Top 10 Tips for Traveling Spain – Don’t Forget the TP!! | Catavino
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Top 10 Tips for Traveling Spain – Don’t Forget the TP!!

Light switchIf you’ve ever traveled around Spain for any length of time, you’ve most likely found yourself without toilet paper at key moments. That’s right, the Spanish do not believe in restocking toilet paper. I have no idea if they go out TP-ing historic statues at night, or if they’re stockpiling for the next uprising, but whatever the reason, don’t expect to find it in bars, petrol stations, nightclubs, restaurants, etc. This is just one of many truths I’ve learned to accept in my time here. And allow me to be clear, many of these rules do NOT apply to Portugal – a country that I consider “well stocked”.

Beyond the need to carry some tissue with you at all times, there are several other bathroom tips I suggest you keep in mind. First off, the location of the light switch will rarely follow logic. It might be outside the bathroom in the hallway; inside the bathroom, but outside the stall; or inside the stall and simply not work. Additionally, most light switches are on a timer, meaning, that you have approximately 1 minute to do your business. I, personally, know very few people who can race through this ritual at lightening speed. Consequently, don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the dark, fumbling to keep yourself intact.

Suggestion: Bring small packet of tissues and a key chain flashlight

I’d love to know how many people over the age of 21, and under the age of 60, actually take part in the traditional siesta, or nap time. I’m betting that the number is much lower than we’d like to believe; however, despite this fact that the siesta has fallen to the wayside, this time period in the middle of the day is cherished. And by cherished, I mean that nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, other than bars and restaurants will be open from approximately 2 to 5pm. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, because in most large cities, retail shops and souvenir shops are open through this time period, but this is the exception, and not the rule.

Suggestion: Plan on lunch between 2 and 5pm, dinner starting at 9m, while scheduling all other non food related events in between – such as visiting any information center!!

First off, travelers checks are not the norm here in Spain. However, if you do bring travelers checks, the best thing to do is to come prepared with the address of your local AmEx office (there is one in the Madrid city center for example). You can also cash them in exchange places, and/or at the airport, but the commissions tend to be sky high. Instead, I suggest using either cash or credit cards. Most taxis, restaurants, retail shops and cafes will generally accept your credit cards, while mom and pop places will often require cash. That said, if you need to find a bank, they are normally open until…get this…2pm. That’s right, for whatever reason (and if anyone knows why, please tell me), bankers cannot be bothered when the clock strikes 2. So be sure to do all your money exchanges in the morning. If it’s a ATM you need, my suggestion is to look for the Servired or blue Telebanco sign (4B). These machines will not charge you an arm and a leg to take out money, and are commonly found all over the country. Keep in mind, you will always be asked to provide a picture ID when paying with a credit card. If you are reluctant to bring your passport with you while sightseeing, almost all places will accept a driver’s license as ID. (Flickr photo by Pingu1963)

Suggestion: Only carry the minimal amount on you at all times. Meaning, one credit card and small amount of cash, both located on different parts of your body. Don’t be like me, and have your entire life stolen from you on several occasions, because I didn’t follow my own advice.

I have been a waitress for the best part of youthful existence, and in that time period, I quickly learned to find ways around people as quickly and efficiently as I could, whereby ensuring that I could attend to my customers. However, this theory, albeit effective in Spain, should be avoided! Why? Because like West Side Story, I find that people want to rumble! They would rather plow you down on a sidewalk than actually move out of the way. You could have 5 wee little grandmas lined up, not vertically, but horizontally, refusing to offer space when you pass, whereby forcing you into oncoming traffic. Therefore, I have adopted the bulldozer method. Regardless of age, me, and my little 5’1″ frame, will hold my ground when passing. And if that means I have to hip-check Maria, the fragile and innocent “looking” grandma, in order to get my 6 inches of space on the sidewalk…well, let’s just say that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind 😉

Suggestion: Wear a helmet and go full throttle!

Part of the reason why I adore Spain is the Spanish zest for living life to the fullest outside in the open air. Hot or cold, rainy or sunny, city or pueblo, you will always find the majority of the population either high on their terrace looking down at you, or in the streets at all hours of the day. Grandchildren will be hand in hand with their 90 year old grandmother at 11:30 at night, a gaggle of 16 year old girls will be giggling over recent hormone triggering events in the early morning hours around a streetlamp, and come lunch time, stand back, as the world swarms to the streets to invigorate themselves with a dose of Vitamin D from the big yellow ball in the sky. However, the consequence of everyone being outside, speaking at astounding decibels to the person directly next to them, is that peace and quiet is rarely ever experienced. Instead, you find yourself becoming accustomed to impromptu jam sessions, raucous laughter at 3am and the ever so popular, dirt bike screaming through your neighborhood at all hours.

Suggestion: Purchase a crate of earplugs and learn to simply go with the flow.

Don’t think for a second that either the customers, or the bartender, will pay any attention to you if you stand patiently by the bar. You might as well plant an “ignore me” sign on your forehead, because that is exactly what’s going to happen. If you truly want service, use the hip checking principal you learned above, followed by a fervent arm raise, and a “Perdone!” Or simply shout out your order “Dos tintos por favor!” This is both expected and acceptable, except if someone is clearly ahead of you in turn to order. Politeness is a relative term in Spain, because with every act of politeness is conjoined with an act of assertiveness. Use “please” and “thank you” accordingly, but don’t let yourself be a wallflower. Because wallflowers won’t get a delicious tapa or a cold and refreshing glass of cava.

Suggestion: Bring a blow horn on your tapas tour, or simply shimmy up the bar and signal the bartender with your hand, but be ready to order to minute they give you their full attention.

Technically, for every crosswalk, or zebra crossing, without a light, the pedestrian has the right of way. In Spain, this is taken very seriously, and it is a courtesy I really appreciate. However, don’t assume that people will stop for you. I have seen my fair share of accidents, some of which have been deadly. So rather than ruin your vacation with a hospital visit (something I pride myself in achieving on every trip), step out into the crosswalk to prove you are serious about crossing, but wait until the car has slowed down before doing so.

Suggestion: Dress in day glow yellow, or wait until cars slow down before attempting a crosswalk.

Spaniards are fantastic at many things, but directions are not their forte. If you ever decide to rent a car, understand that you will get lost in your journey many, many, many times. Signs are typically confusing, streets poorly marked (or not marked at all), and driving is more gut related than associated to logic. Spain has incredible public transportation as it is, and if you’re considering a cross-country adventure, take the train! Granted, it’s not the cheapest route, but it’s absolutely the most enjoyable and least stressful. Additionally, grab a free map from Corte Ingles. These maps are by far the most helpful and descriptive ones you’ll find. Additionally, there are huge discounts on train fares on the Renfe web page for a 14 day or 7 day advance purchase, as well as for 24 hour (last minute) travel on the AVE. Sometimes reductions can go up to 70% !! And when booking, keep note that the higher of the two prices is the equivalent to 1st class called, preferente. Personally, I would go with the “turista” class, which not only gives you an excuse to walk 40 feet to the dining car, rather than getting personal service, but it also allows for some great conversations with your seat mates. As your normal “tourist class” attracts people from around the world, why not take advantage of the moment, and strike up a conversation.

Suggestion: Take the high speed train called, AVE. And if you do rent a car, DO NOT use Pepe Car (word of caution)

First off, look for a traditional bar or restaurant. The last thing you want to experience is a bland and sterile tapas chain. Go for the mom and pop places that will offer you home cooked meals at a reasonable price. Secondly, go for the “menu del dia”. These menus, typically listed on a board outside the front door, normally provide you with a choice of your first and second course followed by a dessert or beverage. These are generally traditional meals that are fantastic for the price. Things to avoid: if you see any photos of a paella or pizza displayed on a board outside the restaurant, run!

Suggestion: With the current economic crisis, you can find a “menu of the day” for as cheap as 6 euros. Not a bad deal for what you’ll get!

A few years ago, Spain passed a pathetic law requiring non-smoking sections in restaurants bigger than 100m sq. Unfortunately, that takes up approximately .00008% of all restaurants in Spain. And even those restaurants larger than 100m sq. rarely follow the rule, although this is slowly changing. Therefore, your choices are either to find outdoor cafes, for which there are many, or simply take up smoking now, because trust me, it’s everywhere. Check out non-smoking restaurants here.

Suggestion: Take to the streets and enjoy the many terraces in Spain, or ask for non-smoking. Although true “non-smoking” doesn’t exist yet (said to be occurring this year), it’s the best you’ll find.

So there you have it! From my short 4 years living in Spain, this list is a compilation of the nitty griddy as I see it. However, life is subjective, and I am always open to feedback, suggestions, comments as you’ve experienced it. So please, share your story of traveling Spain!!!


Gabriella Opaz

  • Piet

    Hola Gabriella,Yeah 100% non-smoking places are really hard to come by. We have very few listed on Eat In Valencia, but found an important enough issue to place in its own category.Your advice to go out in the streets and enjoy the terraces is indeed the best alternative!Piet

  • José Eduardo

    Thanks for confirming my suspicious about the bathroom lights…. and TP and street crossing. Thank God the 1st EWBC was at Logroño. But I can't wait to go back there with a bit more time to really explore Rioja.All the best,Jose Eduardo

  • Gabriella, regarding the smoking law, these are the figures to bear in mind – the “double 97”. In the 100 square metre plus category, 97% of all eating and drinking establishments in Spain are BELOW this threshold. The legislators knew this when they passed this moronic law. So only 3% need to comply with the rule that a third of the space must be reserved for non-smokers (the fact that not all do is another matter). The other “97” is that 97% of the places under 100 square metres have chosen NOT to ban smoking (something the legislators anticipated as well). With the consequence that 97% of 97% of all eating and drinking places in Spain (that's just over 94% of ALL places) allow smoking. The other six percent are unreliable. Good luck.

  • Justin

    Excellent post Gabriella!BTW. A mobile phone with a bright screen can come in handy in the bathroom when the timer light trips off…Yes, and definitely take care at those pedestrian crossings!

  • santos6

    Gabriella,Thanks for these tips,hopefully I will be able to use them this September, the only thing I am not set on is the do not rent a car bit. I think I want to drive. Thanks again great post.Steve

  • Hey Steve – I would never deter you from renting a car, my only suggestion is to:1. rent from a reputable company2. get a really good map Otherwise, explore to your heart's content!!!

  • santos6

    This may sound over the top but I am thinking of taking GPS! I really enjoy driving and doing things on my own schedule, that's the main reasons for the car.

  • Alex

    Amazing post!!!! I have been in Spain many times I have family and friends who are living there, a lot of things that you wrote, bring me back memories from my trips there, the thing about sidewalks and the noise are so true :-)It is always a pleasure to read your posts

  • All of this is so true! I had to laugh out loud on TP and getting plowed down ones. The latter is something I dread every day of my life here in Barcelona!

  • Andrea

    I loved this article Gabriella, many things are almost exactly the same here in Portugal!!! Especially the bathroom and crossing the street hahahaha it took me almost a year to remember where the bathroom lightswitch was located! :p I have to say though, that as far service goes, I feel that the Portuguese are friendlier to people in general for the most part, but there are always some very bad places/people mixed in unfortunately!You know I do recall having to plow my way through some Spanish tourists here one time when they were completely blocking the sidewalk waiting in line for the Santa Justa Elevator……boy were they mad at me hahahahaha 😀 And never ever trust little old ladies here in Iberia, that's how my purse got stolen right under my nose! Janelle can tell you about that one also!

  • Hey Gabriella, this is a really great top ten list, very well written. I like your sidewalk rules the best, it really hit home after having to deal with the situation, my advice is just to find a less crowded street because you're not getting through. You can post this to our site and then link back to your site. We are looking for top ten lists and our users can track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

  • Steve – the post just published today should be the perfect reference for your trip then 😉

  • Thanks so much Alex for your kind remarks! These posts are simply fun to write, and are wonderful reminders as to why I love traveling – the stories 🙂

  • scrich

    Looks like Irak is safer than Spain. This post is not serious at all.

  • santos6

    It is really good as was this one. I have already assigned my fiancee as the TP carrier and the battering ram since generally I am too polite!

  • oso

    Thanks for the info!

  • I've meditated on the sidewalk aspect for a long time and as far as I can fathom is comes down to the following…In the local mentality, why should they move? In the local thinking, they have as much right as you do to the sidewalk/pavement, so why shouldn't you be the one to move?Seen from an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint this seems downright rude, but is it?As for the siesta…well…I fall somewhere halfway between 30 and 40, work a fulltime job here and couldn't fathom the day without my little pickmeup siesta. Sure, I live far away from the so-called centres of culture here in Spain, but if it means missing my siesta…so be it.

  • kahlia

    These tips are right on, actually. It would appear, scrich, that you've never seen Spain through the eyes of someone who wasn't born here. Each of these tips is something that is honestly shocking at first to an American or an English person who comes here. (Ya te digo, como una norteamericana a punto de casarse con un hombre español, hay cosas que me han sorprendido tanto al principio, pero que ya no me molestan.) The author is not saying that Spain is not safe, just that it has a few quirks (peculiaridades)… and I agree completely. (Por cierto, no se dice “serious” para “serio” en contextos como este.)

  • Fin

    Hahaha! Thank you Gabrielle! I was looking for something amusing about Spain for my Spanish students, having done boring grammar all week, and this is perfect – gently teasing but also full of praise. Even my proud and patriotic alumnos will have to laugh! Excellent work, amiga.

    • How cool is that?! I'm elated that you were able to derive something useful from this post! And if you have any brilliant ideas of subjects you want us to cover, never hesitate to pipe up. We're always open inspiration 🙂