Sunday in Madrid

Today seemed like the quintessential winter Sunday in Madrid. Julia and I slept in late after enjoying churros and hot chocolate at San Gines, a bustling shop that’s been dishing out sweets 24 hours a day since 1894.

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Around noon we set out to explore El Rastro, Madrid’s street market. Sadly I don’t have any pictures; the market is so crowded and pickpockets so frequent that I didn’t want to risk pulling out expensive gadgets. El Rastro looks like an oversize Berkeley flea market. There are stalls with everything imaginable – incense burners next to rows of blue jeans next to handbags made from old records.

We also stumbled on Madrid’s chain store Taste of America, where those missing the US can buy Skippy peanut butter for $8.90. It funny how many of the products there we’d never heard of! IMG_5981

After the flea market, my friends and I wandered around El Retiro park. There were lots of roller bladers and runners out, as well as families out with kids in strollers.


We found one bizarre exhibit in one of the park’s buildings. First came these feet, which were motorized and walking on a loop.


Next came a parked trailer with a sleeping woman inside. Crickets chirping and the sounds of twigs breaking added to the room’s ambiance.


We never found out what the exhibit was, but we weren’t at all sure we’d make it out alive… Luckily, we escaped the building and enjoyed another few hours of sunlight in the park before heading home to catch up on our minimal, yet still neglected, homework.



Granada Part 1: Flamenco

One of our nights in Granada was dedicated to a flamenco show!


The show was in a huge cave in one of the Granada hills and was put on by a group of three gypsy families.


The costumes, lights, and dancing made the scene sultry and vibrant.


It was interesting to see how the dancers interacted with each other. It was clear at some moments that they were related; in one dance, it looked like there was a mother and two daughters all dancing together! The dances were passionate and emotional, and most seemed to be playing out scenes of competitions, fights, and even a marriage. Each swirl of their huge skirts was calculated for optimal dramatic effect, and the whole group clapped together as the dancers gained momentum until the end of the song.


In the final dance, they brought out a number of people from the audience. One of our professors could actually dance pretty well! A number of the students tried to mimic the moves, but none looked particularly graceful next to the gypsies. Watching the students flail made us all realize how talented the dancers really were. It was an impressive show!

Arriving in Madrid

Last Thursday night I finally arrived in Madrid! After an eight-hour bus ride from Lisbon, my seminar finally made it to the city we’ve all been waiting for. My host mother’s name is Mercedes. She’s a retired lawyer with two adult kids, and knows enough English that we can communicate with a combination of hand motions and garbled speech (if only I knew Spanish better…). Julia, the girl from Amherst who I’m living with, knows more Spanish than I do and can communicate more. We live in a small, beautifully arranged apartment in the neighborhood of the Retiro, Madrid’s big central park.

IMG_5853Friday morning was dedicated to a long, tedious school orientation. Luckily, Mercedes went with us on the Metro to school; otherwise we would have been late! Julia and I ate lunch with a few friends in a beautiful outdoor plaza. It’s chilly here but very sunny, and sitting outside provided ample opportunity for people (and bird, and cat) watching. The rest of the day was spent sorting out some logistics, then walking around Retiro park. The park is huge and Julia and I had no idea where we ended up. We did find a cute pond with plenty of ducks. There were lots of people out running, roller-blading, or strolling through the long paths. I imagine the park will be even prettier come spring!


Yesterday, Julia and I continued to explore the city on foot, both on our own and with a school-led walking tour. The tour wasn’t very good (our guide didn’t know too much about the city), but we got to see many of the major sites – the Plaza Mayor, Sol, the opera house, and more.


Julia and I spent the remainder of the afternoon in the National Archeological Museum.

IMG_5866 It’s a good thing I’m traveling with someone who’s as much of a museum nerd as I am! After the museum we stopped in a cafe for mugs of thick, steaming hot chocolate, then headed home for dinner.


It’s overwhelming to see how much this city has to offer. I barely know how to begin getting to know it’s many twisting alleyways, dim coffee shops, and sprawling plazas. I’m not sure how the next few months will unfold here, but I’m excited to find out!

Castle Living

On the road between Cordoba and Granada, we stopped at an incredible medieval castle!


The scene was right out of a storybook: the castle on the top of the hill, a small, whitewashed town below, and sheep grazing on the mountainside.


The group explored the inside of the castle, supposedly completing an assignment about the various strategic elements of castle life, but in reality just exclaiming at the views and running through the spiral staircases.


Here’s me at the top!


One room was dedicated to a “screeming” of a siege. A 3D model of the castle was printed onto a white platform, and a movie of the siege was projected on top, complete with tiny horses and fiery cannons.


The whole place was an incredible mixture of historic grandeur and modern tacky, with wooden swords and plastic tiaras in the gift shop. It was hard to imagine the place bustling with medieval life; it felt isolated and pristine with only our group there.


At the end of the hour, my friends and I stopped in the bathroom (duh). We didn’t see anyone from the group when we got out, and though that they had already left. Just that morning, the professors had emphasized that the bus would wait for no one. Be on time or find your own transportation! We raced down the winding hill, half expecting to see the bus pulling away. When we got down though, the bus was empty save for bus driver Benito. We turned back to see the group meandering down the hill, smelling the flowers alongside the sheep. Evidentally I’m still getting used to Spanish time…

Cordoba: Days 1-3

Our first destination in Spain was Cordoba, an ancient city in the South of Spain. We stayed in a small hotel called Hotel Selu.  On one side of the hotel was a maze of small twisting streets; on the other side was a wide shopping area with lots of American stores. Our days there were spent learning the history of the Iberian empires, wandering around the city, and catching up on sleep.

Our primary historical visit was to the Mosque of Cordoba, which is the only remaining medieval mosque in Europe. The architecture is impressive, with rows and rows of horseshoe arches and walls of intricate tiles and carvings. If you look down the rows of arches on a diagonal, the pillars start to look like palm trees – an oasis within the mosque.




In the middle of the mosque is a cathedral, built in the 16th Century after the Christian reconquest. The cathedral is impressive, and the ornate Christian decorations, full of gold and painted figures, stands out starkly against the Muslim architecture.



We also walked through the Jewish quarter to the medieval synagogue. The Jewish quarter is beautiful, with whitewashed buildings and blue trimming.




The synagogue is inconspicuous; I would never have known it was there if I weren’t led to it. Inside, it’s interesting to note how much the decoration resembles the Muslim style.  Both buildings are adorned with plaster and marble carvings of prayers and natural imagery, and both also have similar lobed arches. Yet the synagogue is limited to a single small room whereas the mosque is large and sprawling.



I also got my first real tapas for lunch on the second day of our trip. We had croquetas (delicious fried balls of meat and cheese) a sauteed zucchini dish, juevos rotos (fried potatoes with ham, chicken, and eggs), a chicken salad something, and some egg stew to be spread on bread. I tried everything though I didn’t know what all of it was. Luckily there was someone who knew more Spanish sitting at my table, and she helped me decipher the menu. The outdoor dining made the whole experience so much better!

After two nights in Cordoba, we packed up the bus again and drove south west toward Granada!

A Blur

Somehow the first week of my trip has passed by in a blur! I want to do a separate post about each of the cities I’ve visited so far – Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, and Lisbon – but for now I’ll just drop in with a quick hello.

Shameless airplane selfie

Shameless airplane selfie

My travels started last Sunday bright and early. I flew from SFO to JFK, where I met the rest of the group from Syracuse University (the program I’m studying with).  I chatted with a few others on my travel seminar while waiting in the security line, though there were swarms of study abroad students in the airport and it was hard to tell who was actually on my trip. After a few more hours, made more interesting by X-Men and Friends, we landed in Madrid to a bright, blue-skied morning.  No time to explore or settle though; from the airplane we were shepherded directly onto the long bus ride to the south.

We unloaded hours later in Cordoba, exhausted but glad to be done traveling. More on the city to come.

Some impressions so far:IMG_5368

–  The countryside is incredible here! Everything is so green, and there are lots of fruit trees, small white houses, and rock walls. The views make the long bus rides worth it.

–  Spanish women have a special talent: they can walk on cobblestones in crazy high heels.

–  The Spanish don’t have any use for name games or ice breakers. I still don’t know the names of all 38 of the people in my seminar.

–  Spanish food is not as good as I was expecting. There’s a definite lack of green vegetables, and quite a lot of fried tapas. It’s tasty, but gets old quickly. Sangria, on the other hand, is delicious.

IMG_5265–  There are huge hams hanging from the wall of every restaurant and store we walk into. They look fake, but nope, they’re real (and they feel slimy when you poke them).

–  A lot of the kids on my trip have way more stuff than I do. I brought a carry-on, a half-full checked bag, and a backpack. These kids brought multiple full checked bags, purses, sleeping bags, and more. How are they going to travel?

– My Spanish is terrible! I have a lot to catch up on.

To conclude, a few more pictures.

Here’s a photo of the whole Imperium Seminar. I’m in the second row in the blue scarf.


And here’s a photo of my friends and I on our very first night here. We wandered around town for a while only to discover that very little is open late on a chilly Monday night in Cordoba.  We stopped into a little bar after exploring the streets.  It was a struggle just to order, and the bartender rolled his eyes when he finally passed us our drinks and we mimed to him to take our picture. Typical Americans.