May 2010 issue

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Andalucía’s exotic air

Andalucía in southern Spain offers a very laid-back atmosphere in which students cannot help but relax and slowly immerse themselves in their environment. The lovely weather and outdoor life aids this tranquility and conviviality, which in turn aids Spanish language acquisition, as Jane Vernon Smith discovers.

In Spain’s extreme south, Andalucía is part of the country, yet it is different, says Ursula Holthausen of Malaga language school, Instituto Picasso. What makes this difference is the heritage of the region’s 800-year occupation by the Moors. From palaces to whitewashed villages, flamenco dancing and food, the Moorish influence bestows an exotic mystique. “Add to this the sun, the friendly, extrovert people, the Med-iterranean lifestyle,” comments Holthausen, and, “here in Andalucía, you find what people dream of when they think ‘Spain’.”

For Holthausen, herself an outsider, “What is most striking is the open-hearted hospitality of the people of Andalucía.” Also striking for visitors from middle and northern Europe is the outdoor lifestyle. “It is difficult to feel isolated or lonely,” she remarks, “as life takes place in the streets, with a high chance to meet new people all the time. It is the exact opposite of the protected private life of the middle and northern European countries.”

At the heart of the region, Córdoba provides the perfect base camp for the Andalucían adventure, says Mitchell Chávez, Director of Marketing at local language school, Academia Hispanica/International House Córdoba. To acquaint themselves with all that makes Andalucía different, students need look no further than this historic inland city. “Our city is one of the oldest in the world,” Chávez explains. “It has plenty of monuments that date back hundreds of years, and our students get to walk down a street and see the history of three civilisations (Jewish, Muslim and Catholic), as part of day-to-day life.”

Moreover, Córdoba remains unspoiled by mass tourism, and, Chávez observes, you can still walk down the street and see more locals than visitors.

Seville, the attractive regional capital, lies on the Guadalquivir river. For Frederic Parrilla of Clic-IH’s Seville-based language school, it sums up the essence of the romantic Spain. “Seville,” he says, “is mainly blue, orange and red. You see those colours in the sky, in the 75,000 orange trees that blossom twice a year and in the façades of the old palaces.” For him, Seville is also inextricably linked with its flamenco dancing and music, its horse shows and its spring festivals, when the city is enlivened by the sight of riders in gypsy costume astride parading horses. This, he says, is a time for dancing and drinking. It’s also a time for bullfighting and taking a late dinner. The local food is not to be missed, says Parrilla, especially Sevillan “fish and chips” – a mixture of various fried fish, served in a paper cone.

Guided tours of the city enable students to feel at home very quickly, becoming familiar with its major sights, including the famous Giralda (the minaret of an ancient mosque), the cathedral, the Golden Tower and the Plaza de España. Students also enjoy excursions to the beach and to other cities. One of the most appreciated trips, says Parrilla, is to Cádiz, where there are unspoiled beaches, with wind-surfing and kite-surfing opportunities. 

Founded by the Phoenicians more than 2,000 years ago, the university city of Cádiz occupies a peninsular on the beautiful Costa de la Luz. The recently opened Clic-IH Cádiz school is situated in the city’s best neighbourhood, according to Parrilla, only a few metres from the beach, the old city walls and the centre of town.

All year, there are concerts and fiestas – the highlight being the February carnival ­– ensuring that there is always plenty to occupy young people. Meanwhile, the local beaches are considered to be among the best urban beaches in the country, Parrilla observes. “We recommend the beach of La Victoria,” he says. “It’s a long beach, and very handy for [our] school, both in summer, when the bars and street cafés of the promenade are busy, and during the rest of the year for a walk along the fine sand.” Alternatively, the beach at Bolonia offers white sands in “a stunning environment”, and a chance to try kite-surfing and trekking the dunes, as well as visit the Roman archaeological ruins of Baelo Claudia. The other nearby hot-spot is Tarifa. A top destination for kite surfers from all over the world, it is also famous for its shops, bars and music on the beach.

Further east, the ever-popular Costa del Sol offers a convenient destination, served by the airport – soon to be expanded – at Malaga. This coastal town has the cosy atmosphere of a village, says Holthausen at the Instituto Picasso, with a variety of traditional shops in the old town centre, and the cathedral at its heart. Meanwhile, the modern western area of the town provides big shopping malls with all the well known international stores.

According to Bob Burger, Marketing Director at Malaca Instituto, Malaga gets better by the day. As a candidate for European Capital of Culture 2016, it has become a hive of activity. “New galleries and museums seem to open almost every day…24 underground car parks have enabled the pedestrianisation of the historic centre, [and] a new auditorium for the Philharmonic Orchestra is about to be built,” he reveals.

When it comes to beaches and nightlife, Malaga has its share. La Malagueta beach is just 10 minutes’ walk from the town centre, and, from there, notes Holthausen, one beach area follows another for four kilometres, each lined with a variety of fish restaurants that remain full of life until late at night during the summer months.

Easter week and mid-August provide the highlights of the local calendar, when visitors flock to the town to take part in its festivals, and, as Holthausen notes, bars and restaurants are open day and night. There is no shortage of things to see and do all year round, however. The Costa del Sol has its fair share of history, and a wide choice of historical and cultural excursions. “What students like best are trips related to the Moorish past,” says Holthausen. Alternatively, at Malaca Instituto, students can enjoy a new range of themed “routes”, or excursions, including the Ruta del Vino (wine), Ruta de Aceite (olive oil) and the Ruta del los Pueblos (white-washed villages). There is even the chance to take a weekend trip to Morocco.

From Malaga, another popular excursion is to the picturesque village of Nerja. Full of Andalucían charm, Nerja is small, historic town, with prehistoric caves bearing witness to its past. Today, these serve as venue for the July music festival, with a programme of flamenco dancing, opera and ballet.

At the centre of town, the Escuela de Idiomas Nerja occupies a traditional Andalucían house, just a short walk from the local beaches. “Everything is within walking distance,” comments Director, Luis Carrión – and this includes typical bars and restaurants, and the 15th-century main square, the balcon de Europa (balcony of Europe) – boasting spectacular sea views.

During their stay, students can easily visit Granada – home to perhaps Andalucía’s most famous monument of all, the Alhambra Palace. Closer at hand, outdoor activities include diving, sailing, windsurfing and horse-riding. Students can visit the local donkey sanctuary or take a trip to the typical white-washed village of Frigiliana. Or they can simply relax, or study Spanish on the sand says Carrion.

Like other sites in Andalucía, nearby Almuñécar boasts a perfect location and weather that attracted many foreign settlers in the past. Traces of Phoenician, Roman and Arab occupation still remain here, while today, the town’s situation is also a major draw for visitors with a love of outdoor pursuits, as Juan Carlos Martinez, Director of local language school, Tropical Coast (TC) Languages, highlights.

With more than 19 kilometres of beaches and hidden coves, and the Sierra Nevada mountain range close by, the area affords a wide range of sporting opportunities – among them paragliding, trekking, scuba diving, surfing, sailing and skiing, as well as canyoning in the Sierra de Cázulas. Martinez also recommends a boat trip along the coastline, where the cliffs give access to hidden coves, and wild goats may be seen descending from the mountains to search for vital salt – “a curious image that amazes everyone”, he says.

As throughout Andalucía, there are also many splashes of local colour to enjoy. The summer jazz festival – Spain’s first – showcases the talent of promising young musicians, as well as some of the world’s leading jazz performers. Meanwhile, the San Juan Night summer solstice celebration and Las Fiestas de la Virgen del Carmen (feast of the patron saint of fishermen) provide occasion for musical fireworks by the sea – yet another magical Andalucían experience.

Agent viewpoint

“[Our students] like the historic feel to the [region]: the narrow alleys, the castles, cathedrals, churches and plazas. Food, culture, people and nightlife are also mentioned…Even the smell of the Andalucían night air has come up. [There’s] lots to see and do in a relatively small area with lots of diversity. The pace of life, the nice people and old-world feel to the inland region give it a bit of an edge on most others. Down on the coast there’s some nice beaches and lots of nightlife in the summer.”
Chris Hart, Languages in Action, Thailand

“The most popular places are Seville, Granada and Malaga. But also smaller places, lilke Nerja and Almuñécar are favourites, usually to a somewhat older public… [Clients comment on] the easy-going lifestyle due to the climate. Life is less hectic and planned…you let yourself go [with] the flow of people around you. That gives the stressed northern European the feeling they are on holiday. In the meantime, they forget they are speaking Spanish most of the time.”
Renee van Rongen, Tricolore, Netherlands

“[Students] are attracted by the Spanish culture, they would like to taste tapas and paella, see the region’s famous flamenco performances, or even learn flamenco themselves…They are surprised that most daily things – eating, working, going out, etc – are taking place a couple of hours later than in their home country. All students are delighted about the mild climate and the fact that everything is relatively cheap. Finally, they are hugely impressed by the various cultural influences… and [their] being all present in what is Andalucía and its people today.”
Ramona Biehn, StudyGlobal, Spain

“Andalucía attracts our students because it’s a diverse region that offers a wide spectrum of activities [to sample] and interesting places. At a relatively close distance from each other, you’ll find sandy beaches on the Costa del Sol, snowy mountains in the Sierra Nevada and the dry Taberna desert.”
Martijn Goedegebure, Linguaschools, Spain

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