7 Things That Will Surprise First-Time Visitors to Spain

Passionate, sophisticated and diverse, Spain has long been a player on the world-stage, and a popular destination for holiday goers. In fact, in 2017 it was the second most visited country in the world, with over 82 million tourists visiting its shores. Most travellers would be aware of Spain’s brilliant beaches and beach resorts – its extensive white-sand Mediterranean and Atlantic beaches, as well as its incredible, unique archipelagos hosting the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, have been attracting tourists for decades.

But Spain is a land of so much more, many of which will surprise the first-time visitor. Here are seven ofthe most surprising things about Spain.

1. The Spanish don’t speak Spanish

That the Spanish don’t speak Spanish isn’t precisely true. They do speak Spanish (Castilian) and, in fact, this is the only language that has official status for the whole country. But the surprising thing is that many Spaniards only speak Spanish as a second language, and many other languages have co-official or recognised status in specific regions, with many other unofficial languages and dialects being spoken as well.

In Catalonia you are more likely to hear Catalan and Aranese, a variety of Gascon, which is itself a variety of the Occitan language, while in the Basque Country and northern Navarre, you will most definitely hear Basque spoken.

Catalan will also be spoken in the Balearic Islands and some areas of La Franja, while Valencian will be used amongst those in the Valencian Community and the Murcia. And even when you are hearing Spanish, it may be a localised Spanish dialect such as Fala, Cantabiran, Extremaduran or Eonavian.

2. Every region could be a country of their own

Just as with the variety of languages and dialects spoken, Spain is also composed of approximately 17 semi-autonomous regions. These regions cling to their unique cultures and guard fiercely against encroachments by others. These regions vary from Andalucia, with its sandy beaches, quaint whitewashed villages and world-class golf courses to the Basque Country, where mountain peaks soar into the sky, and sublime rocky coves are battered by the fierce Atlantic Ocean. There are also the incredible volcanic Canary Islands and the still relatively unknown and unexplored mountains, forests and lakes of Extremadura.

Regardless of what you are looking for, one of Spain’s incredibly varied regions will have it.

3. Spanish food is more than just tapas, and it is amazing

When it comes to Spanish food, many travellers have only experienced the standard tapas fare of >patatas bravas >and chorizo. While this may have been enjoyable, Spanish food, other than tapas is not very well known outside of Spain. But travellers to Spain will find there is so much more to it.

Spanish food is among some of the world’s best – rich, moreish and extremely delectable, rivaling any other country in the world. In fact, the number one restaurant in the world, El Celler de Can Roca, is in Spain, and the food offered in its airy dining room runs from frozen olives picked from a bonsai olive tree growing onsite, to freeze dried oyster shells with oyster tartare.

Each region will also have its specialties. Some of theseincludetortilla Espanola, a thick, buttered omelette with potatoes, Andalusion gazpacho, a refreshing tomato and cucumber soup and gambas ajillo, or simple, fresh garlic prawns dotted with olive oil and chilli flakes. In Spain, you will eat well, and hopefully, often.

4. Late dinners are the norm

The Spanish work to a slightly later schedule than the rest of the world. Though their work day generally starts at 9am, they take their traditional siesta in the afternoon from 2-4pm or 3-5pm. This means that once workers have returned to work, they generally remain there until about 8pm. As a result, dinnertime will usually be at 9pm. This is also when the typical Spaniard’s socialising begins.

In the city of Madrid, take a walk around the cobbled streets of the La Latina neighbourhood and you will see cafes and restaurants crowded with people enjoying plates of gambas al ajillo or cocido Madrileño (a hearty chickpea, pork and chorizo stew). Friends often meet up at 10.30pm to have a drink or watch a show (primetime television starts at 10.30pm). It is a different way of life, but one that is worth embracing while visiting Spain.

5. Entire families (even kids!) embrace the late night schedule

In Spain it is totally normal and acceptable to see an entire family, including babies in strollers, toddlers and other children, out for a walk or on their way home from dinner at 11pm. This is partly because of the later hours kept by Spain in general, partly due to the widely-available public transportation and the street-centred lifestyle found and enjoyed in much of Spain and partly due to the fact that Spanish children generally have no set bedtime. Children stay awake late into the night and join their parents in socialising and family activities.

Because of this, kids are welcome pretty much everywhere in Spain. It is absolutely acceptable to bring your baby into a bar, hang out at local festivals into the late hours with your children in tow or have dinner with a group of friends and their children long past 10pm. While this might seem strange to parents in other countries, the Spanish don’t have a habit of seeking out adult time or calling a babysitter. Instead, the kids come along while the parents enjoy a drink or dinner with friends, and it’s not unusual to find young children curled up fast asleep in a noisy bar or restaurant.

6. Taking it easy

In Australia people are often encouraged to be busy. We wear our busyness like a badge of pride – the more we can do in a day, the better. This leads to rushing here and there, eating on the go and telling our friends that perhaps we might have time to catch up ‘when things slow down’.

But this is not the way in Spain. Instead, the Spanish have a saying, ‘Porque no hay prisa’ – because there is no rush – and when in Spain it is wonderful to adopt this relaxed, contemplative attitude. The Spanish love to slowly stroll down the street. They bask in the sunlight, greet people passing by and watch the world around them. They are never too busy to stop for a chat with a friend, old or new. It’s a wonderful change from the frantic pace of other travel destinations.

So whether you’re 18 or 80, give yourself time and take it slow. Enjoy the journey as the Spanish do – taking each day one slow step at a time.

7. Soccer is everything

This is probably not a complete surprise, even if you have not travelled to Spain yourself. In fact, most travellers are well aware of the intense popularity of futból (soccer) in Spain. But what first-time visitors will be surprised by is the fact that soccer can affect the daily life of the locals in unfathomable and inexplicable ways. In fact, the entire country comes to a halt when there is an important game on.

Speak to almost any Spaniard and they will be able to tell you the names of all the starters and the match schedule of their favourite team. Almost every year one or two different soccer clubs emerge. And soccer takes up about 80% of the sports news broadcast on the television. It is truly an all-encompassing sport.

To witness this phenomenon first hand find any bar (yes, any bar) on game day in any Spanish city (yes, any city) and you will be awestruck by the commitment Spaniards have towards the game of soccer.

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