“Albacete… caga y vete,” goes the popular Spanish saying. Why would anyone ever want to go to a city that is known as the “shit and get out” city?
That is exactly what I asked myself when I found out my friend C decided to leave Madrid and move to Albacete for work. Although I knew he already had friends there, I still wondered why on earth he-an American, not an Albaceteño- would go to a city with such a bad reputation. Surely he would get bored or lonely in a city of barely 200,000 people in the middle of the Castilla-La Mancha region. Friends or no friends, this did not sound like a promising move.
Much to my surprise, C’s first few months in Albacete were some of his best during his whole time in Spain. He rented himself a studio apartment, integrated well into his new job at a Catholic school, and had a stellar social life due to all the new friends he was making. Being one of only a handful of Americans in a city with virtually no tourist attractions was not a bad thing for him at all. In fact, his quality of life had seemingly improved.
All of his positive talk about Albacete made me curious and I decided to take a trip down there during my Christmas break. It was the first stop on my marathon trip in Southern Spain which eventually led me to Rota to spend Christmas with my older brother (more on that later).
So on a Thursday evening, I grabbed a BlaBlaCar from Madrid and made my way to this city in Los Llanos (the plains) region of Castilla-La Mancha. The driver and two other passengers in the car were all Spanish. Two were from Alicante, a popular beach town near Valencia, and the other was from a small town between Albacete and Alicante. When I told them I was going to Albacete for a few days, they nearly burst out laughing. They couldn’t understand why I would go there to visit and why my American friend had chosen to live in the city. It was especially strange that I was going in December, not in September when the city holds its annual Feria de Albacete, a traditional festival of international tourist interest which honors the Virgen de los Llanos.
After an uncomfortable 2-1/2 hour car ride,made awkward by the fact that no one talked the whole time, we were finally in Albacete. I said my good-bye’s and waited patiently for C at the train station.
As I saw C approaching the station, I noticed that he was definitely the same person I knew in Madrid, but he had a new sort of confidence about him. He looked truly happy and comfortable in his new city.We headed to C’s apartment to drop off my things and then decided to do a mini-walking tour of the city.
We strolled through the quaint Parque Abelardo Sánchez, a popular urban green space, and made our way through the promenade where the Feria de Albacete is held. We stopped by the Plaza de Toros de Albacete, which is much smaller than Madrid’s Las Ventas. C showed me the school where he works during the week and he took me to one of his neighborhood bakeries to try Miguelitos, traditional cream pastries of Albacete. He also pointed me in the direction of one of his favorite places to grab tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelette) for the next morning when I’d have to get breakfast on my own while he had a Spanish class. The center is very small and we were able to see everything in about an hour.
This trip was not one for sight-seeing. In fact, we didn’t even have time to check out one of Albacete’s biggest attractions: its knife museum. (Unfortunately, it was closed while I was there.) Apart from being known as the “caga y vete” city, Albacete is famous for its knives. If you want a quality knife, then you can definitely find one there.
I spent my time in Albacete catching up with C, eating in restaurants and bakeries and admiring the city’s monuments and decorations. It was almost Christmas, so there were beautiful Christmas lights and ornaments everywhere. There was also a small Christmas market which sold handmade crafts, local food and drinks. I was certainly not bored during my stay in Albacete.
As we walked around the city, C frequently bumped into friends, students, student’s parents and co-workers. When we went into shops and supermarkets, most people recognized him. I’m not a huge fan of having so much attention, so it caught me off guard at first. However, I realized this was a different sort of attention. It was a sense of community-something I haven’t had in Madrid. The sheer size of Madrid alone makes this difficult. Although I would say within my neighborhood I have this to some degree, it is not the same.
During that trip, I realized something about myself. I grew up in a small city and had this same kind of experience. I often ran into people when I went out and most people knew who I was. At the time, I thought I didn’t like it, but I realized in Albacete that I actually miss that feeling. It is a sense of belonging that you just don’t have when you live in a big city. I never felt like I truly belonged when I lived in Madrid, Istanbul, D.C. or Philadelphia.
Albacete taught me that a huge amount of tourist attractions, restaurants, stores, and people does not really make a city the best place to live for everyone. Some people thrive in those kinds of environments while others do better when they feel the support of their community on a daily basis. Although I do love living in Madrid, maybe I belong more to that latter category. It’s an important thing to know about oneself and I will probably find this out next year. In September, I will (most likely) be moving to a small city in Northern Spain. There will be more information on this later once things are set in stone. It could be a good change for me.
In the end, I left Albacete wondering why it is the “caga y vete” city if it has so many wonderful people and such a good sense of community? It’s such a comfortable place to live with a high quality of life. You have everything you need and you are close enough to Madrid and some of the best beaches in Spain to go away for a weekend. Perhaps, Albacete could be renamed as the “caga y quédate” (shit and stay) city?