Oh, btw, I went to Spain

Posted: November 21, 2011 in Study Abroad

Disclaimer:  I realize this post is a little untimely given the current situation in Tahrir, but I was almost done drafting it when the latest clashes broke out, so here it is.  For live updates on the situation in Egypt, please search #tahrir on Twitter, watch the live stream on Al-Jazeera Arabic http://www.livestation.com/channels/43-al-jazeera-arabic or Al-Jazeera English http://www.aljazeera.com/watch_now/, and, of course, stay tuned to the blog.  Now, for a lighter topic…

There are certain advantages to studying abroad in a culture very foreign from your own.  You get to learn a different language, experience a different lifestyle, become more aware of the human condition, and… oh yeah… get a week off of school for a Muslim holiday in the middle of November.  SCORE!
Unlike some of the other holidays that AUC grants its students, which can sometimes come with just a few days of advanced notice (see the confusion around 23rd of July and the current class rescheduling around parliamentary elections), the week long holiday Eid al-Adha had been on the academic calendar since I started planning this semester, so I had some time to make some big plans for it.  Since I had never been to Europe and, once upon a time, I could speak some decent Spanish, I decided to book plane tickets from Cairo to Madrid and spend week-long holiday in Spain!
Unlike my last big adventure outside of Egypt, when I was riding solo in Israel for two weeks, for my trip to Spain, I would be reuniting with two of my best friends from American University in D.C.  Both of these friends are currently studying in Europe: Chris is in Madrid where he is becoming fluent in Spanish and being spoiled by his Spanish host-mother, and Erin is in Copenhagen where she is studying Urban Design and enduring the chilly Scandinavian weather.  It just so happened that Erin had a two-week study break that conveniently overlapped with my week off of classes, so Erin, Chris, and I were all three able to be in Madrid at the same time.  Getting two huge hugs from Chris and Erin at the Madrid Airport after five months in Egypt definitely got my Spanish adventure off to an amazing start, and it never really stopped being awesome after that.  As though Spain wouldn’t have been great enough by itself, being able to experience it with Chris and Erin pretty much made it the best week of my life.

During my week in Spain, I spent four days in Madrid and three days in Seville.  I had a lot of incredible experiences over the week, but there were a few that really defined my time in Spain.  So now I present to you the five key components of my awesome week en España.

5.  Siesta
It did not take me long to adopt this wonderful aspect of Spanish culture.  In Spain, roughly between the hours of 2:00p.m. and 5:00p.m. many businesses shut down, the streets empty out, and many people go home to take a snooze and re-energize for the rest of the day (and for most of the night).  The hostels Erin and I were staying at in both Madrid and Seville were very conveniently located, so in early afternoon we would amble back to our hostel and enjoy siesta time with a midday nap.  On a couple of my days in Spain, when I was feeling ambitious, I took my siesta time to head out the door and go for a run—something that I have not been able to do during my time in Egypt.  While it is possible to go for a jog in Cairo, people just don’t do it, and I’ve been substituting my street running with track running over the past five months out of respect for social norms.  And while Madrid didn’t have quite as many joggers as a city like Washington D.C., there were still enough runners on the streets to at least make it seem socially acceptable to go for an afternoon run.  So whether I was lazing around the hostel or getting a workout in, I very much enjoyed every one of my midday siestas.

4.  Parks, Museums, Cathedrals, Oh My!
In Madrid, just about all of the daylight hours that weren’t spent on siesta involved Erin, Chris, and I walking around to the various beautiful public sites in the city.  We visited a number of parks in Madrid: one with remnants of the Berlin Wall, one with a picturesque hedge maze, and one, called Parque Retiro, which was the perfect place to sit and relax for an afternoon with two good friends.

Oh, we're the three best friends that anybody could have...

We also visited a couple of different cathedrals, one of which was contained very atypical artwork for a cathedral.  The interior of the Alumeda Cathedral was incredibly colorful, with brilliant displays of stained glass windows, bars of rainbow colors covering the ceiling, and different forms of modern sculpture art in each one of the side chapels of the cathedral.  It was very different from the traditional, gold-and-granite artwork that seemed to dominate all the other cathedrals in Spain.

The colorful Alumeda Cathedral

But while the Alumeda Cathedral had some impressive artwork, the true artistic treasures we saw in Madrid were contained within the walls of the two world-class art museums that we visited—the Prado and the Reina Sofia.  The Prado had a lot of traditional paintings, dating from the Renaissance to the early 19th Century.  While I’ve never particularly enjoyed looking at portraits of old guys wearing wigs, of which there were plenty in this museum, there were a lot of cooler paintings by artists like Rembrandt and Goya that I really enjoyed.  Unlike the Prado, the Reina Sofia contained much more modern artwork.  Most was a little too “out there” for me, but seeing the original version of Picasso’s Guernica was definitely a memorable experience.  Having seen reproductions of that painting so many times, it was incredible to see the real thing in its full, massive size.  And our museum experiences were made even better by the fact that, since we’re students, we got free admission (a concept that the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism seems to be unfamiliar with).
When Erin and I went to Seville, we found impressive parks, museums, and cathedrals there as well.  While neither of us really knew anything about Seville before we went there, one of the first facts we learned is that it is home to the third-largest cathedral in the world (next to St. Paul’s in London and St. Peters in the Vatican), because that thing was pretty hard to miss.  The best part of the cathedral was climbing the huge bell tower, which used to be a minaret back when the cathedral was a mosque.  The tower is the tallest structure in the city, and at the top we had an incredible 360-degree view of Seville.

Our hostel is somewhere in this beautiful mess

Another view out of Giralda Tower

The only legit museum we went to in Seville was the bull-fighting museum at the Plaza de Toros.  The museum was a little lackluster, but getting to see the inside of a real bullring was pretty awesome.

Seville's equivalent to Busch Stadium

I’m not really sure if these next two places qualify as museums, parks, or what, but regardless, they were two of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life, and they both made for nice afternoons in Seville.  The first place is Reales Alcázares, which is a Islamic palace from centuries ago when the Arabs ruled southern Spain.  The palace, with its Islamic decorations, is wonderfully preserved, and the sprawling gardens behind the palace are just as impressive as the building itself.

Courtyard in Reales Alcázares

Erin in the garden of Reales Alcázares

Yeah, I wouldn't mind having this as my backyard.

I had thought Reales Alcázares had to be the most picturesque place in Seville, but then Erin and I found the Plaza de España, which may have won the title.

Bringing the standard pose to Europe (photo cred: Erin Greenawald)

I know what you're asking yourselves, and the answer is yes, this IS the location where George Lucas filmed scenes from Naboo in Star Wars Episode I (with a bit of computer special effects thrown in there as well).

The best part of Plaza de España was when Erin and I were taking our siesta on a sprawling staircase just inside the brick façade.  Shafts of the afternoon sun were streaming in between the columns, while a flamenco duo filled the space with pleasant sounds of singing, clapping, and guitar playing.  It truly was a perfect moment.

Not a bad spot for a siesta

3.  Dancing
Throughout the course of only seven nights in Spain, I managed to have a few very memorable, and very different, dancing experiences.  The first one occurred on my first night in Madrid.  One of the students in Chris’s study abroad program was turning twenty-one, and to celebrate, a lot of students were going out to a nightclub.  Chris invited Erin and I along for the ride, and it ended up being an amazing first night in town for me.  After convening in Plaza Sol (both the physical and social center of Madrid) and walking for a while through the rain (the first I’ve felt in months), our group finally made it to Club Kapital.  Walking in, I thought the 15 Euro cover charge was a bit steep, but I quickly found that it was totally worth it.  This club had not one, not two, not three, not even five, but seven floors, each with a different theme and music variety.  Somewhere in the middle of rocking out to thumping techno beats and being mesmerized by flashing strobe lights, I remembered that just that morning I had woken up in Cairo.  It’s funny how far away from real life a five-hour plane ride can take you.
The next great time I had dancing was in a very different scene than a seven-story nightclub.  On my last full night in Madrid, Erin and I were hanging out with some people staying at our hostel, and we all ended up at a small jazz club called Barco.  A funk jam-band was playing on the stage, and it had the small place rocking.  Erin and I danced in front of the stage through a few sets, and we kept going even after our friends left to go back to the hostel.  On the walk back, Erin asked me where I learned to dance like that.  I told her I never really had anyone teach me, but I could only watch my parents dance to Brown-Eyed Girl so many times in my life before I picked up a few moves (thanks Mom and Dad).
But despite my decent dance moves, my final memorable dancing experience in Spain only involved me watching dance rather than doing it myself.  On our last night in Seville, Erin and I got a table at a restaurant called La Flamenquita.  Living up to its name, the restaurant had a flamenco group put on a live show in the dining room.  I had never seen live flamenco dancing before, and there seemed to be no better place to do it than in the dance’s hometown of Seville.  Throughout the show, the dancer’s movements were sharp and her expression was very intense.  She gracefully moved in time with the strum of the guitar and the voice of the flamenco singer.  I loved the dancing and the music so much, I made sure to buy a pair of castanets before I left Seville.  Olé!

Flamenco show at La Flamenquita

2.  Going Out for Food
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to be in for some really delicious food during my week in Spain.  My first encounter with Spanish food happened after my five-hour flight from Cairo and almost an hour of navigating the Madrid metro, when Erin took me out to lunch at a place near our hostel.  In deciding on where to take me, Erin relied on two facts:
1) I Love Bacon
2) The only two countries I’ve been in over the past 5 months are two countries where the dominant religions forbid the consumption of ham or any pork products.
Aptly, Erin decided to take me to a magical place called Museo de Jamón (Museum of Ham) for lunch.  Unfortunately, I never got a picture of the inside of this place, but the place really did look like a museum of ham, with legs of meat hanging down from the ceiling over the bar.  Beneath the ham stalactites, you can stand at the bar and get a delicious bocadillo (baguette sandwich) with any sort of pork product and a cup of Spanish vino for about 2 Euro.  As I soon discovered, Museo de Jamón is a chain restaurant in Madrid, and Erin and I ate at several locations during our time in Spain’s capital.
Although I was on a bacon binge for much of my time in Spain, I did have a few meatless bocadillos when I substituted a pork product for a delicious Spanish delicacy called tortilla.  As I quickly learned, the Spanish version of tortilla is not the kind of tortilla that most Americans are familiar with.  Delete the flat, flimsy burrito skin from your mind, and envision a fluffy omelet, almost quiche-like in substance, made with eggs and potatoes.  Put that in a baguette, and you’ve got yourself a tortilla bocadillo.

Tortilla bocadillo... om nom

While I very much enjoyed grabbing bocadillos for lunch, my favorite way to do a midday meal in Spain was not to have my entire meal at one restaurant but instead to go from place to place trying different small appetizers called tapas.  Both Madrid and Seville had cafes on just about every street corner, and most of them served a variety of different tapas for a couple Euros each.  Going “tapa-hopping” between different cafes was a great way to try the wide variety of the different foods that Spain has to offer.  The tapas we tried ranged from spinach dip to Manchego cheese to duck filet to shrimp bisque to, of course, Iberian ham.  As unique as each dish was, I can’t remember one that I didn’t enjoy.  When comes to getting food in Spain, it seemed almost impossible to go wrong.

Are you in the mood for the paella, the cod, or the squid balls?

And as fantastic as all the food is in Spain, there is one dish that stands out among the rest.  I am, of course, talking about paella—a delicious combination of rice, vegetables, and seafood, all flavored with a hint of saffron and other spices.  Erin and I got paella a couple of times, one of which was while we were watching the flamenco show at La Flamenquita.  That dinner followed a simple equation:  paella + flamenco = terrific Spanish dining experience.

1.  Staying in for Food
Typically when I travel, I go out for most of my meals, especially dinner.  However, since Erin and I were staying in hostels with great kitchens, and because we wanted to save some Euros, we ended up cooking almost all of our dinners in the kitchens of the hostels.  While I’m usually not the sharpest knife in the drawer in terms of cooking abilities, Erin’s creativity in the kitchen more than makes up for my ineptitude, and we managed to cook up some pretty delicious meals together over the week.
The first night, we went to the supermarket grabbing whatever we thought might work well together.  For the most part, there wasn’t much method to our madness, but I was insistent on one particular item going into our dishes…

Oh, Bacon, how I have missed you.

The quality of our meals improved over the week, going from a simple stir-fry concoction to an awesome baked medley of potatoes, vegetables, chorizo, and Brie; but the best meal of all was definitely our first night in Seville, when we decided to try our hands at making our own paella.  Fortunately, the supermarket had all the right ingredients—a mixed bag of frozen seafood, a massive link of chorizo sausage, and even a paella-in-a-box spice mix that included all the necessary subtle flavors.  We got back to the hostel and went to town in the kitchen.

Cooking up a paella storm

As we were cooking our paella, we noticed other people were preparing their own dishes in the kitchen.  There wasn’t a whole lot of real estate in the small kitchen for so many people, so after enough awkward encounters like “Sorry, could I just get…” and “Excuse me, could I borrow…”, we all got to talking with each other.  When we all finished our respective dishes at the same time, we had a hostel family dinner out on the terrace.  Erin and I had prepared paella, our hostel matron, Sylvia, had made tortilla, and a group of British girls had whipped up a couple pitchers of sangria.  Between all of us, we had the quintessential Spanish meal.  We all spent the rest of the evening around the table getting to know each other, listening to each other’s travel stories, and making plans for our next day in Seville.  As I learned on this trip, cooking good food is a great way to spend time with old friends, as well as a great way to make new ones.

Spanish potluck at our hostel in Seville

After an overnight bus back to Madrid and a flight back across the Mediterranean, I found myself back in Cairo.  Between seeing Europe for the first time, and seeing my friends after five months in Egypt, my entire week in Spain felt like a dream.  While I had a bit of difficulty readjusting to real life after such an amazing vacation, I’ve managed to finally get back in the swing of things here in Cairo, just in time to gear up for the final month of my study abroad.  On the one hand, seeing my friends definitely increased my longing for home, but on the other, I can’t believe I’ve already spent almost half a year over here and that my time in Egypt is almost up.  But with the current protests happening in Tahrir and Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections coming up on November 28th (insha’Allah), my time here is bound to be action-packed right up to the finish line.

Further reading:
Erin’s blog:  http://erinaceously.wordpress.com/
Chris’s blog:  http://chrisconsroe.wordpress.com/

Hostel recommendations:
For anyone planning on traveling to Madrid or Seville, I highly recommend the following two hostels:
Madrid:  The Way Hostel – Great location, very clean, friendly staff, and a good atmosphere with the right balance between party and chill.
Seville:  Traveler’s Inn – Beautiful building (made out of a 500 year-old mansion), family-like staff, and a rooftop terrace with an incredible view.

Sunset over Seville from the rooftop of the Traveller's Inn

  1. Erin Greenawald says:

    Blogs officially NOT the same. And when did we eat shrimp bisque?

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