Madre mía, Madrid!

There’s something rather special about being the first person out and about in a city like Madrid on a Saturday morning. 

IMG_5789The sidestreets are virtually empty, other than workers getting ready to open shop, and the occasional madrileño out for a solitary stroll, sometimes in the company of a partner or a perro.

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This was the first part of my walk to the Biblioteca Nacional this morning. What a difference from even just the morning before.

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I couldn’t help myself; I smiled stupidly at a couple shop-owners, the leaf-blower guy just before the plaza that intersects with the tree-lined Paseo del Prado. I can’t even begin to express just how much I enjoy feeling like I have a city to myself, if only for a moment.

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And then of course once I actually hit the Paseo del Prado, that sense of solitude slowly gave way to the increasingly tangible energy of Madrid’s museum hub.

Suffice it to say, I felt much more sophisticated entering the BNE this morning, seeing as I knew how the whole process of entry, desk assignment, and book request went. Technically you aren’t to take pictures inside, but if that didn’t stop me in the Sistine Chapel six years ago, it certainly wouldn’t stop me now.

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IMG_5797Of course, a shot of one Spain’s many literary legends out front is most certainly acceptable.

IMG_5798I had originally planned to go back to the Museo del Prado that afternoon, but by the time I got there after the BNE closed, it was looking mighty busy. I chose instead to go for a paseo in el Parque de Retiro, one of my favorite public parks in the world.
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It’s such a great escape from the noise and sensory overload of the city. I just love how green it is.

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On this particular visit to the Retiro I decided to make my way to the Palacio de Cristal, inspired by a recent post by one of my favorite travel bloggers.

There was a free, seasonal exhibition going on inside as well, so I’m glad I was able to check it out.

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Much like yesterday afternoon, I continued in a haphazard loop through the busy centro of Madrid, this time making my way down Gran Vía, whose architecture after multiple visits I just can’t get enough of.

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To round out another full day in Spain’s capital, I’m going out to watch the Champions League final (viva Barça!).

And tomorrow, I’m setting off to Alcalá de Henares for the day, which will be a major nerding-out moment…after all, it is the author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s birthplace.

As I’m here first and foremost to work on my thesis (which is on his magnum opus, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha), I’m considering this a most-worthy field trip. 

And So We Meet Again, Madrid

Just over two years ago, I visited Madrid for the first time and was quick to declare it one of my favorite cities in Europe.

Not only did I thereafter see myself one day living in Spain’s lively capital city, I also came to find I liked it even better than Barcelona, much to my surprise. To be fair, I can’t say I spent enough time in either city to the point where I could navigate on my own and feel consistently safe and confident (like I managed to do in Granada and Sevilla, for example). But needless to say, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to stay in Madrid for a longer period of time.

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Meet la Biblioteca Nacional de España (the National Library of Spain, or BNE), my home for the next week. It is here, in these hallowed halls, that I’ll be undertaking the preliminary stages of research for my Master’s thesis in Hispanic Studies through the University of British Columbia.

I’ll admit, I was fairly anxious approaching these majestic steps this morning. Although my thesis supervisor had given me all the instructions I needed to get into the building, get myself a temporary ID, and access the various wings I’d need, I still found myself a little apprehensive. After all, this is what I based my entire trip on: getting a leg up on my thesis research, and doing it in the city where there would be so many resources available to me under one roof.

After all, as I’ve told myself again and again, if I couldn’t find the motivation to research in Madrid, how could I possibly hope to do so back in BC?

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Thankfully, everything went as smoothly as it possibly could have. After checking my passport, driver’s license, and the letter my thesis supervisor had written me back in Vancouver requesting that the BNE grant me access to all wings of the library (especially the Sala Cervantina, or the Cervantes wing, home to a huge archive of resources on the author of Spain’s first modern novel, which coincidentally is the focus of my thesis), they issued me a rather official-looking ID, which will provide me access to the BNE and its resources for the entirety of my time here in Madrid.

And maybe it’s just me, but there was something so motivating about studying silently in a GIANT hall with dozens of other students and researchers of all ages, with names like Garcilaso and Lope and Fernando de Rojas plastered in gold on the high walls; it was as if the greats of Spanish literature were cheering me on, just like I’d so naïvely hoped they might 😉

FullSizeRenderAfter a decent number of hours in the BNE, getting myself oriented with the help of a colleague of my thesis supervisor, and starting up a list of all the sources I hope to consult in the upcoming days, it seemed only fair to appease my growling stomach with one of Spain’s most iconic plates: churros con chocolate.

It was just as good (if not better) than I remembered, even on a sweltering 32 C/90 F afternoon in Madrid’s bustling centro.

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A stroll through Puerta del SolPlaza Mayor, and probably one of my top favorite spots in Madrid, the Mercado de San Miguel, rounded out my first full day here in Spain. It’s crazy how much you can do in just one day in a city like this; a great deal of the major sites are within walking distance (the Museo del Prado and the Parque del Retiro for example, are only fifteen minutes away from the room I’m renting through Airbnb).

And I’m stoked to report that I feel just as comfortable here in Madrid as I felt last time, if not more so, and full of unbridled excitement for what this next week has in store!

 

Madrid In A Day

It’s safe to say my trip to Madrid this week exceeded my expectations.

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It all started with this gorgeous sunset as viewed from an eleventh-floor hotel room window. It continued with my reunion with a friend whom I haven’t seen in nearly two years, as we chatted up a storm that night and explored the city together for the first half of the following day.

We walked around the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, two of the major plazas in central, historic Madrid:

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We went by the Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena, the Palacio Real, and the Sabatini Gardens.

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We then wandered along the Gran Vía on our way to the Paseo del Prado and the world-renowned El Prado museum, where I in particular was thrilled to see the works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, famous painters whose works I studied in high school Spanish classes.

This morning adventure was followed by a delightful lunch just off the Paseo, the highlights of which for me was my first gazpacho (chilled tomato-based, vegetable soup):

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And what I believe was crema catalana, or an egg-based custard resembling creme brulée, with cinnamon and a cookie on top. Delicious.

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I spent the afternoon exploring the city on my own, complete with a visit to another one of Madrid’s famous museums, the Reina Sofía where my mind was totally boggled by Picasso’s Guernica, the artist’s magnum opus that spans an entire wall:

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Original found through a Google Image search

I also took a nice leisurely stroll through the Parque del Buen Retiro, a MASSIVE park just off the Paseo del Prado:

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That Wednesday afternoon, the park was full of families and runners and couples and bikers and skateboarders and row-boaters and, my favorite, street musicians including a tuba- and trumpet-player duo trolling out some reggaetón (that is, a type of dance-y Latin music usually reserved for discotecas…those of you whom I went to Ecuador with will understand the awkwardness here).

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The Parque del Buen Retiro was easily one of the highlights of my whirlwind trip to the Spanish capital…that, along with the Mercado de San Miguel, a posh, upscale (and much tinier) version of Pike Place Market in Seattle:

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And the churros I had at the Lonely Planet-recommended Chocolatería San Ginés certainly hit the spot, by far the best churros con chocolate I’ve had since I’ve been in Spain:

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All in all, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Madrid. Not that I had low expectations or anything, but I guess I was expecting it to be not much more than a busy and noisy metropolis as befits a capital city.

Boy, was I mistaken. Madrid is busy and noisy and overwhelmingly enormous, but I found it to be surprisingly charming and interesting. Its big city-ness is balanced by its impressive list of sights to visit and things to do.

My full day there left a really good impression on me, and I look forward to exploring it further when I return for my flight back to the States!

Y así comienza la aventura nueva

Three flights, a couple movies, a bunch of Downton Abbey episodes, several Coke Zeroes, and some 20 hours later, I arrived yesterday in Granada, Andalucía, Spain, around 4am Seattle time (1pm, or 13:00 in Granada), wretchedly exhausted and sleep-deprived, but both thrilled and in awe to be in this beautiful country for the first time.

After just over a day here, I think it has finally sunk in. I am in Spain. I live in Granada. Crazy stuff.

I flew US Airways on the first two flights (Seattle to Philadelphia, and then Philadelphia to Madrid), followed by Iberia for the third leg of my long journey (Madrid to Granada).

All three flights were relatively smooth and hassle-free, the Philadelphia flight notable for the complementary (that’s right, FREE) movies AND meals (just when I thought all airlines were charging for these sorts of things now). I was stoked to be able to fulfill my original pre-departure checklist item of seeing Argo, which I thought was fantastic (even though I really should’ve heeded my mom’s advice and taken a sleeping pill on that 6.5 hour flight…).

Sunset in Philadelphia before boarding US Airways 740 to Spain

Sunset in Philadelphia before boarding US Airways 740 to Spain

It was dark when we landed in Madrid around 7 in the morning, and as I walked around the long windowed hallway down to customs, I surprised myself when I teared up. While most of the past couple weeks preceding my departure were shrouded in my disbelief and bridled (as opposed to what should’ve been UNBRIDLED) excitement, my touch-down in Madrid (like the prompt delivery of my visa) was another confirmation of my dream of studying abroad in Spain was well on its way to coming true.

Despite my vigilance in keeping track of my passport, and my obsessive checking of the visa printed in it (note again this recurrent disbelief of mine in concerning the reality of this trip), the customs agent neither said a word to me nor did he even check for the visa. So apparently in the end Spain does not go to the same lengths in checking for student visas upon one’s entry into their country as they do in enforcing strict application requirements. But what the heck.

At baggage claim, I waited in vain for my giant suitcase, somewhat frustrated with my overflowing purse and awkwardly-stuffed (but beautiful and new) Go-Lite backpack. Eventually the conveyor belt stopped, and it took my first usage of Spanish with the lost baggage claim booth staff to discover that I could retrieve my luggage in Granada, unlike what the US Airways agent back in Seattle had told me. The patient Spaniard also instructed me on how to get to Terminal 4, from which planes of Iberian Airlines depart.

Unlike the train system I’m used to at SeaTac, an outside shuttle system in in place at Madrid-Bajaras Aeropuerto Internacional. This was particularly exciting for me because to board this shuttle, I had to physically go outside the airport, that is, leave, the airport; which in my book means I have now been to Madrid.

The shuttle to Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas

The shuttle to Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas

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Madrid…ok, so more like the outskirts of.

The video feed on the screen behind the driver also showed a tourist commercial…featuring the members of the Real Madrid squad, which of course I was childishly psyched to see. “Visit Madrid,” each one of them said, from Ronaldo to Özil to Ramos and Benzema, in their respective foreign accents. I was already planning on returning to Madrid anyways, but still…I think I became that much more convinced after seeing this video. How cool it would be to see a La Liga game…

I got to practice my Spanish again at Terminal 4, with the Iberian Airlines agent at the check-in and another one at the customer service kiosk midway through gate K. There was an annoyingly long layover, through which I tried to stay awake by watching Downton, as I didn’t want to fall asleep and by some really bad luck have someone jack my luggage. The specific gate number (K60, K70, etc) had still not been confirmed by the time I was supposed to board, so after talking to the agent I continued to check the screen for any updates on where my flight, Iberia 8058 to Granada, was departing from. At one point it had been listed as delayed until 13:19 instead of 12:05 (trying to adjust to the 24-hour clock here), so I figured it was safe to continue watching a Downton episode on my laptop, pausing every 15 minutes or so to check the screen just in case.

This obsessive-compulsive behavior in effect saved me; I looked up at the screen, and in horror saw the words last call on the “Status” column. Luckily the designated K68 was some 50 feet away, so I rushed over and was the last one to board the bus, which drove us out to the tarmac to board the small Iberian jet.

There may have been a few more tears in my eyes when I sat down in my aisle seat next to a friendly-looking Spanish woman, in my panic about nearly missing my flight and my (almost) inability to shove my Go-Lite pack into the overhead compartment (and of course my debilitating sleep deprivation), but I closed my eyes during take-off, and when I opened them again we were landing. So I guess I got some sleep during my flights…

It was sunny and breezy on the walk outside to the tiny little Granada airport, but I found my baggage easily and chose to catch a cab rather than lug my luggage (whoops) onto the much cheaper city bus.

Something about the amicability of my cab driver and the gorgeousness of surroundings rejuvenated me. I am not quite sure how long the cab ride was, as I was too distracted by our animated conversation, and the beautiful landscape passing us by. I gazed in absolute wonder out the window as we talked, like a child on Christmas, most particularly stunned by the beautiful snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the distance, of which I have a great view from behind our apartment complex on Calle Primavera in the Zaidín district of the city. I wish I had taken out my iPhone in the car and snapped a picture, but I was too tired and too in awe of it all for it to cross my mind.

What greeted me when the cab driver pulled up outside the orange-ish bricked apartment complex on the Calle Primavera? An adorable payaso (clown) of an almost-two-year-old, Alejo, and my homestay mom, Verónica, from one of the second story balconies. Fernando, Verónica’s husband, arrived shortly after, and both of them were, and continue to be, so warm, welcoming, and attentive. They gave me the tour, and I was thrilled to discover that the second-story balcony is in fact in my room. How cool is that? And there’s a view of the city too…I could not be any luckier.

The apartment complex on Calle Primavera, district of Zaidín, Granada (8 Feb 2013)

The apartment complex on Calle Primavera, Zaidín, Granada (8 Feb 2013) with the Sierra Nevada in the distance

Our portal, or entrance into one set of many sets of complexes within the overall apartment complex

Our portal, or entrance, into one set of many sets of complexes within the overall apartment complex

My super comfortable cama

My super comfortable cama in my awesome but often chilly bedroom

My balcón, that's right, my BALCONY

My balcón, that’s right, my BALCONY

For lunch we had a sort of vegetable-based stew, with chicken, tomatoes, carrots, peas, and olive oil, with cheese sprinkled on top. It felt like good, old-fashioned, home-cooked comfort food. I’m not sure if it’s a typical Spanish dish or not, but it sure was tasty; Verónica and Fernando are originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, so perhaps it’s something they picked up back there? I keep forgetting to ask them.

Despite my overwhelming urge to sleep, I went with Verónica on a walk through the city, passing through areas I cannot wait to revisit and explore more thoroughly: the Albayzín, an older, cobblestoned neighborhood with narrow and sloping streets, and the River Darro, the man-made river running east-west, the easterly part of which the renowned Alhambra majestically overlooks.

It sounds dramatic but my heart literally stopped when I looked up and saw it, high upon a steep hill above this dried out river and stray cat-haven they call the Darro. It blows my mind that it’s just there. The thirteenth-century royal residence of the Islamic Nazarí dynasty. To see a monument I learned about and did a group presentation on in my “History and Culture of Spain” course at UBC this past semester, was truly remarkable. I cannot WAIT to actually get up there and take the tour. It will be euros well spent, so I’ve heard (and 100% believe to be true).

We looped back to our home on la Primavera, where I organized my room and somehow managed to stay awake until dinner…at 9pm my time. At that point I’d been up around 36 hours, so after showering (in a shower with EXCELLENT water pressure…the little things, people!), I took that sleeping pill and quite literally passed out.

12 hours later, I woke up to a simple breakfast of toast with cream cheese and jam; there is a LOT of bread in the Spanish diet, assuming Fernando and Verónica eat similarly to native Spaniards. There has been a small basket with slices of fresh baguettes at every meal, which my homestay parents have fed to Alejo in excess, torn up and eaten, and used to scrape up leftover sauce, like the stew of lunch and dinner yesterday, and the salad dressing from today’s simple salad of lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes, along with unseasoned but DELICIOUS cerdo, or pork.

After planning out my bus routes, with a 2004 map of the buslines Verónica gave me, Transportes Rober online (Granada’s transit website), and a second city map we obtained from the tourist office on yesterday’s walk, I visited the Universidad de Granada (UGR) Campus de Cartuja, their northeastern campus, by catching the C bus from the Andrés Segovia stop in el Zaidín, to the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras stop. It’s pretty convenient that each faculty has both its own building AND its own bus stop…the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras (the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature) is the building in which my classes (starting February 18th) will take place.

UGR's Campus de Cartuja

UGR’s Campus de Cartuja

The Facultad de Filosofía y Letras building (photo found online)

The Facultad de Filosofía y Letras building (online photo)

From there I bussed down to the Campus Fuentenueva, another UGR campus further west along the Avenida Constitución, which runs into the Gran Vía, two of Granada’s busy main streets. Some of the orientation events next week take place there, so I thought I’d venture there as well, relishing my Crédibus card, a reloadable card Verónica let me borrow which gets you discounts on the bus fare, from the usual 1.30 to .70 euros. With that discount, that’s about 94 cents CAD. So between Vancouver, San Francisco, and Granada, Granada is the winner in bus fares…and for some reason that’s really interesting to me.

From Fuentenueva I followed the Gran Vía, the Calle de los Reyes Católicos (the street named in honor of the famed “Catholic monarchs,” Fernando e Isabel, who took back Granada from the Moors), and the Carrera del Genil, a gorgeous walkway from los Reyes Católicos to the Darro. During this paseo, or walk, again in gorgeous sunny and crisp weather, I did make more of an effort to take pictures. And it was truly chilling every time I wandered briefly off the bustling Gran Vía onto a narrower, cobblestoned side street, when the noise abruptly dissipated…and then I realized it was around 15:00, the time of the siesta, the activity or “national sport” of napping, something which Verónica confirmed for me is still exercised by most Spaniards. So between the hours of 14:00 and 16:00, or even as late as 17:00, according to Verónica, people take their siesta (nap), most stores and restaurants close, and the city is almost entirely dead. But that did make for more relaxation and reflection during my picture taking.

La Catedral

The MASSIVE Catedral

La Catedral, otra vez

La Catedral, otra vez

La Carrera del Genil

La Carrera del Genil

La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Angustias, of the Virgin Mary anguishing over Jesus' death

La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Angustias, of the Virgin Mary anguishing over Jesus’ death

And later this afternoon, I went on my first run through through the city. Following the advice of two of my closest friends who spent the last semester studying here, I headed for the river and ran along it, crossing over it and back to make a loop out of it. It’s so nice to run in the late afternoon without the darkness of early evening settling in. And Granada’s weather is literally my FAVORITE running weather: sunny and clear, but cool and crisp, so you don’t get too hot or uncomfortable.

So I think it’s clear based on the length and enthusiasm in this entry that I am quite content and at peace with where I am. After all this talk about this study abroad venture and over a year of preparation, I am here. I am in Granada…

…actually, I live here. And that, my friends, is a truly miraculous fact. Y así comienza la aventura nueva…and so the new adventure begins.