The pace of life in Spain is palpably different than anywhere else I’ve visited thus far. Without any effort, one quickly becomes caught up in the timing of the locals. There’s no rush to begin the day which is evident if you wake up before 10am and wander the quiet streets. In Barcelona I found my day shifted hours later, waking up around 11am to eat a quiet breakfast before easing into the day. This time of year the sun is up for 18 hours, which makes each day feel extra long.
Barcelona is a very lively city – wandering through the small streets, which would more aptly be called alleys, you pass restaurant after restaurant, bar after bar, shop after shop, which are mostly housed in small, narrow openings guarded by a garage door when not open. I found Barcelona to be a bit claustrophobic, but the saving grace was definitely the beach. The city actually didn’t have a beach until 1992 when it hosted the Olympics – the sand was imported from the desert in Egypt and the palm trees from Hawaii. My favorite day was spent at the beach with a friend from Austin Texas that I met in the hostel, playing volleyball and looking out to the sea.
At any time during the day, many of the outdoor tables are filled with people sipping on beer and hanging out with friends. It doesn’t feel as though restaurants ever get too quiet, as they rarely appear empty. In the afternoon, the city quiets down as people take the afternoon siesta. Dinner begins around 9pm, and the young crowd stays out until the early morning at the multi-level clubs.
I preferred Madrid over Barcelona – the streets are wider and cleaner, the buildings are colored beautifully, and there are trees and greenery everywhere. It’s interesting to learn the history behind the way of life in a city. For instance, three of the most popular things in Madrid (and much of Spain) are pork, tapas, and Sangria – and there’s a historical reason for each (warning: the following were told on a free tour, and could be completely false). During the Spanish Inquisition, the only way to prove that you were Christian and not Muslim or Jewish was to eat pork. You could attend church and pretend you were Christian, but if you weren’t seen eating pork in public, your life could be in danger. Sangria became popular during the Black Plague. With the water contaminated, the safest thing to drink was wine. In order to be able to drink all day (and not get their children hammered), they mixed in orange juice. Still, drinking sangria all day could get you in trouble – so tapas were popularized as a way to absorb the alcohol with each drink.
Again, since dinner isn’t served until 9-11pm, citizens of Madrid have a lot of time between getting off of work and eating dinner. Many will visit a few bars with their friends after work, sitting outside and enjoying small beers. That is one of the most notable changes in habit that I’ve at least temporarily adopted – small portion sizes. In the states, I’ll usually order the largest coffee or beer served (as a true American). I’ve become acclimated to much smaller sizes in Spain, ordering a cana (small beer) to sip on at one outdoor patio before moving along to another. I’ve actually thought at times “this beer is too big!” something a younger version of me never thought I’d say.
On one of my last days in the city, I ran into a familiar face in my hostel – the hostel mate from Barcelona. Funnily enough, we didn’t know each other was going to be in Madrid and randomly chose the same hostel. We went out with a small group that night (Sunday) and the bars were absolutely packed, even at 2am. Spain does a few things very well: sleep, eat, and drink.