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.

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Salamanca

Students in Salamanca

The second of two day trips organized by my program, Salamanca was a pleasant surprise of enjoyable architecture and interesting history.  After the first, rather boring visit to Toledo, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Salamanca, a city with as equally as rich history, but a dominant student presence, both in the past and present day.  Stories of the mingling of academia and religion throughout Salamanca’s development kept me engaged the entire trip, and established a willingness to return to this city of students.

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New Cathedral/La Nueva

The first stop on our tour was the Catedral de Salamanca.  The twelfth century Catedral Vieja, or Old Cathedral, was soon outgrown by the expansion of the city, and construction of the Cathedral Nueva, or New Cathedral, began around the old building in the 1500s.  Restoration work in the 1900s brought about work on the facade of the New Cathedral.  As an artist’s signature, on the exterior of the building, the designers left two hidden figures in the detail of the decor, testaments to the century.  They chose to incorporate and astronaut, to represent the technological discoveries of the time period, and a monkey holding ice cream (no one seemed to be able to justify this one).

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Astronaut (left); monkey (right)

The inside of the cathedral was even more intriguing, with a clear aesthetic divisions between the sections of the old and new.  The grandeur of the Old Cathedral was impressive, considering its antiquity, but the New Cathedral was just as breathtaking, extravagantly executed with Baroque-style details.

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Altar in the New Cathedral

To complete our visit to the cathedral, we climbed its towers and enjoyed the view of Salamanca.

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View from the cathedral

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Bell tower in the cathedral

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View of Salamanca

Our second stop in Salamanca was the town square.  Like Madrid, Salamanca has a Plaza Mayor, but the one in Salamanca has stronger traditions and is, in my opinion, more beautiful.

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For lunch, many of us went to Mandala, a restaurant café recommended to us by our program advisor for its abundance of beverages: 18 flavors of hot chocolate, 45 combinations of milkshakes, 56 types of juice and too many teas to count.  With high expectations, I ordered raspberry white chocolate hot chocolate and a tapa, but neither were exceptional.  The hot chocolate tasted artificial and the tapa, a mini burger, was underwhelming  With so many options, however, I hesitate to give Mandala a bad review; there is so much more to try!

After lunch, the group visited the University of Salamanca, established in 1221.  With this year, it is the oldest university in Spain and the third oldest in the world.  As with the facade of the cathedral, the university’s exterior was beautifully intricate, with another hidden message: this time, a small frog.  Our guide explained that at the time, frogs symbolized lust, so the little amphibian was a warning to students to remain focused on studies and not get distracted by other students.  Though the original building is no longer used for classes, we were able to tour some of the preserved university classrooms and courtyards.

Not everyone in the program went on the trip, but we took a group photo of those in attendance, because my program director wanted an image for the program newsletter and I “had a nice camera” for him to borrow.

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About half of USAC Madrid Spring 2016

 

Travel Tips

  • Don’t take on more than you can handle.  With our choice of Spanish-speaking or English-speaking guides, on all of our tours, I had chosen the foreign language group in Toledo to test myself and practice Spanish.  I thought that touring with the Spanish speaking guide would be beneficial, but in reality, I do not know enough Spanish to understand the explanations and appreciate what I was seeing.  At first, I was a little disappointed in myself to select in the English-speaking group in Salamanca, but by the end of the day I was glad, because I got so much more out of the tour.  I’m all for challenging yourself, but sometimes it’s better to take a step back to be able to enjoy the moment.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Salamanca

A.J.H.

January 16 & 17, 2016

Roommate Report

The most stereotypical of mistakes of foreign travelers, my roommate blew a fuse with a hairdryer.  Adding to the stressed situation, our landlady was unable to open the power box when giving my roommates and I the tour of our apartment, so we never learned how to fix electrical issues.  I know that this is more of a failure of life skills than Spanish skills, but no matter what switches we hit, the power would not go back on.  We flipped the off switch to on, nothing.  Flipped the main power button off and on, nothing.  Eventually, we reached out to a tenant down the hall who was able to help. After we thanked her, she explained that a group of noisy and disruptive boys had lived in the apartment before us (clarifying the presence of the party warning in our living room). We assured her that we would be much better neighbors.

Sharing an apartment with random people in a foreign country could be disastrous, but I am pleased with my results.  For not knowing each other before arrival in Madrid, my roommates and I are very in sync.  We are always on the same page, in and out of the apartment, and have kept each other sane in this new environment. Exploring Madrid in my trio has made the first week of my adventure better than I could have hoped. Gracias, mis compañeras!

 

Paradise Lost, Paradise Found

One of my main goals of studying abroad is to blend in with the madrileños.  Because of the allure of a new place, however, my roommates and I decided to take a tourist day.  We wandered around the center of the city, cameras in hand, to two of the largest plazas in Madrid: Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor.  Both squares have a part in Madrid’s history, but have since developed separately.  Puerta del Sol is now a commercial center, with many shopping and eating opportunities.  Plaza Mayor, conversely, has retained most of its simplicity, serving mainly as a residential facility.  Though different, the plazas exude an authentic Spanish charm that cannot be changed.

A short walk from the Plaza Mayor is the Royal Palace of Madrid, the next stop on our self-guided tour.  As navigator, I used my smartphone map to direct us to the palace.  Fifteen minutes later, in unfamiliar territory, I realized that I misread the map and set out in the opposite direction of our destination.  We were distracted from my mistake, though, by great bursts of color against the grey, January sky.  The buildings constructing the perimeter of the Plaza Tirso de Molina stood out in various shades of coral, yellow, and tangerine.  Eyes were drawn in, however, by the rainbow of flowers displayed for sale.  The Mercado de Flores is one of my favorite finds in Madrid thus far.  Aside from being a visual playground, the market is special because it is something I stumbled upon, not recommended to me in any guidebook.  In addition to visiting popular sites on my travels, I hope to have many more moments of discovery, places that I can claim as personal treasures.

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Travel Tips

  • Get lost, but not too lost.  The pride I have in my floral market find gives me confidence and ambition to continue exploring.  Even though I “got lost,” I was aware of my surroundings, carried both paper and mobile maps, and knew I was never more than five minutes from metro station.  Go out and search your city, but be prepared, be smart, and be safe.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.