Holy Toledo!


On my fourth weekend here, the school took all of the students who wanted to go to the beautiful city of Toledo! Sadly, it was a day trip only, but we spent enough time there for the city to capture my heart.

For some reason, the weather is always super nice and sunny during the weeks and then turns cloudy and rainy during the weekends when we travel. I’m living in Spain and getting to see all kinds of amazing places, so I can’t be too sad, but it would be nice to have some sun once in a while to take in the views!

Toledo is surrounded by a river, and even when cloudy, the view from the other side of that river, looking down on the city, was breathtaking. It was utterly beautiful and utterly Spanish, and it set the tone for what was to be a day filled with beautiful buildings. If I’m being honest, I do not remember the names of all of the places we visited, but I do remember being in constant awe of all of the history that surrounded me.

We mainly visited places of worship, and in all of them, it was evident that all three Abrahamic religions had shared architectural techniques. It was fascinating to see a synagogue that looked like a mosque, churches with Muslim horseshoe arcs, and a great architectural melting pot that showed itself in every building in the city. The blend is very distinctly Spanish and I fell in love with each new building I saw. We saw amazing frescos, climbed a church tower, strolled through the adorable streets, and even saw El Greco’s famed Entierro del Conde de Orgaz (a magnificent painting that I highly recommend).

My one complaint was that we were constantly moving and rushing through the sites. I loved getting to see so much, but I would have liked more time to take everything in. Still, it was an amazing day: I saw many beautiful things, ate some marzipan (Toledo is famous for it), and left with even more love for this incredible country.

(After my last mammoth post, I decided to rein things in a little and make this one shorter. Be proud!)

Granada and Córdoba: Las Ciudades de mi Corazón


My third weekend here was a four day weekend. Meaning that my third week of school was only three days long! My classes are all in Spanish and I do receive a good amount of homework, but with the limited class hours and the number of days I have off, I have a nasty suspicion that this semester is going to spoil me! (I’m devastated, of course, but I will find a way to move past it).

One great coping mechanism was spending the third weekend exploring Granada and Córdoba in the lovely Andalusia region of Spain with two of my friends! Once again, we rose VERY early to catch our bus that would take us to Granada! (Okay, first we took a train to the station, THEN we caught a bus. Travel involves so many little pieces!). But it was all very worth it – this trip was my favorite of my time in Spain so far! Granada specifically was breathtaking, though I loved it all.

The ride was roughly five hours, and I spent most of it unconscious, but that made it all the more fun to wake up in Granada! Our first day was largely spent exploring and getting our bearings. We wandered around, walking into whatever old and intriguing buildings we could (we stumbled upon a university building containing strange art exhibits, such as concentric circles of ceramic pigs on the ground and a patio filled with slightly deflated red balls). We also stopped for pastries (which were MASSIVE and DELICIOUS and only 0.60 each. Have I mentioned how much I love the pastries here?) and shopped a little bit. Even on a slightly dreary Thursday afternoon, Granada was beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to see it in the sunlight and when more people arrived! Before that could happen, we ended our night with tapas with one of my friend’s friends who was getting an advanced degree in Granada. One of my favorite things about this city is the fact that you can order a drink (any drink, even water!) and get a free substantial and delicious tapa. I’m not sure how I lived before tapas and I’m not sure how I’ll live after, but for now I’m going to enjoy them while I still can!).

We spent a while at the bar, chatting with each other and even meeting some other people (also Americans, funnily enough) who were also studying abroad in Spain, before calling it a night and heading back to our small but wonderful Airbnb. The next day would start early, as we were off to see Granada’s most famous sight: La Alhambra.

This palace and its grounds are so famous that you must buy tickets well in advance in order to enter, and each ticket has a specific time printed on it. If you do not arrive within your 30 minute entry window, you will be turned away. Fearing this, we left ourselves plenty of time to get there, so as to be sure we would not miss anything. And then we promptly ran late and made a few wrong turns that put us on a time crunch. Worse yet, La Alhambra is on top of a massive hill, so we sped up the hill to get to it, and were very winded by the time we arrived.

Fortunately, we made it at exactly 9:30, giving us an entire half hour to wait in line for our physical tickets and get inside! At 9:47, we confidently walked through the gates and breathed sighs of relief. That is, until I noticed a sign that said “You must enter El Palacio de Nazaries at the time printed on your ticket or you will be denied entry.” Horrified, I realized that we could have arrived at the gates any time after 8:30 in the morning. The time limit was only for this specific palace, the most famous and ornate part of La Alhambra. And a quick scan of the signs around me taught us that that palace was a 15 minute walk from where we were standing, almost as far away from the entrance as something could possibly get.

Determined to make it on time, we actually ran across the grounds, dodging leisurely tourists and glancing nervously at the time as we made our way through. Finally, we made it to the palace. With 3 minutes to spare! We entered, and I was flooded with what may quite possibly have been the greatest relief I have ever experienced. We were in! And incredibly worn out, but after stopping to catch our breath, we explored one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been inside. Because the Muslim religion forbids the representation of people in its art, this building was covered in intricate geometric designs and beautiful writing in Arabic. It had weathered with age, but the tiles were full of color in some places, and the effect was still magnificent.

There were many interior rooms as well as patios and fountains, and the whole thing was really just a joy to explore. In addition, peering out any of the many windows offered an excellent view of the city (remember, La Alhambra is on a huge hill, making it taller than anything around us). In another palace, we climbed the tallest tower and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the entire city. We also explored another building that appeared square on the outside but which contained a great circular patio (confusing, no?) and all of the Generalífe gardens (don’t be fooled – this word is pronounced in a Spanish way and does NOT sound like the English words “general” and “life.” No one actually made any embarrassing mistakes while we were there, but we died laughing a couple days later when we realized our mistake). The gardens were incredible and every part of them afforded vistas of the beautiful city below (I feel like I’m raving about the views a bit much, but honestly, they were incredible).

After nearly five hours in La Alhambra, we decided it was time for lunch and a siesta (as it turns out, Spaniards take the idea of siesta VERY seriously, and the whole city practically shuts down between the hours of 2 and 5. This provides excellent opportunities to relax and rest your feet when you are a weary traveler).

When siesta time was drawing to a close, we headed out again in search of El Mirador de San Nicolas, an outdoor terrace in the historic and adorable Albaicín neighborhood of Granada. As with many things in this city, it took quite the hike to get up there, but we arrived just in time for the sunset and I cannot explain just how worth it the trek was. The view (the header for this post) was too beautiful to put into words, and we couldn’t tear our eyes away for over an hour as the sun set and the city began to light up and glitter as the darkness fell. To make things even more perfect, as we watched, a Spanish man began to play the guitar and sing, at which point the crowd of locals watching with us began to sing and dance along. It was the most “Spanish” moment I have experienced since I arrived, and it reminded me just how much I love this country and this culture, and my happiness at getting to be in this beautiful land for four months hit me hard. Watching that sunset was my favorite moment of my trip so far, and if you ever find yourself in Granada, I highly recommend it.

When we finally made the hard decision to move on, we headed to an adorable tea shop called Acabo Te. Granada is famous for its teas, and we couldn’t leave without trying some! Like the Mirador, the shop we found was filled with locals, no tourists in sight, and I loved it. When I explore a new city, I always try to be as much of a traveler as I can, being sensitive to the local culture and attempting to get an authentic experience of the area, while I avoid at all costs being a stereotypical “tourist.” Obviously, I never avoid the most famous attractions, though they are populated with tourists – going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower just seems foolish, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that you must deny yourself an amazing experience at a famous landmark simply because it is the touristy thing to do. However, I do try to choose more local restaurants and venture off the beaten path as much as possible, because I would rather be living like a Spaniard in Spain than living like an American who is just checking sights off my list.

I feel like now is a good time to get off my soap box and back to the tea, because it was INCREDIBLE. We asked the waitress for her favorites and I ended up ordering a black tea she suggested called El Turco. It was delightfully cinammony and piping hot, which was wonderful after the cold of the outside. We each received our own little red teapot and a small glass to drink it from. I tried to savor mine but finished it embarrassingly quickly (I like tea, okay?).

After tea, we ventured forth in search of tapas, and after some wandering, found some that were quite delicious. I had a plate of patatas canarias, little baked potatoes covered in red and green sauces that were honestly some of the best I have ever had. Each time I find a new Spanish dish that I love, I experience I mix of both delight and sadness, because while each makes my trip here all the more enjoyable, I live knowing that when I return to the states in a few months, I will be able to find none of them. It is very unfortunate, but trust me, these potatoes were worth it.

At this point, we were exhausted and it was late, and we made the executive decision to sleep so that we could make the most of our next (and sadly, last) morning in Granada. We rose early and headed up through El Albaicín to El Camino de Sacromonte, the beautiful street that houses Granada’s gypsy neighborhood, where the buildings are all white and blue and built into the sides of the mountains. Because we rose early and because this is Spain, there was practically no one out while we were walking around, but the hike was an awesome way to start the day, and it was beautiful whether or not there was anyone to share it with us!

We also explored a little outdoor market in a square where flower pots hung on the walls and everyone seemed very merry (this was, of course, when people had woken up) and El Bañuelo, an old Arab bath house that sits hidden among many modern buildings. Compared to La Alhambra, it was very drab, but still an awesome piece of history to explore.

At noon, we returned to our apartment to check out and meet our landlord for the first time. He was wonderfully nice, and we chatted for a bit (in Spanish, which is still so cool to me. Obviously mine is far from perfect, but it is incredibly satisfying to speak to people in a language that is not your own and to be understood, and to understand them! It has been one of my favorite parts of this experience by far). He told us that Gwyneth Paltrow had studied in Alcalá! I have googled this and can neither confirm nor deny it, but I’m going to go ahead and believe it because it’s just so fun.

Back out in the city and backpacks (sadly) on our backs, our next stop was the magnificent Catedral de Granada. I was not expecting it to be as massive, or as ornate, as it was, but this building was spectacular. And our entrance fee came with a free audio guide, so we got to learn about the history of the building while we were staring around in wonder. When we could look no more, we made a quick kebab stop for lunch (my love for this food cannot be overstated) and made the long, sad journey to the train station to leave.

I did not want to say goodbye, but our reward for leaving was to get to visit the beautiful Córdoba, so I was not too devastated, all in all. Our first night consisted of not much more than checking into our hostel, finding and devouring some tapas, and tucking in for the night (traveling really does have a way of taking it out of you!).

Sunday morning, we (once again) rose early to see as much of the city as we could. The first thing we visited was El Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, an awesome palace that contained old Roman mosaics, an Arab bathhouse, a tower with a great view of the city (the second time we climbed it – the first it was too foggy to see anything!), and magnificent gardens filled with fountains, greenery, and more citrus trees than I have ever seen in one place in my entire life (I saw many more oranges that weekend than I was expecting. They are the unexpected, citrusy scourge of Andalusia).

From the tower, we had spied the Roman bridge of Córdoba, another site we wanted to hit, as well as a spectacle happening on the opposite side. Upon crossing said bridge, we discovered a wonderful medieval market/fair! Stalls lined the street where vendors sold crafts, many types of food, and (best of all) amazing looking desserts. Never one to turn down an opportunity to consume something delicious, I ate a piece of cake with a white chocolate coating on top covered in milk chocolate designs that made the cake look like it was covered in lace. To be honest, it looked better than it tasted, but I have no regrets.

The whole area was wonderfully alive, and the crowd frequently parted to let musicians and performers pass through. It was like a very long, very delayed parade. My favorite was a man shuffling along through the crowd atop a giant ball – I have no idea how he managed to keep his balance, but I applaud his spirit.

After a lunch of amazing tapas (surprised?) we entered Córdoba’s main attraction: La Mezquita. Over the years, this building has been both a mosque and a cathedral, and is now this crazy mixture of both. It feels sort of like someone dropped a cathedral in the middle of a mosque and added ornate Christian niches along all of the walls. The result is the largest, most ornate room I have ever had the pleasure of admiring. My favorite parts were the ceiling of the cathedral portion (I could have looked for hours and not absorbed all of it) and the mihrab, the most detailed and important part of the mosque (that I returned to at least three times because it was difficult to tear myself away from). We looked until our eyes were tired and then retired to the patio portion of the mosque (filled with, you guessed it, orange trees) to rest a bit before continuing to explore.

In our last several hours in the city, we visited the famed flower lined street (which was really just pots filled with green because it is January and thus not the season of flowers), took pictures in the narrowest street in the city (named after a handkerchief because at its narrowest, it is as wide as an open handkerchief), walked along the river, and saw the awesome ruins of an ancient Roman temple. After a rushed dinner and a quick (but necessary) gelato stop, we headed back to our hostel to pick up our backpacks and headed home!

I realized that I have rambled quite a bit, so if you made it to this point, congratulations! You’re at the end!

My love for these cities has led me to be a bit more verbose than anyone likely wants to read, but it couldn’t be helped. This was an incredible weekend that I will not soon forget, and I HIGHLY recommend visiting both these cities if you get the chance. Granada is my favorite city in Spain so far, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

(Belated) Barcelona


Okay, it’s amazing how easy it is to get busy and forget to keep this blog updated! I promise, the lack of communication is due to all kinds of fun adventures and generally being exhausted from doing a lot! However, I would be amiss if I didn’t make a post about my first full weekend trip here in Spain: the beautiful city of Barcelona!

All of our weekends here are (blessedly) three days long, which makes them the perfect length to take excursions to various cities around Spain. For our first adventure, five friends and I decided to hop on a plane and head northeast. This meant rising early (and at 4:30, it was aggressively early by Spanish standards. In my household growing up, this time is referred to as “adventure early.” You can decide what you want to call it). But we caught our bus to the airport and then another bus to get to the right terminal and then our plane and then our train and then our metro train and then we were finally in the heart of Barcelona!

It was a long road to get there, but it was incredibly worth it. Barcelona is absolutely gorgeous! Thanks in no small part to Antoni Gaudí, the architect who designed what felt like half of the city. His buildings were absolutely beautiful and seemed both modern and very old at the same time (and they are pretty old, dating back mostly to the late 19th century. Though I suppose in Europe, being less than 200 years old makes a building pretty young). Walking through the city, it was awesome to see his works dotted here and there – every building he constructed was just wonderful, and it added a unique flavor to all of Barcelona!

Our first day there was really a half day, with all the traveling it took to get there, but once we’d checked into our lovely Airbnb (a service I just now discovered and am already in love with. You can rent an entire private apartment for the same price as a hostel, if not cheaper!) we headed out to explore and see as much as we could!

We walked all along the famous Las Ramblas street for quite a while, starting at one end (and stopping to take many pictures with a magnificent statue of Christopher Columbus, who seems to be featured in statues everywhere here, atop a massive column and surrounded by metal lions) and working our way to the other. All in all, it was pretty touristy, which is never my favorite, but we did pass some magnificent buildings and ate some excellent gelato. One part I did greatly enjoy: El Mercado de la Boqueria, AKA the most magnificent covered market that I have ever seen. Rows of vivid, fresh squeezed juices on ice, pyramids of jewel-bright fruit, heaping mounds of mouth-watering candy, all the vegetables you could dream of, and more fresh meat and fish than I have ever seen filled the stalls to the brim. Just walking through it was quite the experience (and I couldn’t leave without trying some of the juice. I got strawberry-pineapple and it was incredible).

When we had seen all that we could on Las Ramblas, we sat for a bit in La Plaza de Cataluña (located at the end of the huge street) and watched the world go by. I remember being in awe that I’d finished my first full week of school for the semester and was sitting in Barcelona with my friends, casually. It felt surreal. Honestly, all of this does. I get to live for four months in a country I’ve been dreaming about living in for years! How is this possible? (I’m still not sure, but I’m definitely not going to question it).

Later that night, we went to an adorable little restaurant near the beach where they sat us in our own private room and I got to try paella for the first time! As expected, it was DELICIOUS, and I definitely had it twice more before the weekend was over. After our excellent meal, we went to the 26th floor of the W Hotel, which was right on the coast and offered excellent views of the city glittering in the nighttime. Another perk of staying in an Airbnb: the owner will often give you great tips of what to do in the city that get left out of guidebooks!

At this point, I had been up for 20 hours, and I was ready to pass out! Sadly, it was an hour’s walk from the hotel back to the apartment we were renting, but we made the trek, fending off the barrage of men and women trying to get us to enter their clubs (“Free drinks! Boys! Why are you walking away from us?”) and only missing our turn twice. But we made it home, and it was my most well-deserved night of sleep in a while.

Our next day was full as well, and we started it off with pastries and coffee in a bakery near our apartment. I LOVE the availability and price of baked goods here, and I can think of no better breakfast on the go! Food in hand, we headed off to Gaudí’s magnificent Park Güell. It was an awesome place, filled with mosaics, interesting architecture, and magnificent views of the city. We had a grand time wandering, admiring, and taking many pictures. We also hit the indescribably cool cathedral, La Sagrada Familia (also designed by Gaudí. Are you sensing a theme?). After over 100 years of construction and the death of its architect, the magnificent building is STILL not finished, but is set to be by 2016 (I saw their building plan though, and that date seems a tad optimistic, considering all they have left to do. I’m wishing them the best of luck, though!).

Even uncompleted and shadowed by huge cranes, this was one of the most spectacular buildings I have ever seen. Much like everything Gaudí created, it appeared both ancient and very modern, especially the inside. The outside was made of a brown stone and carved with thousands of intricate figures and shapes, but the walls inside the church were relatively devoid of details. Massive columns supported an impossibly high ceiling, but all were fairly plain. However, I and everyone else in the place had a difficult time noticing the lack of detail because we were too busy taking in the incredible stained glass windows. Every side wall was made up largely of brilliantly colored glass that made abstract geometric patterns rather than Biblical scenes. Many panes were organized by color family, so the windows would transition from warm to cool in an entrancing way. Best of all, we entered the cathedral just as the sun was starting to set, hitting the windows on one side of the building perfectly and bathing the entire cathedral in a dazzling light. It was amazing, and I don’t think I could ever spend enough time there to take in its splendor.

After the cathedral, we headed to the Barceloneta area (the beach) to dip our feet in the Mediterranean (a first for me!) and watch the sunset. Sadly, the sun ended up setting behind us (oops) but it was still a magnificent view and a great chance to rest our feet and watch the world go by. It was very peaceful, despite random men coming up to us every two minutes and offering us “mojito fresh!” My one big complaint about Barcelona was how annoying it was to be constantly sold to – I am not one for pushy salespeople, and this city was full of them. However, nothing could take away from the beauty of the city and the thrill of being in Spain!

Later that night, we attempted to watch a light show at the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc but were disappointed when it never happened! For whatever reason, it skipped the only show we could make. Bitter, I have vowed to return (and when my family visits in March, we’re going back to Barcelona, so I can redeem myself then!). We managed to save the night with an excellent dinner atop a shopping mall in La Plaza del Toros – it offered 360 degree views of the entire city, and the paella was delicious!

Thus ended our magnificent and exhausting second day in Barcelona. Our third was excellent as well, though short, as we had to leave and head home to Madrid in the afternoon (I meant that to sound sad, but honestly, “home” for the next several months is Madrid, so who am I to complain?). Our only real agenda item for our third day was the Picasso Museum, with admission free to students, which is always quite nice. We wandered some adorable little streets to get to it, and I was surprised to see that it seemed like a regular building, tucked in between apartments and shops, with very little to draw attention to itself.

I am so glad that we went – I had forgotten that Picasso had in fact painted in other styles before cubism and his blue period, and the museum organized his works in chronological order so that you could see how his style progressed. His most famous works were, lamentably, missing, but it was still a very cool experience. My favorite part of the exhibit was the end, which contained dozens of replicas that Picasso had painted of Las Meninas, a painting I already enjoyed, in various styles. It was amazing to see how many ways he interpreted just one painting, and how even though all the paintings looked very different, they were unmistakably interpretations of Las Meninas. If you’re ever in Barcelona, I highly recommend it!

After a slightly terrible lunch on Las Ramblas (the view was great, but our waiter was the worst server I have ever had), we made the sad trek back to the apartment to check out and then the long journey home to Alcalá! It was an unforgettable weekend, and a perfect first trip for me here in Spain. I was sorry to leave, but I left eager to explore more!