Survive and Thrive: Naval Station Rota, Spain


I am convinced that few places get in your blood and stay there like Rota, Spain. We have been back in the States for three years since leaving Spain, and that heartsick ache, that I initially attributed to the sudden change of scenery and assumed would pass, is still ever-present. Rota, Spain is basically just across the Atlantic from the east coast of the US, but our countries are really worlds apart. In southern Spain, strangers kiss hello, kids accompany their parents to bars (which can mean an actual bar as we think of it, or can also mean a small restaurant), and in the summer, the sun doesn’t set until around 10:30 at night. They work to live instead of living to work. While we were there between 2011 and 2014, there was a sky-high unemployment rate and the economy was in shambles, but you’d never have known it. Everywhere you went, you were welcomed with open arms, smiles and a “Buena!”

There are actual books out there detailing what you need to know about moving to this glorious place, but below is my nutshell version:

Location

Rota is on the Atlantic coast of Spain, directly across the Bay of Cádiz from Cádiz, the oldest city in Western Europe. Spain is broken up into provinces, much like our states, each with its own government, and Cádiz is the province in which Rota is located. Spaniards take a lot of pride in, and strongly identify with, their provinces (much like Texans with Texas). Rota grew from a small fishing village into a town that is now an international destination for northern Europeans looking for some sun. It is chock full of charming and delicious restaurants, old amazing churches, and white-walled alleys just begging you to get lost within their flower-lined labyrinths.

Housing

You can live on or off-base, although I’m not aware of any mandatory assignment to base quarters, that may have changed since we left in 2014. There were old and new houses on base. The old houses were one story, ranch-style, with 3 bedrooms and 3 full baths. They were around 1500-1600 square feet. Though not typical, our house faced directly to the ocean. New on-base houses were popping up while we lived there–they were much bigger and were based more on family size than on rank or billet. Off-base houses were much bigger than most base housing, and they had SO MUCH character to them. Just as you’d imagine: gorgeous Spanish tile, some with pools, palm trees, etc. If you live off-base, you’ll probably have to compromise with no air conditioning, small kitchens, and giant walls around your property, but some of those places are just spectacular. People are completely split about the decision to live on or off base.

Climate

We arrived in Spain in July. The sun shone brightly, and the sky was the clearest blue you’d ever seen. There was low humidity, ocean breezes, and the temperature was around 80-90 degrees. During our first month there, I became alarmed one morning because I saw what looked like a smoke plume in the sky. I quickly realized, though, that it was only a cloud – I just hadn’t seen one in a few weeks. Winters in Spain can be pretty rainy and windy, but you’ll also have your share of 50-60 degree sunny weather. The forecast can definitely be all over the place during the winter months, but I’d definitely say there are more nice days than not.

Travel

One of the best things about being stationed at Rota is the proximity to other European destinations. You can hop in your car and be in either Portugal or Gibraltar in about an hour. Seville (which I always call Sevilla now – you will too!) is an hour north by car, and a very popular destination for military tourists. Admittedly, travel from Rota isn’t quite as easy as travel from, say, Germany, but still is much closer and cheaper than any locations in the US. We visited countless countries while we were there. For 3-day weekends, the base clears out thanks to low-cost/no frills carriers like RyanAir.

Education

Although the Spanish school year roughly matches up with that in the US, the Spanish calculate what grade a student should be in differently–they look at the calendar year. Whereas in the US, we might say you have to be 6 years old by July 31st to start 1st grade in September, the Spanish will look to see if the child will turn 6 anytime during that calendar year. There is a DODEA school on base for K-12, but base residents are also allowed to use the local schools for a 100% immersive experience. I saw lots of kids become completely fluent in my three years there. Another difference is that school in Spain starts at 3 years old (free, public school as we think of it). Your other option would be to put your child in the fee-based preschool on base at the Child Development Center.

Money

If you are going to Spain soon, count yourself lucky (pun intended). The US dollar-to-Euro exchange rate when we were there was $1.33 to 1 Euro. Now, the exchange rate is much more even, making travel, restaurants, and trips to the mall much more palatable.

Festivals

The Spanish are a lively bunch, and they love their fiestas and festivals. A historically Catholic country, many/most of the festivals are centered on Catholic holidays and feast days. Shortly after Christmas, they celebrate Three Kings Day with a big parade in each town. It is a much bigger deal than Christmas Day is. The Kings on the floats throw candy down to the spectators, and the spectators, who act like they’ve never seen candy in their entire lives, go crazy trying to gather as much as they can. Hold on to your little ones, folks…it gets a little intense.

Three Kings Day is fun, but perhaps the biggest deal in southern Spain is Feria season. Feria de Primavera is a spring festival, but it’s really so much more. Each town has its own Feria grounds where there will be carnival-like games and tents set up for drinking, eating, and dancing sevillana. Women will be dressed in the most gorgeous, form-fitting dresses with flowers in their hair. They even dress up the horses. Each town decides when to hold its feria, so it’s very possible to constantly attend different ferias for weeks at a time. Just make sure your liver is in check, and you don’t have to wake up early the next day!

Another uniquely Spanish event takes place during Holy Week–the week leading up to Easter. It can be disconcerting to foreigners, but hooded men will carry religious displays through the streets of the towns. The marchers are called penitents. Unfortunately for Americans, the costumes are very much like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, and it can really be startling at first. However, this deeply reverent event quickly dispels any thoughts of menace, and it is really a sight to behold.

General Base Information

Coming from a Marine base, I found Naval Station Rota pretty modern. However, I did encounter some Air Force spouses who decried its lack of amenities. So, I guess your opinion might greatly depend on from where you PCS.

There is a good size Commissary and Exchange (not open until 10am, Spanish hours), a new bowling alley and restaurant, a big gym with a track, CDC, pool, an animal shelter, library, post office, a few Spanish shops, and restaurants. It really is a nice little base, and super easy to navigate.

Rota has its own air terminal, so you can catch flights back to the States using Space-Available travel. It can be tricky to figure out at first, but as an OCONUS stationed spouse (or servicemember), you have higher priority than your US-based counterparts. This is a great way, especially if you can travel at “off” times, to travel cheaply back to the States, or even to places like Sicily or Greece.

The MWR office on base does an awesome job of scheduling base events, events for kids–like dance lessons and gymnastics, and also local or international trips. I highly recommend doing some of these trips as a stress-free way to become acquainted with your new surroundings. Another important piece of info is that jobs are hard to come by because a certain number have to be filled by Spanish nationals.

Finally, an interesting feature of this base is that it is primarily a Spanish Naval Base. There is a whole part of the base entirely dedicated to the Spanish Navy. The US merely leases space on the base. A few areas of the base overlap, and US citizens are welcome, for the most part, to use amenities on the Spanish part of the base such as the Spanish post office, officers’ club, and pool. This feature is very unique amongst OCONUS US military installations.

This was the best place we’ve ever lived. You could walk right out the gate and instantly be immersed in one of the friendliest, most vibrant cultures you’ll ever experience. If you are lucky enough to be stationed in southern Spain, enjoy every second of it because no place after will compare. Here is my list of things not to miss:

  • Tinto de Verano: a “summer” wine, red wine mixed with a Spanish version of Sprite
  • Olives: their olives are NOTHING like the “Spanish” olives in US supermarkets
  • Café con leche: tiny little espressos with steamed whole milk, strong and delicious
  • Spanish pottery: right near base in El Puerto de Santa Maria is a big plant store/garden shop called “Viveros” where you can find the most BEAUTIFUL sets of pottery.
  • Sunsets: the sunsets over the Bay of Cádiz are spectacular, and it’s really interesting to watch the position of the sun change over the seasons
  • Gypsy Markets: southern Spain, like many areas of Europe, has “gypsies” and gypsy markets (mercados gitanos). You can find anything here from giant tubs of amazing olives, adorable baby clothes, sevillana outfits, shoes, etc…  And it’s a million times cheaper than the regular stores
  • Olive Oil: Buy locally produced olive oil that isn’t even sold overseas. Spain is the world’s largest olive oil producer, and it’s just amazing.  I suggest Nuñez de Prado.

I hope you will love being stationed there as much as my family did. By the book I wrote here, you can see that I miss it dearly. I know there are things I’ve missed, such as descriptions of the many wonderful towns surrounding base, but it’s best if you take the time to discover the area on your own and really make it your home while you are there.  İBuena suerte!

Have you ever been stationed in Rota, Spain? Tell us about your experience!

By Alicia Cobb, military spouse and NMFA Volunteer

 

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  1. 1
    jd

    A childhood friend was stationed in Rota in the 1980s. Although we had lost touch in our adult years, he would call me out of the blue – usually on holidays when he figured I’d be visiting my parents. I only found out after his death that he had been stationed in Rota, and I wanted to learn more about this place. It sounds like it is as magical as I imagined it would be. I feel a connection, not just because of him, but because I have Spanish heritage in my blood. Also, he gave me my first gift from a boy, and it was a Spanish style dagger letter opener. I still have it and treasure it. I wish I could have visited him there.

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