Diving Into the Culture of Madrid in an Authentic Way

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Do you dream of exploring Spanish culture? Below is a FAQ with traveler Kerianne Baylor.  

1. Please tell us a bit about your experience in Spain. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences did you end up having?

Spain was always part of my college plan: I knew I wanted to study abroad there. I study public relations and Spanish, and I really, really wanted to enhance my Spanish speaking skills. I chose to live with a host family because I knew it would be a unique experience, an up-close-and-personal look into Spaniards’ lives. And I would push myself to speak Spanish every day. Studying and living abroad for nine months shattered my preconceived notions of the world. It changed everything. I felt comfortable in a foreign country, speaking another language, and traveling throughout Europe and Northern Africa. I realized that my passions lie beyond the geographical barriers of the United States.

2. What’s one attraction or experience in Spain you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?

Venture a little south of Puerta de Sol, the center plaza in Madrid, to find an endless supply of Spanish buzz in the tapas-hopping neighborhood centered around Calle Cava Baja — go on a Sunday after visiting the famous flea market, El Rastro. But follow your nose in and out of restaurants, taste testing Spanish delicacies. My favorite: El Perejila. Order the mussels (mejillones)!

3. For those wanting to experience local Spanish culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?

Be in Madrid during the festivities honoring the patron saint, San Isidro/Saint Isadore, in May. You’ll get a taste of tradition in the capital city — concerts, parades, carnivals, fireworks. I also loved Las Fallas, fire festivals, held on the eastern coast in Valencia in March. Paella is the region’s specialty, yum. And monuments constructed from papier-mâché and cardboard are judged on artistry and on the last night, are burnt as giant bonfires.


Jamon Serrano. Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.

4. No trip to Spain would be complete without savoring the culinary culture. What’s your recommended food and drink pairing?

The first thing that comes to mind is jamón serrano. Lots and lots of ham. But I fell in love with croquetas, breadcrumbed and fried bechamel (jamón is my favorite, but any kind is great!) paired with delicious, Spanish wine, preferably from La Rioja or Ribera del Duero regions.

5. What’s one thing that surprised you about Spain as a destination?

The differences within the country. Traveling throughout the different regions of Spain gave me a glimpse of regional accents, cuisine and traditions. Experiencing Catalan language in Barcelona, flamenco in Sevilla, and true tapas culture in Granada are all necessary moments inside Spanish culture.

6. Tell us about one of your most memorable unexpected adventures in Spain.

I wanted to savor it all during my last weekend in Spain. I succeeded in stringing together all my favorite places, foods and people. I can still hear the Spanish beat in Copérnico, my favorite club. I can still see the view of my temporary home from the roof terrace of Círculo de Bellas Artes, a cultural space situated down the street from the usual lookout atop the city hall. I can still taste the gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), the chorizo and the vermouth on tap from our tapas hopping tour down Calle Cava Baja, a street bustling with hungry Spaniards enjoying afternoon appetizers and a glass of wine.

7. One of the best parts about travel is interacting with the locals. What was your most memorable local encounter while living in Spain?

I’d have to say my host mom! She is a wonderful person full of life; the type to dance and sing around the kitchen while cooking. But if I think about encounters with locals, I’d have to say speaking to the Spaniard next to me on the plane home from Madrid. I introduced myself in Spanish and created small talk. Then, he asked if I was from Madrid: “¿Eres madrileña?” The following sense of pride and accomplishment I felt meant I had done my year in Madrid the right way – I was mistaken for a Spaniard!


Madrid, Spain. Photo courtesy of LARS77722.

8. You spent time living with a family in Spain. What were some ways home life differed there from your home back in the US?

My home life in Madrid was centered around meal times. And they were very different. In Spain, I wouldn’t eat dinner until around 10:00pm; my host mom preferred an ‘earlier’ dinner at 8:30pm, but some days I had class until 9:00pm. Breakfast was café con leche and digestive cookies, which left you feeling grumbles of hunger around 11:00am/12:00pm. That was when I had a snack to hold me over until lunch — the most important meal of the day — at 2:30/3:00pm. I eventually got so accustomed to this Spanish schedule that I actually prefer it; I think eating dinner later prolongs your day.

9. As an expat in Spain, what were some major adjustments you had to make?

Definitely the Spanish language, especially while interning with a Spanish company. Coming from an academic background in Puerto Rican Spanish, I was not used to the Castilian lisp and the colloquial words and phrases. But living with the same host family for 9 months helped me to improve my speaking abilities by a ton – the experience was invaluable.

10. While most travelers have heard of Madrid and Barcelona, what’s one lesser-known destination in Spain you’d recommend to travelers and why?

I went to Alcalá de Henares a few times – it is where Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was born. In October, the town comes together for a Cervantes festival! And the historical centre is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Alcalá University is also a beautiful building and one of the most prestigious universities in the world. And Alcalá is know for its cuisine: traditional tapas, aka, order a beer and receive small appetizers. It is definitely worth a day trip from Madrid.

The above FAQ with traveler Kerianne Baylor.


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