croatia? I’d love to hear your tips!

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Madrid is a city of museums – there are nearly 50 of them, ranging from historical to whimsical. Once you’ve hit the big three – the unreal classic art collection at the Prado, the Reina Sofia, the modernist dream and home to Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, and the extensive private collection at the Borneo-Thyssen – there are loads of lesser-known museums that are well worth the time.  

If you’re looking for things to do on a rainy day in Madrid, these museums are open to the general public on most days and offer free afternoons or days throughout the year. Madrid’s cultural, historical and empirical legacy is one display at museums great and small, but here are the five best small museums in the Spanish capital: 

Casa / Estudio Joaquín Sorolla 

A museum so well hidden in the stately buildings of the Almagro district that you’d never know it was there. Joaquín Sorolla, a celebrated Valencian impressionist, worked and lived in this mansion and its tranquil gardens, designed by the artist himself. At the request of his widow, the home was turned over to the state in 1925 and houses the largest collection of his works. 

Known for his dreamy, light-filled images of the Spanish coasts, his salmon-colored studio also showcases dozens of his paintings and sketches – as well as his paint brushes, sculptures and period furniture. If you can’t make it to the Louvre or the Art Institute of Chicago, the Sorolla is a perfect alternative. 

Plan to spend about 90 minutes wandering the gardens and contemplating the artist’s work, the living quarters and the patio andaluz. There are seven separate galleries and nearly 1300 pieces on display. 

Museo de Arqueología Nacional  (MAN)

After a massive renovation, the National Archaeology Museum re-opened in 2014. Situated right off the Plaza de Colón in Barrio Salamanca, the museum chronicles human origins and the study of archeology, anthropology and sociology with a special focus on Spain. Ever since my first semester of college I’ve been fascinated by early hominids, housed on the first floor. As you snake up through the museum, you pass through millennia of human history and, indeed, Spain’s most important historical periods. 

The building itself is a treat: in 1867, Queen Isabel II (yes, she of Madrid’s Canal) subscribed to the European trend of creating a museum heralding Spain’s legacy to humankind. Drawing from innumerable private collections, more than 13,000 items are on display today. 

In 2008, the museum was shuttered for a six-year overhaul. Seen Night at the Museum? Those dusty display cases disappeared from the museum and exhibits became interactive, modernized and more fluid. The outer courtyards became enclosed to be used for sculpture and even a reconstructed tomb. 

Of special note is the Dama de Elche, a sculpture believed to have had a funerary purpose and depicting a wealthy woman form the 4th Century BC. Found near the town of Elche, she has become a symbol of Spain (even Iberia’s Chicago-Madrid aircraft is named for her!).

Other highlights are the Guarrazar Treasure and a crown worn by Visigoth king Recesvinto and the Bote de Zamora, a marble case expertly crafted by artisans in Medina al Zahara. 

This museum needs 3-4 hours, depending on how much you want to read and watch. I was crunched for time and had to hurry through the Egyptian and Islamic collections. As everything was well-explained, I don’t feel an audio guide would be necessary. 

There’s a free outdoor recreation of the 35,000-year-old charcoal paintings in the Atlamira caves with an inverted mirror. Located in Cantabria near Santillana del Mar, this UNESCO-lauded archaeological site is home to some of Europe’s oldest rock paintings, which depict animals like bison and horses. 

Real Fábrica de Tápices 

I had a chance meeting with a woman who worked in patrimonial conservation at the Royal Palace of Madrid. Like me, she had neglected to check in for a flight to Brussels and we were nearly bumped off the flight. As I helped her navigate the Brussels Airport and how to claim lost luggage, she told me about one of her favorite spots in Madrid: the Real Fábrica de Tápices. 

One of only two functioning tapestry factories in the world and in operation since the beginning of the 18th Century, the artisans – who train for 14 years! – generally make rugs and a few tapestries for royal families around the world nowadays. Moved in the late 19th Century to a building on the then-outskirts of Atocha, tapestries, primitive instruments still used today and gigantic looms fill a brick building. 

What my mom and I loved best was that you actually see the artisans at work. An exposed attic is filled with threads and wool of every color stands over a room dedicated to restoration and tapestries. The (mostly) women and apprentices work simultaneously on an enormous loom, a roadmap of markings and colors to which they tie tiny knots for 8 hours a day. Their hands and knuckles reveal tick marks and rope burn from the threads. Another long nave sees about a dozen younger workers who learn the trade on commissioned rugs. 

If you’re looking for a museum dedicated solely to tapestries, head out of the city to La Granja de San Ildefonso and pay for the museum entrance. The majority of the Spanish crown’s tapestries are located here. 

Museo del Traje 

While names like Balenciaga or Blahnik are household names, Spanish fashion extends though centuries. Located off of the A-6 highway, the Museo del Traje chronicles popular fashion from the medieval ages through today’s top Spanish designers, leading fashion icons – and even a new exhibit on fast fashion and Inditex (don’t miss it if you’re a slave to Zara!). Stemming from an exhibition nearly a century ago that exhibited regional dress, the museum moved from an exhibit in the Folk Art Museum to its own site bajo los focos

With low lights and attention to detail, the permanent exhibit tells a story through fabric and textiles in a avant-garde building and a modern touch. The most extensive exhibit is of fashion from the 20th Century, with a special nod to Fortuny. Ever the nostalgic, I loved seeing iconic dresses from big names in entertainment like the La, La, La and the post-Guerra Civil fashions. 

Your visit should last 90 minutes or so, with a visit to the interesting offers that the temporary exhibits – with many loans from large fashion houses – bring. 

Andén 0 

The Metro de Madrid, considered one of the best in the world, celebrates a century of operation in 2019. 

If you’re ever traveled on Line 1, the system’s metro oldest line that slices right through Sol and connects the Atocha and Chamartín rail stations, you’ll notice there’s a slow down between the Bilbao and Iglesia stops. Channeling the creepy tunnel from Charlie and Chocolate Factory, this “ghost station” has been turned into a museum called Anden 0, or Platform 0. 

When work was done to make the metro cars wider, the city decided it couldn’t widen the station at Chamberí because it was on a curve. So, they shuttered the entrances in 1966 and removed Chamberí from the metro map. The station, still operated under the Metro de Madrid as a centro de interpretación, offers a glimpse into Madrid’s radical growth in the 20th Century and was opened a decade ago. 

There’s a short film (in Spanish with English subtitles) about the construction and boom of urban transportation in Madrid. What I loved is that it addresses how day-to-day operations underground went, which you can also view as you pass through old ticket lines and past old Línea 1 maps. While it’s not a long visit (45 minutes is sufficient), it’s cool to see preserved advertisements on the tiled walls and watch subway cars thunder past every few minutes. 

When do museums close in Madrid and Spain? 

Many – though not all – museums in Spain close on Mondays. Be sure to check a museum’s website or a local tourism office for precise opening days and times. 

Are there free museums in Madrid? 

Yes! Apart from free days (be prepared for lines at the popular museums) and the Metro de Madrid exhibition spaces, there are several museums to visit in Madid without paying: 

If you’re into history, the Museo de la Historia de Madrid in centrally located Malasaña, or the Museo de San Isidro are must-sees. Check out the Casa de la Moneda to see how money and currency has influenced trade and commerce in the New World and Europe. 

Literature lovers can visit the national library, the La Biblioteca Nacional, free of charge, in addition to the Casa Museo Lope de Vega (previous reservation required) 

Both the Museo del Ejército del Aire and the Museo de la Armada are free of charge, though a 3 voluntary donation is suggested. 

Although the Museo del Ferrocarril, a nod to the railway system, isn’t free, you can visit the trains and the old Delicias station free during the Mercado de Motores. 

Other interesting offers are the Museo ABC, which houses collections of comics, drawings and news items; the Museo Africano, a space dedicated to the African continent in Arturo Soria; the fossils and minerals in a gorgeous neoclassical building at the Museo Ginominero and the Museo Tiflológico for the vision impaired. 

Don’t forget that Centro Cultural Conde Duque near Plaza de España, the Canal Isabel II Centro de Arte in Chamartín, the Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park, Fundación Telefónica on Gran Vía and the Caixa Forum on Paseo del Prado often open their doors to free exhibits, mainly of art and photography.  

You can also overdose on museums on free days throughout the year. These are typically on April 18, International Day for Monuments and Sites; International Museum Day in mid-May; October 12 for the National Holiday and December 6, Spanish Constitution Day. 

Is there a city saver pass for Madrid museums? 

Yes. If you plan to go museum hopping in Madrid, you could consider the state museums pass, which allows for unlimited visits to state-run museums in Madrid during consecutive days (including 10 options in the capital). Choose four, five or eight museums and purchase your pass, called the Abono de Museos Estatales, at participating museums. 

You can also opt for an annual pass for 36,06€, giving you access to museums in Toledo, Valladolid, Cartagena, Valencia, Mérida and Santillana del Mar as well. Remember that general admission to Madrid museums is 3€.

Where can I find a list of museums in Madrid? 

The Oficina de Tourismo, located in Plaza Mayor, has a list of museums with updated hours, free days and entrance costs. You can also consult the Museos de Madrid web. 

Do you have any favorite museums in Madrid? I’m always up for suggestions – please comment below! 

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