Monday, February 7, 2011

1/25/11- Few days in Madrid

Here we go again a whole other week without writing. This habit has got to stop, too much to cover. I’ll try not to leave the good stuff out.
Museo Taurino

So unfortunately Wednesday (1/19/11), along with almost the whole rest of the group, I had caught the beginnings of a cold. Our afternoon activity was touring the Museo Taurino or in other words the bull fighting museum. It was less than impressive and being sick didn’t help to keep my interest.

The next day after class in the morning we walked over to one of the University of Salamanca buildings to meet with our professors. They all gave a brief introduction about their courses and then welcomed us to Salamanca and said how happy they were to be working with us, blah, blah, blah. Wasn’t really in the mood to sit and listen to them chatter on, especially since in the afternoon I was going to the train station with my friends to buy our tickets for our trip to Lisbon, Portugal on the 27th.

From the train station we went to our afternoon activity. We met at the centro and then walked to a movie theater nearby where we were seeing the Spanish film También, la lluvia, all in Spanish, no subtitles. I was worried when I heard this, but actually understood the majority if the movie and I really liked it. I think it is actually nominated for awards at the Spanish version of the Oscars, the Goyas.

Friday was fairly uneventful. It was the last day of our “curso intensivo” meaning time for our quiz. Fortunately, Gala graded them, but didn’t give us grades, just comments on what to practice and work on. The group had no plans for the night because we were meeting at 8am Saturday morning to head to Madrid.

I left the apartment way before the sun came up and we got on the bus to make our way to our first destination, Segovia. As the bus pulled up we got a perfect view of the aqueduct built by the Romans in the first century. We then took a walking tour of the city; we saw an old cathedral and a synagogue that had been turned into a church during the reconquest of Spain. We then made our way to the Alcázar, a castle built by the Romans at the edge of the city. It was extremely protected because it is surrounded on 3 sides by valleys, meaning there was really only one easy way to get in. We got to go up the towers which had and incredible view of Segovia and wandered around the different rooms of the castle including the armory.

On top of the castle, Segovia in the background

We had lunch in Segovia and sampled some of the local dishes including fabada Austria, essentially a pork and large white bean stew, cochinillo, a fried piglet, and a dessert cake with a layer of cream. The cochinillo is cooked so that the meat is so tender that you can cut it with a plate. The waited asked for a volunteer to try and Gerson stood up. After he had cut the pork, the waiter told him that it was custom to throw and break the plate after, and so he did. The meat was good besides having to pick around all the fat. When the waiters brought out the desserts, Hannah and I were surprised to find candles in ours. Her birthday had been the past Tuesday and mine was the Thursday to come. It was a really nice gesture and of course we were given stupid trick candles that wouldn’t go out. After we ate we got on the bus and drove the rest of the way to Madrid.

The hotel in Madrid was near the Atocha train station, the one that had been bombed by Al-Qaeda years ago. We quickly checked in, dropped our stuff off in our rooms and met in the lobby because we were going to the Prado Museum.

The Prado was about a ten minute walk from the hotel. We entered the museum and our guide, Yolanda, gave us all the “cool” individual cassette players with headphones so we could hear her and she wouldn’t have to be screaming in the museum.

We only saw a small part of the museum, focusing only on the works of el Greco, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Goya. We stood in front of the famous Las Meninas by Velázquez which I have talked about before in my blog and I have studied numerous times in Spanish classes. We also saw various other royal family paintings both by Velázquez and Goya. We also saw paintings from Goya’s pinturas negras which had originally been painted on the walls of his home. We spent about 3 hours in the Prado but with all that time we barely made a dent.

Natalie and I outside the Prado

After the museum we headed back to the hotel. I was rooming with Hannah and she and I both decided our favorite part of the hotel was our bathroom. Kind of sad, but it was wonderful, equipped with a continuous flow of warm water in the shower, a magnifying mirror and a hairdryer, it was just fabulous. We are such girls :) 

For dinner, a big group of us went out to a thai restaurant I had looked up on my phone that was just up the street from our hotel. It was surprisingly really good. Due to the fact that by the time we ate dinner and showered it was already pretty late, Hannah, Rachel and I decided to stay in the hotel that night and watch Into the Wild. We were really enjoying it, but all started to fall asleep before we could finish, so we saved the rest to watch the next night.

The next day we spent in Madrid. We started by touring a bit in the bus, driving by the monument for the Al-Qaeda attacks, a big park, the bull-ring, and other little monuments throughout the city.

Our first stop off the bus was the Palacio Real, Royal Palace. It was created in the 18th century by King Phillip V and resembles Versailles, which was constructed by his grandfather Louis XVI. The palace has 2,800 rooms and today is only used for official acts, meaning the royal family does not actually live there. We did a tour through the palace with Yolanda and the headsets again and then had a bit of free time to wander.
Jumping picture in front of the Palacio Real
With Don Quixote and Sancho
We then got back on the bus to finish our tour of the city. We saw the Plaza de España which hosts a large statue of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho. The tour finished by dropping us off in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, which is much larger than the one in Salamanca, but in my opinion not as pretty.
La Plaza de España

We were then free to tour the city and eat on our own for a few hours. I took this opportunity to spend time with some people I hadn’t really gotten to spend time with yet, which ended up being a group of boys. We walked from the plaza to Puerta del Sol, another plaza in Madrid that’s about ten minutes away. From there we walked up a very busy street to get to Gran Via, or Spain’s equivalent of Broadway with shopping, theaters, and elegant hotels.

At 5pm we met up with Gala, Paul, and Javier to meet Mercedes Alfonso, the author of Nico y Las Meninas, the children’s book I mentioned before. We sat in a small classroom and listened to her talk about herself, life story and books for about an hour. It was funny because she was interrupted not once, but twice by the lights being turned off when one of the boys in the back fell asleep and hit the switch with his head. At the end Gala stared us down until almost everyone had asked Mercedes a question. It was a very long two hours.

We got a nice 8am wake-up call the next day and had to be on the bus at 9 for our drive to Toledo. We first circled the city to be able to take pictures of it from a scenic overview. Toledo is surrounded on 3 sides by a river. It was declared by UNESCO a “patrimonio de la Humanidad.” Up until the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, Toledo was called the city of three cultures due to the coexistence with the Christians. There are remnants of many synagogues turned churches with Muslim influences in the architecture. There is a monastery decorated in chains as well.
Girls at the monastery, San Juan de los Reyes

Toledo is also known for being the place of residency of el Greco during his time in Spain. His famous fresco El Entierro de Santo Tormé is located in the Iglesia de Santo Tormé, the work is placed directly above the tomb of the Count of Orgaz, whom the painting is of.

We also saw the grand cathedral of Toledo. In the cathedral there was an attached art gallery with a mural painted on the ceiling that catches your eye as soon as you enter. The guide for the day began to describe the scene and then focused on a painted beam of light from a cloud in the center of the painting descending on the people towards the sides. Within the clouds there was writing in Hebrew. He then asked if there were any Jews in the group, me being the only one, I raised my hand. He pulled me into the center of the circle of the group and had me read it and asked me to tell everyone what it meant. I know how to read Hebrew, but most of the time I have no idea what it is I’m reading, but this word I knew off the bat. It was Adonai, or God. This was a semi-proud moment for me, imagine how embarrassing that could’ve been if I hadn’t known… OOF!!

Rachel, Hannah, and I at night in Puerta del Sol
After the cathedral it was time for lunch and a bit of free time to explore the city. We then went back to Madrid and free time to do whatever we wanted with our last night. Rachel, Jeff, Hannah and I decided to explore a bit and walked all the way up our street until we hit the Plaza Mayor and then from there we continued on to the Puerta del Sol to find a nice place to have dinner. We then met up with a friend of Jeff’s, who is studying in Madrid this semester for drinks.

The next day we left Madrid and drove first to Valle de los caídos, Valley of the Fallen, a giant monument ordered by Franco after the Spanish Civil War. It took 22 years to construct the 167 meter cross and church that are built into and on top off a hill. Valley of the Fallen is surrounded by a lot of controversy because many believe it to be a fascist structure to commemorate Franco; he and José Antonia Primo de Rivera are both buried there. However, France decided to have the structure built to burry both parties after the war. Another problem is that it was built by war prisoners. It was a beautiful valley, no doubt about that, but it definitely gave me the shivers. The guide, and us as well, were not allowed to talk once we got off the bus due to government law. This was a bit unsettling that in a place that is supposed to celebrate the lives of those who have passed we are not supposed to talk about them, somewhat perplexing to me. I felt on edge the whole time we were there.

Next, we drove to El Escorial which was built by King Phillip II to hold a monastery, his palace, a church, and a library all in the same place. It is an example of the Spanish Renaissance in its finest. It is also where many tombs of the royal family are kept. We had lunch in the small city surrounding El Escorial and then continued our way back to Salamanca.

Our last and final stop was the city of Ávila. Throughout history Ávila has been a strategic city during the many wars and repopulations of the region. The old part of the city is still completely surrounded by castle walls. The famous mystic Santa Teresa de Jesús is of great importance to the city because this was where she was born and spent a good part of her life. There is a statue of her just outside one of the main doors into the city located near la Plaza Grande. We spent about an hour wandering the city, read some poems by Santa Teresa in front of her statue and had a quick snack of pastries in la Plaza Pequeña and then got back on the bus to stop at a scenic view of the city. Here Javier gave us a sticky, mushy, sugary candy thing that apparently Ávila is famous for (yemas de Ávila). It reminded me of that asian dessert thing, mochi, and kind of tasted partially like flour and stuck to my teeth and roof of my mouth. Not really sure how I felt about it.


We took in the view and a few pictures and hopped on the bus to finish our journey back to Salamanca. It was quite a busy weekend filled with sites to see.