July 2011 issue

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Spain’s magic

A language stay in Spain is a colourful treat for all the senses, as Gillian Evans reports.

The mere mention of Spain immediately conjures up images of sunshine and beaches, Moorish palaces and white-washed villages, tapas and paella, and colourful flamenco dancers and bullfights. But Mariló Estevan at Caxton College in Valencia, observes that Spain’s true magic lies in its diversity. “There are unique regional characteristics, customs, cultures, languages, architecture, cuisines and climate [in Spain],” he explains. “There is a little bit of everything for everyone.”

Angel Luis Pinuela from Eureka in Madrid says that many people are attracted to the country not only because of Spain’s great weather and rich culture but also its people. “Spaniards are cheerful, giving and we have a very open nature,” he asserts, “and that creates a very good atmosphere everywhere.”

Katie Griffiths at Colegio de Español La Janda – International House in Vejer de la Frontera, Cádiz, agrees. “In Spain life is very different to northern parts of Europe; much of life takes place outside of the house, on the streets and in the bars and cafés. Especially in summer the streets come to life.”

This is certainly the case in Santiago de Compostela, situated in northwestern Spain. “Locals love spending their time in the street,” says Ramón Clavijo, Director of Academia Iria Flavia in Santiago. “Tapas at noon, a good time at a café in the historic district, sunbathing at the Quintana Square or listening to the Banda Municipal de Música (City Council Music Band) on Sundays in Rúa do Vilar.” Santiago is home to one of Spain’s oldest universities, attracting 35,000 students every year, making it a young fun city, but it is also a beautiful old city that has been the final destination for pilgrimages throughout Europe for thousands of years.

For those trekking the pilgrim route, Pamploma in northeastern Spain is the first city encountered after crossing the Pyrenees. Situated in the Navarre region, Pamplona is, according to Carmen Neira Freire at Pamplona Spanish Institute, a “peaceful, diverse place”, famous for the San Fermín festival and the Pilgrim‘s Way to Santiago de Compostela.

While Spain is a popular international holiday destination, many northern areas of the country remain off the radar of mainstream tourism. Talking of Gijón on the north coast of Spain, Maureen Lawton, Director of Lawton Idiomas in Gijón, says, “[Students] are surprised by how unspoilt the area is; the fact that it is not full of foreign tourists as other parts of Spain are, so they can enjoy a more authentic Spanish experience.” It is the place where the Spanish go on holiday and, according to Lawton, people there love to party. “There is always something going on – different festivals and special events are held in the city throughout the year, [including] Carnival-Antroxu in February/March, the Tapas Festival in May and the Semana Negra (Black Week) in July, a literary and musical event which has become one of Spain’s most popular and best-known youth events.”

Indeed, festivals and fiestas abound throughout the country. Across on the eastern coast of Spain, Valencia hosts the famous Fallas, where the parades conclude in the Night of the Fire where the edifices from the parades are burnt. The city of Valencia itself is a big draw for students, says Fernando Ribas, Marketing Director of Valencia-based AIP Language Institute. “Everybody who has ever been to Valencia on holiday or lived here will tell you that it is a really incredible city,” he asserts. “In addition to offering an eight-kilometre-long city beach and the best climate in Europe with an annual average temperature per day of 21 degrees celsius, Valencia is a historical and typically Mediterranean city.” Indeed the city has made such a big impression on its visitors that it was recently ranked fifth in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities for 2011.

Estevan also talks of Valencia’s sporting credentials. “I would have to say that a highlight of being in Valencia is the Valencian’s active lifestyle and passion for sport,” he says. Indeed sport, especially football, has boosted Spain’s popularity as a tourist destination, according to Bob Burger from Malaca Instituto in Malaga. “The huge success of the national [football] team and Barcelona have helped place Spain on the map in countries where before it was little known,” he says.

Apart from a trip to Camp Nou stadium to watch FC Barcelona play, Barcelona is a city full of interesting sites. “Of all Spanish cities Barcelona stands out,” asserts Genta Banushi at Camino Barcelona Spanish Language School in Barcelona, “probably because of its location, its beaches and relaxed lifestyle but [it is] modern as well – shopping, nightlife – and completely easy to go on foot or by public transport. It is a relaxing and wonderful city in every way.”

For students interested in art history, Madrid is a true treasure trove. “Where else in the world can you see most of the finest European painters in history – including Caravaggio, Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Constable, Van Gogh, Picasso and Dalí – under one roof? [You can at] the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid,” says Luisa Coque Martínez, Director of King’s College International in Madrid. “[And] this is only one of the ‘big three’ art galleries in the city, [which includes] the Prado and the Reina Sofia [in addition to the] Thyssen.”

While the city itself has plenty of culture and leisure activities for students, Pinuela says that it is their lifestyle that makes Madrid such a well-loved city. “Madrid is a city in constant motion,” he observes. “An early breakfast will lead people to work – or some others to bed on weekends. Days are pretty busy and most business and shops are open all day. Cafés and restaurants won’t start to fill up until two or three o’clock for lunch and nine or 10 o’clock for a more light dinner or just a beer and a few tapas before ending the day.”

A city that is “crammed full of history”, according to Violeta Carmona at Castila, Centro Internacional de Estudios Hispánicos, is Granada. She recommends taking a walk through the beautiful Albaycín, with its narrow winding streets dating back to Medieval Moorish times, and into the old Jewish quarter of Realejo, and of course a tour of the famous Alhambra. But the city’s position in Andalucía is another attraction to students. “Without doubt the two principal aspects which draw people to Granada are its climate and its situation,” she explains. “With the opportunity to ski in the Sierra Nevada in the winter and enjoy one of the various nearby beaches as the weather warms up, Granada has something to offer everyone.”

A relaxed pace of life also characterises Cádiz, known as la ciudad que sonríe, the city that smiles. “There is a special way of life in Andalucia, and a more special one in Cádiz,” claims Ángeles Castro Director at K2 Internacional Cádiz, situated in the old part of the city. Cádiz is a city with fish markets, cafés, narrow cobbled streets and pastel-coloured houses. “There are many things to do [in Cádiz], you will never be bored,” says Castro.

Another Andalucian gem is Vejer de la Frontera, perched 200 metres above the surrounding countryside, offering spectacular views from all angles. According to Griffiths, Vejer “provides visitors with an insight into what many Andalucian towns were like during the five centuries of Islamic occupation, demonstrating the convergence of these two cultures with its narrow winding streets and patio houses”. Vejer is situated just 11 kilometres from the unspoilt Costa de Luz, and Vejer’s beach, El Palmar, is one of Spain’s most unspoilt beaches. “Many sports lovers flock to this area to enjoy the waves and wind,” she says. “Kitesurfing and surfing are both very popular. Horse riding is another popular pastime – horse riding along the beach with views of Africa in front of you is an unforgettable experience whatever time of year.”

The draw of the beaches and year-round sunshine is also what attracts students to Almería, an area that boasts 200 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline, and a mix of desert and fertile farmland. Lured from his native England by Almería’s favourable weather, Jason Brooks is Marketing Manager of the Almería Spanish School Group. “Almería has it all,” he exclaims, “beaches, the city, Spanish life [and] mountains for skiing all within 40 minutes of the city. [But] it’s not a city that is swamped by tourism or that students will get lost in. When students come here they feel that they are in a Spanish city, they will have to communicate in Spanish and live the Spanish way of life.”

A true taste of Andalucian life is also to be experienced in Malaga. The city itself is, according to Burger at Malaca Instituto, full of history, culture and great food. “Malaga’s version of the Mediterranean diet is found in hundreds of restaurants and tapas bars catering to all tastes and all pockets,” says Burger, adding, “As Malaga is on the Mediterranean and has a great climate all year round, there is nothing better than to go out, meet up with friends and while away time chatting and eating delicious seafood in one of the seafront fish restaurants or the hundreds of tapas bars in the town centre. This is an essential part of life in Malaga and provides us and our students with an enviable lifestyle.”

Another Andalucian city that offers students a different experience of the region is Murcia. Felipe Espada at Instituto Hispanico, which is situated in the city, says most students do not know much about Murcia before they arrive. “They are quickly impressed by our ‘big small’ city – a small city with all the services [and attractions] of a big city, such as culture, transport and festivals – and last but not least, our culinary offers.”

Elena Rodríguez at Tropical Coast Languages in Almuñécar, Granada, comments that their students find it easy to interact with the local community through their range of activities, such as the tapas tours, nights out and visits to the town market and the open air market. “People here are very open,” she says. To give students a real taste of the flora and fauna around Almuñécar, Tropical Coast Languages offers an excursion, together with an adventure activities company, to La Junta de los Ríos mountains. “It is very interesting because it is a mixture of trekking and it is special because it is through a natural park with rivers, waterfalls and lakes you cannot come to without a licence.”

For a different experience of Spain, students could choose a language stay on the island of Ibiza. Best known as the world capital of electronic music and home to the famous chill out sounds of Café del Mar, Ibiza has much more to offer than its famous clubbing scene. “Ibiza is one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean,” asserts Daniel Bertole, Director General of Instituto de Idiomas Ibiza. “With 54 official beaches (and many more with no services available on site) on a length of only 34 kilometres, it offers a great experience of nature in the summer as well as in the winter. Furthermore, it has several world heritage sites within Ibiza Town, where the school is located, over the [other side of the] island and underwater, with its sea grass fields.”

Agent viewpoint

“Our clients like Spain because they like the weather – it is warmer than in Austria – the food, the culture, the beaches and the architecture. We offer 12 different locations in Spain including Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, San Sebastian and Mallorca. Our students really enjoy the late dinner time and the open-minded talkative people.”
Martina Mascha, Travelplus Group, Austria

“We send students to all the main Spanish destinations: Madrid, Salamanca, Málaga, Seville, Valencia, etc. The most popular destination is Barcelona, because of the positive image which Barcelona has gained in the last 10 years. Our clients are most surprised by the rhythm of life in the city especially having dinner very late, going out at 11 o’clock at night and staying out until morning.”
Martin Mayer, Sprachkurse-weltweit, Germany

“Spain has always been a favourite destination for Germans – mostly because of the wonderful climate, the friendliness of the people and the relative proximity of the two countries. Tourists especially love the cultural diversity: from the rugged coastlines of Galicia, the vibrant cities of Madrid or Barcelona to the southern region of Andalucía with its rich cultural heritage and beautiful beaches.”
Christopher Thebing, Kolumbus Sprachreisen, Germany

“Spain liberates the Dutch from the heaviness and rhythm of everyday life. The sky clears up from a dark grey to an immense blue, the sun is shining and people in Spain seem less worried about tomorrow. Once you address the Spanish in their own language they are so open and kind. And so proud that you have taken the time to learn their language. Once we stayed in a small village called Ojos. We spent hours chatting with the locals who were so curious and helpful and when we left they gave us a big bag of oranges from their orchard.”
Renée van Rongen, Tricolore, Netherlands

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