Megan in Spain

Megan is a junior journalism major in Meadows School of the Arts, with Spanish and advertising minors. The recipient of an SMU Abroad scholarship, she is excited to experience the Madrileño culture, as well as the culture of Spain, and to improve her language skills.

Ahoj, Praha!

Old Town Square, Prague. Look at that tree!

That’s hello in Czech, by the way! Well where do I begin? My trip to Prague was a dream come true. It was full of fun, memories, Christmas, cold (that’s putting it lightly), friends and even a castle. My last trip while abroad turned out to be to the farthest place from home I’ve ever been, which is perfect (and kind of exciting) as now I have around 10 days until I will be home. Wow! I can’t believe it.

Our flight got in around 5:15 p.m. Thursday, and we were welcomed with darkness. “What?” we said. “Why is it dark already?” We couldn’t believe it, but the sun sets around 4 p.m. and by 4:30 p.m. it is fully dark (due to its location on the farthest edge of its time zone). So Alex and I walk out of the airport and say, “Hey it really isn’t that cold.” But oh, would we ever change our minds!

After taking the bus, then the metro and popping up somewhere in Wenceslas Square, where our directions indicated our hostel would simply “be,” we discovered how cold 15ºF feels like. Oh boy, was it cold! We got to laughing so hard as we shivered and made our way, after asking for directions, to our hostel. I’m not sure if getting inside a building had ever felt so good! (OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it truly felt like when I’ve been skiing all day and my fingers and toes just flat out hurt).

Alex and me in Old Town Square. We like to call ourselves the Michelin Women.

By then we were starving, so we threw on a couple more layers. (My most embarrassing amount of layers by the end of the trip turned out to be — don’t laugh — ski socks, thick waterproof insulated boots, tights, jeans, a tank top, a turtle neck, a cable knit sweater, a thinner fleece, a thicker fleece, gloves, a scarf and a beanie. Yep. And it wasn’t enough!) We headed out to the Christmas markets to find some traditional Czech food. The markets are too cute! They’re full of stands with different ornaments, food, Christmas decorations, slippers, gloves and a few other things. It was like nothing I’ve seen before, and truly got me in the holiday spirit.

But back to the food, Alex found some Klobása (traditional Czech sausage) and I ate a yummy chicken skewer as we walked from Wenceslas Square toward Old Town Square to check out the other main Christmas market. There we stopped , just staring at the beautiful old buildings, lit up wonderfully for the night, and there in the center was a huge Christmas tree and the little market.

Old Town Square

Our next stop was for some dessert (of course!), where we found one of the best crepes I’ve ever had. Nothing like a chocolate and banana crepe to keep warm (actually it just made my fingers colder, as I had to take my gloves off). We walked around enjoying the atmosphere and taking in all the sights, before the cold finally got to us. We called it a night (I grabbed one more snack — some potato, turkey-chicken, cabbage mix) and headed back to the hostel to thaw and get some rest.

Day two we began with a delicious breakfast of blueberry porridge (really good!), then walked out to the river to see Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Charles Bridge is a Gothic bridge from the 1300s with a unique open-air gallery of Baroque statuary. We took lots of pictures of the beautiful river and the castle above, before crossing the bridge to make our way through Lesser Town to Prague Castle.

Prague Castle is actually the “largest coherent castle complex in the world,” and is still used by the president of the Czech Republic for his work and meetings, etc. I was blown away by the extensiveness of the castle, which combines several churches and palaces on top of one of the hills in Prague. We glimpsed the changing of the guard on our way in, and then took the next challenge of our adventure (not really a challenge but fun to say!): climbing 280 some-odd steps to the top of one of the towers of St. Vitus Cathedral, which stands within the castle, to see a view of all of Prague. It was spectacular! I really can’t say anything other than that (and that it was more than worth a little burn in the legs).

After our bird’s-eye view of the city, we poked around the inner wall of the castle for a bit before grabbing lunch in this little medieval restaurant just outside the castle area. We decided to keep with our trend of the total Czech experience and tried the pork goulash (which is a meat in sauce sort of dish). It was really good. I liked just about all the Czech food I tried, but I don’t think I could eat it all the time, ’cause, boy, was it heavy.

Our next stop, after our refueling, was a little gingerbread bakery (smelled so good!), where Alex got her coffee for the day; then we were really ready to continue. The next sight was the John Lennon Wall. It was really interesting to see, and fun to jump into a Spanish tour group and catch a bit of the history. In short, it is a place, and still is today, where young people wrote their beliefs and desires for freedom.

The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering through Old Town Square (wanted to see it in daylight), peeking at the Christmas markets, exploring the Jewish Quarter and jumping in a little café for a cookie to get warm. Our energy and stamina were failing, however, as the cold wind began to cut through those many layers, so we opted to head to the hostel for a little break and do some research on what our next plan-of-action should be.

An hour later, and only halfway thawed out, we met up with another girl from our group, Nikki, for dinner at this Italian place before braving the cold once more to get another crepe (don’t judge, when in Prague…) and soak in every moment we could at the Christmas markets. It would never get old. The Christmas spirit was all around, and everyone simply looked, well, joyful. It was a lovely ending to a lovely day.

My day three was beautiful, as well. This day was special because I got to spend the whole day with a very old family friend who grew up in Prague, had met my Aunt Margaret who was studying in Switzerland, and eventually came to live with my Grandbe and Grandpa in Carlsbad, where she studied at Cal State University San Marcos and became the first foreign student to graduate from there. Lenka is a true sweetheart. She picked me up from my hostel and treated me to breakfast at a nice café that overlooks the river and has a splendid view of Prague Castle. We spent that time, and well pretty much the whole day, talking about how she became connected with my family. It was really something special.

Then she took me to one of the oldest spots in Prague called Vysehrad. Vysehrad and Prague Castle were the two original settlements of Prague; the Prague Castle settlement flourished, and thus, Vysehrad is now ruins. Vysehrad is home to a very old cemetery, in which important Prague people are buried (and some of Lenka’s family too!) and several famous composers, such as Antonín Dvorak who composed “The New World Symphony.”

On the top of the hill also sits a neo-Gothic cathedral, the Church of St. Peter and Paul. While I’ve seen several churches and cathedrals during my time in Europe, I had never seen one whose interior was so colorful. It was beautiful. After having our picture taken with a view of the river and Prague Castle in the background, Lenka and I drove out toward Karlstejn Castle. I know, isn’t it exciting! Another real castle!

We parked at the base of the hill and walked in through the little village below, then there it was, sitting up above in the hills. It was breathtaking in its grandeur. I had to temper my excitement as we waited for our tour time. While we waited Lenka took me into a Nativity Scenes Museum, where there were lots of handmade Nativity scenes —wooden, ceramic, gingerbread, you name it. Some of them even moved! But up in the attic was the special one; it takes up half the attic and moves. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Karlstejn castle

We then grabbed lunch at a little restaurant, where I tried some traditional Czech fried cheese (so good!!!) and veggies. Then it was time to hike to the castle. We walked along (never forget that we are always trying to stay warm!) and up into the castle. Karlstejn has a lot of history, but I’ll just mention that it was founded by Charles IV and at one point even held the crown jewels. We walked around the walls and took lots of pictures, all the while joking about why they didn’t have a room for all of us to wait in so we didn’t freeze while waiting for the tour to begin. However, the inside of the castle wasn’t any warmer (another thing Lenka had pointed out to me before!), but I loved hearing the history and seeing the inside of two of the towers.

By then the sun was almost set and we walked (briskly as we tried to warm up — or, well, I was, I’m sure Lenka is a bit more accustomed to it) back down the mountain to her car and headed for her home. Lenka lives in a little village not far from Prague, with her two kids (I’d try and spell their names but that definitely wouldn’t go very well) and husband, Peter. It is a really nice house, built by Peter; I even had my own little kitchen, bathroom, bedroom-area downstairs.

After settling in a bit, Lenka and I drank some tea to warm up and had some of her homemade tiramisu cake, while we talked and looked through her old photo albums of her time in California. Wow. It was really fun to see pictures of my family and hear her point of view about them and her time at the ranch house. Let me just say that some things never change! She had my family nailed down perfectly! It gave me a good laugh and really showed how wonderfully blessed I am to have the family I do. I can’t wait to see them all at Christmas.

It was also really neat to see a picture of Lenka holding me as a 1-year-old, while, there we were, sitting side-by-side 20 years later. What a blessing it was to spend the day with her.

Before long it was dinner time and Lenka cooked a delicious chicken, vegetable and rice dish for the two of us. We finished up our meal just as Peter and the kids arrived from a family party. The two little ones are precious! We all sat around and laughed at the kids, while Lenka and Peter tried to get them to use some of their English. As the kids headed to bed, the tiredness hit me, so I headed down to crawl into my bed, as well.

The next morning I woke up to a delicious breakfast Lenka had provided. She had me figured out before I even got there, leaving fruit for snack downstairs and having greek yogurt, muesli, fruit and tea for breakfast (I think that has to do with her knowing my mommy! Like mother, like daughter?). I had such a good time getting to talk with her and Peter, seeing her home and meeting her kids. It was a very special experience.

Then, sadly, it was time to head to the airport, but not until we had all taken several pictures together (including a couple at her parents’ weekend house just down the street, where my Aunt Margaret had spent lots of time!). It is never fun to say goodbye, but my time spent with Lenka and her family is one I will always cherish. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return to Prague someday, and see the hidden jewel of Europe once more.

While Prague might have been my last travel adventure while abroad in Spain, I have no doubt there will be many more adventures in the months and years to come. For I have come to understand, more than ever before, that adventures are not simply those times when something rare and exciting, or dangerous and exhilarating, happen; no, adventures can be anything you love, you enjoy and you find uniquely wonderful. Adventures are part of our everyday lives; you just have to know where to look for them.

With Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the background.

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Andalucía!

La Mesquita, Córdoba

Hello! This week my adventures continued as the group headed south to la Comunidad Autónoma de Andalucía (Spain is divided into 17).  Our first stop was the city of Córdoba.  We had some free time to get lunch and sit beneath the orange trees, simply enjoying the warmer weather (the south is much more “Mediterranean” in climate), before our tour of the cathedral.

This cathedral was once an Islamic mosque, and is also called la Mesquita. It is beautiful!  The mix of the Islamic and Christian cultures are especially noticeable in Andalucía because that is the area the Muslims held the longest, before being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by Los Reyes Católicos (Granada is the last city, and our next stop).

The mosque is so unique with double arches striped red and white, but then you consider the chapel in the middle, which as added by the Catholic kings, and it becomes even more unique. This mix of cultures would continue to be a theme of our excursion.

View of La Alhambra from La Plaza de San Nicolas, Granada

After our stop at Córdoba, we continued on to Granada.  I loved Granada!  It was everything I had pictured as being “typical” of Spain: white houses with red roofs and guitarists serenading us as we walked through the streets. That night most of us were really tired from being on the bus all day, so Domenica and I grabbed some yummy froyo and called it a night.

The next morning we were up early and off on a walking tour through the city with Carlos, our awesome tour guide.  We walked all around, seeing the Plaza Nueva, la Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), la Alcaicería (silk quarter), some old Islamic baths and of course just seeing and experiencing the city.  As we walked through the city, which is set somewhat in between two hills, we could see the Arab quarter rising on one side and the Alhambra (huge complex of palaces and gardens) sitting on the top of the other, overlooking the city, guarding it.

The sunset! Simply gorgeous!

After our tour we had the afternoon free to relax and grab lunch, and then the whole group decided to walk up to La Plaza  de San Nicolas, the plaza outside of the church, to watch the sunset.  Apparently, Bill Clinton made viewing the sunset from that point famous when he studied in Granada (kind of funny!); anyways, either way, we had heard that the sunset over Granada was one of the most beautiful in the world.

Now, I’m a sucker for sunsets, so they’re all simply stunning to me, but this was definitely something special.  As we sat, feet dangling over the wall, listening to someone singing in the plaza, staring out at the Alhambra directly across the way, seeing the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas in the distance and watching the colors of the trees and the Alhambra change with the lighting, the sun began to set.  It truly was a sight to see.  The colors were magnificent!

And just when the night didn’t seem like it could get any better …or any more “Spanish”…  we headed back to grab dinner before going back up to see the Alhambra lit up at night and watch a traditional flamenco show!  I am amazed at how fast they can move their feet! It was so fun to see it while in Andalucía, where it originated.

Domenica and I on the wall at La Plaza de San Nicolas

The next morning we headed to the Alhambra with Carlos.  All I can say is wow.  The Alhambra is unbelievable.  It is huge!  It has several palaces and beautiful gardens.  Once again the mix of cultures is evident: Western and Eastern gardens, terraces brought by the Arabs, an Italian palace and absolutely gorgeous Islamic architecture within its other palaces.  I love gardens, and getting to see familiar plants was a nice taste of home: magnolia trees, wisteria, lantana, orange trees, roses.

Aside from the beautiful views from the top, the Islamic architecture within was one of the highlights for me.  Each arch and wall with its minute details is a style of architecture I have seen only on a couple of occasions, and it really is something.  I could go on and on about its uniqueness.  Within one of the courtyards surrounded by beautiful arches is a lion fountain given to the king by a Jewish family; this is one of the only places where you will see all three cultures mixed: Christian, Islamic and Jewish.  I loved seeing the mix of cultures, something we have been learning about in our Spanish Civilization class (Las Tres Culturas), and something I’ve begun to realize is very unique to Spain.

El Palacio de Carlos V in La Alhambra

From the Alhambra, we boarded the bus and headed back to Madrid.  Our final excursion (hard to believe!) was fabulous, just as the other two have been as well.  I feel so blessed to have been able to see so much of this amazing country — from the north to the south —and to experience several different cultures within Spain.  I hope my thirst for learning and seeing more of this beautiful world will never cease!

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El Escorial y Valle de los Caídos

El Escorial

Hey y’all! Today we took a little field trip about an hour outside Madrid to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a small town in the mountains. El Escorial is the home of a beautiful Monastery built by el Rey Felipe II of Spain. El Escorial is a monastery, palace, school, and library today; it is huge!

Apparently, King Felipe II was very religious, and as we are learning in class, fought many wars for Catholicism against the Protestants during his reign. He decided to build this place to display the wealth and power of Spain after one of the battles, where he felt he had lost some control. It is a beautiful place and boasts many paintings, a beautiful basilica, the crypt of the royal family of Spain and a library that holds over 40,000 first editions (so cool!). It was so fun to see and learn the history. One of the girls who works at the Fundación, where I go to class, came with us (and of course our angel, Tania!) and gave us our own little private tour. Sasha is super sweet!

Raha and I at El Escorial

One of my favorite parts was the crypt. Sounds funny, I know, but it was beautiful. The crypt where all the kings and all the queens who have produced an heir (if you know Spanish history, they had lots of problems and lots of wives) are in one room that is made out of two dark-colored marbles accented with gold. It is unreal. It was also interesting that all the tombs hold only bones; we passed the room on the way down to the crypt, where they do the removal of all that other good stuff. The rest of the crypt holds all the princes and princesses, aunts and uncles, etc. who were not a king or queen. The place was just brimming with Spanish history, so it was really cool to see what we had been learning about in class.

After an hour or so lunch break in the little town, we headed back to the good ol’ bus and drove just about 15 minutes to el Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen).  For one, the scenery was breathtaking. Once again I got a good breather from the city and could just inhale the crisp, cool, fresh mountain air. El Valle de los Caídos was actually my favorite part of today, although that is really hard to say! El Valle de los Caídos, besides holding some fabulous views of the pine-covered mountains spotted with brilliant yellow trees, is a mausoleum, monument and basilica built by Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, to honor and bury those who fell during the Spanish Civil War.

The odd thing is how he chose to fashion the mausoleum. It is built to be very imposing, very oppressive, which isn’t so unusual considering Franco’s dictatorship. And I could feel it. It really didn’t seem like a basilica, definitely didn’t feel like a place of worship. It is enormous, and the cross on top is 500 feet tall, to give you some perspective! Franco wanted to show his power.

Inside is rather dark, as you walk into the mountainside, under a large sculpture that mimics the Pieta, and past two large angelic figures with huge swords. Franco is buried in the floor just down from the altar in a round room that seems to be guarded by the four archangels.  The mausoleum has been a subject of great controversy, as Franco buried 20,000 soldiers who fought on his side, but also 20,000 republican soldiers. The problem is that the families of the 20,000 republican soldiers, first, don’t like having them buried with the ‘enemies,’ and second, the republican soldiers were stolen from mass graves. El Valle de los Caídos was a very intriguing stop.

El Valle de los Caídos

After a quick bus ride back, with all of us asleep in the back, we made it back to Madrid. I’m so blessed to be able to see all these new places! It really is something special to see a new part of this great world, and see a part of it so full of history.

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¡España! ¡España! ¡España!

Notice all the flags! ¡Viva España!

That was the chant of the night. Can you hear it? All the spirit typically associated with Spanish fútbol echoing in your ears. Well, it sure was all present at last night’s España vs. Francia FIFA World Cup 2014 Qualifier!

Getting to experience a true partido de fútbol (soccer game) in Spain, where soccer is a matter of life or death, was such a blessing. Our sweet program coordinator, Tania, found these great tickets at really good prices, and despite our midterms the following morning we were all in! It was everything I expected and more.

The Spanish believe in their team; they all wear the colors, everyone gets little plastic Spanish flags, the wave goes around the stadium several times (and everyone participates!), chants start up about every five minutes and the love for their players is almost tangible. Chants of “Casillas!” (“the goalie”…and this chant was usually followed by reverent bowing – haha, although I agree he is amazing! Oh gosh, this one save was perfect! So good!) or “Ramos!” or “Torres!” were among a few of the most common. One guy known as La Bomba de España walks around the whole stadium with a drum (the bomba) that says “Deporte No Violencia,” and starts a chant in each section of the stadium. It was so thrilling! Everything about it; the spirit, the skill, the 91st-minute goal by France to tie it up, 1-1, (boooo!!!!!!! ahhh! So frustrating!) were all components of the night that I will never forget.

Don’t worry, France didn’t score this time! ¡Casillas! ¡Casillas! ¡Casillas!

We all couldn’t get over how we were sitting in about the 8th row from the field where the best soccer players in the world were playing! And do they ever deserve that title! I am always in such awe of how all athletes have such great skills and endurance, and to get to see it up close — well that was really cool! Their footwork is unbelievable! Raha, one of the girls in the group, played soccer for a long time and almost did at SMU, so she was so fun to sit next to. She would explain things or yell her ideas at whom they should pass to etc. and then she’d stop and shake her head and say, “Wait. They probably know way better than me!” Then she’d just go right back to it – haha. It was such a fun night (The only, and I mean only, drawback was the gross amount of smokers. One lady right in front of us had at least six cigarettes during the game, and all the people she was with had at least two. Smoking is still a big thing here. Not complaining, just commenting. It is safe to say I smelled lovely afterward.)

All in all, it was an experience of a lifetime, one that I am so blessed to have had, and will never forget.

Olivia, Raha and I at the game

¡Viva España!

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In awe of northern Spain’s beauty

Speechless. That’s how I felt over the last couple days, during our group trip to San Sebastián and Bilbao, in el País Vasco in the north of Spain. I had heard how the north was supposed to be so green and rainy and more like Scotland than the mesa where Madrid is located, but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for the beauty I would behold. Now, I’m a sucker for green, trees and mountains (LOVE it! I needed a breather from the city!), then add the ocean, a beautiful beach, with Carlsbad-like weather and I was as good as gone (that would refer to San Sebastián, but I’ll get to that later).

The group in Burgos, outside the cathedral

We left Madrid early and headed up via Burgos, which boasts a beautiful cathedral and a REALLY old and still active monastery, el Monasterio de Las Huelgas. We toured the monastery, which at certain points transported me to Hogwarts, no doubt about that! The gothic architecture, mixed with the Muslim influence on the stone’s patterns, was truly a sight to see. With a quick lunch on the road, we made it to San Sebastián in the early evening. (I have to note that as we are entering the mountains and getting deeper into the north, we are all looking at each other, mouths open wide, in utter amazement at the beauty of our surroundings…I’m still in awe.)

A quick stop at the hotel, and we were all racing down to the beach to see if the pictures we’d seen were a true testament to the place—they were! I felt as if I had literally stepped into a picture from a magazine. La Bahía de la Concha was gorgeous, breathtaking and simple. It is a crescent-shaped beach, with a small island in the middle of the harbor, flanked by two small mountains.

After goggling for a while and taking lots of pictures, we headed around the crescent to get some pintxos. Pintxos are País Vasco’s version of tapas, the small snack-like food you are supposed to order/get with your drink. Along with the green and beauty, the north is known for its delicious food; and once again, it did not fail to live up to its reputation. Tania, the program coordinator, took us to the famous pintxos area, where we hopped from bar to bar sampling a pintxo at each. It was a blast! Just good company and great food.

I had the typical Spanish tortilla (egg and potato omelet-like thing), some awesome cheese balls, and, wait for it, a tiburon y gambas skewer—translation: shark and shrimp. Yep. Shark and shrimp. Let me explain. I thought, oh a shrimp skewer (I really wanted something other than bread, which is a staple in tapas and pintxos), I just had that in something abuela had made and it wasn’t so bad. Well as I started eating, I realized it was more than shrimp covered in some sort of coconut or something; it’s chicken, I thought (tasted just like it), finally! I proceeded to tell Tania that I had finally found some chicken in Spain (it’s not very common), when she laughed and said, “¡No, es tiburon!” By that time the skewer was licked clean, so I laughed too, and now I can say I ate shark!

Bahía de la Concha, San Sebastián

That night we got to talk with a couple of Tania’s friends who live in San Sebastián, and hear them talk in Vasco, as well as Spanish. País Vasco is home of another of Spain’s official languages – Vasco or Euskera (by the way, Euskera cannot be traced to any other ancient language, and let me tell you, it looks and sounds NOTHING like Spanish). The night ended and we were all exhausted, but ready for the next adventure.

The following morning I got up early and ran with one of the guys around the Concha Bay. It was like a dream, running in such a beautiful place, with weather like home, such a wonderful experience.  We departed from the hotel and got up a ways on one of the mountains for a panoramic view of the beach and San Sebastián before heading to our next stop. Once again the bus ride was more like an enchanted ride through one of those picture books you leave on your coffee table; the tree-covered mountains dotted with country houses and small pueblos are a sight I will never forget.

We soon arrived at las Bodegas Talai Berri, a winery. The Bodegas makes the typical wine of the region: txacolí. It is a light white wine, with a little bit of carbonation, which you are supposed to drink while it is still young (that’s when it is best). We toured the winery and learned about the process (all in Spanish, mind you, so were all the facts grasped? No, but more than would have been understood a month ago!), then we got to taste it, along with some pintxos. It was pretty good (I have not acquired a taste for wine yet, but pretty much everyone enjoyed it). Then it was off to Gernika to see the Casa de Juntas, an ancient, but still used, government-meeting place for País Vasco.

Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao

Next, we experienced a true Spanish lunch; appetizers, seafood salad, bean soup with a platter of meats, bacalao(cod) and dessert, and two and half hours later we rolled ourselves to the bus to head to Bilbao. The food was excellent, but after shrinking your stomach (as I said before their eating is very different from the US), try stuffing it all in! Oh man! It was like our professora kept saying—a gastronomic experience. That evening we arrived in Bilbao, the largest city in País Vasco, and home of the Guggenheim Museum. It is a beautiful city, as well, with the river running through it and a calm atmosphere. We spent the evening walking around and exploring, before all meeting up for pintxos again and an early bed time. The morning came and we visited the Guggenheim, which is fascinating but not really my type of art. Then, sadly, we began the trip back to Madrid, leaving the land of green and mountains to return to the urban hubbub of Madrid.

The trip was a whirlwind, but one of the highlights of my time abroad, so far. It was a wonderful break from the big city, and such a blessing to experience more of Spain! I still am speechless and in awe of the beauty of this world we get to live in.

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!Barcelona! A taste of Catalunya …

At La Sagrada Familia

This weekend I was blessed to have the chance with three other members of our group to visit Barcelona, a major Spanish port city and the capital of Catalunya – which, I have learned, desires to be the next independent state of Europe. It’s safe to say that the Catalonians are very proud of their culture and language, Catalán (it sounds different than Español, or Castellano, as they call it in Spain; the French influence on Catalán is very evident). One of my profesoras even went so far as to say it may be better to speak in English, not Castellano, since Madrid and Barcelona have quite a bit of animosity toward each other.

La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona is beautiful! It is like no other European city I have seen before. The best way I can describe it is unique. It is definitely influenced by its location on the Mediterranean, and by Gaudí, the architect, as well. Gaudí’s famous buildings –  like the Sagrada Familia, Pedrera and Casa Batlló – are examples of the architecture that characterizes the city. He was inspired by the undulating waves of the ocean and certain trees, which are evident in his works.

Our first afternoon and night we spent exploring Las Ramblas, a street famous for the shops and vendors. We grabbed a late lunch and walked through un Mercat (Mercado, or market) called St. Josep La Boqueria, enjoying the bright colors of fresh fruit and fleeing from the sight of, well, tons of raw meat!

Gaudí’s La Pedrera

Next we walked up to La Plaza de Catalunya, then back down toward the port. We saw the Columbus statue and walked along a boardwalk, then out to Barceloneta, one of the more popular beaches. La puerta is huge, but we had a great tip for a lovely dinner spot, on the water, where we enjoyed the best Paella (a rice and, usually, seafood dish originating in Barcelona) in Barcelona! It was lovely to sit by the sand, feel the ocean breeze and just experience another beautiful city.

Day two we got a good jump on the day, grabbing a nice breakfast at this little hole in the wall near La Sagrada Familia. That church, once again, is like none I have ever seen. It is special – not only because of the architecture of Gaudí, with its unique curves and shapes modeled after plants and fruit native to the Barcelona area, but also because it is still incomplete. Construction began in 1882, but isn’t expected to be finished until close to 2041! The interior is just as spectacular as the exterior, with columns modeled after trees and beautiful stained-glass windows that create a soft ambience. It truly was a sight to see.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the city. We saw the outside of Gaudí’s other two famous buildings, La Pedrera (with wave-like walls and seaweed bannisters) and La Casa Batlló (representing the ocean and Barcelona’s patron, St. George, slaying the dragon). We enjoyed some tapas along a prominent street in the city.  Before we knew it, dinner was upon us, and we headed to La Plaza Real by Las Ramblas for a nice dinner (yummy pizza).

Agbar Tower. (Go SMU!)

After relaxing there for a bit, we grabbed some homemade helado from this cute café called Artisa, before running to catch our night bus tour. Yep. A night bus tour of the city. It was so cool! We saw some of the same sights again, but the lighting gave it a whole new perspective. Some other stops, however, were the Agbar Tower; the Magic fountain, where we saw a gorgeous water, light and music show; the Olympic stadium; and el Pueblo Espanyol.

By the end of the night we were exhausted, but very proud of how much we had managed to see! We left the next morning to head back to Madrid, leaving behind Barcelona but bringing back memories we would never forget.

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¡El Primer Día de Clases!

Today was the first day of classes! I have now experienced 3 out of 4 of my classes here in España. I enjoyed all my professors and believe I will learn a lot (OK, so really no doubt about that!). It was interesting having my whole day in Spanish, in the classroom, outside, todo — all of it. I know it will advance my Spanish rather rapidly, and, for that, estoy emocionada (I am excited).

After my classes I got to help Sofía with her English (and she with my Spanish). She picked a couple of songs in English that we would listen to and then go over the lyrics. It is hard to explain lyrics to someone who speaks another language with all the colloquialisms, but we had a lot of fun and managed to understand each other (haha) and most of the songs. She is very bright and will do so well with English!

Also, today I learned some great new vocabulary that I thought some of you might enjoy! A few of the words got all of us laughing:

  • pantalones apretados- tight pants (what all the Spanish guys wear—we chicas agree that it is not attractive at all!)
  • pantalones piratas- crop pants for men (I call them manpris, like man capris), or literally pirate pants!
  • pijo- preppy
  • pantalones caídos- sagging pants (I promise we were talking about stereotypes, not clothing the whole time!)
  • ir de marcha- to go out on the town
  • ocio- spare time [Mi profesora said to add neg (negar = to deny) to ocio and you get negocio, which means business or work. Business is to deny free time; she was pretty darn funny.]

It was definitely a day full of learning and new experiences, something I am coming to expect on a daily basis.

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Un Día Bonita en Segovia

Once again the twelve amigos embarked on a new adventure! An early morning bus ride found us in the beautiful town of Segovia (about an hour and a half outside Madrid) with the full day ahead of us to discover its treasures.

Our profesora, and guide for the day, took us to the Alcazar first. Made my day, since alcazar is the Arabic word for castle/fortress! It was beautiful. It has a torre, tower, and real turrets, too. We toured the inside of the palace, enjoying the extravagant ceilings and hearing the history of Isabel and Ferdinand of Castille y Aragon, and saw some gorgeous views before taking the experience to the next level.

Adrenaline rushing, we took the challenge and climbed the narrow, twisting stairway to the top of el torre (OK, so it really was not that bad – narrow, uneven and 182 stairs, but what a great quick wake-up workout! Vale la pena, (or it’s worth it!) for a truly breathtaking view of Segovia and the surrounding countryside.

Taking our time to enjoy the city, we ventured our way back up to el catedral. It is splendid with its Gothic style and gold-colored stone native to Segovia. Our next stop was just a 180-degree turn to face La Plaza Mayor de Segovia. Almost every city, if not every one, has a central plaza with cafeterías.

To finish our tour we headed back to the entrance of Segovia to learn about the magnificent Roman acueducto (aqueduct) that welcomes all to the city. I am always amazed by the Romans! It is really something to see architecture from so long ago … and it still looks awesome (or hasn’t collapsed yet!).

After our tour ended we all headed to find some almuerzo (lunch). Not sure how the Spaniards make it so long without eating, or maybe they secretly have snacks, but eating at 8 in the morning and waiting for lunch until 2 p.m. is a bit long for me. Anyhow, we enjoyed a nice lunch at a cute cafetería, before taking the afternoon to wander around the city, and getting más helado (ice cream). By the time we made it to the bus to head back we were all exhausted, having walked for a good four hours (love it!!!).

But our adventure wasn’t over yet. On the way back we had to stop on the side of the road for a bike race to pass. Apparently it is the equivalent of the Tour de France in Spain. We were literally feet away! So awesome. It is safe to say we had a successful adventure! Hasta luego.

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¡Madrid!

Today, we had a short tour of Madrid’s main attractions. We had the privilege of seeing el Palacio Real (Royal Palace), which we found out has 6,500 rooms! Yes, I said 6,500 rooms. Does the royal family live there, you ask? Nope. Not anymore. So the twelve of us are tempted to spend the night there … how can they refuse us? It isn’t like they have a lack of space :)

Across from the palacio is the city’s main cathedral. Our guide was not impressed by it, saying el catedral in Toledo is más hermoso (basically, way prettier!). I have to agree. We then walked up to the Plaza del Sol. It was the main marketplace back in the day, and now is a major tourist attraction with many cafeterías y tapas bars.  It is a beautiful plaza and the surrounding area has many interesting and fun shops, or tiendas, and cafeterías o restaurantes. It is definitely el centro de Madrid.

There is a plaque on one of the streets that literally shows the center of Spain (and Madrid); apparently, they can use that plaque to judge how far away other cities are based on the center of Madrid. Pretty cool.

After our quick tour, we ate at a fun and trendy mercado (market). It had lots of different options, from paella to olive kabobs to helado (ice cream) to chocolate to queso to chorizo (sausage) and more. I tried the paella. ¡Muy deliciosa!

For the rest of the afternoon I played travel agent with some of the girls as we planned our trip to Barcelona next weekend! Then got some fresh air on a run through el Parque del Retiro. It is gorgeous! Almost like a Central Park.

And after my exercise I went to get some helado con mi hermanita (little sister), Sofía. She is so cute and very intelligent.  Luckily she can understand my Spanish and puts up with my umms and pauses! We talked in Spanish the whole time and had a wonderful time together.

Tomorrow, vamos a Segovia (We go to Segovia.) I hear there is a castle-like structure, and that is enough to have me rearing and ready for the next adventure.

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Field trip to Toledo

Mi Escuela

La Fundación José Ortega y Gasset. It is a small and very beautiful campus in Madrid. About a 20-minute walk from my home, and a quick jaunt on el autobus.

Escuela (L) Toledo (R)

Toledo

I was just blessed with the opportunity to spend the last two days in the city of Toledo. Toledo is about an hour outside Madrid and was the capital of Spain. It is a medieval city set atop a rock surrounded by a river; essentially, it is una fortaleza, or fortress.  The streets are a labyrinth, modeled after many Muslim cities, narrow and cobblestone, and so very cool!

Our group of twelve students stayed in la Fundación’s satellite campus. It is tucked away in the labyrinth, and lucky for me, I only got lost once — some of my fellow students weren’t so lucky.

While there, we learned about Toledo’s long history, which dates back to Roman times. The city has layer upon layer of culture and history.  It was first called Toletum Romano; then Toletum Visigodo, as the Visigoths took over; then it was ruled by the Muslims and Spain became known as Al-Andalus; next it became the capital of Sefarad, the Jewish name for Spain; and finally Christian, when the Roman Catholic Church took over.  Although today it is the spiritual capital of Spain, remnants of its past religions can be seen in the synagogues, like La Sinagoga de Santa María Blanca (a beautiful synagogue with a white interior, hence “Blanca”) and in the minarets and a mosque, as well.

Aside from tours of the city and a class that provided great information on the history, we students were given plenty of free time to explore the streets and experience Toledo on our own. It is a tourist city, so we enjoyed looking at the different shops, enjoying the tapas and breathing the fresh mountain air.

It was a great way to begin our time in Spain, allowing us to ease into life in Madrid and Spanish culture.  I am looking forward to getting settled into Madrid and starting classes next week (I’m the type of person who enjoys a routine! Don’t get me wrong; a vacation is absolutely wonderful, as well.) The adventure is well under way, and memories that I’ll have for a lifetime are already beginning to pile up.

   !Hasta luego!

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