Day 32 in Spain: My Last Day Here

As much as I don’t want to say this, today is my last day here in Spain. I really cannot believe how quickly this experience has gone by, and how incredible it has been. I remember posting about my first days here, not having my suitcase because the airline lost it, feeling like an outsider in a foreign country, wondering why I thought I would be able to do something like this, outside of my comfort zone. Ever since I was younger, I have always wanted to go to Spain. If I had a writing prompt in class, if someone asked me where I would want to travel if given the opportunity, and if I could dream about going anywhere, all led to Spain. And now I’m actually here. As I reflect on these past few weeks, I couldn’t be more grateful for having been able to have such a great experience.

As you could probably tell from my posts, I had classes Monday through Thursday every week, and since the semester was compacted into four weeks, the course work was pretty insane so it didn’t leave me much time to travel during the school week. However, I took advantage of every weekend I had by touring Sevilla, exploring Madrid, going to Pamplona for el Encierro (running of the bulls), seeing Barcelona, and getting a chance to visit Granada. Not to mention, I lived in Alcalá de Henares, a city with lots of history as you may have read in my previous post, so if you ask me, I think it’s safe to say that this was most definitely a successful trip.

Besides for taking classes and traveling, there was one more very important aspect of the trip that I haven’t really spoken about yet. During these past few weeks I stayed with a host family, which to be quite honest, I was very skeptical about. Upon signing up for this study abroad program, we were given the option of staying in an apartment with other students or living in an apartment or house with a host family. Both options had their pros and cons- for example, living in an apartment allows you to have your own freedom, but you have to cook and clean for yourself on a daily basis. On the other hand, living with a host family allows you to soak up the culture as much as possible while receiving all the benefits such as a clean living space, food, and the washing of your clothes and sheets every week. The only downside is if you get placed with a family you don’t like/get along with or if you don’t like the food that your host family cooks. And after reading the cons of living with a host family, I wasn’t exactly too excited to start the program. However, on the first day the program started, I met my host mom and she hugged me and held my arm as we walked back to her apartment. She introduced me to her 8-year-old son and we all had lunch together. My Spanish was a little rusty but I stuck with it and made it through lunch.

After we ate, I unpacked my things, took a shower, and then napped for a bit. I can’t say that I was expecting to eat dinner as late as we did (past 10:30 at night), but I slowly got used to eating lunch at around 2:30 in the afternoon and dinner at around 10:30/11:00 every night. Not to mention, the whole siesta thing was great! In Spain, everyone “siestas” or takes naps during the hours of 2:30-5 o’clock P.M. everyday. During this time, you won’t find any open stores or shops, so you’re left to go home to siesta as well. The reason for doing this is because 2:30-5:00pm is when it is hottest outside, so this gives people a chance to go home and relax inside, and come back to work in the afternoon when it’s cooler. Hey, any culture that doesn’t look down upon napping works well for me.

As the weeks passed, I liked my family more and more each day. My host mom treated me like her own son and her son is like the little brother I never had. So looking back on this experience, I couldn’t have asked for a better host family, seeing as not only were they the reason that my Spanish has improved on this trip (since we only spoke in Spanish in the house), but they made my time here in Spain more enjoyable and more homely. I hope to be able to return to Spain in the near future because not only is there still so much I want to see, but it is the place that I have always wanted to go and the place that I’ll always want to return to. Besides, I have a family here now too, so what more could I possibly ask for?

So, it has been an incredible experience here in Spain and I can’t say I’m excited to head home in the morning (aka a few hours) but I can say that I’m excited to start yet another new chapter of my life and see where life takes me. Hopefully it will be back to Spain! In the meantime thanks for following all of my adventures here in Spain. It truly has been the experience of a lifetime, and until next time; Viva España!

Days 31 and 32 in Spain: Finally Seeing Alcalá de Henares

On my third and second to last days in Spain, I decided to explore the city I had been living in, Alcalá de Henares. “Alcalá” comes from the Arabic word “citadel” on the river of Henares. The city is about 30 minutes away from the center of Madrid, but is known to be a famous World Heritage Site due to the fact that Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quijote was born here. My friends and I walked through the “Casa Natal de Cervantes” (birth house of Cervantes) but to be quite honest, it looked more like a museum than a house. There is a hospital right next to the house where Cervantes’ father used to work as a doctor, back in the day, so you can definitely get a feel for the history that this city has to offer. Not to mention, there are columns on the main street from the Roman times, in addition to remnants from a fallen Roman cathedral from this era. The city prides itself off its history, but more so than anything is the fact that famed author Cervantes was born here. Their main plaza is called “Plaza de Cervantes,” with a big statue commemorating his work in the center, there are various murals of different scenes of Don Quijote painted throughout the city, and of course, every souvenir shop sells some kind of Don Quijote related item.

In my opinion, life in Alcalá is definitely more relaxing and stress-free than that of America. Well, to put something out there, the unemployment rate in Spain is in the high twenty percent area, so don’t get me wrong, life here can be very difficult if you are in fact unemployed. However, people make time to surround themselves with friends and family, make time for themselves, but more importantly, they make time. Period. Between the hours of around 2 o’clock to 5:30 in the afternoon, all of the shops close for “Siesta.” During this time, people go home, eat lunch, and take a nap or relax. The reason behind this is because the heat is so incredibly unbearable during these hours that the people go home to take some needed time off from work and stay out of the heat. After 5:30, people go back to work and for those who are either finished with work, or aren’t working at the time, they go and hang out outside in the local parks or in the main plaza. I couldn’t believe that people were actually sitting outside, talking and enjoying the scenery because it isn’t often that you see something along these lines back in the states. We tend to become so focused with work and with our own lives that we don’t make time to appreciate our surrounding environment and to just relax. It was great to see such a refreshing sight here in Alcalá, as the people were able to put aside their daily stressors to just  connect with one another.

The school we attended, Universidad de Alcalá is a school with lots of history (being hundreds of years old), and has agreements with many American universities with regards to study abroad and exchange programs. The school and the city are both beautiful, and even though there wasn’t as much to do here as bigger cities, the local transportation was never a problem, so we were able to have both the incredible scenery and history of this city, while having the fun nightlife and excitement of neighboring cities; the perfect combination for a great study abroad trip!

Days 23 and 30 in Spain: Exploring Madrid

In an attempt to spare everyone from various posts each time I travel to Madrid, I decided to combine two different trips into one post. Last Tuesday, a few of my friends and I went on a field trip with our program director to see the Museo del Prado in Madrid. We walked around the city for a bit at first, but as you’ll notice, I won’t be posting any pictures of that since most of my pictures are the same as ones I have previously posted. We started our trip off by passing the National Library which is closed off to those who don’t have a specific library pass, and made our way over to a local brewery. I was one of “those” people who ordered a soda at the beer factory so try not to judge me too much. The reason why we held off on going to the museum until later in the afternoon was because most big tourist attractions in Madrid as well as throughout Spain have free visiting hours (which is definitely something to look into before making plans when traveling around Spain) and it just so happens that the Del Prado Museum’s free hours are in the late afternoon. By the time 6 o’clock in the evening came around, we stood in line and got in for free. (Something you’ll quickly realize when traveling abroad is that anything free is a huge perk!).  Seeing as the Del Prado Museum has over 7,000 paintings and is known to be one of the biggest and most famous museums in the world, it was jam-packed everywhere we turned. Our professor walked us around and showed us the main paintings and gave us a history lesson on each one and unfortunately, the museum prohibits picture taking, but I was lucky enough to get one picture in before finding out that I wasn’t allowed to do so. We saw paintings by famous artists including El Greco, Murillo, Goya, and Velazquez, and each one was more interesting than the next! It was truly amazing to see what kind of history and in-depth background information each and every painting has. Museo Del Prado is definitely a “Must” on any to-do list in Madrid, and it was really a great, culturing experience as well!

This past Tuesday, one of my classes took an excursion to Madrid as well, and we went to el Barrio de Letras, a quarter in Madrid dedicated to famous authors and poets from back in the day. As we walked around the quarter, we saw where certain authors grew up, where they gained inspiration for novels and stories, and even a famous cathedral where a lot of them got married. I had to write a paper on our trip so I’m pretty much just going to translate it into English and use it here. (Hey at least I’m honest).

Before the excursion officially began, we saw the House of Congress, surrounded by police officers (which was definitely a cool sight to see). Our trip to el Barrio de las Letras commenced at a statue of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes was the one who wrote Don Quijote de la Mancha, the second most translated book in the world (after the Bible). We then walked over to Lope de Vega’s house which is also a museum. Cervantes and Lope de Vega didn’t exactly see eye to eye, and Cervantes even referred to him as a “monster” because Lope de Vega wrote over 3,000 plays during his lifetime, an incredible number of works! (And most of us find it hard to find enough days in the week to keep up with our blogging). Not to mention, Vega was recognized for them while he was still alive, whereas Cervantes was recognized after he died.

After learning about the rivalry between the two authors, we walked along a street famous for providing inspiration to Cervantes. He was known to write various scenes of Don Quijote on this particular street, so it was pretty cool to see where he gained some of his inspiration from. We progressed on and saw yet another famous author’s house, Don Francesco de Ovedo Villegas. Not too far from here was a street dedicated to gossiping. Since works from this time period were known to criticize society, authors had the actors of their plays gossip as a means of getting the critizing across. So it was only suitable to have a street dedicated to gossiping and criticizing society and the lives of others, right?

Back to Cervantes, he had requested to be buried in the Convent of the Trinity (el convento de las trinitarias) and was in fact buried there, but his tomb was removed a few years later to an unknown location. Finally, we concluded our trip with la iglesia de San Sebastian (a church) where Cervantes had his funeral (not burial) and where many authors of this time were baptized or had their weddings and/or other processions. Unfortunately, the museums and the cathedral were closed by the time we got there, but it was still neat to be able to walk through “literary history” in Madrid.

Days 25-28 in Spain: Granada!!

I spent this past weekend traveling to Granada, located  in the south of Spain. “Granada is the former moorish stronghold of Spain and came to prominence in 1200’s at peak of Muslim power. Even after Seville and Cordoba fell to Catholic monarchs,Granada stood as last surviving Islamic capital in Spain. It’s where the sultans took their final stand against Catholic invaders. Fleeing Seville and Cordoba to the west, thousands of Moors flocked here. Many of them were artisans and the Alhambra and other buildings testify to their skills. In 1492 Granada fell to the Catholic and Queen Isabella began to “Christianize” Granada, ordering the construction of a cathedral and royal chapel. She also ordered that Muslim mosques be repurposed for Christian use (Frommer’s Seville, Granada, and the best of Andalusia).

Even though it was scorching hot during the day, the incredible sites that this city has to offer made the heat tolerable. We left for Granada on Thursday night, and arrived around 10 o’clock at night. We checked into the Residencia we were staying at (a friend of mine from this trip studied abroad in Granada last year and stayed in a dorm with other students and a host mom, so she recommended that we stay here too), and upon checking in, we walked around the city to prepare for the weekend ahead of us. On Friday morning, we woke up and got an early start to the day. We grabbed breakfast at a local cafe, and headed over to the Museo De Las Cuevas Del Sacromonte. Granada is known for the numerous caves throughout the city, housing gypsies, restaurants, clubs, and museums. We went to the most well-known museum and learned about the “gypsy” culture and their way of life living in the caves. It was definitely interesting to say the least, and these gypsies seemed to have lived in luxury because there was more cold air in their caves than there was outside! After the museum, we grabbed lunch and headed over to La Alhambra which is an amazing historical site housing various palaces, gardens, army barracks from centuries ago, and has an immaculate view of the city everywhere you turn. We had to purchase our tickets to get in a few days in advance because only 7,700 tickets are sold a day, which may seem like a lot, but seeing as this is probably the most well-known tourist attraction in Granada, everyone tries to get in. La Alhambra was built in the mid 14th century by Arab rulers, which is evident when looking at the beautiful Arab designs every which way you look throughout all of the palaces. Not to mention, the gardens throughout the whole site are beyond astonishing, and really make you want to never leave!

We walked around every possible area of La Alhambra until they were getting ready to close, and decided to spend the remainder of the evening “tapas hopping.” Granada is known to be one of the few remaining cities in Spain where almost every restaurant or bar you go to offers a free “tapas” (or mini appetizer) for every drink you purchase. So my friends and I took this opportunity to “culturize” ourselves by taking advantage of this offer. We drank and ate tapas in various restaurants, and headed back to our residencia to get a good night sleep before waking up early again the following day. When Saturday morning came around, we went to a churreria by our residencia, and ate churros con chocolate, a typical dish here in Spain. The churros were so fresh and the chocolate was so thick that the combination really hit home for those of us who have a sweet-tooth (or a mouth full of sweet-teeth). We continued our explorations by checking out the Catedral de la Encarnacion de Granada, a beautiful cathedral located right next to where we were staying. We then headed over to the Plaza de Toros, Granada’s bullfighting stadium. The stadium was pretty cool to see, and even though I didn’t think it would be, it was completely different from the one I had seen in Sevilla. The stadium was open for us to walk through on our own, and although there were no guided tours going on (and we were the only ones here), we were able to go onto the bullfighting field which was pretty fun. Our next stop was the Federico Garcia Lorca park, named after a famous Spanish writer known for his controversial plays and works. After checking out the park, we went to Albayzín, known to be Granada’s most fascinating quarter with it’s breathtaking views of the city and gorgeous architecture. When we finished up at Albayzín, we walked made our way over to a teteria, Arab lounges that serve tea, traditional Middle Eastern pastries, and caximbah (also known as hookah or water pipe). After relaxing and enjoying tea in the teteria, we walked through the Mercado de Artesania, an Arab/Moroccan market selling souvineers and handmade middle eastern goods, showing the true roots of this city’s history. We practically bargain shopped until it just wasn’t possible anymore, and when we finished, we ran back to the residencia, relaxed a little, showered and went out for the night. We grabbed dinner first at another tapas bar and took a cab to Cambodia, a club famous for being located in a cave in the Albayzín area. The view at night from this club was remarkable, and definitely set the scene to have an awesome night.

Unfortunately, time flew quicker than we could imagine and before we knew it, the sun had risen and it was time to head back home to Alcala. If you couldn’t already tell, Granada was beyond amazing, and now holds the title for my favorite city here in Spain. It was so great that I’m even thinking about studying abroad there sometime once the program I’m currently on finishes. I guess we’ll see what happens, but it’s definitely a thought in my mind :)

Days 18-21 in Spain: Barcelona!!

This past weekend was one of the best yet while in Spain because I finally got a chance to go to Barcelona. Yes, Barcelona; the place we all dream about visiting (or at least I always have). It all started out on Thursday night when I took the Ave from Madrid, Spain’s fast train which got me there in a little over three hours, and arrived at my hostel at midnight. I went to sleep, but the next day was jam-packed with awesome sightseeing. My friends and I started off at Plaza de Cataluñya, which is Barcelona’s main plaza, housing various monuments, and incredible fountains. We then proceeded to walk through La Rambla, Europe’s biggest market with over three hundred stalls containing flowers, foods, souvenirs, art, jewelry, and anything else you can imagine. It was like a tourist’s dream come true! After making our way through the crowds on the street and taking in all that the market had to offer, we found a side market called, “Mercat St. Josep,” also known as “Mercat de la Boqueria” which had all the food and drink essentials possible! (Keep in mind that here in Barcelona, people speak a different dialect of Spanish called Catalan. This is why is why the market, for example is called “Mercat” and not “Mercado”). This side market was amazing! They had the freshest fruits and vegetables I have seen in a while, and all of the colors throughout the market were truly breathtaking. Not to mention, you could also purchase fish and/or meat here to prepare at home, or ones that are already prepared for you.

If you couldn’t already guess, as we neared the end of the market, my conscience was telling me to not blow my money here, and as difficult as it was to obey, I held off on purchases here. We continued on to the Barrio Gotico, Barcelona’s oldest quarter. There were many side streets, restaurants, and entertainment and  the architecture here was impeccable! (You can tell I get excited talking about my adventures when I use strong adjectives and exclamation marks). We came across a really great cathedral in the area, but unfortunately weren’t able to go in since not everyone in my group was dressed appropriately. However, that didn’t stop us from enjoying this old quarter, and we even decided to treat ourselves by having Melindros y Chocolate, a typical dessert in Barcelona, at an old, quaint pastelería (bakery). Once we refueled with baked goods, we continued to walk on until we came across Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllló, a house designed for a middle class family in the late eighteen hundreds, and with its unique structure, you can tell that it’s definitely different than any other building in the neighborhood. After passing this attraction, we made our way over to the Sagrada Familia, an extremely famous cathedral which was also designed by Gaudi. The details of the building, both inside and out were beyond what one can imagine, and I truly cannot even begin to explain how remarkable the architecture was. We then went underground to a smaller church where Gaudi is buried, and gained a ton of appreciation for his work. The night concluded with going out to a local club, so you can put the pieces together on your own with regards to how that went.

On Saturday morning, my friends and I ate at a small cafe shop on La Rambla, where we got to watch passersby and enjoy the surrounding scenery. When we finished, we walked up a mountain by the pier and took cable cars across to a building which allowed us to view all of Barcelona. As I’m sure you can guess, the view was incredible, and it almost made me not fear having to ride back to the mountain in the cable cars again. When we finally finished with the scenery part of the trip, we hopped on the metro and went to the other side of town where we took a tour of the Estadio Camp Nou, the stadium where Barcelona’s soccer team, Barcelona FC plays. The stadium was bigger than anything I have ever seen before, and there was even a museum inside which informed us of the team’s history and housed the countless trophies they won in the past! By the time we finished with the stadium tour, it was time to head back to our apartment which we rented out and get ready for the night ahead of us. The evening began with a 30 minute Flamenco show at Los Tarantos, a local bar and theatre. The show was by far one of the best dances I have seen thus far, and it made me fall in love with Flamenco dancing. Unfortunately, my camera died by the time the show started, but I am now able to say that I saw a flamenco show and it was better than anything I could have imagined!

After being thoroughly entertained, my friends and I grabbed dinner at a local restaurant and headed to the Dow Jones Bar afterwards. This stock market-themed bar has a big screen for all of the costumers to watch, with a set list of shots and drinks and prices next to each one. Every few seconds, the prices of the drinks change (like the stock market) according to which drinks are being purchased at that moment. Each hour, there is a stock market crash, and all of the drink prices are lowered significantly, and this is the time that everyone runs to the bar to place their order before the prices go up again. This unique and fun bar brought drinking and learning to a whole new level, and with that, my trip concluded the following morning. Before leaving, I made sure to drink plenty of water from the Fountain of Canaletas because it is rumored that those who drink from the fountain will return to the city, so we’ll see what happens! Needless to say, I had such a great time in Barcelona, and can only hope that my next adventure is as fun as this one!

Day 14 in Spain: Exploring Madrid

Considering the fact that these next two weekends will be dedicated to traveling in other cities, I decided to spend this past Sunday (yesterday) in Madrid to explore all that the city has to offer. In comparison to the US, I’d have to say that Madrid is like our New York City. There are so many people in this city, that one traveling alone in this huge city may possibly have no idea what to do with himself/herself. Luckily I was with a small group of friends, so I didn’t have to worry about the overpowering size of the surrounding environment, and was able to take in all the sights. Madrid is so fast-paced and everyone there is either running to or from work, running to or from home, running across the streets before the lights change colors, running around as crazy tourists trying to jam-pack their days and get in all the famous monuments, but wherever you turn, someone is running. Such a crazy city can really make ones head spin, but I tried to not let the living in the fast-lane mentality of Madrid get to me.

We started the day off by going to El Rastro, also known as the Thieves Market, because of all the pickpocketing that takes place here. The market was truly incredible! Anything you could possibly ask for, they had. Clothes, souvenirs, playing cards, collectors items, antiques, junk (in a few stands), toys, art; they literally had everything! The market is only open on Sundays from the morning until 2pm, so once the vendors started breaking down their stands, we headed over to our next destination, La Plaza Mayor. This central plaza, located in the heart of Madrid dates back to the 1500’s and has been reconstructed in the 1700’s due to various fires. Its history and beauty is truly breathtaking, and you’re always guaranteed to find street performers and entertainers close by to keep you on your feet.

Next stop on the list was the Mercado San Miguel, a market place right next to the Plaza Mayor. This market has private vendors, each of whom all sell different tapas, drinks, desserts, you name it. You literally walk from one food vendor to the next with pocket change and taste the incredible food that they offer. Once we sampled enough food to keep us satisfied for a while longer, we walked over to the Museo de Jamón, which is the Ham Museum, just a few blocks down the road. This museum offers a wide array of pork selections, and even though I don’t eat pork, everything looked great. I had the only non-pork item on the menu, which was chicken, which was good, but nothing worth writing any more about. After recharging ourselves, we walked over to the Parque del Retiro, which is an over 350-acre park that Spanish monarchs from back in the day used to spend time at, and entertain guests here. Various statues and monuments can be found throughout the park, and its beauty is truly mesmerizing. My friends and I enter a rowboat to further explore all that the park had to offer, and it was definitely refreshing considering the dry heat all around us in Madrid.

Finally, after making our way out of the park, we walked over to the Jardines del Museo del Prado, an incredible garden area by the Del Prado Museum, one of the most famous museums in the world. The gardens were amazing, as you can see in the pictures, but unfortunately, by the time we made it over to the museum, they were closed. However, it’s a great reason to come back to Madrid soon to check it out again! Not to mention, we found inexpensive tickets to a flamenco show and found out times for upcoming bullfights so you can count on another post about Madrid in the near future!

Spanish words of the day: mercado- market; cuánto cuesta- how much does it cost (singular); cuántos cuestan- how much do they cost (plural) — both useful when making a purchase or preparing to bargain with a street vendor

Days 12 and 13 In Spain: El Encierro, Running of the Bulls

Yesterday was the first day of the running of the bulls, also called “encierro” (from the verb encerrar, meaning to fence in) of the 2012 year, here in Pamplona Spain. Each year, the opening ceremony commences on July 6th and the 7th marks the first of a seven-day celebration, otherwise known as the festival of Sanfermines. The festival is from July 6th to 14th every year, and the first bull run of the festival is always the most crowded and anticipated one. Spectators line up hours before the run to get a good spot (similar to the dropping of the ball every New Year), and at 8:00 a.m., a rocket is set off to alert the runners that the gate containing the bulls has been opened. A second rocket is then set off to inform people that the bulls have been released to run. A third and fourth rocket are later set off to inform people across town that the event has concluded, seeing as the bulls made it to the bull ring. The runs don’t usually last more than four minutes, and those who stand by to watch the run don’t get a chance to see more than a few seconds of it since it is so high paced.

My friends and I took a two and a half hour train to a city called Soria, and then from there took a three-hour bus to Pamplona, where craziness was residing. Swarms of people were dressed in all white clothing with red bandanas around their necks and red scarfs around their waists. By this time (one in the morning), everyone was beyond drunk, partying in the streets, inside and outside the bars, and anywhere else where there was room to party. My friends and I walked around for a while to acquaint ourselves with the city (meaning we weren’t sure where we were and didn’t know where to go), but eventually found a place to change into the proper attire, bought whatever food we could, and bought containers of sangria to join the party. By the time we accomplished all of the above, it was already 2:30 am, so we made our way over to the start of where the run takes place to get a good spot for the morning. We sat on the side of the street from 3:00 am until the start of the run, 8:00 am. and two hours before the run commenced, the streets were getting even crazier than the night before. Spectators were lining up where we were to watch the run, and people were crowding the streets, preparing themselves to run as fast as they could from numerous bulls who would soon be close behind.

At around 7:50 am, prayers were being conducted throughout the town, and people were getting ready for this incredible event. When 8:00 hit, the rockets were set off, and before we knew it, the bulls had been released and ran right past us! Not to mention, the whole crowd on the street was running for their lives! Before we knew it, the bulls had turned the corner and we saw all that we could.

Once the bulls left our vicinity, we were allowed to walk on the streets again, and tried scouting out restaurants, but everything was packed and people began drinking again, so we decided to go back home. Of course there were plenty of injuries, and I don’t think I have ever seen so many EMT’s in my life, but seeing as I didn’t get injured and I got to experience a once in a lifetime event, I had a blast!

The first run of 2012 that we were at: