Valle de los Caídos

First things first was breakfast. My roommates and I had accidentally slept trough breakfast the day before, so we made an effort to be on time today. Especially since breakfast was included in our accommodations, we weren’t giving it up two days in a row. We then gathered downstairs in the lobby of the hotel to wait for the bus driver. After getting on the bus, we were ready for our one hour ride to the mountains surrounding Madrid, where we were to visit Valle de los Caídos, or “The Valley of the Fallen.”

Driving up upon the mountains, we could see the cross of the Valley of the Fallen off in the distance. The cross built on top of this monument is the largest Catholic cross in the world.

When we arrived at the entrance to the monument, the bus parked and we got out in the cold. This was our first time seeing snow in Spain during this trip. We ended up waiting outside for about a half an hour waiting for our tour guide to arrive – she had been told the tour was to start an hour later. This was great group bonding time.

When she showed up, she gave us a brief history about the Valley of the Fallen monument, which was commissioned to be built by the fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco. He had this monument built to keep the bodies of the rebels that died fighting for his side during the Spanish Civil war.

We took some pictures and then walked inside.

The Honors students in front of Valley of the Fallen

Walking into the monument, I think everyone was a bit surprised. The inside was built into the mountain, so we really were inside of the mountain in a man-made cave. There were signs everywhere asking for quiet and respect, since it was a religious place. Deeper inside, everywhere you looked had some religious meaning. There truly was a cathedral built inside of a mountain. The tour guide told us about how mass is still held at the cathedral every day. There is a nearby boarding school where boys are taught to sing and they make up the choir at the daily mass. The outside of the cathedral were statues of archangels to protect the inside. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures in the inside, but he decoration and architecture really was quite incredible and impressive. Most of what we toured was built for the Catholics. Right in front of the cross was the tomb of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who was the founder of the fascist Falange party in Spain, which Franco later became a part of. There were a pile of roses on a plaque with his name on it, which is placed there by the Catholic monks of the church. General Franco’s body used to be buried there until 2019, when it was removed by helicopter. There were also several separate prayer rooms with mosaics on the ceilings. Behind the prayer rooms were the tombs of 40,00 people, not all of them identified. In the center of the cathedral was Jesus on a cross, and the cross inside the monuments directly underneath the one that sits on top of it. The ceiling was a huge mosaic that took the artist months to make. The sides of the hall were filled with symbols of all of the Virgins, with tapestries and murals created to mimic medieval style art.

The air felt clean and cold, due to the whole in the ceiling that circulated the air inside with the mountain air. After a little while, all of the students started to feel heavy- due to both the actual weight of the monument inside of the mountain, as well as the weight of all of the religiousness inside of the monument.

We finished our tour, checked out the gift shop, and then headed back into the city. This day just happened to be International Women’s Day, so there were marches in the streets that caused traffic and road closures. Instead of taking the bus back to the hotel, we got off at Plaza de Espana.

Plaza de Espana

Then, since I am vegetarian, I went off on my own from the rest of the group to find one of Madrid’s many vegetarian restaurants. Fun fact, Madrid is on the top 10 list of Europe’s most vegan friendly cities. I got a plate of tapas and double layer veggie burger and it was delicious.

The “Hipster” burger from Sanissimo on Gran Via

My experience so far has been wonderful. I have always loved travelling and seeing new places. This city is incomparable to any I’ve seen in the United States. It is similar to New York in size, similar to Boston in architecture, and absolutely nothing like Lowell.

The Violent Past of Madrid (and a pleasant surprise)

Monument to Miguel de Cervantes

The morning started at the city’s Plaza de España. Located within the plaza was a yet another large monument, this time one to Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s greatest writers. There was no surprise there, as every plaza within the city explored so far seemed to have at least one statue or monument located within relating to an important Spanish figure in history. Across the street next to the plaza was a relatively tall and unremarkable building. As we later discovered, that building and its architecture was directly related to the fascist history of Spain. The style of architecture was very stereotypical of that for buildings built during the time if former dictator Francisco Franco. It was also at the time the tallest concreate building in the world. Learning it was constructed of concrete came as a bit of a surprise for me as an engineer, as one would not expect a tall concrete structure to have survived so long without falling down.

Cherry Blossoms at the Parque de La Montaña

A quick two-minute walk away from the Plaza de España and we ended up on a slightly elevated patch of land which was a very nice small and peaceful park (Parque de La Montaña) compared to the super busy streets of central Madrid with a great overlook on the surrounding landscape. As it was the season, there were many cherry blossoms to see as well as other greenery that helped to provide a calming feeling to my body which had experienced much noise from the crowded streets in the district that our hotel was located within. Little did we know however the significance of the location on which we stood. During the 1930’s long before the park was created a military fortification was located at the exact location that was used in the defense of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 to 1939, the emplacement was crucial in the defense of the city against the attacking fascist forces which were attacking the city from that direction. Its location overlooking the nearby river and absolutely massive Casa de Campo (park roughly five times larger than central park in NYC) gave the republicans a great tactical advantage over the fascist forces located in the Casa, helping Madrid avoid capture until the very last day of the war.

What lay in the middle of the park was a super unexpected and extremely cool find: a fully rebuilt real ancient Egyptian temple: the temple of Debod. What was an Egyptian temple doing in the middle of Spain of all places? As it turns out, the temple was taken apart and rebuilt piece by piece after World War Two in order to save it from being submerged by the construction of the Aswan Dam along the Nile River. Being able to see such a special place was super rewarding for me as a person who has always had a deep interest in historical sites and ancient cultures. Having the opportunity to see such structures without the hassle having to actually visit Egypt was an added bonus to this already amazing Madrid adventure.

Views from Parque de La Montaña: In the background first photo the royal Place, second photo Casa de Campo and suburbs of Madrid

After discovering the significance of the location and the Egyptian temple, we were able to see for ourselves the view the defenders had of the city over 60 years ago. Once at the edge, the views were absolutely spectacular. It was possible to see for miles in the two directions away from the city center. In fact, the pictures I were able to take there were so nice they could pass for ones found on postcards. In addition to the absolutely great views, we were able to experience first-hand the strategic advantage the location had on the battlefield. The high ground allowed defenders of the city to see for miles at the enemy positions. Being able to physically be at the location of and see the landscape involved during the Spanish Civil War gave me a perspective on the events of the conflict in ways that would never otherwise be possible. It was easy to learn about the subject in a classroom as we did before the trip. However, it was impossible to replicate the experiential learning experience that occurred when actually at the physical location. One can only imagine artillery fire flying over the heads of soldiers at the fortification.

A Visit to the Valley of the Fallen

I have been to a fair few places around the world. I have seen the enormity of the glaciers and mountains of Alaska, the beauty of the city of Paris, the luxury of the Palace of Versailles, and the complexity of the insides of the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Midway, yet none of those compared to the impressiveness and weight the Valley of the Fallen instilled upon me. Knowing what was inside of it beforehand, I still was walking around the halls of the mausoleum with my jaw dropped almost the entire time.

The trip began with an hour-long bus ride to the nearby mountains from our hotel. Upon our arrival to the parking lot near the monument, the first thing that I noticed was the 500-foot-tall concrete Catholic Christian cross that towered on top of the mountain the Valley of the Fallen resided on. This cross is so large that it could be seen from the highway we were driving on from about fifteen miles away. But seeing it up close and personal from the parking lot really emphasized how large it is. After all, the cross is the largest Catholic cross in the world.

The front door and cross before walking into the mausoleum.

While we waited in the cold for the tour guide, we discussed our initial thoughts of the site and made dinner plans for later. On a side note, I really appreciate how well all of us get along so well as a group considering we basically just met each other. Regardless, when the tour guide arrived, we were all excited to get started! She gave us some more information about the cross including what the statues were of on the side of the cross and the fact that there is a maintenance staircase inside of the cross, adding to the impression of the size of the cross. From there, we walked up the path to the entrance of the Valley of the Fallen.

Upon arriving at the site officially, I was greeted with a towering concrete entrance with a courtyard to match its proportions overlooking the mountain view beyond. We were given a description of how the outside was constructed and we rushed around to take some pictures of the gorgeous views that were presented to us. After being called back, we approached the doors that were the entrance to the crypt. These massive doors gave me a taste of the scale of what awaited inside.

Our group in front of the scenic backdrop that could be seen from the courtyard.

While the guided experience really helped to enhance the tour and made me appreciate everything more, what was on my mind the entire time was the sheer impressiveness of the inside structure. First off, being inside of it made me feel microscopic. This was not just from the size of the walls, but also from the weight of the religious themes and the amount of death that I know surrounded me. With around 35,000 corpses mass buried in the site, with many of them being those of the ones that constructed the mausoleum, it was like I could feel the death that was there. On top of that, I may not be the most religious person, but the angel statues, the statues of the patron mothers of Spain, and the detailed dome ceiling in the main part of the basilica came together to really made me feel the faith. Finally, the thing that really hit me the hardest about the interior was the acoustics. While our tour guide talked, her voice echoed for a couple seconds afterward. Listening to it, I could only imagine the sermons and Gregorian chants that occurred and what they must have sounded like.

A postcard of the main hallway of the Valley of the Fallen as we were not allowed to take pictures inside.

I then realized the sound engineering that went into creating an all-stone basilica that is underground and did not result in everything always echoing and taking away from the scale of what was built. Along the walls and ceiling had textured stones that seemed to be placed there for decoration when I first saw them, but then came to realize them as being sound dampeners. As sound echoes off stone very well, to think how it was engineered to look and sound the way that it does, really added to the scale of the work done by the political prisoners. Just imagining what they had to go through to hollow out the inside of a mountain left me with goosebumps for most of the experience and with my head looking up the entire time. It was all so overwhelming trying to consider and understand the entirety of the Valley of the Fallen that it left me in shock for most of the ride home.

From my musical and engineering point of view, I had not seen anything more impressive in my life that had left such a direct impact on me while viewing it. I was told that a mass is held there at 11 A.M. every day. I really want to attend one just to see how it sounds and to feel that enormity again

Exploring Madrid

Going to Spain has always been something I have wanted to do but as the day got closer I began to get worried and stressed out because I would be in a different country with people I barely knew. I was overwhelmed and not ready to go somewhere new but now that I am here I have realized that my worries were not practical because Spain is so welcoming and beautiful. I was worried that I would not have anyone to go explore with but everyone was so open to trying new things and going out of their comfort zones. I have always been someone who finds it difficult to go out of my comfort zone but since I am only in Madrid for a short period of time I have made it a goal to try new things and new places. For example, today me and a group of girls went exploring near the Palacio de Real and happened to find a burger place that did not have a wait so we went in. We soon realized that the place solely had vegan food and I have never had vegan food but we decided to stick it out and try the food. Overall I really enjoyed the food and was glad we went there because I would have never gone on my own or even if it was in the United States.

Normally when I am in Boston I rely on my GPS to tell me where to go and what to see but today we decided to do something new. Instead of relying on our phones we were walking up random streets and exploring every part of Madrid to fully immerse ourselves in the culture. We just kept walking and taking turns down alleys and streets that looked really pretty and seemed to have a lot of stores, restaurants, and bars on them. Every street we went down ended up having something really cool on it, whether it was a cool restaurant or even just a really pretty sign or painting/mural. 

My goal in Spain is to try new foods and drinks because I do not know if I will ever come back to Spain again. So far I have been successful in my goal especially with the drinks aspects. A group of girls and I decided to explore the city life of Madrid last night and we stumbled upon a cute little bar called El Imperfecto. The inside had a laid back welcoming vibe with posters of random artists and cities covering the entire walls. We each decided to get a glass of cava sangria even though I usually never drink sangria. I realized that sangria is really big in Madrid so I figured I should try it to see why everyone loves it so much and to immerse myself into their culture and ways of life.

After we went to El Imperfecto we just walked the streets of Madrid to see what was going on and we stumbled upon a cafe with a really bright sign that intrigued all of us. It ended up being a bar called Museum de Jamon that sold ham and cheese but also drinks. I am not a huge meat eater but we decided to go in because the sign was really cute and it ended up being a really quaint little bar with a good group of people in it. We decided to stick with the trend of trying new things and got a tinto de verano. Both places had great atmospheres and really good drinks but if I did not step out of my comfort zone then I would have never tried any of them. If I stuck to my old habits of using my phone to find places to go then I would have never seen the appealing sign and I would have never gone in. I would have missed out on an authentic bar with good drinks and really nice people.

El Imperfecto in Plaza de Matute

Even though it has only been a couple of days I am already stepping out of my comfort zone by trying new things and talking to new people. I now realize that there was really no reason to be worried because Madrid is full of so much culture and there are so many things to do. I have drifted away from planning out every single second of the day and just seeing where we end up. The entire day we just walked around without our phones telling us where to go and we ended up finding such cute restaurants and bars that were less touristy and more authentic. By trying to get out of my comfort zone I was able to see what makes Madrid so special.

Flying to the New World

Hoping on the flight the excitement began. I remember this feeling so long ago. The excitement, the nervousness, and the wonder. Getting on the plane at gate A 14 in Logan airport reminded me of the feelings I had going to San Sebastian. The only difference here was I was alone. Which for me was far less than a scary thought and rather comforting. For me, taking a step by myself just adds to the overall excitement. 

Overall the flight was quite interesting. I had a window seat and just sat watching Evan Hansen. For what reason I do not know. The woman next to me was flying to Italy with the connection in Amsterdam, She was also studying abroad and had never flown before. We spent a solid hour talking about the wonders of the world and what we had hoped life would bring us. The simplistic excitement of the unknown kept me awake the entire flight.

I was beyond excited to fly, I was ready for this adventure and was excited to move forward with my life. Spain has become a place of safety and wonder for me. The sounds on the streets, the hospitality and most importantly the food. The reception at the airport was quite typical and we all got onto the bus. The ride was rather short to the hotel and I was slightly concerned about getting there.

The highways getting there were lined with graffiti. While I appreciate the artistic expression this set me off on a bad foot. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake in traveling to Madrid. I was mentally preparing myself to be stuck in the NYC equivalent.  Once we had arrived in the city I truly realized that there was no other place like Madrid.

Pulling into the city the wonders began to appear and true beauty started to come through. The city was vibrant and lively. Bars seemed to line the streets. People were out and about, smiling and laughing. Once I checked into the hotel and in my room, a second wind had hit me. I was ready for the exploration of the world. With a symbols text half the group and including I went and explored the city. Taking steps in unknown directions and tours down unknown streets. We ended up in plaza day sol and stood at the center of Madrid. Excited, tired, and with wonder.

Kilometre Zero in Parte De Sol Madrid

After a while, we all came back to the hotel and got ready for exploration.  Tired and at this point manic, I met two great new friends. We went out and explored the wonders of the world. We took turns down unknown streets and went to a delicious place called Rosi la Loca. Obviously, with the minimal Spanish we had, we somehow managed to order without error. 

On day one there was a major takeaway for me. I learned how to let go and be myself. I made some great friends and continued to step out of my comfort zone. Madrid has a special feeling to it. It is comparable to the magic I felt in San Sebastian so long ago. I never realized how much I missed that feeling of being lost in the wonder. I missed the feeling of getting lost and exploring.  San Sebastian was my first step and personal freedom. Here in Madrid is where I get to spread my wings. Being pushed out of my comfort zone is something I will forever be grateful for. This experience has already been like none other and I’m ready to see the world around us.  Nothing could have prepared me for the experiences I have had and the wonderful people I have met. I can not wait to see exactly what the future brings me here in Madrid. I don’t think I will ever want to leave.


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 each spring break and May (summer session 1). Interested – check out the program’s webpage.