Family Week – April 20, 2016

Paris, Day 2, was even better than the first, combining typical tourist attractions with some special sights.

After passing countless closed cafés on our apparently early, 9 a.m. start, we came across Le Parvis.  Though it was just one of the many eateries on the Rue d’Arcole, it was the only one we found to be open.  Thankful that the restaurant was even going to serve us, we did not expect much from the meal, only craving morning nutrition.  Our breakfast, however, was delicious.  With outstanding omelettes, crispy croissants, and fresh juice, it was one of the best meals of the week.  Fueled with fantastic French food, we began our second day of exploration.

Of the many things I learned in my first years of French instruction, I have inexplicably distinct memories of discussing one of Paris’s grand shopping centers.  Based on my faint ideas and images of a beautiful building housing posh, Parisian products, my family and I set out to investigate my hazy remembrances.

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Combine the luxury of Saks Fifth Avenue with the mesmerizing appeal of stained glass to get the stunning Galeries Lafayette.  Cosmetics counters below and a glass dome above, the 9-story shopper’s paradise is worth a visit, if not for its fancy products or indoor aesthetic, then for its free, rooftop views.  With only a few sets of chairs but ample AstroTurf on which to sit, the terrace of the Galeries Lafayette was littered with lunchtime visitors soaking up the springtime sun and taking in the sights of the Eiffel Tower.  For my family and I, it served as the setting for our Parisian Macaron Matchup.

Macarons, often mistakenly identified as macaroons, have become associated with the French almost as strongly as the croissant has.  When I researched the best macaron shop in Paris, however, I found conflicting opinions. Fellow travelers narrowed the options down to two pastry houses: Pierre Hermé and Ladurée.  With a Pierre Hermé kiosk in the Galeries Lafayette, my mom, aunts, and I thought it a perfect time to try one of the best.

We ordered a cup of six, funky-flavored macarons to split, taste, and analyze.  The first flavor we tried, Imagine, of Matcha green tea and black sesame crisp, was all wrong.  Next was Infiniment Rose, which was much better, a very mild-tasting and pleasant treat.  Third, we tried Mogador, a milk chocolate and passion fruit macaron.  The tart wafers and rich center clashed, so we gave this one a thumbs down.  Fortunately, the citrus wafers and creamy center of Velouté Infiniment Orange tasted like harmonious creamsicle.  Following the orange macaron, we sampled Céleste, a passion fruit, rhubarb, and strawberry concoction, which wasn’t great.  We finished with Infiniment Menthe Fraîche, or mint, which was underwhelming too.  Overall, the sweets were made well, with soft-flavored wafers and tongue-shocking centers, but the flavors weren’t practical or enjoyable.

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After our snack, we set out to see the west side of the city.  On our way through the Place de la Concorde, we came across a Ferris wheel, which was erected to promote the 2016 UEFA European Championship, to be held in France this year.  A ride to the top offered sky-high views of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, our next destinations.

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Walking down the Champs-Élysées, I was surprised at the luxury, scale, and commercial presence on the street.  From what I had interpreted from my classes, this was a street of quaint, albeit inauthentic, cafés and small, overpriced boutiques, not stories-high chain shops.  Nonetheless, the tree-lined route made for a pleasant journey to view the towering Arc de Triomphe.

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Skipping the tourist cafés of the Champs-Élysées, my family and I searched for a snack around the Louvre Museum, the next stop on our Paris agenda.  Settling on La Comédie, I enjoyed my croque madame outdoors, people watching, like a true Parisian.

The grounds of the Louvre were dotted with visitors playing photography games, “pricking” their fingers on the top of the iconic pyramids.  This is where my family and I waited for our museum tour guide, Georgi, who my aunt discovered via Airbnb.  A friendly and knowledgable host, Georgi led us to the highlights of the Louvre, because the museum is impossibly large to tackle without a plan.

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We saw the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (my favorite), and of course, the Mona Lisa.  Georgi shared some of his art history expertise with us, explaining the story of the painting of the Mona Lisa.  Many years ago, an Italian man stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, creating a hype around the missing painting.  According to the story, once he was caught, investigators asked why he chose the Mona Lisa, and he replied that the work of Leonardo da Vinci deserved to be displayed in Italy, and because of its small size, the Mona Lisa was the easiest to steal.  With the excitement of the theft, visitors rushed to see the Mona Lisa upon its return to the Louvre.  The woman’s “mysterious smile” is a popular attribution to its acclaim, but Georgi pointed out that many of the other women in da Vinci’s numerous works portray a similar smirk.  He continued to explain that the Mona Lisa is, essentially, the Kardashian of paintings: beautiful in its own right, but famous for nothing.

Across the room from the little Mona Lisa hangs The Wedding at Cana, a grand painting by Paolo Veronese.  Georgi noted that the dimensions of this painting, about 22-by-32 feet, is generally the size of an average Parisian flat!  On our way out of the museum, we passed by another fun-fact art feature, the “selfie statue.”  Apollo Slaying the Python, the title of the work, clearly explains the act of the Greek god snapping a photo of himself to post on Instagram, #Louvre.

To end our spectacular second day in Paris, we made our way to the Trocadéro Gardens to see the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the Parisian night sky.  Though I was unable to enjoy the park itself, it provided a fantastic and full view of the Eiffel Tower.  Many others knew of the spot, with a street performer and local food trucks complementing the tourist crowds.  Fortunately, we arrived just in time to catch the sparkling lights of the grand tower.  Though there were hordes of people vying for the best angle of the monument, the location offered everyone an exceptional look at the eminent Eiffel Tower.

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Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris

A.J.H.

Family Week – April 19, 2016

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Ahh, Paris in the spring.  Paris, period!  For my first visit to this magical city, my family and I were lucky enough to have three, consecutive days of hazy sunshine and mild temperatures.  Before enjoying this rare, Parisian treat, however, we had to get there.

If you’ve been keeping up with my travels, you know that for me, cheap airfare is the name of the game— find the least expensive way to get where you want to go so you can spend your money on fun things once you reach your destination.  Flying to Paris with my mom and aunts was no exception.

On the morning of our departure, at the gate for our EasyJet flight from Madrid to Charles de Gaulle Airport, we sat waiting to board, laughing at the passengers lining up for the process early.  We all have assigned seats, there’s no reason to waste time in line, right?

Wrong.  Carry on space, I knew, was one reason to want to board a plane sooner rather than later.  Still, we couldn’t understand the crowd.  But then it began: “Only one carry on bag allowed per passenger.  No hand luggage.  All carry on bags must fit the dimensions of the bucket up front.”

So this was why everyone lined up.  The EasyJet veterans knew that space really was an issue.  My family and I, EasyJet newbies, carried stuffed backpacks and an extra personal bag each.  With the luggage requirements, we did what any respectful traveler would do— sling our backpacks onto our backs and hide our personal bags under our jackets and scarves to look as least suspicious as possible.  Naturally, we not only looked suspicious, but ridiculous too.  To top it all off, there was plenty of overhead storage room on the flight.  Aside from the boarding process, though, flying EasyJet was painless.

Once we landed, we took the train into the city, speeding by Parisian suburbs that looked just as I had always imagined them (plus some graffiti).  After studying French, and consequently learning about France, for so long, I had many expectations and visions of what I thought Paris to be.  With these specific ideas, it was extremely satisfying to see the cream colored buildings with their navy rooves, and Parisian teens lounging along the banks of the Seine, dangling their feet above the river.  My visit to Paris was already a success, and we had hardly even begun.

Our tiny but pleasant Airbnb sat in the city’s Jewish neighborhood in the fourth arrondissement.  Because of our proximity to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, we made it our first destination.

Though I have seen many places of worship while abroad, each one has a unique design and history.  Inside, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame boasted impressively intricate stained glass windows that framed beautiful altars.  Outside, from the top of one of the church’s bell towers, we appreciated the panoramic views of Paris, as well as an up close look at the famous gargoyles that adorn the church.

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On the way to our next destination, we passed the center of Paris, located in the parvis just in front of the cathedral.  This point is used to determine the distance other places are located from Paris.  With both feet firmly planted on this literal mark, it became symbolic, too, as I was overcome with excitement, gratitude, and relief; I was really, finally, in Paris.

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My first disappointment of the trip, however, came while crossing the Seine.  Still in denial that last year’s announcement to remove the locks from the Pont des Arts, or the famous love lock bridge, had been carried out, I went on a knowingly unproductive search for the iconic spot.  Arrival at the lock-covered Pont Neuf, a sturdier, nearby bridge, confirmed the end of the Pont des Arts era.  Though the aesthetic impact of the thousands of linked locks was the same, I was still upset to have missed out on this special piece of Paris.  While my family and I stood amongst this new normal, my mom pointed out that yes, I did miss the original, but that I was present for a fresh beginning.

After a short trip on the metro, we reached our second French church of the day, the Sacré Coeur.  Located north of the city’s center, the Sacré Coeur is also north in altitude.  Climbing a the steps to the entrance of the church delivers great views of the city as well.  More interesting to me than the church itself, however, were the Parisians.

Hundreds of people sat on the steps of the Sacré Coeur, mainly young, French teens, spending the evening in the progressing shadow of the church’s steeples.  Contrary to the stoic stereotype, these people of Paris were relaxed, talking and laughing together.  The building, the views, and the company made my experience at the Sacré Coeur perfectly Parisian.  Travelers be warned, though: there were many pickpockets and scammers littering the steps of this pleasant place, and they weren’t afraid to get physical.  Caution is strongly advised.

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Informed from previous trips to Paris, my aunt led us to Place du Tertre, a creative cove located behind the church.  Talented craftsmen scattered the street with their work, stimulating an imaginative buzz.  Though the restaurants seemed very tourist-oriented, the artists, in contrast, appeared to be authentic.

Just a few minutes walk from the Sacré Coeur, the Moulin Rouge shone bright against the dusk sky, casting a red glow on the sidewalk below.  The iconic cabaret, full of sparkling lights and passionate life, embodies the adventurous side of the city.

My first day in Paris was packed, full of must-sees and have-to-dos, but Day 2 would bring special surprises amongst the usual tourist destinations, to make for a Parisian experience all my own.

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris

A.J.H.

Goya’s Madrid – Final Project

The focus of our final photography project was, of course, Madrid.  More than simply portraying the city, though, we had to show Madrid through the eyes of another artist.  The professor gave us the choice of three men—Pedro Almodovar, Francisco de Goya, or Earnest Hemingway—who have all spent a significant amount of time in Madrid.  For these artists, Madrid influenced them just as the city experiences their presence today.

I chose Goya, the famous Spanish painter, because I thought that the man whose ideas have existed the longest would be the easiest to depict.  This, though, was one of the biggest difficulties of the project.  We had to photograph things that weren’t really there.  Pursuing Goya’s Madrid turned out to be more difficult than anticipated.  With a New York Times audio guide of Goya-related locations as my project road map, I made my way around the city, doing my best to document the artist’s essence.  Unfortunately, many Goya locations, such as museums and churches, prohibited photography.  My photo collection in tribute to the artist is not as balanced as I would have liked, specifically lacking people interacting with ideas of Goya today.  Given the restrictions, however, I feel that I was able to successfully convey a feel for the artist, albeit somewhat literally.

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A larger-than-life bust of Francisco de Goya looks out over Madrid, Spain from the San Isidro Park on May 1, 2016.  Goya painted landscapes of the San Isidro meadows in both his light and dark periods.

 

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A man seeking financial assistance sits in a sunny crosswalk at Calle de Goya in Madrid, Spain on April 14, 2016.  Francisco de Goya often found inspiration for his work in social class divides.

 

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Members of the Spanish Civil Guard march along Calle Mayor in the Dos de Mayo parade in Madrid, Spain on May 2, 2016.  Two of Francisco de Goya’s most famous works, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, commemorate the events of Spanish rebellion against the French occupation.

 

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A tapestry of the Royal Coat of Arms of Spain decorates the reception area of the Royal Palace of Madrid on April 18, 2016.  The Royal Tapestry Factory, where this hanging was produced, also converts many of Francisco de Goya’s paintings from canvas to tapestry.

 

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A young girl recedes from observation of Francisco de Goya’s The Sermon of Saint Bernardino of Siena in the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande in Madrid, Spain on April 27, 2016.  Goya placed himself in this painting, as he did in many of his other works, garnering a reputation for direct and indirect self-portraits.

 

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A man considers postcard replications of some of Francisco de Goya’s most famous works in the Prado National Museum in Madrid, Spain on May 10, 2016.  The Prado Museum is home to many Goya masterpieces.

 

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The photographer reveals herself in the mirrors of the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande in Madrid, Spain on April 27, 2016.  The church houses one of Francisco Goya’s own self-portraits, The Sermon of Saint Bernardino of Siena.

 

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A cherub light fixture hangs from the frescoed ceiling of the Royal Chapel of St. Anthony of La Florida in Madrid, Spain on May 6, 2016.  Not only did Francisco de Goya paint the ceilings of this chapel, but it is also the site where he is buried.

 

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Goya’s signature, etched in stone, peeks through the fencing around his commemorative statue on Paseo de la Florida in Madrid, Spain on May 6, 2016.  The statue honors Goya across the street from his burial site in the Royal Chapel of St. Anthony of La Florida.

 

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A bird rests on top of the head of a statue of Francisco de Goya in Madrid, Spain on May 6, 2016.  The statue, located across the street from Goya’s burial site in the Royal Chapel of St. Anthony of La Florida, celebrates the artist’s skill and talent.

 

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A family picnics in the San Isidro Park in Madrid, Spain on May 1, 2016.  Though different than what would have been observed two hundred years ago, Francisco de Goya painted visitors of the San Isidro meadows early in his career.

 

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The title of an etching by Francisco de Goya trims the base of the Goya statue that guards an entrance to the Prado National Museum in Madrid, Spain on May 10, 2016.  The nightmare that befalls Goya in this etching, El sueño de la razón produce monstrous, or The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is of the corruption of the Spanish society of his time.

Based off of an assignment that my professor completed for the New York Times, the second feature of the project was that it was to be executed like a real photojournalist’s assignment.  As if our photos were to be seen in a publication accompanying a travel text, we had to submit 12 photos, complete with journalistic captions, to our professor who role-played as editor of the publication.  From my 12 photos, and the 12 photos each from the three other students in the Goya group, he curated a collection that best represented Goya’s Madrid.

The final print of the collage-like compilation hung outside of our program director’s office for our peers to observe.  Four of the ten photos that my teacher chose to represent Goya are my work, including the cover photo of the collection.  The balance between my perspective and those of my fellow group members’ made for a very cohesive and diverse product that we are all proud of.

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You can check out the other groups’ work on our class blog.

 

Family Week – April 18, 2016

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The Royal Palace of Madrid from its left-wing courtyard.

Like the Flamenco show and the bullfight, I saved seeing the inside of the Royal Palace of Madrid, another what-to-do-when-you’re-in-Madrid staple, for my family’s visit.

The Plaza de la Armería splits the Palacio Real de Madrid and the beautiful Cathedral de la Almudena.  Together, they convey a sense of grandeur and aristocracy from days past.

From the outside, the Royal Palace simply looks like a large government building.  The inside, however, is much more ornate.  Once within palace walls, you are not allowed to take photos past the reception area.  Throughout the hallways of this royal abode, though, are some of the most elaborate rooms I have ever seen.  With an audio guide as our navigator, my family and I walked room to room, learning about the monarchs of Spain and their lavish possessions.

My favorite room was the Gasparini room of Charles III, decorated floor-to-ceiling with incredible print and color.  The armory was another memorable area of the royal complex, displaying an impressive collection of imperial armor, and accompanying views of Madrid and the mountains beyond.

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View of Madrid from the armory balcony of the Royal Palace of Madrid

After having been indoors for most of the morning, we spent the second half of the day in Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden, or Real Jardín Botánico.  With grounds much larger than they appear, one could spend an entire day strolling through the rows of vegetation.  Though the flowers are the most photogenic, the gardens were also filled with fruit trees, aquatic foliage, and succulents.  There was even a greenhouse, sheltering tropical plants from around the world.  We may have been too early in the season for the gardens to be in full flourish, but the spring air and sunshine still made it a great day.

Fun, flower photo editing— it’s amazing what a computer can do!

Tonight’s nighttime activity was a jazz club.  Or supposed to be a jazz club.  Unfortunately, Café Central, the restaurant and live entertainment hub, was packed by the time we arrived, requiring reservations or early attendance.  The full house looked like a good sign of a good time.  Next trip, we’ll call ahead.

Though we would have enjoyed a night out, my family and I welcomed an early early end to our day and a good night’s sleep.  Tomorrow morning we would be traveling to Paris!

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

REVIEW – Las Ventas Bullfight

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With varying levels of comfort and curiosity, my family and I decided to check “watch a traditional, Spanish bullfight” off of our Madrid bucket list.  We prepurchased tickets from TicketsToros, an online bullfight ticket distributor, and picked them up at the office just outside of the Plaza de Toros de Las Vantas.  The exterior of the building itself was beautiful, and though the inside showed some age, it added a sense of historic time travel to the event.

My research on the Las Ventas experience advised purchasing seat cushions for the concrete benches from we would watch the show.  On the way to our seats, we picked up the much-appreciated, rear-end protection for a euro and change, and shuffled through crowds of tourists, spotted with the occasional group of Spanish elders, towards the ring.  Our seats were in the cheapest section, “Sol,” or the area of the open-air coliseum that received the most sunlight during the event.  We were happy to be out of the shade, because April in Madrid isn’t too warm.  Squished together on our small section of bench, I remembered the tight quarters of the Flamenco show, and couldn’t help but wonder if the seats were Spanish-sized or if we were American-sized…

At 6 p.m. exactly, the event began.   Between spirited music from the band and the procession of participants in proud, shining dress, I felt the pregame jitters.  Just like any other sporting event, the performers prepared in the ring while the spectators sat in anticipation of the start of the event.

Generally, a bullfight begins with the least prestigious matador of three.  For six bulls, the matadors perform in order of increasing esteem twice, each fighting two bulls.  The matador-to-bull matchup totals about 30 minutes, comprising of three parts.  The first stage requires field assistants to tire the fresh bull, prompting him with double-sided pink and yellow capes to charge repeatedly back and forth across the ring.  Once the animal has burnt its initial energy, horses enter the ring for the second phase of the fight.  In this middle section, horse-mounted assistants spear the bull in the shoulders with banderillas to further weaken him.  Finally, the matador takes over, one-on-one with the bull.  The goal of the matador is to make as few movements as possible to make the bull charge.  By a single spear thrust in between the shoulders of the animal, the fight is finished.

The body of the bull, once drug by horse-drawn stirrups out of the arena, is then prepared for consumption.  Rabo de toro, or tail of the bull, is a popular dish, especially during bullfight season.  Sometimes, however, body parts are reserved for the matador.  If he performs exceptionally well, he may receive the ear of the animal as a prize.  The matador can even earn the second ear, or both ears and the tail, for a truly impressive fight.  It was obvious to all, though, that the matadors that we watched were not receiving any execution prizes.

In the first fight, the matador’s assistants fatigued the bull.  Then, a horseman introduced the decorated spears, sticking them in the bull to further drain him.  Watching the blood drip down the bull’s sleek, dark hide, shining in the setting sun secured my distaste for this event.  Already, the poor animal, had had enough, and the matador hadn’t even begun.

When the matador entered the arena, he inched his way closer and closer to the bull as it became increasingly exhausted.  Then, though, in one, quick motion, the bull scooped the matador off of his feet, sending him face-down into the sand as the animal reared about him.  Saved by his assistants, the matador recovered quickly.  He did not, however, emerge from the hiccup unscathed.

The sweep from behind pierced through his beautiful uniform and punctured his behind!  With flaps of fabric hanging down, and skin fully exposed, the matador continued the fight.

From the bloody beast to the injured matador, I tried to act like I was watching TV and not real life.  It was all a little too much.  I had mistakenly imagined the experience with more theatrics and less reality.  I thought it would be a show, instead of the bullfight that it was.

To make the trip worthwhile, my family and I saw the first fight through to the end, but by then, we had had enough.  Once we had gathered our belongings and were ready to leave, the second fight had already started.  On our way out, we ran into old men and angry yells.  Too slow to exit, we were forced to stay for the second fight.  Feelings of frustration soon turned to understanding when we realized why fate determined us to stay: the second fight was horrible.

From our barely-attentive, untrained eyes, things seemed to be playing out in the second matchup just as they did in the first.  Then, the whistling began.  Drawing from tennis knowledge, my aunt suggested that they were sounds of disapproval.  We glanced down at what was happening in the ring to realize that the second matador had spiked the bull with the “final” spear multiple times and was still trying to finish the animal.  As the bull stumbled in disorientation and pain, my aunt recognized that we had to see a poorly executed fight to appreciate the skill and humanity of the first set.

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Though there is beauty in the grace of the matador and the fanfare of the event, bullfighting is an ugly sport.  I am glad that I got to experience a great Spanish tradition, but only those who enjoy fight-to-the-death events or are truly invested in learning about Spanish culture should attend.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

Family Week – April 15, 2016

Arrival

From a short-notice additional week off, and a last minute change of plans, I found myself standing at the large, frosted glass doors of the airport’s arrivals.  I watched others receive their loved ones and smiled at their reunions, but I leaned against the railing impatiently, waiting to surprise my own visitors. Almost an hour after expected, it was finally my turn to overwhelm my weary travelers with hugs and happiness— my mom and aunt had arrived!

After spending three months with strangers (many whom I’ve come to adore), I was at once comforted with familiarity and love that only a family can provide.  I could not wait to begin this week in Europe that my mother, my two aunts, and I would always treasure.

Excited but exhausted, we agreed to rest the first day of their visit. Fortunately, this in itself was a pleasant experience at the Airbnb we stayed in for the week.  The apartment was centrally located, clean, spacious, and safe.  Aside from the poignant, grape-scented diffuser that made the room smell “purple,” we had no complaints.

 

Day 1

Madrid greeted my family with a rainy day unlike any that I had experienced here before.  It poured.  I had to adjust my plans to show them the city.  My aunt suggested that we take a Madrid City Tour bus to shield ourselves from the weather while still touring town.  The poor-quality headphones made the audio guide difficult to understand, but I did my best to make up for the guide by informing my family with the facts that I knew.  Between the two bus tour routes offered by Madrid City Tour, we were able to see the city’s highlights, and even visited areas of Madrid where I had never been before.

After drying off and regrouping at our Airbnb, we took a short walk to Cardamomo for a traditional Flamenco show. The only flamenco tablao in Madrid to have been reviewed by the New York Times, we decided that proximity and quality made Cardamomo a great choice.  With tickets for the 8 p.m. show, the four of us squeezed into a tight row for four, ordered included drinks, and prepared for the performance.

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Two guitarists and two vocalists, all male, took to the perimeter of the stage.  The musicians seemed to pluck at the guitar strings as they wished, producing coherent but disorderly staccato tunes.  I could also appreciate the talent of the singers, who had to almost yell for their raspy voices to be heard above the guitars. Though at times their vocals resembled those of Middle Eastern songs, I could feel antique, Spanish authenticity in their voices.  Soon after the musical opening, a first dancer appeared on stage.  His body was slim and his movements were graceful.  Relieving the first man, a second dancer took the floor.  With a muscular build and a long, curly, black ponytail, this dancer better fit the my idea of a fiery Flamenco dancer.  You could tell, though, that he was a younger dancer, less mature than the first man.  Finally, a woman performed, mesmerizing the crowd with powerful steps and spins in her traditional, Flamenco dress and scarves.

Without any knowledge of the various forms of Flamenco, I did not know what to expect from this show.  The dancers did not use props like flowers, fans, or castanets, as I had anticipated.  For this performance, it seemed as though the musicians had a better chemistry with the male dancers than they did with the female dancer.  It was more entertaining to watch the men on stage because of the strength in the connection between the performers.  Where there should have been a passionate admiration and appreciation for the woman, I did not feel these emotions conveyed by the men during the show.  Despite not knowing much about Flamenco, the show was the perfect evening activity for my aunts, mom, and me.

 

Day 2

Clear, blue skies and sunshine determined our day’s agenda.  We strolled around Retiro Park, one of my favorite places in Madrid, where I showed my family park highlights, such as the peacocks in Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, the Crystal Palace, which was in between exhibits, and the boat pond.

Where last night’s Flamenco show was light entertainment, tonight’s event would be less pleasant.  Interested in seeing, but not in support of, traditional Spanish bullfighting, my family and I went to watch this cultural event that has such a strong presence in Spanish history.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

REVIEW – Széchenyi Thermal Baths’ SPARTY

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Spa bath + party = SPARTY.  In order to spend our very few hours in Budapest efficiently, my friends and I bought tickets for the Széchenyi Thermal Baths’ sparty, granting us after-hour access to the famous Budapest baths.  We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, six American girls with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in an unfamiliar aspect of Budapesti nightlife.  For those curious about a Hungarian sparty, I have done all of the dirty work and outlined everything there is to know about hanging out for 5 hours in a steamy pool with hundreds of your closest friends.  So if you’re planning on one day attending a sparty, or are still not exactly sure what I’m talking about, you can find here the knowledge that I wished that I’d had before my nighttime Széchenyi Thermal Bath experience.

  • We arrived at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths about an hour after opening to avoid lines, because we had not purchased “XPRESS” tickets.  Our wait was only about 5 minutes, indoors.
  • Everyone received a wristband at check-in that could electronically secure any chosen locker.  The lockers are located in the bath house, separate from the outdoor pool.  Spacious and safe, the lockers can hold a few pairs of winter boots and thick jackets without worry of running out of room.
  • Regular entrance to the sparty cost 40€, but my friends and I purchased tickets with drinks included for an additional 5€.  We got two drink tickets each in hopes of avoiding inflated prices of drinks that I’m sure, if purchased directly from the bar, were well above what we paid.
  • We had considered the fact that uncovered liquids in a pool wasn’t the best idea, but once in the baths, my friends and I found that spilled drinks were the least of our worries.  If you think too hard about what we were actually sitting in, it’s a little unsettling.
  • Colorful lights and loud music quickly distracted our young, careless minds from sanitation to remind us that we were at a party!  The lights set a fun, spirited atmosphere, but the music was only mediocre.  One, generic techno beat carried on throughout the night, making us wonder what the DJ was actually getting paid to do.
  • Though it seemed as though the crowd was more male (65%) than female (35%), my friends and I never felt uncomfortable.  In fact, we chatted with a few, very nice people, and even met some fellow Terps!  Additionally, although there was a clear majority of attendees under the age of thirty, we spotted some older couples mixed in the crowd.
  • The Széchenyi Thermal Baths’ sparty website explicitly stated no form of videography or photography allowed, so we left the GoPros at home and phones in the locker.  Silly us for following the rules.  Many people had a drink in one hand and a camera in the other.  We eventually brought our phones out onto the pool deck to capture our experience, but were annoyed that listening to instructions left us without our own sparty footage.
  • The party took place from 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., and we stayed nearly the entire time, talking with each other, enjoying the warmth of the water, and the presence of the crowd.  For college-aged students, attending a sparty is a unique experience that I would recommend to other adventurous adolescents while abroad.

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Destination Locations

 

Nyugalom, Szerelem, SPARTY

A.J.H.

Budapest, Hungary

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Views of Pest and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge from the Buda Castle grounds

With cheap flights and accommodations, it was not difficult for my friends to convince me to take a trip to Budapest.  I loved Prague, so I anticipated to feel a similar affection towards this less-popular Eastern European city.

We flew Wizz Air to and from Budapest, and were unsure of the airline’s validity up until the moment we boarded the plane.  With a late-evening flight, I was hoping to nap, but it was instead one of the noisiest flights that I’ve experienced while traveling abroad so far.  Constant conversation from every row made it impossible to relax.

Wizz Air dropped us off in what seemed to me to be the airplane parking lot.  It was now past midnight, and we had to walk, in the rain, to the main terminal building.  The quick and easy airport transfer experience with miniBUD Airport Shuttle Services made up for the rainy route.  Our hostel, however, made my friends and I once again question the way that Budapest operates.

The Baroque Hostel had a liiiitle sign with a liiiitle gate and a liiiitle walkway to the door, located at the back of the building.  It all seemed slightly sketchy, especially at 1:30 a.m.  The receptionist was pushy, presumably because of the late hour, but accommodating.  Our group of six girls booked a mixed dorm of eight, with hopes that no one else would join the room, and if people did, that they would be two other girls.  As luck would have it, our stranger was a lone guy. The hostel, though, decided to move him to another room for the duration of our stay to make the situation more comfortable for everyone.  Score one point for the Baroque Hostel, and a sliver of trust restored in Budapesti logic.  The location of our room, though, raised doubts once again.  Adjacent to the living room, our room connected us to the man cave of middle-aged Hungarian men who watched TV until 3 a.m. and continued to be stationed on the couch, sleeping, when we rose in the morning and tiptoed to the bathroom in pajamas.  Though not ideal, this situation was uncomfortable at worst, and we had no problems with the Baroque Hostel, its staff, or any of our fellow travelers.  Because we would spend less than 35 hours total in Hungary, we accepted the lodging circumstances, determined to make the most of our trip.

I have become a big fan of walking tours, especially in cities where knowing the history and development of the area is crucial to appreciating the visit.  My friends and I joined a United Europe Free Tours walking tour to see Budapest’s main city sites and hear more about this unfamiliar place.  Budapest, we learned, is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River.  We first walked Pest, visiting St. Stephen’s Basilica, Erzsébet Square, and the Danube River waterfront.  Then, we crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and toured Buda.

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A short climb up one of Buda’s many hills brought us to the Buda Castle, with courtyards overlooking Pest on one side and the hills of Buda on the other.  The tour also led us to the beautiful Mátyás Templom, or Matthias Church, surrounded by the Fisherman’s Bastion and its sprawling views of Pest.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica (right) and Parliament (left) are the exact same hight to represent and maintain the equality between church and state.

Not wanting to leave us without some knowledge of the native language in a city full of moody Hungarians, our tour guide taught us some important Hungarian phrases.  Saying “Hi,” or “Szia” (pronounced sia), was simple enough, but the rest of what we learned was through entertaining and effective phonetic tricks.  “Please,” or “kérek,” was remembered as “key rack.”  What would one be asking for to utilize please?  “Két sört,” or “Kait’s shirt,” meaning two beers, of course.  Finally, with a sört in hand, one can toast “Egészségére!” or “Cheers!”  The key to this phonetic pronunciation is to have had a few drinks beforehand to slur the phrase, “I can shake the tree.”  After our crash course in Hungarian, we were prepared to take on the rest of Budapest.

My friends and I returned to Pest to visit the Easter market in Vörösmarty Square.  Similar to Prague’s Easter market, but with more variety, the market held performances, prepared Hungarian food, and sold clothes, jewelry, and other creative gifts.

Making our way back to the hostel, my friends and I took the metro (which must be seen to understand its quaint comicality) to Hősök tele, or Heroes’ Square.  Though the solemnity of the Millennium Monument is somewhat lost with Budapest’s obnoxious, tourist letters, we could still admire the structure’s significance and place in Hungary’s history.

Though we quickly ran out of daylight hours in Budapest, my friends and I were looking forward to our final Hungarian activity, the city’s famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Used primarily for therapeutic and relaxation purposes, heated pools can be found in many different bath houses across the city, but only one provided travelers with an experience that they never knew they wanted.  Without time to soak up the baths’ nourishing effects during the day, my group planned to enjoy the baths a little differently: we were going to a sparty.

 

Travel Tips

  • Pack light, but pack heavy.  I have found that there is no better feeling than fitting your belongings for the weekend in a handy-dandy backpack.  Okay, so there are many better feelings, but this one is pretty great.  On weekend trips, I walk through the airport with pride, hands free from any rolling luggage, just me and my backpack.  Though this is the way to travel, I may have packed too light for some my trips.  No, I didn’t run out of things to wear.  Instead, I didn’t pack warm enough clothes.  Traveling with only a backpack is great, but there was more than one occasion over multiple trips when I was desperate for heavier clothing.  If you can pack cold-weather clothes in a warm-weather-clothes-sized bag, you have truly mastered the art of traveling light.

 

Destination Locations

 

Nyugalom, Szerelem, Budapest

A.J.H.

Barcelona, Spain

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A heavily edited photo of Barcelona, but my favorite of the trip.

 

The most important fútbol game in Spain, El Clásico pits Spain’s two largest cities against each other for the ultimate rivalry.  Each year, Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona fight for national bragging rights as the best Spanish fútbol team.  Because Barcelona hosted this year’s match, 16 people in my program and I made the trip to the opposing team’s city to see its attractions and experience its liveliest weekend of the year.

 

Day 1

With an airline delay, we landed an hour behind schedule for our first evening in Barcelona.  Though the flight was a disappointment, my friends and I took the quick and convenient 5,90€ Aerobus airport transfer to the city’s Gothic Quarter, arriving at the Sun and Moon Hostel, our residence for the weekend.  With limited hostel experience, I was not prepared for the lodging’s atmosphere.  We entered the building to loud music and were introduced to a bartender shortly after arrival.  Unsure of what I had gotten myself into, I soon learned that there are two types of hostels: the quiet, keep to yourself establishments, or the community-oriented, party hostels.  Though we were staying in the latter, it did not pose a problem, considering our exchange of quality for location and price, even with the many small, unexpected fees we came upon during our stay.

Friday night was the best night to go to Barcelona’s most popular club, Opium.  Contrary to its severe name, the beach-access disco had a diverse customer base and relaxed atmosphere.  With party-goes aged from early twenties to late forties, there was a place for everyone, be it on the dance floor, at the bar, or on the patio overlooking the sea.  Though we ended the night early in preparation for our busy next day, I could have spent hours listening to the rumble of the waves mix with the beat of the music from the club.

Wanting to make the most of our weekend in Barcelona, a few friends and I had preordered tickets for the Sagrada Familia, one of the greatest religious structures of all time.  I had heard about and seen images of the incredible work that architect Antoni Gaudí had done, but nothing could have prepared me for the first-hand experience.  The church towers over you, so much so that the views of the entire facade are better seen off-site.  The intricacy of the facade was impressive, but the interior blew me away.  Tall, geometric columns glowed in all colors from the dream-like luminosity of the stained glass windows. Though the great number of visitors made the structure seem less like a place of worship and more like a circus, it made the religious house that much more of an dramatic offer to Catholicism.  It’s partial completion adds to its grandeur, making me wonder what the experience will be like when it is finished.  Plans anticipate that 2026  will be the end of major construction, so I hope to get the opportunity to one day return and see Gaudi’s vision complete.

Continuing with the morning’s Gaudí theme (not difficult to do when in Barcelona), my friends and I walked from the Sagrada Familia to two famous Gaudí-designed houses: Casa Batlló and Casa Milà.  We did not have the time (or money) to enter the buildings, so we admired them from the outside.  The colors of Casa Batlló radiated down the street, with gentle turquoise and bright green glass making the facade dance like crystal-clear water.  Casa Milà was more understated, but equally as curious.  Though at first it blended in with the surrounding structures, standing below the skeleton-like building revealed more geometric intricacy, similar to that in the Sagrada Familia.

On route back to our hostel for an afternoon rest, we traveled down Las Ramblas, one of the busiest streets in Barcelona, lined with souvenir shops, food vendors, as well as formal stores and restaurants.  We had been warned of the excessive pickpocketing on this popular street, but I never once felt targeted or suspicious.

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Located on Las Ramblas is another one of Barcelona’s must-see specialties, La Boqueria.  This half outside/half inside marketplace is comparable to but bigger and better than the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid.  La Boqueria boasts sweet snacks, fishy dishes, meaty meals, and fresh, fresh fruit, all available to eat in or take out.  Over the course of our two hours wandering the market, we gnoshed on chocolate covered strawberries, samples of gourmet cheese, and, our favorite, fruit juice smoothies.  Feeling adventurous, I first tried a dragonfruit, or pitahaya, juice, that went down sweet but left a terrible, sour aftertaste.  My second try, a juice mix of strawberry and pineapple, was a success.

After a quick rest at the hostel, we were ready for the game!  General public tickets for El Clásico went on sale at 11 a.m. on the day of the match.  Thinking I had a chance, I logged on to the website hoping to secure admittance to the game.  At 11:02 a.m., I was a customer in a queue of over 5,000 fútbol fans, or in other words, never getting a ticket.  Accepting the inevitable of viewing the game from outside of the Camp Nou stadium, I wore my Real Madrid scarf with pride through the streets of Barcelona as our entire group took on the ambitious task of finding a bar in which all of us could watch.  The size of the group ended up being a non-issue, because the pub that we waited in line for for over an hour reached full capacity before we even got to the door.  Slightly panicked, with only a half hour until kickoff, we rushed to find another place to watch, leaving all hopes of comfort behind and sights set only on finding a screen.

Split between a small café and an even smaller bar, my group of friends slid in where we could and watched Barcelona dominate the first half.  They started strong, had greater possession of the ball, and took more shots… but they didn’t score.  The second half brought Barcelona luck with a goal in the 56th minute.  Real Madrid, however, responded with an incredible scizzor-kick goal by Benzema in the 63rd minute, followed by a tag-team play by Bale and Ronaldo in the 85th minute to clench the lead.  As the Barcelona fans (just about everyone besides my friends and I) grumbled in disgust, we cheered in victory to our final stop for the night.

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My view of the game…

Recommended to us by other students studying abroad in Barcelona, the Dow Jones Bar was unlike any establishment I’d ever visited.  Sure, it was dark, played bad music, and was outfitted in wooden decor like most other bars, but, as the name implies, the Dow Jones Bar had a schtick; it was a stock market bar.  Screens hung above the bar sharing the how much a drink was currently worth with its corresponding percent increase or decrease— Fireball up 1.3%, Guinness down 3.8%.  You paid based on the fluctuation of the worth of the drink, so you had to watch carefully when to buy.  To add to the fun, there would be an occasional stock market crash (“crack”, in Barcelona), when all drinks were sold as originally priced, but just for a few seconds.  Though the bar itself is a relatively quiet way to spend an evening, the concept is definitely worth checking out.

 

Day 2

The next morning, following more suggestions from Barcelona study abroad students, my friends and I went to Brunch & Cake for brunch and cake.  We chose to dine at their waterfront location, Brunch & Cake by the sea, to later visit the beach.  Though the menu options were limited, I got scrambled eggs on a massive sunflower seed bagel and, paired with a strawberry smoothie, enjoyed every bite.  Falling into the trap of the restaurant’s tempting name, I split a piece of red velvet cake with a friend.  With just a hint of cream cheese flavor, the icing made the treat, and it was some of the best red velvet cake I’ve ever had.

We walked off our meal at the Platja de Sant Sebastià, a beach full of sunbathers and surfers enjoying the sunny day.  This was also the base of the Port Cable Car, a gondola ride providing views of Barcelona and transportation to the Montjuïc hill.

A few friends and I had tickets to the monitored Monumental Zone of Park Güell (the park itself is free) two hours from the time we got in line for the cable car.  We hoped that the process would be quick enough to do both.  It wasn’t.  After waiting way too long for what ended up being a tourist trap (seriously, it’s so bad, do not go on the ride and save the 11€), we were late for our Park Güell time slot.  Because some of Gaudí’s work in the park has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, a section of the park receives a limited amount of people at a time.  My electronic ticket would not scan past our time slot, so being late was going to be a problem.

We took a taxi from Montjuïc to Park Güell and ran to the first worker we could find, my arm extended with the ticket.  Over there, the worker directed.  So we ran towards the area where she gestured and waited in a short line to speak with another worker.  That window, the next attendant said, and we approached our third worker.  Holding my breath in anticipation, I presented my ticket.

“What do you want me to do with this?” the park employee asked.

“Scan it?” I replied, confused.

“What time was your ticket for?” he requested.

“2 o’clock….” I reluctantly responded.

“40 minutes ago!?” he confirmed, as if I were crazy for even trying to enter. “This is the exit,” he finally clarified.

My friends and I explained to him that this is where we were directed, not knowing that our first direction of “over there” meant the overlooked entrance around the corner.

“So you were waiting in this line the whole time?” he half asked, half declared, developing his own understanding of what happened. “I apologize for the misdirection and will notify my colleagues at the entrance to let you in.”

Fortunately, they accepted us into the park, even though we were late and it wasn’t really their fault.  I know that this was my one “Overly Ambitious (read: Stupid) Traveler Forgiveness” pass, so I will try to avoid the close calls from now on.

Park Güell was beautiful, and it was worth paying for access to the iconic Gaudí monuments and designs.  Less intellectual than the Sagrada Familia, the park was simply pretty, serving to aesthetically please.  Gaudí knew how to make things that people like to look at!

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After rushing around that morning and pacing through the park all afternoon, my friends and I rewarded ourselves with Chök treats.  Usually donuts aren’t my thing, but I was willing to make an exception for the Chök concoctions.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to, for the little sweets shop served many options.  Settling on a kronut, it wasn’t the best dessert I’ve ever had, but I didn’t run away from this member of the donut family.

We left Barcelona to return to Madrid with Vueling Airlines.  Because we did not know the date and time of the soccer game before we booked our flight, we scheduled a 10:30 p.m. departure.  With Vueling, we took off an hour later than planned and had the least pleasant flight accommodations that I’ve encountered so far.  Though we did make it back to Madrid for the last metro train, I am extremely dissatisfied with my Vueling experience and will try to avoid flying with them in the future.

 

Destination Locations

 

Pau, Amor, Barcelona

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Düsseldorf/Easter

Düsseldorf, Germany

It was important to me that I returned to Madrid on Saturday to properly recognize and celebrate Easter on Sunday.  With this restriction, there were only two flights from Florence to Madrid in our price range, and both had long layovers in Düsseldorf, Germany.  Düsseldorf, then, became our sixth and final city!

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Views of Rheinwiesen State Park from Altstadt, across the Rhine River

After some difficulty with the cab drivers at the airport, prompting the information desk attendant to advise us not to let “those bastards toss us around,” we secured one of the sleek, black, Mercedes Benz taxis, operated by a woman who had to be older than 70.  She brought us to Altstadt, or the Old Town, honking the horn and grunting German frustrations along the way.

Altstadt is a pleasant part of Düsseldorf located on the Rhine River waterfront.  Crowded with people, from bikers and runners to families and elders, the Rhine Promenade was the perfect place to take a travel break.  The Altstadt district also boasts the “longest bar in the world,” (which should be clarified as the longest avenue of bars in the world), so we strolled down the street in search of a restaurant where we could relax.

Aiming to fill our stomachs with hearty German fare before our next flight, we chose, at random, Hausbrauerei Zum Schlüssel, for lunch.  Restaurant in the front, brewery in the back, and filled with people, it seemed like a good option.  I ordered pork schnitzel, which I had never tried before, because it sounded like German thing to do (and it is one of Julie Andrews’ favorite things— has she ever led you wrong?).  The schnitzel, as it turns out, is simply breaded meat, and mine was most certainly frozen before it was served to me.  The side of roasted potatoes, however, was delicious, definitely the best potatoes I’ve ever had.  Corresponding with our get-in/get-out sprint to make the most of our layover, our waitress was also a no-nonsense lady, embodying the stereotypical German way.  Like the taxi driver, she was one of the best women to work with on our hasty schedule.  After paying for our meal (and 6€ for a bottle of water!), we headed back to the airport and flew home to Madrid.

 

Easter

With a long week of travel preceding my Easter Sunday, I was happy to slow down and appreciate the special day.  While away, I had missed most of the traditional Spanish, Semana Santa proceedings, but there was one event left for Pascua.  Performed every Easter in Plaza Mayor, the Tamborada del Domingo de Resurección is a drumming display that symbolizes the trembling of the Earth as Jesus died on the cross.  A different representative group is chosen to play every year, but the musicians customarily don purple, the color of Lent.  I was entertained by the joyful cadences and was impressed by the group’s professionalism, especially considering the age range of performers.  Though it seemed like I was surrounded by more tourists than madrileños, the encompassing presence of God was what mattered most.

After the Easter drums, my roommate and I enjoyed brunch at a restaurant that I had had my eye on for weeks.  La Rollerie, just outside of Plaza Mayor, had attractive decor and an alluring menu.  Too cold to dine outside, we ate in the whitewashed front room adorned with fake but festive flowers and fruit.  I ordered La Rollerie salad of fried Brie and teriyaki vinaigrette, and my friend and I shared the cheese fondue.  Though pricey, the dip was worth it, as we almost ate the entire dish, bread bowl and all.

To end our Easter Sunday, we stopped in La Mallorquina.  One of Madrid’s most popular bakeries, La Mallorquina’s two-story building is always crowded, and so for me, avoided.  For this special occasion, however, we took home a mona de Pascua, or a Spanish pastry bread holding a hard boiled egg, served only on Easter.  I did not eat the egg with the pastry, and my experience has me questioning if anyone actually does…

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Though a holiday church service, preferably closed with the Hallelujah Chorus, is my typical Easter Sunday, I did my best to experience Pascua like the madrileños.

Fun Facts

  • The mother of the girl that I tutor is from a small village outside of Madrid.  When I asked her what she did to celebrate Easter, she explained that she revived a fading Spanish tradition with her family.  The night before Easter, she, her siblings, and their children filled an outfit of old clothes with straw, just like a scarecrow.  This being symbolized Judas.  On Easter, they burned the straw man, punishing him for his betrayal.  I found it an odd practice, especially to promote among children.  Perhaps this is why it is no longer as common as it once was…

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.