When it was time to reapply for my second year as an Auxiliar de Conversación in Spain, I had some serious decisions to make. Second years get priority, so if all goes as it should you get your first choice. This year I was placed in Logroño randomly because my first three choices were full, and I feel so lucky for that. I love this city. My family loves this city. It feels like home. That said, I did feel a drive to explore a new area of Spain, and so was faced with a difficult choice. If you’re also struggling to figure out where to live in Spain, hopefully this list of the best and worst things about La Rioja will help you.
The region is so small that no matter where you work, it is possible to live in the city. You may have an hour commute, but at the end of the day you’ll be coming home to a decently sized city, and a gorgeous one at that.
And the people. Everyone is so nice. Like, extremely nice. The families I teach private lessons to have been my favorite part about this program. They are generous, patient, and want me to love La Rioja as much as they do. I have rarely met someone grumpy or unfriendly, and even the city bus drivers generally find a way to show their kindness.
The cost of living is insanely cheap here. My rent is 180 a month, a glass of wine is about .80, a night out with food and drink can easily be 10 euros or less. Yet the city itself is generally wealthy. People dress to impress, spend their money on classes and activities, and private lessons pay at the top of the range, 15 euros an hour for one student, or 20 for two. Living here as an aux, I’m paid the same as auxiliares living in Barcelona, San Sebastian, Palma, or Valencia, where the cost of living is much higher.
The Spanish here is easy. Logroño isn’t a tourist town, to the extent that whenever I hear a native English speaker I don’t already know, I pause, and try to figure out who they are and what they are doing here. As a result, the people here are not accustomed to switching over to English whenever they hear someone with an accent, or struggling for a Spanish word. In Madrid or Barcelona, when I try to talk to people, pretty much as soon as I open my mouth they switch to English. That never happens here which was terrifying at first but I think the major reason my Spanish improved so rapidly.
Also Northern Spain is GORGEOUS. It’s mountainous, it has a beautiful coast, and the landscapes are to die for. La Rioja is one of the northern most cities that speaks exclusively Spanish, instead of Spanish, and Basque or Catalan or Galego. It’s also home to some of Spain (and the world’s) best wine. It is pretty much in the center of northern Spain, meaning I can get to Burgos, Pamplona, Zaragoza, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Leon, and more for under two hours. It is a great base for weekend, or even day trips.
The size/culture is perfect (for me anyway). I’m a lot older than most of the people doing this program, many of whom are either just out of college or doing their year abroad now! For them, the small size and lack of crazy nightlife might sometimes be frustrating. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist–I live in the center of town and the noise outside my bedroom window lasts until 5 am on the weekends–but the main culture here isn’t discotecas, it’s a few pinchos with wine while entire families–babies, toddlers, grandparents, surround you. It’s relaxed, welcoming, and very chill. My kind of place. It’s also only got about 150,000 people, which I thought I would hate coming from Los Angeles, but as an introduction to a new country/language, it has been perfect. Also I’ve never lived somewhere safer. I have dropped my guard so much I’m a little terrified to ever live in a major city again.
So, how could I leave? Why should anyone pick a different region?
I asked myself that over and over, even though I knew I would. It was hard to shake the feeling that a second year in the program should be as adventurous as the first. By the time this year is over, I will be very familiar with northern Spain, and it’s really difficult to get from here to the south, which is apparently like an entirely different country. Another year exploring the same place felt like I was playing it safe, so I ended up requesting Andalucia as my first choice. My second choice was pretty random, Castilla la Mancha, but Toledo and the other cities in the area look gorgeous, and from talking to people it sounds like the area has all the things I love about Logroño, but in a very different location. Plus it’s also only 33 minutes by train from Madrid.
That is one of the main reasons I’d say you shouldn’t live in La Rioja. The lack of a nearby airport.
I generally have to fly out of Madrid (a 4 hour bus ride) or Barcelona (6 hours). And these buses never line up the way you want, meaning I’ve spent more nights than I can sanely handle sleeping in airports to catch 6 am flights, or arrived home at 5 am on a Monday and had to work at 9 am that same day. There’s an airport in Bilbao, but it’s much more expensive and really only cost effective to fly to and from London. And on my way back from London after the New Year, we had a terrifying landing experience that I have since been told is entirely common in Bilbao!
Another downside to the size and location is that it is SO Spanish. Great in so many ways, but on days where you are craving Mexican or Indian or Chinese, it can be so frustrating. Nothing is open during siesta and everything (even the grocery store) is closed on Sundays. I understand this is part of Spanish culture, but you’d probably have more variety in a larger city.
Last is the weather. I grew up in Boston and thought I could handle winter. But then I lived in LA for five years and my blood thinned or something, because it’s not even that cold here and it’s killing me. The darkness, the rain, and the constant chill wears on you, and I am so excited to (hopefully) live somewhere a bit warmer next year.
Overall, Logroño is an amazing city. I HIGHLY recommend anyone pick it, especially first years as I think it’s an amazing introduction to Spain and a good way to go relatively native, compared to Madrid or Barcelona. Ever since I sent in my application to renew, I’ve already been feeling nostalgic for this place. I love it here. I love my apartment. I love my street, the cathedral, the weird siren that goes off at noon every day and no one knows why. This feels like home, and it’s one I am so so happy I got to have. Maybe I’m making a mistake leaving, but at least I’ll have challenged myself, again, to try something, and somewhere new. I won’t be able to do that forever!