Parenting in Spain: the differences between raising children in Spain and the USA

The 48 hours I spent in the hospital post-birth were a bit of a blur. Between doctors and nurses coming in and out, trying to figure out breastfeeding and the cycle of 20 minutes of dozing before I was interrupted by doctors or a hungry child, it wasn’t until I was back home and fumbling through the first few days and dozens of dirty diapers that the habits of Spanish parents – and just how different they were to my own upbringing – shook my baby-lagged brain.

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

Fast fashion: my mom sewed all of my clothes growing up

I grew up without technology and in an American family in a large suburb of Chicago during the 1990s. Most of my childhood was shaped by the adults who had grown up in the 50s and 60s, and my mother stayed home with her two daughters until I, the elder, was seven years old. Summer camp, sports leagues and a part-time job in high school color my memories of growing up American, and they are also coloring the way I view child-rearing in Spain as I expect my second and push through the terrible twos of my somewhat terrible Spanish son.

The differences between parenting in Spain and parenting in the US are stark, and it begins with the fact that Spaniards tend to begin their families later. When I got married right as I turned 30, many of my friends back home were already parents or expecting; I was the first of my group of American girlfriends in Spain to have a baby, and many of my Spanish friends – including those older than me – have not made a foray into parenthood.

I'm a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

I’m a cool mom: taking my kid to a goat roasting festival in Quirós, Asturias

At home, I rule the roost and tread water between a full-time job, a toddler, a child on the way and a husband completing a master’s. It all feel imperfect yet under control, even if my American parenting ways sometimes clash with age-old Spanish upbringing habits – particularly with the older generation.

Ear piercing

When my husband and I found out we were expecting a boy, I breathed a sigh of relief: I would not have to make excuses for choosing to not pierce anyone’s ears. Most Spanish families pierce baby girls’s ears while they are a few weeks old or even at the hospital before being released. This is mostly due to the fact that the baby will not remember the pain, but it also aids in distinguishing boys from girls. I grew up playing sports and did not pierce my ears until my junior Prom, and at my mother’s insistence.

Even still, Enrique was a lovely baby who did not wear just baby blue, and many older women in the neighborhood mistook him for a lovely niña. I was always too tired to argue and just said a quick gracias to the nosy abuelas at the pharmacy.

Babies must be weighed at the same time every week

As Enrique grew, I became obsessed with knowing how much weight he had gained. It became a fun guessing game with my mother-in-law, who would take the bus to my home every Wednesday afternoon to weight him at the nearby pharmacy.

Can I visit La Granja with a stroller?

“Remember,” she said after a doctor’s appointment, “what he’s wearing and this time of the day, as you should always bring him into the pharmacy at the same time on the same day of the week and in the same clothing. That way, you get the most accurate reading.”

Imagine the horror when Enrique pooped shortly before the 5:30 pm weigh in one afternoon, or how much we laughed when he gained more than half a kilo in one week during a growth spurt.

Perfumes and perfect outfits

Babies are adorable and sleepy and smell good, they say.

They also spit up on themselves, poop constantly and get weird baby pimples as they fatten up. No matter – babies in Spain wear perfume and outfits that clasp, snap and buckle, both of which I find outrageous. I opted for buying newborn clothes that were soft, durable and well-priced. Enrique had a few beautiful pieces sewn and embroidered for him by family members, which I saved for special occasions and outings. Most of the time, he was in a zip-up pajamas in the cooler months and onesies that snapped at the crotch in the summer.

My mother-in-law dotes on my son and pleaded to buy a number of big-ticket items despite having a number of hand-me-downs. She was especially proud to buy him his first pair of shoes when he began to stand, but I was surprised when two came in the box. One pair were lovely brown boots to dress up a look, whereas the others were what we Midwestern Americans call gym shoes. “Well, because you don’t dress him like the other mothers. He’s ‘sporty.’”

little-boy-baby-clothes-on-a-clothesline

While there was absolutely no malice, she was right: I didn’t dress my child like the rest of the mothers (and I didn’t always dress myself up to leave the house, either – gasp!). I found the clasps and snaps a hinderance during a blowout caca, and considered his comfort over being adorable.

Thankfully, all of the baby perfumes were re-gifted as soon as we discovered Enrique is prone to dermatitis. A baby who pooped himself still smells like poop, even masked by a thick veil of Tous perfume for newborns (and who spends that much money on a baby perfume?!).

Breastfeeding, solid foods and when kids eat

I breastfed Enrique exclusively until he was four months old, something I felt pressured to do. It was time-consuming and he had reflux, but on the flip side I could do it anywhere (out to lunch! At the movies! On an airplane!) without scrambling to find a microwave or shelling out money for formula. We moved on to cereal at four months and were advised to start solids at six.

Enrique is a pretty good eater, but I was shocked when the pediatrician suggested his first lean meat come fro her barnyard friend, the horse, and that he should try kiwi at six – which landed him in the ER with a rash. In the US, we typically start on mushed veggies and certainly do not eat horse (my mother was silently weeping when I mentioned this to her).

Don't let this picture fool you - Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Don’t let this picture fool you – Enrique ate everything from charcuterie to tiramisu to caccio e pepe on our Rome trip

Kike’s favorite foods now are mostly kid friendly: fish sticks, yogurt and hot dogs. But he’ll also eat a full cocido marileño, is capable of eating an entire tapa of marinated olives and asks for bocadillos de foie for a snack. O sea, español when it comes to eating.

Bedtime and schedules

Spanish children go to bed extremely late. My friends – even the Americans – gasp when I tell them that my bedtime was 7:30 p.m. until I was 8, after which I could read until 8pm but that lights out was to be adhered to – no matter how late it got dark in the summer.

In casually mentioning that my kiddo is usually in bed by 9pm, I am met with bewildered looks. But when does he eat?! Around 7:30 or 8pm, right after his bath. Don’t you lay with him until he falls asleep? Nope, we have a bedtime routine after which I say, “Now Mommy is going to have dinner.” Enrique was not a good crib sleeper, but he leaves me to have some adult time in the evening.

Likely talking grandma into not having a nap

My biggest thing is that my son’s designated nap time at daycare is right in the middle of the day, which is when we’d ideally like to be outside on cooler days or taking friends up on plans for meals. I am moderately strict on the weekends with both nap times and bedtimes, even when there are some tears (even from my friends when I tell them the time won’t work for me).

We also let him sleep late on the weekends. There is nothing better than me waking up on my own at 8am and having a cup of coffee and mindlessly scrolling through social media before I have to start the trudge through changing diapers and clothes and fighting against the TV. Speaking of…

Having the TV on all the time

This is as Spanish to me as a tortilla – Spanish households seem to have the TV on at every moment of the day, and my kiddo asks for Pocoyo as soon as he’s lucid in the morning. I try not to use no TV as a punishment and encourage him to play with his toys or color before he’s pushing the remote buttons and mine.

Family roles and relying on grandparents more

When I was a child, we lived five hours away from both sets of grandparents, so my earliest memories of being at home are with my mother. When she comes, 100% of her energy is focused on my son, and he knows Grandma speaks English, and Abuela speaks Spanish. I have only gotten a babysitter once, and that babysitter was a family member who traded a Saturday night out for Netflix and a pizza.

Dueling grandpas

Dueling grandpas

Grandparents are very involved in Spain, particularly because both parents tend to work in major urban areas. It’s common to see grandparents pushing strollers, at the pediatrician and hanging out at the park. Some of my friends’ children do not even go to daycare but spend all day with their abuelos.

More than two years in and expecting my second, I feel like I have struck a balance. A Spanish friend of mine once said, you either raise a child “a la alemana,” or according to a strict schedule, or “a la gitana” or with the kiddo in charge.

Not a politically correct way to call it, but I am trying to raise Enrique and Millan “a la sevillamericana” – a hybrid of American and Spanish ideals and parenting habits. This all goes out the window when we’re in casa de los abuelos: his Spanish grandparents let him stay up until he is falling over, force feed him chocolate and homemade pudding and allow the TV to babysit. Still, I appreciate the closeness they’ve developed with Enrique and their desire to be involved or let this frazzled mom go have a haircut in relative peace.

Advice for being an expat parent abroad

Being a parent is a hard job, no matter how you slice it. It takes patience, humbling and some commiserating. Add to that cultural and often linguistic barriers, and you’ll find that the highs are extremely high, and the lows can feel crushing.

I often ask other expat parents in Spain for their advice and ideas for exploiting the fact that my children will grow up as not only bilingual but bicultural – and likely without noticing the difference between the two.

Baby's first glimpse of the ocean

Perhaps the hardest part for me is doing so with my parents so far away, and knowing that their experience raising two kids in the 90s was way different than the issues and challenges I’ll face in the new millennium. It’s a frequent topic of discussion when we have our weekly chats: “You know, Catherine, things were just so different!”

Seek out other parents – both expats and locals – to help you navigate and lend a hand if you need childcare. A friend of mine came to visit Seville with her husband and two girls, and I loved watching them while my friends had dinner out for once. She’s been inspirational and helpful in seeing what’s coming and having the shared experience as an American mother raising children in Spain.

Remember that your child needs the fundamentals first – food, shelter and your love and attention. The rest will figure itself out. If you lead by example and encourage your child, he will learn (even if that means a watch down the toilet, having the kid with a dirty school uniform because you forgot to run a load of laundry or a house littered with toys and crumbs).

Christmas in the US

Don’t compare yourself to what everyone else is doing. There is no handbook to parenting, and especially a handbook to parenting abroad. They say in Spanish, cada niño es un mundo, and it’s true: each child is different, and so is every family. You will do the best you can if you believe in the work you’re doing. And you will mess up, so get over that fast.

I’m 30 weeks pregnant with another little boy (have you missed me on the blog?) and preparing for a second isn’t so much about researching car seats and ironing onesies – it’s about making peace with the fact that chaos is coming, that there will be four of us, that my body will turn back into a milking cow, a pillow and a punching bag. Now, who has advice for not losing my shit when I’m nursing one and scolding the other?

Strange parenting habits in Spain

Have you noticed any other odd parenting habits in Spain or the country where you live? 

GPSMyCity: Take your travel guides anywhere!

Like any traveler, I have pet peeves about tripping, from tipping to sipping to the fact that my SBB Swiss train app for trains in Switzerland when a ticket collector is hovering over me.

Perhaps the biggest are wasting time figuring out where I am (unless I am purposely wandering) or not knowing enough about what I’m looking at – or stressing out over where to eat something more than mediocre food. I find myself scouring in-flight magazines for insider tips (to then resort to tearing out pages) or scribbling notes on work documents as I attempt to catalogue my trip.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

During my last travel season – one that saw me in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany twice and Austria – I wanted to maximize my time away from the virtual office without having to do all of the legwork ahead of time. I downloaded GPSMyCity thanks to an invitation to test drive the app and planned my afternoons loosely – from hitting a new neighborhood near the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris to tackling emails from quaint cafes in Vienna.

The best part? I could do it all without wifi and without using my data thanks to a nominal upgrade to the app.

GPSMyCity has more than 6500 walks and wanders throughout more than 1000 cities worldwide that are available straight to you device. You can add not just cities, but the type of trip you want – offbeat, cultural or something to hit all of the monuments. It’s easy to navigate and free to use with your data.

walking tours in Spain

The app does more than just help you navigate around a new city: you can access thousands of articles from travel bloggers and read them in-app when you’re to touring or even download ahead of time for a small fee, without using your data or incurring roaming charges when you’re pounding the pavement (or are too far from a signal). I was exploring itineraries offline while at 20,000 feet and without trying to connect to the horrendous wifi on the Deutschebahn trains, a definite plus of the offline capabilities of GPSMyCity.

GPSMyCity is offering a FREE upgrade of three of my articles during this entire week (February 18 – February 25, 2019), and I want you to see just how these guides and articles can help you not run around in circles looking for monuments, hidden gems or a decent place to eat.

The following Sunshine and Siestas posts are highlighted this week:

Visiting Seville: Alternatives to the Tourist Beat, an article that explores by favorite off-beat ideas for a trip to the capital of Andalusia.

Where to Eat in Barcelona, which includes a few picks for great eateries in Barcelona that won’t leave you feeling empty (neither your stomach nor your wallet nor your soul after scouring the Barri Gotic for something semi-authentic).

Five Things to Do in Madrid with Kids, with my favorite things to do with little ones in Spain’s largest city.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

You can also browse any of the following SandS articles in the app for free:

Why should I download a travel article for later use?

While most people stay connected while they’re traveling, there’s a clear benefit to downloading articles ahead of time: you can catalogue your findings without having to go back and try to search a particular website or topic. And because these guides and articles are written by other travelers, you get on-the-ground insight and the exact GPS coordinates of every place mentioned within the post. If your phone is anything like mine, not having to turn on your location finder is reason enough.

How can I upgrade for free?

First, you should download GPSMyCity to your preferred smartphone device; the app is compatible with both iOS and Android systems. Then, you can click on one of the articles linked above and either read directly for free this week, or upgrade to be able to save the post to your phone for future, non-data wasting use.

GPS travel giudes
I’m headed to Zaragoza this week and have already downloaded a few maps and an article from my friend Kate from Kate’s Travel Tips to help me take advantage of my free time.
Disclaimer: if you buy any of the guides from GPSMyCity that I have published, I will receive a small commission that helps keep Sunshine and Siestas up and running. I use GPSMyCity myself when I’m traveling for work around Europe!

Tapas Tuesday: Roscón de Reyes, or the Spanish Twist on King’s Cake

The Epiphany is one of my most beloved Spanish Christmas traditions. Not only does it extend my holidays by a few days, but the Cabalgata parade means that candy literally rains down the streets of San Jacinto. Spanish children await their gifts from three wise men who travel on camels, distributing gifts (or coal) much like the Magi did when they traveled to see the Messiah. Santa Claus is making waves in Spain, but Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar are three of the most recognizable faces for a Spanish child.

Apart from collecting hard candies that will serve as bribes for my students until June, people also gobble up the Roscón de Reyes, a sweet cake filled with cream or truffle fluff that’s traditionally served during the afternoon of January 6th.

Roscon de Reyes

What it is: A panettone-like cake made from flour, sugar, eggs, butter, milk and yeast, plus a few spices. Sliced open in the middle, the cake also has cream in the middle and is decorated with sugar-dipped fruits and sliced almonds. It’s essentially the first cousin of a King’s Cake, traditionally eaten in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday.

Where it’s from: Roscón – and its variants – have long been served in Spain on the Epiphany. The tradition actually began in Rome, when cakes commemorating the Three Wise Men’s search for Christ were served first to the poor and then divvied up for soldiers on the 12th night after Christmas. He who found the lima bean within the cake was exempt from work that day.

Nowadays, the person who finds a small plastic baby is the King or Queen of the afternoon, whereas the unlucky recipient of the bean must often pay for the cake the following year!

Goes great with: Coffee – it helps cut down on all the sugar you just consumed.

Where to find it in Seville: Roscón is one of those dishes that you’re better off buying – without a Thermomix, it’s pretty laborious! Head to any confitería and reserve one (I prefer Filella and Lola in Triana), or even pick one up in a supermarket if you’re in a pinch – a cake for 8 people will run you about 20€.

bakeshop

The Three Kings have a completely new significance for me – my son was born on January 4th and received a visit from Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar before leaving the hospital. In fact, we were released from the hospital on the Epiphany, only to be told that the Cabalgata was passing right in front of the hospital. My first food at home after his birth was Roscón, and the small toy tiger my fatherin-in-law bit into that night will forever be treasured.

If you like the Three Kings Cake, try some other convent sweets like Huesos de Santos, Yemas de San Lorenzo or Roscas de Vino.

Have you ever tried Roscón de Reyes?

My Favorite Spanish Christmas Traditions

Christmas in Seville means the adherence to age-old traditions. Sure, there’s bound to be an overplayed commercial depicting Santa or a lottery announcement that has you break down and run to your nearest Lotería stand (looking at you, Faustino in the mannequin factory) but sevillanos stick to their beloved pastimes.

When you’ve worked in retail, you learn to hate, LOATHE, Christmas. May your days be merry and bright? Un carajo, may your days be filled with frazzled shoppers and annoying Christmas tunes.

Christmas in Spain

I officially recognize that I’m a Scrooge, but Seville is extra special during the holidays, and my feelings about the holidays have changed since moving here. In fact, I find myself missing all of those traditions I used to despise. I miss having a real Christmas tree and going to pick it out with my family, then moan when I have to set it up according to Nancy’s standards. I miss taking the train into Chicago to have lunch at the Walnut Room, even if there are lines and my mother whines that Macy’s is NOT Marshall Field’s and we can NEVER shop there any other day of the year. I almost, almost miss shoveling snow.

But, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! No need to be sad when there are chestnuts roasting on an open fire on every street corner.

You can forget about the 12 days of Christmas – to spark holiday sales and spending, Corte Inglés passed out their toy catalogue long before the official start to the holidays. Even though many would say the Immaculate Conception day on December 8th is the official start to the holidays, Christmas lights are officially on during the first weekend in December.

Belenes

One of the first Christmas presents I ever received was a handcrafted dollhouse that my grandfather made. I spent hours changing around the design of the rooms, more interested in the aesthetic than actually playing with the family of dolls that came with it.

Where we Americans have Santa’s village, the Spaniards have belénes, or miniature versions of that Little Town O’ Bethlehem. But there’s more than the inn and the stable – church parishes, shops and even schools set up elaborate recreations of what Bethlehem, known as Belén in Spanish, looked liked. It’s common to see livestock, markets and even running water or mechanical figurines.

The biggest belénes in Seville are in the cathedral, San Salvador, the Fundación Cajasol in Plaza San Francisco and even at the Corte Inglés. Just look for the signs that say “Nacimiento” or “Belen” and you’re bound to find one. If you want to set up one of your own, there’s an annual market in Seville that sells handcrafted adobe houses, miniature wicker baskets to tiny produce and every figurine imaginable in the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral.

Christmas Lights

Even though the days get shorter, the sheer amount of Christmas lights that light Seville’s plazas and main shopping streets seem to simulate the sunny winter days that we’re having this year.

Most neighborhoods will have their own displays up in the evenings along main thoroughfares. Expect your light bill to be less if you live near one of these streets – lights stay up until the Epiphany on January 6th and turn on as early as 6pm. It’s worth grabbing a cone of castañas and wandering around the center of town.

Christmas dinners

It’s also quite common for companies to invite their employees to an enormous Chirstmas dinner, followed by copas and often dancing. When I worked at the private school, we’d travel to a finca or salon de celebraciones and have a private catering. The same goes as in America – what happens at work parties…

Most bars and restaurants put out special Christmas deals, which are stocked with loads of options and unlimited alcohol, to entice companies to book at their locales. I usually do dinner with my girlfriends as a way to see one another before the busy holiday season. Many of us are off to travel, so it’s the best moment to dress up, have a cocktail and enjoy the ambience in the center of town.

Open bars on Christmas day

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the booze, so after the midnight mass, called Misa del Gallo, most Spaniards head to the bar to wait out their seafood and lamb lunches. As strange as it sounds, Christmas Day is not as big of a holiday as Christmas Eve or even New Year’s Eve, when Spaniards stay at home with their closest family members.

On my first and every subsequent Spanish Christmas, I can be found drinking beers at La Grande midday. Because, really, sevillanos are a social bunch, and holidays are meant to be shared with friends. My mother was appalled when I suggested having lunch at a restaurant on Christmas Day this year!

…and those I don’t like

Spanish Christmas carols, called villancicos, are TERRIBLE, though I always giggle over the ridiculous lyrics, like about how the Virgin Mary brushes her hair near a river after giving birth and the fish keep drinking water because they’re happy to see the Savior).

There’s always the huge influx of crowds in the center, which makes it difficult to move around and run simple errands (think, American post office lines to order a coffee).

And, of course, there’s the question of Spanish Christmas sweets – lard cookies and sweet anise liquor.

Perhaps the best Christmas tradition that I’ve stumbled upon since moving to Spain is that my parents want to travel. We’ve done away with the tree and instead spend our respective vacations traveling. We’ve drank glühwein at Christmas markets, skiied in Colorado and even stolen grilled cheese sandwiches in Ireland!

How do you celebrate Christmas near you? Do you like Spanish navidades?

What to do in Trujillo, Spain: Food, History and Daytrips

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Extremadura is one of those places you want everyone to know about, but also want to have entirely to yourself. 

Nestled between Madrid and Andalusia, it’s an oft-overlooked part of Spain and not easy to explore without a car. Rich in history, the western plains of Spain were home to the largest and most powerful Roman cities in Hispania, as well as the birthplace of the conquistadores who conquered much of Latin and South America. This legacy has been left in the jewels littered throughout the comunidad autónoma in Guadalupe’s sprawling monastery, the monument-rich Cáceres and Roman Mérida.

In many ways, spending time in Extremadura can make you feel like time has stopped, but even Spaniards look at it with disdain, citing poor transportation links and a lack of things to do. Just like Americans can’t place Iowa on a map, Extemadura to many Spaniards is a corner of Spain that serves as a gateway to Portugal and Andalucía, and little else.

Suckers.

When a free weekend came up in July, I called up two friends in Sevilla and one in Madrid, and we met in the middle. The town of Trujillo is equidistant between the capital of Spain and the capital of Andalusia, and an easy jaunt on the A-5 highway that connects the southwest of Spain and central Portugal to Madrid.

Follow the trail of the Conquistadores

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Name any conqueror from the 16th Century. Save a select few, the big names all came from Extremadura – Pizarro, Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés. Loyal to the Spanish crown, they claimed a sizeable chunks of land, changing the course of history and effectively bringing the Spanish language, culture and communicable diseases to the New World.

Ever drawn the conclusion that of South America’s great cities are named for Spanish towns? Most of those pueblos, like Medellín or even Trujillo, are extremeño towns. On my first trip to Extremadura, a lifelong extremeña told me that the name of her comunidad autónoma came from these mean from the far-lying (extre) provinces whose lives were hardened on the western plains (madura). Take it for what you will, but extremeños have since been known for their gumption.

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The cornerstone of an already gorgeous main square, the Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, the Palacio de la Conquista’s erection was financed largely in part by the riches Pizarro brought back from Peru. It sits at the bottom of a hill that is crowned by a crumbling alcazaba, and the stone mansions and plazas that tumble down are of note.

It’s honestly one of the most beautiful villages I’ve been to in Spain, and I’ve been to a lot.

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Many of the palaces have since been converted into hotels and restaurants, but a morning walk will allow you to see the highlights. Aside from whether or not they pillaged or brought disease, the architectural legacy is staggering. Oh, and Pizarro reputedly brought over a Spanish food staple – tomatoes.

If you want to go further afield and have a car, Trujillo is about equidistant to Cáceres and Mérida, the administrative capital of Extremadura. The Tourism Board suggests the Ruta de los Descubridores, which traces from Plasencia to Trujillo before heading west to Cáceres. Continuing south, you’ll get to Villanueva de la Serena, Medellīn and Mérida; the outpost of Badajóz is a bit further out but is the last stop.

Day trips to Guadalupe and Yuste / the Jerte Valley

My first go at Trujillo was at the hand of a contest won by Trujillo Villas. We had a long weekend, a car and plenty of time to kill on our way up the A-66. Turning off at Valdivia, a small suburb of Villanueva de la Serena (surprise! home to conquistador Pedro de Valdivia), the road snakes into the foothills towards the town of Guadalupe and the Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe.

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Visits to the Guadalupe Monastery

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to worship. It’s even one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is well-deserving of the nod. Seriously. Do not miss this one.

Further north and part of the Sierra de Gredos lie a number of small hamlets that look like they belong in Shakespeare’s novels than rural Spain. The Gargantas, or a series of natural pools in the foothills, and its largest town, Garganta la Olla, is worth a few hours’ walk to stretch your legs and lunch.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

Just 10 minutes northeast of Garganta la Olla is the Monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste, one of Spain’s patrimonial highlights and where Holy Roman Emporer Charles V retired to live out his days. Formerly inhabited by Hieronymite and boasting picturesque views of the almond tree-covered countryside it’s no wonder he made the treacherous trip from Madrid to Yuste (and El Escorial wouldn’t be ordered to be built for another five years anyway).

yuste monastery extremadura

While it was a disappointment to us with pushy tour guides and a steep price tag, the drive through almond trees in bloom and waterfalls was worth the extra kilometers.

Other towns you might want to explore are Zafra, south of Mérida, and Jerez de los Caballeros. Or, really any town with a castle.

Eat

Extremadura prides itself on its food – from hearty game and foul and some of the best jamón ibérico de bellota to Torta del Casar, the notoriously stinky cheese (believe me when I saw it smells like feet). Famous for its sweet, smoked paprika and hearty, little-consumed wines. For its sweets and earthy breads. Characterized by its simplicity and complexity (like all great Spanish dishes), you can eat on the cheap just about anywhere in the region.

jamon y queso

In a small city like Trujillo, there are few options. I had been to famed Casa Troya, a locale famous for its location on the Plaza Mayor and its patronage, on a previous visit and was not ready to return. The first night, restless but tired after our early wake up calls for work and the drive, we settled on Hermanos Marcelo in the square for their croquetas and plenty of helpings of embutidos, or cured meats.

On Saturday morning, we were able to sneak on a last-minute tour of Bodegas Habla, located just to the south of the village.

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In operation from 1999, Bodegas Habla is one of the newest and most innovative wineries in all of Spain – and it produces a table wine that can be drunk as if it was a special occasion. I don’t pretend to know anything about wine other than that it’s made from grapes and I like it less than beer, but I bought into the energy, the marketing and the experience of Habla.

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The tour and tasting cost 13€, which included four wines – their signature Habla del Silencio, Rita, Habla de tí and a limited edition 13. You can contact the Bodega at habla@bodegashabla.com for more information and availability.

While there is parking on-site, please consider finding a designated driver or calling a local taxi. We opted for the latter and, true to his word, he came back in two hours for us and dropped us right off at the restaurant La Alberca.

Perhaps Trujillo’s biggest draw is their Feria del Queso de Trujillo, an artisan fair dedicated solely to cheese. Held around May 1st each year, around 200,000 people are drawn to the Plaza Mayor for activities and tastings centered around goat and sheep cheeses. Area restaurants create special menus in which local cheeses are the main feature. Considering how much I love cheese, I’m shocked I haven’t made it there yet.

Where to eat in Trujillo?

If you’re spending any time in Trujillo, skip Casa Troya and make sure to make a reservation at La Alberca (C/Cambrones, 8). Between the stone walls and the breezy patio, plus a selection of wines from the region – D.O. Tierra de Barro is a great choice if you’re feeling adventurous or want something hearty – this place delivered on food, service and experience. We got away with about 18€ a head.

The Takeaway

I first saw Trujillo driving up to Valladolid with the Novio after about four months living in Seville. The fortress seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the plains, and I pressed my nose to the window to see it from all angles. It may be small, but it packs that distinctly Spanish punch: the wine, the food and the cultural legacy make it worthy of stopping for a night or if you’re en route to Cáceres. In fact, put Extremadura in general on your list.

Trujillo, Spain things to do

Have you been to Trujillo and Extremadura? Anything I missed on this list?

Here’s a little plug for our super cute AirBnB with two terraces and gorgeous views down to the Plaza Mayor. We seriously loved this place so much that we decided to not even go out but just drink wine and play boardgames! It’s a gem and you can park nearby.

Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg and my musings on expat life

In a little old house that was covered with vines,
lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.

For as long as I can remember, I have been borderline obsessed with Paris. I blame my mom, who bought me Madeline books. Remember how the book started?

My house was neither old nor plant-covered. But I had a lamp shaped like the Eiffel Tower and black and white postcards of Paris in the 30s that I garnered at a rummage sale tacked to my bulletin board.
Eiffel Tower Paris

Growing up in the suburbs of a major city, my jaunts into Chicago seemed to go along with the soundtrack of a coming-of-age movie from the 80s: I wanted to live and breath the big city lights, maybe work for a glossy and have a string of good-looking boyfriends. Which is the plot to essentially every movie that came out when I was a teen.

When I asked my mom to let me study French in middle school, she told me Spanish would be far more useful in a future career. At 13, I didn’t know that learning another language would allow me to pivot from magazine editor to ESL teacher. Not as glamorous as I’d hoped, of course, but everyone starts somewhere.

“We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.”

Ever since I read Adam Gopnick’s account of expatriated life in the French capital, “Paris to the Moon,” I was resolute that I’d live abroad at some point in my life. I didn’t particularly love the book – required reading for one of my college courses about Parisian architecture – but I did love what it represented: freedom, adventure and a healthy dose of red tape.

Autumn in Paris

My class was meant to be a study in Eiffel and Hausmann. Instead, it was two Midwesterners waxing poetic about the bistros and brasseries just steps away from the Sorbonne. Iowa City is 4,291 miles away from Paris, but that Spring 2005 class somehow seemed to push me towards Europe and towards a city that held so many of my teenaged dreams.

I’d had one of those soul-restoring deep sleeps and woke up early on the first truly autumnal Sundays in Paris. My work trips always fall on a Sunday – a godsend for catching Parisians at play but nearly impossible for eating anything decent. I put on a Mango dress that passed as a raggedy version of Chanel and some lipstick and took the RER down to Luxembourg.

boats on the basin in Luxembourg2

Gopnick often wrote about taking his young son to the Luxembourg gardens – in fact, it’s on the cover of the original 2000 book, a collection of essays he wrote for the New Yorker. I’ve criss-crossed Paris on half a dozen occasions, but usually as the tote-along on a first timer’s foray into Paris, or as a 24-hour stopover punctuating a long work trip. I purposely booked the last Eurostars train out of London so that I could take advantage of a late September morning and visit the park.

Armed with a baguette (fine, it was left over from my London trip and a little soggy) and a jacket draped over my arm, I found the eastern gate of the gardens, constructed in the 17th Century by Marie de Midici. It was just before noon and the Eiffel tower peeked over golden-tipped leaves, reflected in the small, circular pool. My college professors has spoken about the Palace du Luxembourg – its history, its current use in the French senate – but I was contented to have it as a backdrop to the children sailing model boats, their flags and colors somewhat tattered, on the pool.

Cat Gaa in Paris

Olive green metal chairs ring the basin, some reclining towards the sky. I dragged a free sear on the southwest side of the park towards the sun and unwrapped my sandwich. A man crumbled the end of his baguette and fed it to a pigeon while a mother scolded her child in French for nearly climbing into the pool after the stick he was using to guide the boat drifted away from his fingertips. Chatter came from all around me in about half a dozen languages. I’ve always said said markets and plazas were the best place to catch Spaniards wrapped up in everyday life; in Paris, it’s Luxembourg.

Somehow, everything and everyone is picturesque and chic and unsoiled here.

Hell, even my soggy baguette tasted magical because I was eating it in Paris.

“This can shake you up, this business of things almost but not quite being the same. 
A pharmacy is not quite a drugstore; a brasserie is not quite a coffee shop; 
a lunch is not quite a lunch.” 

As a perennial American abroad, I now see my own adulthood reflected in Gopnick’s telling of the mundane – as well as the truly fantastic – parts of expat life. I didn’t know it at the time, but the cadence of my life in Spain would be similar: everything and nothing is the same as back home.

Later that afternoon, post-recruitment event and a few cheeky beers with colleagues, I returned on foot to the garden. Nestled between the 5eme and 6eme arrondisments, I had two choices: using Luxembourg as my anchor, I could follow a foot map along the highlights of the district, or wander around. My professors had laid out all of the 5ème for me, so I veered into the 6ème.

Parisian bistros

Snaking down the Rue du Condé that flanks the Odéon theatre towards the Sorbonne, some of the major highlights the professors talked about in class were suddenly right in front of me. Every alleyway offered me a glimpse into the allure of Paris. Long-legged university students pulled their jackets tighter as they glided down the steps of the Sorbonne’s medical school. It all seemed so Truman Show – until the cost of a beer and the snobbery when I asked to pay with a card brought this Midwesterner right back.

In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, 
and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.

Gopnick’s wife says, upon deciding to return home, that “In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.” I find my experience to be the contrary: my life feels fuller and far more rosy in Spain.

Since that class, ARTH 3020: Paris and the Art of Urban Life, the Parisian joie de vivre and, alas, European life and the string of attractive (foreign) boyfriends has alluded me. My life in Spain is often chaotic and has a noticeable lack of afternoons whiled away at the brasserie down the block. But the small victories and the sobremesa and the afternoons in a complete trance over how I ended up here are fuel. They’re what has kept me in Spain.

Jardin du Luxembourg at dusk

I’m sure that, had I chosen Paris over Seville, I’d be fighting the urge to look at my phone while my child played with a model boat at Luxembourg. And that I’d have stepped in something or spilled on myself or still gotten a zit at an inopportune moment.

Every time I return to my childhood bedroom, I switch on the gaudy Eiffel Tower lamp and drag a finger along the dozen or so books that I haven’t given away. Paris to the Moon is one of them, standing between the Michelin Le Guide Vert that was its class companion and a well-worn copy of a Let’s Go Europe book, published in the same year as the summer I spent in Spain. In an age where mobile phones dictate where we travel and what we share – and even prevent us from losing ourselves in a city – the book is a tangible reminder of the life I chose in Spain.

“There are two kinds of travelers. 
There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see, and the kind who has 
an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. 
The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more.”

If you’re my kind of traveler, you enjoy meandering around and taking it all in rather than ticking sites off of a list. I’ve been to Paris half a dozen times and have done all of the big draws, so this time I wanted to wander through a new arrondisment on a free evening I had in the French capital.

Eiffel tower at night

I used the GPS MyCity app for points of interest around the 5ème and 6ème during my afternoon off in Paris – you can easily download sightseeing or local haunts maps and use them offline in more than 1000 cities worldwide.

Comment below for your chance to win a year’s subscription to GPSMyCity and tell me a city you love to get lost in or hope to soon!

Disclosure: I was not paid for this post but GPSMyCity kindly offered me a one-year Premium Pass, which I’ll also us in Vienna next week. All opinions are my own.

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