April 2009 issue

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Uncovering Spain

While Spain has modernised, it has not lost any of its charming character, and now offers language travellers a modern European experience with all the great traditions of an old country. Gillian Evans reports.

Famous for its paella and red wine, bullfights, flamenco and fiestas and the relaxed way of life, Spain is a country whose charm entices visitors back time after time, according to Sjef Bexkens at Idiomas ¡Sí!, which has schools in Malaga and Alicante. The country also has a varied landscape, and cities and towns with distinctly different characters, which, says Bexkens, means that visitors never get bored with it. “There are mountains, beaches, lakes, forests and beautiful cities to be found in this land where Don Quijote once fought the giant windmills,” he relates. “The Pyrenees in the North, the beautiful beaches on the Atlantic coast, the rough inland [areas] covered by beautiful forest and million-year-old lakes, not to even [mention] the Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, Pamplona and Malaga.”

Offering his own personal highlights of Spain, Paul McMahon at Wired Spain Languages, which works with Spanish language schools all over the country, says, “In Madrid I love to see the museums and the buzz of the city - nothing compares to Madrid, in the day or the night. Barcelona is full of beauty; it has the beach, and architecture that is amazing…in Barcelona you always feel on holiday.” McMahon is also keen to point out the more subdued side to Spain. “The rest of the areas of Spain are full of contrasts. I have to say, apart form Barcelona my favourite area is La Rioja. The air is so clean, the people so nice and the culture is [all about] food and wine.”

While most students are familiar with Spain’s traditional side, Cristina Martinez Minguez at Ausiàs March International School in Valencia says many are unfamiliar with Spain’s more modern face. “In general, I have found that there is not a lot of information about Spain except typical tourist information, for example, paella, bullfighting, flamenco and beaches,” she asserts. “Most of our students have a little old fashioned idea of Spain, so they are really surprised to see very modern cities, with modern buildings and a “European” way of life.”

Despite the modernisation of Spain, Fernando Batalla, Manager of Taronja School in Valencia, argues that the country’s charm lies in its imperfections. He explains, “Spain is still, in many ways, not perfect. Maybe this sounds strange but listen to this: we are always late, we don’t take things too seriously - well, we do take partying seriously! We still throw [litter] on the ground, we are noisy all the time, we have non-politically correct traditions, we are not perfectly organized...nevertheless, we are happy everyday.”

An intrinsic part of a language travel experience is to get to know and “live” these national idiosyncrasies. “The programs that we offer are always about the students getting into the culture of Spain and trying to take away something positive and an understanding of Spanish life,” relates McMahon.

Ausiàs March International School also prides itself in helping students integrate into Spanish life. “We accommodate students in host families so that they meet the rest of the family, “live” in Spanish and learn Spanish customs,” comments Martinez Minguez.

Valencia itself is, according to Batalla, “probably the perfect spot to learn Spanish in Spain”, owing to its pleasant climate, the size of the city - which is large enough for plenty to be going on but small enough to feel personal – and its beach. “When students discover Valencia they are so impressed with it. They ask themselves why they have never heard about this incredible city before! It’s basically a perfect city to live in and that is the bad part about it...nobody wants to leave Valencia once they have been here!”

Valencia is also home of paella – the word actually means “frying pan” in both the Valencian and Catallan language – and cooking is an important pastime. “One of the most famous things about Taronja School is the magnificent free Spanish cooking classes that we have at the school every Tuesday with the Great Chef Nando,” says Batalla, adding, “By the way, I’m Chef Nando!” Owing to the popularity of the weekly cooking classes, Taronja is this year launching a Spanish plus cooking course headed by its resident chef.

Culinary delights are also a highlight for students studying at Idiomas ¡Sí! in Malaga, where social activities include paella and tortilla de patata (Spanish omelette) cooking lessons, tapas nights, and flamenco and salsa parties. One of the school’s most interesting excursions is, according to Bexkens, the tour of the San Miguel beer factory. “This is all for free and includes free tapas and beer tasting at the end,” he says.

Malaga itself offers students a wonderful Spanish holiday experience with its Mediterranean climate, inviting beaches and lively nightlife scene, but Bexkens is also keen to highlight the city’s cultural and historical attributes. “Malaga offers a look into the history of Pablo Picasso, the famous painter, who was born in Malaga. It is one of the Spanish cities that has a bullring, where one can enjoy a typical Spanish bullfight. It is a city full of flamenco and full of bars and restaurants for eating tapas. It is also a city full of old Arabic and Spanish architecture, highlighted by the cathedral and Malaga’s two castles, Alcazaba and Gibralfaro.”

Situated almost equidistant between Malaga and Granada is Almuñecar, home to Tropical Coast Languages. The school takes its name from the area, which boasts a unique microclimate, with temperaturas averaging 29 degrees in the summer and 18 degrees in winter. According to Juan Carlos Martínez at the school, the tropical valley surrounding the town is used for growing custard apples, avocados, mangos and babaco (a type of papaya), all of which can only be produced in this area of Spain. In addition, he says, “The Almuñecar coastline boasts over 19 kilometres of beautiful beaches and hidden bays with calm crystal-clear waters well suited to water sports.”

Almuñecar is also close to mountains making it a good base for snow sports enthusiasts, and Tropical Coast Languages offers a Spanish beach and ski programme. Martínez explains, “ [Our] special Intensive Spanish Course [includes] one day a week [which] is left free for skiing in the Sierra Nevada without missing out on any Spanish classes. Students can make the most of the fantastic location where, between the months of December and April, they can enjoy tropical temperatures of around 20 degrees at the beach and ski in the highest mountains of the Peninsula on the same day!”

Another good location for snow sports is Salamanca, which is surrounded by the Sierra de Francia and Sierra de Gredos. The climate here is colder in winter than many of the other popular Spanish language learning destinations, something that comes as a surprise to some international students, according to Sophie L’Enfant at Colegio de España in Salamanca. “[Some students] think the whole of Spain has a warm climate, but, for example, here in Salamanca, we have cold winters and hot summers,” she notes.

For students looking for a rich cultural experience, however, Salamanca, a designated Unesco World Heritage site, is ideal. Describing the city, L’Enfant says, “Salamanca offers a wide variety of culture [and] history for all kind of students. [And as] it is a university city with a young atmosphere, students can enjoy all kinds of activities here.”

With a university that dates back to the thirteenth century, Salamanca has a reputation today for being the liveliest place in the old Castile region. It is steeped in history, with its old university buildings, two cathedrals and a Roman bridge. But L’Enfant adds, “One of the advantages the city of Salamanca can offer is the distance to other cities of cultural historical interest [such as] Segovia, Toledo and Madrid.”

To learn Spanish in Spain is to set upon a journey of cultural discovery, and it is hard not to be swept along by the enthusiasm the schools have for their country. Taronja is five years old, and Batalla says, “When we thought of [setting up] Taronja we had just one thing in mind: we wanted to make the kind of school we would like to find if we ever had to go abroad to study a language”.

Agent viewpoint

 Maren Borkowski, Experience! Sprachreisen, Germany
“Many of our Spanish-learning clients prefer Spain in comparison to other Spanish destinations because it is easy [to reach] by several airlines and [has a] European standard [of living]. We notice two different types of customers [interested] in Spain: most of our students choose the coastal destinations to combine a beach holiday and language course. Furthermore, we have a second target group, which is interested in the cultural aspects. These people favour towns like Seville or Salamanca.”

 Slaveya Vladimirova, Iberica, Bulgaria
“Our students who choose to go to Spain know that in Spain there are a lot of beautiful places, a lot of partying, good food, and nice, friendly people. And there are also a lot of warm destinations even during the winter. We offer schools in Madrid, Barcelona, Salamanca, Pamplona, but the top destination lately is Valencia. It is popular because of the good weather and beach, variety of activities and festivals, Formula 1, and perfect combination between studying and having fun.”

 Claudio Cesarano, globo-study, Switzerland
“Students like to study in Spain as they want to learn a pure form of Spanish. They also like the Spanish culture, dance, tapas, cities, the beach, and the fact that it is not too far to get to. The infrastructure of the schools in Spain is very modern. The most popular locations in Spain among our clients are the beach destinations such as Malaga, Nerja, Alicante and Valencia. We don’t have a beach in Switzerland and therefore the coast is very popular with Swiss students.”

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