Tucked into the Soria region of Spain is a little mountain village is Valdelavilla — a  place completely isolated from the rest of the world, where Spaniards trek to learn English through intensive language immersion programs. It’s the only place in Spain where English is the first language.

Other than people participating in the program and the few staff on hand to take care of the property, there is nothing.

There are no stores. There is no cell phone service. The restaurant is located in an old villa. The bar has no stools and doubles as the “internet cafe.” So does the bench outside reception. And, the wifi is about as speedy as an old-school dial-up connection. The more people pow-wowing online at Valdelavilla, the slower it goes.

Despite these things, I fell in love with the town at first sight. Well, once I knew I wasn’t going to have to haul my backpack through the little stone streets.

The old town, which dates back to 18th century, was abandoned in the 1960s and later refurbished to capture its classic charm and atmosphere in the 90s. Today, it is a “rural tourism” location offering well-preserved architecture and beautiful grounds to program participants and tourists in the know.

It is also a perfect place for people to focus on one thing and one thing only — learning English.

Stepping into Valdelavilla takes people back in time, to a world much simpler than today, sometimes to a workaholic or internet/cell phone junkie dismay.

Each villa has retained original architecture, wood beams in the ceiling, windows and balconies providing vistas of the mountains, stone paths that are treacherous in the rain and a whole lot of character.

The village starts half-way down a mountain with a small “meeting room.”

Stairs wind down from there to the rest of town, which contains about a dozen or so villas complete with old wooden doors split in half that latch on the bottom and lock on top, and private rooms for guests.

During the time there, I explored every nook and cranny of the tiny enclave. Each day, I discovered something new — an old laundry building with the large water basins, a church in ruins, a pond, paths to other abandoned towns in the area.

This was my home for six days of speaking a lot, a lot, a lot. About me. About America. About everything and anything. And this was the place where I would make lifelong friends simply because I had volunteered to talk.

When I arrived that Sunday afternoon, I didn’t think it would be possible to really get into the program, but it was much easier than I thought.

My home for six days.

13 comments

  1. Those clever Vaughan people win another convert, willing to travel to Spain at own expense, and “volunteer” to teach for a week or so. They don’t pay for advertising, they don’t pay for teachers, they keep the cost of accommodation and food pretty minimal. And their cultish volunteers make them a cracking profit. Wish I could come up with a money making machine so clever that the exploited teachers think I am doing them a favor.

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    1. I think it is a great experience. I was in Spain already, so there was no additional cost for me to get there. Sure, they didn’t pay me, but I didn’t care. For me, it wasn’t about getting paid, it was about being exposed to the people in the program and learning about the Spanish culture, which I did. As for the accommodation and the food, it was great. I had a private room in a villa and the food was actually not minimal at all — buffet breakfast, three course meals for lunch and dinner with wine. I recognize it is a business but do not think I was exploited in any way at all. It extended my time in Spain a week, gave me free food and lodging in Spain and introduced me to people who are now lifelong friends. I have spent the majority of my week in Madrid with these people who were participants in the program and volunteers and am thankful for the program because it allowed me the opportunity to have these people in my life. It was my PLEASURE to work with the participants and help them improve their English. It felt GOOD. It’s like ANY volunteer program. It could have been Pueblo Ingles, or any other similar program and I STILL would have taken exactly what I took out of it. And, you know what? I am doing it again on Sunday.

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  2. Most volunteer programs are not run by profit making organisations. It is not like “any” volunteer program and many of the older people who go to it from the USA and Canada go at considerable personal expense. If people understand that there free labour is earning someone a considerable profit, that’s fair enough. If you want to work to line someone else’s pocket, that’s fair enough. But many English speakers who go to Vaughan town, or whatever they are calling it these days, do not understand how much money is being made by a private individual (not a non-profit organisation) from their unpaid work. The fact that the place has so many word of mouth fans just proves there is a sucker born every minute. PT Barnum would have been proud. In my opinion, a cynical and morally dubious outfit.

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  3. I’d be interested to know if TimeZoneTraveler has actually participated in a VaughanTown program.

    I have no intention of the defending the company per se, I would agree that it has some questionable practices.
    However, the immersion English program is for the benefit of the Spanish participants – and that is why the Anglos go. It’s perfectly clear from the website that it’s a profit-making business, I don’t think there’s any pretence of it being some kind of charity.

    Yes, in an ideal world, they would at least pay your airfare and your accommodation in return for your volunteer involvement in the program but it’s not an ideal world.
    I’ve done 10 programs, with my eyes wide open, and I will say that what I get out of it as far as a personal experience, as well as what I feel I contribute towards the Spanish participants personally, far outweighs the negative aspects of the company as a whole. The same goes for Pueblo Inglés, the other Madrid-based company running the same kind of program at different venues.

    There are pros and cons to the whole thing, but calling the volunteers “suckers” is a bit much. I’m sure there are people who have done the program and didn’t like it, for whatever reason, and that’s fair enough – don’t come back. But those people who return, sometimes from other continents, are clearly getting a lot more out of it than TimeZoneTraveler can possibly appreciate – maybe “cynical” would be better applied to the writer, not the company.

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  4. Wow, someones angry. Sounds like the food and lodging was a fair trade to me. Doesn’t sound like it was hard work either. Also, it’s not D’s problem that the Spanish customers of the program paid too much. Get over it grumpy.

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  5. To EMSR2D2
    Yes, she has participated. Back when it was called Pueblo Ingles, Time Zone Traveler attended the programme run in La Alberca Spain. Since then, the company has split in two, I believe, with Vaughan town being what’s left after the breakaway.

    As far as the programme being for the benefit of the Spaniards and Portugese who attended, of course that is true but they (or usually their employers) pay for the programme. And what they paid when I was there more than covered their costs, my costs and a healthy markup.

    I’m going to retire from this conversation now because I’ve already experienced being flamed online (and my editor at a major daily newspaper) by Vaughan’s glazed-eyed, frozen-smiled cult fans and followers.

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  6. Yes, they used to be one company and now they’re two, pretty much identical. Pueblo Inglés still run programs though at different locations, but for 8 days, not 6.

    And yes, what the Spaniards pay does cover their accommodation and food, that of the Anglos, the salaries of the 2 people who run the program and of course then there’s a profit. I still don’t see what the issue is. There is no pretence made about the fact that it’s a business. Just because you’re called a volunteer, doesn’t mean it has to be for a non-profit.

    The simple fact remains that, money aside, what the programs set out to do, they generally achieve. Just because there are flaws in the parent company (and there are many) doesn’t mean that the participants don’t get a hell of a lot out of it. Like our lovely blogger here, I’ve made lifelong friends from the programs and learnt more than I could ever have expected.

    As far as flaming goes, I saw none in the blogger’s response, nor in mine. I would say that calling complete strangers “glazed-eyed, frozen-smiled cult followers” would probably qualify as flaming, though! Posting a very negative comment on a blog by someone who clearly enjoyed their experience, but then walking away from what could be a healthy, intelligent conversation about it, seems like a somewhat puerile response.

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  7. This sure beats my slooow Spanish study here in Costa Rica! I need to do an immersion program. Oh, I am just so happy you love Spain! Catching up on all of your blog entries now. Miss you!

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  8. Thank you so much, this was very interesting. I was actually born in Spain (I’m not telling what year though!) but moved around various parts of europe and lastly settled in the UK when I was 7. I dont remember an awful lot of the few years I was in spain, but the delicious smell of spanish food always seems to get me going or something. Funny, how I dont remember anything except the smells,isn’t it! I actually found a whole website dedicated to spanish recipes, which gave me great delight and thought I really should to share with your readers. Anyway, thank you again. I’ll get my son to add your feed to my rss thing…

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