Do you enjoy your beach holidays in Spain but feel like you’re doing too many touristy things and missing out on genuine Spanish culture? With this simple list of items to take to the Spanish coasts you will blend in on the beach in Spain seamlessly, and look like a local expert who’s been coming for years!
DISCLAIMER: I’m from the south-west of Spain and therefore I’ve spent most of my holidays on Costa de la Luz. As the content of this post is based on my personal experience here, it’s possible that some facts do not apply on some other Spanish coasts!
Item #1: A Branded Parasol
The first step is of course getting some shelter from the sun with a large parasol, but it shouldn’t just be any parasol; it has to advertise a drink – preferably a brand of beer. Depending on the coast (and consequently region) you are in, some brands will be more suitable than others. Cruzcampo is a safe bet in Andalusia (unless you’re in Granada territory where the local’s favourite is quite rightly Alhambra Especial), but any brand of the CocaCola Company also works!
Item #2: An Ocean Blue Cool-box
This is paramount because it implies you’re taking your own food to the beach and not planning to get your meals and drinks at the chiringuito(beach bar for tourists with expensive prices). The colour is very important –it has to be ocean blue, like the one pictured.
Item #3: Plastic Containers With Homemade Meals
This one is very closely related to item #2. Even if you have made yourself some nice sandwiches, you’ll need some back-up supplies in case anyone joins you. Pasta salads, croquetas, crisps, some fruit etc…
WARNING: You must not go swimming straight after eating because, according to Spanish parents, doing so may cause severe hypothermia (don’t make me say I told you so). In the meantime you can either sunbathe or entertain yourselves with item #4.
Item #4: Spanish Playing Cards
With few exceptions, Spaniards are not big fans of a normal card deck. Why would we need them when we have our own wonderful version? Even though there are many to choose from, we always end up playing the same old 3 or 4 games: cuatrola, burro, culo and cinquillo. If while taking a walk on the beach you ask every group of Spaniards playing cards which game they’re playing, chances are it’ll be one of those.
Item #5: Pipas (sunflower seeds)
Pipas are our official snack. Beach, park, botellón… it doesn’t matter where; they’ll be our salty companion. There’s a special technique to eating them properly but, as they’re so addictive, mastering that technique shouldn’t be a difficult task!
Now you know all the secrets to going incognito on the wonderful Spanish coasts, but there is one last thing: always remember to take strong sun cream with you or your sunburn will give you away and ruin the whole mission!
Spain’s ‘Coast of The Light’ – la costa de la luz – is teeming with pristine, white, sandy beaches, which both Spaniards and tourists flock to in the summer months. In truth, there is perhaps no better place to be if slow-paced travelling, relentless sunbathing and sleeping under the stars is your idea of a holiday.
Thanks to development restrictions, many of la luz’sbeach pueblos have avoided the multitude of hotels and high-rises that other parts of the south coast have been tarnished with. There are a number of hotels and hostels to choose from if you’d rather have a proper bed for the night but availability is often a problem, so the best option for accommodation on the costa de la luz is camping in one of its many clean and friendly campsites.
I recently spent 10 days bussing and hoofing my way along this beautiful Spanish coastline with all my camping gear on my back and a shoestring budget to live off.
It was brilliant, and, despite having only the bare essentials to help me rest, probably the most relaxing holiday of my life!
Where is the Costa de la Luz?
The coastline stretches from Huelva, in the far west of the region, to Tarifa, the surfer’s paradise of Spain and southernmost tip of the continent.
Where can you go camping on Costa de la Luz?
Although Huelva, Cádiz and several towns in between like Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María have plenty of wonderful beaches to offer weary travellers, these areas tend to be much busier and more built-up. The most idyllic spots are between Cádiz and Tarifa, where it is quieter and less populated.
Conil de la Frontera
Conil is a small, bustling beach town to the south of Cádiz, and not far from inland Vejer de la Frontera. I had to bypass it on this trip as time was short. However I’ve been before and the place is always buzzing in the evening, with a good stock of tasty tapas and cocktail bars to take advantage of.
Plaza España, Vejer de la Frontera
Some random arches that looked quite nice.
Plaza España, Vejer de la Frontera …from the front
El Palmar is a tiny settlement with a handful of bars, restaurants and hostels, though these are nearly always fully booked. The beach is easily one of the best beaches in Andalucía. The sand is smooth, there are no rocks, not too many people and and you can walk out to sea for about 80m before the water passes above knee-height. It really doesn’t get much better.
El Palmar has one campsite – Camping El Palmar – which is very well-equipped (bar, restaurant, supermarket, large swimming pool, excellent bathrooms) and found about 900m away from the beach, down a long, dusty road. Signs for the campsite are easy to spot along the main thoroughfare.
If you’re in the party mood, there are several beachside cocktail bars/open air clubs that stay open until late, Buena Vida being the pick of the bunch for its comfy sofas, minty mojitos and impressive music selection.
Los Caños de Meca
Rather than hitching or waiting for the absurdly late-leaving local bus (18.00), you can just walk from El Palmar to Los Caños de Meca. This is what I did, stopping in Zahora for lunch at El Chiringuito de Juan on the way.
The beach stretches from El Palmar all the way to El Faro de Trafalgar, the lighthouse where the famous battle was fought between France-Spain and Britain on October 21st, 1805. Bizarrely locals still celebrate the passing of this date even though Spain lost; any excuse for a fiesta en España…
Walking with the wet sand between my toes along a deserted, golden beach for 3km was the highlight of the trip, despite the blazing sun and 10k of camping equipment I was carrying!
From the lighthouse it’s just another half hour on foot to the far right of Los Caños. Conveniently, Los Caños’ best campsite – Camping Camaleón – is found at this end of the village too.
There is lots of room at Camaleón, and unlike most other campsites, you may pitch your tent wherever you like. The facilities are very good, with a bar and restaurant that serves barbecued steaks and clay oven baked pizzas, modernised bathrooms and a mini supermarket. They even put on live bands at the weekends for guests to enjoy as they dine.
However, it’s the welcoming and hard-working staff that make Camaleón stand out from the pack. I was lucky enough to meet and get to know several of them during my stay. Everyone was very chatty, helpful and particularly understanding when I realised I was unable to withdraw any money (there are no ATMs in Los Caños!) Thankfully I was able to pay for everything by card at the end of each day. Cheers guys!
Los Caños de Meca is a fairly small beach but large enough to fit a couple of chiringuitos and a large bar/club going by the name of La Jaima, which makes up the second part of the Camaleón empire. Here you can relax on the Moroccan-style sofas on the third floor with a cocktail in your hand as you watch the sun set over the Atlantic. It’s the perfect end to a day of laborious sunbathing.
The next town along the Costa de la Luz is Barbate. More people dwell here, and if coming from Los Caños de Meca it can feel a bit like re-entering civilisation. For instance there are ATMs in Barbate, for which I was most grateful when I visited. Unfortunately I hadn’t the time to stay long, but there are no nearby campsites anyway, so I’d have had nowhere to sleep. However there areplenty of lovely beaches so if you have a car then it would be worthwhile visiting for the afternoon.
Zahara de los Atunes
Next is Zahara de los Atunes, another gorgeous drag of white sand complete with fabulous fish restaurants (tuna being the speciality of course) and stylish chiringuitos – lazy by day, loud by night.
There is a campsite right in the centre of town, Camping Bahía de la Plata, which is less than a five minute walk from the beach. Again, I skipped this one as there was no time but I’d definitely go and check it out. It is within walking distance of Barbate.
Tarifa is the last stop on the Costa de la Luz and the southernmost tip of the entire European continent. The jagged mountains of Morocco loom in the distance – merely the tip of another giant slab of earth!
The meeting of the poniente and levante winds make for perfect surfing conditions. Thousands of surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers flock here as though the last day on earth is upon us, often to stay for the whole summer. It’s no surprise then that the number of surf apparel stores and kite schools in the centre is staggering. Some schools don’t even have shops or shacks; just a meeting point on the beach!
I arranged a 2-day introductory kitesurfing course with Addict Kite School, run by the multilingual and incredibly enthusiastic Romain and his girlfriend Marine. The first day went well enough; we learnt how to fly the kite and got to know some basic rules. However, due to there being absolutely no wind on the second day the course had to be cancelled (this was most upsetting), but hopefully I’ll be back to finish what I started later this this summer!
There are several campsites dotted along the section of highway between Tarifa town centre and the curve in the land about 12km to the left. The closest to Tarifa – and where I stayed – is Camping Rio Jara, which backs on to Playa de Los Lances where many kitesurfing lessons take place daily, including Addict Kite School’s. The facilities here were adequate, with clean bathrooms, showers, supermarket, a small bar and breakfast area.
Getting There & Around
The E-5 / N-340 highway links Cádiz and Vejer de la Frontera. From here you must join the tiny and often quite bumpy A-roads which lead to the coast. Both El Palmar and Los Caños are reachable by bus from Cádiz and Conil three times a day, although buses from Cádiz to Vejer de la Frontera depart more regularly and sometimes it’s necessary to go here first and wait for a connecting bus.
It would take weeks to walk the entire costa de la luz, so if without your own vehicle you will at some point have to take a bus or – like I did – hitch a ride to your next destination. Having said that, I’d recommend you walk along the coast whenever possible, since the views are too good to pass up and the distance between each settlement isn’t usually too far.
Comes runs a bus from Cádiz to Málaga, which stops in Tarifa and Algeciras, but you probably wouldn’t want to hang around in Algeciras for long. I won’t go into detail but let’s just say that even la Costa de la Luz has its dark side.
Have you ever camped under the stars and enjoyed the fine beaches on the Costa de la Luz? Where did you stay? Where else did you visit?
Musicians from all over the world are drawn to Granada because of its unique and bubbling music scene. Spanish, African, Northern European, Asian, American, Latin American – all these backgrounds combine to create an eclectic musical culture in Granada.
Why this city and not the next? Well, the general message of this blog should answer that, but Granada’s status as a musical kingpin in Spain can more or less be attributed to two reasons.
Firstly, there is generally a simple and positive approach to life here that complements the uncluttered and laid-back environment a musician needs to be creative. People want to be happy and make other people happy; making music and performing it for all to hear is the perfect way of doing this.
Secondly, Granada has a long history of musical accomplishment, and has attracted huge talents over the years. The most notable of these would be the late and now legendary Joe Strummer, of The Clash. During the 70s Strummer would often just turn up in Granada, usually alone, and write music. There was a growing punk scene in Granada at the time and Strummer soon became something of a local hero. The hit ‘Spanish Bombs’, which referred to Granada as his corazon, basically immortalised him, and three years ago a square in el Realejo bario was re-named after him, to honour his influence on Granadino culture.
Out on the streets; up in the hills; in musty, timeworn Flamenco bars; even in the darkest and dingiest of grunge bars – musical creativity thrives everywhere here, and is an asset to the city that ought to be celebrated.
Out on the Street
Granada’s city centre is awash with buskers and street performers, from acoustic guitarists and full-on brass bands to Flamenco dancers and spaced-out nomads lightly tapping on an instrument that resembles the lid of a large wok.
Anyone who wants to perform any kind of act publicly must get proper permission down at the Ayuntamiento building first (free, and just a stamped piece of paper, apparently), or else they risk facing a hefty fine if approached by police. Even if you play the guitar like Hendrix there’s no excuse for not having the proper permission unfortunately.
Carrera del Darro, the long, cobbled street that runs parallel to the river beyond Plaza Nueva, is the most popular (and scenic) place to go and busk to your heart’s content. Many musicians set up by the Cathedral too, where crowds of tourists are likely to build up.
As spring turns from wet to warm, the outdoor party season is set in motion. Word-of-mouth raves often take place up in the hills beyond San Miguel Alto, attracting a few hundred revellers throughout the day. The sound system that is dragged all the way up there is solar-powered and thus energy efficient (true Granadino hippy style). The police don’t get involved, since the location is out of the way and the music inaudible to the nearest residents in the higher part of the Albaícin.
At the start of spring, Dragon Festival is held close to the nearby town of Santa Fe, but this is much bigger and lasts for a week. Although the land is privately owned there have been a few run-ins with the police recently (and more than a few when it was in its original home of Órgiva).
Gigs and Concerts
Although there aren’t too many big-name bands and musicians that come to showcase their talents in Granada (Bob Dylan, playing at Palacio de los Deportes in July is a notable exception), the city does have a good stock of its own, homegrown talents and venues that frequently host lesser-known, but highly talented Spanish bands and artists.
Plantabaja, one of my favourite clubs in town, has gigs going on every weekend. A regular act is Nirvana tribute band The Buzz Lovers, who have nailed it so perfectly that it’s basically impossible to tell the difference. Other great venues are Booga Club, where the regular Jam Sessions on Thursdays and Sundays (live reggae, dancehall and funk) never fail to please, and Sala El Tren, where bigger reggae, hip-hop and indie bands from Spain and international DJs come and rock the place through its impressive sound system.
There are various venues in and around the city that host traditional Flamenco nights. Some are very well-known and get a lot of mentions in popular guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides; others receive less attention but invariably offer the same high standards.
Personally, I am not a Flamenco aficionado but occasionally like to be reminded of its deep-seated role in cultura Granadina. The best and most authentic Flamenco bars can be found in the old and white-washed Sacromonte barrio. Here, generations of gitanos (gypsies) have kept up the tradition in its original and purest form. There are no gimmicks, no tourist traps, no obnoxious halfwits to spoil the show. There is a fee to pay on the door, but that goes directly back into the community, which pulls together to make such shows possible.
We’ve already heard about the springtime Dragon Festival, but that arguably falls into the ‘free rave’ category of live events. Considering there is no commerical aspect or sponsorship involved (which is a good thing), there is definitely an anarchic element in there which some people may not enjoy.
Alternatively, there is Granada Sound festival, formerly known as ‘Alhambra Sound’, which is held every September in Granada city centre. This is a small festival by comparison to other similar events but nonetheless features relatively big acts on the roster. This year’s event will see The Kooks, Supersubmarina and Dorian headline the main stage (there is only one other).
Music doesn’t have to be played in the street, in a bar, or at a festival for it to be considered representative of a place. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. Music played from peoples’ homes – audible from the street or sometimes your bedroom as you’re waking up in the morning – is arguably the most definitive example of musical culture. At least here it is anyway.
In Granada, alternative rock, reggae, jungle and Latin alternative (think Manu Chao) get the most airtime, but anything goes really, so long as it’s got soul…
From vast mountain ranges, dense-green pine forests, shimmering lagoons and cascading waterfalls, Spain has an abundance of options for adrenaline junkies who are looking for their next fix.
Now that the cold, wet days of winter and early spring are finally behind us (though we can never rule out an abrupt and unwelcome return until May), the window of opportunity for getting stuck into some hair-raising activities has just flung itself open.
Whether you prefer to be on the ground firing colourful pellets of paint at your mates, hanging dangerously from a ledge or rock-face somewhere, or plunging headfirst from a dizzying cliff edge into a turquoise-blue lagoon, Spain definitely has the right sort of day out for you.
One: Hiking El Caminito del Rey, Málaga
Just re-opened, the famous Caminito del Rey was once a deathtrap, with its beams-for-bridges and hole-ridden pathways seemingly hanging by a nail off the side of one of Andalucía’s steepest gorges. Only the most daring of adrenaline junkies would take the challenge on, and subsequently post photos and videos to make the rest of us clench our bum cheeks so tightly together that we’d need a pair of man-sized pliers to pry them apart again. Case in point.
For a long time, the Caminito was closed while reconstruction took place, but was finally re-opened last week, sporting a much safer and less perilous look, meaning anyone can go along and rest assured that they will be leaving in one piece at the end of the day. But one thing’s for sure: peering over the footbridge into the gorge below will have your stomach doing somersaults. Check out John Kramer’s pictures from last weekend’s grand opening day!
Two: Canyoning and Rock-jumping at Junta de los Rios, Otivar, Andalucía
Río Verde flows through the most inaccessible areas of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with breathtaking and unspoiled scenery providing a near-constant backdrop. It is absolutely worth visiting whether you’re after an adrenaline buzz or not.
Junta de los Ríos is where Rio Verde and Rio Negro meet to form waterfalls and an idyllic rock pool, allowing people to jump from the top and land safe in the knowledge that they will surface with all limbs still intact. Alternatively, you can go canyoning through some of the choppier sections of Rio Verde with tour companies (most are based in Granada).
To get there you must first get to Otivar, a tiny village on the cliff-hugging A-4050 and then take a 6km-long track route (2kms beyond Otivar on the left) to the ‘Junta’. Follow this until you reach the mouth of the gorge where you can park. From here it’s a 2-hour walk. Have a read of this very informative post for more details and tips.
Three: Paintball, Madrid
Sometimes you don’t need to tip-toe across death-defying rope-bridges or drive miles into the wilderness to get the adrenaline fix you’re looking for. You can just throw on a jumpsuit and a helmet, pick up an air-gun filled with paintballs and fire away at your mates at one of Madrid’s three, top-class paintball centres. There are various areas of play, each with their own unique theme, from forests to historic ruins.
Paintball is a great idea for large groups of friends who are planning a weekend away in Madrid, but would like to include something on the agenda that doesn’t involve drinking and pavement-pounding…
Four: Kitesurfing, Tarifa
Now here’s an idea: take two existing extreme sports – surfing and snowboarding – and mix with a decidedly un-extreme land-based activity, like flying a kite. The result? Kite-surfing. This is one of southern Spain’s most popular pastimes among water-sports enthusiasts, and probably the most entertaining to watch.
The sport is most similar to surfing as you are on the water and use a surfboard, but unlike surfing, and more like snowboarding, the board is strapped to your feet, giving you more control. It requires a wilpower, determination and A LOT of upper body strength. Tarifa, Europe’s southernmost point, is the best spot in Spain to practise any sort of water-sport, as it is pummelled by strong winds all year round.
Five: Rock Climbing and Abseiling, Picos de Europa
Within the rolling, green valleys between Santander and Gijon are the Picos de Europa, home to some of the longest Alpine routes of up to 700m long. The Picos is a vast landscape of wild, limestone mountains, presenting rock climbers and mountaineers a cornucopia of routes which range in style, size and difficulty.
Naranjo de Bulnes, the most famed Picos peak, offers a number of sporty and traditional routes, with the shortest being around 250m and the longest approximately 700m. Further to the east, towards Santander, there are ideal spots for bouldering in Santa Gadea, Las Tuerces and Resconorio.
Are you an adrenaline junkie? What other activities and places in Spain would you recommend to get your heart racing?
Semana Santa, a week pertaining to family values, surging crowds and relentless religious ceremonies for most Spaniards in Andalucía, provides the rest of us with the perfect opportunity to hit the road and let the good times roll.
Moreover, this year’s holy week is shaping up to be one of the driest in recent years; temperatures are rising and the rain, at last, is beginning to retreat.
It’s the perfect time to travel, no doubt about it, and where better to go than a glorious, tranquil and sun-drenched beach town on the south coast?
So here, without any further ado, are five of my personal recommendations, spanning all four of Andalucía’s shorelines…
One: Los Caños de Meca, Costa de la Luz
Deep in the Parque Natural del Acantilado, Caños de Meca has several stunning beaches, backed by rocky overhangs and sweet-smelling pine trees. As recently as a decade ago this sleepy beach town was barely known, but nowadays it lures tourists and people from all over the country, and its fair share of scraggly-bearded surfer dudes too.
There are lots of great restaurants serving delicious and reasonably priced food, and a wide selection of busy bars which stay open until late at night. The beaches are all wonderful, white, sandy and frankly unforgettable.
The village is well off the beaten track and must be reached via one of the small side roads off the CN340 coast road or by taking the minor road through the forest from Barbate. There are a range of accommodation options, including camping, so that you can stay for as long as you want. But remember, Semana Santa is just a week…
Two: Maro, Costa del Sol
Famous for its selection of white, sandy beaches, transparent water and the impressive views from the Balcón de Europa, Nerja is known to many a sun-worshipping beach bum. Lesser known among tourists though, is the neighbouring village of Maro, whose beaches and laid-back village vibes are often passed up. Tourists flock in droves daily to see the nearby caves, but after an hour or two of sightseeing it’s often just back onto the bus to Nerja.
Maro beach is worth staying for. Quieter, smaller and ever so slightly pebblier, it is set between two cliffs and overlooked by an old, crumbling Moorish watchtower. The water is teeming with tropical fish, making it an excellent spot for snorkelling.
It’s the perfect location if you’d like to escape the crowds by day but still be a short distance away each time you want to enjoy an evening out.
Three: Zahara de los Atunes, Costa de la Luz
Like Caños de Meca, Zahara de los Atunes has experienced a lot of change over the last few years, but thankfully the place has retained all its natural beauty and laid-back feel. Crystal-clear waters, fine, white sand and an assortment of lively, freshly caught tuna flogging chiringuitos (beach bars) make it one of the most popular beach hangouts on the south coast.
Four: Salobreña, Costa Tropical
The Granada province isn’t well-known for its breathtaking beaches, since most are too pebbly and crowded, but there are a few that deserve more credit. Salobreña is the perfect place to go just for the day, taking only 45 minutes to reach by car from Granada. There are other beach towns nearby on the Costa Tropical but in my experience none have quite the same ambience often created at Salobreña.
There are some superb, grilled-seafood restaurants right on the beach (the octopus are freshly caught and barbecued in front of you) and others along the street that flanks it. Moreover, the rocky coastline provides daredevils with the chance to fling themselves off the cliff edges (the water is very deep) as the spectators look on in disbelief.
Five: Las Negras, Costa Almería
Cabo de Gata in the south-eastern corner of Andalucía is pretty much a beach-goer’s paradise; there are too many beaches to count, most are protected against land developers and they are often very difficult to reach too! As a result, there are no ugly high rises spoiling the view, no empty beer bottles rolling around on the floor and – best of all – hardly anyone about.
Las Negras is one of the area’s busier spots, and by ‘busy’, I mean a couple of hundred people, a few empty holiday homes, a campsite, a single supermarket, a handful of restaurants and the odd bar where you can relax into the night. Perfect for a quiet beach holiday, really.
The village gets its name from the dark, volcanic rock sediments in the sand. The campsite to the east (when facing the sea) of town is an ideal place to stay if you’re on a budget.
Interesting fact: Much of Cabo de Gata has been used in Hollywood blockbuster films in the past, such as Mónsul beach, a secluded seaside with a large, distinctive, half-submerged chunk of volcanic rock in its shallow waters. It was here that the plane chase in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade was filmed, during which Sean Connery manages to scare away a flock of seagulls by wafting air at them with his umbrella from at least 50ft away, causing a Nazi pilot in pursuit to nosedive into the cliff. Impressive or what.
Becoming ‘fluent’ in another language is the nemesis of many an expat. It’s the challenge we are faced with on a daily basis; what we are constantly asked about when we return home; the ultimate achievement of living in another country.
Those who are none the wiser think it just happens in a year, a few months even. But the truth is that it’s bloody hard work, and takes a while to put one’s mind to.
I remember well the feeling I had when I first moved to Granada and began meeting native English speakers who– at least to my (relatively) untrained ear –spoke the language fluently. At first I felt impressed, then envious, then, when it came to my turn to speak, horribly embarrassed.
I would quietly curse my poor level in the aftermath of any such horribly embarrassing group exchanges, often repeating in my head the incoherent mumbo jumbo I had contributed, and going over what I had wanted to say until I got it right. Of course by that time the topic of conversation would have changed completely, meaning I would either butcher yet another interesting discussion into a thousand awkward pieces or just sit there in silence, too embarrassed to speak.
It was a difficult period, which took a lot of hard work and perseverance to overcome, but eventually I attained that level I’d been yearning for. It is impossible to say exactly when; at no point do you realise or decide that you have a fluent level, it just sort of happens. However, there are definitely some tell-tale signs that let you know you’re getting there…
One: Understanding and using slang/obscenities
No matter how long you have lived in Spain and/or learned Spanish, you will never learn all the crude and often nonsensical expressions used by natives on a daily basis. There are just too many. If, on the other hand, you can learn a few and understand how and when to use them, you’ll start turning heads for the right reasons.
Learning expressions is one thing, for example, ‘estar echo polvo’ (to be knackered) and ‘tocar las narices’ (wind somebody up), but using street slang gets you real brownie points, e.g. ‘la ostia’ (the dog’s bollocks), ‘chulisimo’ (REALLY cool), ‘¡Qué va!’ (don’t be ridiculous you silly sod).
Then there’s the vulgar stuff, like ‘hasta la polla/los huevos/el coño…’ (up to the dick/balls/c…) and, my personal favourite, ‘me cago en…’ (literally, ‘I shit in…’), which could be followed by a number of possibilities, such as ‘la leche’ (‘the milk’), ‘tu puta madre’ (‘your whore of a mother’) or ‘la puta madre que te parió’ (‘the whore of a mother that birthed you’). If you can get those right– at the right time –then you’re on to a winner!
Two: Understanding and using ‘usted’
On the flip-side, understanding and using the formal ‘usted’ style of Spanish, when appropriate, is another indication you’re nearing fluency.
It is rare to have to do, but when confronted with elderly people whom you wish to/must be polite to, or the arduous and thankless task of acquiring important documents from the social security office, you will need a decent grasp of ‘usted’, in order to understand that it is you they are talking to– not some other, mysterious person –and make them like you if you need a favour doing.
If you can do this confidently, competently and actually WIN the argument, you are sailing to the fluency finish line. I still have problems complaining/trying to sound angry in Spanish; one silly slip of the tongue and your position in the argument is compromised.
I was recently dragged through an infuriating ordeal by Vodafone, who, no matter how much I clearly wanted to give them my money, wouldn’t give me internet at home. I called every few days to be told that something hadn’t been filled in or sent correctly; they never called or emailed to tell me. It all culminated with a carefully thought-out, angry phone call. I even made notes and prepared some scathing remarks to lambaste the poor operator on the other end of the line with. Afterwards I was pleased with how convincingly angry I’d been, even though it had been all for nothing and the operator couldn’t have cared less.
Arguments in person require much more tact, and will ultimately be lost if you over-think things. Sometimes it’s just great to let rip without really caring if you’re making mistakes, as Flora The Explorer knows only too well. That’s when you know you’re getting good at Spanish.
Four: Telling funny stories to groups of people
Similarly, if you can make people laugh in Spanish, you’re becoming pretty fluent. There’s nothing more upsetting than seeing your funniest anecdote; your ace in the hole; a guaranteed crowd pleaser, fall flat on its face because you’ve just butchered it to death in another language.
The key is to be relaxed, choose your words carefully and simplify where possible. Your audience should understand that you are trying your best. Once you’ve finally nailed this, and people genuinely laugh at one of your stories (not just a pity laugh), you’ll feel wonderful.
Five: Dreaming in Spanish
Seriously, it happens. A guiri friend of mine even sleep-talks in Spanish, according to his girlfriend, although his repertoire rarely stretches beyond ‘¡Qué pasa!’, ‘¡No me digas! and ‘jodeeeerrrr’, apparently.
Six: Not translating everything from English
This is a huge breakthrough stage, when everyday phrases and interactions start coming naturally to you, and you don’t even realise you’re speaking Spanish; you’re just speaking.
Of course when you become embroiled in an intense discussion you will often find yourself translating from English to Spanish in your head, but this is unavoidable. It may seem like a faraway stage at first but, as Molly tells us on her post about becoming fluent,we all get there in the end, as long as we persevere.
Seven: Still being able to speak Spanish when hungover/stoned
This is the best indication of all. You’ll generally find that you’re able to speak Spanish to a seemingly impeccable level when drunk, but the following day, when even English is difficult to formulate, your Spanish will be cowering in a dark, poisoned corner of your brain somewhere, refusing to come out until you have learned your lesson, meaning you stutter, stumble and ultimately fail if called upon. Eventually– since hangovers are very common among the guiri community in Spain –we all learn to deal with this. We just live with other guiris (…joking!!)
It’s even worse when stoned, at least for most of us. I’d advise against casually toking on a massive spliff if you get paranoid easily, as this will only be made worse if you are required to speak in Spanish among Spaniards, some of whom you don’t really know. I’ve been through this on several occasions, and subsequently felt like the world’s stupidest, brain-dead numbskull as a result. If you’re not at all paranoid when stoned and determined to speak Spanish like a cabbage then with enough practice you’ll be fine.
Eight: Never forgetting
The majority of guiris I know in Granada are English teachers, and at the end of the teaching year (mid June), we all bid farewell to Spain just as it is getting gloriously hot and go home to the UK to carry on working. We don’t come back until the end of September, and for the first couple of years, it’s as though we’ve forgotten all the Spanish we once knew for the first week. It just goes to highlight the significance and usefulness of full language immersion.
After a while, this problem goes away. You just don’t forget anymore; it’s all there, waiting to be reactivated, unless of course you leave your adopted country for a year or two– then you’ll get rusty, but if you’re at a fluent level then you won’t ever want to stop speaking the language, no matter where you are, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
Interestingly, the more of a language you learn, the more elusive ‘total fluency’ seems to be. I wouldn’t consider myself to be completely fluent, not by a long shot, but I am more than happy with my level of Spanish.
Anyone can learn a foreign language, no matter what their age or academic inclination; it’s just a question of commitment and desire.