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
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