Monday, January 28, 2008

Explorations of Toledo!

So, Toledo is absolutely amazing. This city is exactly what I pictured when I thought of Europe—well at least Spain. The streets are cobbled, narrow, and long. There are balconies lining the streets. The city map looks as if a child scribbled with crayon and they used that as the road plan. Everywhere I turned there was another picture begging to be taken. Everything was just so beautiful. Unfortunately, I couldn’t truly capture it. My pictures definitely do not do justice to Toledo.

We started out the day with a tour of the cathedral. It’s one of the top 3 largest Gothic cathedrals in the world and it is absolutely stunning. It doesn’t look like much from the outside—then again you can’t see a lot of it because it is constantly being blocked by other buildings. Everything was so extremely intricate and ornate. And it’s incredible that it was built without the use of modern construction technology. I walked in and immediately stopped in my tracks. I was stunned. I looked to the right and it was just gorgeous columns, and the ceiling was so extremely high up. It’s not like there were several floors, it was one massive room, floor to ceiling. The carvings in the choir area were incredible. I wish we were allowed to take pictures of the interior. Then again, they wouldn’t truly show the beauty of the cathedral. The only bad thing about the building was the temperature. It was freezing inside. There’s simply no way to heat a space that big, so they didn’t try—at all.

Once we warmed up, we explored Toledo for a bit. Mostly popping in and out of shops. Toledo is famous for its swords and metal working. Apparently the Rio Tajo which surrounds the city is the perfect temperature for cooling steel. It therefore made the strongest steel, and the best weapons, ergo, Toledo became the center for weapons and armor. They still make swords in the old ways and it’s incredible. Some of these swords were just gorgeous. I really wanted one, and it took me forever to decide. I ended out getting a dagger; anything else would have been a real nuisance to bring home.

Next we toured a synagogue. I’ll admit, after the cathedral, it definitely wasn’t as impressive as it could have been. It had been completely renovated, and they had kept one wall with intense carvings. I took some pictures, but since no flash was allowed, they didn’t really turn out. It had been turned into a museum, so we explored the exhibits and looked at the displays.

Then came more exploring. Most of the shops had the same souvenirs, but we explored them nonetheless, occasionally buying something. We definitely made use of our maps as we made our way back to the hotel. The city is like a maze. No street goes straight, and it’s just hard to find your way around. Although, by the end of our two days, we had explored enough that we could recognize streets and knew how to get around.

We found a mosque, and paid the 1.40 Euro to explore the ruins. Toledo was actually extremely tolerant of other religions back in the day. There were several cathedrals, mosques and synagogues that coincided peacefully for centuries. That’s really impressive for medieval Europe. Plus, the ruin was awesome, and it provided an amazing view of the city.

Night came and we ended out fitting around 25 girls in a room (just for talking purposes, we slept 2-4 in a room) and just talked for hours. I know it’s silly to sit around talking instead of exploring Spain, but it was night, cold, we didn’t want to spend more money or get lost, and we all enjoyed staying in. We all took turns telling embarrassing stories, and some of these were incredible. And then, we’re girls so of course it came up, we talked about awkward first dates—those were really entertaining as well.

Next day we walked around the city. And I mean literally around the city. It was absolutely freezing, but once we got walking we warmed up—some. It was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t take many pictures simply because I knew it wouldn’t do the scene justice. It took us a couple hours before we found another bridge to cross back into the city. We then explored with a specific purpose: to find a “freakin’ awesome sword!” Both Chelsea and I succeeded. It was very exciting.

We went to a museum of modern art and sculpture. The building it was housed in was gorgeous just by itself, but then the sculptures were all incredible too. My favorite section was a wing dedicated to metal, wood, and stone mediums. They had a sculpture in stages as well as all the tools needed to create it. It was really interesting to look at.

Eventually, we had to leave Toledo. We made our way back to the train station and we found, through talking to people (I was very proud of myself!) a shorter way than our initial voyage into Toledo. In fact, it saved about 30 minutes. It was great! We rode the bullet train (that thing travels so incredibly fast! Around 120 mph—I think) with all our swords and daggers, and arrived back in Madrid safe and sound. That concludes my journey to Toledo. It was incredible and I loved it and it felt like a week when in reality it was only a day and a half.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


We went to a flea market the other day--it was awesome. Then again, I was so terrified someone would steal something out of my backpack (it's the one place in Alcala you really need to worry about that) that I didn't enjoy it fully. I'm definitely going back when I don't have it.

We're going to Toledo this weekend. I'm really excited/nervous about it. I'm thrilled to travel on the bullet train it goes like 120 km/hr or something, and to see Toledo itself and to explore with friends. Then again, I'm also acting as a tour guide for the Alcazar, and I don't think I found enough information on my portion of it. There wasn't a lot to find.

Well, I think I'll go to bed now. I have class tomorrow.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prado Museum, Shoes, Casa de Lopez

We went ot the Prado Museum today in Madrid. Let me just say, that place is absolutely massive! We spent probably 3 hours exploring all the different rooms and hallways. Everywhere you turn there's another painting. Right now they have an exhibit by Velazquez. I actually really like his paintings and style--a lot better than Picasso. It absolutely astounded me how big some of these paintings were. Floor to ceiling, as wide as the wall. How would you even begin to paint that?! So we explored for a long while, and then, I hate to say it, I got tired/antsy and wanted to leave. I love art, and I love museums, but I can only take so much. I'm going to go back numerous times so I can enjoy it more fully. Afterall, it's one of the best museums in the world and it's only 30 minutes and 3 Euros away!

We ate lunch in a park and it was the most beautiful day! I ended out taking off my coat and carrying it, I couldn't stand to leave it on with such gorgeous weather! But, this park was absolutely massive! I imagine it to be something along the lines of Central Park in New York City (I can't really say, I've never been there!). But this park was amazing. We had so much fun just exploring and seeing what was around the next bend. You really can't see it very well, but behind my head is a beautiful walkway. Unfortunately we couldn't take all the time we wanted. We needed to do a walk around Madrid for one of our classes. I think I'll make this park a regular stop on our frequent trips into Madrid.

Random note: I am so proud of us for being able to navigate our way around Madrid--both with walking and using the subways!

So, I'm doing a fun kind of journaling project while I'm here. I'm documenting my European journey on a pair of shoes I have. By the time I'm done, they'll be completely covered and extremely colorful. I'm actually extremely excited about it, and have been talking about it for months. I'm just glad I finally get to start working on it! But I've got the crest of the city, my bus pass, passport, storks (they're the city's bird--it's illegal to harm or touch them), and a bunch more. As you look at these, keep in mind I have limited artistic talent, and they're sketches--on shoes.

And I realized that I haven't given y'all a tour of my new home. So, i'll run through it briefly. This is my house. Our window is the second floor right.
This is my room.
This is my bed.
This is the kitchen, and

this is the living room. The kitchen table is on the left wall, and a piano is behind you on the right. The right wall is completely filled with bookshelves--and books.
And that is the end of our tour. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed it. Please come back and see us again soon! (sorry the formatting got so weird when I posted it!)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Exploring Madrid

We explored Madrid for the first time Tuesday night. About 25 of us rode the train from Alcalá to La Puerta del Sol. Now don’t be deceived. It is not actually a door, it’s more like a plaza in the middle of around 12-15 streets. Some of them allow cars, while others are only pedestrians.

Everything was covered with people, and it was incredible how many shops they squeezed into that are a. We all split up into smaller groups—25 is just too many. You attract too much attention and it’s hard to agree on where you want to go. I split off with Brock, Rachel, and Tina. We enjoyed just walking around and taking it all in. One of my Spain purchases is Spanish boots. I was constantly distracted by all the Zapaterías, and everyone was kind enough to come with me—even Brock. I think he simply enjoyed being there. After all, it is SPAIN. And not just Spain, but MADRID, Spain!

We found, mostly by accident, La Plaza de España. We hung around there for about 40 minutes simply taking pictures and being struck with awed. It had two separate fountains which made for gorgeous picture opportunities. And then in the background there was a massive sculpture of kings and queens with a reflection pool and fountain. We found it just as the lights came on and it was absolutely gorgeous—even though by this point we were all rather cold!

We took the metro back to La Puerta and began exploring a different street. We found a bakery/sweet shop that had the best pastries! I had a chocolate Neapolitano (or something close to that) that was absolutely delicious. I absolutely love Spanish food! They have wonderful comida, and they’re postres (desserts) are absolutely scrumptious. We don’t have anything like them in the States.

We then went to La Plaza Mayor which is absolutely enormous. It was actually kinda strange. If you didn’t know where the plaza was, you’d walk right by it. It’s completely encased in buildings and has back-way alleys that lead into it. I didn’t really take pictures of it because by this point it was night, and I know we’re coming back there in daylight.

By this time we headed back to La Puerta and went up another street—the most crowded, and busiest one we could find. The big space in the middle was because a police car had just passed through. We found a mariachi band, a group of friends singing and playing instruments, and mimes as we went down the street. For the friends, it seemed like they had had nothing to do that night and decided to go sing in the street for fun. I, being me, pulled out my camera and started taking a video. The lead guitarist saw my camera and started walking towards me singing. Of course I turned red and got all embarrassed, but it was fun.

Oh, and check this out, we found mannequins wearing newspaper dresses. I thought it was amazing and had to take a picture. They’re actually really cute styles of dresses.

The awesome thing about January and February is that there are constant rebajas (sales) in every store. Everywhere you looked there were signs for 50% or 90% off. I found a pair of amazing boots for only 10€. Unfortunately, I was stupid and didn’t buy them immediately. When I went back to buy them the place had closed.

So, we finally all meet up again, and then we get on our train back home. Unfortunately the 30 minute ride turned into an hour 45 minute ride. We got on the right train, just and hour too early. We made a loop and then came out of it in the right direction. But it was all fine, we had left around 8:30, so we just enjoyed ourselves and had fun.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Journey to and First Impressions of Alcala de Henares

Well, I’ve made it. I am a current resident of Alcala de Henares, Spain. We’re about 40 minutes from Madrid by Metro.

I started my journey on Thursday and flew from Phoenix to D.C. Next was the transatlantic flight to Vienna, Austria. That seemed like such a long flight. They did a good job of entertaining you—if you wanted it, but all I wanted to do was sleep. That plan didn´t work out all that well. I couldn´t sleep as much as I wanted. By this flight, I had found two other girls in my group. We landed in Vienna and slept for 3 of our 4 hour layover. We met up with the rest of our group—about 14 total, and went on the smaller plane to Madrid. I´ve always wanted to fly in a plane where I had to get on it from the tarmac—this was my chance. It was slightly raining and extremely cold in Vienna—not to mention insane fog! I couldn´t see anything past the airport, and I had no idea how we landed, everything was a cloud.

So, we arrived in Spain safe and sound, no one in our group lost any luggage, and we slowly but surely found our way to the metro. We found our way to the metro, got on and then transferred to another train line. That was where we met some girls who pick-pocketed me. Funny part though, we were buying train tickets at the little machine and those girls were in front of me. One left her change in there and I gave it back to her.

So, it wasn´t too bad. They only got cash, and two letters I had. Usually, they would have taken my passport as well, but for some unknown reason to me I put it in a different pocket in my bag than usual. I thought they had taken my wallet—I went through and cancelled all my credit cards—but turns out I had put that one in a different pocket for some reason as well. And the best part, I handled it all extremely well. I didn´t panic, I wasn´t hurt, and I immediately (well as soon as we got off the train) took steps to correct the situation. I promised myself before I came that if I was stolen from I would not let it ruin my whole trip. I´m happy to report that I have succeeded with that goal. We had been warned in our prep-class about thieves in Madrid, and I definitely took them seriously, but I underestimated how good these people are at thieving. I didn´t notice a thing, and it wasn´t until after they had gotten off the train that I noticed anything.

After we finally arrived in Alcala, all 14 of us--with two massive suitcases in tow--made our way to our professors house (la casa de Shumway). He had offered to put us all up for the night since we came in a day early. It was hilarious to see this massive train of people--it sounded like a herd of cattle, no joke. It was exceptionally noisy--especially since we went over cobbled instead of paved roads. So, the 23 of us (he has 7 kids) squished our way into his town house. It was actually pretty funny. People were sleeping everywhere--couches, beds made out of suitcases, actual mattresses--there were legs, arms, and blankets everywhere. The two boys in our group were on the top floor.

The next day we met our host families. I´m with two other girls--Suzanna y Missy-- and we live with Chielo and Faustino Lopez and their two children still at home, Noami and Julio. They´re actually members of our church and Faustino is our institute professor. This is the view outside of our bedroom window.

That night we explored Alcala with Andrew and John-Charles. It was so much fun. We just walked around getting a feel for the city and a tour from the boy´s host parents. Needless to say, we ended out getting lost once the parents left. It was fine though, Alcala is relatively small and everyone is extremely helpful. We ended out asking an older couple for directions and they walked with us for about a half hour. They said it was no trouble at all they were just out for a walk. That´s what people do here, they take walks at night. They have no destination, nothing to do, they are simply walking to enjoy the night and enjoy each other´s company. I love it, it´s refreshing after the constant rushing of life back home. (Juan-Carlos eating, and not so well at that, a Spanish pastry--at a Spanish McDonald´s no less!) ( Missy y yo during our paseo. Keep in mind, this is now the second day--traveling--that I haven´t had access to a shower. )
Sunday we went to church. I was extremely pleased that I understood almost everything. I was really worried I would be completely lost. Fortunately I wasn´t! I can´t say the same for other members of our group--we nearly doubled the congregation! But they´ll get used to the speed and accent quickly.

Sunday night was spent at Shumway´s house. We played games and just hung out with everyone. It was really, really fun. I loved it! I also love that two of the four boys live near us. That means we can go out, and we have someone to walk with us. We would meet at the mall nearby and walk to La Plaza de Cervantes o la casa de Shumway o para un paseo alredador de Alcala. (Apparently Cervantes was born in Alcala (he wrote Don Quixote) and he is a huge deal here. They have a statue erected in his honor in the middle of the main plaza.)

Monday came and we went to Alcalingua (school) where we received my new favorite toys--bus passes (en espanol: abonos--new palabra!), and mapas de la ciudad--which is perfect, I love maps. We´ve been using los abonos ever since--they definitely make for quicker and warmer travel.
Today is now Tuesday and school starts today. We have Spanish today and history tomorrow. I cannot say enough how much I love it here. Everything is different, the people, smells, sights, and even the pace of the city. And, the best thing yet, we´ve finally managed to sleep off our jet lag! (Suzanna trying to catch up to our new Spanish schedule)