Hay migas. The signs are posted outside of every restaurant in Aracena, a small town of around 8,000 in southern Spain. Bread crumbs served here.
It’s a popular dish in the sierra. Simple: a little bit of olive oil, garlic and pieces of day-old bread, sauteed in a frying pan for breakfast on cold mornings. For visitors like me, the restaurants have added chorizo and spices. But that’s not the way migas are meant to be prepared. At least, that’s what an old man told us when my girlfriend and I stopped him outside the Bar San Pedro and asked him where we’d find the best migas in town.
“Pues, en casa,” he said and shrugged. At home. His son had made some just that morning. Of the local restaurants he knew nothing, though he had likely lived there all his life. The old man went back to his cigarillo.
Before we had to decide on a place for lunch, we spent the rest of the morning walking around town. Ana knew of a famous bakery near Aracena’s central plaza. It was there that we ate our sweet medialunas and listed to children play. Some were chasing after a soccer ball, and others were on bikes, popping wheelies and swearing at each other. The windows on the houses surrounding the square were open, sending mid-February mountain air through the already chilly salónes and cocinas.
An hour later, we were were laid back on the grassy hillside below the abandoned castle that watches over Aracena. Looking up at the sky, nearly cloudless and as blue as the Ligurian Sea, I felt lucky. I was witness to something too few travelling young Americans would ever see.
Aracena, one of the famous pueblos blancos of the Andalusian sierra, isn’t lacking in beauty. It’s even got a few tourist spots, like the castle on the hill and the Gruta de las Maravillas, the caverns below it. It draws droves of Spanish schoolchildren on field trips.
But Aracena doesn’t have an airport. There are no coffee table books dedicated to it, as far as I know. There are no raucous discotheques or skyscrapers — just a few old women hanging their laundry on the fallen tree branches they’ve leaned against their houses.
Before students leave for their semesters abroad, they’re asked where else they’ll be traveling. One country isn’t enough. “You’re so close,” they say. “It’s so cheap.” Some are pressured by travel agencies and tour guides to spend a weekend in Barcelona or Prague. They compete against their friends to see who can snap a selfie in the most European cities before returning to the states.
The attraction is understandable. The most popular cities were well developed before the Europeans made it to America. They’re full of cathedrals and palaces and lopsided homes packed cheek by jowl, all so foreign when compared to the modest country churches and orderly blue-collar Main streets of America. European streets are cobbled and tightly wound. Paris, Rome and London are bastions of art and culture, and for the rest of our lives, people will be asking us if we’ve ever been.
Most study abroad students are getting their first taste of life without driving. They can take a bus to the next town or city over, and trains carry more than freight. Homework loads tend to be light and airfare cheap, so they can afford a little exploration.
But if about half of Europeans live in small towns, why is it so many students abroad never escape the city? Aracena is only an hour or so outside of Seville, but I’d bet less than one percent of the American students in the city this fall will make it there.
Would a trip to the U.S. be considered an authentic experience if a visiting Spaniard never left Manhattan or Los Angeles? What if someone were to spend four months on the East Coast and never get beyond the mall in Washington, D.C., or the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia? Would that count as cultural immersion? Isn’t cultural immersion what students are supposed to be going abroad for?
Don’t misunderstand me. City hopping is more than worthwhile. I don’t think “being touristy,” the ultimate insult of travel snobs, is a bad thing. You’re a fool if you don’t try to see as many landmarks as possible when your stay anywhere is brief.
But students who want to really get to know a country and its culture should see what lies outside the old city walls, where restaurant menus are not printed in English and no Starbucks will ever crop up.
It’s important to get to know sub-urban and rural life, to pass through rolling olive groves and to see the silhouette of the famous Spanish toros climbing a hill at sunset. I’m just as glad to remember the sound of the señoras sweeping their balconies in Aracena as I am to have walked through Stockholm’s city hall. To be honest, Rome was a bit underwhelming, but I fell in love with a small house on a hillside outside the mountain town of Grazalema.
Even if you can’t follow the old man home for lunch and have to settle, as we did, for the migas at a restaurant, life outside of famous European cities is worth a taste.