Spring Break on the Iberian Peninsula


Panorama of the center square
Panorama of the center square

The trip to Madrid was an academic excursion. So that means that all the students, except for my poor friend Jordan who broke his leg, left from the castle at 6am after a 5:30 breakfast. We took a bus to Amsterdam and from there onto Madrid. Getting off the plane was a dream. It was actually sunny. We hadn’t seen real warm sunshine since we left for the Netherlands, and it was glorious to have nice weather again.

Dolcia teaches us the history of Madrid
Dolcia teaches us the history of Madrid

In the afternoon we took a city walking tour. Mine was led by Dolcia who is the program director. She knows a lot and is interesting to listen to. We did have a scary little “event” though.

While we were stopped to look at a 19th century church, a homeless man tried to talk to one of the students in my group named Reid. Reid has a jacket with punk band patches on it, and he must have recognized them. The man was very drunk, and wouldn’t leave Reid alone. My friend Rosa, who speaks Spanish well, told the man to please leave us alone, we were in a class. The man got belligerent, so we tried to walk away. Next the man started to follow us up the street, that’s when Nyla tried to defend the group. She asked the man to please leave us alone. The man started making faces and getting too close to Nyla, so she pushed him back. He retreated, but not for long. Then he came running through our group and launched a glob of spit that landed right on Nyla’s back. She obviously freaked out, and we got a police officer to take care of the drunk man.

The whole incident was terrifying, my heart was beating quickly, and it took us all a little while to completely calm down. Dolcia took us to a nearby market where we settled down even more with a glass of red wine.

Friday night I spent with my friends, exploring Madrid and looking for good food. I had a bowl of paella (pie-yay-yah) which is great. I want to learn to make it, I think my family would enjoy eating it, too. I hung out with some girls I normally don’t spend a lot of time with. Alex, Anna, Mara, and a boy named Jamie. The five of us had a bit more wine and walked all around Madrid, it’s an amazing city.

Saturday was spent with my modern art class at two museums, a modern art museum called the Reina Sofia and a historical museum called the Prado. The Prado is home to The Garden of Earthly Delightsa famous triptych painted by  Hieronymus Bosch in 1490. To me the painting is actually kind of frightening (there are a lot freaky things going on if you look at it closely) but I’ve learned about it in a few different classes, so it was really cool to see the painting in real life.

Painting Toledo

The next day, Sunday, we took a day trip to Toledo, a littler city about an hour outside of Madrid. Toledo is amazing, it looks like the too-good-to-be-true posters of Europe that hang in restaurants and academic buildings. It’s also a pretty unique place because it has heavy influence from the Jewish, the Spanish Catholics, and the Muslims. With this mix, the architecture is special to Toledo. We visited a monastery for Franciscan monks and a Gothic cathedral. I think after all the cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe, and at home in the states, I’ve decided that Gothic is my least favorite. It’s too much decoration, and it looks wasteful. How much gold adornment and intricate sculpture does one building really need?

But overall I really liked the trip to Toledo. It was a great opportunity to see a small city in Europe. It felt as if no one actually lived there, though. I had a nice conversation with my modern art professor, and she put it best. “Toledo is more like an open air museum,” she said.

Renee and I were supposed to fly to Barcelona on Monday night, but because of an airline strike, we had to find another flight. Our new one was on Tuesday afternoon, so we had an extra evening in Madrid. I think I loved the last one most of all. Renee and I met up with out friends Grant and Rebecca and the four of us went to go eat tapas and drink beer. We found an awesome place on a little side street that was all the energy I was hoping for. We payed two euros and were given a large glass of beer and three plates of hot appetizers.  I wish I had known of the place a few nights earlier, because I would definitely repeat that experience. Once we were finished we searched out a place to make us hot churros with chocolate.


Renee and I flew to Barcelona on Tuesday afternoon. Our stay in the hostel the night before was superb, I’ve never felt so welcome in a hostel before that. When we arrived in the city, it immediately felt different than Madrid. Where Madrid had wide open boulevards and the sun seemed to pour over everything, Barcelona felt sunny and breezy in a way that only coastal cities can. I’ve never been to Miami, but it’s almost what I’d picture a more historical Miami to be like.

Our hosts in Barcelona were very nice. We stayed in one bedroom in their apartment the first night with a few other guests, and the second night we stayed one floor above in a small apartment that we had all to ourselves. Since we had the access to a kitchen, we bought groceries to cook for dinner instead of going out to eat. It was a smart decision that ended up saving us lots of money, and it was fun to cook and shop in a foreign grocery store.

Barcelona was a bit sad for me though. It was there that I learned how sick my grandfather, Opa, was. I was able to talk to him on facetime one last time. It was a really wonderful, and I’m very glad I was able to see him and his wonderful smile a last time. I enjoyed Barcelona quite a lot, but I was of course always thinking about and praying for Opa and about my grandmother, Nana.

On our day in the city we were able to see a lot. We were able to see the ocean and visit the Picasso museum. We also saw a few parks and the architecture of Gaudi. He is a famous architect who left many many buildings in Barcelona. I studied his work in art class and it was a real treat to be able to see it in real life as well. One of his pieces is a cathedral called La Sagrada Familia. It is a cathedral unlike any other in the world because it is made in the art nouveau, or modernisme style. Gaudi started it in 1882, and it is still under construction to this day. It is open to visitors, but it is still not complete.


On Thursday morning, Renee and I met up with our friends Rosa and Laurel in order to catch an early flight to Porto, Portugal.

We were all set to board the plane when we got a big surprise. It was a really frightening moment when the woman told us we had missed a step in the check in, and had to leave the gate to get our tickets stamped at the Airline desk. We sprinted frantically all the way through the Barcelona airport, sweating and panicking. I made it back first, carrying my shoes after the security check. Then Rosa and Laurel came, but we had lost Renee because she had gotten on the plane before us. We were genuinely scared that Renee wouldn’t make it to Porto! But she came around the corner just in time and we made it to Porto, even if a bit flustered.When we first arrived, I was a bit off put by the hills and the crumbling buildings.

Porto is in a depression, as is Spain, and it really showed. Everywhere there were road construction projects and the elegantly tiled buildings were often missing windows or were showing major signs of age. I’m really glad we got to see this side of Europe, since up to this point we’ve only seen the wealthier cities and towns.

Tiles in the train station that tell the history of Portugal
Tiles in the train station that tell the history of Portugal

The tiles were definitely one of the best parts of the city. On almost every building, even some of the most humble, there were wonderful tiles. Most of them were blue and white, but there were tiles of every color. We went to a train station that had a tiled entrance hall on which was the history of Portugal told through pictures.

We again stayed in an apartment, this one had a large kitchen and a computer with fast internet. On the first night we bought groceries, and cooked most our meals with what we bought, and it all cost less than 20 euro for the four of us. Our host was very friendly, and gave us excellent recommendations on what to see and how to get around. He gave us a map and circled things to see, and wrote down the names of restaurants to eat dinner at.

Our first night, we ate a small restaurant close to our apartment where there was no written menu. The little old woman who cooked the food took us back into the kitchen to show us what she had to offer. She gave us samples of sardines and fresh potato chips. It was so darn cute! And it only added to the cuteness that she was about four and half feet tall. We ordered steak and fries with a green leafy salad, and our new chef friend threw in a delicious bowl of beans and rice for free.

Although the weather report told us it would rain all day, we were blessed with a full day of sunshine on Friday. We climbed to the top of an old bell tower for a view of the coast, the river, and hundreds of red-roofed buildings. Nearby, we popped into a little book store with an art nouveau decor.  Later we heard that JK Rowling used the book store as inspiration for some of the elements in her Harry Potter series when she was living in Porto. We also took the hike up to the “crystal palace” on top of one of the hills in the historic part of the city. There we saw one of the most amazing views I’ve seen in Europe. It was truly beautiful!

View from the Crystal Palace gardens
View from the Crystal Palace gardens

After lunch we crossed the river into what is technically another city, but still considered by many to be part of Porto. We walked across one of the enormous bridges and took a gondola back down to the river bank. It was another nice way to soak in the beautiful skyline of Porto. With that gondola ticket we got a free wine tasting, so we found the winery and went in.

Port wine is famous for its sweet taste and was the dessert wine of choice for the English nobility. At the first winery we visited, we each tried a different variety of port; white, rose, ruby, and tawny. I chose the tawny, but didn’t end up liking it very much. The ruby was my favorite, and it’s a wine typically paired with chocolate or cheese. The tawny I had is supposed to go with nuts. We went to another winery after that and took a full tour of Taylor’s. It’s one of the oldest wineries in the city, and has an amazing collection of all different types of ports. Our guide explained the difference between how each of the types of ports are made, and why port wine is different from other wines.

white, rose, tawny, ruby
white, rose, tawny, ruby

After the tour we were each given a glass of ruby and a glass of tawny. My friends and I took our glasses out to the terrace to look over the sunset and take pictures. In the garden, as in the gardens at the crystal palace, there were peacocks running about everywhere, it was so wild!

I was so glad to have spent spring break in such a wonderful place. Porto was such a surprise, and I’m glad that I’ve experienced even a little part of their culture. I loved Barcelona, and I think I’d like to go back when it’s warm enough to visit the beach. Madrid of course was wonderful, and I wish I had known Spanish so I could fit in better. It was also so nice to spend time with my  friends away from the stress of school. Our spring break was relaxing and interesting, and we got to learn a lot. Gracias, Iberia!


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