I never really wanted to go to Spain.
It’s not that I had anything against Spain; it just wasn’t on my short list of must-see places. If you had told me six months ago that I’d hit Spain before Italy, Denmark, the United Kingdom and all of Eastern Europe, I would have laughed in your face.
But Spain is the country all the study abroads always talk about. It’s where everyone from home wants to study and where everyone in Brussels wants to go party. I figured I needed to embrace my surrounding mindset, so I booked five days in Barcelona and Madrid.
It may have been the most ridiculous five days of my life. And now, I completely understand why everyone is obsessed with Spain.
Barcelona is a gorgeous city. There’s no way around that one. The beach is long and sandy, the narrow streets are quintessentially chaotic and the works of Gaudi architecture sprinkled throughout are always a stunning surprise.
Antoni Gaudi was one crazy architect. His pieces play with curves and light, blending naturalist, gothic and baroque styles, and at the same time, abandoning them all. His masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, is probably Barcelona’s top tourist destination. The cathedral is massive and complex, almost resembling a forest, and is permanently under construction. It has an estimated completion date of 2026. Gaudi began it in 1915.
The only problem I had with Barcelona was the horrifyingly touristy feeling I always carried. It was hard to shake off, with the constant warnings of pick pocketing (the most out of any European city at 32 thefts per hour, according to our hostel) and overhearing even more Americans than I do in Brussels. It seemed like everyone descended onto Barcelona that week simply to party, which is probably true, and party everyone did.
Barcelona’s nightlife is notorious, and the Kabul Hostel made sure we experienced it. Staying at Kabul would be the very best or worst decision you could ever make, depending on what you want out of Barcelona. When I arrived to my 25-person dorm room, there was a girl in the bed next to me fast asleep. It was 2 p.m. When I returned after an afternoon of walking and eating, she was still asleep. It was 6 p.m.
Kabul, starting at 15 euro per night, provides free breakfast, free dinner, a prime location on Placa Real, pub-crawls where shots are lit on fire and free entry into nightclubs that would normally cost 15-20 euro alone. It was a grand financial deal. And needless to say, the nights are absurd and the people are even more absurd.
This is probably why I preferred my stay in Madrid, which was equally exciting but way less touristy, way less party-oriented and way more punk. The city is full of plazas and the plazas are full of locals, who were simultaneously passionate and relaxed, smoking and drinking all over the place and breaking glass on their way out.
Plus I stayed with a friend from home, rather than in a crowded hostel. He lives with locals, he speaks Spanish all the time, and even his American friends in the same University of California program almost exclusively speak Spanish to one another. They had issues at first adjusting to English translations to include me in conversation, but I didn’t mind at all. Their efforts were inspiring.
By day, Madrid can be quiet, since locals don’t wake up until the afternoon after a long night out, and they’re not out for lunch until 3 p.m. Then they do things. Then they have a snack or a drink. Then they have a siesta, or a nap, which amazingly is still a firm tradition in Southern Spain. Then dinner occurs around 10 p.m. or so. Then, ya know, the night begins, maybe around 1 a.m.
For one weekend, it’s a beautiful lifestyle. And Madrid is a beautiful city by day. The city center is constantly bustling and the shopping is fabulous. For some relaxation, El Retiro is a lovely, expansive urban park, where the Spaniards toss frisbees around while flipping on roller blades, or rent a charming blue row boat.
Then there’s the art. Madrid has an impressive museum triangle overflowing with masterpieces. I only had the chance to hit Museo del Prado and Reina Sofia, but I managed to enjoy breathtaking works by Goya, Picasso, Dali and more.
By night, the energy was incomparable. At Sala Heineken, the live electro band was great, somehow transforming “Here Comes the Sun” into party music. We danced on shoulders. We jumped for hours. We embraced the mosh pit while glass crackled under our feet.
We embraced Spain. We embraced the absurd. But I also embraced the return home, to the calm and quaint capital of Europe, ever appreciative of the lifestyle I’m leading.