Spring Break Part Uno: Espana

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As I post this, I am back in America. My days of traveling from country to country are over, at least for now. Looking back, this has been the greatest semester of my life, and although my time in Europe may be finished, my blog posts are not. Because of my extreme procrastination, I still have several more to write detailing my adventures in Europe, so stay tuned. The best is yet to come.
I struggled for weeks on where to go for my Spring Break (it’s such a hardship deciding whether or not to go to Spain or Italy for Spring Break, I don’t know how I did it). Ultimately I decided on Spain considering I had been to Italy five years before, and this would be my only chance to see Spain on this trip. So I found a cheap flight to Barcelona, where I would stay for a day before departing for Madrid to meet up with my roommate Campbell. After a few days in Madrid we would take a bus down to Granada, where Campbell’s friend Felipe was studying abroad. Then Paris, which will be my next blog post.
When I first arrived in Barcelona I was thrown off by the use of Catalan. Considering how awful my Spanish is, I was worried about whether or not I would be able to communicate using this, but having Catalan thrown in the mix really caught me off guard. However, most of the people I encountered in Barcelona spoke very good English (unlike the other cities in Spain) so I got along pretty well.
My first introduction to Spanish culture was the lunch I had, and I coulnd;t help but compare how different the cuisine was from what I had been used to. Spanish food seemed much lighter, with more fruits and vegetables and plenty of fish, and more wine than beer. This Mediterranean cusine was a nice change of pace from the heavy dumplings, ghoulash, and beer back in Prague.

Unfortunately, the weather was far too chilly for me to lay out on the beach, which I had been hoping to do, but I did get to explore Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a medieval labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways filled with churches shops, and monuments. Nearby this is one of the most famous buildings in Spain, the Sagrada Familia, an unusual looking cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi that appears to be made of melting wax. The cathedral is still a work in progress that has lasted almost 150 years.

Being in Barcelona by myself I was unsure of what I would do once night time came around (as far as nightlife goes, I already had a hostel lined up). Luckily, after grabbing some tapas, which I had never had before, there was a bar crawl hosted by the hostel, which went through several bars before finally dropping us off at Shoko, a nightclub which at first glance seemed pretty promising. Things only got better as I ventured further through the club I saw it opened up onto the beach. What followed was a fun first night in Spain, partying on the beach and in the club until 6 am, when the Barcelona metro system opened up again. I then had a leisurely morning of wandering around La Rambla and the scenic streets, before catching my bus to Madrid. As I’ve said in nearly every city I visited, I was sad to leave so soon, but I really did have a great time in Barcelona. It’s a fun town with great food, beaches, and some of the most unusual architecture of anywhere in the world. But now I was on to Madrid, and I couldn’t wait to see what Spain’s capital had in store for me.

The bus ride was seven hours and the only stop for dinner was at a roadside gas station, where I dined on the traditional Spanish delicacy of Doritos and Oreos (not an actual Spanish delicacy, if you couldn’t tell). It was Good Friday that day, and Madrid is known that day for having a festival where thousands of people parade through the streets in white hooded robes (which unfortunately appear very similar to the KKK uniforms) with crucifixes and other religious art. I missed all this Good Friday hysteria, and when I arrived there was no sign at all of the parade. I met up with my roomie (now former roomie) Campbell, who was meeting up with a friend here, but both of us were too tired to go out that night.

We started off the morning with a free tour of Madrid. No tour is really ever free, as most of these tours ask for tips at the end. However, it was interesting to see some of the major sites of Madrid, such as Puerta Sol, the main plaza, Palacio Real, or the royal palace, and many other historic buildings. I had heard that Spain’s economy was doing poorly, but our guide informed us that the unemployment rate was 24%, and nearly 50% for young people. As more news of their financial crisis has come to light, it seems the situation has only gotten worse recently.

The rest of our time in Madrid consisted of wandering around, as I do everywhere I go, and doing plenty of eating. I really loved the Spanish food and I ate tapas, paella, a squid sandwich, and drank plenty of red wine and sangria. Also, I had seen a few years back a show on the Travel Channel that featured Madrid. The only thing I remembered from that show was the desert Samantha Brown ate on the program: churros dipped in a cup of thick chocolate. I found the restaurant where these are served, Chocolateria San Gineria, and let’s just say they did not disappoint. They were delicious.

On Easter Sunday Campbell went to travel to Segovia with one of his friends from school (a small medieval town about an hour from Madrid), while I wandered through the sunny streets of Madrid, where everyone seemed to be sitting around with family members. It was here I began to feel a little lonely and miss everyone back in Omaha, but those feelings quickly went away as soon as I began eating a delicious meal. I guess food is all I need in certain situations. I also started to realize it would probably be many years before I was back in Madrid so I might as well enjoy my time here instead of moping around feeling homesick. Later that day my Catholic guilt kicked in and I realized I really should attend mass. So I went to my first mass in Europe, which was in Spanish of course.

Later on in Madrid, Campbell and I went through the El Prado, which is reputed to be one of the best art museums in the world, and although we tried to see as much as we could, I know we did not see nearly a quarter of what the El Prado had to offer. The nights out in Madrid were just as fun as the days touring, and they included a bar crawl which ended up in a club that felt straight out of a movie (I don’t know how else to describe it), and another more relaxing night drinking with some Irish people in our hostel.

Campbell and I left the next morning on a bus bound for Granada. I had a wonderful time in Madrid, and although it’s not quite as stunningly beautiful or unique looking as Barcelona, there is so much to see and do here and I felt that I really got a good sense of Spanish culture because I was here several days longer. Also, I found the people here to be extremely friendly and warm, even if they didn’t speak a single word of English.

After a drive through the mountains and hills of Andalucia, we arrived at our final Spanish destination, Granada. It was here Campbell was meeting up with a good friend from school, Felipe. Granada is a much smaller town than both Madrid and Barcelona, and a town that felt very authentically Spanish. The streets were all narrow and cobblestoned, stray cats were everywhere, and the air was filled with the sounds of flamenco music. Across from our hostel on top of a hill sits the Alhambra, one of the last Muslim fortresses in Europe, and definitely the top attraction in Granada. We were told to be there very early, so after a short night on the town meeting some of Felipe’s friends, we headed back to the hostel to prepare for a very early wake up.

After waking up at 6 am in the dark, we trekked up the hill to the imposing fortress. There was already a long line of people, even though it wasn’t even light out. For those that have never heard of the Alhambra, this was a relic of the days when the Muslims ruled Spain, so the architecture is much different from practically anything else in Europe. With the pools, palm trees, and geometric patterns and tiles, it was unlike any other structure I had seen in Europe and it was very distinctly Islamic. The most impressive part of the Alhambra was the Nasrid Palace, which was very well preserved and very impressive, and some of the reflecting pools and mosaics were almost perfectly intact. If you are ever in Granada this fortress is an absolute must-see.

The rest of my time in Granada was very enjoyable as well. The Alhambra seemed to be the main attraction in Granada, but I had a good time wandering around the town, meeting Felipe and his friends, and eating the tapas. Unlike in the rest of Spain, the tapas, which are basically small dishes served with a drink, are free with each drink purchase. So basically, if you order two or three drinks for around 6 euros total, you also get three plates of food as well. Not a bad deal.

Of all the countries I went to in Europe, Spain seemed to be the worst when it came to English-speakers. Although there were enough people who spoke a little English, most people seemed to only speak Spanish. However, if I had to go to a place where people spoke no English, it’s probably better it was Spain than a country like Hungary, because no matter how bad my Spanish is, I’m sure I can get by much better in Spanish than Hungarian.

It also made me want to learn Spanish when I got back to America (where I am now). Seeing how most of the people in Europe can speak at least two languages, it made me want to be able to communicate in a language other than English. Living in the United States, the most useful language would probably be Spanish. So I can definitely add another objective to my list of goals for the year.

Other than the Czech Republic of course, Spain was the country I spent the longest time in, and I feel I got a pretty good sense of the country after seeing three different cities. It’s a beautiful country with delicious food and friendly people, and I hope it recovers soon from its economic catastrophe.

On Thursday of that week, I said adios to Spain and bonjour to Paris, where I would spend the remainder of my Spring Break.

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