Sun, sea, and salted caramel in Guernsey

I spent the beginning of last week visiting my friend, Will, who lives in Guernsey. I was excited a) to see him now that he’s out of the exam hole and b) to go on what is my only holiday this summer. Always keen (as my blog title suggests) to visit new places, it didn’t take long for me to act upon Will’s offer of a visit and book flights.

I’d never been to the Channel Islands before but it turns out that there are flights to Guernsey available from East Midlands, our “local” airport. Note the quotation marks; it’s still a ninety-minute drive away from little old Normanby-by-Spital, but it did save me the hassle (and money) of going to Gatwick.

When I stepped off the aeroplane (which was so small that it looked to be powered by propellers), I could have been in Spain such was the temperature. My arrival very handily coincided with the hottest day of the year so far. The weather was glorious for the whole time I spent there and so I really did feel like I was on holiday.

Guernsey is very quaint: the streets are all fairly narrow (with a speed limit of 35mph) and there are a lot of brightly-coloured window boxes and hanging baskets (not that I’m complaining).There was also an inexplicably large amount of bunting. The sea views and the boats bobbing in the harbour are very picturesque; in essence, the whole island is reminiscent of a seaside town.

We spent the first day looking around the town (St Peter Port, Guernsey’s capital) and went to Herm, one of the other islands. Will’s dad had described a particular stretch of beach on Herm as “like the Mediterranean”, and it actually was. Pale sand, clear sea, excited children, the whole caboodle. It was also during the first day that I ate this beautiful salted caramel and banana crêpe:

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It was as fabulous as it looks.

The next day, we had a guided tour around Victor Hugo’s house. Hugo lived in Guernsey for 15 years during his partially self-imposed exile from France. The house itself was nothing other than a work of art, and the tour was probably the highlight of the trip for me. It was still boiling so we spent the afternoon relaxing on a beach. Of course, the whole island had had the same idea but we managed to find a clear bit of sand.

It was a really fun-filled trip (thanks a million, Will) and I would definitely recommend a visit to Guernsey if you’re looking for a destination that’s not too far away. Next step: to be able to point to the Channel Islands on a map…

I wrote an article for The Oxford Student about Guernsey. You can read it here.

Final thoughts and happenings

This post was written in two bits, mainly because I never got round to finishing it the first time round but then couldn’t bring myself to delete it and start again.

Written on Monday 20th June

I write this, (probably) my final blogpost concerning my year abroad, from the comfort of my bed in little old Normanby-by-Spital, the Lincolnshire village where my parents live. There’s nowhere quite like home, is there?

There’s not really a lot to say about my last few days in Santiago apart from that they happened.

Last Monday, I flew from Santiago to Madrid, where I spent a dreamy three days playing my favourite role: the tourist. I was really lucky with my hostel, Way, because it was by far the most sociable and friendly hostel I’ve ever stayed in. They offered paella and tapas nights a couple of times a week for not much money and there was an unexplained night of free sangria while I was there. The kitchen was huge and well-equipped and the bedrooms clean and spacious; check out the hostel’s website here.

The weather was glorious and particular highlights of my trip included seeing Velázquez’s Las Meninas in El Prado, one of Madrid’s art galleries, visiting the Royal Palace, and photographing as many streets named after Golden Age authors as I could.

Madrid was also absurdly cheap compared to other major European cities – or it at least seemed like that to me – and so I didn’t really end up spending much money. There was a Lidl just round the corner from the hostel which was great, and a lot of the museums and galleries I visited were free for students.

I flew from Madrid to Stansted and I can safely say that it was one of the worst flight experiences of my life. I am not a hard-to-please customer. But Ryanair really excelled themselves this time. I should have known that it was going to be hellish when they tried to charge me €90 for overweight baggage – which still only weighed 24kg. Yeah. In the end, I paid €35 to put my rucksack in as an extra checked bag instead. I was extremely happy to get off the plane a few hours later, having spent the whole of the flight secretly seething.

The couple of days I spent in Oxford were fabulous: on Friday, New College had its last Guest Night (meaning a black tie dinner in the dining hall) of the year followed by a bop (college-exclusive party) and it was the best night out that I’ve had in a very long time.

Written on Friday 1st July

I’ve now been back in the UK for more than two weeks, and it feels strange to think that I was ever abroad at all. I’ll try to continue with this post by carrying on from where I left off.

Yes, Guest Night: we danced and chatted all night and it was basically the best night ever. The photo is of me (second from the left) with my best gal pals. Needless to say, given that the birds were starting to sing by the time we went to bed, the next day was pretty much written off.

The next week passed quietly by. I came home on the Sunday because my brother and I met in London to see The Lion King at the theatre and then came home together on the train. I bought us the tickets as his 18th birthday present back in March and we weren’t even slightly disappointed by the production. Every aspect of it – the costumes, the dancing, the songs, the set – was fantastic, and I felt a bit like we’d reverted back to our 3- and 6-year-old selves. The rest of the week was spent sleeping, seeing my grandparents, sleeping, and dog walking. Thrilling stuff. The highlight of the week was going to our village’s pub quiz with my parents and two of their friends.

Then, on Saturday, I went back to Oxford (I honestly think that I’m singlehandedly keeping National Rail going) for New College (my Oxford college) Commemoration Ball. I’m going to write a separate post about this at some point, but here’s a quick summary: an opulent night full of food, drink, and dancing held in the college grounds.

And now I’m back at home for the whole of July. I’ve got an essay to write but that’s about it as far as plans go. August and September are pretty full with work experience at various newspapers and magazines in Lincoln and London and I’ll be heading back to Oxford for fourth year at the beginning of October. Scary stuff.

As I’ve said before, there is a massive build-up to going on a year abroad, and this just makes the sense of anticlimax when it’s over all the more palpable. No doubt that I’ll look back at the past year over the course of my life and regard it as one of the most formative, but at the moment I’m just enjoying being at home (even though the UK is currently going through a period of immense political turmoil and uncertainty – thanks, Boris). Having days filled with doing absolutely nothing apart from the odd dog walk is definitely underrated.

The Costa del Sol’s got nothing on this…

After two failed attempts, yesterday was the day that I finally made it to las Islas Cíes, a gem off the coast of Galicia and home of the world’s best beach, according to this article in The Guardian.

I had a friend from school visiting for the weekend and, seeing as one day is more than enough time to see the whole of Santiago, going for a day trip (with somebody else!!!!!!) seemed like a very good idea. Having been told by several people that las Cíes are nothing less than paradisiacal and also being aware that, with only two proper weekends left until leaving, it was probably now or never, I booked the tickets last week.

The Cíes are made up of three islands: Monteagudo (“Sharp Mount” or North Island), do Faro (“Lighthouse Island”, or Isla do Medio, “Middle Island”) and San Martiño (“Saint Martin” or South Island). The islands are a nature reserve and also part of Galicia’s national park; rules aiming to protect the islands’ nature are strict and, judging by how untouched they are, seem to work. Additionally, the number of visitors is capped at 2,200 per day. Ferries run to and from Vigo, a city in mainland Galicia, several times a day, and tickets are a bargain, costing as little as €10 for a return.

In short, the islands were a dream. The weather could not have been better – the evidence being my quite badly sunburnt ear and, bizarrely, foot – and the seascapes offered by the various viewpoints on the islands were second-to-none. There are several hiking routes of which we did two, both of which led to lighthouses.

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Playa de Rodas, the one specified by The Guardian, connects two of the islands and is a vast stretch of almost white sand bordering crystal clear water. After the first of our hikes, a lot of which was uphill, we spent a good couple of hours reposing at our leisure on aforementioned sand. There are nine beaches in total across the three islands. We visited one other, but the tide was so far in that we couldn’t actually venture onto the sand. Playa de Rodas was more than enough. I am hardly a seasoned beachgoer; the only other beach that I’ve visited that comes close to las Islas Cíes is Zlatni Rat on the island of Bol, in Croatia. The latter’s downfall is the number of tourists it attracts. When I went last summer, we struggled to find a spot on the sand; yesterday, the choice was almost too much.

Before getting the ferry back to Vigo, we had a drink in one of the beaches only bars. I’d been warned that it was expensive, and €2 for a bottle of agua con gas did sting a bit. From Vigo, we took the train back to Santiago, and arrived feeling very relaxed and, in my case, very happy not to have missed it during my time in Galicia.

I’m now asking myself why this hidden gem is quite as hidden as it is. I’d never even heard of it before coming to Galicia, and I’ve got no idea whether or not the islands are well-known outside of the region. I’m inclined to think that they’re not, and I feel like the whole of Spain is missing out on something great. Equally, an influx of tourists would inevitably lead to the steady decline and ultimate destruction of the islands, which would be a tragedy. These beautiful little islands are a real Spanish treasure, and, although I’m judging from my somewhat limited experience of the world’s beaches, I very much agree with The Guardian’s assessment of Playa de Rodas.

Polly the potential pilgrim

Before I arrived here in Santiago, when they found out that I was coming here, people would often ask whether I was planning to walk any of the famous camino de Santiago. I would laugh nervously, slightly ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about the camino, and mumble a vague reply. It’s only since arriving here that I’ve realised just how big of a deal the pilgrimage trail is.

Camino de Santiago can refer to any of the routes that finish at the city’s Cathedral, supposedly the home of the remains of apostle St. James the Great. The tomb was discovered in around the year 800AD, and pilgrims have been completing the trails pretty much constantly ever since. Popular starting points include Lisbon, Porto, Arles, and Le Puy; along the way are cheap boarding houses, known as albergues, where walkers can settle down for the night for as little as €5. Traditionally, of course, spiritual enlightenment was the desired outcome; nowadays, tourists keen to say that they’ve done the camino seem to be the order of the day, and the number of pilgrims welcomed by the city rises year on year.

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Image taken from Wikipedia

Being the destination of so many pilgrims, Santiago might as well have a license to print money: the zona vieja is crammed full of souvenir shops and the bars and restaurants must make a killing from all of the appetites worked up by walking.

I’m writing about this now because I transformed my room into an albergue (free, of course) over the weekend for a friend. I met Katie in France when she very bravely signed up to come to the château to work as an animatrice during the October stage. We didn’t get to know one another that well then, but year abroad friends are friends for life, and so when Matt told me that she was walking the camino from Porto I was very swift to message her offering up my bedroom floor. She accepted (because who turns down free accommodation, really?) and arrived in Santiago on Saturday after ten days of walking. We went to midday Pilgrim’s Mass and she introduced me to some of the friends she’d made along the way. We had the most fun-filled weekend ever, during the course of which we discovered that we have a scary amount of things in common. Highlights included numerous positive affirmations (Katie, if you’re reading this, remember that you don’t owe him anything), tinto de verano, octopus (which, despite being unwilling to try, Katie loved), and many hot drinks.

And it was clear that she’d had an absolute ball during the walk. She’d met a lot of interesting people from all over the world – most of whom we went for dinner with on Saturday night – and had spent a lot of time reflecting. She’s inspired me to seriously consider doing a bit of the camino before leaving Spain. I’m not religious at all, but I do enjoy a good walk and I would definitely be very glad to have done it. From Santiago, there’s a route to Finisterre encompassing 90km and three days (at least) of walking; I could do it from Friday to Sunday. Check back for more updates on this probably overly spontaneous, still-to-be properly thought-through plan.

This weekend, one of my closest school friends is coming to stay, and I’m hoping that the weather forecast (which is looking good at the moment) will stay positive enough for us to go to the Islas Cíes for a day. After two false starts, I might finally make it to this mystical paradise. I’ll be sure to let you know.

Blink and you’ll miss it

In five weeks’ time, I’ll have left Santiago and arrived in Madrid. When I was in Granada, I spontaneously booked flights and a hostel for a three-day trip to the capital…alone. It seemed like a great idea at the time. From there, I’m flying back to the UK, and then that’ll be it. It’ll all be over. As my friend, Ella, said recently, “we are so nearly there”. (You can check her year abroad blog here. It’s great and far less rambly than mine.)

It’s a strange thing, year abroad. It is preceded by a build-up spanning, literally, years: everyone who considers studying languages at a UK university knows that the course includes an obligatory year abroad. So potential applicants tend to be aware of its existence at least two years before starting university, which is two years more before actually having to go abroad. Potentially four years of preparation.

Then, in first year, tutors will occasionally mention it, often by way of reassuring students that the year abroad is the time when their spoken language will really come into its own (which, judging by my experience, is the truth). As a first year, you’re blissfully aware that you’ve still got a whole year to think about it before actually having to go. Getting into the swing of student life takes priority.

Then, before you know it, it’s the start of second year and there’s suddenly not that long to go. The faculty starts to host language-specific talks; emails advertising internship opportunities come fast and furious; deadlines start to fly by. The people who decide to do British Council (working as a Teaching Assistant) have it relatively easy in terms of organisation: they fill in one form and, to an extent, they’re sorted. I suspected that British Council wouldn’t be for me; having worked with children in France, I can confirm that my suspicions were correct. Don’t quote me on this, but I would guess that roughly 50% (?) of Oxford students decide to do a British Council placement. For those who study abroad, the university has a fixed number of places available at certain European universities (including Salamanca, SciencesPo, and the Sorbonne); alternatively, you can choose to sort yourself out with a different university. I don’t really know a whole lot about either of these options as studying wasn’t something I ever considered.

In terms of arranging a work placement, a lack of fussiness helps. I knew I wanted to work but I wasn’t really sure about the specifics. I was just keen to get something organised. I saw the advert for Langue & Nature, thought it sounded fine, and applied for it. I was told that my application had been successful in January, and that was the first six months of the year sorted. Sighs of relief all round.

August rolled round and that was it: I was off. I don’t want to use the word “anticlimax” because it wasn’t at all, but I can’t think of an alternative for describing the realisation that, after so much preparation, this was it. I was doing my year abroad.

Because of how things worked out (my family has been dealing with a difficult, unexpected situation for the past few months), I ended up organising the Spanish half of my year abroad when I was in France. To be honest, knowing what I do now about the Spanish lack of urgency, it would have been a miracle if I’d been able to organise anything before then. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I found the Granada hostel through Workaway; I then found ESN Santiago through a website called Erasmus Intern. I would really recommend both websites; with hindsight, the former is definitely better suited to people wanting an excuse/reason to travel than it is to year abroad purposes, but the latter is perfect for students looking for work placements.

By the time I got to Spain, I was almost 2/3 of the way through because I’d only managed to organise 14 weeks for Spanish in comparison to 24 in France. That’s 38 weeks in total (A-Level Maths right there) of which four weeks remain. How?! This year, with all the build-up and preparation, is almost over. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time at all, but it’s still difficult to believe just how quickly it’s gone by. In a few short months I’ll be back in Oxford attempting to tackle finals. In all the rhetoric surrounding year abroad, people have a habit of skimming over the fact that you have to go back and sit what are probably the hardest exams you’ll ever do…and all after a year of (and I think I speak for most people when I say this) doing very little academic work.

This post has turned out to be a bit longer than I was expecting, so I’ll leave it there. There’s not really a lot more to say in terms of updates. Saturday’s trip to the Islas Cíes was rescheduled, as predicted, due to bad weather, and I can’t go on the new date which is a very sad state of affairs. Instead, I went to A Coruña for the day for some sightseeing which was cool. I also ate some great octopus but sadly didn’t get a picture.

A friend I made in France is currently hiking the camino de Santiago and is due to arrive on Saturday so I’ll be spending the coming weekend with her which should be fun. There are few things I enjoy more than playing the tour guide. Having visitors is also a great excuse to go out for dinner. Although, what with spending so much time alone, I’m finding that I don’t really need much of an excuse to do that anyway. Whoops.

Pals, port, and pastéis de nata in Porto

With six weeks to go, restlessness is starting to set in. Actually, it’s not starting at all; it’s simply reaching previously unseen levels. I am counting the days down more avidly than I did even during those last weeks in France. I am quite literally wishing my life away, but I can’t help it. Equally, I can’t believe it’s over: I look at photos from last summer and marvel at how long ago that was and at how much has happened since then.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings. I know that the time will fly; I’ll soon be touching down at Stansted whilst asking myself where the past ten months have gone.

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the weekend in Porto with Matt. It was glorious.

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Look. Glorious.

Matt took full advantage of my visit to go into full-blown tourist mode himself: he’d pre-planned a route for the first afternoon which we started almost as soon as I arrived. Not that I was complaining after having been sat on a bus for the previous four hours. I won’t bore you by going into detail, but that first afternoon included a visit to a huge park from which one can take in the wonderful view pictured above (“the best view in Porto”, apparently), walking past the library that inspired J.K. Rowling (which was, sadly, almost totally obscured by scaffolding), and wandering down through the city’s narrow streets to the port. Then, in the evening, we went out for some (very) well-earned burgers, and I had what was possibly the best veggie patty I’ve ever eaten. Let me tell you, the hunt for a decent veggie burger never ends. We washed it down with a large jug of sangria. More sangria followed in a bar with some of Matt’s friends and I was the most drunk I’ve been in quite a while. Whoops.

The next day, we were up relatively bright, early, and hangover-free and, mercifully, the sun was shining. In terms of the weather, I could not have chosen a better weekend to visit. Granted, the wind at the beach, which we visited in the morning, was bracing – as, I suppose, is to be expected from a beach popular with surfers – but it was worth it for the sea views and expanses of golden sand.

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Then, after having lunch at a snack bar (where I got a lush salad for €4.50, what a win!) we headed down to the riverfront for what may have been my favourite part of the weekend: port wine tasting. I didn’t realise this, but apparently fortified wines labelled as “port” or “Porto” has to be produced exclusively in Portugal’s Douro Valley. We tried a tawny wine – maybe the equivalent of rosé in the world of normal wine? – and it was delicious. The chocolates that were served with it were the icing on an already very well-made cake.

That evening, we met up with some of Matt’s friends (who were lovely) and headed to one of the city’s main squares. Midnight marked the beginning of Queima das Fitas (literally “Burning of the Ribbons”, but basically an “academic” week of partying preceding the beginning of the last exam period of the year) and, as such, there was a concert (of sorts) put on by the students. It was, in a word, bizarre. The music was all fado, which is the name for a type of Portuguese music known for being melancholic and not the easiest to dance to. All of the students were dressed in suits and wrapped in long cloaks (Matt has christened them “the Harry Potters”) but I still can’t give a decent explanation as to why. From what I understand, many Portuguese universities have a tradition called praxe (pronounced “prash”) which seems to involve little more than humiliating new students and forcing them to join in. Basically, a relation of the Bullingdon Club’s seems to be fairly prolific across the whole of Portugal. But maybe I misunderstood.

The next morning, I was sad to leave but very, very happy to have visited. Porto is a great, vibrant city and it would have been a wasted opportunity not to go now that Matt’s there. On my way to the bus station, I stopped at a bakery to buy something that I’d been told not to miss by several people: pastéis de nata. Basically a custard tart, but so much better than a custard tart.

Pasteis de Nata

Image taken from Wikipedia

I bought some for my housemates too and we ate them together that evening. Sprinkled with cinnamon, they were divine, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t usually a fan of pastry-based baked goods.

So now I’m back in Santiago and the sun, miraculously, is shining here as well! This evening, I’m going to the language exchange that I go to every week: it’s really good for meeting people and, seeing as it’s an ESN event, it would be borderline rude not to go. And, this Saturday, I’m supposed to be going on a day trip to the Islas Cíes, once named as the world’s best beach by The Guardian, but it’s supposed to rain so it might well be postponed.

Six weeks left of my glorified gap year. Six weeks is nothing compared to the number of weeks that are already behind me. I can do this.

The swings and roundabouts of Spain

Suffice to say that it’s been an uneventful couple of weeks here in Santiago. I’ve got very little news for my fans (meaning my parents and approximately three friends who actually bother to read my blog) so, instead, I thought I’d write a post similar to this one that I wrote when I was in France (for which, by the way, I am growing more nostalgic by the day…). Here is a list of a few of Spain’s quirks that I’ve found especially noticeable.

  1. Fast? Pero qué significa? I was warned that the Spanish couldn’t do anything fast or on time, but I’m not sure that I quite realised the extent to which this, ahem, cultural foible seeps into every aspect of la vida española. Going to an event that’s scheduled to start at 9:00? Don’t bother turning up much before 10:30. Need to get somewhere fast? Then best leave plenty of time if you’re going by foot because no doubt you’ll get stuck behind someone who is walking excruciatingly slowly and is apparently oblivious to the fact that tienes prisa but can’t get past them because they’re taking up the whole of the very narrow pavement. I get more annoyed by this total lack of urgency than I should: I’ve been conditioned to expect everything to start more or less on time and, when it doesn’t, it disconcerts me. Flexibility – something that I readily admit to often lacking – is necessary, but reminding yourself that all this waiting around feeling like time is being wasted is good for personal growth isn’t awfully helpful when you’re trying to speed-walk past a couple linking arms and blocking the pavement.
  2. The day starts about four hours late. Everything about the day in Spain is delayed by about four hours to what I’m used to. For example, my flatmates usually get up at about 10.30am, eat lunch at some time between 3pm and 4pm, have a siesta (yep, Spanish people actually do this), and go to bed at 2am. At least, I think 2am is accurate, but I wouldn’t swear to it because I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve still been up at midnight since arriving in Santiago. Nights out don’t really get going before about 1.30am, as I found out on Friday when I went out for my first, and quite possibly last, time in Spain. The British custom of starting pre-drinks at 8pm would be a fatal error. I find this relaxed approach to tackling the day quite cool but, unfortunately, am far too used to early mornings and fond of early nights to be able to adapt to it in three short months. Something for the future, maybe.
  3. Living expenses are, comparatively, so low. Certain things in France – wine, mainly – made me balk at UK prices, but Spain is on a different level. Obviously, as an unpaid intern, this is a huge advantage for me. My rent and bills comes out at around €200 per month; my best friends in Oxford pay £85 a week. Food is inexpensive, both at the supermarket and in restaurants. Bizarrely, I’ve managed to spend the entire second part of my year abroad in two of Spain’s only cities where most bars offer free tapas with every drink – and we’re not talking peanuts and olives here. Think generous slices of tortilla and chunks of local cheese on fresh bread. To my delight, I recently found a cafe that does takeaway coffee for €0.80.  The size of Santiago means that I can walk everywhere, thus meaning that I don’t really spend any money on transport. In summary, whilst I’m not earning any money, I’m also not spending a whole lot of it either. However, I am in the process of preparing myself for the shock of returning to the prices of the UK (which are, I now realise, extortionate by any standard).
  4. “Pero hablas bien español!” Refreshingly, the Spanish, unlike the French, do make a considerable effort to understand non-native speakers’ attempts to speak Spanish without immediately switching to English upon detecting the accent. Much to my amazement, people compliment me on my Spanish on a fairly regular basis – something that happened very rarely in France, even during my final few weeks there. Of course, I remain convinced that my ability to string a sentence together alludes me at least 50% of the time, but it’s still a relief to be understood. There was a particularly embarrassing exception to this last week: I repeated the word cortado (basically a macchiato) about ten times before being understood. Needless to say, I have not been back to that cafe since.
  5. Everyone does an Erasmus exchange. Okay, not literally everyone, but it is fair to say that I’ve met far more Spanish people who have been abroad as part of their degree than I have Brits. In fact, studying abroad is something that seems to be far more accessible for students, regardless of their degree subject, in many European countries than it is for us. There are so many things to be learnt from spending time abroad as a student, and it seems a shame that the majority of students in the UK are never presented with the opportunity.

Despite sharing a border, France and Spain are, in some ways, starkly different. I’m very glad that I’ve been able to spend a decent amount of time in each of the two countries – language skills aside, living abroad is an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.

Speaking of France, tomorrow I’m leaving Santiago for the weekend to go to Porto to visit Matt. I’ve never been to Portugal and I’m pretty excited. As a reminder of the (many, many) hours we spent together at the château, here are some lovely photos of my fun-lovin’ co-intern (he’s probably not reading this)…

I’ll write next week about what I get up to in Porto; until then, adios amigos!