Reflections in Valladolid (or, the Weird Sensation of Returning to Your Study Abroad City)

Alejandro didn’t even need to tell me where to turn. As soon as I’d passed the Valladolid city limits, I went into autopilot and followed the roads I used to walk as a study abroad student in the capital of Castilla y León. Easing into third, I made my way past the bullring and Campo Grande, along the Rosaleda and the Pisuerga river to Plaza San Pablo, smack in the middle of the historic city. Alejandro was shocked that, nearly a decade after I studied there, I knew Valladolid better than he did.

He also found it hilarious that I remembered my first glimpse of the former Spanish capital – a boy peeing on a tree. A sign of the things to come, I guess. We had a good laugh as I navigated the wide avenues of Pucela.

I parked off of Avenida de Palencia in a square I’d pass through on our my to the university every morning, handing him his bags and giving the standard dos besos as I wished him well. He suggested having a beer, and I was only a few blocks from my host family’s new apartment, but I needed some time to soak up the city where it all started.

the historic center of valladolid

I walked from Avenida de Palencia past the National Sculpture Museum at Plaza San Pablo. Stood next to La Antigua and  in the shadow of the cathedral as the sun inched high into the sky. I was hoping to have a glass of wine in a bar I’d once nipped into, but the blustery November day meant that most things were closed. It was like a metaphor for everything I’d heard about pucelanos before I lived there – closed off and shuttered.

My feet led me back towards Plaza Mayor and its stately buildings and beautiful town hall; my stomach led me to Los Zagales, where my ears were treated to castellano. Just as I was paying and putting on my jacket, a hail storm erupted and the bartender smiled as he gave me another dos dedos of wine. Closed off? Maybe, but stingy the locals are not.

The hail suddenly slowed and then stopped, and I whirled around looking for what I knew would come next: a rainbow, stretched just behind the statue of the sacred heart. 

Plaza Mayor of Valladolid

Aurora’s whatsapp came just as I walked in front of Sotobanco, our favorite bar. She asked how the driving had gone and if I’d like to meet her and her mother to pick up Lucía, Aurora’s eight-year-old daughter. Again, my feet traced the city streets, slick with rain.

Older Aurora grabbed my hand and led me towards Plaza de la Universidad, literally tracing back the steps we’d taken when she first picked me up from the bus when we were assigned host mothers on that day back in May 2005. Back then, she seemed aloof, soft-spoken and overly Catholic. In these nine years, she’s become more than the woman who washed my clothes and made me tortilla.

When we arrived at Plaza de la Universidad to meet Lucía’s school bus, I reminded old Aurora of when I’d been on the bus, the last student to be chosen by a host mother. Be it luck or destiny, she smiled and clasped my hand tightly. “Sí, Cati, lo recuerdo.” The rain began again, a site I’d not seen in Valladolid ever – not when I studied abroad, nor on my subsequent visits.

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

The following morning, Aurora and I took Lucía to a children’s workshop in the newly inaugurated Auditorio Miguel Delibes, near the Real Valladolid Stadium. Sitting high above the Parquesol subdivision and a hill that slopes down gently towards the river, I contemplated the cold, gray day, and the nine yeas that had passed since my first moments in Spain.

The city of Valladolid itself didn’t seem to have changed since 2005, save the weather. Back then, we’d spend our afternoons next to the manmade beach, eating ice cream and drinking beer on the argument that it was cheaper than water (viva España).

Now, as I buried my nose in my scarf, I had to breathe a sigh of relief that this place, so emblazoned in my heart and my head and my first digital camera’s memory card, has remained largely the same. The hue of Plaza Mayor was the same fiery red, the naked statue in front of the post office still made me giggle, and the dollar store where we’d meet every morning to walk to class together called Los Gatos was open, despite slowing business in La Rondilla.

ayuntamiento de Valladolid

Returning to Valladolid is always a strange swarm of memories – the euphoria of discovering a new culture and language coupled with the then-debilitating homesickness and language barriers, namely – but Younger Aurora wields a bottle of local wine and two glasses.

A tí, Cati,” she says, pouring me a hefty glass, “and to this Spanish American life you’ve created.” Little does she know just how important she was to making it so. I hand her a Save the Day card and her eyes glaze over, but we toast and gulp down the wine, catching up on the changes our lives have seen in these few years.

Did you study abroad? Have you been back to visit since? If so, what were your impressions?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Great post, Cat!

    I studied abroad in León and fell in love with it. After the quarter, I decided I had to find a way to return to Spain. Last year, I made a trip back and visited my host family and friends. As I walked through the streets, so many memories that I had forgotten flooded my mind. It was extremely bittersweet and it made me realize how much love I have for León and how grateful I am to be back in Spain.

    • It does make you appreciate your city! I am glad I chose something different by coming to Andalusia, but definitely have a soft spot for Castilla.

  2. I did study abroad, and you’re right on the money, going back is so strange. I went back with Mario, and it was fairly odd to know the city bettetr than he did.

    One of Mario’s cousins is from Valladolid, and he’s a big fan of the team. When they got into first division (last year?), he was ecstatic.
    Kaley recently posted..Spanish Old Wives’ Tales (And Their Veracity)My Profile

  3. I loved reading about your return to Valladolid, Cat. As you know, I just returned to Granada, the city where I studied abroad, for the first time in 5 years. It brought back similar emotions to the ones you have with Valladolid. I think returning to your study abroad city is something everyone must do once in their life, especially if they had an incredible experience there.

    I first fell in love with Spain there and am actually considering requesting to be placed in Andalucía and requesting Granada on my application to teach in Spain next year. We’ll see what happens though because I am also really loving Logroño and my school here.
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..A Nostalgic Return to GranadaMy Profile

    • Even if just to see how it has changed, or not! Granada is a city I could go back to over and over, but kudos to you for trying something different.

  4. A beautiful homage to the city that started it all. Glad you had a positive experience returning to Valladolid, but it’s too bad it was raining! (Shhh, Galicia was trying to brush off some of it on Castilla 😛 )
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..What to Eat in Galicia: 10 Dishes to TryMy Profile

  5. Great post Cat! I have had a very different experience with my study abroad city, as it is where I still live. The first day I arrived and my host mom walked me to the Sardinero beach, I somehow knew that one day, somehow, I had to live here. It was calling to me to make it my home, much the way my university had for so long pulled me into attending college there.

    Although at times I do think about how Santander was with my study abroad friends, I have made my own life here, complete with Spanish, foreign, ex-pat friends, and my host family, which has completely adopted me into their home and their lives. It’s still the same beautiful city that I fell in love with, but with a more permanent feel to it.


    • It must be so different to be back as a worker, but good on you for making it work! I know a lot of people who came back to Seville for a guy or to recreate their study abroad, and other who came for love of a place – and the latter are the ones who are staying!

  6. A beautifully written post Cat. I’ve never studied abroad – I haven’t even finished my degree and I’m doing it by distance education – but I loved reading your experiences on returning to Valladolid.

  7. Wonderful post! I actually just returned to my study abroad city too (Bilbao). It was definitely weird going around all the places that used to be so familiar to me. Everyone else I was with hated it there because of the rain, but I still felt weirdly protective, like “don’t you all diss on the place that made me fall in love with Spain!” So many memories were going through my head at every turn. So bizarre!
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  1. […] spent more time in Galicia than I have in the city where I studied abroad, Valladolid. Coruña is like a second home to me after five summers teaching […]

  2. […] you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y […]

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