The last place you’d expect a city girl to recommended is a small town when going abroad. After spending two months of my summer slightly trapped in Haro, a cosy community in La Rioja, Spain, I can finally see advantages to abandoning traditional big city experiences.
Haro is a petite pueblo, famous for its wine festivals, but other than that, pretty unattractive to most tourists. There are very few retail chains and the closest university and shopping centre is a 40 minute drive away. Why on earth would anyone want to stay here?
The brilliant, and slightly scary, thing about small towns is that hardly anyone will speak English, compared to in tourist-filled cities. With only their native language and gestures to communicate, it is inevitable you will immerse yourself in the culture and language. It’s unlikely even the bartender, baker or cashier in the largest supermarket will speak English. Small towns are ideal for language development and ideal for getting yourself out of your comfort zone and helping you grow.
Additionally, you’ll have no choice but to live like a local. Shops won’t be open when you’re used to, there won’t be a £3 meal deal for you to pick up at an outrageously early 12.30pm. Clubs may not even have a soul in them until 3am. You’ll end up eating when they eat, resting when they rest, and partying when they party. There is undoubtedly no better way to understand the lifestyles of other cultures than experiencing it yourself.
Crucially, small towns force you to make conversation with locals. You’ll soon realise the awkward British smile doesn’t quite work as well when you’re passing the same stranger three times a day. It is inevitable there will be a little old lady who joins you on a bench. When she wants to tell you her life story you can’t really back out. The only option is to listen, make conversation and take in this amazing first hand insight into the people of a country.
Ultimately, they are perfect for escaping your version of ‘ordinary’. Going to big cities often means you’ll end up speaking English, having a McDonald’s instead of the local cuisine, or shopping in Primark. Of course, this is part of the national culture, but it means you’re sticking to what you already know, and not learning anything new. Travelling in big cities often means being involved in a culture which is seemingly mute of its own . When in Italy, I’d like to experience the traditionally Italian, and not just something created for tourists.
Small destinations are of course difficult to find, especially without any previous connections to a country and on a budget. However, I found au pairing and teaching English through a company (meaning you get host families) were brilliant ways of engaging with the cultures of countries and making you aware of life in small towns.
Undeniably, I’d still love to travel to big cities like Amsterdam or New York, visit the museums, see the famous sights, and attend free walking tours (yes, they exist, and yes, they’re amazing). However, it’s important to remember how big cities, London and Birmingham included, are far from what makes up a whole country. Visiting smaller areas means you have a greater understanding of how the famous cities fit into the identity of a whole country.
If you see the value of travelling as being about engaging in new cultures and experiences, then have no doubt: little towns which foreign tourists rarely visit will beat big bustling cities any day.
Written by Rebekah Quixano Henriques
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham