Mastering Directions: A Lesson In The Culture Of Geography

Keep in mind the relative directions of North, South, East and West to follow as the day progresses.


For any savvy traveler, visiting a new city might involve taking out a map and at least getting a visual idea of where different destinations lie in relation to each other. On your first day in Barcelona, you will likely find a map that points out the various sights, or perhaps the system of Metro subway lines, with an indication of mountains at the top of the page and the Mediterranean Ocean at the bottom. As you plan out your day, you might say to your companions that it is a good idea to start at Parc Guëll and head south toward La Sagrada Familia and the beach, a route that seems logical as you trace it on your map. As many American travelers discuss this hypothetical agenda, they will keep in mind the relative directions of North, South, East and West to follow as the day progresses.

Little do many of us realize, the numerous maps of Barcelona that portray the city as lying between northern mountains and southern beaches are incorrectly oriented. The city, in fact, lies on a southeast facing coast, and a trip from Parc Guëll to the beach would be a much more eastbound trip than the maps indicate. Looking at the map we bought and put so much faith in, this misconception might be difficult for many of us travelers to grasp. However, the Spanish have never relied on the compass rose as a reference for directions. Instead, the relevant geographical qualities of an area have historically been of much more use. Thus, the mis-orientation of Barcelona maps have not previously posed a problem in navigating the city. Specifically, if one were to walk toward the mountains of Barcelona, they would “subir la calle,” or walk up the street, while the trip down to the water would be “bajar la calle.” To walk right is “a la derecha” and left is “a la izquierda,” simple as that.

This technicality of Spanish orientation is significant not only for that one time you end up asking for directions from a Spaniard in Barcelona; it is also an indicator of the more unexpected cultural differences that we gain so much from realizing. This small yet distinct way of getting around might not make as much sense to an American who has been raised to rely on maps (both physical and on our iPhones). However, embracing the difference might end up improving a day in the wonderful Barcelona. On a more general level, it also acts as a reminder that we cannot base our travels on the information we find in a map or trip advisor book. Part of being in a new city is having your own experience as you learn about the local culture. So ditch the map, bajar la calle, and keep your eyes open for the subtle differences in foreign ways of life. That is how you can find your own, unexpected connections with culture wherever you go.

Kaela Trutner

A California native, Kaela lived in Barcelona, Spain. Her travel style consists of two clichés: carpe diem, but stop to smell the roses. One person she wants to travel with: Tina Fey.

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