If I were to say that my experience thus far in Spain has been fun, it would not come close to doing it justice. Amazing, fascinating, inspiring, crazy and incredibly exhausting at times would come a bit closer. The truth is that it is quite difficult to put these past six weeks into words. I will do my best to share a little taste of this flavorful adventure and will end with a few “consejos” (bits of advice) for those who plan on traveling to Madrid in the future.
A few friends and I decided to fly to Spain a week early, drop our suitcases off at our houses in Madrid and take a train to Valencia.
Our main goal of our trip to the east coast of Spain, along with getting to know the city, the culture and the beaches, of course, was to attend the famous festival in Bunol called La Tomatina. Thousands of people from all around the world flock to this tiny town just outside of Valencia to spend the morning throwing squashed tomatoes at each other.
I know it sounds crazy, but believe it or not, the whole town comes together to host this traditional festival. Stores literally board up their windows (so that they are not invaded by tomatoes), women set up booths of food for hungry travelers, and men and children stand in front yards and on balconies with buckets of water (sometimes buckets of sangria) and hoses to water down tomato-covered festivalgoers.
After the event, everyone spends the day, dancing, eating and talking (in whatever language we could find in common and often a mixture of two languages) in the streets.
Back to Madrid
After our adventure in Valencia we returned to Madrid by bus (we learned quickly that buses cost half the price as trains) and spent our first night with our host-mom, Carmen. She is a feisty, but incredibly caring, Spanish woman who barely comes up to my shoulder, has her makeup perfectly done each day and has a white poodle named Charlie who is her pride and joy. She absolutely loves helping us get ready to go out at night and never fails to say as we leave the house, “Que guapas son mis ninas!” which means, “How beautiful are my girls!”
Orientation in Toledo
For orientation we all (the SMU group and the USD group) took buses to Toledo and spent two nights there learning about the city, about Spanish culture and about the next semester we would be spending in this beautiful country.
Toledo, one of the former capitals of the Spanish Empire, is called the City of the Three Cultures because of the coexistence of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures. It was amazing to see a beautiful Christian cathedral and then a couple blocks away see a gorgeous synagogue.
Weekends in Madrid
Classes started the next week and we were off … Some students chose to travel the following weekends, but I decided that I wanted to spend the first few weekends getting to know Madrid.
I explored the city by going on numerous walks and runs, setting out in a different direction each time I left the house in order to cover every part of my map … yes I have a map, and yes I literally had it attached to my hip everywhere I went the first couple weeks … my friends made fun of me at first but took it back at the end of the day when we realized we had no idea how to get home without it.
I adventured through El Retiro Park (the most beautiful park in the whole city), toured El Palacio Real, went to a Bull Fight, learned the metro system and tested out the night life (which included going to a seven-story nightclub). I visited the Prado and the Thyssen museums and found a park with a track, a driving range and fountains where the locals like to lay out and read by. I made friends with some of the madrilenos (people from Madrid) and went out dancing with them, which was a blast.
One Saturday, a group of us sported our Ronaldo jerseys and went to the famous Bernabeu soccer stadium to watch a Real Madrid game. It was such an awesome feeling to be caught up in the excitement of the game amid thousands of Real Madrid fans in the huge, beautiful stadium.
Day trip to Segovia
The school took us on a day trip to Segovia, which is located just north of Madrid in the province of Castilla y Leon. The aqueduct of Segovia is one of this city’s most well-known symbols as well as my favorite site in Segovia. It was built at the end of the 1st century A.D. by the Romans. The section that remains in Segovia is one of the most well-preserved and reaches up to 100 feet created with 20,400 granite blocks that are engineered perfectly together without using mortar or clamps. (In photo at top)
I was in awe as I stood beneath it imagining the dedication and skill it took to create such an amazing and useful structure and how awesome it was that so many years later it is still standing.
This was just the first two weeks of my trip … more to follow!
Leela’s Lil’ List of “Consejos” (from actual experiences)
1. Send your visa request in two years before your planned departure … OK, that is an exaggeration, but honestly do start the paperwork asap (meaning after your first orientation) unless you want to have to pay to FedEx it overnight, take the chance of it getting lost like mine did, and having it hand-delivered by a random elderly couple in a mini van.
2. Use the Metro; it is one of the most amazing systems ever created. I paid 2 euros to get from the airport to my house in Madrid in 25 minutes and my friends paid 25 euros to go the same distance in 20 minutes. Also it is only closed from 1:30 am to 6 am, so if you want to really embrace the Spanish lifestyle, stay out at the clubs until about 5:55 am and catch the metro home. However, if you are not in a hurry, walking or running through the city is the best way to get your bearings and discover new places.
3. Never take flowers from a gypsy. Period. (They will try to give you a flower and then try to charge you 5 euros for it and/or attempt to steal from your purse).
4. Go to late-night churros and chocolate.
5. Go Tapas hopping (you go from bar to bar ordering different types of traditional Spanish plates and sharing them with all with your friends). Traditionally if you go in a group of four people you would go to four bars, three people three bars etc. and a different person pays for the whole group at each bar.
6. MEET MADRILENOS! Talk to the locals when you go out, go to the various language exchanges offered around the city, join a Spanish youth group, meet your neighbors, discover local bars, make conversation with the elderly ladies sitting next to you on the bus and make friends with the “abuelitos” who own the fruit stand down the street.
7. If you are vegetarian, first don’t say so too loud in public, and second specify that that means you don’t eat chicken or fish … or steak, or pork or lamb etc.
To be continued …