Location and Demographics
The country is home to World Cup winners, Spanish language speakers, and Gothic cathedrals galore. It boasts both a royal family and a president, and nearly 47 million inhabitants. A member of the European Union and neighbor to Portugal, it is comfortably nestled between the Mediterranean Sea to the south and east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. The Rock of Gibraltar sits between Spain and Morocco to the south, and two sets of islands: the Canaries and the Balearics.
From top to bottom, Spain includes some of the world’s most visited cities: Madrid and Barcelona. History winds its way from the point of pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostela, to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Alhambra fortress in Granada, to the city of Ronda, the site known best from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
The flash of a matador’s cape during a bullfight, the towering spires of La Sagrada Familia designed by Gaudi, and thousands of fútbol fans are all a part of the fabric of Spain. You may recognize Spanish authors like Miguel de Cervantes, artists like Salvador Dali and Diego Velázquez, and one of the best known Spanish dishes: paella.
Spain has every land variation you can imagine: mountains, valleys, beaches, and plains. The Pyrenees mountain range is the highest, and the Canary Islands host an active volcano called Teidi, over 12,000 feet high. Rivers bear their own significance in the country, such as the Guadalquivir that Columbus once traveled or the Tajo River that splits the city of Ronda in two.
Depending on your location, the majority of the country experiences the Mediterranean climate: hot, dry summers and cold winters. To the north, along the Atlantic coast you can expect great influence from the ocean and a fair amount of rain in the winter. In the southernmost region of Andalucia, which spans the width of the country, summers are very hot; so hot, that in the province of Seville a small town named Écija is called “el sarten de Europa,” or the frying pan of Europe. For this reason, most businesses close for the month of August and locals head for the coast to cooler climates.
Spain is also the home of siesta, that glorious time in the afternoon between two and five where, after the largest meal of the day, everyone takes a snooze. In larger cities, like Madrid and Barcelona, you can expect most of the businesses and shops to be open from nine to five, but in the southern cities, like Granada, Seville, and Cordoba, you can expect the city to take a break in the afternoons. Historically, this is when field laborers took their breaks, at the hottest point of the day. Today, it is both a tradition and a necessity when the southern sun finds its way into the sky.
When packing for Spain, you can never go wrong with layers. In many cities marble is the building stone of choice, which keeps the buildings cool and the floors colder. A light raincoat will come in handy for spring rains, and a zip-up hoodie, fleece, or classic trench will do the trick on cooler nights. Don’t forget your house slippers too!
Depending on your location, you may see lows in the 30’s and highs in the 90’s. Between May and September you can bet on 70 to 90 degree days and cooler nights. In the winter and spring months, 50 to 60 is more common. Don’t forget, Spain uses Celsius to measure temperature, so don’t panic when you see ten degrees on the display – it’s actually 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Language and Currency
The official language of Spain is castellano or Castilian Spanish, which is taught as “Spanish” in most U.S. schools. English is widely spoken in major cities like Madrid, but can be less common in smaller cities. There are several university cities which welcome many study abroad students as well as European students studying on the ERASMUS exchange program. Cities like Salamanca, Seville, Valencia, and Barcelona have English speakers in a variety of locations leaving foreign students with no trouble getting around.
It’s important to know that castellano is not the only game in town. There are other recognized regional languages: Catalan / Valencian, an official language in Catalonia (the regional home of Barcelona) and Valencia, Basque (familiar to Basque country) Galician or gallego (known to Galicia) to name a few.
Students of U.S. high school Spanish draw their most surprise from the frequent use of the pronoun “vosotros /-as” for you, plural. Growing up using ustedes as the correct and formal form of you, plural can lead to chiding conversations in Spain where locals ask why you’re so formal. Rest assured they will understand your meaning, but the may point you toward the pronoun with which they’re more comfortable.
Spain is as affordable as you make it. With an intense nightlife and strong emphasis on going out, it’s easy to run through euros quickly. A plate of tapas or bar snacks at a pub in Granada, a smaller city in the South, might be free(!), but the same plate in Madrid could be eight Euros! The exchange rate leaves one Euro equal to just over $1.25 USD, so that an eight Euro drink is almost $11 USD.
Living in an apartment situation or even with a host family, can help save money. Chances are that in a host family meals are provided at least once a day, therefore saving on food expenses. In an apartment, students will quickly find that some small grocers may offer the best prices on vegetables, bread, or eggs. One of the charms of living in a city is that you can buy these items fresh on an almost daily basis and trust that what you’re paying for is well worth it.
Food, Culture, and Activities
Food is everything in Spain. It is not just fuel or empty, it is an experience. You may notice while you’re finding your way about the country that there is jamón (ham) everywhere. Spain is known for it’s pork production and any bar, to be taken seriously by its peers, will have a traditional jabonera and a greasy haunch of pork on display – or dozens, hanging from the ceiling to cure.
If you’re a vegetarian, don’t fret. There are a fair amount of dishes that can please your palate, if you know what to ask for. Espinaca con garbanzos is a warm spinach and chickpea dip often served with bread or crackers; tortilla española or tortilla de patata, an egg and potato omelet served room temperature or cold. Make sure if you want your meal meat-free that you specify “sin carne” (without meat). Vegetarians can never be sure where Spaniards will slip in some ham.
With so much coastline, Spain is a smorgasbord of seafood. Gambas or shrimp are a cold, salty delight on a hot night; however , be prepared for the eyes to still be on the body as you peel off the shells. Same goes for fish, often served whole and in wide-eyed splendor, still on the bone. Chipirones or calamari only needs a squeeze of lemon, and mejillones and ostras or mussels and oysters are brilliant fresh out of their shells. One of the most graphic seafood sights will be pulpo or octopus, served in many different ways. It is common to walk through the streets of northern Spain and see a full octopus, tentacles, and all, steaming away in a pot of boiling water in the window of a restaurant. With many regional dishes to its credit, perhaps one of the most frequently noted is paella, a rice dish cooked in a gigantic shallow pan, colored yellow with saffron, and speckled with seafood, peppers, and chicken. Served for tourists in nearly every restaurant, the ideal place to have your first taste of paella is at a señora’s table.
The Spanish are a social, talkative, extroverted people. They can be loud, opinionated, and full of jokes. Most often, they are proud; proud of their culture, their languages, their food, and their country. The best part? They are dying to share it with you. Sometimes mislabeled “lazy” by their passion for siesta, the Spanish are a hardworking lot. They don’t do anything halfway, they do everything with their whole heart: cook, laugh, love, sing, or dance. It is common for Spaniards to live with their parents until marriage, although recent years have seen many young professionals moving out to live on their own. Family is a vital part to the Spanish culture, evidenced often by how many seats are around the table at the midday meal. Living with a host family, will make it very clear to students that family – both immediate and extended – are an important part of everyday life.
Catholicism was the religion of the state during the reign of Francisco Franco from 1936-1975. Some older generations maintain a strong faith in the Catholic Church while younger generations prefer to participate in religious festivals such a Semana Santa or Holy Week. Southern Spain has a Moorish influence that dates back centuries, and practitioners of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can also be found.
Festivals, fiestas, or ferias are an active part of Spanish culture, and range from religious fervor to fireworks. The most commonly known are: La Tomatina, a large scale tomato fight held in August in Buñol and the Festival de San Fermín better known as the “Running of the Bulls” held in July in the city of Pamplona. Other widely celebrated festivals include Las Fallas held in March in Valencia, where floats are built and set on fire in a grand spectacle and La Feria de Abril held in April in Seville, home to flamenco. Each city also celebrates its patron saint on a specific day: San Isidro for Madrid in May, San Cecilio for Granada in February, likewise regions celebrate a day all their own. While December 25th is recognized as Christmas, the traditional holiday celebration is January 5, Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day. Between Catholic holidays and local ones, there is always something to celebrate in Spain.
Studying Abroad in Spain
Spain has long held its place in the top five most visited destinations by U.S. study abroad students. While many students are pursuing a second language, there are plenty of others studying business, art, communications, and many other subjects. With a prime location in Western Europe, students are able to explore other European countries and take time to enjoy public transportation on the Iberian Peninsula. The important thing to look for in a study abroad program in Spain, is the fit. Are you looking for the full immersion experience? Seek a longer term, host family accommodation, and classes taught in Spanish. Are you looking for big city living? Think about Barcelona, Madrid, Seville. If you want a smaller university town with other U.S. and European students, look to Salamanca, Malaga, Granada.
Two of the most common courses in Spain, offered nearly everywhere, will be history and politics. With a widely storied past, these courses will look at everything from Arabic influence in the south, to women in Spain, to culture and civilization over time. So too, will courses examine Spain’s position in the European Union, it’s many political parties, and its economic status on the world stage. On the extracurricular side, one can expect the occasional course in Spanish cooking, flamenco guitar, or Spanish dance.
If you are a U.S. citizen traveling to Spain, you are free to move about the country as tourists for 90 days. If you plan for a program longer than 90 days, you will need to complete a student visa application. The rules and requirements are often changing, so the best place to start is the U.S. State Department webpage: travel.state.gov. By looking up Spain, you’ll be able to view entry and exit requirements for the country, and the links will take you to the embassy or consulate. Make sure you know which consulate is yours! It depends on where you live, and may vary depending on where you’re enrolled for university.
It’s important to know that castellano, the national language, is not the only one in town. There are other recognized regional languages: Catalan / Valencian, an official language in Catalonia (the regional home of Barcelona) and Valencia, Basque (familiar to Basque country) Galician or gallego (known to Galicia) to name a few.
Housing may vary, depending on the program. Many providers or universities will offer the opportunity for a home stay or host family. This allows for an immersion experience, likely speaking Spanish 24/7, and can cut down on your overall cost if meals are provided. Don’t panic if you’re independent and need your space! Most host families have had students in their homes for years and they’re quite used to hosting college students with a need for freedom. Students may also choose a residence hall or shared apartment. Working with your study abroad advisor to determine what suits you best will help you make your decision on where to live while in Spain.
If you live in a part of the world where you rely heavily on a car to get around, you may be surprised to find your feet on the ground or your travel tied up in the beauty of public transportation. Spain operates a national rail system called Renfe, and connections are made all over the country on a daily basis. Many of the major cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, have an active metro system and a bus service. Depending on your level of comfort and cash, you can decide whether you want a bus from Madrid to Seville for 5 hours and 20 Euros or a high speed train for 2 hours and 80 Euros. Cities typically acknowledge an International Student Identification Card (ISIC) or accept your university student ID for discounts.
Several cities now operate a bike share system too, like Seville’s SeVici, which enables you to take a bike from one end of town to the other, parking it at your destination. Depending on the length of your stay, you can purchase a card or pay per use. Many Spanish cities both large and small are extremely walkable, and safe. Keeping a good city map handy and saving your high heels for another day, walking is a great way to see your new home away from home.