36 Days in Spain

¿Qué hicisteis el fin de semana pasada? This was the common topic of conversation for a whole month of my summer. As you may know, I spent 5 weeks studying sophomore-level Spanish in Seville. Well, sophomore-level Spanish means only one thing—verb conjugations. We spent a decent chunk of time practicing the preterite tense, especially asking questions like the one above, “What did you all do last weekend?” (Please do note the use of the vosotros/”you all” verb ending which is a necessity in Spain, but is obsolete in Mexico!) Let me just say… I had four thrilling weekends while I was there, and I would love to tell you what I did. Yo tenía cuatro fines de semana emocionantes cuando estuve allí, y me encantaría escribir sobre eso.

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View over Seville from La Giralda tower

PEOPLE

As a backdrop to the rest of my musings, you must know that the Spanish people are simply lovely. My host mom, Nancy, was the first to demonstrate this. One of my favorite times of the day was our late-night supper and learning more about Nancy and her husband, as well as about Spain and Andalusian culture, through our many conversations in Spanish. At first, these conversations were intimidating. I didn’t know half of the words that I wanted to use. But Nancy was so gracious and patient as we tried to describe what we meant to the best of our abilities. I remember one time, as Nancy was serving us eggplant, I described the vegetable as “una planta de huevo,” literally “plant of egg.” How confused she was! And for good reason. Haha!

Aside from my host parents, I also got to know a few of the Spanish tutors who worked with our class. These guys and gals were fun to be around and were a wealth of information about the language and how to navigate life in Seville.

PLACES & THINGS

The Alcazar and Catedral in Seville— According to our guide, approximately 100 grams of Christopher Columbus is buried in the Catedral.

Italica Ruins—These were some neat ancient Roman ruins, the birthplace of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.

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The arena at Italica

Bullfight in Seville—This was a very interesting experience. And I’m glad to have seen it, just so I know what it really is. However, I don’t know if I would sign up to go again, as it is rather gruesome and sad. For those of you who think a bullfight is mainly just a matador saying “Olé!” (as I did), here are the nitty-gritty details… The bulls are raised in an environment such that they never see two-legged animals (aka humans) until they charge into the ring. They are colorblind animals but have a keen sense for movement, which means that it’s actually the waving motion of the cape, not the bright color, which entices them. In the first “tercio,” or round, the matador and his accomplices (I forget what they were called) engage the bull in a series of cape-waving and charges. Then the picador comes out, riding on his horse, and stabs the irritated bull in the upper neck muscles with a lance. As the second tercio begins, the bull can smell his own blood. The banderilleros run out on foot and stab the bull in that same neck region, using colorful, small, barbed sticks. This part looked terrifying, since the bull was already incensed and the banderilleros were relying solely on their ability to escape by running faster than the bull. By this point in the fight, the bull’s neck muscle has been significantly weakened. The third tercio begins as the main matador makes a few skillful passes of his cape (called the “muleta”), keeping one foot in place if he is top-brass. Finally, after some dramatic gestures and facial expressions and yelling, the matador goes for the kill and guides the curved sword down through the neck into the chest cavity towards the heart. In the entire evening, we saw three matadors each kill two bulls. Some fights were obvious successes for the matador, accompanied by loud “Olé’s” from the crowd and the waving of white handkerchiefs. A couple of times the kill was not very clean, and the crowd showed their disapproval by whistling at the matador.

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The Alhambra and the Royal Chapel in Granada—The Alhambra was another beautiful example of Islamic and Western architecture in combination. Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain to surrender to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. Those same two monarchs are buried in the Royal Chapel… And by the way, did you know that Granada means “pomegranate” in Spanish?

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One example of intricate tile work
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A courtyard in the Alhambra
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Another courtyard…

The Mezquita (Mosque) in Cordoba—Apparently, this iconic building has Roman origins, was later converted into a Muslim mosque, and eventually acquired an enormous Catholic cathedral nave right smack in the middle of all the arches.

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One of my favorite pictures… Heading into Cordoba!

Malaga—A group of girlfriends and I visited over a free weekend. We hit Picasso’s museum and, of course, the beach.

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La Rabida Monastery and Palos de la Frontera—This monastery was where Christopher Columbus stayed before he left for the New World. The monastery itself was just beautiful. Plus, not far from there, we were able to see life-size replicas of Columbus’s three ships. They were much smaller than I had imagined!

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The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria

Cadíz beach—Tex and I thoroughly enjoyed this beach trip. We went in the morning to avoid crowds and took a picnic. It was pretty windy, but that didn’t keep us out of the water. The sand was some of the best my toes have ever felt.

Madrid and Toledo—The highlight of Madrid, in my opinion, was the Prado Museum of art. After a semester of taking Art Appreciation, it was pretty cool to see the actual Las Meninas by Velazquez, Goya’s Saturn (though creepy), and Van der Weyden’s The Deposition of Christ. On the last day of the program, we visited Toledo, only a short trip from Madrid. I want so badly to go back to Toledo again (but this time, take Tex with me!) during the celebration of Corpus Christi. We were there at the end of the week’s festivities. The entire town was dressed up—colorful banners draped from the windows, flower baskets and garlands hanging over the streets, bows and streamers tied in the trees. All of this, added to the town’s already medieval ambiance, bewitched me. We also walked to the edge of town, where we stumbled upon the Don Quixote Trail. How fun is that?! He was “from” the Toledo area and “adventured” along this trail. If we go back, I would love to road-trip along it. Sorry in advance for the uncanny number of photos…

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Celebrating Corpus Christi in Toledo
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From the Don Quixote Trail in Toledo
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How cute is this?!

EXPLORING SEVILLE ON MY OWN…

Las Setas—This is the modern icon of Seville, and its name actually means “the mushrooms.” If you go, there’s a lively market down below… including a stand crawling with snails! It is also a great place to get to know some local Sevillanos. So great, in fact, that our teacher thought it would be nice for us to go there and interview people in Spanish. Yeah.

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La Plaza de España—Tex and I made a stop here in the heat of the afternoon to ride a boat around the little canal. The architecture and tiles are beautiful!

“Yemas” at the Convent of San Leandro— I’m so glad I had a free morning to hunt down this gem. After hearing about a few different convents that make and sell their own sweets, I decided I had to try some. The sisters of this particular convent are completely cloistered, meaning that their direct contact with the outside world is limited. Thus, to sell their egg-yolk and sugar sweets (called “yemas”), they have devised a rotating door with shelves. I waited for a few minutes, until I finally heard a voice ask what I wanted, then I ordered and placed my money on the shelf. She spun the door, around came my bag of treats, and then next my change. I never saw a soul.

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The quality of this picture isn’t great, but I had to show y’all the rotating door 🙂

El Torre del Oro— The Tower of Gold

Shopping the streets and the markets (Mercadillo Historico del Jueves—Thursday Flea Market in the Feria)

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Antique tiles at the flea market

FOOD

Pisto con huevo- This is basically the Spanish version of ratatouille, though in my opinion, much better… It’s tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, onion, and garlic all stewed together with a fried egg on top! I’ve already made it a couple of times at home, though it’s hard to replicate Nancy’s recipe.

Freshly squeezed orange juice- My roommate and I discovered this reasonably-priced treat in one of the many cafes on our first walk to campus. And we enjoyed it many more times after.

Churros con chocolate- Thanks to a sweet friend who wanted to celebrate my birthday, I was able to finally try authentic churros with chocolate at the Virgen de Lujan Chocolatería.

Tapas- gambas (shrimp in a garlicky butter sauce), albondigas (meatballs), calamari, salmorejo (a Cordoban twist on gazpacho… made of tomatoes, bread, and garlic). Nancy first took me out for tapas at Bar Bugarín, one of the neighborhood favorites. And then, it was so good that Tex and I made a trek across town for lunch.

Chicharrones!- This deserves a whole paragraph. If you are from Texas, you’ve probably had pig skins before, but you have NOT had Spanish chicharrones. Tex and I tried them at a market (Mercado Lonja del Barranco) that my host mom recommended. It was a memorable food experience. They are meaty, fatty bits of pork, deep fried so that they truly do melt in your mouth, and coated in a delectable spicy salt. Needless to say, I raved and raved about them to Nancy, who later bought me a large package of the tasty morsels. I ate nearly the whole bag in one afternoon and had to confess to Nancy as she was taking us out for our final “family” supper that evening. And I sadly do not have a picture.

Paella- (with a LOT of seafood… Mom, I still prefer yours.)

Berenjenas con miel- Fried eggplant topped with honey. This was another of Nancy and her husband’s specialties.

Gelato– Sometimes multiple times a day. Specifically, the flavor “Nata” (cream).

Tostada con jamón- Toast drizzled with olive oil, spread with pureed tomato, and topped with thinly sliced Andalusian ham. This is the quintessential Spanish breakfast.

And that’s all folks! Thanks for taking the time to read my long-winded post ❤

Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart

Anyone remember the old cartoon Anastasia movie? I made Tex watch it with me a few weeks ago, because he had never seen it. The result: I’ve now had the song “Paris (Par-ee) holds the key to your heart” stuck in my head for basically a solid month, in anticipation of our trip to the City of Lights.

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Let’s start with the gritty truth. Paris is crowded as all get-out. And it has been romanticized beyond any hope of actualization. And ultimately, it (along with any other place) does not hold the key to your heart, or at least not mine. I was reminded once more of our human expectations for the world to satisfy the longings within us, and how they will always remain unfulfilled. Only when we turn to the Maker of all and the Lover of all mankind, can we truly live abundantly and be made whole.

That being said, we did have a lovely time in Paris over New Years. I’d like to share with you some of the things we did…

Day 1: Versailles

>> After stopping for the night at a French gas station and bedding down in the back of our car (which was its own little adventure), we made our way to the Royal Palace of Versailles. What a grand place. It was filled to the brim with paintings and sculptures, rich floral draperies and rugs, fine furnishings and lavish chandeliers. Ever since I first read about Versailles as a child, I have wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors… Being there and imagining it full of great lords and ladies decked out in their finest– wow.

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The Hall of Mirrors

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>> Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the day was the fact that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were almost completely glossed over. Though we saw painting after painting of Louis XIV, also called the “Sun King,” and others much more obscure (to us, anyway) in the royal lineage, I truly don’t remember seeing a single one of Louis XVI and only a couple of his famous queen. The audio guides also said next to nothing about them. We were able to walk down about a mile from the palace to the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette spent most of her married life. It too surprised me. This queen known for saying, “Let them eat cake,” lived a much less frivolous existence than I had ever imagined. The two-story house boasts a very minimal ground floor with empty stone walls and a tiny but tasteful upstairs suite as sleeping quarters. During her time as queen before the Revolution, she had a small, fairy-like hamlet built along with a small functioning farm. This was within walking distance of her home, and was delightful to see.

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At Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

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>> The two of us were famished by the end of the day’s constant walking. So we stopped at a small bakery on our way to the car. That bakery is where I found my new favorite pastry: pain au chocolat. This croissant-like bread filled with soft, but not completely melted, chocolate might be Tex’s new favorite too. So stinkin’ good!

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Day 2: The Louvre and a full-course French meal

>> We learned the public transportation system fairly quickly, as our hotel was in the nearby town of Meudon. This has become one of our favorite things in all the big cities. Using buses and trains to get from one place to the next still feels like a grand adventure, and yet is also far less stressful than actually driving through the center of Paris with a confused GPS. We bought a 2-day city pass for both of us, which allowed us to hop on any subway at any time. That is definitely something we would do again.

>> We spent nearly 7 hours perusing room after room in the Louvre museum, and still didn’t see everything. I had no idea how huge that place is. It’s hard to even know what to write about it, because there was so much. Some of our favorite exhibits were the medieval and Renaissance Italian paintings, the ancient Egyptian artifacts (and real mummy!), and the ancient Persian art. It is just amazing how old some those things are and how well they have been preserved. Tex really loved seeing all the historical depictions of various battles and military heroes. My personal favorite was Carpaccio’s The Sermon of St. Stephen, which I would highly recommend looking up since I don’t have a good photo of it.

 

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A real Egyptian mummy… Sorry if that is too much.

 

>> For our big French meal, I had done hours and hours of research, probably too much honestly. I had originally decided on a restaurant called Benoit, but some planning complications made us change our mind to Chez Paul. You can see their menu here. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall French bistro in the Bastille district, and was more reasonably priced than others with more limited menus. For an appetizer, we both ordered escargot… and loved it! The snails came without their shells, which made us joke that maybe we looked too American for the “shell-on” experience. Ha! For our main dishes, Tex ordered a veal kidney dish and I had rabbit legs stuffed with goat cheese. Mine was delicious, and Tex liked his, so I won’t go into any more depth on the kidneys… Blergh! For desserts, we got profiteroles with chocolate sauce and the apple tart, both of which were very tasty.

 

 

Please forgive me for the poor food photography going on… But I had to share!

Day 3: The Eiffel Tower and a stroll through the city

>> A chunk of the morning was spent waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower. I really think we could have saved a decent amount of time if we had bought tickets ahead of time. Now we know. But seeing the the tower’s structure and going up to the top was actually more impressive than either of us were expecting.

 

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Our view from the top!

>> We used the rest of the day to see as much of Paris as we could. The Arc de Triomphe was accompanied by Nutella crepes, Notre-Dame Cathedral was followed by a peaceful walk in the gardens behind it, Sacre Coeur was an adventure by night that involved about 10 flights of stairs.

 

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Sacre Coeur in Montmartre district

>> At midnight of New Year’s Eve, we wanted to see the Eiffel Tower lights twinkle. So, we prepared a small French picnic for our supper. We walked into a “Fromagerie,” or cheese shop, and walked out with some of the yummiest cheese I have ever tasted, a pretty strong Gruyere. I wish I really knew how to talk about cheese, because this was seriously wonderful. So we stuffed that into the backpack, along with some fresh baguette and lemon-flavored chocolate from a 400-year-old chocolate store. Somewhere along the way, we ran across a Christmas market, which was selling a yummy-looking potato and cheese dish. We decided to try it– “tartiflette” they call it. Finding a bench near the Eiffel Tower but away from the crowds of people, we sat down to our small feast. This was one of my favorite moments.

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Tartiflette

>> The final moments of our time in Paris were spent in a crowd of at least 100,000 people waiting for the midnight twinkling of the Eiffel Tower to usher in the New Year. A few seconds later, we were speed-walking to the nearest metro station in hopes of beating the masses. Which we did.

That is a rather long summary of our trip! Thank y’all for reading, and I hope that this new year will be one of blessings for you.