Finals are behind me and I’m on the cusp of winter break, where I’ll be spending a week in London and Ireland and then traveling for a week through Portugal, and I figured I should do a recap of the places I’ve traveled over the course of the semester, since they’ve been such an integral part of my experience so far. I’ve traveled to five different places in Spain outside of Madrid these past four months: to Cercedilla, Segovia, Cuenca, Córdoba, and Barcelona.
The first place outside of Madrid that I visited was Cercedilla, which is a town in the mountains just north of the city. I went with some other students in my program to hike the trails there, and what a release it was to leave the city for a little bit and let the time slow down. We walked from the train station through the town until we reached an information booth with maps. Then we found a trail that we wanted to hike and started on it, passing a board of writing about the Camino de Santiago, the route of an old Christian pilgrimage. The characteristics of the path that we took — rocky footing, soft pine needle forest, rolling hills — reminded me achingly of Northern Minnesota, my favorite place in the world. We devoured lunch at the peak of our hike, which was overlooking a valley and covered by wide sky. Strangely enough, we met another Badger who had just graduated a year ago hiking with a friend of hers on the mountain. After finishing our hike, we took the train back into the city, exhausted and content.
A few weekends later, we took a bus with our program to Segovia. Segovia is gorgeous and old, albeit full of tourists. I don’t think I saw a single inhabitant of Segovia, just groups of tourists wandering the narrow streets with their sensible shoes and cameras around their necks. Of course, I was one of them. We had a guide who taught us about the history of Segovia, about the 2000 year old Roman aqueduct that was used to bring water from the mountains to the city just until the 20th century. Our guide took us through the cathedral, which was just as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside. There were huge leather-bound music books that the church choirs would use, endless tributes to Christ on the cross, and a passage behind the pews so pilgrims traveling the Camino de Santiago could pass through during mass times without interrupting services. After the cathedral, we toured the castle, which was just how you’d want an old Spanish castle to look. The castle was overrun with people, and for good reason; it was beautiful, from the intricate, Islamic-style ceiling patterns to the room circled by figures of all the past kings and queens of Spain. We scaled a claustrophobic staircase to look at the city and beyond from the top of the tower. The bus ride back to Madrid was silent, since everyone passed out immediately from exhaustion.
Even though the Segovia trip proved to be a long and fulfilling day, a couple friends and I decided to take a bus to Cuenca for their Festival de San Mateo, which was full of Spanish traditions and near-death experiences. The town is small and gorgeous on the sides of mountain cliffs, with winding streets and brightly colored buildings. The entire town was busy celebrating the festival, which mainly consisted of eating on the street and a bull run where one smallish bull was released once every couple hours and chased around by some brave souls. Several streets around the town square were blocked off to contain the bull, and the square was full of people lining the buildings on the edges. Parents put their children up high on the church ledges to not worry about their children getting mowed down by the bull. I should have taken a leaf out of their book, because I almost died when the bull unexpectedly turned to the wall I was standing against and started getting closer. Those horns don’t mess around. Everyone around me frantically backed into a restaurant on the square to wait out the threat. We were fine, but god, what an adrenaline rush.
Córdoba was the first place I spent a more than a day in. Our program went there for two days, with a similar structure as our Segovia trip: we had an incredibly well-informed guide that told us what seemed like every historical fact to ever hit Córdoba. But beyond the history, the city itself is beautiful: cobblestone streets, white buildings with blue flowerpots, restaurants tucked into corners. The highlight of the trip was the famed mosque, of course, and the coolest part about it was the change between the mosque part and the cathedral part that had been added on afterwards, it showed the different artistic styles of each religion so perfectly. We also passed through the “judería,” or old Jewish neighborhood, which a ton of Spanish cities have. They were usually created out of convenience and communal needs and then turned into basically ghettos later on, when the Catholics in power went just wildly over the top during the Spanish Inquisition. Much of Spanish history is religions conquering, coexisting, and reconquering each other, to pretty gruesome ends. But enough of Spain’s dark past, let’s talk about how I managed to get a fantastic four-course meal for only 10 euros here. How ridiculous is that? The last thing that stood out from the Córdoba trip was, oddly enough, the bus ride back. It felt like it was taking way longer than the five or so hours it took to get there. We stopped at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, and whatever your concept of nowhere is, I guarantee this was more empty. The sky was vaguely stormy, and all I could see was road and the desert until the horizon. It felt like we were standing on the edge of the world.
After the trip down south, a few weeks later I hopped on a plane to Barcelona with Mariel. Barcelona is an absolutely gorgeous city, plenty of museums, and a good number of Gaudí-designed houses, sculptures, and, of course, the Sagrada Familia (though it looked more like the Sagrada Construcción to me). We had plenty of strange and wonderful experiences in this city, from sitting on the beach overlooking a fog-covered ocean, to exploring one of the best food markets I’ve ever been to, to trying absinthe in the oldest bar in Barcelona, where Picasso and Hemingway are rumored to have been regulars. We saw Iron & Wine in concert, which was a lovely taste of home, and I got to catch up with Haley, a high school friend of mine studying there for the semester. Park Güell was gorgeous, and we walked almost everywhere in the city, which was especially cool in the Gothic neighborhood, where the narrow streets and looming buildings give a sense that you’re navigating a maze of deep wells. As fantastic as Barcelona is, we had some unnerving experiences, too; the street harassment, for example, was much worse than I’ve experienced it to be in Madrid. We also ended up listening to an old Spanish man rant at us about how ignorant Americans are and how we don’t even know where Portugal is, which I didn’t mind as much as the fact he felt entitled enough to talk at us while we were trying to eat our lunch in peace. Additionally, the tourism scene in Barcelona can be overwhelming; the line for the Picasso museum, for example, was easily 100 people long.
The coolest thing about all these places is how varied they are. Most Spaniards declare allegiance to their region or city before their country, and trips like these lent a bit of explanation as to why. But as great as it is to explore the whole country, I’m always excited to return back to Madrid, which is feeling more and more like home.