Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Art, Beer, Pancakes, and Skyscrapers

        During the past week, we went on 3 school trips, one to the Mahou beer factory, one to the Prado and Reina Sofia, and one to the city of Cuenca. Wow! Plus, we squeezed in Thanksgiving where we cooked brinner (breakfast for dinner) for our host family and made rice krispy treats with our friend Rali. It was a busy and fun week!
 Our first trip took us to the Mahou factory, obligatory for my Business Spanish class. Only about 20 minutes from the school, it was a short trip. We toured the factory, which included a visit to their NASA-like headquarters and a Disney worthy recreation of an old stable where they explained the making of cerveza. We walked through the bottling plant with huge conveyor belts and swirling systems, and then finished at the bar. It was filled with tapas of all kinds and we were all invited to try the free beer. Sibley and I opted for the smaller glasses, meant for tasting, and then we split a Shandy Mixta (which is basically soda). I didn’t like the beer at all, but Sibley thought it was alright. The atmosphere was fun and the tapas were delicious.

       The next day we went to the Museo del Prado and Museo de la Reina Sofia, both in Madrid. It was a long day, with LOTS of art, but was still really neat. Antonio, my art professor, gave us a guided tour of the Prado, complete with a little microphone that played into these telephone-looking devices so that we could be quite in the museum. However, we were still shushed when Antonio told a joke and caused us all to laugh. The Reina Sofia, home of the Guernica, was a completely different style than the Prado, with art that was more modern and abstract. We were given free rein to explore but were still given guided introductions to a few key figures such as the photographer Robert Capa.

       Then there was Thanksgiving, stuck right in the middle of our adventures. We decided to make pancakes, a UCF specialty of ours. Before we started though, we called up our family back in Florida and Skyped with them on the computer. This year, our grandmother’s house was filled with 28 people! It was bigger than ever before, and we missed it! Still, we got round after round of people waving hello to us on the computer.


        Finally, the week ended with Cuenca. It is a beautiful medieval city built on an island between two rivers, making it easily defended against the Moors. The problem, though, was that then they couldn’t expand. So, they began building 14th century skyscrapers, expanding upwards. Our trip started with a steep uphill climb and then a scary walk across a 20th century bridge. We then toured the Cathedral, which was decorated with beautiful stained glass, barroque chapels, and a Neo-gothic facade. Our school guided tour then finished with the Abstract Art Museum, exhibiting works of Fernando Zóbel and Eusebio Sempere. After exploring of the city and tasting some local pastries, we walked back to the bus and headed home to Alcalá, ready for a relaxing weekend.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Medieval Times

Each of the last two weekends, Amanda and I set out on our own from Alcalá for day trips to medieval cities here in central Spain.  First up was Toledo, the city of swords!  Amanda managed to find some cheap tickets for the AVE train from Madrid, which made the whole day super convenient.  The trip was so quick that we barely had time to enjoy the luxury of the quiet, spacious high-speed train.  We arrived in Toledo, Castilla y La Mancha, at the beautiful station with its stained glass windows and set out in the direction that we hoped would take us to the city center, where we would be able to pick up a free map.

A short walk later, we rounded a bend and found ourselves looking down at the river.  An ancient Roman bridge spanned the distance from where we stood to the historic heart of the city of Toledo, which is located on the hill in the bend of the river.

The streets of Toledo are narrow and winding, and the names change frequently, so it’s difficult to navigate.  Luckily, the huge cathedral, the walls, and the river on three sides make it possible to stay oriented even when the streets don’t take you quite to the intersection you expect.  We wandered through the city for several hours, taking advantage of most of the attractions since many are free on Sundays.  We visited la Iglesia de San Roman, which is also a museum about the Visigodos, or the Visigoths, the people who inhabited between the Romans and the Moors.  We also went to a 14th century Jewish Synagogue, el Museo del Greco, and el Monasterio del San Juan de los Reyes.
 In addition to its many museums and religious sights, Toledo is famous for its swords.  Espaderías, or sword shops, line the streets, as common as restaurants.  The other famous product of the town, both less dangerous and more delicious, is its marzipan.  I’m still not entirely clear about what marzipan is, but I did learn that I like it!  There is a variety of types and we tasted and enjoyed a few of them.

Next up, Ávila.  Located in the community of Castilla y Leon, this town is home of some of the best preserved medieval walls in Spain.  We decided to go on Friday because the weather was supposed  to be good.  Luckily for us, this decision coincided with one of the few days of the year when it is free to ascend the wall top, so that unexpectedly saved us a few euros!  The view from the wall is incredible.  We also walked down alongside the river by a picturesque mill and yet another Roman bridge.

Other sights and activities in Ávila included the huge cathedral, an outdoor food market, and eating chocolate and churros in a café.  Another successful adventure!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Is it already November?!

     The colder weather has started to move in and so we find ourselves huddling in warm fuzzy blankets and laughing at the people back home in Florida who say it is cold while still wearing shorts.  Lately, the cold has been accompanied by gray days with drizzly rain. The magic of a warm beverage is becoming clearer and clearer as we find ourselves more often wandering into a nice café for a cup of coffee or Cola-Cao (hot chocolate).
       It was on such a cloudy day that we went on a school excursion to two monuments of Spain: El Escorial and the Valle de los Caidos. El Escorial is an all-in-one church, monastery, library, school, and cemetery. It is shaped like a grill to honor Saint Lorenzo and placed in a legendary opening to hell, in the hopes that they could close it off by placing a massive church in front. The pantheon, containing the coffins of many of the past kings and queens, was elaborate, luxurious, and more than just a little creepy. Many people awed at the hundreds of years of history contained within one room. It is pretty unique, especially with the fog making it extra spooky.
Instituto Franklin
El Escorial

       El Escorial also served as inspiration for many other buildings of the time period, creating a signature style known as Herreriano, named after the architect. In fact, many of the buildings in Alcala were modeled after El Escorial featuring similar entrances with 3 arches and pinnacles topped with round spheres.
         Then, we drove to the other side of the mountain to the Valley of the Fallen. This is a giant monument to Franco and contains his tomb. Since he couldn’t be buried with the kings at El Escorial, he ordered his prisoners to build a massive structure within the rock of the mountain. The building is also the burial site of the people who died fighting for “God and Country”, so that only included people who supported Franco. It’s a controversial place, and very chilling, with giant statues of angels wielding massive swords commanding respect from all around. It was a very interesting site.
    To finish on a lighter note, we have also made an amazing discovery during one of our snack raids at the local supermarket: frozen fruit filled with ice cream! Granted, it would be slightly more fitting in the summer, but it is delicious nonetheless. For only one euro, you can pick between pineapple, lemon, coconut, and orange, and then dig in to a sweet and scrumptious desert. Yummm!!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Guest post! Gastronomía by Jennifer Brown

    I began my visit to Spain to see Sibley and Amanda familiar with tapas and sangria, but I can caption each sight with the local cuisine.  After a cross Atlantic flight, a metro ride and a long walk, I was delighted to find myself sitting between Amanda and Sibley at a Chocolateria in Alcala. We enjoyed cups of smooth, rich chocolate and a piping hot coffee con leche as well as churros which are denser than their Mexican counterparts. 
 My guides led me through 2 tours of Madrid.  Our most memorable Madrileno meal was a late lunch.  The waiter described a paella dish with carne (meat), pollo (chicken), mariscos (shellfish) and something else that we all missed. I knew that I needed to try authentic paella in Spain--the one word we missed was squid.  Hmmm, we all tried the squid and Amanda even enjoyed it. Dessert was included and I made a unilateral decision for FLAN.  It was an excellent choice.
  The host family was welcoming and friendly.  We had a mid-day meal of chicken with lemon salsa that surprised me with a pop of citrus! Clearly the girls are well fed with a mix of American fair—hotdogs with patatas and typical Spanish food--paella (without the squid.)
 As we travelled to Granada, the rows and miles of olive groves mesmerized.  These well-tended trees grew to the very edges of rocky hills of the Sierra Nevadas.  After seeing the Cathedral, we tried a tapas bar for pizza, but first we were treated to a plates of tapas with local olives.  The olives on each plate seemed to have a unique texture, taste and spice. 
  When I think of Cordoba, I will remember our evening meal in a fine restaurant near our lovely hotel in the San Basilio district of Cordoba. Adventuresome Amanda asked our waitress what “gulas” were.  The dish was “Gulas con patatas.” The waitress replied “little fish,” and that seemed to be the extent of her English.  Thinking fish and potatoes, Amanda ordered.  What appeared was more spaghetti-like than fish-like, but Amanda ate and Sibley and I tasted. Sibley and I also enjoyed Tinto de Verano which is what locals order in place of touristy “sangria.” Our waitress completed our meal with gratis dessert and sweet wine.

We checked the internet later and discovered that gulas are baby eels and considered quite a delicacy.  Perhaps it is better to not catch every word because I doubt that I would have chosen to eat baby eels, but I feel more intrepid having done so.    

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


We arrived in Córdoba right on schedule and wandered along the river until we found an information booth that could direct us the rest of the way to the hotel.  We made ourselves at home in our cozy little apartment style room, and then set off to explore the city.  Highlights in Córdoba include la Mesquita, el Alcazar, the Roman bridge, and the Royal Stables.  That night, we returned to the latter for an equestrian show.  As an avid rider myself, I loved it!  We were all impressed by the beauty, discipline, and agility of these Andalusian horses, also known as PRE’s, or Pura Raza Española.  It was especially neat for Amanda and me, since back at UCF we are fortunate enough to help out with Maluso, the Andalusian stallion who plays the role of Pegasus at Knights’ football games.  So the horses in Córdoba looked very familiar!  After the show, we had an adventurous Spanish dinner that will be described in greater detail in another post, and then we called it a night, but not before a trip out onto the Roman bridge to look back at the city lights. 

The following morning, we got up early in order to make it to the Mesquita before nine, when entrance is free.  It rained all night and it had not stopped, but when we arrived with our umbrellas and wet shoes, we were greeted by a neat sight that only happens in such weather: small waterfalls cascaded from the roof of the massive structure, only making it more impressive.  Inside the building is a peculiar mix of Arab architecture and Catholic influence, since churches were built inside of the mosque after the Moors were driven from Spain at the end of the 15th century.  The cathedral inside features a gigantic pipe organ that fills the expansive building with music that seems to come from everywhere at once.

After la Mesquita, we explored the streets in the rain, periodically taking refuge inside the many tourist shops. We all found souvenirs.  Next we went to the Alcazar, and the rain stopped long enough that we could wander around the beautiful gardens filled with fountains and orange trees.  After ice cream and one last trip out onto the bridge, we made our way back to the hotel and then took a bus to the train station.  We rode back on the high-speed AVE train, which is definitely my new favorite way to travel.  Fast, as comfortable as a tour bus, and with fewer hassles than an airplane, it made for a relaxed, quick trip back to Madrid.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Road Trip through Andalucia

          Bright and early, we jumped out of bed and collected our things for a 3 day jam-packed adventure in Granada and Cordoba. We were joined by Sibley’s mom who came to visit us, treating us to a little bit of home. Once we arrived in Granada, we started our journey with the Cathedral. In my Spanish Art History class here in Alcalá, I have learned the names of many arches, bóvedas, and decorating techniques. I have seen many pictures and marveled at many paintings.

However, none of it prepared me for actually being there. Stepping into the giant cathedral and seeing in person the giant columns and starred ceilings that I had only seen on the projector screen was truly incredible. It was like stepping into a well-loved fiction novel and seeing it all with your own eyes. Wow!

      Then we explored the streets, wandering around in the brisk air, exploring street side stands and cute tourist shops, before returning to our hotel for a nice shower and some sleep. For Friday, we had our sights set on the Alhambra.  

     Another early morning, we warmed up with some hot chocolate and coffee, and then waited our turn for entrance into the great Nazarí Palace in the Alhambra. It was built in the 14th century by the Nazarí Muslim Empire when they occupied Spain. The introduced many design techniques as they wanted to impress any visiting dignitaries. Peacocks roamed the grounds and citrus trees filled the air with a new and exotic scent. To the people of Spain, oranges were new and strange, adding to the mystery and power of these foreign rulers. Note for any future visitors: buy your tickets early! They can sell out in advance, and then you will have to work harder to get the tickets, which could mean standing in very long lines!
            The Alhambra also incorporates many pools as to create a double image, making the palace seem even larger. Even with all these things, the most impressive part for me is the yesería or plaster work. Intricate carvings cover the palace with sculpted words and geometric designs. The ceilings and archways are decorated with Mocárabes, a style of scooping the plaster that is meant to evoke the sensation of a cave filled with stalactites. And then, you can also visit the Patio de los Leones, featuring a large fountain supported by strong lions.

The Alcazar
The Alhambra doesn’t end with the Nazarí palace. It also features an Alcazar, an old Arabic castle, along with a newer palace for Carlos V, from the 16th century, designed by Pedro Machuca, a Spanish painter. Then, there is the Generalife, a huge set of gardens across the river from the Palaces and Alcalzar that offers gorgeous views of the “Red Fortress”, as the Alhambra is often called. So, after this amazing visit, we set back down to the city to go to the bus station, grabbing lunch on the go, and making it just in time for our next ride to Cordoba. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Oppa Segovia Style!

Wow, it has been a long time since our last update.  We have been busy with lots of adventures!  I’ll get started with last weekend, when we went on a school excursion to Segovia for Civilization and Culture, the class that Amanda and I have together.

Friday morning, we departed from Alcala at 9am and arrived two hours later at the Palacio Real de la Granja, a beautiful palace built to resemble a miniature Versailles for el Rey Felipe de Burbon, the first French king of Spain.  Inside, we toured an impressive collection of tapestries and saw room after room lit by these incredible crystal chandeliers.  My favorite part, however, was the garden outside.  Late October is a beautiful time of year here in central Spain, and the trees that day were every hue of fall.  The fountains were not running, but the ponds made for great mirrors of the yellow-gold trees all around.
Next we hopped back on the bus for the remaining distance to Segovia.  The Roman aqueducts in Segovia are an impressive structure.  I knew they were tall, but I was not expecting it to be that tall.  It was hard to believe they had been standing for not just centuries, but for about two millennia.
After a few minutes of photo-taking, we made our way on foot to the other side of the city to el Alcazar, one of the homes of Isabel la Católica.  This 15th century castle is said to be one of the inspirations behind the design of Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, so Amanda and I felt like we were back in Orlando!  Well, not really.  Instead of people in costumes, this castle was full of suits of armor.  Despite some rain on the way back to the bus, it was a fun trip.

The following day, my mom arrived in Spain for a visit!  We had a great time on Sunday showing her around Madrid.  We stopped by el Palacio, Plaza Mayor, El Rastro, and the Egyptian temple that’s up in Parque Oeste.  We also had a few unexpected experiences: the first was a parade of Spanish horses along Puerto del Sol, and the other was a Gangnam Style flash mob near the Cervantes monument!  Those were random and fun to see.