Monday, 29 September 2014

Welcome to Oh hello, Spain

So, this is my first post on Oh, hello Spain! If you can see over four years of content in the sidebar, you may well be wondering what I'm on about. Well, this little blog was formerly known as Tales of a Brit Abroad, and this week I've changed its name moved over to this address.

After almost 5 years blogging at Tales of a Brit Abroad, it was time for a change. I wanted a name that reflected the content on the site, and that didn't put readers off. Although those who got my sense of humour or were willing to read past the title seemed to enjoy what they found, I wanted a name that was more relevant and more neutral. Step forward Oh hello, Spain.

I'm planning on keeping the content the same, so you'll still find plenty of posts about life in Spain as a UK expat, Madrid tips, features on visiting towns and cities around Spain and world travel posts. I'll also be keeping the popular Expat Issues and Madrid Monday series of posts. The only thing that's changing is the name and address! I've updated all my social media handles and profiles, so if you were following me before you still will be, I'll just be @ohhellospain now. And if you're new here, welcome! You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Foursquare (so, everywhere) @ohhellospain.

Thanks so much for reading Tales of a Brit Abroad and I look forward to seeing you over here at Oh hello, Spain!

What do you think of the new name? And the new design?

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sunday stroll: Parc del Laberint d'Horta, Barcelona

Probably because of the lack of Gaudí 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.

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).

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Expat issues: How to open a bank account in Spain

**Updated November 2015**

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. 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. ING's Cuenta Nómina is commission-free and lets you transfer money back to the UK free of charge too. It has several high-street branches with long opening hours, but far fewer than most banks. New kid on the block EVO also offers commission-free accounts that allow you to withdraw cash for free anywhere in the world. If you won't have monthly earnings going into your account, Ing Direct also offers a Cuenta sin Nómina which is charge-free.

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), 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

Monday, 22 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Day trip to Manzanares el Real

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

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 ask some more recent year abroad students to share their experiences in Spain. 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. If you're a recent year abroad student who would like to contribute, I'd love to hear from you.

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.

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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