La Puerta de Acala

La Puerta de Acala

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Exploring my new home!

So I've been in Madrid for a month now. First of all, its going by WAY too fast already. I am constantly reminding myself that I still have more than 3 months left. But I feel like its about time I get to know my new home! 

And that's exactly what I've been doing all week. Last Sunday, Carolina, Taylor and I went on a free walking tour of the city. Thanks to my awesome friend Katherine, I found out about this company called Sandemans New Europe. They have free tours in like 14 different cities and then special tours (for money) in each city. The other tours offered in Madrid are the Civil War tour, the Pub Crawl and the Tapas Experience. Im SUPER excited to do the tapas one because for only €14 (about $18) you get a free drink and tapas at the 3 different bars they take you. So that should be fun but getting back to the point lol...the free tour! It was really great. I had been to or walked past a lot of what we were shown but it was cool to have a guide explain the history and cool little stories about everything. And the guide was really awesome too! A little quirky but he was very entertaining, definitely knew his stuff and you could tell he loved his job, which was cool. They're free but at the end, you can tip your guide as much as you thought their tour was worth. Very cool idea and we ended up giving $20 because we liked it so much. Here's pictures from the tour. 

The first one is the Catedral de la Almudena, right next to the palace. The second is at the Puerta del Sol where a protest was going on! Walking through that one a tour with 20 other people was pretty interesting. I have no idea how our guide kept everyone together. And the last one is of a couple cool buildings but the one on the left is the Hotel Asturias, where me, my mom and my sister stayed the last time we went to Madrid! Memories! Haha.

So the tour was great. I'm really glad we did it and I cannot wait to do the others! Next up in our adventure of Madrid week was the world-famous art Museum, El Prado. I'm still not sure how I feel about classic art. Some of it is really cool and interesting but most of it is super boring. 

The 3 of us, along with our wonderful guide Encarna and our program director, wanted to figure out a day that wouldn't be too busy so we could see everything we wanted to with no crowds. The group consensus was a Wednesday morning. We were sure there wouldn't be too many tourists. We were so wrong...
This picture was taken on the way out, when there wasn't 200 people waiting on those stairs to get in
Actually to be fair, it wasn't really our fault. We just happened to pick the day that a super-famous painting was going to be released after months of restoration. The painting is called La Gioconda and is a copy of the Mona Lisa painted by one of Leonardo da Vinci's pupils, possibly also with some help from da Vinci himself. Before the restoration there was just a solid black background in the painting but after some scans and tests they realized there was more underneath. So even though there were a lot of tourists, it was almost all locals who were all of the sudden interested in art. And a piece of art that had always been at the museum. There might have been a line to get in but I got to see the Mona Lisa (kind of) without going to Paris. Winning. Also, saving haha.

Thank you Google!
By the way, the worst part about El Prado is that they don't let you take pictures! Not cool! My iPhone is not going to harm your precious art, I promise. Anyway, the three artists we focused on were El Greco, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. My favorite by far is Velázquez. Partly because he has several paintings of the Spanish Royal family's personal entertainers...who just happened to be midgets or anyone else with a mental illness or who looked funny to them. But he also did one of favorite paintings ever, Las Meninas. I think the reason I love it so much is that there's so much going on. It's also really, really big. Like, it almost takes up the entire wall. 
Google saving the day again!
After seeing what we came for at El Prado, everyone was pretty hungry and we decided to find some food! We walked around a little and finally found the Plaza de Santa Ana. It's actually one of my favorite places in the whole city. I'm not really sure why but the atmosphere is just awesome. There are always people there but not many tourists. It locals sitting at the cafes outside, playing with their kids in the playground. And everyone is super nice. As I explain a little later, I've visited a couple of the bars here and they're also full of locals. Mainly old guys, talking about politics or soccer or just life in general. I love that. 

The building above is called the Hotel Reina Victoria and is where all the famous bullfighters used to stay while doing a corrida Madrid. Its been since renovated and apparently the terrace is really amazing during the summer. Definitely making a trip there when it gets warmer. So there are several bars around the plaza but we went to a place called Vintoteca. They're famous for their tostas, which is basically a toasted piece of bread with your choice of topping. I got a tosta de jamón ibérico y queso and it was SO good. And of course, the croquetas were amazing. I had croquetas de bacalao for the first time and they were actually really good! Never thought I'd ever enjoy eating fish...

Something really cool that we learned on our tour is that Ernest Hemingway used to constantly hang out at bar at the Plaza de Santa Ana. Its called the Cerveceria Alemana. According to our tour guide, there's a plaque on one of the bar stools that says "Hemingway sat here blah blah blah". On my way to the Banco de Espana I decided to stop by and have a drink. First off, there are no bar stools. There's also no plaque. Or pictures. Or any mention of Hemingway. But I asked the bartender and he said that Hemingway did in fact spend a lot of time there but they never had a plaque or anything. Oh well. I had a beer where Hemingway got wasted. So cool.

They gave me olives with my beer and tortilla...haha...
Ok here goes my last little story, I promise! So Spain didn't always use the euro, obviously. Before 2002, everyone used the peseta. And for some reason I had a bunch of pesetas in my closet since the last time we were in Spain while they were still in circulation. The only reason I brought them is because I read somewhere you could go to the Banco de Espana in Madrid and change them for euros. My dad kept telling me to keep them because they were cool to have but...I didn't really want to listen to that logic since it was possible to exchange them for actual money. And thats exactly what I did. Apparently 9,000pesetas is almost 54euros. So you math people can figure out the exchange rate haha. 

One last goodbye!
I'm getting to know Madrid more and more everyday. And even though I carry a map every time I go, the best way to get to know a city is just to walk around. When I get bored, I just go into the city and explore. It's been hard to do since it's been so cold but now that it's warming up finally, I'm going to be able to do it a lot more. 

Hasta la proxima! 

Possibly one of the most photographed buildings in Madrid

Monday, February 20, 2012

Córdoba in a day!

So this weekend was really awesome! Me and two other girls in my program spent the day in Córdoba with our personal guide and it was a fantastic.

For those who don’t know, Córdoba is in the southern region of Spain called Andalucía. This means that the weather is automatically better than in Madrid. After suffering 40-degree (or worse at times) weather for 3 weeks, it was around 60 for most of the day in Córdoba. That’s normally cold for me, but I’ll take what I can get haha.

The best way to get to Córdoba is to take the AVE, Spain’s high-speed train. The AVE goes to Barcelona, Valencia and several big cities in Andalucía. The people that know me well are very aware that it is impossible for me to sit still for more than 10 minutes. For that reason, I love traveling by train because there’s plenty of room for me to walk around and when I feel like sitting, it’s very comfortable. Another great thing is that train stations are always in the center of town, so you don’t normally have to take a bus or taxi to your next destination. And of course the best thing is that the AVE goes approximately 175mph, so what would normally be a 4 or 5-hour bus trip takes less than 2 hours.

We got to Córdoba around 12:30 and after getting some breakfast and walking around the old city for a bit, we headed to the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, or in English the Castle of the Christian Kings. This palace is one of the many examples of diverse the history of Córdoba is. It was first used by the Visigoths (who invaded Spain after the fall of the Roman empire), then by the Caliphate of Córdoba (the ruler of al-Andalus) and then finally one of Ferdinand and Isabel’s primary residences. One of the really cool parts of the Palace were the ruins of the Moorish baths. The Moors were fascinated by water and were very successful in using it for many different things. They created a ventilation system for the baths and even had cold, warm and hot rooms. Something I found out later is that those same baths were used as torture chambers when Ferdinand and Isabel made the Alcazar the headquarters of the Inquisition. However, my absolute favorite part of the Alcazar was the gardens. There were pools and fountains and orange groves and much, much more. It was truly amazing. 

After the Alcazar, we got lunch at a typical Cordobes tapas bar. Croquetas and patatas bravas did the job for me :) Our next stop was the Sinagoga de Córdoba (Córdoba Synagogue). After the expulsion of the Jews (and Moors) in 1492, just about every synagogue in Spain was repurposed for some Christian us. This is one of 3 synagogues left in Spain. Crazy to think about. But just like everything else we'd seen, this was another really beautiful building. The designs on the walls are extremely detailed and was actually the decoration of choice for the time because it was easy and cheap. 

Finally I got to see what I had been waiting for all day. La Gran Mezquita de Córdoba (the Great Mosque of Córdoba). In my Spanish class last semester we learned all about the history of Spain from the Romans to the 19th century, and we focused a lot on the architecture of each civilization. I had seen pictures of the Mezquita before but nothing could've prepared me for what I saw when we walked into the great hall. I really was speechless. Take a look at some of these of the inside while I think about how I'm going to start describing it.

That first picture is one of the many facades on the outside of the walls. Just like the synagogue, the decorations are just amazing. As you can see, the great hall has hundreds and hundreds of columns and archways. Its often referred to as el bosque de columnas (the forest of columns) because it seems like it goes on forever. The first architect of the Mezquita decided that he wanted the hall to appear much bigger than it actually was, since the ceiling was fairly low. This is why the double-arcs are used. But because the population of Córdoba kept increasing, the Mezquita was expanded several times by the different caliphates in power. However, when the Moors were expelled (also in 1492), the catholics decided they didn't need a mosque anymore and decided to put a big old cathedral in the middle. Our guide told us that when Carlos V (Roman emperor/Spanish king) saw the cathedral for the first time, he was extremely mad because they had ruined something so unique and special to put in something that could be seen in any Spanish city. I couldn't agree more with Carlos. Its such a shame that such amazing building was ruined by those dumb Catholics but hey, at least they didn't destroy it completely.

I really can't say enough how beautiful it was. Not only the Mezquita but all of Córdoba. It has such an interesting history. I loved every minute spent there and I would gladly come back to see it all again, especially since we were only able to take a day trip. If you get a chance to go, DO IT! Córdoba is definitely my favorite city in Spain so far. After Madrid, of course :) 

School has been good by the way! It's been 2 weeks and I've had...I think 3 homework assignments. So it's fair to say that I will be transferring here next semester, haha. This week should be awesome though! On Wednesday our wonderful guide Encarna is going to show us around Madrid's most famous art museum, El Prado, and then take us to El Mercado de San Miguel to get some tapas. I'm super excited because the last (and only) time I was in Madrid, my mom, sister and I tried to go but it was a Monday and they were closed. We also tried to go to the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia art museum but they were both closed too. So all we saw the whole weekend was the Santiago Bernabeu and Madrid's version of Central Park called El Retiro. Hopefully I'll have better luck this week :)

Until next time!

Monday, February 13, 2012

My dream come true

Hello all! I know I said I would try to do this as often as possible but...I've been busy haha. 

So last night was easily one of the best nights of my life. But a little background first. When I was 6 years old, my dad brought me a Real Madrid jersey from Spain, with Davor Suker on the back. Ever since then I have been a die hard "Madridista" aka Madrid fan. Ever since then, I have dreamed of seeing them play in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. And last night that dream came true. Here's my host dad, Jose Ramon, and I. 

The game itself was fantastic. Real Madrid played Levante, a team from Valencia that has actually done surprisingly well this season. Even though I don't like to think about it, they beat us in September and are currently in 4th place and will qualify for the Champions League which is amazing for a team that was just promoted form the 2nd Division 2 years ago. Although Real Madrid got off to a horrible start, as always, they came back and ended up winning 4-2. To make the night even better, my favorite player, Cristiano Ronaldo, scored a hat trick. The team could have played a little better but I couldn't have asked for anything better on my first time. And to top it all off, I got to see my cousin (Javi Venta) play for the first time! However, he plays for Levante and I had to secretly cheer for him haha. Here's some more pictures from the game. 

Oh I forgot to mention! It was an even more memorable occasion because one of Real Madrid's most accomplished players ever, Roberto Carlos, was honored and got to do an honorary kick off (top right).

Not only was the game absolutely amazing but the experience was completely different from any sporting event I have ever been to in the US. First of all, my host family has season tickets and they are amazing seats. Even though they're in the 3rd tier, we were right at midfield and it really is the perfect height to be able to see the whole game. Also, there are gigantic heaters on the roof of the stadium that point down at the seats. It was absolutely freezing, so those really helped me keep the feeling in my hands and feet.

The other thing that I loved was just the culture around going to a game and actually watching it. This is definitely a generalization but I think that in the US, most people go to sports games for the experience, not necessarily to watch the game. For example, going to a baseball game is all about the extra stuff and extra events or contests going on, not the game. 

Its exactly the opposite in Spain. The first thing I noticed is that there are no huge screens showing the game, replays or doing contests in between gameplay. There are two relatively small screens at each end of the stadium that show the score and the time; thats it. And its weird how used to the US culture I was. Benzema scored a goal that was called back for offsides and as soon as the linesman's flag went up, I looked up to the screen for the replay. 

Listening to the fans around me was also really great. Hearing their opinions of players, refs, coaches, the other team, etc was awesome. One of the more popular opinions is that one of Real Madrid left backs/left mids, Fábio Coentrão, is horrible and should never play again. Higuain is also fairly unpopular, unless he does something good (like assist one of Ronaldo's goals). And thats the really unique thing about Real Madrid culture is that because of their history, the fans expect nothing but the best. So when a player or the team isn't playing well, the crowd lets them know. But if the fans think someone is playing well, they chant and sing his name (for example, Ronaldo's name was sung several times). 

It's not the best picture but the middle section shown above is where the "Ultras Sur" sit. The Ultras are a radical group of fans that spend the whole game signing and chanting different things. Last night they sang Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho's name, and started chants like "Matalo, matalo, Pepe matalo", "Ballesteros, hijo de puta" and my absolute favorite was when they started to sing Barcelona's official song until they changed the end to "Barca! Barca! Mierda!". Most of what they do during the game is good but a lot of fans don't support the Ultra's because they're just too extreme.

The last very interesting thing about going to the game was the food situation. My host mom made sandwiches for the three of us to take. At first I was a little confused because of course in the US, the only thing you can take into a stadium or area is a bottle of water. Here, everyone is carrying a grocery bag packed with sandwiches and sodas. So instead of spending I don't know how much on a meal at halftime, we ate our food and talked about the first half and what should happen in the second. 

The one thing I didn't really like about going was that we drove. Apparently they do it every week and its not a bad drive (about 30 minutes) but parking is such a nightmare. And my host dad actually got a 200 euro ticket! Madrid has a perfectly capable public transportation system (that I will talk about in my next post) so I still don't understand why we drove. But it was all part of an amazing experience that I will never forget. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

La llegada!

Bienvenidos a Madrid! And for all of you who don't know how to use Google Translate, welcome to Madrid! ;)

I meant to write this post as soon as I got here but I have been so...busy...with...stuff...haha. Yeah, I guess I just got sidetracked and didn't want to be at my computer writing. But here we go! I'll try to update this as often as I go somewhere or do something important. Or whenever else I feel like :) 

So first off. My luggage. Those of you who know me know that I am the WORST packer ever. I bring way too many clothes everywhere I go. And essentially moving to Spain for 6 months was no different. I spent 3 or 4 days packing to make sure the bag I was going to check was under the required weight (which may vary but for British Airways was 23kg/51lbs). That may seem like a lot but to me, it was not at all. I wanted to bring a carry-on bag with shoes and whatever didn't fit in the big bag but that didn't work out. I ended up paying the $60 to check them both (which I think is ridiculous for an international flight but thats just me) and it was very worth it. Below is all my stuff. Together, they weighed about 70lbs. Crazy.

After dealing with the luggage fiasco, my trip here actually went really well. My first piece of advice is try and fly on Saturday evenings. When my family and I got to Dulles, it was really empty and it made me a little nervous but I just realized that not many people fly on Saturday night. Which was awesome for me because I had a whole row of seats to myself!! I normally don't sleep on planes but since I had so much room, I slept almost the entire way.

Unfortunately when I got to London the idiots at Iberia told me that my flight was going to be delayed at least an hour, if not more. So, I took the time to type up a list of things I wanted to mention. So here it goes:
1. Do not text and walk! Its a bad idea in the US but when you're at an airport in England and you have to weave through tourists on the ride side of the path and Brits on the left, it makes it 10x more dangerous as I found out. 
2. All over Europe, soda is served almost entirely in bottles. This unfortunately means no free refills, which I am not used to at all. So when you order a soda (or pretty much any drink besides tap water) do not just chug it and expect your waiter to bring you another. 
3. On the topic of waiters in Europe, but especially in Spain, you have to be extra assertive (insert funny Spongebob reference here lol). They might get your order once you sit down but don't expect a check-up every few minutes to see how the food is. If you ever want to see them again, its your responsibility to get their attention. 
4. During my extended stay in London, I thought I would have some breakfast seeing as how British Airways was under the impression that a roll with some butter is a sufficient breakfast for a toddler let along a 20-year old man. I thought it was pretty awesome that the restaurant I went to actually served "American pancakes". I decided to get the French toast instead but I was sitting next to an American family and they all ordered pancakes. Baby steps haha. Also, another reason being in England is so great is that they don't normally judge you for ordering a pint at 11am! Here's a picture of my delicious French toast. 

6. In case you didn't know, Heathrow is actually not an airport but a luxury shopping mall. For those of you from NOVA, its very similar to Tysons II. I've been to Heathrow a couple times before but I guess I never noticed all the shops it has! I mean honestly, the shops and the airlines probably make around the same amount of money because each terminal pretty much has its own mall. Crazy stuff lol. Here's a picture of the Burberry store but there was also Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and many more. 

Well thats all for now! Thanks for reading! :) Again, this was super late so my upcoming posts will be about my town (Villaviciosa de Odon), my day trip to Madrid today and then our school trip to Toledo tomorrow! Speaking of which, I have to catch the bus for that in like 8 hours so hasta luego!