Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla y León

 Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

Finally, after six months, we’ve hit my first taste of Spain – a taste that is as tender as a suckling roast pig, as fiery as a robust glass of red wine and something that, honestly, feel like home to me.

In May 2005, I studied abroad in Valladolid, the de facto capital of Castilla y León and one-time capital of Spain. It’s where Cervantes, Columbus and Torquemada once called home. It may not have the monuments, the vibrant culture ubiquitous to Spain, the soaring skyscrapers – but that’s what I liked about it. 

Andalusia means so much to me, but it all started in Old Castille. 

 Name: Castilla y León

Population: 2.5 million

Provinces: Nine: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid, Zamora. 

When: May 2005, 1st of 17

About Castilla y León: Castilla y León is the largest of the 17 autonomous communities (close to one-fifth of its landmass!), and one of its most illustrious. It was here that marriages (and thus kingdoms) joined and saints roamed, where scholars changed the face of modern Castillian Spanish, and where cities practically shine gold.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Despite having been inhabited for a millennia, the modern-day Castille and León was born out of the marriage of two monarchs. The Leonese crown had long been stronger and held more land, though at the beginning of the second millennia, their power began to wane, losing the kingdoms of Galicia and Portugal, along with their prestige. 

In 1230, the kingdoms became one when Castillian King Ferdinand III ascended to the vacant Leonés crown. These two crowns would fight independently in the Reconquest, eventually defeating Muslim taifas, though not before the Catholic kings – among the best-known Spanish monarchs of all time – send Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Castilla has long been known for its scholarly and democratic traditions, which include being the region responsible for spreading castellano Spanish, as well as the first place where a curia, or public forum to address issue affecting the pueblo, was held.

In fact, Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years in the early 17th century.

Among illustrious castellanos are El Cid Campeador, Felipe II (my favorite Spanish king with his funny hat), Santa Teresa de Ávila, Miguel Delibes, San Juan de la Cruz, Adolfo Suárez, and even former prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Must-sees: Oh geez, where to start. I started, of course, in Valladolid, though there isn’t much to see in the capital city. There’s the national sculpture museum, a contemporary art center, a beautiful Plaza Mayor and a smattering of churches, though I spent most of my free time at the manmade beach on the Pisuerga River and at a bar called Sotobanco.

Skip Vdoid and head to the other treasures in the province, including nearby Peñafiel and its castle, which now hosts a wine museum. Castilla y León has a few protected wine regions, including Ribera del Duero and Toro – two of my personal favorites.

Castilla y León has six UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other region in the world, and several are a quick day trip from Madrid: the old cities of Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia (plus its aqueduct), the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the old Roman gold mines at Las Médulas (check out Trevor’s post and pictures) and the archaeological remains of Atapuerca, near Burgos. This, plus the numerous pilgrim routes that cut through CL and eventually lead to Santiago de Compostela.

Castles are a prominent feature in Castilla y León – like in Ireland, they’re practically everywhere and there are rumored to be around 300 of them. Check out the Templar castle in Ponferrada, Segovia’s fairytale-like Alcázar and Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, which was a prominent fortress in the Battle of Castille. You’ll also only find Gaudí outside of Cataluña in León and Astorga, where a beautiful palace lies along the French Way of Saint James.

Food is also a huge reason why Castilla y León shines. Apart from wine, Castilla produces a number of specialty meats, including morcilla de arroz in Burgos and roast suckling pig, pungent cheeses and milk, and is the largest producer of grains in Iberia. Cracker giant Cuétara is based in Aguilar del Campoo (not a typo), near Galicia, and with reason – there is nothing but fields around! Be sure to check out León’s Barrio Húmedo for free tapas, as well – I once at a croqueta de pizza pepperoni! You can also pick up sweets in Ávila that throwback to the town’s famous saint, Santa Teresa the Mystic.

The cities themselves are lovely, from the golden hue of Salamanca, a city famous for its university and Lazarillo de Tormes, to León’s juxtaposition of Gaudí palaces and humble stone homes. Burgos’s old town shines and Ávila’s fortified stone walls are still intact.

My take: If you’re a history or language buff, you have to get to Castilla y León sí o sí. If you love wine and meat and cheese, head out there. If you love churches, castles, rivers, limestone villages… you get it. 

To me, Castilla y León is more Spain than Andalucía. Call me crazy, but it’s the Spain I fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and the Spain that beckoned me back. Andalucía is flamboyant where Castilla is demure, yet a bit coy. And the wine… 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria

Have you been to Castilla y León? What were your impressions of it? Cue Kaley and Cassandra chiming in now...

FluentU – Learning Spanish Through Video

The best day in high school Spanish class was “La Catrina” day. Profe would stockpile those episodes freshman year until she had absolutely no willpower against nearly 30 teenagers with made-up Spanish names (and the popular girls fighting over who got to be Margarita this year). Videos and songs brought Hispanic culture and language to life for me (and MI BISABUELA was our comeback for all of high school).

As a language teacher myself, I’ve found that my students tend to engage whenever technology is involved – no overhead projectors in Spanish classrooms! Anything related to videos and listening has their ears perked up, and I’m always impressed when my FCE students tell me they’ve watched a program in English or translated songs and picked up a few new words.

Before coming to Spain, I checked out loads of books in Spanish, as well as films, to up my español game. Now that online learning has become so big, there are loads of cool ways to brush up while sitting at your computer. I recently tried a new Beta version of FluentU, a wildly successful company whose video training in Mandarin Chinese is now tackling the world’s second most spoken language.

Using authentic videos, audio scripts and flashcards, FluentU tracks your progress and suits all levels of language learning.

Lo que me gustó (What I liked)

From novato to native: Right off the bat, FluentU asks you what level you are, giving a sound description of what your language abilities are at each level. I chose Native since I’ve already got a C1 DELE degree, and the software recommended word lists and videos suited for advanced learners.

Videos for every taste: FluentU has videos about everything and anything – from politics to culture to human interest stories and songs. When I checked out some of the videos at lower levels, it was clear which grammar and tense concepts they were drilling – I loved that there was even a Jarabe de Palo song to teach the usage of the adjective ‘bonito’!

Manageable chunks according to level: The videos were an appropriate length for level, and you can hover over the subtitles under the video to see the definition and pronunciation for each word. The video stops, so you won’t miss anything.

Tracking progress: Language learning builds upon prior knowledge, so the FluentU software tells you how much of a video you should be able to understand, based on videos and word lists you’ve already done. There are also quizzes and you can create your own study lists, making it easy to see how far you’ve come.

Lo que se puede mejorar (What can be improved)

Native level: Not to fanfarronear or anything, but apparently my Spanish is considered native level already. I didn’t run across any unknown words, but chalk that up to the focus being for newbies. There was also a lack of the Castellano accent in upper levels: Most of the videos in the upper levels are reserved for a South American accent, and I didn’t hear any from Spain. There were a few at lower levels, however.

Speaking is absent: Speaking is one of the most important language skills (and often the hardest to master), and this sort of learning doesn’t lend well to strengthening them. Your vocabulary and listening skills will probably grow, but you’ll need to practice oral expression another way.

Want to try it for yourself? FluentU is offering 30 SandS readers the chance to test drive their new Spanish version for free! If you’ll be coming to Spain for the language assistants program, this is an awesome way to brush up on your listening skills and learn a few phrases before jetting to Spain. You just need to provide your email address! You’ll have until April 25th to sign up, using the rafflecopter widget below, and leaving a blog post comment. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

How did you learn Spanish? Would you like online learning? If you’re looking to learn Spanish in Seville, Madrid or Barcelona, get in touch!

FluentU allowed me to use their software for free for two weeks, but todas las opiniones son mine.

How Much Spanish Should I Speak to Travel or Live in Spain?

One of the most common questions I’m asked about moving to Spain is the level necessary to be able to understand and be understood while traveling and working. This is a loaded question, as Spain is a place where English is both commonplace and rarely spoken. 

When I came to live in Seville, I had years of study and a few months in Valladolid as backing. Little did I know that Spanish was such a complex language, or that doing adult things like opening a bank account and settling claims would turn into such a frustrating task. After all of this time and the pummeling of different accents, my own manner of speaking is laughable.

Still, the importance of learning languages has hit Andalusia full-force, and English is much more widely spoken than five years ago. Here, your questions answered:

What Level of Spanish Do You Need for a Trip to Spain?

Spain is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world, but regardless of whether you decide to soak up the sunshine on a long, sandy beach or enjoy the food and exciting culture of cities likes Barcelona and Madrid it is a good idea to learn some of the Spanish language before you go. Of course, how much you need to learn depends upon what you intend to do with it and here are a few examples of to get you thinking.

I recommend having a working knowledge of transportation vocabulary and basic phrases, and the same goes for food and lodging. While many people in the travel industry will have some English, a little legwork goes a long way, especially if there’s a problem.

To Make Friends

The Spanish people are famously friendly and outgoing, making Spain a wonderful destination for anyone who is interested in becoming friends with people from a different culture. In this case, you will want a fairly wide vocabulary and to be able to speak in as relaxed a manner as possible. You probably won’t be overly worried about some grammatical faults, as you will iron these out once you start talking to your new Spanish friends.

Intercambios, or language exchanges, are becoming ever more popular with Spaniards and foreign residents alike. These weekly meetings are often held at bars or public spaces, and encourage language participation on both ends. In Seville, couchsurfing usually meets for an exchange on Thursdays, and there are several in the Alameda. You can also use University message boards to look for a one-on-one.

To Sample the Food

Spain is also famous for its magnificent cuisine. If you love food then you will want to try the likes of paella, tortilla de patata and other local treats. In order to get the most out of your culinary experience you might like to learn a good variety of food related words. This is going to be especially relevant if you plan to head off the beaten track and eat in small restaurants where English might not necessarily be spoken. If you are able to say, the best of my Spanish lessons in Miami is the bit where we talk about food for hours then you will be on your way to learning what you need.

Knowing regional dishes will not only enhance your visit, but also help you guarantee that you’re getting great service. I tend to shy away from places where English, French, German and a handful of other languages are present on menus, though I still have to learn parts of the pig in English!

To Look for a Job

Perhaps you are planning a dramatic change in your life and want to look to further your career in Spain. This is becoming an increasingly popular option in these days of the globally mobile workforce. There are some parts of the country with a high population of English-speaking expats and it is possible that you could land a job there with little knowledge of the Spanish tongue. Still, you’ll want to have a decent grasp of some formal Spanish phrases in order to make a good impression on the person interviewing you.

Yeah, Guiri Puss, aprende español!

Interested in studying for an exam to prove that you’re a Spanish crack? The DELE diploma is valid in nearly every country in the world, and I passed the C1 in November 2011. Check out my Do’s and Don’t post and what to expect on the exam.

This post was made possible by an outside source. As always, I reserve all rights of submission.

Do you learn any language bits before you travel? Looking to learn Spanish in Spain? Contact me for the inside scoop on the best language schools!

Dancing in the Fountain: Enjoy Living Abroad Book Giveaway

I’m five minutes early, and there’s just one table left. It’s in the sun and cramped between two groups of German travelers. Karen strides in with just a moment to spare, wearing her signature animal prints. While there’s a gap in age between us, Karen is the type of friend you can have who personifies “Age is just a number.”

I’m eager to catch up with Karen over coffee and talk about her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. I devoured the book on a trip this summer though the Eastern seaboard, often subjected to gut-busting laughter and the wise head nods. The book was, in short, delightful.

As someone who loves travel books, Karen’s story of how she and her husband, Rich, moved to Seville is what Maria Foley calls a “love letter to the Andalusian capital.” Indeed, Karen captures the essence of Seville – its people, its food, its quirks that drive every single one of us crazy, all while deepening our love for this enchanting place. The perfect book for dreaming about getting away, of starting over in a new country and making it all work. 

As we are getting ready to part ways, I reach into my bag to find my wallet is empty. In an oh-so-Spanish move, Karen shoes my hand away and offers up a five euro note. “This will more than take care of it,” she says with a slight smile.

After getting back home later that day, I write my friend to apologize again about the coffee. Her reply is quick and telling: It’s happened to all of us.

Photo by the man in the hat himself, Rich McCann, at Karen’s book party

Just like your friend from toda la vida might say on any other sunny day in Seville.

The Contest

Karen has graciously agreed to donating a paperback copy of Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad to one of my readers, and I’m willing to ship it anywhere.

In order to win, I’d like you to tell us, in 25 words or less, why you’d like to live abroad, or why you chose to if you’re already here. You can earn more chances to win by following Karen and I on twitter or liking our Facebook pages, but we’re both interested in hearing what you have to say about packing up and moving to unknown lands.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Contest begins today and will run two weeks. I’ll send the winner, who will be generated randomly, the signed book to any corner of this great big Earth. But wait! I’m also going to give away a $15 Amazon gift card to the reader with the best answer, judged by and agreed on by both Karen and me.

For more information about Karen and her book, visit her webpage or follow her on twitter at @enjoylvngabroad. If you’ve read this book and enjoyed it, let her know! You can also find the book in both Paperback and Kindle version here: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad.

The Rain in Spain

“I knew the weather was changing during my morning cigarette yesterday,” the Novio mentioned as he smoked his [fifth] evening piti.

That’s the problem with being a pilot, he confessed. You start to understand the weather patterns. His friends nodded, confident that we were about to enter the Veranillo de San Miguel. Like most moments in my life in Seville, I shrugged and gave them a puzzled look.

Alas, not three weeks after returning to Spain, I’m putting away my summer clothes and actually sleeping under sheets. We welcomed Autumn this week with spouts of drizzle, chillier temperatures and the need for a jacket in the evening. Now is the time people start chiding you for not wearing a scarf (reason for getting a cold), for sleeping with your window open (reason for getting a cold) and walk in stocking feet in your house (reason for getting a cold).

Spanish idioms about the weather are some of the silliest I know, and I’ve made a point to put them into my speech for a dramatic effect when talking about Seville’s 300 days of sunshine, and 65 days of cold, damp grossness (for the record, the only think I like about Fall is anything pumpkin-flavored).

Veranillo de Membrillo/de San Miguel – Indian Summer

The little summer of quince or Saint Micheal is what we Americans call Indian Summer – a deceptive window of time where summer returns for just a few short days, complete with high temps and sunshine. Currently, it’s been in the low 70s, and sevillanos are hoping to squeeze out one more beach weekend.

Hasta el 40 de Mayo, no te quites el sayo – Bring your jacket

Like the Veranillo de Membrillo, the above refrán refers to just the opposite: to not be deceived by warm weather, as there will always be a burst of cold. It literally means, until June 10th, don’t take off your light jacket. This old idiom begs you to consider covering up so as not to catch a cold.

Tiempo de perros – Foul weather

The weather of dogs means nothing more than bad weather – storms, blustery winds and the like. Use this idiom with the verb hacer to talk about the weird weather that descends on the land of sunshine and siestas to impress your Spanish friends.

Tener más frío que robando pingüinos – To be very cold

There exist dozens of ways to talk about cold, including the “cold that peels” or the cold that likens you to playing with seals. My favorite is to be colder than robbing penguins, conjuring up a winter wonderland at the North Pole. In Seville, it hasn’t snowed and stuck for over 50 years, so the blue skies that are ever-present in winter trick you into thinking it’s warming up. Nope. Get your penguin-catching nets ready.

Tener carne de gallina – To have goosebumps

Goosebumps are weird sounding, but the Spaniards go ahead and make it goose skin. Even weirder.

Estar calado/a hasta los huesos – To feel damp

I didn’t realize just how cold Seville gets in winter until the Christmastime rains came. All of the sudden, my clothes wouldn’t dry and I found myself shivering under the covers with the heat on, nothing more than my eyes peeking out over the top. Because the city sits in a river valley surrounded by mountain ranges, Seville weather is damp and humid at any time of the year, prompting old ladies to admit to being damp in their bones as the walk their carritos to the supermarket.

Similarly, Spanish employs weather terms to describe people and situations.

Darse ni frío ni calor – to not matter

Spend the last weekend of Indian Summer in la playa or the mountains? No me da ni frío ni calor, really – I’ll take a weekend outside of Seville and away from my computer anytime. Anyone who is wishy washy uses this expression with a shrug to reaaaally let you know that they don’t care, and it’s translated literally as not giving you neither hot nor cold. Cue Katy Perry music.

Cambiar más que una veleta – to be fickle

Speaking of which, you probably have a friend who tells you it doesn’t give him hot or cold, but then changes his mind. Someone who changes more than a weather vane is said to be fickle, and I could easily blanket stereotype with this one, but I won’t. Hey, we’ve all got friends like this.

Llover sobre mojado – When it rains, it pours

As I listen to the rain finally pounding down on a very dry Seville, it’s easy to envision this idioms: When one bad thing happens on top of another, it’s raining over what’s already wet. I made friends with another auxiliar when she was living in Huelva five years ago. As much as she loved Spain, she got dealt one bad hand after another, finally leading her to leave spain after one year. Her reason? It didn’t just pour, it poured over what was already wet.

Pasar como un nube de verano – to be short-lived

You know what passed by like a summer cloud? Summer itself! I have to admit, I’ve never planned my outfits around shoes, but when you haven’t got many options for Fall shoes on a sudden rainy day, it happens. Anything short-lived is remembered nostalgically as a summer cloud. The only problem is, in Andalucía we’ve got either zero clouds or sun protection, or the icky grey skies known as borchorno.

Que te parta un rayo – to go to hell

Straight out of Greek mythology? Damning someone means wishing they get halved by a lightning bolt. I like it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Got any other to share? Leave them for me in the comments – I love learning Spanish idioms almost as much as teaching them in English!

Five Years, Five Goals

The chalk squeaked as I drew a line under the word SUCCESS. My 4 ESO students read it, es-soox-essss, a habit I hadn’t been able to break in my three years working with them. I always knew it would be an uphill battle.

I crumpled small slips of paper from atop the teacher’s desk and picked one up. “Teacher, you are beautiful.” That little paper ball went right into Franci’s face.

At the end of my three years of teaching at I.E.S. Heliche, I asked my 16-year-olds to tell me one thing that made them feel successful before turning the question, “Has your English teacher been successful?

When I graduated, I made a list of three things to accomplish in my first three years out of college. Five years later, I’m closing in on my fifth anniversary of moving to Spain on September 12th. I told myself I could consider myself successful if I accomplished three things – but that list seems to grow as my years in the land of sunshine and siestas climb.

Last year, I examined the four things I love about Spain. This year, the five most important things I’ve accomplished during my years in Spain.

Year One. Move Abroad

Once I had studied abroad, I knew that the only place for me to go after graduation was to anywhere but America. I did all of the research, using my study abroad office and contacts I’d made through the Daily Iowan. When the opportunity to participate in the North American Language Assistants program came up, I abandoned my plans to do a work holiday in Ireland and brushed up on my Spanish. Working just 12 hours a week gave me time to do an internship at a travel company, make friends and travel throughout Iberia.

My parents came to visit at Christmas this year, and I struggled at even mundane tasks, like translating menus and asking for directions. My dad joked that I’d been to busy guzzling sangria to actually learn the language, so my goal for my second year in Spain was to work on perfecting my castellano.

Year Two. Learn Spanish. Really, like actually speak it.

As anyone who has traveled to Spain can tell you, the Spanish they teach you in school no vale over here. I struggled with my accent and theirs, didn’t understand their slang. It even took the Novio and I several months speaking in English before I worked up the nerve to ask to switch to Spanish.

The majority of my life in Spain is now down in my second tongue, but it didn’t come easy. I bought several books, began watching TV in Spanish and made an effort to use it as often as possible. Become proficient in Spanish has taken me thirteen years, but I finally have the C1 Certification of Proficiency from the Instituto Cervantes. Toma. Time to focus on something more fun, like traveling.

Read about preparing for and taking the DELE. Then read about my weirdo accent.

Year Three. Travel to 25 countries before turning 25.

The time I didn’t spend learning Spanish during my first year was time I spent traveling, hitting six new countries andseveral regions in Spain. My goal to travel to 25 foreign countries looked more and more possible.

I traveled overnight from Budapest to Prague with my friend Lauren, and she snapped a 6am picture of me setting foot in the 25th. Since then, I’ve been to several more, but all the while I’ve felt fortunate to have a springboard from which to explore Europe. I’ve done some cool things, like snuck into monasteries in Romania, ridden a donkey through rural Morocco, camped under the stars on Spain’s Most Beautiful Beach.

Read my Top 25 moments (with links between all five posts) on Backpacking Matt.

Year Four. Beat the Paperwork Game.

By far one of the biggest pitfalls of being a non-European in Spain is the paperwork hassle. Any guiri can tell you that the standing in lines, running from one office to another, surrendering all of your personal info and then not hearing back for weeks is enough to make you turn around and say adiós to Spain.

Stranded with few options for renewing my student visa status after the Auxiliares program dropped me, I struggled to find a way to legally stay in Spain, even considering working illegally. I exhausted my contacts one by one until the US Consular Agent suggested something that have never occurred to me: lying.

I already had paperwork pending for a Master’s I’d decided not to do, so I hopped on the first bus to Madrid and applied. Having never filed paperwork in the capital, I wasn’t aware that the Foreigner’s Office worked on an appointment system, and that they were booked for months (which also meant I stood out in the cold for several hours alone). The guard gave me the number, and I called. Tensely. Making things up. And I got in the day before my residence card expired.

Kike and I had also done a de-facto partnership, which was passed from a simple piece of paper denoting that he was responsible for me to a piece of plastic denoting I could stay in Spain for five years without having a porque to go near the office. I fought the law, and the law handed me a loophole.

Read How to Deal with the Foreigner’s Office and how to trick funcionarios and pretend you’re smart.

Year Five. Find a Stable Group of Friends

The problem with being an expat is that many people come and go, making my cycle of friends constantly in motion. Even those I think will be long-term sometimes pack up and go. And with a partner in the military, I still find myself alone. Finding friends is easy, but keeping those who are inclined to stick around – both American and foreign – has been more difficult. Thanks to the American Women’s Club, working at a school with Spaniards and making an effort to befriend Kike’s friends, I’ve got friends all over Spain, and I sadly don’t spend much time with people I know will only be in Seville for a year.

Algo se muere en el alma, right? Have drunkenly sung that sevillana far too many times.

Year Six. Figure out how long-term this all is.

My students decided that I had, in fact, been successful in my first three years in Spain. Still, all of these years abroad has gotten me a little disconcerted. I’ve spoken with a lot of expat friends on the subject fo staying in Spain, especially admist a crippling financial crisis and little job security. Why not go to America? I ask them and myself. Who wouldn´t want a mortgage, kids and to deal with all those stupid jingles?

Haha, oh yeah. Looks like it’s time to set some new goals – what should they be?

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