Rising to the Valley of the Fallen

Hitting the Road Again

Starting our day a bit later than expected, there we all were. 19 Americans huddled in a hotel lobby in Spain, people trying to get through the wave of bodies filling the tight area of the lobby. It was not long until we were asked to stand outside to release the congestion. We were soon on our way onto our yellow bus which is not the type of bus you would imagine when you hear “Yellow bus”; similar but taking it up a notch, “yellow coach.” We all gathered and took our seats quickly and were on our way to The Valley of The Fallen. The ride was a sleepy one. Most catching up on sleep, others with headphones in, and some gazing out the window taking in the scenery. The ride was not too long but not short either, about 45 minutes from pick up and before I knew it, we arrived. 

Initial Sighting 

There it was in the distance, the largest Christian Cross in the world, standing 150 meters high! That’s five times higher than the cross in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil! Upon arrival we were welcomed by the beautiful view, warm air, and our lovely tour guide. In no time, we were on our way to the Basilica. The view on the way up was amazing although I was a little worried about a wild bull encounter after being told they are in the area along with squirrels, deer, and foxes. Thankfully we didn’t disturb the peace enough to encounter them, although it would’ve been pretty awesome to see in the distance, however no complaints from me! After the short walk, we made it to the Basilica, where looking at the view made me feel like I was on top of the World! Something so beautiful that does not compare to anything I’ve ever seen before; and of course the cross that looks much bigger close up compared to looking from a distance, with the sculpture right below of Jesus being held by his father that’s the size of a bus leading us to the door made of solid brass.

The Basílica de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos (Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen) 

Inside the Basilica 

After climbing the first of multiple sets of 10 steps which represent the 10 comandments, we got through security and were looking at the halls that made the shape of a cross and amazed at the sculptures of the two archangels placed at the entrance with swords to guard the “House of God” as our tour guide put it. As breathtaking as the sight was, we were not allowed to take pictures. We were first introduced to the 6 chapels each of which had a very simple design and above each one were the beautiful alabaster sculptures of the different virgins. As beautiful as it was to look at, it’s hard to forget about the estimated 34,000 bodies buried, this number is debatable however. Many believe there may even be 40,000-50,000 bodies. However many there are, they all were the lives lost to the civil war under the dictatorship of the infamous Francisco Franco. Aside from the dark turn this took, we approached each corridor and took time to understand the story behind each one and the structures within them.  What intrigued me the most was the tile work of the dome. 4 years and about a million tiny tiles worth of work. The closer we got to being beneath the dome, the more beauty you could see and Jesus in the center on the Cross made of Mahogany added the final touch. It was truly breathtaking. 

The Beautiful Exit 

Leaving the Basilica was the same breathtaking view we saw upon arrival. This time everyone was getting as many pictures as they could. From group pictures, to 0.5, to selfies!! The more pictures the better! Still feeling like I was on top of the world, I was taking everything in. The beautiful scenery and just the thought of being there in that moment felt like a once in a lifetime experience, standing on grounds of such historical meaning. As I was sitting on the ledge looking over the city of Villalba and of course taking more pictures of the greenery and the city in the distance. Knowing what I know about this site, the story, and people behind it, made it a point to see it as a part of history and a remembrance of the lives who were lost, while also taking in the scene and everything that comes with it. This experience has by far been the most visually appealing for me and it’s something I will always remember!

Me looking and taking in the scenery from the ledge feeling on top of the World!!

Churros and Jazz Cats

Our afternoon in Madrid was a lethargic trudge through the Spanish heat. The few exchanges with one another were brags about who’s feet hurt the most, or self-deprecating remarks about sunburns and dehydration. It was the halfway point of the trip, and luckily we had a visit to Chocolatería San Ginés for some churros con chocolate to rally behind. 

As soon as we got our churros, there was an instant shift in our group’s morale. The desert seemed to smile back at us, a sort of reassurance to earlier doubts about figuring out where to go and what to do for the rest of the day. The combination of the crunchy churro with the creamy, rich chocolate delivered a tremendous sugar rush. We even asked for seconds, they were THAT good. I owe my thanks to the chocolatiers for lifting our spirits and giving us the energy boost we needed for the evening. 

Churros con chocolate

With a reinvigorated sense of adventure, I took a small group with me to Plaza de San Miguel to indulge in tapas and try new foods. The indoor market is filled end to end with food booths that features the the very best of the local cuisine. It was all served in a tapas style, so we were able to mix and match our plates, sampling from each of the booths. They had stands for freshly cut ham, cheese bars, seafood, fresh fruit, wine, and beer. The atmosphere was incredible, seeing the anticipation of the people looking for a good bite, and then searching for a spot to eat like it was a high school cafeteria. None of the tables in the middle were open, so we went to the outer edge of the building to lean on the bar top. The walls were all glass so we had a nice view of the people outside as we ate. For my order, I had a glass of red wine paired with some cheeses and a tapas de toasta that had chorizo, Iberian ham, and a roasted pepper on top. After our appetizers, we went to get ready for what was going to be my highlight of the day.

Inside Plaza de San Miguel

Earlier, we did a walking tour of Madrid’s literary quarter, Barrios Las Letras. During the 16th and 17th century, many famous Spanish writers lived and wrote in this area. Play writers such as Lope de Vega and “Don Quixote” author Cervantes are celebrated to this day in the area with museum tours of their homes, as well as their quotes engraved into the street to commemorate their cultural significance. The Lorca statue honors the memory of the Spanish writer who was a victim to the Spanish Civil and is placed in front of the Taetro Espanol, one of the oldest comedy theatres in the country. Even one of Ernest Hemingway’s frequented bars preserves his window seat for everyone to see. It is a very historic neighborhood and made me so greatful to be able to come back here to finish of the night at the nearby Cafe Central for dinner and a jazz show. 

Just like old Ernie, I got a window seat in the corner of the cafe and ordered a drink in his namesake. The lights were dim and still, and the band came on stage. What I thought was noodling around became an assortment of random sounds and incoherent phrases, and suddenly the band came together. The show was on. I was mesmerized by the music, feeling out the groove with the rest of the crowd. The bass twanged along with the drummers in a complicated time signature, while the saxophone provided a mellow sound which contrasted the intensity from the trumpet. There was so much skill and musicianship in front of me, and I was so locked in to music, feeling the emotion of the moment. The improvisation in the music reminded me of our trip up to this point, roaming freely across the city and cutting loose from set schedules. We were really embracing the spontaneous nature of it all, taking advantage of every chance to see new sights and visit new places.

The band played their last number and bowed off stage. Our night ended with applauds and cheers from the staff and patrons, a fitting conclusion to a day that had a sluggish start. We walked back to the hotel imitating our favorite parts of the performance, attempting to recreate the memory as best we could. It was a lot of fun and I am excited to discover what’s next for the second half of our stay in Madrid. 

Jazz performance inside Cafe Central

Day 2 in Madrid!

After a much-needed night of sleep following our 36-hour straight endeavor, myself and the rest of the group woke up eager to get to our first activity- cooking class! We all met in the lobby, with butterflies in our stomachs, and were greeted by our lovely guide Alicia, along with Professor Julian. We went to the metro station, which surprisingly is kind of like New York City, just without the rats, stench, fighting, and yeah you get the point. As we filed aboard the crowded shuttle to get to our destination, one of my dearest classmates took the “butterflies in the stomach” a little too literally and happened to let them out all over on the metro floor. She was perfectly fine after some shared some laughs together, so we proceeded with our activities.

When we arrived at our escuela de cocina, we were greeted by a lovely girl from England who gave us our tremendously fashionable aprons. We were instructed that we were going to make four dishes, paella, gazpacho, tortillas, y tarta de Santiago. We got divided into separate groups and were all tasked differently to help pull together the meals. My specific tasks included chopping tomatoes, blending them with garlic and water for the gazpacho, then I helped peel potatoes, and flip the tortilla, along with some other cool things like that. Once the meals were collectively finished, we sat at the dining room table and had a taste. The food was amazing. We started with a taste of gazpacho which is comparable to a chilled tomato soup, it was delicious and refreshing. The tortilla was perfectly tasteful (and I’m not just saying that because of my gracious flip), and so was the paella, which would have to be my favorite. Everything went together perfectly, and the tarta de Santiago, a famous Spanish cake, was a great finish to the meal leaving us full and energized to head onto the rest of our day.

Once we got back to the hotel by the metro, a couple of us broke off into groups to explore the neighborhood. We asked Professor Julian for some tips on what to do and he replied, “get lost in the city to find yourselves,” and that’s exactly what we did. We ventured off down one of the streets. This was a great way to get a taste of the culture of the city, and by taste you can say I had the best macaroon I think to ever exist. Who knew that you could put ice-cream in a macaroon? The Spanish do it different here, and I am loving it. Along the way there were different shops that we bobbed in and out of, purchasing souvenirs here and there, overall just enjoying the neighborhood.

Later in the day after trying some tortilla at Cocina De Neptune, the separate groups merged into one to tackle the Museo Nacionale De Prado! Sadly… tickets were sold out and we did not get in. To our surprise though, this was a complete blessing in disguise because it led us to adventure in El Retiro, a beautiful garden located nearby. I have never witnessed any garden as beautiful, and big, as this one. The paths are padded with sand and the flowers and greens paint beautiful patterns to admire. Not only was the garden itself stunning, but in the midst of it all is the Crystal palace. A glass covered building with arched ceilings and beautifully crafted pillars on the inside. It made for a great photo op. Myself and the group admired this building for a while and the surrounding views, and then stumbled upon a pond with adorable boats that people were using. We added it straight to the to-do list for the rest of the week, because the heat and walking was definitely getting to us at this point. The only thing that saved our feet in this time of struggle, and my personal favorite find of the trip- The Birds. Now, I know what you may be thinking, what do birds have to do with this? But I must clarify, it’s a type of electric scooter that you are able to pick up on the side of the street for only 0.23 euros a minute. What a steal! We soared back to the hotel in half the time, feeling, dare I say it, as free as a bird. We ended the night at a breathtaking rooftop café on the Gran Via, I was absolutely flabbergasted at the views. Madrid is a beautiful city, and I am grateful for all the activities we are able to accomplish in the course of a day. Truly the real city that never sleeps.

Sunny Segovia and The Awesome Aqueduct

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022- a day full of laughter, art, croquettes, and sunblock. Today’s adventures started as we headed to the bus with excitement and stories for the night before. On our way to Segovia, many students enjoyed the mountainous views and while others enjoyed the insides of their eyelids.

I was tempted to sleep on the one hour bus ride but my curiosity kept my eyes open. It has been apparent to me that the curiosity and adventure involved in traveling fuels me more than the few hours of sleep I get each night. Madrid is the city that doesn’t sleep and it’s hard to close your eyes knowing that there is still so much to be done.  As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the day ahead.  

As we pulled up to Segovia, a small city north of Madrid with a population of approximately 50,000 people, my eyes were met with one of the most incredible sights I’ve seen. Ahead there was a Roman aqueduct that was built in the second century. During our guided tour, we learned that the aqueduct is how the city of Segovia used to get water from the mountains. They have not used this system since the mid 1920s but the aqueduct is still a symbol of Segovia. While they are neither the largest or the oldest, it is certainly one of the most beautiful and well kept. I was in awe when I learned that the aqueducts were granite stones with nothing holding them together due to the fact that it is such a sturdy structure.

Our group approaching the aqueduct and a tremendous day in Segovia

Next, the group wandered up a long winding cobblestone street lined with restaurants and shops searching from every drop of shade we could. Along the way we saw the oldest park in Segovia and Stork nests. The Storks fly from Africa every year to maintain their nest and take care of their new baby.  After admiring the large nests we walked down the street further.  

The Plaza de Mayor was filled with people dining at restaurants. As I looked around I saw the Catedral de Segovia which is one of the two cathedrals in Segovia and is larger than a Soccer field. In this moment I had a realization of how magical it really is to travel. While I felt like we had already seen so much, this cathedral was nothing like anything we had seen in Madrid. For me, this meant that it doesn’t matter how much you travel, there is always more to see. 

On the outside of the cathedral, there was a statue of their patron Saint, San Frutos. The statue was in front of the entrance and was holding a book crafted of bronze. The legend goes that San Frutos grants one miracle a year and the people of the city join together as they eagerly watch as San Frutos turns the page. If the page is turned then there will be another year but if the page does not turn then the end of the world is coming.

The Catedral de Segovia and the Statue of San Frutos (right hand side above door)

We then moved on to the palace known as the Alcazar, an 80 meter tall  fairytale esque building that absolutely took my breath away. Just when I thought that I could not be more amazed, I learned that this castle was the inspiration for the castle in Snow White. 

As we entered the castle, the cold air met my skin and my excitement flared. We traveled from room to room learning about all of the history accompanying the building. This was the most interesting history lesson I have ever attended. When we were in the library of the castle, the tour guide explained that there was a fire that started near the library and all of the students in the library threw the books out the windows to save them. Although I am not the biggest fan of reading, I feel that my first instinct would be to exit the castle and would not particularly think about the books. 

Our lovely looking group in front of the Alcazar

Just when I thought that the castle could not get more amazing, we were met with 152 steps leading up the roof of the castle. I eagerly started to climb the winding steps, legs burning with each step. Left, right, left, right, left, right, and so on. Just as I started to lose my breath, I reached the top. My eyes were met with the most breathtaking view of Segovia. It felt as if I had walked right into a painting of the most perfect day.

The view described above

Down the 152 winding steps, each step seeming harder to reach then the next, the group had reached the ground and were headed onto our next sight. We walked down the cobblestone to the  Plaza de Mayor, from there we took a tour of the cathedral, and ate lunch. Then we piled back on the bus, more eyelids were observed on the way back to the hotel.

The rest of the day we had free time. To me free time is a funny concept because I feel free all the time when I am traveling. Regardless of the itinerary of the day ahead, I can’t help but to feel liberated. The rest of my day was spent at El Prado Art Museum and exploring the city of Madrid. I truly believe that there are no words that would allow me to paint the art saw in a just manner and one needs to visit themselves to understand the full picture. From Goya, to Piccasso, to Velasquez, there was such a large variety of  artists and types of paintings. One room leads to another and another after that, endless paintings and creativity. 

Each day in Spain has been so action packed but has yet left me yearning for more adventure. I heard a quote a while ago but I’ve never truly understood the significance until now. It went something along the lines of  “money will fill your pockets but travel will fill your soul” and after these past couple of days I know that to be true. 

Day 3 in Madrid

When I first opened my eyes from my nap on our one hour bus ride to Segovia, I was flabbergasted by the view in front of me. At first I had no idea what I was looking at, I was just appreciating the view and admiring the architecture. In front of me was the aquaduct in Segovia, the longest preserved aquaduct built by the Romans. This aquaduct brought fresh water from the mountains all the way to the palace in Segovia. Furthermore, the Romans only used granite blocks in the construction of the aquaduct. Each block lays ontop of another, without anything holding them together. The arches are held up using pressure and force.

Next we walked to what once was the tallest cathedral in Spain. This cathedral was the tallest until it got struck by lighting and about 20 meters fell down. On the side of the cathedral entrance, there is a statue of the patron saint of Segovia, Santo Frutto. Once a year, the statue of Santo Frutto, who is holding a book in his hands, flips one page of the book. The locals make an event of this and gather around the statue every year to watch the page flip. It is believed that the year Santo Frutto does not flip the page is the year the world will end. In addition, the remains of Santo Frutto are contained in a box displayed at the main entrance of the cathedral.

As we continued our tour, we climbed to the top of the castle, Alcazar de Segovia, where we were able to see the view of the entire town. Similar to all the other sights we previously saw, the castle had a lot of history behind it’s beautiful structure. The cielings in the main room and many other rooms throughout the castle were designed by the muslims of Segovia. After studying geometry, they used what they learned to create a beautiful pattern for the ceilings of the castle. The castle also had caught on fire after it was turned into a military school. When the castle began to go up in flames, the students grabbed as many books and paintings as they could and threw them out the window to salvage them from the fire. One of these paintings is on display in the chapel in the castle, where you are able to see the creases from when it was folded.

After the tour, we headed back to Madrid. This time, instead of napping, I stayed awake as I was curious to see what surrounded the town of Segovia. On the ride, I saw a bullfighting arena and in the distance, I was able to see the Valley of the Fallen. Both of which I look forward to learning more about.

Once we got to the hotel, a few of us headed over to El Prado Museum, where we were able to enjoy the art work of many famous painters such as Goya, Velazquez, Picasso, and more. The paintings were so beautiful and I was so impressed by the detail in the paintings. However, as I read the descriptions of each painting and took another look at them, they became even more beautiful and meaningful.

After an eventful day of visiting and seeing many historical gems in Spain, we went to Grama Bar and tried venezualen food for the first time. Although we should be trying foods native to the area, it has been very difficult for us to find a spot that is open at hours we would normally eat at home. But at least we stepped out of our comfort zone rather than going to a McDonalds or Taco Bell.

Speaking of, I have noticed that there are alot of American fast food restaurants all over Madrid and even in Segovia. This breaks me heart as these companies are taking the spaces of where a local restaurant or small business could be. I feel as though it takes away from the culture and experience one is looking for while abroad when they are surrounded by companies that they see daily back at home.

Overall, my main takeaway from today was to always ask questions and be curious rather than just accepting what is infront of you. Understanding the reasoning, story, history, etc. behind significant landmarks and attractions will give you a greater appreciation for the experience. This knowledge has made me more well rounded culturally.

Day 2 Cooking Class!

On our second day in Madrid, we had the fantastic opportunity to take a deep dive into the culture through a cooking class. When I first woke I was not feeling well due to the jet lag and late nights, but I found a rhythm after breakfast. I was surprised by the breakfast selection in hotel Regina. It does not seem to be the practice everywhere throughout the city, but they served empanadas, chicken nuggets, ham and cheese sandwiches, and a lot of pastries. Of course, a classic Spanish Tortilla was served, which I tried. I did not like it and was surprised that the dish was so popular because I found it very bland, but once we got to our cooking class I got to find out how it was really supposed to be made.

After a brief discussion about the metro systems, we were led to the station. Its routes are confusing at first glance but become clear as you use them. Because the subway has been being made for so long with different goals for different tracks, it has become messy. It was an enjoyable ride, and I was surprised by the amount of art displayed on the subway walls. In fact, throughout Madrid, there is such a significant number of sculptures, murals, and graffiti artworks that you will see something new on every street you walk down. As an artist myself, I was delighted by their appreciation for not only decorative art, but also important commemorative art. Once we were off the train it only took a few minutes to get to our destination. Coming from New England I was not prepared for the heat. Just that short walk from the station to the cooking class took a lot of my energy.

Inside the kitchen named Apetit’Oh, We got some water, washed our hands, and started right away. First, our teacher explained to us what we were going to make. Our class was split into three groups, and together we had 3 Spanish dishes. We made tortillas (my group), seafood and chicken paella, and gazpacho. Each of these dishes was amazing and simple to make. Our teacher prepared the more difficult seafood ingredients, but due to an allergy to calamari, I was unable to eat it. It smelled delicious, and the whole team did a wonderful job of cutting everything up, spicing it, and bringing in good flavor. Though not completely traditional I was excited to have a taste of the Chicken paella and really enjoyed the experience. It was definitely not like anything I had eaten before.

While team one was making paella, I got the privilege to help make the tortilla and the Gazpacho. The process was quick. For the Gazpacho all we needed to do was cut up onions, peppers, lots of tomatoes, garlic, and a good amount of salt. We blended everything up and put it in the fridge to get cold. With the Gazpacho set aside we started on the tortilla. All it took was to cook potatoes in oil, whisk up some eggs, and add the ingredients together with a generous handful of salt. I got to attempt to flip the egg tortilla in the traditional way using a plate and large frying pan. I must admit My flip was not amazing, but it still tasted phenomenal.

Finally, we were able to eat everything we had made. The Gazpacho was what most surprised me. I do not like tomatoes at all and yet this tomato drink was amazing. I came back for seconds. It tasted like drinking a garden. The paella is quite a salty flavorful dish and I enjoyed the chicken, however, I was disappointed I had to miss out on the seafood. Lastly, the tortilla was delicious! Unlike the one I had tried at the hotel, it was flavorful, salty, and had a great texture. Though eggs have never been my go-to, I might consider making them this way at home.

After the class, we cleaned up and headed back to hotel Regina. I was feeling quite sick by this point. Do not worry. I do not have Covid. I explored a museum right outside our hotel called the academy of art, and I was impressed by the Goya collection. Unfortunately, my energy quickly petered out, and I spent the afternoon in my room trying to get better. While I was feeling under the weather I got to reflect a lot on what I had seen so far. There is beautiful castle architecture everywhere, there is art on nearly every wall and the people are kind and welcoming. I love this city. Despite the aggressive heat and the sickness I am feeling, I am happy to be here with my classmates during this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Arrival Day in Madrid

The Landing

Monday, May 16, 6:20 AM—touchdown. To my surprise, our flight out of Logan was remarkably on time. Encouraged by this punctuality, I imagined briefly that the European airport might just be relatively efficient. This proved to be naive. The following hour and a half was spent waiting in several long, slow-moving lines. Frankly, the agonizing process of passing through airport security made me feel right at home. The silver lining, I suppose, was the first collective bonding experience for a majority of our group. Misery loves company!

Exploring a New City

Around 8:30 that morning, after escaping the clutches of the airport, we were greeted by Maria Angeles of API, one of our excellent guides. We were herded onto a private bus and shuttled promptly to Hotel Regina. If nothing else, our experience at the airport made the group that much more eager to make the most of our time in Madrid. Not much to anyone’s surprise, the hotel was not exactly ready for us at 9:00 in the morning. We dropped off our luggage and were turned loose to tackle the city, with some helpful recommendations from Maria.

Fueled somewhat by curiosity (but mostly by hunger), yet naturally unfamiliar with our surroundings, the entire group of us, some 14 Americans, made our way across the street and into the first café we could see; Hontanares. Certainly shaken initially, a man I took to be an owner or manager of the café received us probably better than we could expect anywhere. This was where I got my first sense of the late-rising spirit of Madrid—at 9:30 in the morning, the café was practically empty. We filled it. After stumbling graciously through the menu in a language unfamiliar to most of the group, we got our first taste of Spain. Non-adventurously, I ordered a croissant and a cappuccino but the breakfast for the group varied from tostas to spaghetti to nachos. It was undoubtedly an interesting start to day uno en Madrid.

Gran Via

With a newfound pep in our step, we hit the ground walking, finding our way to a crowded Gran Via by 11:00. There, we came across an international speed-walking race, one of the most intense sporting events I’ve ever spectated. After this very unique experience, we realized quickly that coming to a consensus among a group as large as ours is no easy task, so smaller groups broke off here and there.

Calle de los Jardines
Speedwalkers on Gran Via

I did what any good tourist should, and went shopping. With a pocket full of euros and an eagerness to get out of the sun, I visited the Primark Gran Via, the most overwhelming retailer I’ve ever seen. Like many of the buildings in Madrid, the scale of this store is something to behold. After a bit of wanton spending and indulgence in fast-fashion, I retreated to the hotel basement. A majority of the group ended up there simply to get out of the sun and put our feet up. Many were approaching 24 or 36 hours without sleep, but that’s the kind of determination it takes to make the time zone adjustment. 

Aerial view of Jake in Primark

After a quick rest and a well-needed trip to a coffeeshop (admittedly, a Tim Hortons), 2:00 PM rolled around, and we were able to check in to our rooms at Hotel Regina. Despite my best efforts, I gave into the urge to lay down, allowing myself about an hour nap. The constant excitement of exploring a new city on top of the long flight exhausted each and every one of us. 

View from my hotel balcony

API Excursions

With a second wind—or third, or fourth—we attended API’s orientation with Maria. This was purely informational, and will likely prove very helpful for the week ahead of us. This was followed by a short walking tour of our neighborhood. We visited Sol, a bustling plaza, which features kilometer 0. A quick trip down Cava Baja especially piqued my interest. This tour was the first time that the things we discussed in class began coming to life for me. It’s one thing to research an incredible location, and something entirely different to be there, engaged and interacting with it. In that short tour alone we were given more options and recommendations than we know what to do with. Suffice to say, I could feel the anticipation mounting.

Plaza Mayor

Our last stop as a group was La Chulapa de Alcalá, a Mediterranean restaurant kind enough to host us all. Many of us very hungry by this point in the night, we feasted on several Spanish starters. I found the Croquetas de pringá and Huevos rotos con jamón ibérico particularly tasty. For my entrée I enjoyed tuna tartare in a strong mustard sauce, and crème brûlée for dessert. There’s simply nothing that beats a nice big meal after a long day. Almost as important as the food was the time spent getting to know one another—a group largely made up of near-strangers who are going to have to rely on each other for the following eight days.

Tuna tartare
Creme brûlée

La Noche

While a handful of brave souls reinvigorated by dinner swung by the hotel bar afterward, It was straight to bed for me. I can hardly remember a time in my life that I was as tired as I was that night. It was exhausting, but our first day in Madrid got us off on the right foot. My first impression of the city is that it is, bar none, the most beautiful place that I’ve ever been, especially regarding the architecture. Day 1 got the entire crew psyched for the rest of the trip. What remains to be seen is just how much Madrid exceeds our expectations.

Mad Adventures in Madrid (5/16)

Prior to departing for Madrid, my mind was brimming with thoughts and expectations for my stay. Having never been out of the country before, it was easy for my mind to be creative in the ways in which it processed the possibilities that lied ahead. After all, this was a trip that most of us had been anticipating for months. Nerves filled a pit in my stomach as I made my way through the airport and onto the plane. I encountered my first taste of Spain when two guys around my age came up to me and asked me a question in Spanish on the plane. I sort of froze not knowing entirely what to say and how to react. This was my first time experiencing a language barrier where I would did not know the common language in the country I would stay in, which was an awkward and new feeling. I was even able to get a new perspective of those in the US who do not speak any English and have a difficulty communicating with others, as I had not ever been put in such a position before. But the adventure continued around 7 hours later when we landed in Madrid.

After we finally left the hotel and entered the heart of Madrid, we ate our first meal at Hontanares. This was the first time we all tried speaking Spanish in a restaurant setting in Spain. It was a wonderful way to immerse myself in the culture for the first time. Our server was very patient and kind with us, as it was obvious we were tourists on a new adventure due to our butchered Spanish.

While waiting for the hotel, some of us explored the Gran Via. Here we stopped at many shops and also watched on with the city residents as a large speed walking race took place. The race was such high stakes and exciting, and on a scale comparable to the Boston Marathon. It was fun to be able to be a part of a city wide event that brought in large crowds of city residents and be able to enjoy the event together with the locals. Later, me and a few friends were able to grab a coffee and settle in at a table on the sidewalk and take in the city. This is where we were able to slow down and really take it all in, and discuss little things we noticed that were either very different or the same to aspects of home.

We later journeyed on into the heart of Madrid with a walking tour of Puerta Del Sol and Plaza Mayor, home to some of the city’s best food and little shops. Sobrino de Botin was a highlight especially. This restaurant is located directly outside Plaza Mayor and is the oldest restaurant in the world and has been open since 1725. It’s known for its roast suckling pig, which was noted by famous writer Hemingway. In Puerta Del Sol, the famous clock tower also stands tall in this plaza, which holds significance to New Year’s Eve where Spaniards eat 12 grapes when the clock strikes midnight. It’s amazing to see things I have read or researched about in class in front of me to experience. Study abroad so far has been unique and sets itself apart from other courses in this fashion. While I can learn in a class room, immersing yourself within the culture and city I was learning about during the semester makes a real difference.

API kindly invited us to a group dinner after our orientation, where we were able to try a variety of Spanish appetizers like Croquettes, a kind of deep fried dumpling with a thick coating and filling. We were served croquettes filled with cod, mushroom, and ham. We were able to all come together and reflect on the day we had in our first day in Madrid. We even got together later down in the hotel bar and all talked about ourselves and the trip that lay before us. It was great to be around familiar faces from school and even make new friends through this shared study abroad experience.

For me, it’s been a surreal experience adventuring outside of the United States for the first time. Being able to experience a culture other than my own or ones that I am familiar with is an eye opening experience and opens myself to new opportunities as I walk the old city streets.


In this study abroad course, UMass Lowell’s Honors College will explore the past and present of Spain’s vibrant capital city: Madrid!

Follow UMass Lowell Honors College students and faculty as they immerse themselves in the culture and history of Madrid, Spain. UMass Lowell Honors College and the Office of Study Abroad & International Experiences offers this exciting short-term study abroad program to Madrid, Spain. Interested – check out the program’s webpage.