Growing up in a small rural town myself, I always had dreams of moving to a big city. Initially, I thought on a small scale like New York City (I know, small, right?) Then, I expanded my horizons and wanted to move to a big Spanish city like Madrid or Barcelona. So you could sense my disappointment when I got placed in a town of 115,000. You can also probably sense more disappointment when I was moved to a smaller town of 8,000 people.
I kept an open mind about moving to my small Spanish village. Upon first arrival, the village was in the middle of nowhere but seemed to be pretty bustling on a Saturday evening. Moving abroad is challenging enough, so actually it helped me get my bearings faster being in a small town. By the end of the first week, we had a favorite restaurant, and after 2 weeks, we had 3 favorite dishes which we still order every time we go out anywhere in Spain to this day.
Of course, I wanted to travel to bigger cities to see “what I was missing.” I felt like people placed in Madrid had it so easy because there were more English-speakers as opposed to my town where not a soul speaks English. In Malaga, there are different American and English stores where you can get the comforts of home, whereas in my little village I had to learn how to cook with local Spanish foods. In Cadiz, there are restaurants open at all hours of the day where you can get more than just tapas, whereas Olvera has only tapas. It wasn’t until I actually traveled to these cities that I realized I wasn’t really missing anything at all; in fact, I couldn’t wait to get back to Olvera!
In a larger city, you will pay larger city prices. Cities are geared toward tourism and tourists visit expecting to pay higher prices. That doesn’t help those of us that live here long term – we can’t afford high tourist prices every time we go out! Maybe we do get bigger dinners in the cities, but we pay for them and leave feeling unsatisfied. I enjoy much more ordering 3 tapas between 2 of us and feeling perfectly satisfied with lots of delicious dishes and a bill under 10 euros.
Grocery shopping in the bigger cities is more expensive too. The stores are on a more global level, so prices in cities are what you would expect to pay back in the U.S. Here in Olvera, I can stock up for a week and pay only 60 euros. But on the other hand, why would I stock up for a week? There are small, fresh markets everywhere so I can easily run down the street and shop daily and get the freshest food. Much harder to do in a city when you have to rely on public transportation. Also, the only time I went to El Corte Ingles, the store that caters to English and Americans, the goods were stocked and it was nice to reminisce, but the prices were exorbitant. I only went for cranberry sauce to have on Thanksgiving, but I don’t have a desire to go back. In fact, I have learned to love Spanish spices and oils. Andalucia has olive trees as far as you can see in every direction, for hours of driving. There is even a town called Saucejo, where the sauces come from. When you have such fresh, delicious specialties right at your finger tips, why would you buy imported American food? Grocery-wise, Olvera is the choice for me.
My Spanish was tested the first day in Olvera, when I had to meet a Spanish landlord to pick up a key. My Spanish is shaky at best, and the Andaluz accent threw me for a big loop. 3 months later, I can say I feel comfortable talking to my neighbors now and can carry on a conversation (not fluently of course, but I can piece together sentences and form my own). In big cities, everyone speaks English for the tourists. In fact, in my travels, even when I try to speak Spanish to waiters or to get into museums and such, they won’t speak Spanish back to me! I can imagine how hard it is to become immersed in a language when no one will speak the language to you. And after all, isn’t that the reason we all came here, to become more fluent in Spanish?
These days, where can you really feel safe? Well, in a town where you know everyone, it’s much less likely that your car or house will get broken into than in a big city of foreigners that don’t care who they are attacking. Since cities tend to attract tourists, they also attract the bad element that prey on the unsuspecting. Sadly, I myself am victim of this in a big city (although not in Spain, luckily). Big cities anywhere tend to have more crime, more theft, more pickpockets, and more bums than suburban or rural areas, and Spain is no exception. Some cities are worse than others, for example, Barcelona. But walking around Olvera, I feel very safe. Of course, anyone can be bad anywhere and in a small town sometimes there’s nothing to do for fun except see how much you can get away with, but it’s usually petty things that don’t hurt anyone, and I will still choose a park bench getting vandalized over my car getting broken into and all of my valuables stolen never to be seen again. Small towns win in the game of safety and crime.
Believe it or not, every little village I’ve been to has an incredible history. There is much more to do than meets the eye. For example, in Olvera, there is a beautiful church, an ancient castle still in tact that you can climb to the top of for breathtaking views, a lovely park that is kept up by all of the townspeople, a garden on top of a cliff with a statue of Jesus that overlooks the town, a farmers market type event every Saturday for people to shop, and just come together and hang out, a museum of ancient artifacts from the historical days of the town, it’s the start of a 36 km pedestrian path with scenic views that people can walk, bike, or horse ride with many towns along the way to stop in, here are horse farms where you can go riding, two gyms, two schools, a public outside pool, and it’s said there are 99 bars in the small 8000 person town. During Day Of The Dead (November 1), everyone brings flowers to the cemetery to remember their loved ones, and it is an incredible sight to see. On Three Kings Day (January 6), there is a parade through the little town and everyone decorates their houses with Christmas Lights. In the spring there are ferias, and people open up their houses to show off their beautiful flowered patios. There is so much history and sense of kinship in the small villages that I wouldn’t trade it.
So maybe it’s a little more boring and a little less convenient for travel, but the camaraderie of the town and the hidden historical gems that most tourists won’t venture down to see are amazing. If you want to feel like a tourist, go to a big city, pay big city prices, and eat at your usual times. If you want to feel like a local, go to a small village that doesn’t speak English, cook with the local spices and oils, plan meals around local Spanish times, and see the small wonders that usually will go overlooked. Every town has something that sets it apart from the others, whether it be an old castle, part of the white village route, the oldest school in Spain, or breathtaking views that predate society as we know it. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone – go have an adventure!