The Time I Felt Like a Prince

My spectacular view of the monument, royal gardens, and green mountains, looking from within the building.

I was on a balcony. I had a view. There were gardens, mountains, and pieces of art. A cool breeze was passing through. The only thing that was missing was my princely clothes and my crown. My visit to the monastery of El Escorial was like a fairy tale story. This giant monument is located in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a charming municipality with picturesque mountain views and architecture that complements the scenery. I was taken aback when I learned that it was the residence of Spain’s austere King Phillip II. The ancient monastery includes eerie royal catacombs, a meticulously decorated basilica, gardens, courtyards, multiple rooms, and artwork from many centuries ago.

Our group finally was able to reach one of the upper floors where the king’s art collection was being displayed. A balcony with an open door caught my attention. “Awesome! A view!” was one of the first things that came to my mind. Little did I know I was entering my very own storybook scene complete with a gorgeous view of part of the castle-like monastery, artsy gardens bellow, and magically verdant mountains in the distance.

Zoom Out

Posing in front of spectacular view of Madrid at sunset.

What is the best way to capture the life and grandness of Spain?” I would ask myself. I can almost visualize the days flying by to my departure from this treasured land. How can I make it last? How can I portray a general overview of this place that greets me with a load of surprises?

One answer I have found is overhead shots of the cities. From such a high perspective, analyzing the “big picture” or capturing the general atmosphere of the places I have been to comes much easier. It makes the pieces easier to put together. That one moment I got lost in that one neighborhood will make much more sense when I see how its buildings fit in with its nearby locations. That one friend I met on that one street will become more memorable to me when I see the architecture and street life that surrounded our encounter.

“Zooming out” has really made me appreciate how interconnected my experience has been. It makes me see that whatever struggle I was facing at that time, outside my bubble, there was still beauty, life, and hope surrounding me, whether or not I chose to see it at that moment. Please enjoy these wonderful over-head shots of Spain and be reminded of how interconnected your experiences are with the world around you. Click on the photos to view in slideshow format with their descriptions!

The Artsy Giants

Details of the Royal Palace in Madrid.

Attractive people, efficient public transportation system, surprises at every corner, and cool-sounding colloquial words are just some of the things I have liked most about my study abroad experience here in Spain. However, one of my favorite things has been the architecture. Even though I am not an expert that can identify the different kinds of styles I have come across, I am a student with a camera that can wonderfully capture their timeless beauty.

Click on the photos below to view them as a slideshow along with their descriptions!

A Recycled Cathedral?

Click on the photos below to view as a slideshow and descriptions!

I do not think I had ever heard the words “recycled” and “cathedral” together like this until CIEE, the program through which I am studying abroad, sent out the cultural activity invitation. Out of curiosity I registered for the event and waited to see how this strange title could unfold. Before the event, I pictured in my mind an old Gothic or Roman-inspired cathedral. Once I would walk in, I would be surprised to find it to be a bustling bazaar or a form of open-air supermarket.

I was wrong. The group and I traveled to a small town called Mejorada del Campo within the community of Madrid. We walked for a good distance past tranquil townhouses, charming restaurants, and even metal barriers that lined some of the streets to protect the locals when the townspeople would hold bull runs! Suddenly, a tall colorful structure began to appear in the distance. As we drew closer, our director welcomed us to the recycled cathedral and I was perplexed by what I was seeing.

The steps were a dark reddish umber and the main body was a sandy tan, with multiple other others sprinkled in different parts. The two-story structure had massive towers and multiple sections. At first, the cathedral looked abandoned because of the unfinished walls and the support material that was visible in several parts. We went inside and our director, who lives in Mejorada del Campo, explained that the cathedral is actually unfinished and is still in progress. The materials used to construct it are recycled materials from different parts of the town and the rest of Spain, donated by supporters of the work. A light-bulb lit in my head, expressing, “Oooh.”

This amazing and colorful structure was started and is still being constructed by a 92-year-old man named Don Justo. He started the project in the early 1960s and, with his devout faith in God, is still helping with the construction making hand made stained glass windows and mixing cement.

A look from below the domed inner sanctuary of the cathedral.

When’s dinner?

They warned me. People have told me over and over that the eating schedule in Spain is very different from that of the United States. What did I do? I brushed off the comments and thought to myself, “Meh, I’ll be able to handle it. Nothing to sweat.” To some extent I was right, I can handle sometimes the late lunches and the extremely late dinners. But sometimes, my body refuses to obey. All I can think about is the mouth-watering gastronomy of this precious land and the inexplicable joy that I get at every meal.

This should not be a surprise because I am a man that likes to eat. When my stomach tugs at my mind for food, I have trouble concentrating on my schoolwork. Lunch and dinner being later than what I am used to really challenges me in this area. In the United States, I may eat lunch at 11:00 am, noon, or maybe even 1:00 pm. In Madrid, my classes run right through what I use to call “lunch time” and have me eating at 2:30 or 3:00 pm. When I am finally out of class, I speed-walk to the dining hall where they serve delicious, typical Spanish dishes or to Donner Kebab, a high-quality Turkish restaurant that is popular among the students.

“When’s dinner?” my stomach mumbles an hour after I eat my large lunch. Normally in the U.S.A, I may have dinner at 5:00 pm, 6:00 pm, or maybe 7:00 pm at the latest. Here, my host mom calls me from my room to eat dinner at 9:30 pm, 10:00 pm, or 10:30 pm. All the waiting makes the meal much more enjoyable. Marilé, my host mom, prepares a variety of Spanish dishes that I savor every time. Lentejas, morcia de Burgos, huevos fritos, sopa de calabaza do not name even half of the foods she serves.

Even though the lunches and dinner may be later than what I am used to, through this change, I have learned to savor every bite and leave each meal happy. Waiting tends to make each God-given plate special and more delicious than it already is.

Click on a photo to view in slide show format and each description!

From Santa Teresa to Cervantes

“Medieval walls? Santa Teresa de Jesus? A 16th century home?” were questions that were going through my head as I toured the nearby cities of Avila and Alcala de Henares. I could not contain myself when I found myself face to face with thousands of years of history. What topped off the experience was that both cities were having medieval festivals!

One of Avila’s centuries-old gates awaited our arrival into the bustling city center inside.

Avila, Spain, which is an old city to the west of Madrid, where I am studying, shattered my expectations as my host mom and I inched closer and closer to the city center where the behemoth wall stood. The wall is almost 1,000 years old and encircles the historic city center. We went through one of the main entrances and were greeted by lively folk music, people in colorful medieval costumes, and a plethora of vendors selling souvenirs and food.

Avila’s ancient wall stretches far and conforms to the hilly landscape of central Spain.
Avila’s “plaza mayor” or central square was flooded with people from all over Spain, enjoying the atmosphere of the annual medieval festival.

On my way out, I did not hesitate to try Avila’s famous Patatas Revolconas, to visit the ancient Cuatro Postes, or to learn more about Santa Teresa de Jesus who lived in Avila.

The inner city’s street were adorned with festive decorations and decorations alluding to religions such as Judaism.
Los Cuatro Postes is an ancient site on a hill with a fantastic view of Avila where it is said that Santa Teresa de Jesus and her brother decided to become heroes for Christianity.
Trying hard not to slip, I inch away from one of the best views of Avila and its medieval walls.
“Patatas revolconas” is a famous dish in Avila made with pureed potatoes and pork meat. This hit the spot!

My thirst for history led me further to Alcala de Henares, an ancient city just east of the city of Madrid. I felt honored to stand in a city founded in pre-Roman times. I was able to visit an archeological museum where million-year-old fossils were displayed along with Roman mosaics and other ancient artifacts. I also received a tour of the house where 16th century author Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was born. Stepping outside into the streets of Alcala, I found charming streets bustling with people who have come for the medieval festival. Mini parades of people dressed in armor and mystical creatures livened the avenues of vendors.

One of Alacala de Henares’s street reminded me of downtown Holland with its short trees, charming store fronts, and friendly people.
The University of Alcala was founded in 1498, a just 6 years after Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain!
Alcala de Henares’s central square was lively with decorations of varying cultures representing its multicultural history.
I was able to explore the 16th century home where Miguel de Cervantes, author of the famous book Don Quixote, was born!
While Alacala de Henares was founded even before the Romans arrived, the city’s archaeological museum held millions-of-years old fossils found in present-day Spain!

¿Dónde empezar?

So much has happened in the past few days that I feel a gallery of photos would better express my excitement for the wonders that I had the privilege of beholding.  The enormous Palacio Real (ironically, the king and queen do not live here), the beautiful and monumental Almudena Cathedral where the current king and queen of Spain held their wedding, the awe-inspiring Madrid town hall (El Ayuntamiento de Madrid), and the oldest restaurant in the world (el Restaurante Botín, which was founded in 1725) are just a few of the sights that made me beam with life.