Rachel in Spain

Rachel is a President’s Scholar and senior majoring in political science and foreign languages in Dedman College. This fall, she will be living with a Spanish family in Madrid and taking classes at the Fundacion Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Pilgrimage to Santiago

I commented in my last post that I could not believe how little time remains. And still, I am overwhelmed to think that we only have six weeks left. I learned a Spanish expression “pasar volando,” which translates to “to fly by.”

So … !Este semestre pasa volando!

r-me-with-my-sole-posessions-sm.jpgFall Break

I had the most incredible fall break. In southern France and northern Spain there is a Catholic pilgrimage, started in the 8th century, that ends in Santiago de Compostela (a city in the northwest corner of Spain). There are various routes, but the most famous is called El Camino Frances.

r-distance-marker-sm.jpg Starting in Roncesvalles, France, in the Pyrenees mountains, the French Route travels across the north of Spain for 755 km before ending in the city. In order to be an “official” pilgrim you must walk 100 km, but many pilgrims do the whole trip from Roncesvalles, and we even met a girl who started in Switzerland!

We had only 5 days, so we decided to start the camino in a small city called Sarria, 113 km outside of Santiago de Compostela. We walked an average of 25 km each day; however, poor planning forced us to walk almost 40 one day.

I was researching the architecture a little along the way because I am doing a project on the cultural impact of the medieval pilgrimage. A major contribution was that it transported the Romanesque style of architecture from France across the north of Spain. It was especially interesting to be there because I could see the influence in the churches and buildings along the way.

I kept a journal – in Spanish – but I’ll translate parts of it here:

Day 1! We just arrived in Portomarin, the first town we will stay in on the Camino. We arrived in Sarria early this morning after a night train from Madrid, then we walked 23 km before arriving here.

In Sarria there were churches and monasteries demonstrating a clear influence of Romanesque architecture. We met two madrilenos (people from Madrid) almost immediately. They work very close to the foundation where we study in Madrid. Later we met a Swiss girl, a few more Spaniards and two Germans. Everyone was so friendly. I’ve noticed that the kind of people who decide to walk the Camino are all very friendly and talkative. I feel as though the Camino has its own culture.

r-Galicia-sm.jpgWe ate a typical Galician dish for lunch today called Caldo Gallego. It is a vegetable soup with potatoes, spinach, and white beans. It was delicious!

We are going to stay tonight in the public albuergue – one of the lodges organized for pilgrims and supplemented by the government. For us, it costs only 3 euros each night.

Day 2 of the camino. Today we will walk to Palas de Rey- 25 km away. My legs are sore from walking yesterday and my feet hurt a little too, but I’m ready to go!

The albuergue consisted of one big room where everyone slept. Inside, there was such an interesting mix of ages and nationalities. A woman next to me was snoring, but thankfully, I was so tired that I barely heard her.

Another interesting thing about the camino is the symbolism. There are shells everywhere and yellow arrows that mark the path. I think there is a legend about the shell, but I do not know it. I’ll try to ask someone.

… later the same day

r-one-of-many-churches-sm.jpgWe are resting now and having coffee in a bar in a little village close to Palas de Rey. From where I am sitting I can see a church that was constructed in the 12th century. I have seen almost as many churches as pilgrims!

r-cross-Palas-de-Rey-sm.jpgEarlier, we saw a cross under which pilgrims had left notes with stones on top to keep the paper from blowing away.

Also, we met another Spanish man from Avila (a town close to Madrid). He told us that he had pre-retired, because he considered himself too young to retire. He spoke quickly and excitedly about Spanish culture and history, but in general, I did not have too much trouble understanding him. I think my Spanish has improved already, just being on this trip.

7:20 AM. We had a time change yesterday so my watch still says 8:20, but we really have an extra hour! An interesting thing about the albuergues is that it isn’t necessary to set an alarm. They turn the lights off in the sleeping room at 10 pm and turn them on again in the morning. Everyone has to be out of the albuergue by 8 am.

After two days on the camino, we already have friends. It is interesting because you will see people in the albuergue, then pass them on the trail a few times as you or they stop to eat or take a break. For the most part, people stay in the same towns so you will see them again the next night.

Last night for dessert I had tarta de Santiago, an almond cake that is named for the camino – or the saint. This furthers my theory about the camino having its own culture – a culture complete with its own gastronomy.

Day 4. Last night we stayed in Ribadiso with a group of Spanish-speakers we had met the day before. After walking so much and being so tired, I had trouble speaking Spanish. Also, it was hard to understand them because they were all from different regions of Spain and Latin America. There were people from Madrid, Barcelona, Andalusia, Valencia, Argentina, and Colombia. In addition to having difficulties with their accents, they also speak very colloquially using a vocabulary I would never learn in class.


Today we will arrive in Santiago!

r-sunlight-on-the-trail-sm.jpgWe only have 5 more km because we walked so much yesterday. It was the longest day of the Camino – about 38 or 39 kilometers. We decided not to stop in Arca with the rest of the people with whom we had been traveling because we wanted to get a little closer to the city. However, there was not another albuergue until Monte de Gozo – 18 km further than Arca. We almost died, and arrived at the albuergue just before sunset. It is lucky that we arrived when we did because we did not bring flashlights or lanterns, and the yellow arrows would have been hard to follow in the dark.

The albuergue in Monte de Gozo was impressive! There were more than 2000 beds in dozens of rooms. During the pilgrimage season (during the summer), the beds are sometimes completely full.

r-Cathedral-in-Santiago-sm.jpg When we arrive in Santiago we are going to attend a mass for the pilgrims. I am very excited to see the cathedral and the city. I have heard that Santiago de Compostela is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain.

The 6th and final day of the trip.

Yesterday and this morning we said goodbye to all of the friends we had met along the way. I have almost everyone’s emails and plans to meet some of the people in Madrid for copas – drinks. It was very sad to say goodbye, but I’m sure it was even harder for them because many of them had been on the camino for a month or more.

I really enjoyed the mass that we attended yesterday. It was completely full and we saw lots of pilgrims that we had met on the way. All were so excited to arrive and to spend one last day with all of the people with whom they had grown so close. Even though I only started the camino 113 km outside of Santiago de Compostela, I feel a very strong connection with the other pilgrims. Already I have been absorbed into the culture of the camino.

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Through Spain and on to Africa

I know it has been a while since I last wrote, and it feels like a lifetime. In the last three weeks I have visited almost ten different cities, another country, and another continent. Here are the highlights:



The trip to Segovia was a class trip. We visited the royal palace there as well as the Alcazar (a more military castle) and the famous Roman aqueduct. It amazed me to see how well-preserved the aqueduct (right) was. Most interestingly, it is not held together by any glue or mortar but by the precise shape of the blocks used to construct it.

Barcelona and Girona

These Catalonian cities were absolutely beautiful! Barcelona was such an interesting mix of old and new architecture. It had a big-city feel without being suffocating because of the beach and the parks scattered throughout.

What I found most interesting were the buildings built by Gaudi (left), including the famous Sagrada Familia church. I also stayed for the first time in a youth hostel, which was such a great experience. Everyone was so friendly and had so many different travel experiences to share.

After staying in Barcelona for two days I decided to take a side-trip to Girona, a small city a little over an hour north. The rest of the people I was traveling with wanted to spend the day on the beach, so I decided to go by myself. It was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had.

R%20girona-wall-sm.jpgThe town was in the mountains with a river running through it, so the scenery was gorgeous. Also, there was an old Gothic part with a wall around it that you could walk on (right) and get a great view of the city. Plus, the weather was wonderful for a day of exploring.


The class trip to Andalucia (southern Spain) was one of two long trips that we will take. We stopped first in Cordoba, then in Sevilla, and ended in Granada. The highlight of Cordoba was the Mosque (left).

Beginning as a Visigoth church in the 7th century, it was taken over by Arabic Caliphs who changed it into a Mosque and continued adding to it until it was converted to a Catholic Cathedral in the thirteenth century. The history in Andalucia of all the changes in power fascinates me.

R%20from-the%20-alhambra-in-granada-sm.jpgIn Sevilla we watched flamenco, which was mesmerizing. The guitar player as well as the singers and the dancers were so talented. The rhythm of flamenco is very strong and very syncopated, and the music includes guitar and voice as well as clapping, tapping, and stomping. It was easy to see its gypsy origins.

In Granada we went to the Alhambra built by Spain’s Moorish rulers. Built on a hill, the Alhambra (left) has a wonderful view of the city of Granada. It also demonstrates the meticulous detailing of Arabic architecture.


The group trip ended in Granada, but a couple of friends and I decided to extend our trip south to Morocco. We spent the night on the southern tip of Spain in the windsurfing town of Tarifa before taking a ferry to the African coast.

Morocco was almost a different world. In the morning when we arrived in Tangier there were very few women in the streets and almost none in the cafe where we ate breakfast. We did a little exploring through the market (complete with hanging chickens, intestines, and an entire cow’s head) and around the narrow streets of the old city.

We walked into one shop and spent over an hour talking with the shop owner about Arabic, Morocco, and the Islam religion. After talking with him I was better able to grasp how much misunderstanding there is between cultures, and when we left, my friend – expressing the sentiment of the group – questioned, “Why can’t we all get along?”

We met up with the family friend of one of the boys on the SMU trip, who took us to Cape Spartel. From there we could see the Mediterranean Sea to our right and the Atlantic Ocean to the left. Also, we had almost all of Africa to our back and Spain straight ahead. I have never felt so small.

We got back to Madrid on Sunday night just in time for me to finish an essay and get back to class on Monday. Midterms are in two weeks; I can’t believe how fast the time is going.

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Food and family in Madrid

I apologize to those of you who found the description of the bullfight a little graphic. The following should be milder:

Family stay

I am living in a small apartment a little outside of the center of Madrid with a middle-aged woman named Carmen and her sister, Isabel. Carmen’s almost-20-year-old daughter, Laura, also lives with us, but she is not around much.

I share a room with Amelia, a good friend of mine from SMU. I am so glad to have someone I actually know and can talk with; it has made the transition so much easier.

When we first arrived I had a lot of trouble understanding Carmen and her sister, but it has gotten a lot better. I think the family stay has been and will continue to be the single best way to improve my Spanish here.

Spanish food

Everything is cooked in a ton of olive oil and garlic, which gives it all a very Mediterranean flavor. Carmen has cooked tortilla de patata for us twice now, which is a Spanish staple. The first night she served it, Amelia and I expected some sort of flour or corn tortilla filled with something. However, it is nothing like a “tortilla” that we would get in the States. It is the shape of a skillet with eggs, potatoes and onions all cooked together into a kind of thick omelet. It is one of my favorite foods that I’ve had here so far.

We also just had paella, which was also very delicious. Paella is rice and different seafoods all cooked together into a flavorful kind of stew. There were even shrimp with the head on … a little intimidating, but delicious! Valencia (a little to the east) is famous for its paella; I am planning to travel there at the end of the month, so it will be interesting to compare. I think it is one of those dishes that can be very different depending on where you have it.

We have eaten lots of fish, which Carmen buys fresh, and I even tried tripe, which was surprisingly unremarkable; it was more solid than I expected and very similar to plain old sausage.

I am enjoying the variety of foods that Carmen has cooked for us. She really does a good job of serving us typical Spanish dishes.

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My first – and last – bullfight

CIMG0383.JPGBullfighting is for boys.

While I am definitely not a vegetarian or an animal rights fanatic, bullfighting has always seemed to me a little distasteful. However, you know the saying: “when in Rome …” So, I went.

It was more bloody than I expected, and very masculine. It starts with the matadores waving pinkish cloths to taunt the bull, who runs confusedly from one to the other. Then, men on horses stab the bull with long poles. We were pretty close, and one time I could see the white flesh of the bull before the wound filled with blood.

After this, a matador takes some shorter poles and runs up to the bull, stabs the poles in and then runs away. The poles stay in and flop around as they tear the flesh. After that, the matador uses a red cloth to attract the bull’s attention, and after a while, he uses a knife to kill it. Then horses come to drag the dead animal away.

For each bullfight, there are several bulls and matadores, so we got to see the whole spectacle more than once. The worst part, however, was that the matadores were not very experienced, so it took them a while to kill the bull, and two got gored, trampled, and pretty seriously injured. I have never before seen so much force in an animal. I am glad that I went, but I would prefer not to go again.

Today I recovered with a mocha from Starbucks. I told myself I wouldn’t do something so distinctly American, but I caved in. And it was delicious.

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8:45 p.m. in Madrid

I just got back from a little jog around the neighborhood where I live. The thing I really can’t believe about the people here is how late their schedule is; there are so many people out and about, even little kids playing in the parks. Most haven’t even eaten dinner yet, and on weekends (in Spanish slang: “los findes” – short for “fin de semana”) some will be out until 5 or 6 in the morning!

The meals here are very different. In general, people eat a relatively small breakfast of coffee and toast. Then, late in the afternoon, they eat their big meal of the day. After that, they don’t usually eat until after 9 pm, when they have a light dinner. I actually really like the timing of the meals so far, except that I have been starving by lunchtime.

It’s Friday, September 05, so that means that I left for Madrid a week ago today. I can’t believe it has already been that long! I arrived 2 days before the start of the SMU program and explored the center of the city with my dad. We visited two of the famous museums here – the Reina Sophia and (of course) the Prado. It always amazes me how big paintings actually are. When you study them in class, or as pictures in a textbook, they seem – still impressive – but more diluted somehow.

In the museum, I can only marvel at how much paint it must have taken. My favorite was the Picasso painting from the Spanish Civil War – Guernica. I usually prefer the classical artists whose art I can easily understand, but what I really liked about Guernica was the way it gave me a sense of the horrors of war. The impressionism as well as its size gives it an extra dimension of emotion that you cannot help but feel.

Once I met up with the SMU group, we went to Toledo (a little south of Madrid) for an orientation program. The city was like a lot of medieval cities in Europe. However, the history was so interesting. There is a Cathedral there which is the oldest in Spain and the first in the Gothic style. Also, there is an interesting cross-section of Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam because of the various influences before, during, and after the Reconquista. One of the most interesting places was a synagogue that was converted into a church and then back to a synagogue, which is what it is now. There is so much history here compared with in the United States!

We will start classes on Monday, and – while I am really enjoying my time here so far – everything is different, and I am looking forward to something familiar.

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