I am writing this sat in my lovely house in England that overlooks fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I began writing this just over a week ago when I was still in the hustle and bustle of sunny Madrid. A place that over time has taught me that there are so many good and open people in this world and such beautiful places beyond the imagination. It has also taught me that life isn’t just about living to work, but working enough to live and thrive. And I have certainly learnt how to thrive!
Taking my Erasmus year in Spain has undoubtedly been the best decision I have ever made. Travel has always been in my blood and I have ever wished to have the confidence to get myself out of England by myself and set my life up abroad. I choose De Montfort University largely because of DMUGlobal and the opportunities they offer around the world, including Erasmus and as soon as I stepped into their first presentation about Erasmus, I knew it was for me. The only issue was is that I wanted to go for a year and I wasn’t able to transfer my credits from the year abroad to DMU, thus I would have to do an extra year. But as I felt I had been let down a lot by my English university experience, I decided to take the leap and go for it anyway!
The next dilemma that came was choosing the place out of a huge list of universities around Europe. I was torn between Dusseldorf, Bordeaux, Oulu and Madrid, but since I always had a soft spot for Spain and desperately wanted to learn Spanish, I chose CEU San Pablo in Madrid and there my journey began.
I visited Madrid beforehand to choose a flat to live in and visit the city and university, both which impressed me but I still didn’t have huge expectations. When I arrived it was hot. Really hot. Madrid seemed hugely intimidating and rather lonely, it was hard opening a bank, finding everything for the flat, getting the transport card, finding the uni and not being able to speak any Spanish.
But just a couple of weeks in, I was falling in love with Madrid and the people there were wonderful. My time in Madrid went from strength to strength and without me even realising it for a long time, I was living my dream. I had my own little flat, a foster cat, I was learning Spanish slowly but surely, Madrid at my doorstep and at the weekends I took day-trips to neighbouring cities, or if the girls were up for it I went on bigger trips to other countries or the coast. At the start of this year, I did have a wobble after a break-up, moving flats and all my friends leaving from the first semester. But after an amazing trip to Porto with great friends and an eye-opening adventure in Morocco where I had the most amazing time ever with more wonderful company, things just carried on the uprise until the day I left.
Now, it is time to awaken from this wonderful dream and whirl of emotions, experiences and evolution that has been my life for the past 10 months. It’s time now to work hard and study hard so I can accomplish this as a real lifestyle when I finish university. I know that Madrid is a once in a lifetime experience, but this is not the end for me, it’s just the beginning of an international lifestyle.
I have never been so inspired to travel and meet more people as now, and I have no doubt that there are more adventures to come. The only thing I am questioning is not when, but where?
Although not everyone will have the same positive experience of living abroad as this, some of you may not even be interested in travelling and will find your happiness elsewhere in careers or studies or families. But I hope everyone has the chance to find their own Madrid.
So my time here in this beautiful city, Madrid, is reaching it’s final days so I wish to share with you my favourite places here that I have discovered over the past nine months, all of which make living here particularly special for me.
If you are still living here and haven’t been to these places yet, they are definitely worth taking a look at before you leave. If you are visiting Madrid, choosing a few of these to go to will make your stay here even more charming.
The first tourist stop that most people make in Madrid is Puerta de Sol, which is a beautiful plaza that is the literal centre of Spain. However, one of my favourite plazas in Madrid is that Plaza de Oriente that is very close to the metro Opera. Not only does it recognisably contain the famous Opera house, Teatro Real, but it is framed by some of the grandest buildings in Madrid in an arch, with the largest palace in Europe as it’s backdrop. To the north of Plaza de Oriente, there are beautiful gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) linking the palace to Plaza de España. Just a short walk to the south, near the end of Calle de Bailén, there is a small park with a magnificent view of the Palacio Real hanging over the city that I find particularly stunning, as well as inside the palace itself. I must when visiting Opera at night there is something magical about the majestic buildings lit up against the dark sky.
The view from Calle de Bailen
Parque Cerro del Tío Pío
If you want to see the best sunset in Madrid, Tío Pío is undoubtedly the place to go. Although it is quite a trek if you live anywhere north of the centre in Madrid, it is a trip worth making. This park is just a ten-minute uphill walk from metro stop Buenos Aires on the blue metro line (linea 1). At first this park may not catch the eye, but after climbing to the top of one of the small hills, a breathtaking view of Madrid can be seen like no other in the city. It is the perfect place to visit with a loved one or a group of friends with some vino to watch the sun go down over the sleepy city.
Me on the hill of Tio Pio
Just one part of Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid that stretches for miles and miles, Lago is the perfect escape from the city’s heat in the summer! With many different activities, it is perfect for anyone and everyone. There is the option to either go for a short stroll around the lake, sit and relax with a glass of tinto de verano overlooking the palace and cathedral, mountain bike or hike through the many trails in the park, take the cable cars over the large park or even go swimming at Piscina de Lago (my favourite part of lago!)
Oh Malasaña… what a quirky, fun barrio it is! I must say this will be one of the neighbourhoods I am sure to miss the most when I return back to England. If it is a bar crawl, food crawl or vintage shop crawl you are looking for – Malasaña has it all! I keep finding new quirky things there each time I visit, for example last time I stumbled into this shop (Pinta en Copas) where you get free tea and coffee as you unleash your creativity by painting your own piece of pottery. There is nothing much more satisfying than getting some work done at one of the laid back cafés such as Café de la Luz or Toma Café, then browsing through the vintage stores such as Magpie Vintage or Templo de Susu, having a healthy lunch at Bluenasaña or the Greek & Shop, moving onto to a natural ice lolly for desert atLolo Polos then meeting friends at one of the many unique bars in this wonderful place to sip sangria or cocktails until it is time to move onto to the party in one of the neighbouring barrios – Chueca or El Centro. Day well spent!
Plaza in Malasana with statue clutching a beer bottle
Beautiful flowers on balcony
Lazy winter day in Malasana
A quaint bookshop near metro San Bernando
Coloured bollards in Malasana
Coloured bollards in Malasana
This may just win the prize for my favourite park in Madrid, which is a hard place to earn as Madrid boasts such wonderful parks. But there is something about El Retiro. This park is located just off the centre, bordering Atocha, Banco de España and Ibiza, but by stepping into this park it takes you miles away from the feeling of the hustle and bustle of the capital city in just minutes. Although El Retiro is slightly busier than the other parks, it is easy to see why. With its beautiful vast lake, the Crystal Palace, exquisite statues, sculpted gardens, la Rosaleda (a charming collection of roses), and last but not least the Monumento a Alfonso XIII which often attracts talented buskers that never fail to transport me to another world in the beautiful surroundings.
Not only do I love the way this neighbourhood’s name sounds “La Latina”, but I also love the relaxed, cool vibe that comes with being here. Every week this barrio hosts a large flea market, which is definitely my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning in Madrid, wandering through all the wild and wonderful stalls before stopping off at Mercado San Fernando in Lavapíes for lunch or relaxing in La Latina’s square (Plaza Cebada) listening to the free live music with a bite to eat from the Mercado de la Cebadathat backs onto it. But La Latina is not merely good for a lazy Sunday morning, but it’s also great for the bustling nightlife too! Walking though the streets at night in this neighbourhood is like no other, with the excitement for the night to come radiating from the buildings and the streets hard for anyone to squeeze through due to clusters of locals and visitors alike pouring out onto the streets from the bars (such as Leka Leka, La Buha or Los Pajaritos) in animated chatter – even in the dead of winter!
Coming up the stairs from the metro to Gran Vía never fails to take my breath away, whether it be on a peaceful winter morning or at dusk on a teeming Friday night, it’s magnificence always touches me. Callao tends to end up being the meeting place for a good day or night ahead, with the Schweppes sign towering above the plaza and the stained glass windows above Desigual, Plaza del Callao always makes it’s statement. Gran Vía is the place for shopping, with all the brands scattered down its elaborate street and Fuencarral leading off it with alternative and hip stores. It is the place to be. But Gran Vía is also the place for parties, with international clubs such as Independence, Moondance and ‘locals’ club Star Coyote that are hosted on the infamous street or nearby.
Parque del Oeste
Quite different feeling to that of Casa de Campo, although it is no where near as large as it’s neighbouring park, Parque del Oeste has many different elements all interlinked through beautiful walkways and maintained gardens. At the top of the park towards the north there is part of the park that rests just beneath the Faro de Moncloa, an observatory tower that allows visitors to see all the way across Madrid in an 180˚ glass observatory zone. At the bottom of Parque del Oeste is the Templo de Debod, a 200bc gift from Egypt rebuilt in Madrid in 1972, it is a place that feels like no other, arguably in the whole of Spain. Because of its high position, the temple is also a wonderful place to watch the sunset as guitarists or saxophone players that leave their impression upon the young night often serenade it.
Although I have been here almost 10 months, there are still things that even I have not done but plan to do in the next couple weeks that may be worthy of this list, this includes to:
Drink the famous milky cocktail in the cave bar El Champadaz near Moncloa.
Visit Mercado Antón Martin and Barceló
Watch the sunset from Circulo del Bella Artes
Eat the homemade tortilla from La Buha
Watch a flamenco show at La Taberna de Mister Pinkleton
Listen to the live jazz music in Café Barbieri
See the turtles and oasis in the Atocha Railway Station
On the morning of our excursion to the Atlas Mountains, I woke up as the sun was rising. Instead of lying in bed listening to the soft stores of the strangers around me, I grabbed my jacket and headphones and went to the terrace on the roof of the hostel. It was so peaceful up there. There were two fellow travellers wrapped in thick furs fast asleep on the cold terrace, silent and unmoving. Marrakech looked beautiful at dawn, the silence was only broken by the sound of a worker sweeping the streets with a straw brush down below. Whoosh, whoosh. I sat there for a while watching the world slowly wake up from my perch above the ancient city.
It was my grandfather’s funeral that day. But rather than allowing myself to be enveloped in sadness in this beautiful place, which I know Howard wouldn’t have wanted, I got up, popped my headphones in and played Gloria by Laura Branigan (Howard’s favourite song) and then I danced. I danced like no one was watching.
After a few more songs, I wandered downstairs to find my friends slowly waking up. So we all got ready, had breakfast and climbed in the car of our curly-haired guide – Iddir. None of us really knew what to expect. We hadn’t been to Africa. We didn’t do much research. We had never taken a tour guide. We didn’t even really know where we were going. But there are a few times when ignorance truly is bliss without harm, and this was one of them. Morocco blew our minds.
At first there was Iddir getting to know us and giving us all nicknames. Denmark. Spain. Poland. Hannah (I was the one who’d booked the tour, probably the reason he could remember my name). Then we left Marrakech far behind us as we climbed up to the High Atlas Mountains in the 4×4. The scenery changed from red to brown to grey and then to a shocking green as far as the eye could see. The windy roads certainly weren’t appeasing for any of our stomachs, but the snaking climb was worth it for the view at the top of the mountain. There was a vast stretch of grassland that was dramatically framed by the tall, dark mountains, only disturbed by the river jolting through the centre of it, carving a small valley of itself in the otherwise flat foreground. The clouds tickled the top of the mountains and blanketed the ones behind in a soft mist, creating the illusion of an infinite mountain range.
We then crawled back down through tiny Berber villages clinging onto the edge of the mountain and vast expanses of roads to Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, a place in which numerous movies and series have been filmed, including Indiana Jones, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, because of it’s unique beauty. I know I certainly felt like a lost princess in a fairytale climbing up the ancient steps of the Kasbah, despite wearing baggy trousers and an old t-shirt that certainly was very un-princessy!
Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou
Natalia on the top of Ait Ben Haddou
Emilie on the top of Ait Ben Haddou
After, we continued through the Hollywood of Morocco where there was film studios scattered about. Our stomachs were all rumbling by the time we reached the restaurant. A small place with a terrace on the side of a rather busy road with tables clustered together to meet the high demand of people eating there. We were squished together on a small table next to a family who we learnt, through our Spanish friend’s broken French, were Moroccans who lived part-time in France. The vegetarian food was absolutely delicious. The meat apparently wasn’t so good. But it was cheap and filling, so certainly no complaints from us.
Then it was the Dadés Gorges, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Toes’ because of the cliff faces sheer and fascinating rounded appearance, one of those weird and wonderful results of weathering. We then reached our final stop at around 5pm, our hotel submerged in the Dadés Valley, an entire hotel (La Gazelle Du Dadés) that only ourselves and a German couple shared. We were greeted by delicious mint tea and a wonderful meal of soup, tagine and sweet fruit later on.
Just outside La Gazelle in the Dadés Valley
The next day, after a good nights sleep in our own hotel room, we woke early to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread. We were all excited about going to the desert that evening and chose the appropriate camel-wearing clothes – leggings under baggy trousers and long sleeved tops that certainly did the trick – and off we went!
At first we went through the Todgha Gorge on foot which was immensely impressive, I also had some interesting and extremely funny comments on my “botty” from some Berben men and finally got the hang of the hole-in-the-floor toilets. We then stopped for a cup of mint tea right by the largest oasis in Morocco, Tafilalt. We were then treated to a wonderful surprise in Rissani – lunch with our lovely guide’s sister, Fatima, a very kind lady who never stopped smiling. And a great cook. The food that I had at Fatima’s house was the best I had in my whole time in Morocco. We started with sweet biscuits, and then onto ‘Berber pizza’, next we had a wonderful cous cous with so much flavour and to finish we ate fresh fruit as we passed around the gorgeous Berber baby, one of their neighbours children. It was nice to get to talk to Moroccan women for the first time in our journey and it was interesting to find out that one of Fatima’s daughters studied psychology at university. We’re not so different after all!
Berber “botty” man
It wasn’t long after lunch that we pulled Merzouga, The Sahara Desert. Oh my. It took my breath away. Seeing the desert on pictures and movies don’t do justice to the feeling you get of being so small within the all-encompassing dunes. Merzouga itself was eerily beautiful; being low season it was silent and it felt like we’d stepped back in time with ancient ruins and derelict dust roads, only disturbed by our own 4x4s engine and the Berber music that Iddir was blasting out of the stereo. We stopped by four camels waiting for us and we were each allocated a camel; I was at the front. I was completely taken with the sweet camels’ big doe eyes, gawky features and laid back demeanor. Even though riding a camel was completely different to riding a horse, there were no stirrups and no connection the camel’s mouth, I settled into the camel’s long strides with ease.
We arrived close to camp and jumped off our camels, thanked our kindly guides and were pointed towards a dune where a few other people had gathered. It was sand-boarding time. My Danish and Spanish did pretty well gliding down the dunes, but I chose to bum-shuffle down on the board into camel poo, which wasn’t the daintiest, but fun anyhow! We then walked through the hard sand to our camp, feeling very sorry for our camel guides having to tackle this terrain for over an hour. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to the camp, it had showers, flushing toilets, thick, soft bedding on comfy good-sized beds, lights and beautifully decorated in bright colours. That night, we drank tea, cuddled camels, watched the stars, smoked shisha, played charades with the people we met there, shared riddles with one another, laughed a lot, ate delicious food and we all were completely enchanted with the soulful sounds of the desert men and their drums by the fire.
The next morning we woke at 6am to watch the sun rise above Erg Chebbi, at first it was somewhat unimpressive and we were all cold from the biting wind, but then the wind settled and the clouds moved past slowly to reveal a glorious sunrise. Then, we were called for breakfast by Iddir’s cousin and soon enough after our ride back to Merzouga in the bright sunshine, we were back on the road and on the way to Fes.
In my last post I mentioned an uncomfortable situation with a Moroccan man, but let me tell you now that nearly every other Moroccan that I came across was not only wonderfully sarcastic and refreshingly hilarious, but kind and respectful. With the recent terrorist attack in London being just one of many that have taken place recently and Trump ‘banning Muslims’, it is easy to group a religion together and label them as ‘bad’, but this is awfully sad and hurtfully narrow minded. The people I met couldn’t have been kinder, particularly those in the desert, where we all had a good laugh together and wished each other well in everything, despite being from different cultures.
On our way to Fes, we passed through Midelt, which is known for it’s apples and has it’s own apple festival; here the women were selling beautiful scarves and tapestry. Then we drove onto Ifran, which was a strange city to be found in Morocco. It looked as though it had just been cut out of Europe and placed in Africa, not only were the buildings European styled, but so was the university, all the way down to the Swiss forest just beyond the town, strangely combined with Arabian horses and greedy monkeys.
Morocco wasn’t a traditional holiday. It wasn’t hot when we went, nor was it a place where you would swim or sunbathe, or even sip wine on a roof terrace. If that’s what you’re looking for, than Morocco isn’t necessarily the place for you. But if you want to be excited every morning, the kind of excitement that wakes you up at 6am with butterflies in your stomach and a feeling rearing to go to see what will be uncovered throughout the day, if you want your mind to be challenged by all the new sights and smells and you don’t mind going with certain amenities for a while, then Morocco is for you.
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” – T. S. Eliot
Morocco has been a wave of wonderful emotions, I’m not sure that words can describe this mind-altering trip, but I shall make my best attempt. From the beginning I have felt excitement, uncertainty, grief, amazement, inspiration, loss, wonder and hope. But most of all Africa gave me peace.
An utter sensation of peace has washed over my soul.
But that didn’t come straight away. This post is about my first night and day in Marrakech. The first night I barely slept out of apprehension and excitement. We arrived in Marrakech at 22.15 and the city was enveloped in darkness, we were the last ones out the airport and as the four of jumped into the large taxi from our hostel, we had our first glimpse of Africa. Motorbikes rushing past one anther, lit by the full moon and white street lights. Some of their owners had their groceries hanging over the edge, others with their shoes flying behind them and a couple of bikes with many people crammed onto one seat. It was nothing like I had ever seen before, and already I was excited of what was to come.
You may wonder why I had decided to go to Morocco, well, it’s a country I hadn’t really heard of before moving to Spain and when I constantly saw cheap flights going there from Madrid – it caught my interest. I read a little about it, and ever since October last year I have wanted to visit and luckily I found people like me that wanted to go too! My decision to go to Morocco was met with some concern, but although it is undoubtedly a place where you have to take care, I’m glad it didn’t hinder my decision.
As we arrived in the hostel, Dream Kasbah, we were informed that they only had two of the four beds we were due, and we could either move elsewhere or they would sort something out for us there. As tired as we were and as late it had become, me and my friend said we would share, one would take the floor, and another of us on the top bunk. It was a nice hostel afterall. As soon as our beds were sorted in the cramped hostel room, we went to fill our rumbling bellies. We stumbled out onto the windy lanes of Marrakech and on to the main street closest to us where we had spotted some ‘hole-in-the-wall’ type restaurants during the taxi ride. We ordered four sandwiches with chips and wandered back to the hostel. However, we kept walking down the wrong streets and inevitably, a group of men waiting like vultures for this very moment came up to us. Although we tried desperately to shake them off, they lead us into the night, even though we had just spotted the sign for our hostel.
I have only felt uncomfortable in Morocco twice, and this was one of them. As my friends continued walking, I had fallen behind just a couple of steps, but during this time one of the men put his arms around me. I pushed him away as my other friend shouted at him in her karate-trained manner. He left pretty hastily. But the other followed us all the way to our hostel door and asked for money to which we politely declined and went to eat. I will just say that these men were not good representatives of Moroccans and I was otherwise overwhelmed by the kindness of these people.
Around 8am, we awoke having slept very little and begun our day with the free-breakfast at the hostel. Although the food wasn’t to be desired, the spiced coffee was something special. Then, we went to see Marrakech in the daylight.
To four students who had never stepped foot in Africa before, it was like a whole new world. Men perched on the side of mules on the main roads, scooters weaved in out of one another and donkeys clattered down the streets laden with tons of bags. And, as we soon found out, zebra crossings didn’t work. So as we hopped, skipped and jumped across the roads in awe of the beautiful buildings and people alike, and soon realised we had no idea where we going and that we needed a map. Pronto.
So off we went to the first store we could see and asked the man where we could buy a map and he produced a whole book of Morocco.
“Take it!” he uttered
We tried to explain we didn’t really want to pay for a whole book, just a small map.
“No, no, for free. Please, have it.”
We groveled our thanks and offered the little change we had on us, to which he denied and went on our way to the large plaza featured in the book.
It was bizarrely surreal. Monkeys walked around with chains round their necks doing back flips; snake charmers sat in the middle nose-to-nose with a hissing python; women came over and grabbed your hand trying to sell henna tattoos; horses proudly trotted past with a carriage of tourists trailing behind; stalls sold their fresh fruit juices and people crowded round the buskers. It was hard to know where to look or what to think of this strange spectacle.
So, we decided to divert to the more peaceful area of the mosque before tackling the markets again. It was hurtful to see the beggars dotted around the beautiful building, with their kind eyes and pleading expressions trying to sell their hand stitched rugs or cookies, none of them got angry if we turned down their items, instead they simply smiled and said “maybe tomorrow?” before walking on. We realised we weren’t allowed to enter, as we came to find with most of the mosques, so we moved onto the souks.
If the plaza was crazy, the souks were something else. But they were incredible. Fresh fruits, piles of herbs and spices, different kinds of olives, juices, fish, meat and animals in tiny crates. Then there would be a jewellery section full of different golds and silvers gleaming in the late morning sun. After that, leather bags, colourful shoes, embroided dresses and exquisite scarves. It’s fair to say we all spent a little more than expected during our time in Morocco, everything was amazing.
Purchases of the day!
Time had been passing very slowly and at around two in the afternoon, we decided we should find somewhere to rest and eat, so we went to the closest place that had a vegetarian friendly menu. It wasn’t anything special from the outside, but upstairs it had a beautiful terrace with an incredible view over the city. The food was delicious and we topped it off with some mint tea. We somehow sat there for hours, talking a little, but mainly just enjoying the warmth and the calm buzz of the city down below. At sometime after five, we decided we should walk back to the hostel via the palace, which was closed. So back to the hostel it was as the sun began to set behind the clouds.
We spent the evening chatting to a lovely German couple who were travelling through Morocco on their study break and another inspiring girl who is a freelance writer/blogger travelling long-term with her partner, as well as the lovely hostel workers before retiring to bed ready for our early start in the morning.
Tomorrow we would embark on a journey across the Atlas Mountains, through Berber villages and onto the Sahara desert before finishing in Fes.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman
Now this is a little off topic, but as I mentioned in my last post, I have been having a rough few weeks in Madrid and I believe it’s important to talk about the dark side of travelling and the effect it has on oneself as well as the beautiful moment.
So a friend of mine taught me a term the other day that I had heard of before, but never really understand completely, “self-sabotage.” Now for those of you who are unsure of the meaning too, it can be anything from procrastination to self-harming, but the area that I am talking about is in connections, when you self-sabotage in a relationship (be that with a family-member, friend or lover). This is when a person’s ‘survival mode’ kicks in, where one goes into stress-response and fears getting emotionally hurt. It’s when you feel as though you’re inadequate as a person, the fear that you cannot handle rejection/loss, or the feeling that you have to give yourself up to be loved. As a result of this, you end up freaking out and putting the other person down, becoming angry and pushing them away.
At the time I thought, ‘but why would anyone do that’? It doesn’t make sense. Well, that was until I did exactly that just a few days later and in that moment I realised that in fact, I often do.
Now when I care about someone I do so deeply and I would do anything to avoid hurting them, but unfortunately I can also be painstakingly volatile to those very same people. What I say in these moments of anger, I often don’t mean and it sadly doesn’t represent me as who I feel I really am. I know that I am far from perfect. I am lost. I am insecure of myself as a person. I am sensitive. But one thing I know is that making people feel bad about themselves is not something I take any joy in at all. Unfortunately, because of my fiery nature, this does happen and it’s the people I love the most that I do this to. I self-sabotage.
During my time in Madrid, I have built incredible friendships with people that I admire hugely, and all I can wish is that when I am their age (just a few years away, oof) that I can find some of that inner-peace that they possess. I feel that making these connections is one of the most brilliant parts of travelling and living abroad.
These wonderful people have taught me that to build strength and flexibility, we should open our minds to people and ideas we don’t like, and pick fights with those we do. And that is exactly what I am trying, to open my mind and my heart to everything. I know for them it cannot be easy to be friends with a lost person who is confused and contradictory at best, yet they take it in their stride. Although in the situation aforementioned I feel I have pushed one friend too far with my meaningless outbursts, which has really made me realise that this isn’t who I want to be and I have to make a change in direction to become that person I am contented with.
But don’t take this post in the wrong way, I am in love with my life right now and I feel such joy at times it’s unreal. I am incredibly lucky to have these moments in my life at such a young age. I am proud of myself for overcoming crazy anxiety, selective-mutism and bouts of depression and to feel the way that I do now and the confidence that I have is something I could never imagine in a million years. To be living in another country, in a beautiful city such as Madrid with such wonderful friends was something of my dreams.
“The earth has its music for those who listen” – William Shakespeare
As much as I love travelling abroad, I do also appreciate the countryside of my home country, England. Since the last few weeks in Madrid have been difficult (though don’t get me wrong, I am still infatuated with this city) I would instead like to share with you my favourite place from home.
My most treasured British national park is the Lake District. It is particularly special to me as I visit Cumbria at least once a year and I have done since I was just an infant to visit my Granddad who lived in the quaint little town called Ravenglass, but despite my own personal attachment to this place, I believe it to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I know many who agree.
My favourite places in Cumbria include: Windermere, Keswick, Drigg, Whitehaven, Muncaster, Seascale, Millom, Wasdale, Boot, but most of all Wastwater and Ravenglass. Those I speak about below are just a few that are really worth a visit if you’re in the Lake District.
Wasdale is the home of Britain’s deepest lake, smallest church and highest mountain. Not only do its great facets draw people to this place, but the way it makes victims of even the most seasoned traveller with its enchanting essence and haunting beauty; the way the summit of the mountains spear the clouds and their backbones carry the weight of aging dry stone walls built over one-hundred years ago; how the lake on a calm day mirrors the mountains creating the illusion of the already immense valley to appear twice the size, engulfing its visitors in its perplexity. Yet on a stormy day the mountains tower over you, the calm lake turned to turmoil making you feel as though you are the pinpoint of the earth, or the main witness of nature’s grand gestures. As though you have stepped into another world.
Stormy skies of Wastwater, Marlon Cole
Reflections, Marlon Cole
There are many walks around Wastwater, both challenging mountain hikes across screes and pikes, but also easy strolls in the valley. Of course, there are a couple of pubs situated on the mountains of Wasdale serving traditional British ‘pub grub’ and an interesting selection of local beers and ciders. If you’re feeling brave you can even take a dip in any of the lakes within Wasdale, but take care as the stream can be strong and the water extremely cold.
I have seen this little fisherman’s village in the dark of the night, when the air was so still and the sea so calm it looked liked glass delicately frosted and on it’s dreary days when I would blunder through what seemed like a tempest, where the grey sky hung over, the sand turning to a perilous mud, sucking in my trusty boots and compelling us to fall onto our bums in a graceless fashion and the ethereal times when the waterfront was shrouded in a cloud of mist, only shadows of gauntly boats could be seen.
Ravenglass in winter
Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Ravenglass
Though this village is particularly special to me, as it is where my grandfather lived for much of his life, thus I would spend most summers here. But other than a personal affection for this place, Ravenglass holds it’s own with hidden treasures and a charming appeal to visitors. There are splendid walks across the fells, the beaches and bridges of Ravenglass that will lead you to the Roman Bath House, Muncaster Castle and beautiful views across the area.
Nestled amongst the mountains and rivers of Eskdale, Boot is a small village comprised of old stucco cottages, traditional stone bridges and a tiny railway that can take you to and from Ravenglass. On a warm day, it is perfect to bring a picnic to one of the pebbled river beaches and spend the day relaxing by the picturesque streams.
My grandfather and his partner in Boot
Although my perception of Boot has been tainted as I was there during the Cumbrian Shootings of Derrick Bird in 2010 where 12 people lost their lives, this devastating and frightening event really shouldn’t put you off this beautiful village. It offers peaceful walks around tiny streams and vast waterfalls and again some tremendous local food and drink in their pubs (my favourite being Boot Inn, shh don’t tell Brook House!)
I must admit there is little feeling better than the wind rushing through your hair and being one with the full power and speed of the ten-ton beast beating it’s hooves on the golden sand beneath. Just me and this beautiful creature thundering across the beach without a care in the world, the backdrop of lavender fields and mountains on one side and the endless ocean on the other, there’s nothing that can be done now but to trust my stead and laugh with joy as we recklessly crash through the waves.
Now if you know me, you will know I am a huge horse-lover, hence the mention of my experience with the horses at Murthwaite Green Trekking Centre, which is a perfect riding school in Millom for experienced riders and beginners alike. However, even if you are not into riding, Millom is still perfect for a beach-day with its combination of cliffs, fields, mountains, pebbles and a vast stretch of golden sand.
And for now, thank you to the beautiful British countryside and the people in England that still make it my home, maybe it is still ‘Great’ Britain after all.
(Credit to my step-dad, Marlon Cole, for his beautiful photography)
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” – Freya Stark
I hope everyone gets to feel like this someday.
I have finally found happiness. Don’t get me wrong, right now I am still heartbroken, afraid and lost, but the overwhelming wave of joy and love for my life and the people around me that I get is so strong sometimes I feel I could burst. I used to be afraid of this feeling, like the sun beating down on the back of our necks, I feared the passing clouds that rushed to impede its warm embrace. But that’s all the clouds are, passing. Happiness comes and goes, and that’s okay.
I was about to make the wrong decision, go back to the person who had used me for months and attempted to control what I do, but unfortunately for him, I am stubborn. And thank you also to the guidance and actions of those who truly care, I didn’t go to him.
Instead I took the plane ticket that I had bought to see him in Malaga and I went alone. My flight was at 8.45 in the morning, and I had finished my very last minute booking of accommodation and transport around 2am. After 3 hours sleep and my head and heart racing, I took the metro to the airport bleary-eyed and jumped on the tiny plane that took me across the country. One of the best decisions I have made, only falling short of my decision to live in Madrid.
When I arrived in Malaga, I had no expectations, I had booked a hostel on the beach (Bella Vista), which was just beautiful. As I walked through the immaculate streets I was pleasantly surprised by the winter heat, 20C, a whole 15C warmer than Madrid! I dropped my bags off at the hostel to a kindly Frenchman and his fiery Spanish wife (plus my thick winter jumper and parka) and had a bocadillo and a cana on the seafront. I then walked along the still, calm coast simply enjoy the warm air and the gentle waves lapping over my bare feet.
Bella Vista beach
Bella Vista Hostel
Bella Vista beach
Bella Vista Hostel
Bella Vista beach
My time in Malaga was very peaceful and pleasant, a perfect place for a time of reflecting and healing. I met an inspiring man who was originally from the Caribbean and had made his success as a Media Production Manager in London and a sweet girl from America who was studying in Scotland and was on her first trip. I had delicious food in a vegetarian restaurant (Vegetariano El Calafate) and treated myself as I was wandering around the shops in the old town. I was sad to have to leave the warmth and peace of Malaga so soon, but I was looking forward to my next adventure meeting my friend in Granada.
Vegetariano El Calafate
Vegetariano El Calafate
As I waiting for the bus I sat next to a woman who I assumed was waiting for a bus too as she was so well presented, but a couple of glances over and a shaky “hola” I fathomed she was homeless, clutching her trolley with few possessions and a distant smile on her face. Not long after I had taken this seat, a brash charismatic gentlemen came over dressed in fine clothes but with the smell of alcohol on his breath, he greeted this lady in perfect English with such gladness, it was clear they were old friends. The man then turned to me, I nervously replied with short answers first of all; selfishly worried they would ask for something from me. But no, how wrong I was, the man admitted his alcoholism had led to him loosing everything and that he too was homeless yet he did not want anything from me as I was a student. We talked about my trip and studies, their families and how they were managing with the winter cold. After the man had left, the woman turned to me with tears in her eyes and thanked me for not judging them and commented how much she admired her friend for his kindness. I soon had to leave for my bus, but I thanked the woman for her company and wished her the best. This exchange made me realise that you really do meet inspirational people from all walks of life while you travel.
When I arrived in Granada I again was taken aback by the cold weather, around 2C, as I had barely eaten that day I didn’t feel well, so that night I curled up in the cold room and only awoke when my friend arrived. On the Wednesday, both of us shattered from the journeys from Malaga and Madrid, I took a walk around Alhambra, had a delicious lunch with mulled wine in a lovely café (La Fontana) near Alhambra and met up later with my friend to watch the sunset over Granada and wandered around the beautiful Arabic stores near the river.
The rest of the trip, we visited the different cathedrals and the city centre, walked up to San Nicholas plaza at night which has the most beautiful view of the palace and Alhambra, I bought some Arabic styled earrings, had a henna tattoo and ate a fairly priced delicious three course dinner in an adorable hippie restaurant (Kasbah), recommended to us by a chatty shop owner from Derby, the city where I grew up in.
We also took a bus up into the famous mountain range, Sierra Nevada, where I admired the skiers on the slopes and felt like a child again playing around the thick snow. We took a ski lift up to the top of the mountain that could also be used for non-skiing visitors, which offered the most stunning views across the mountain range.
I then had to make the trip back to Malaga to get my plane to Madrid on the Saturday, a drive through mountains and tiny Spanish villages greeted me on my way, and when I got to Malaga I simply took my time enjoying lunch in the warm sunshine and arrived at the airport early to take a stroll through the airport shops, taking testers of lotions and vino tinto.
Although I had a great trip, I was pleased to be getting on the plane because I know another beautiful city is waiting for me on the other end, my home; Madrid.
“I maintain couchsurfing and crowdsurfing as the same thing – you’re falling into the audience and you’re trusting each other.” – Amanda Palmer
People no longer appear to travel alone for the pure joy of seeing new places, but they travel to share their adventures for the whole world to see – with Go Pros attached the hip and cell phones awaiting in hostels to give birth to the next beach selfie.
Another addition due to these digital advancements are websites such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing that offer cheap or free accommodation. These are arguably a meandering positive of this new era of travel. Nonetheless, with safety of solo travelling a real worry, do these websites create even more possibility for dangerous situation?
Airbnb and Couchsurfing offer similar hooks: “Stay with locals and meet travellers” and “Live there. Experience a city like a local.” Of course, these have both positives and negatives for both traveller and host. The host is allowing a stranger to stay in their house and the traveller trusts the host to provide a safe environment.
Undoubtedly, most of the hosts on these websites are decent people, but particularly for solo female travellers, we unfortunately still have to be cautious about who we are trusting. With articles titled ‘Couchsurfing’s sex secret: it’s the greatest hook-up app ever devised’, ‘8 signs of a slutty CouchSurfer girl’ and even a website called ‘CouchBangs.com’, this concern is a sincere one.
There are ways that the fear of being endangered can be reduced, the obvious being checking the ‘references’ left by fellow travellers and the host’s own local friends, but there are resources (also thanks to the digital age) that can and will help you, including Facebook communities for travellers, the 24hr helpline on Couchsurfing.com and even researching places of safety in the city you are planning a trip to, so use them!
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”– M. Gandhi
In the aftermath of the results from the US election, the whole world is left in shock as Donald Trump takes the keys to the white house, maybe the exception of this shock is Britain. Having our own moment of foolishness earlier this year with ‘Brexit’, we are well aware that anything is possible. Many of us are now aware what it feels like to be ashamed of our nationalities, something we once uttered with pride, now a shattered emblem upon the floor.
American and British citizens are arguably more united than ever through recent events, yet also are in despair of each other’s decisions they have made for their countries. Half of Brits believed the Brexit scare would pass. Half of America believed the Trump nightmare would end. But here we both are, many of us ashamed to show our faces to the rest of the world. The world looking to us with disappointment.
Yet this feeling is nothing new, we are only experiencing a taster of what it feels like to be blamed for something that is out of our hands. We placed our votes. The rest of our nations decided against us and we are feeling the wrath of their decisions.
But we would never hold innocent people accountable for someone of their race who commits terrible crimes, would we? This hasn’t been happening for hundreds of years to minority groups, has it?
We should not feel ashamed for our countries decisions; the shame should be felt from our own discrimination of other races. For example, Muslims have been looked down upon and made to feel shame for “.006625%”[i] of their population being extremist, when over 50% of Americans and Brits voted for promoters of racist, xenophobic and misogynist ideals.
As of now, nobody knows what is going to happen with Britain out of Europe or America with Trump as their president. But those who did not vote for these matters are not to blame and we should not be ashamed that we have been let down by our countries, but rather be the catalyst for a positive change and show the rest of the world that we are not all racist and many of us are just as devastated by the hate crimes that are happening as a consequence of these right-wing movements as the groups they are targeting.
As for myself, although I have fallen in love with Spain in a time I feel failed by my own country, I still cannot wait to be on that plane at Christmastime and see the rolling hills and patchwork farms of England, and oh-my-goodness I am well overdue for a good old Sunday roast and a hug from my family! This is the Great Britain I still love.
People should not be basing their pride in their nation, particularly in these disjointed times, but rather be proud of their own personal achievements and views.
‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn’ – Benjamin Franklin
As an ERASMUS student, I have met some great from all around Europe (Spain, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Belgium, Italy, France and Scotland) and I have learnt many things about different their European education systems and the influence this has personally on each individual.
Finland previously has been idolized by Europe for their education system being the top in world, and even though they have lost their place to Asian countries using extreme methods to get the best grades (with 16 hour school days in South Korea), they are still considered the best in Europe. Surprisingly, despite its astronomical student loans for university goers and little focus on foreign languages, England is second in this ranking. In fact, it’s even sixth in the world!
So what are these rankings actually based on? In a BBC report on this subject, it states they “include the OECD’s Pisa tests, and two major US-based studies, Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). They also include higher-education graduation rates, which helped the UK to a much higher position than in Pisa tests, which saw the UK failing to make the top 20.”
But stats about how many people have graduated and generalised test results don’t necessarily mean that it is the ‘best’ education system, what about student satisfaction? Surely this is important? For international students, Ireland has been ranked highest for student satisfaction at 9.04, whilst England is dragging behind the Scandinavian countries at 8.75. This seems to ring true from the pride I have heard from students from Scandinavia and Ireland about their education institutions.
Coming from an English university and studying in Spain, flaws can be seen in the Spanish higher education system, but England can certainly learn important qualities from Spain. I have gone from eight-hours a week lecture-time, only writing essays and exams for my course, to twenty-one-hours a week including essays, presentations, group-work, practical work and exams, which allows for more development in important skills such as communication and technology.
Nonetheless, I do feel I have stepped back to feeling like 16-year-old me in my first year of college, the way the Spanish university students behave does surprise me with the loud talking in class, messaging their friends on Facebook instead of listening to their teacher and making-out in the hallway. But maybe that is simply just difference in culture, which is something I certainly don’t want to criticise. However, the exams set by the teachers have questions with no room for interpretation, which highly frustrates me as a student reading English Literature and Media, Culture and Communication Studies (wow, that’s a mouthful!) as in my subject everything must be interpreted and backed up by extensive independent research, which simply just doesn’t happen here.
Of course, I am enjoying this laid-back attitude and thriving from the lack of stress that overwhelmed me in my first year of university in England and I have heard similar feeling from my friends here, particularly German and Swedish. But, I mean, where else is it acceptable to wander off and enjoy some delicious tapas and vino tinto in their school cafe during afternoon break? Or have a picnic in El Retiro park for lunch and not have to worry about appearing 10 minutes late to class? I certainly know I am enjoying my time here and I am picking up wonderful practical skills I simply never would have the chance to do back home in England.
I believe we all have a lot to learn from one another.