Monday, 29 September 2014

I've moved: You can now find me at Oh hello, Spain

I won't be updating this blog after September 2014, so come over to the new address Oh hello, Spain.

After almost 5 years blogging at Tales of a Brit Abroad, I decided it was time for a name change.

What seemed like a reasonable name to me one night when I decided to create a blog out of boredom no longer feels like such a good idea now. Although I'm still fond of Tales of a Brit Abroad, and anyone who knows me will understand my sense of 'humour' in it, it's not the most catchy title – or the most professional.

After much consideration of the pros and cons of changing names and moving blog addresses, I decided to go for it. I've come up with something a bit more neutral that reflects the fact that my blog is about Spain, and is general enough to cover the different kinds of posts I share here.

 So, from now on you'll be able to find me at Oh hello, Spain. All the content from Tales of a Brit Abroad is still there, and the style of posts will remain the same: all that's changing is the name and address. I've also updated all my social media handles to @ohhellospain, so if you were following me on Twitter or Instagram, you still are. I'll also be transferring across my email subscriptions too, so if you're currently subscribed, you still will be. 

I'd like to take this opportunity to say thanks to my readers for all the support over the last few years. It's much appreciated, and hearing your responses and interacting with you is definitely one of the best parts of blogging. I hope you'll continue reading over at Oh hello, Spain – here's to another (almost) 5 years!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sunday stroll: Parc del Laberint d'Horta, Barcelona

I've moved! Come on over & read this post over on my new blog Oh hello, Spain.
You can also check out my new posts while you're there.

Probably because of the lack of Gaudi link, Parc del Laberint d'Horta isn't on most visitors' Barcelona itineraries. Located above the city in the well-heeled Horta-Guinardó neighbourhood, this park is a pretty diverse place, with both formal gardens and wilder areas with streams and waterfalls. Oh, and the 'labyrinth' in the name: a maze.

Parc del Laberint's formal gardens. The blur's from Instagram, not my shaky hand.

Entry is free on Sunday, making it the perfect day to head out of the centre and get your greenery fix. Admittedly you'll have to share that maze with plenty of over-excited children (and marginally less excited adults), but as the park covers 9 hectares, you're bound to find a relatively peaceful area. The Parc del Laberint is Barcelona's oldest garden, originally designed in 1792 by an Italian engineer (who presumably also had green fingers).

The contrast between the classical, formal gardens and the rambling forest is the Parc del Laberint's strong point. After strolling and admiring the neatly-ordered shrubberies and manoeuvred your way out of the maze (not that difficult, don't worry), you can wander into the woodland. With sculptures hidden away like surprises, it's far from being your average walk in the woods.

Afterwards, if you're travelling by car, head up to the mirador above Horta for some incredible views over the city and up to Tibidabo.

View from the mirador above Horta

The details
Parc del Laberint d'Horta is open daily from 10amdusk. Closed during November.
General admission: €2.23. Free on Sundays.
Metro: Mundet.

And now for the announcement!
So this will most likely be one of the last posts you read at Tales of a Brit Abroad. Don't worry, I'm not giving up on the blog: I'm just moving over to a new name and address. After almost 5 years, I feel it's time for a change and I need a name that's more Spain-related (and a bit more professional-sounding!). Nothing will change content-wise, you'll still be able to read the same mix of expat life posts, Madrid recommendations and travel posts: just at a different address. Over the next few days I'll be changing my social media handles (if you're already following me, you still will be  just at a different name) and transferring over to the new blog. When it's all up and running I'll post the link here. I'd love you to come on over and join me at the new address! 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Expat issues: How to open a bank account in Spain

I've moved! Come on over & read this post over on my new blog Oh hello, Spain.
You can also check out my new posts while you're there.

After you arrive in Spain, one of the first things you’ll need to do is open a bank account. To open an account as a resident, you need a NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjeros, or national identity number for foreigners). I had hoped to write my second expat issues post on how to get a NIE, but on further investigation, it seems like in the ten years since I got mine the process has changed a bit, and whether or not you need to make an appointment to get one varies from area to area.  I suggest you read the information here which explains the process of form-filling and obtaining this vital number from your local Oficina de Extranjeros. Getting a NIE should be your first brush with Spanish bureaucracy, as it’s needed for most official transactions, such as registering with a doctor, working legally and of course, opening a bank account.

I don't think that man bag's big enough for your special documentation folder, is it

Choosing your bank

The best way to open an account in Spain is to go to your chosen bank in person. But before you just casually wander in off the street, do a bit of research: not all banks are created equally. Although a few UK banks now offer premium accounts with a monthly charge for perks like travel insurance, many Spanish banks charge their customers for basic transactions. You can pay an annual fee for having a debit card, you can pay to transfer money to another account, and you may even have to pay to cash a cheque into your own account. For this reason, it’s important to look into what comisiones different banks charge. A number of them (Santander, La Caixa, BBVA) waive fees if you pay your monthly nómina (wage) into the account. Ing Direct also offers a Cuenta sin Nómina which is charge-free, and I’ve heard good reports about their Cuenta Nómina too. Be careful to read the small print and be sure about the lack of commission before you sign up: sometimes these offers apply to online only accounts, so if branch access is important to you, shop around. Santander’s standard nómina account is commission-free and lets you transfer money back to the UK free of charge too. 

No matter which bank you choose though, there’s a charge you’re unlikely to avoid. Most high-street banks charge customers to withdraw money from another bank’s cashpoints. There are 3 groups of banks, Servired, 4B and Euro6000. If you withdraw money from another bank in that group, it costs less than if you were to withdraw from a bank outside your group, but unless you bank with relatively rare Citibank, Evo Banco or Arquia (I don’t recall ever seeing a branch of the latter 2), you need to make sure you know key cashpoints around your town. Spain could learn a lot from the Link system, let me tell you (and my British friends who’ve been dragged round Madrid in search of my bank would definitely agree).

Opening your account

So, now you’ve chosen your bank, go armed with all the paperwork you possibly need (and more). Take your passport, NIE and work and rental contracts if you have them. But don’t just go into any old branch: make sure you go into one that’s going to be convenient for you, for example close to your home or office. Certain transactions (such as setting up a regular payment or closing an account) can only be done in your branch, so take that into consideration. You’ll need to queue up and let the cashier know that you want to open an account (abrir una cuenta), at which point, if you’re lucky, he or she will transform from a snarling harridan into a smooth charmer and indicate that you go and talk to their colleague at a mesa. The process of opening an account involves a lot of signing and photocopying, but is very straightforward. Also ask if they can set up your internet banking access while you’re there: sometimes they can give you passwords in the branch rather than waiting for them to arrive by post. They will inevitably attempt to also sell you various types of insurance, but that aside, make the most of these moments: they'll be your best experience of Spanish banking. Oh, apart from when I opened my first ever account way back in 2004 and the advisor was surreptitiously smoking. Perhaps he thought I wasn't going to notice the odour, the plume of smoke curling around his head and the cigarette in his below-desk-level hand. I did. Sorry, Angel.

Banking in Spain
It’s once you’ve opened an account that the real fun begins. Banking shows Spanish bureaucracy at its worst. Unless you want to age dramatically or enjoy bitter arguments with strangers, I recommend that you do as much of your banking online as possible. I find every visit to the bank fraught with potential disaster. When you’ve actually got through the door (strangely challenging at Santander, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself), there will inevitably be a considerable queue. Once you’ve quien-es-la-ultima’d your way into it, be patient. Very patient. When you finally reach the front of the queue, watch the cashier’s demeanour change as he bids a cheery goodbye to María in front of you and sees your smiling little guiri face. Anything you want seems to be too complicated for the cashier, even if you have a) gone to your branch and b) turned up armed with your special file of every scrap of Spain-related documentation you have. Let’s take this example scenario.

‘Hello, buenas tardes, my card doesn’t work when I try to shop online. Please could you help?’
 ‘But it works?’
‘Well no, when I try to buy things online it doesn’t work [insert details of appropriate error messages here]'.
‘But you can withdraw money?’
Cashier shrugs. ‘Well I don’t know what to do about it. I suppose you could go and wait and talk to someone at a mesa’.
Crestfallen, you realize you only have ten minutes of your lunch break left and there are already three people in the mesa queue staring daggers at you. So you request a phone number to call instead. Cashier eventually scribbles down something barely decipherable. When you call it, the number doesn’t even exist.

This is, for me, an average banking experience. I've come to view it as par for the course. It's certainly nothing compared to the time I almost got thrown out of a bank.* So, if you take one thing away from this post, it should be the merits of online banking. Oh, and if someone mentions a firma electrónica: it’s not an electronic version of a signature as one might think; it’s what we guiris would call a password. There, I’ve saved you from another pointlessly frustrating conversation.

As you may have gathered, banking is my bureaucracy nemesis. What are your best (or erm, worst) stories about banking in Spain?

*I am ever so slightly prone to exaggeration. After a tense stand-off in which I was made to go home to get my NIE, a piece of paper which can’t be used as identification, even though I had my passport, driving license and bank card, the situation escalated to the point where I was asked if I wanted to speak to the manager. I politely declined. That was the day I got my head round the firma electrónica and registered for online banking.

Photo from

Monday, 22 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Day trip to Manzanares el Real

I've moved! Come on over & read this post over on my new blog Oh hello, Spain.
You can also check out my new posts while you're there.

The top day trips from Madrid are probably Segovia and Toledo, with good reason: they’re picturesque little cities, easily accessible by high-speed train and brimming with Instagram-worthy sights. But such popularity comes at a price – at weekends, they're often crammed with camera-toting tourists. So if you don't feel like adding to their number and fancy a weekend escape from the city crush, try Manzanares el Real instead.

The reservoir in Manzanares el Real, el Embalse de Santillana

Around 50 kilometres north of Madrid in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, Manzanares el Real is well-connected to the capital by bus. You can catch the 724 from Plaza Castilla once or twice an hour; the journey takes 45 minutes and the fare is €5.10. As the bus snakes its way into Manzanares, you'll see the the vast lake to the left, and the iconic castle to the right. Manzanares may be small, but it's definitely got enough to keep you entertained for the day.

The helpful tourist office can give you information on walks in the area, including a relatively easy one to up to the hillside chapel, the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Peña Sacra. If you're feeling more adventurous and visiting in summertime, you might fancy a trek up to La Charca Verde, where you can take a dip in natural pools. Manzanares is an ideal base or starting point for hikers, due to its proximity to La Pedriza: apparently the most interesting mountain in the area, if you're into that sort of thing. Think weird and wonderful rock formations, beautiful views – and a lot of thigh toning.

El Castillo de los Mendoza

If, like me, you'd rather limit your exertions to the town itself, Manzanares won't disappoint. The main sight is the medieval Castillo de los Mendoza, which dates back to 1475. The first batch of builders plundered stone from the town's existing castle, the now known as the Castillo Viejo, which has been reduced to little more than a wall. The Castillo de los Mendoza is in much better shape; it's one of the best-preserved castles in Spain, and began its life as a military fortress before becoming home to the noble Mendoza family. The palace-cum-fortress is open to visitors (€5), and you can explore its regal rooms, ramparts, courtyards and towers at your leisure. With views over the lake in one direction and out to the mountains on the other, you might have to become one of those camera-toting tourists after all.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Your Year Abroad: Ailish's Year Abroad in Granada, Spain

As it's now been a whole decade since I first moved to Spain on my year abroad, I thought it would be fun to start a series of posts on Tales of a Brit Abroad that focus on year abroad experiences and give practical advice. You may already know that in the UK, it's customary for those who study languages at university to spend the third year of their degree course in a country where the languages they're learning are spoken. As this was my experience, the Your Year Abroad series of posts will primarily focus on spending a year in Spain in this context, although many topics will be relevant to anyone moving here. Expect more expat issues posts, practical tips for making the most of your year abroad and some erm, more recent experiences than mine.

To start the series, I interviewed Ailish McVeigh, who spent the academic year 2013–14 in Spain.

So Ailish, tell us a bit about yourself  where are you from and what are you studying?

I’m from a small town in Yorkshire and go to uni in a small ‘city’ in Lancashire, although I'm not really sure Lancaster is quite big enough to call a city! I study English Literature and Spanish, so I'd been looking forward to my year abroad pretty much since the start of my A-levels.

Good choice of subjects – that's what I studied too! Where did you go on your year abroad and what did you do there?
I spent the entire year in Andalucía studying in the Filsofía y Letras faculty at the Universidad de Granada.

View over Granada

How did you find moving abroad for the first time? What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning?
I experienced every possible emotion the day I moved abroad; a big mixture of nerves and excitement, plus A LOT of tears. I’d worked in Spain for two months the previous summer, which definitely helped the separation element, but didn't really prepare me for everyday life there. One of the biggest challenges was actually finding the bus from Málaga to Granada when I arrived, as it just never appeared! Once that was dealt with, finding a house was very difficult, mainly due to the different culture of house hunting. Spanish people presumably think nothing of ringing up random numbers from adverts posted on the street corners, but for us Brits using websites like proved much more popular, as that's more similar to the way we look for accommodation back home.

 How did you find living in Granada?
I LOVED IT. It honestly couldn’t have been a better city to live in. I found it really authentically Spanish, there were picture-postcard views of the Alhambra and a massive Erasmus population. All these factors combined made the year so great. I couldn’t recommend going there enough, to live or just to visit. By the time I returned to Granada after Christmas, it already felt like I was going home.

Ailish and her new friends at the Holi Run in Santa Fe

Monday, 15 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Tapas at Celso y Manolo

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

I could probably order tapas at most bars in Madrid without needing to look at the menu. Without possessing any telepathic powers, I know it'll most likely feature pimientos de padrón, patatas bravas, jamón, queso, croquetas and tortilla de patatas.

Those of you reading from outside Spain are probably thinking, 'That sounds delicious! What's this moany English girl's problem?' Well, if you're a pescetarian, those Spanish staples become a bit boring after a while – you crave variety; foodstuffs that haven't been deep-fried.

Which is why Celso y Manolo is a bite of fresh produce, so to speak. This Chueca-based bar provides a wide range of innovative morsels and modern spins on those ever-present classics. With a menu the size of a page from a broadsheet newspaper (prepare to get arm-ache as you peruse), the trouble here won't be what can I eat, but what do I want when it all sounds so tempting?

Beef tomato: One of Celso y Manolo's vegetarian options

As one of the few recommendations from James Blick's top tapas bar feature for The Guardian I hadn't visited, I was keen to check out Celso y Manolo for myself. Arriving on a Friday evening around 9, Kim of Becoming Sevillana and I were lucky enough to snag a table before the hungry hordes (and sensible folk with a reservation) descended: booking is definitely advisable at weekends. The decor reflects the menu: the standard zinc-topped bar is a sleek marble number; those mournful glass-eyed bulls heads are replaced with wicker versions. Service was polite, friendly and multi-lingual, with guidance around the mega menu offered.

Divided into many sub-sections, you'll find all the Spanish goodies your palate desires on this menu. There's a focus on regional ingredients, so no matter whether your favourite dish is Andaluz or Catalan, Celso y Manolo is likely to have it covered. If ensaladilla (potato salad) is your thing, you'll get to choose between classic, with anchovies, with ventresca (tuna belly) or caviar; if you're hoping to taste some good paella in Madrid you'll get to choose from their arroces anárquicos featuring morcilla, churrasco and more. I was pleased to see a whole section devoted to Spanish tomatoes and another to cheese, while those for whom a tapas-fest wouldn't be complete without evidence that deep frying is alive and well will enjoy the 'fritos crujientes' selection, which includes rabas de calamar (squid) and croquetas de bacalao (given the Celso y Manolo spin with the addition of Málaga raisins, pine nuts and spinach). There's plenty of meat, too, with a choice of eco-friendly beef and lamb dishes, as well as a range of raciones featuring chorizo, morcilla and salchichón.

Prices for the various dishes average around the €8 mark, and portion sizes are around what I'd consider a media ración,  based on what we had: a tortilla de bacalao, a chuletón de tomate and a cheese board. The tortilla (€6.50) was fluffy,delicious and clearly cooked to order; the flavour of the salt cod adding an interestingly flavoursome note. Rather than the usual fried onions, Celso y Manolo's take on the classic omelette recipe uses caramelized ones, and also features leek and peppers. Our half beef tomato (€8) was stuffed with a creative selection of fruit and veg, including avocado, papaya and mango: the flavours combined well rather than fighting with the tomato taste. Our cheese board was an off-menu improvisation by the waiter, allowing us to try a bit of the 6 cheeses on the list: sheep's cheese, goat's cheese, cow's cheese, Idiazabal, Ossau Iraty and gruyère. All of this was washed down with a couple of glasses of wine: although they serve a big choice by the bottle, including a number of Madrid wines, the by the glass selection is a bit more limited.

With reasonable prices given the quality of the ingredients, efficient service and a good atmosphere, Celso y Manolo is the perfect modern take on the classic Spanish tapas bar.

The details
Celso y Manolo is at Calle Libertad 1 (metro Chueca).
Tel: 915 318 079
Open daily from 1–5pm & 7.30 pm–2am.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Sun, sand & stretching: Yoga & pilates in Morocco

Yoga and pilates retreat.

You're probably imagining crusty hippies wearing ill-fitting tie-dyed hemp, saluting the sun and enduring meagre meals in silence. (Or is that just me?)

Well, as it turns out, it doesn't have to be like that at all. A recent trip with My Escape turned out to be a hemp-free week of sunbathing, stretching and dining on delicious vegetarian food.

Knowing I've flirted with a bit of sun saluting myself in the past, a friend suggested we sign up for My Escape's yoga and pilates holiday to Morocco. Despite my reservations about holidaying with strangers, I was won over by the relaxed itinerary (one or two classes a day, plus optional day trips and activities including surfing and horse riding), the sound of the (seemingly abundant!) food  and the price. At just £600 for a week's accommodation in a beachfront Moroccan villa plus meals and classes, it sounded like a bargain. Especially because I was clearly going to return to Madrid looking like a toned goddess.

Holly & Ellie of My Escape

Run by Brighton-based Ellie Priest and Holly Cooper, My Escape offers yoga and pilates holidays at destinations around the globe, including Morocco and South Africa. Although yoga retreats are common, yoga and pilates holidays aren't: My Escape are one of the few companies that offer both complementary disciplines. The Moroccan retreat at Villa Mandala in surfers' paradise Taghazout, near Agadir, was their first foray into holidays, and has now been running for several years.

Villa Mandala

Arriving at Villa Mandala stressed and tired from an intense few months at work, I was ready to switch off and relax. But exactly how chilled would spending a week in close quarters with a group of unknowns turn out to be? We'd be sharing classes, meals and sunbathing time – surely someone used to their own space would feel crowded? Fortunately, Villa Mandala turned out to be a spacious place, with well-decorated bedrooms, cosy corners to curl up in with a book, a swimming pool and two terraces. As I was travelling with a friend, we shared a spacious ensuite bedroom with views of the Atlas Mountains. There were 17 guests in total; with those travelling solo paired up to share. I needn't have worried: not only were our instructors and fellow guests warm and friendly, Villa Mandala is large enough that you never feel crowded by others. And with a choice of beaches nearby and optional activities on offer every day, it was rare that we all found ourselves there together outside of class, breakfast and dinner (we had a packed lunch, which we often ate on the beach). We found that you could get involved as much or as little as you wanted, with no pressure.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Where to do sport in Madrid

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

If you're in Madrid for more than a few days, chances are that you might want to get some exercise. Whether you're looking for an easy way to get some exercise while you're on holiday or you're a Madrid resident wanting to take up a sporty new hobby, read on.

Madrid Rio: A great place to run or cycle

If you're wondering where to run in MadridEl Retiro Park and Madrid Rio are two good starting points. Both are central, easily accessible and scenic. The river bank is particularly flat if you're looking for an easy run. The Parque del Canal has a 1.25km running track, while Dehesa de la Villa in the north west has a wilder trail if you fancy a challenge. If you prefer to run in company, check out the free Nike+ Run Club, which departs two evenings a week from the Nike store on Gran Via and twice a week from the Calle Serrano branch.

If you're interested in races in Madrid, try the Carreras Populares site, which lists official events both in the capital and around the country. There are 10k races in the city and the surrounding Comunidad de Madrid most Sundays, with other distances popular too. The Madrid marathon and half marathon are both held each year in spring.

As of 2014, Madrid has finally joined Seville, Barcelona, Valencia and other cities around Spain by offering a city bike scheme, BiciMAD. Users can pick up and drop off electronic bikes at 123 locations around the capital. However, at the moment the service is only on offer to those who sign up for a year's pass, but you can rent bikes by the hour or day from Trixi near Sol. There are bike lanes around the city, but these still aren't too widespread and cycling in Madrid's notoriously crazy traffic can be dangerous. If you'd rather not join the city traffic, you can also rent bikes by the river. EcoMoving Sports rents different types of bikes (including tandems and family bikes) by the hour or day.

A group tennis lesson with Denzil Reid

If you're looking to take up the sport or improve your game, try a tennis lesson or two with English coach Denzil Reid. Based in Pozuelo, he can also travel to a court near you for very reasonable rates. Denzil's been coaching both children and adults for thirty years, and specializes in helping with tournament preparation, so if you've got your sights on Wimbledon (or want to impress your friends with a few new moves), join the ranks. To find out more, you can contact Denzil here or on 669097599. Both individual and group lessons are available.

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