I am on the train from Madrid to Málaga. There isn’t a quiet car and I’m hearing ding dong, a steam engine blowing, a harp, da da da da dunt, birds chirping. It’s an orchestra. Oh wait! It’s a life filled with the beat of cell phones. Train travel is the same in every country. A car filled with passengers is like a theater stage lined with musicians and actors clinging to their big moment.
Art work along the promenade in Málaga, Spain
Alas, I arrive in Málaga, a region in Spain known as Andalusia or the Costa del Sol. Andalusia bridges the gap between Spanish culture and its North African Islamic neighbors to the south. The Christians conquered the Islamic Moors (of Arab and Berber descent) in the late 15th Century and built a church in every plaza to prove it.
Málaga has a population of about 600,000 people and relies heavily on tourism, commerce and technology. It’s an active port town situated on the Mediterranean Sea. Tourists from all over Europe flock to Málaga for sunshine and beaches and “la cultura” of Spain especially those from Germany and the United Kingdom who beg the sun gods to take pity on them.
View of the Port of Málaga, Spain on the Mediterranean Sea
The Málaga beaches are not Spain’s most beautiful as they are rocky and the water isn’t the clear aqua blue of Italy and Croatia but they are clean and worthy of a splash or swim. There are plenty of restaurants and accommodations to cater to tourists or you can take a morning or late afternoon stroll along the promenade. When you tire of the saltwater, hop on the City Sightseeing bus or explore the Picasso Museum. If you are feeling adventurous, hike up to the Gibralfaro fortress of Málaga for 360-degree views of the city. It’s the best way to get a sense of the city’s modern and historic architecture and vibrant coastline. Eat some Iberian ham, sip on vino blanco or tinto, feast on fried calamari and take your siesta on the beach until it’s time to get up and eat again.
The Cathedral of Málaga
Málaga is filled with fun shopping, splashy new buildings and narrow alleyways. The historic district provides an opportunity to get lost and find a restaurant or store off the beaten path. Outdoor cafes and ice cream vendors crowd every street. Skip the siesta for an afternoon and explore.
The last time I visited Spain it was 1996. I was 22-years-old and a recent college graduate. I didn’t have a job lined up and I informed my parents that a job could wait but my trip to Europe could not. College proved a rough four years and study abroad was not the norm during the dark days of the 90s. I wanted to seize the day.
Graduation Day at Michigan State University with my parents
After a drunken debacle at Rick’s (or maybe Crunchy’s) on Michigan State University campus weeks before graduation, a friend hatched an idea to backpack through Europe. I thought it sounded fun and agreed to join the adventurers.
We decided our first stop would be Paris and armed ourselves with a two-week Eurorail pass and an international student discount card. We would depart in July with no itinerary. Dr. Seuss’ book, ThePlaces You Will Go echoed in my head. Happy graduation to me!
Our group of bold travelers consisted of a few Spartan alums, all connected through one particular woman and her friends. I flew to Paris with Amy, a fellow MSU graduate who I did not know. After an eight-hour plane ride, we were fast friends. We landed in Paris, groggy and disoriented, but somehow found our way to the hostel. I had already determined the backpacking thing was going to cause problems, and I made a mental note of what to send home.
Once we unloaded our belongings, my new friend Amy and I headed out for lunch. We picked a pizza place near our hostel. It’s an American first-time traveler thing: Go to the familiar, the safe. New to the international scene, I did not know Parisians considered meals a leisurely experience. We were starving, wondering when and if our food might arrive. It eventually materialized, and the waiter placed a heart shaped pizza on the table. My eyes rolled. We ate it. I assumed the pizza contributed to my overnight diarrhea–or maybe it stemmed from the highly aromatic smell of urine on the streets–but either way Paris did not leave me with the best first impression. (And that would not change until 2006.)
If you guessed I over-packed for my inaugural backpacking trip, you would be correct. It’s a common mistake and one I regretted. I shipped home $100 worth of clothing and hours later wished I had shipped the entire bag.
I did not take to backpacking. It was 1996 and designers had yet to style affordable wheelies and light weight ergonomic bags. (I am old but did not walk through the snow like my parents).
Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
After the obligatory visit to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Musée d’Orsay and several tastings of street vendor baguettes, Amy and I rendezvoused with the rest of the group for a wild night on the town. Traveling with a large mix of people can be challenging, and I learned quickly that I’m a person who does not adapt well to others. I want to do what I want when I want to do it.
That has not changed.
Amy and I were not pleased with the perceived rudeness and inconsideration of the French people, and when our travel companions opted for partying rather than sightseeing, we planned to take our American snootiness and dollars elsewhere.
I realized it was time to go when Amy shouted to a Parisian, “Do you speak the International language?” Hint: it involves a finger.
Consulting our Let’s Go Europe guide book, we decided to head to Spain. We boarded a train from Paris to Madrid with a change in Bordeaux. It was an overnight train. Back then, people smoked openly on trains and we didn’t have the luxury of a private sleeper car. I remember standing on the platform in Bordeaux around midnight, exhausted, trying to stay awake ,thinking we’d acted a bit irrationally.
If my memory serves me, the trip–with smoke-filled cabins and upright seats–to Madrid took about 12 or 13 hours. The journey left us battered but excited for our adventure and with a new stamp in our passport. We exchanged our money (this was when each country in Europe had its own currency and also prior to the universal ATM) and found our hostel. Amy and I both spoke high school Spanish and we delighted in trying to communicate with the locals. The Spanish people smiled and packed entire plazas, eating and drinking. I loved it. It would be an entire day, two meals, and an onion-filled Spanish omelet before we resorted to a meal at McDonald’s. We told ourselves we could eat at McDonald’s because the facilities provided free bathrooms.
I can still remember savoring that bite of my cheeseburger. We failed the European immersion course.
Amy and I tackled Madrid and Barcelona together before heading to southern France. I lost track of her in Germany when I met another friend and she moved on to Prague, where I heard a man robbed her.
I often think of our first European experience and laugh at our innocence. We got lost, overpaid for everything, misunderstood the language and learned a little about life in a foreign land. I have no idea where Amy is now and, while I possess a few Kodak moments to preserve the memories of the trip, it’s the pictures ingrained in my mind that I treasure.
What I remember from Spain 21 years ago holds true today:
Catholic Churches – there are lots of them
Picasso is a big deal
Women sunbathe topless
Spaniards eat lunch at 2:00PM and dinner late like really late. Think 10:00PM
There is a real thing called siesta
Stores shut down from 2:00PM – 7:00PM, with most businesses like banks and government offices only open from 9:00AM – 2:00PM
McDonald’s is still prevalent although Burger King and Starbucks have joined the fray
Where did you go on your first trip to Europe? Was your adventure like mine? Or if you haven’t gone yet, where do you think you will go?