Why I Fell in Love with Spain
Seeing as I’ll be off to Valencia in 3 days for Las Fallas, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on my first trip to Spain last June.
For many tourists their first stop in Spain is usually Madrid or Barcelona. But for us it was Bilbao, the largest city and economic heart of the Basque Country. Often dismissed by travelers as an uninteresting industrial city in a politically volatile region, it has only recently emerged into the international spotlight simply because it is home to one of contemporary architecture’s greatest icons – the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, by starchitect Frank Gehry.
When I peered out the aircraft window prior to landing, the scenery did not in any way resemble the image of Spain that I had in mind. With its lush green vegetation, hilly terrain and chalet-like houses, the Basque Country was far more reminiscent of northern Switzerland – particularly the area round Zürich.
On the road from the airport we saw some small apartment blocks and warehouses, but it was all within a picturesque rural setting. Apart from the airport itself, there was no real sign that we were in Spain’s fifth-largest metropolitan area.
As the bus trundled along the highway we soon found ourselves plunged into the relative darkness of a mountain tunnel. Then, without any warning, a magnificent view of the city unfolded before us, with the Guggenheim in centre foreground. Somehow the sight was tantalizingly familiar – and then I realized why: the sudden process from green hills to tunnel to bustling city was a defining characteristic of home. I could not believe that Bilbao and Hong Kong shared the same extreme duality where city and country jostled side by side.
And that was only the beginning. Throughout the trip my mother, brother and I would repeatedly say to each other, “this feels just like [insert name of place in Hong Kong]”. And it was even in the everyday things, such as the sounds of jackhammers and trams in the street, the liveliness of restaurant chatter and the obvious passion for food. When we had churros in Barcelona it tasted exactly the same as yau ja gwai (Chinese cruller) on the streets of Hong Kong. And when we drank horchata in Valencia, the flavour was identical to the sweet soy milk in Asia. Our 10 days in Spain became an exciting journey of new experiences interspersed with glimpses of the strangely familiar.
In the end, the trip made such an impression on us that my brother and I decided to learn Spanish back in Hong Kong. Within a few weeks, our Spanish teacher – who had recently moved from Madrid – would confirm our controversial ideas:
When I first came to visit I had never been to an Asian country… and yet I could not believe how similar it [the culture] was to Spain. We even share some of the same habits, except that over here the loudness and unpunctuality are even worse!
Like most first-time visitors to Spain, I was enamoured by the beauty, the diversity, the lifestyle and the amazing food that was on offer. But what made it so special was the unexpected level of familiarity that we encountered at every turn. In many ways, we realised, Spain was just like home.