Soaking up Spain

Prior to this past year, I had never thought much about the prospect of visiting Spain. For some reason, I've never really been interested in visiting southern European countries, which would seem to put me in the minority of American tourists. Sure, there are plenty of nice things to see and do in these countries, but they're nowhere near the top of the list of European countries I'd most like to visit -- Eastern and Northern Europe have always been of far more interest to me.

However, as I began to apply for the Fulbright, I started entertaining the idea of making a trip to Spain. My good friend Maggie, who I lived with for a semester at Marquette, has been studying for her masters at St. Louis University's campus in Madrid since she graduated in December 2011. The idea of visiting Spain wasn't particularly thrilling for me, but the prospect of seeing Maggie again absolutely was.

At first, it felt like a pipe dream, since such a visit was wholly contingent on me getting the Fulbright. But, unable to keep these hopes inside, I began to discuss the idea more with my friend Ryan. He had previously studied abroad in Madrid (with Maggie, incidentally), and was hoping to make a return trip soon. I asked him if he would come with me in August if I were to get the Fulbright, and he agreed to wait to plan his trip until the end of summer. With that, our plans began to take a vague shape, although the specter of Fulbright loomed large -- no Fulbright, no Spain.

When I found out in April that I got the Fulbright, this pipe dream suddenly became an extremely attainable goal, and over the next several months we worked out the details. In a way it never felt totally real -- the fact that I would be coming to Spain from Germany, that the next time Ryan and I would see each other we'd be in Spain, and that I would get to visit Maggie in what has effectively become her new home. It all just seemed too perfect. How often do you get to meet old friends in entirely new places and make such wonderful, thrilling memories together?

On Friday, August 23, three days after arriving in Germany, dreams became reality and I headed back to Frankfurt to catch a flight to Madrid. For someone who considers herself a reasonably good traveler, I'm always a little wary traveling to countries where I don't feel comfortable in the language. Unlike most American youth, I never studied Spanish (save a few weeks in 6th grade, where I learned such useful skills as stating my name and singing "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" in Spanish. really.). This meant I was already starting to feel overwhelmed just sitting in the gate area, especially when it became clear they were only doing announcements in Spanish. Luckily just doing what everyone else is doing is usually a safe bet in airports. 

I got into Madrid around 10 p.m. on Friday and was very joyously greeted at the airport by Maggie and our friend Helena, a French girl who had done a semester abroad at Marquette. Helena's stay was brief since she was already leaving on Sunday, but it was still wonderful to see her again (and I'm hoping to visit her in France soon). We went back to Maggie's apartment so I could drop off my stuff and change into a fresh set of clothes. Ryan, Helena and I were fortunate in the timing of our trip in that all three of Maggie's roommates were out of town, so we were able to stay at her apartment and save money on accommodations.  

Typical tapas plate -- sausage and potatoes

The first night was fairly low-key. We went out to a tapas bar in the vicinity of Puerta del Sol, which is sort of like the central hub of Madrid. One thing I didn't realize about tapas in Spain is that they're not just available to order -- many bars (at least in Madrid) will bring you a free plate of simple tapas (ham and cheese on bread, sausage and potatoes, etc.) with your drink order, no matter how cheap your drink. That was a pleasant surprise that made it easy to keep your stomach sufficiently full during a night of drinking for minimal cost -- no excuses for drinking on an empty stomach in Spain!

We went out to a bar after tapas and sangria, where the three of us met a bunch of Maggie's friends. Most were expats from various countries, and I even had the chance to make use of my German! We parted ways with the group around 2 a.m. however, much to their dismay, since by Spanish standards the night was still young. Hell, even the kids in Spain stay out past midnight (no joke). But I was beat and needed to get some sleep.

The next day, Saturday, Maggie, Helena and I ate breakfast at a restaurant near Maggie's apartment, where I had the pleasure of eating churros con chocolate for the first time. This meal is basically what it sounds like -- a plate full of deliciously fried churros paired with a cup of thick, piping hot chocolate. The idea is to dip the churros into the chocolate, which I was more than happy to do. We then returned to Maggie's apartment to wait for Ryan, whose flight was arriving early in the afternoon. Though he got a bit turned around and thus showed up a little later than we expected, eventually he made it. After giving him a chance to recover from the journey, we headed once more for Puerta del Sol.

Before exploring, we stopped for lunch where I was able to try gazpacho for the first time, which is a popular tomato-based soup in Spain. I was curious how I would like it since gazpacho is served cold, and I'd never tried a cold soup before (or at least not soup that was intentionally served cold). I wouldn't say it's my favorite, and I wouldn't commonly desire to eat it, but it was reasonably tasty. The cold aspect was not as jarring as I thought it would be (especially when you've just escaped the blazing sun).

Inside the Almudena Cathedral

After lunch we finally got to do some proper sightseeing in Madrid, with visits to places like Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor and Mercado de San Miguel (a cute but rather expensive indoor market) . We also stopped by the Almudena Cathedral, which is Madrid's flagship church. Although it's clearly of the modern era, having been constructed within the last century, it was still a beautiful building, especially with its use of color on the ceilings and around the altar. Near the cathedral is the royal palace, but unfortunately we could only peer at it through the gates, since you have to pay an entrance fee to enter the courtyard area (though it does have free hours during the week). After walking around a few hours in the hot sun, all of us were beat. We hightailed it back to Maggie's apartment so we could siesta and re-energize ourselves for the night.

Once we were sufficiently roused from our naps, we headed back into the city center, where met Maria, a native Spaniard who had also studied abroad at Marquette. Together the four of us headed up to a rooftop terrace on top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes. Though it was extremely windy up there (to the point that we were scared to set our beers down lest they be blown over), it was worth for the experience and the view. Though I will say Madrid does not seem to be as good as other European cities about lighting up buildings and monuments at night, so the view wasn't quite as impressive as I think it could have been. After leaving Maria, we went out to a hookah bar and ended our night with another round of churros con chocolate, this time from San Gines Chocolateria, considered by many to be THE place to get this dish. We were not disappointed.

Churros con chocolate

On Sunday it was time for Helena to return to France, so it was just Maggie, Ryan and I the rest of the time. We did some more exploring of the city, with Maggie taking us to all of her favorite tapas places, including one that technically served "pintxos," which is just a Basque variation of the tapas concept. We spent the late afternoon exploring Retiro, which is a large park near the city center that was originally reserved exclusively for Spain's royalty. The park is sprawling, verdant and lively, with numerous fountains, statues and gardens, in addition to features like an artificial pond and a former greenhouse. The park was beautiful and I enjoyed exploring it, but as per usual the heat in Madrid made it difficult to enjoy some aspects of it, such as a beautiful rose garden utterly bereft of shade.

That night, Maggie took us out to dinner at Botin, which bills itself as the oldest restaurant in the world, having been in existence at the same premises since 1725. The experience was definitely a touristy one, as I heard more English being spoken there than I did anywhere else in Madrid, but a worthwhile experience none the less. We sat on the lower floor in a sort of enclave surrounded by cool stone walls -- it looked like the space had simply been carved out of the foundation. The whole restaurant felt dated in a good way, as you could imagine everything looking more or less the same two centuries ago. They even had a small band go through the restaurant to serenade diners -- perhaps a little cheesy, but I really didn't mind. Their signature dish is the roast suckling pig, and having never tried such a thing, I decided to go for it. It was pricey, but very, very tasty. The portion was huge though, and I could really only eat one of the two hearty slabs of meat on my plate. All in all, this in an experience I would absolutely recommend to others visiting Madrid, despite it being a thoroughly touristy choice.

Monday was our museum day, with two big hitters on our list: the Prado, which is the flagship fine art museum in Spain, featuring works from many of the great Spanish masters. I was able to get in free with my student ID (technically an ISIC card), which was a nice bonus. The collection at the Prado is undeniably rich and worthwhile, but I found myself tiring relatively quickly -- unless you are an art connoisseur, there's only so many pictures of Jesus hanging on the cross or 18th-century nobles that you can see before it all starts to blend together. Moreover, unlike museums like the Met in New York City or the Louvre in Paris, the museum space itself was not particularly striking or special. Which isn't to say it was an ugly museum; more that it's easier for me to spend several hours in a museum when I can take a break from looking at paintings to just enjoy my surroundings. I did particularly enjoy their collection of Goya's Black Paintings, however.

After leaving the Prado and taking a tapas break, we geared ourselves for the other major art museum in Madrid, the Reina Sofia. The main claim to fame of this museum is that it houses Picasso's Guernica, which is perhaps his best-known painting, depicting a bombing on civilians in a Basque town during the 1930s. The Reina Sofia is billed as a modern art museum, which I think may be off-putting to some, but it's important to remember that modern really means within the last 100-150 years, as is the case with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Point is, even though this was a "modern art" museum, I really, really enjoyed most of what it had to offer. I think my favorite collections were the ones tied to the Guernica display, since those offered a history and a context to that piece and the time period in which it was painted.

Seeing Guernica itself is worth visiting the museum. It's a painting I've been familiar with since I was a child, although it's only recently that I actually took the time to understand what it's depicting. The painting itself is HUGE, and there's so much going on, so the chance to see it in person and spend several minutes taking it all in is very special. All in all, if I had to choose just one art museum in Madrid to see, I would pick the Reina Sofia, hands down.

The only other eventful happening of Monday was how we spent the night, since we decided to scope out the gay scene in Madrid. We didn't quite know what to expect, and at first the night seemed like a bust, since there weren't many people out (a combination of it being a Monday and during August, a month when most people are away on vacation) and the bars we were finding all seemed to be closing early (2 a.m.). However, we eventually were pointed in the direction of a dance club that would be open throughout the night, and we had an awesome time there dancing, drinking and singing. We left around 4:30 a.m. and I considered it a night well spent.

The Egyptian Temple in Parque Casa de Campo

Our original plan had been to make a day trip to Toledo, a medieval town outside of Madrid, on Tuesday, but based on how late we were out Monday night it was clear this was not a viable plan. We let ourselves sleep in, and later in the day we headed to Parque Casa de Campo, which is a huge park on the western edge of the city. It has a variety of features, including an authentic Egyptian temple (which was closed so we couldn't explore it) and old bunkers from the Spanish Civil War. I really liked exploring this park because I found it a nice contrast to Retiro. Retiro is beautifully maintained, but smaller and more crowded. Casa de Campo was not quite so beautiful and orderly, but it was so spacious you really felt like you could find genuine solitude there if you ever needed it.

From the park we took a gondola ride over the forests on the edge of Madrid to a sort of visitors center on the other side (I think an amusement park and zoo were somewhat easily accessible from the center). The ride was a nice chance to see Madrid from afar, although the city doesn't have a particularly striking skyline. The trip was also a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Madrid. After exploring the park, we made our way back to Maggie's apartment and enjoyed a low-key night so we could wake up refreshed and ready to take on Toledo.

A day-trip to Toledo was originally proposed by Ryan as we were planning our trip, and it seemed like a good idea -- the city is a beautifully preserved walled medieval town that's only a 30 minute train ride from Madrid. In a way, it's a little too good to be true. The city is definitely extremely picturesque and has a lot to explore in a day, but since it's so accessible from Madrid, on any given day it's CRAWLING with tourists (we went in the middle of the week; I can't fathom what a weekend would be like) and there are souvenir shops aplenty. It's beautiful, but not quite charming, if that makes sense. If you're looking for an authentic Spanish experience, head elsewhere.

View of Toledo

We started our morning by hailing a cab from the train station. We were able to arrange to have our cabbie first drive to a lookout point where we could get a great view of the city from afar, and then drive us to the city center. This was far more efficient than walking the whole way or using a tourist bus service, and fairly cheap too (split among three people, at least). Once in the city, we picked up a map and developed a game plan of what we'd like to see and do. Topping the list was, of course, the cathedral, which is one of the most impressive in all of Spain (and probably Europe as well). After a brief detour to a metal workshop to see some craftsmen at work, we headed to the cathedral to begin our visit.

I was a little uncertain of what to expect, because the entrance fee for the cathedral is pretty steep -- 8EUR. Most other churches I've been to in Europe are either free or ask for a donation of 2EUR or so. As such, I was suspicious as to whether this one was truly worth the money. To purchase your entrance ticket (which includes an audioguide), you're funneled through what is essentially the cathedral's gift shop, which made the whole thing feel a little hokey -- I was half expecting someone to ask to take our picture in front a green screen on our way out, so they could then try and sell us a glossy print for only $12.95.

Once we escaped the commercialism of the gift shop and entered the cathedral, I felt more at ease. The interior is massive and impressive, occasionally ornate to the point of seeming gaudy, but this at least meant there was always something to feast your eyes on. The audio tour was actually better than I expected as well. Usually I avoid them and instead go around reading information at my leisure, but since I had paid for it, I figured I might as well use it. It gave an informative and thorough tour of the entire cathedral, though it was a bit too wordy at times. Based on other impressive churches I have seen in Europe, I would say this one definitely merits a visit.

After the cathedral, we hunted down some food and identified what places we'd like to see next. We identified a 12th-century mosque as our desired next stop and headed that way… only to see that it was closed, and would remain as such until about 5 o'clock. And thus began a constant theme throughout our day, as we realized most museums and other spaces were going to be closed the next few hours, leaving us with little to do beyond wander outside in the hot sun. Since we were planning on taking a train back in the early evening, that meant we really didn't have any chance to see most of these places. In hindsight, we should have soldiered on a little bit longer before breaking for lunch to maximize our chances to go into buildings.

We decided to set our sights on visiting another church, since those were less likely to be closed during the siesta hours. We decided on Iglesia de los Jesuitos because there we had the option of climbing to the top of the church to get a nice view of the city. This was money well spent in my opinion, as it was only a little over 2EUR to get in, the climb up was relatively easy, and the payoff was nice.

Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes

After the church, we worked our way over to Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes. This was probably my favorite place we stopped to visit in Toledo, which I was not expecting at all. I was very taken with the tranquility of the space as well as the design of it. The monastery features long, open-air hallways encircling a lush, green courtyard, and since there were few other tourists, I felt like you could just slow down and escape all of the commotion outside. Moreover, the detailing on the archways as well as the overall design of the building just seemed distinctly Spanish to me -- I would never see something like that in Germany, and I really liked the contrast of it to what I am used to seeing. It wasn't not visually striking and overwhelming as the cathedral, but it was a lovely space that I enjoyed exploring.

After the monastery, it was already nearing the early evening, so we spent the rest of our time hanging around outside, enjoying the last bits of Toledo before we headed back to the train station. My flight was leaving at 4 p.m. the next day, so the rest of my time in Spain was spent packing and just enjoying my last bits with Maggie and Ryan.

I was sad to leave them to head back to Germany, but I am hoping to see both of them again soon, as I have done my best to convince them to pay me a visit sometime in Fulda. I had a great time in Spain, though that probably has much more to do with the company I had than where I actually was. That said, I'm extremely grateful I had the chance to visit a city so different from anywhere I had been before, and I'm also grateful I was able to make this trip before the busyness and stress of the school year begin.