You will never know Spain if you stick to cities like San Sebastián, Madrid, Barcelona, or Toledo.
You will think you know it. This is the center of Christian-Jewish-Muslim heritage! This is where Gaudí became a masterpiece! This is the place of the Prado, the Gran Vía, el capital! This has the beach, the pintxos, the perfect views!
But it is on the trail, in the small town, along the back alleyway that goes to nowhere, where you will find Spain. In the forced Castellano (because why would an American woman randomly be walking on this trail in the middle-of-nowhere Castilla y León?) of passing hikers on the trail who warn you of thorns (maybe rocks) that will partially (but not wholly) block your walk (but you can make it?)–“Lo conoces?”
Do you know it? Do you know it like a lover who chose a town in the middle of everywhere mountains because it looked like home?
Do you know it like a person–a person who half-heartedly greets you with a “Buenos días” even though, given your appearance of gang-bearing bandana and sun hat, you must not be from around here?
Do you know the trail like a lover, enough to understand that down a little ways there are thorns and rocks and briars that have no translation for the cuts on your ankle, the tearing of your shorts, the understanding that they won’t keep you from walking up and down a mountain, in and out of a country, that you don’t have the vocabulary to say it in Spanish, but goddamn it you understand?
You will never know Spain, when, walking into a shop with three English-speaking daughters in a tourist town, the merchants explain everything in their perfectly-mastered, perfectly-memorized English.
You will never know what it feels like to ride a horse in La Sierra de Gredos with the guía que habla solamente Español y la cantina de vino a media mañana.
You will never feel the freezing cold waters of Las Piscinas Naturales de Arenas de San Pedro, because your wimpy Google English translation of swimming hole wouldn’t lead you to a crystal clear conscience since you’re too focused on trying to be a tourist.
You will never know Spain if you stick to cities. You will find her in fern gullies, picas con nieve, senderismo. In the lilted accents of locals and the undiscovered beauty of mountains no one knew existed. You will know her--la conoces–in the cherry blossoms, the dotted pines, the trails that lead you from forest to orchard to forest.
Do you know what you are searching for in Spain? Do you know that you will get strange looks (thorns) and be accused of being too young to have such old daughters (rocks), and that the view is always best from the top of fern gully (peaks)?
Si, la conoces España. Es tu corazón, tu pica, tu lugar en el mundo. Y encontraste por accidente, en una senda.
But at least you found her. And you knew who she really was.