A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain
August 23rd-December 19th, 2010
Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:
Pure pragmatics led me to Pamplona. I was studying Spanish and Journalism, and looking to study abroad. The program at the University of Navarra Pamplona was the obvious fit – the only Journalism program taught in a language other than English. When I thought about it, though, I realized that I wouldn’t have chosen to go anywhere else. As I began to make more solid plans, I asked my Scottish friend Allan to go there with me a week ahead of time, so we could see Barcelona and Valencia and attend the Tomatina tomato fight in Bunyol before my classes started. And once I was there, of course, I went on dozens of day trips and weekend trips all over Spain (particularly the north).
Cost: This trip was unimaginably expensive. Just kidding, but as it was an entire semester away it’s a bit more complicated than normal to sum up the costs. Essentially, I was paying my home university normal tuition, as well as a study abroad fee. It cost me about $1300 to get to Pamplona from Florida, and back again. Apartments in Pamplona usually run 250-400€ a month. Grocery costs are roughly comparable to in the United States. When I took weekend trips, hostels usually cost about 25€ a night, and transportation varied but buses were about 35€ roundtrip to Madrid or Barcelona, 15€ to San Sebastian, Vitoria or Bilbao, 20€ to Zaragoza, etc. My biggest splurges were the Multiaventura canyoning experience, at 125€ (overnight, with meals, equipment, instructors and transportation included), and the U2 concert in San Sebastian (tickets were 60€).
Thinking Ahead: I started applying to study abroad almost a full year in advance. Getting a VISA was tricky and took a few months and a lot of paperwork. I got my apartment lined up ahead of time, but it was difficult and I shouldn’t have bothered – it’s much easier to arrange once you arrive, if you’re brave enough to show up without a place to go. I didn’t really book anything more than a week ahead of time. The MAJOR exception to this was for Tomatina – I booked the hostel in Valencia several months in advance.
Timing: Since I went to Pamplona for the Fall/Winter semester, I got to experience the leaves changing colour, the first snows, the Christmas season, etc. Tomatina takes place the last Wednesday of August, so that works out perfectly if you’re planning to study in Spain during the Fall. We had really lovely weather in Pamplona until quite late in the semester. As I see it, the big disadvantage of going in the fall is that the weather gets worse instead of better as time goes on, you make travelling friends and decide where you want to go.
Food: Spanish food is quite good, especially if you like fish, ham, eggs, olive oil, potatoes, and tomatoes. The north of Spain is famous for Pintxos, their delicious take on tapas. Things like Tortilla Española (a thick omelette full of soft potato), Paella de Mariscos (a boiled, then baked rice dish with seafood and lots of saffron), Patatas Bravas (chunky fried potatoes served with garlic mayo and spicy sauce), and Croquetas (croquettes filled with bechamel and microscopic pieces of chicken or ham) quickly became my daily bread. For sweets, I recommend Colocao (hot chocolate American style – easy to order in any cafe) with Garrotes (also called Napolitanas, basically chocolate bread)… or, if you want to get fat fast, Chocolate (thick Spanish style drinking chocolate) with Churros (deep fried pastries coated in sugar). There aren’t a lot of good ethnic restaurants, but if you’re craving something different it’s easy enough to find the ingredients to make your own Asian or American food. Tiny Asian markets are common, and if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can find almost anything in the grocery section of the huge department store, Corte Inglés.
Getting Around: Bus is usually the way to travel – they’re cheaper and much more common than trains in Spain. As long as you’re following the beaten path, there are buses galore and life is easy. Of course, getting to natural areas and tiny villages is a challenge without a car. Flying is sometimes a surprisingly decent option for crossing Spain, if you look online for cheap rates.
Language: Catalan, Basque, and Galician are very real, but a foreigner will never need to know a word of them. If you know Spanish, you’re all set, and people are usually reasonably patient with you. Trying to get by with just English is a good deal harder. It depends on where you go, but Spaniards aren’t as multilingual as Northern Europeans in general.
Other: I was extremely impressed by Spain during my stay there. What struck me the most was the diversity of what it had to offer – the Spain you hear about most often in America really only represents old fashioned Madrid and Southern Spain (and modern Barcelona, to a lesser extent), and in Europe they think of Spain as nothing more than a giant beach. But in Madrid I found palaces and museums to rival those of Paris, in Asturias and the Basque Country sheer seaside cliffs and quaint villages like you’d expect from Ireland, in Galicia the last functioning Roman lighthouse, and the last fully intact Roman walls, and in Navarra – you have to see Navarra yourself to believe it.
I flew with my friend Allan into Barcelona on August 23rd, and did a little sightseeing there before heading to Valencia for the Tomatina tomato fight in Bunyol on August 25th. After another day relaxing in Valencia, we moved on to Pamplona, where I would spend the next four months. We also squeezed in a day in Puente la Reina, a small town nearby, before Allan went back home.
International Orientation was August 30th, and on the 31st the new students took a trip to San Sebastian for a day in the sun before classes started on September 1st. As September went on, I snuck away long enough to return to San Sebastian, as well as visit the Basque Country’s other two capitals, Vitoria (where we toured a cathedral under construction) and Bilbao (home of the Guggenheim). I also joined my university’s Club de Montaña (Mountain Club), and our first excursion was a canyoning adventure in Aragon. I saw September out with a surfing trip in Biarritz.
In October, I traveled further and longer before it got too cold and finals too close. Club de Montaña took us for hikes in the Pyrenees and in the Selva de Irati, and I saw the U2 concert in San Sebastian. I visited one friend down south in Alicante and another for her 21st birthday in Madrid. I took my longest trip in the last days of October, when I went couchsurfing in Gijon, Asturias before meeting friends for a long weekend in Galicia.
In November and December, I started to settle down and into life in Pamplona. Still, I found time to visit Zaragoza, walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago, and take a few road trips around my home state of Navarra before I had to go home on December 19th.
Posts about this trip:
(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)
Sea, Sky, and Sculpture in San Sebastian (San Sebastian, País Vasco – 8/31)
Bilbao – Bigger, Brighter, Better (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
Fresh Bull Eggs and Googly Eyes (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
The Guggenheim (Bilbao, País Vasco – 9/12)
The Witch Caves of Navarre (Zugarramurdi, Navarre – 12/7)
In Ochagavía (Ochagavía, Navarre – 12/8)
Photography: Vitoria of the Bean Eaters, The Castle of Olite, Cumbres Borrascosas