REVIEW: Citylife Madrid

 

Citylife Madrid

I went to Morocco with Citylife Madrid, a integration activity company based in Madrid, Spain.  For only 209€, I had an amazing trip with the fantastic guides.  Our Moroccan guide, Rasheed, always assured that we felt safe and comfortable, giving us everything we needed.  Jorge and Matt, our CityLife Madrid guides, were enthusiastic, engaging, and attentive, the best guys for the job.

Though the people on the trip were fantastic, the size of the group was not ideal. I would have preferred to tour Morocco with a smaller group of around 20, rather than our herd of 60. Many parts of the tour felt rushed and chaotic to make sure everyone was together and where we needed to be. A smaller group, would have allowed me to take my time in the cities and to appreciate and learn more about Morocco, instead of running through the streets to get to the highlights.  I would have liked to know about the bus ride law ahead of time to prepare for start-and-stop traveling.  Additionally, we were told that the hotel bedrooms were for three people, but were not aware that the third bed was a cot, and in some cases, only a small mattress directly on the ground.  Though it was a cheap trip, it is unacceptable to make someone sleep on the floor.

The Moroccan trip, my first European weekend getaway, revealed positives and negatives of cheap group travel for the college-aged.  Overall, I had a great experience, and would recommend CityLife Madrid and Morocco to fellow travelers.

Travel Tips

  • Consider group travel.  Though you may sacrifice some time, exploration, and intimacy, traveling with a tour group may provide safety, organization and peace of mind.
  • Prepare for your price.  It is important to consider your standards in regard to what you spend.  Cheap trips may exceed expectations, but also have the potential to be underwhelming.  The same goes for pricey outings.  Either way, be prepared for your experience to be a reflection of what you pay; don’t complain if you got a great price, and do complain if you feel you deserve more.
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Morocco

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“Guys, we’re in Morocco.”

“No, we’re in Africa.”

This was the running joke for the past three days, while my friends and I visited Tangier and Chaouen, Morocco.  On our three-day adventure, we were continually awestruck and thankful for the opportunity to tour not only a new country, but a new continent.

Because of its proximity to Spain, Africa, specifically Morocco, was high on my travel list.  When plans came together to go, I was excited to be going to such an exotic place for my first trip, and counted down the days until departure.

 

Day 1

With a student-focused tour group of about 60 people, we left Thursday night for Tarifa, Spain.  Because of a law, the bus stopped 45 minutes for every 4 hours of driving.  With two stops throughout the night breaking up an already inconsistent sleep, we arrived at Tarifa for the ferry, groggy, but anticipating adventure with each passing mile.

By the time we arrived in Tangier, we all needed nutrition and rest.  With time for only one, my friends and I stopped for a late lunch before our city tour.  I was pleased to find that the menus were in French, and that that was the only language our waiter spoke, besides Arabic, because I have been hoping to practice my French since arriving in Europe.  The waiter, though, had a heavy Moroccan accent, and I continued to mix Spanish words in with my French, so our communication was limited.

On the way from the hotel to our first excursion, the bus drove us around Tangier, one of Morocco’s most historically significant cities.  There were German, French, Spanish, and English quarters of the city because each had been present in Morocco in recent history.  The countries’ sections were distinct because of their varying architectural styles, with a common thread of Moroccan buildings mixed in.  To relate what I saw to what I know, Tangier’s infrastructure reminded me most of the Dominican Republic, but only slightly.  Morocco felt alive with ideas and improvement, exemplified in the amount of construction in the area.  It seemed that the people of Tangier were ready to make their city great again.

Our bus tour took us to first to Cap Spartel, the African point of the western entrance of the Straight of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet.  Below the cape, we explored the Grotte d’Hercule, or Caves of Hercules.

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Cap Spartel

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Cave of Hercules

Afternoon sun, a warm breeze, and my feet in the sand, I would have been happy with just a few hours on an African beach.  The main attraction, however, was the camels.  Though I struggled with the idea that these animals were trapped in a life of transporting tourists up and down the coast, I chose to focus on the novelty of the special experience.  Camels, though forced in the moment, have an authentic role in Africa’s history.  Atop of this oddly cute animal, I realized how fortunate I was to be in Africa, learning more about the cultures of the world.

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We continued into the evening touring the center of town.  With the structure of the trip, we were not able to take time to explore the local vendors, but did visit a textile shop and spice store, both selling Moroccan specialties, such as silk blankets and argon oil.

To finish our first day, we enjoyed a three-course Moroccan dinner with plush seating and live music.  Unlike my gastronomic experiences in Spain, my Moroccan meal was devoured; the soup appetizer was tasty and had an unexpected lemon complement, the kabobs and couscous were traditionally perfect, and I enjoyed, surprisingly, a honey pastry and Moroccan specialty mint leaf green tea for desert.

Though the day was exhausting, I loved learning about Morocco, and couldn’t wait for the next day’s adventure.

 

Day 2

Up and out of the hotel early the next day, we drove 2 1/2 hours to the town of Chaouen.  The ride to the city took us through African countryside, where we wound through the mountains and passed picturesque valley towns.  Morocco is the most different place I’ve ever visited.  Though there were sights similar to those that I have encountered through other travels, there was something about the the appearance, the landscape, and the people that kept me in a continuous awe.  The feeling I experienced is difficult to explain because was related less to emotions and more to cognition.  Though I was not quite curious or analytical, I felt like I was learning.  Staring out the window, I was seeing things I never knew before, with a different mindset than a tourist who simply consumes information.  I absorbed the views somewhat hyperaware, with the hope to return to Africa some day.

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Chaouen from the road did not seem like the blue city that I had seen in pictures.  Once inside, however, the color was plastered on every wall, door, and street.  No one could give me a definite answer as to why the city was painted blue, but after a while, I decided it didn’t matter.  From an adjoining hill, Chaouen appeared to be a patch of sky that had fallen onto the mountain, brightening the overcast day.

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The day-long journey back to Madrid was much less agonizing with a start along the Spanish coast. Driving through the mountains in the south of Spain, passing quaint beach towns and lone plantation villas, I was exposed Spain that I had never seen before.  I am newly curious about these sea-side cities, whose white homes called to me from the sparkling shore, saying there is always more to explore.

 

Destination Locations

 

Salaam, Hubb, Morocco

A.J.H.

January 28, 2016

Spinning in Spain

I’m always up for a workout, so my roommates and I joined a gym about a week after arriving in Madrid.  A 1-minute walk from our apartment, the gym has proven to be a worthy investment; we all value our fitness and health, and are tackling the Kayla Itsines workout together.  On the days off from the program, we do different cardio options, like running in El Retiro park.  This week, we decided to try a spin class offered at our gym.  Along with many other firsts in the past two weeks, this was my first time doing Spinning.  As it turns out, a fitness class is a good way to learn a language.  Because you are listening, seeing, and doing, it is easier to put words to meanings.  Although I only understood a few of the instructor’s phrases, I was able to catch on and follow the others in class.  Language barrier aside, “¡Chicos! ¡Chicas! ¡Vámanos!” is much more motivating than the English, “Let’s go!”

Though the class itself was a great workout, I was disappointed by the music.  Any song with vocals was sung in English.  Being in Madrid, I was looking forward to a Spinning class with Spanish flair.  I later realized, however, that going to a Spinning class in the first place is a very American thing to do.  From what I have observed, the Spanish are behind the United States on placing a high priority on physical health (first example, the universality of smoking).  I hope that the Spaniards can increase healthy living options throughout the country while retaining their traditional practices and unique culture.

 

New Adventures

Traveling begins today!  Taking advantage of my day off from school this Friday, I am going to a destination that I never imagined I’d visit.  Beautiful beaches, captivating culture, interesting inhabitants…  Check in next week to find out where I’m exploring next.  Adiós until Monday!

 

Travel Tips

  • Go to a class to learn the language.  Whether it’s cuisine, art, or fitness, you’ll be guided through what’s happening with visual and hands-on cues, these senses understanding what your ears cannot.

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

Week 2 – Recap

While winter storm Jonas slammed the Northeastern United States this past weekend, I am giving thanks for the exact opposite in Madrid.  We have been blessed with a few mild days, contrasting the snowy circumstances of most of my friends and family in America.  With the recent temperature increase as my guide, I think it is safe to say that I will not see snow this winter.  A piece of me would have appreciated looking out of my bedroom window on a pristine, 2-foot blanket of snow, but the rest of me is enjoying a cool breeze and the sunshine of Spain.

Winter, though, is not over, as I continue to see Spaniards bundled up and prepared for any weather.  Blending in with Madrid’s street-style was a top priority of mine, and though some of my ideas of Spanish appearance were incorrect, I am proud to say I have packed prepared to fit in.  After two weeks, and miles of city walking, I feel qualified to report on my first impressions of this season’s Spanish style and winter wear in Madrid.

 

Hair and Makeup

The high ponytail is here! Spanish women style this look either entirely clean and slicked back, or parted down the middle with volume.  When hair is down, women often opt for straight or natural waves, occasionally dyed lighter with highlights or ombré.  There has also been a surprising number of women with rainbow-colored hair- estimated ages from 15 to 85!

Young or old, makeup is heavy and dark.  Thick, winged eyeliner, smokey eyes, dark lips, and heavy foundation can be found on nearly every face.  Cosmetic habits, though, are often dictated by the season, winter makeup looks may change with the approaching warmer weather.

 

Accessories

Is it a small blanket or a large scarf?  Oversized scarves are a Madrid winter staple. Often a plaid pattern, these scarves are functional, effectively blocking the January chill.

Spanish women keep their jewelry simple, opting for studs and a thin bracelet (no Alex-and-Ani-filled wrists here!), with the occasional statement necklace.

 

Outerwear

Oh, the outerwear.  Spanish women have the best winter coats!  From wool to leather to fur, in classic black, neutral blush, or warm grey, as a jacket, cape, or vest, the options are endless. Rather than a cover over clothing to stay warm, the Spaniards seem to regard a jacket as a part of the outfit, integrating it into the day’s look.

 

Outfits

Though it is not easy to observe entire outfits when they are trapped beneath winter coats, watching from the waist-down reveals has revealed several trends.  Spaniards work their wardrobes double time (which is necessary to do with such a lack of space for clothes) by wearing wintery black tights under warm-weather shorts or skirts.  They seem to further ignore the cold with cropped pants and exposed ankles, most commonly paired with sneakers.  This look coveys a sporty playfulness, contrasting their usual luxe and polished appearance.

 

Shoes

Everyone owns a pair of white sneakers (But the right kind of white sneakers. If you have to ask if you have the correct white sneakers to wear in Madrid, do not wear them).  Unsurprisingly, adidas Originals, like Stan Smiths, are the tennis shoe of choice, but other trending athleisure shoes, such as Nike Roches and Air Force 1’s, are common as well.

*Note:  I have not seen any Converse sneaker on a Spaniard.  To the average onlooker, they may blend in, but the locals will know that you’re an American.

If a Spanish woman is not sporting a sneaker, she is most likely wearing ankle boots. Be it black or brown, leather or suede, flats or heels, these shoes can do it all.  Dressed up or dressed down, versatile ankle boots are perfect for a Spaniard’s … but practical style.  Below-the-knee riding boots are not as popular as their half-heighted counterparts, though a few Spanish fashionistas have dared to try the over-the-knee trend, and have, of course, made it work.

Contrary to my personal belief, the Spaniards do not apply their “No pasa nada” (No big deal) lifestyle to their appearance.  Cold or mild, winter storm Jonas or not, the people in Madrid always look their best.  With winter rebajas, or sales, coming to end, it’s time to pick up some new clothes and step up my street-style game.

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

January 24, 2016

An “Anti” Experience

Stay in? Or go out?  We had to go out.  We are in Madrid, for only five months, and cannot waste a single night stuck inside a tiny apartment.  With early morning plans ahead of my roommates and I, Saturday night was an enigma.  We wanted to explore the city, but also wanted to be energized for the next day.  A quick search for late-night cafés brought up the Anticafé.  Photos of tables set with popcorn and gummy snacks sold us on the option.  We were ready to try something random, something new.

Upon entering the café, we knew immediately that we were not prepared.  Every public place we had visited since arrival in Madrid was large and loud, enough to make us feel at home as Americans (it’s true).  The Anticafé, however, was small and intimate, though music pulsed through the DJ’s speakers and groups of friends shouted over the base.  I was sure that everyone could feel our discomfort as we peered around corners for an open table.  Finding none, we stood for a while, taking in our new location.  For the first time in two weeks, I felt like I was somewhere Spanish.  Though there was nothing to distinguish its origins, the café felt like a club to which we did not belong.  Not prepared for the scene, we left.

Further research of the Anticafé revealed a language and cultural exchange night, held every Monday.  Practicing Spanish on a quiet week night sounds much more feasible than shouting already incomprehensible Spanish in prime time on a Saturday.  There may be hope for our find yet.

 

El Rastro

Jewelry, clothes, handbags, scarves, hats, souvenirs, flowers, books, silver, denim, leather- El Rastro has it all.

My roommates and I didn’t know what to expect from the massive flea market we had heard so much about.  We were interested, but did not have high hopes for second-hand shopping.

When we arrived at 9 a.m., only a few slivers of color could be seen in a narrow street not yet brightened by the morning sun.  Some stalls were still being erected and vendors seemed groggy, unawakened by the slight chill in the air.  Though it officially began an hour earlier, we should have known that the Spaniards would never have been ready at such an early and prompt time.  Just a few paces down the street, however, and the market came alive.

Merchants shouted to each other, while products called customers into the makeshift shops.  Various musical instruments could be heard above the market activities. Each time we thought the streets could not offer anymore, we discovered another avenue to explore. Though I may have come across the same scarf 10 different times in the two hours I spent at El Rastro, there were some unique pieces too.  I am looking forward to the change in wares, undoubtedly corresponding with the change in season, coming soon.

Even though a 9 a.m. arrival was earlier than we would have liked for the market open until 3 p.m., I am glad we chose the morning to explore.  By the time we left, around noon, crowds were pouring out of the metro station.  Getting there early allowed us to move comfortably amongst the rows of stalls, as well as get the first pick of the goods.

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Travel Tips

  • Wake up.  Get up and do things early to avoid crowds and a mediocre experience.  You’re traveling, and you may not ever get the opportunity to do what you have planned again, so do it right.  Go to bed early or sacrifice a few hours of sleep to assure that you make the most of your time traveling!

 

Destination Locations

  • Anticafé
    • Calle Unión, 2, 28013 Madrid
  • El Rastro
    • Calle Ribera de Curtidores, S/N, 28005 Madrid
    • La Latina metro stop

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

 

Framing – Assignment 1

This week in photojournalism, we discussed composition techniques.  Our first assignment was to employ framing, or shooting our subject through a frame other than the camera’s.  Though the practice is simple, completing the assignment was difficult.  Once I adjusted my eye to look for framing opportunities, I found that often the frame existed, but the subject did not.  This method of photo composition requires patience, and highlights Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” or, essentially, having the stars align for the perfect shot.

Below are my top five shots of the assignment, also posted on Instagram, #madridusacframe.

 

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January 22, 2016

Old Restaurant, New Friends

Sharing meals and fostering friendships for nearly 300 years.

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Restaurante Botín is the oldest restaurant in the world, according to the Guiness Book of World Records.  The building, clearly aged, in an already mature town, is tucked away in the shadows of Mercado de San Miguel. It’s interior appears original, complete with winding, wooden stairs, colorful, stained glass windows, and blue and white tiled walls.  The staff was friendly and accommodating, having experience with tourists, while serving our party of 12.  The food (I ordered the filet mignon) was mediocre and fairly priced, but my company was entertaining and enjoyable.

My friends from my program and I are linked sharing this adventure.  We are a mix of personalities, from all across the United States, but we bond over the commonality of our home country and our curiosity for our new one. It has been fun to explore Madrid together and ease in to Spanish life with comical, creative, and caring people by my side.  Only two weeks have gone by and I feel as though we’ve known each other for two years.  At the same time, two weeks is long enough to establish a routine and achieve a sense of familiarity.  I am ready to expand my social circle and hope to add Spanish friends to my Madrid experience soon.

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Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.