It wasn’t until I was taking part in an icebreaker for my teaching training that I realised something about myself: I have lived in five different countries. I have studied or worked in Ireland, the UK, France, the USA and now Spain. That’s 4 more counties than the average person. My identity has been shaped by living in these various places and I’ve picked up habits or mannerisms from each. In France I became a rosé connoisseur; in Spain it’s Rioja. In the UK, I would constantly eat crisps and in the USA it would be cheese nachos.
But aside from preferences for wine and snacks, I’ve also had incredibly enriching experiences in every country that I wouldn’t get simply being on a holiday. If you think of a holiday to Spain, you probably think of these four words: “all-inclusive week in Benidorm”. This is so different to the Spain that I’ve come to know and love. Here are the best experiences to enjoy the real Spain:
- Visit an olive oil factory
Ah, the Mediterranean diet. Idolised by every non-Mediterranean country. I could have a bottle of red wine and a whole pig everyday and my Irish doctor would still say, “oh, the Mediterranean diet is the best!” The reason why it’s “so healthy” is because of the olive oil. Olives and olive oil are everywhere in Spain, if you order drinks in a bar you will usually get complimentary olives. Spaniards don’t dare put any food into their mouth until they’ve drizzled olive oil all over it. When I went to a pueblo in Andalucía with my host family, they brought me to a local olive oil factory which was fascinating. The surrounding hills have thousands of olive trees and it was astonishing to see the process and get to try the finished product.
- Go lemon picking
This is specific to Murcia, but each region will have particular fruits that they specialise in. In the South it’s oranges and lemons and if you go North to the Basque Country, it’s apples. In the city centre, nobody picks fruit from the trees because of the pollution. Instead, city folk drive to the surrounding countryside and pick fruit from orchards. Imagine a field of lemon trees, that’s what much of the region of Murcia is like. The smell is incredible! And what’s the best thing to do with lemons after you’ve picked them? Well, in other places, if life gives you lemons then you make lemonade. In Murcia, if life gives you lemons then you slice them up and squeeze them over your paella. Muy rico!
- Eat a pig
I wasn’t joking when I mentioned eating a whole pig. In Spain, this is a very popular dish to share with friends and they call it cochinillo asado. The Spanish diet seems to be 50% pork (the rest of the diet is 25% fish/seafood and 25% olives/olive oil). They eat pork for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Amateurs have jamón, lomón or chorizo. But to really experience authentic Spain, you need to go for the cochinillo. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the Spanish people are far from faint-hearted.
- ¡Buen Camino!
Spanish people love caminos. Not just the famous Camino De Santiago but also smaller caminos in different regions and landscapes. When I first arrived in Spain, I did parts of the Camino de Caravaca in Murcia. Everyone was in high spirits and would cheer on “¡Buen Camino!” to passing cyclists or other groups. It’s a great way to see some of Spain’s best landscapes and caminos will lead you to some truly quaint villages that you would never otherwise visit. Because I enjoyed the Camino so much, I hope to do the Camino De Santiago later this year so watch this space!
I used to never be able to nap. Now, it’s one of my regular rituals. There’s no better start to the weekend than a siesta on a Friday afternoon. If you’re unfamiliar with siestas and are annoyed about shops or public places being closed for siesta, then take this opportunity to nap! You’ll be able to get whatever you need at a more convenient time, and you’ll feel happy and invigorated from taking your siesta! Siestas are key to being productive and this is a habit that I’ll bring back to Ireland to avoid days of sluggishness.
And these are my most authentic Spanish experiences. Eating, sleeping and caminos. Nothing sums up the Spanish more than those three words. Next time you visit Spain or any other country, don’t just head to the Irish bar/ice bar/hard rock café. Pay heed to local customs and traditional dishes, and you’ll have a far more memorable experience.