Tilting at Windmills (Knowingly)

By Emily C. ’15
Photos by Nicki A. ’15

This year’s Spanish Civilization trip was an unforgettable, awe-inspiring adventure — with a tumultuous start. Twenty LCDS students and our two lovely chaperones braved winter’s largest snowstorm, a desolate Philadelphia airport and a mad dash through Frankfurt’s airport on the way to a safe arrival in Madrid. An arrival our luggage failed to make.

Luckily, Señora Heim and Señora Brenes had taught us to adopt the Spanish attitude of “No pasa nada” (no worries) and the warm beams of Spanish sunshine quickly melted away all the stresses of our journey.

We met up with our warm and energetic guide, Albert, and his partner Monse, a tour-guide-in-training. Together, their infectious energy and trendy, European style made them an ideal pair. They excitedly led us through the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s bustling central plaza, mere feet from our hotel. We headed into the medieval quarter to behold the Plaza Mayor, a magnificent square, dotted with small shops and cafes. Monse enjoyed showing us the Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid’s equivalent of Central Market.

Our first full day began with Madrid’s “Plaza de Toros” (bullfighting arena) where we learned a bit about the controversial practice of bullfighting. While many of us were instantly opposed to this obvious cruelty toward animals, our local guide encouraged us to consider the mistreatment that animals face in the American meat industry. Spanish bulls are raised in beautiful, sprawling ranches where they have ample space to roam whereas cattle in America are physically restrained to fatten them up. This take on a Spanish tradition gave us a new perspective to consider, to say the least.

Later we found ourselves exploring Spain’s grandest art museum, El Prado. In class, we had studied many artistic masterpieces by artists such as El Greco, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco Goya and it was amazing to see them in person. We were all particularly impressed by Las Meninas, a remarkable painting by Velázquez, arguably the most famous in Spain.

Saturday was our most ‘delicious’ day of the trip and it started with a fantastic lunch outside the Reina Sofia museum. A group of girls and I decided to shadow the Señoras for lunch and we enjoyed our first bocadillos: Spanish subs with cured, Iberian ham and manchego cheese. We rounded off the meal with some Magnum ice cream bars, giving us energy to tackle our next round of touring.

At the Reina Sofia, we were struck by Picasso’s masterpiece, “Guernica.” The painting depicts the destruction of Guernica, a small village in the northern Spain that was desolated by Nazi bombs during the Spanish Civil War. The painting is jarring, evoking a sensation of utter confusion and chaos. It effectively captures the horror of war and deserves its status as one of the greatest paintings in the world.

Back at our hotel, we had a joyous reunion with Javi, an exchange student from last school year and Señora Heim’s host son. Javi spent the remainder of the weekend touring with us and showing off his beautiful city.

On Sunday we enjoyed an excursion to Segovia, a small city where a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct runs right through the center of town and the site where Queen Isabel was crowned is 1468, the Alcazar. This stunning castle inspired the famous Cinderella castle in Disney World.

We enjoyed a very leisurely, European lunch at an outdoor cafe in Segovia’s Plaza Mayor and Carson and Steven took the opportunity to play soccer with some local children, all making for a thoroughly authentic afternoon.

On our way back to Madrid, we stopped at “Valle de los Caidos” (Valley of the Fallen), an impressive, controversial monument commemorating those who perished in the Spanish Civil War. Conceived by dictator Francisco Franco and built by political prisoners, the monument remains important to many families in Spain, while others view it as a grotesque celebration of Franco’s power. The structure, built into the side of a mountain, is beautifully adorned with mosaics and colorful frescos; however, we all agreed that the monument serves more to glorify Franco than those who perished in the war.

Back in Madrid, we prepared for the most highly anticipated event of the trip: attending a Spanish soccer match. We were eager to cheer on Javi’s home team, Atletico de Madrid, as they took on Valencia. Señora Heim had taught us the Atletico hymn, which we proudly sang along with the rest of the spectators as the team took the field. We encountered some rather enraged fans when Valencia tied up the game, but it was a great game nonetheless.

We left Madrid for Spain’s enchanting southern province, Andalucía. We spent the morning exploring the medieval city of Toledo, visiting a beautiful monastery with a courtyard that smelled sweetly of orange blossoms. We also visited the impressive cathedral, constructed in the 1200s, which holds treasures crafted from the first gold brought over from the New World.

In the small village Consuegra, we pretended to be Don Quixote, battling the windmills, before enjoying a late-afternoon siesta on our bus ride to Granada.

That night, we ventured high up in the hills of Granada to a gypsy cave for a flamenco lesson. This proved to be the most embarrassing activity of the trip. Our desperate attempts to imitate the elaborate steps of our instructor evoked giggles from Señora Brenes, who enjoyed showing off her incredible dancing skills. After our lesson, we enjoyed dinner and a flamenco show, which we had a newfound respect for.

Blessed yet again with sunshine and cloudless skies, we toured the magnificent Alhambra palace. Built by the Moors during their medieval reign in southern Spain, the Alhambra is a dizzying maze of courtyards and airy rooms embellished with ornate columns, mosaics and gardens that offer impressive views of Granada.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “If you were to visit only a city in Spain, this should be Granada.” After wandering through charming side streets, stumbling upon peaceful courtyards, and conversing with local shop owners, I could not agree more. Granada is a magical place that feels trapped in time and I am so grateful for the unforgettable afternoon that we spent there.

I could have stayed in Granada for the rest of the week, but we had more enchanting cities to tour, so we boarded the bus and headed west toward the immaculate beauty of Andalusia’s capital, Seville. We toured the Plaza de España and the Alcazar, a Moorish-style palace constructed by a Christian king in the 1200s. Its elaborately adorned ceilings and sprawling, tropical gardens rival the beauty of the Alhambra (although I must admit I am biased toward the magnificent palace of my beloved Granada). We toured the Cathedral of Seville, the largest in Spain and one of the largest in the world. Señora Heim and Mattie W-C. ’16 went head-to-head in a race up the Giralada tower, but Matty’s ability to weave in and out of the other tourists gave him a sizable advantage.

Feeling refreshed by the ambiance of Seville, we took an excursion outside the city to a bull farm. The natural beauty of the Spanish countryside was remarkable, but the ladies on the trip were more flustered by the handsome matador who served as our guide, teaching us about the art and practice of bullfighting.

We had an early start on Thursday, touring the massive Mezquita of Cordoba. This mosque was the center of religious life in Moorish Andalusia, but when the Christians conquered the Moors during the Reconquista, they transformed the mosque into a cathedral. Charles V added a massive dome and several chapels, and the resulting structure is mishmash of architectural styles and religious philosophies. The complex history of the Mezquita is visible in every aspect of this magnificent building.

From Cordoba, we took a high-speed train to our final destination: Barcelona. This spectacular city, nestled in between the Coserolla Mountains and the Mediterranean, has enjoyed a prosperous history. Following his first voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus returned to Barcelona to reunite with Isabel and Ferdinand, and a large statue commemorating him stands at the end of Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s popular shopping street.

Parts of Barcelona felt like the busy streets of Manhattan, but the impressive examples of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture and gothic side streets reminded us that we were someplace unique. On Friday, we toured the architectural wonders of Gaudi, including the Parc Güell, La Casa Mila, and his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. Despite being incomplete, Gaudi’s magnificent cathedral was declared a basilica by Pope Benedict in 2010. To behold the interior of La Sagrada Familia can be a life-changing experience. As Señora Heim said, “If you did not believe in God before entering La Sagrada Familia, you will after.” Religion aside, there is no denying that standing in La Sagrada Familia evokes simultaneous feelings of wonderment and peace. The way the sunlight beams through the stained-glass windows, illuminating a forest of staggering, white columns, must be experienced in order to be fully appreciated.

On our final day in Spain, we headed outside of Barcelona to the mystical mountain and monastery of Montserrat. Legend has it that in the year 800, shepherds at the base of the mountain beheld a bright glow from peak and saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrims from all over the world hike up to the monastery of Montserrat to behold the Black Virgin, the famed statue that represents the legend of the mountain. Gabbi M., Emily Q., and I climbed to the very top of the mountain where I witnessed one of the most impressive views of my life.

We returned to Barcelona for our final afternoon in Spain. Many of us ventured down to the beach, only to have a massive thunderstorm hit right as we reached the water. We were forced to run a mile in the pouring rain back to our hotel. We laughed it off as a climactic end to an otherwise spectacular trip.

I feel so blessed for the time I spent in Spain with this year’s Spanish Civilization Class. It was an incredible privilege to dive into the culture and history of another nation for an entire year and then experience it firsthand. This trip has confirmed my desire to study abroad in Spain during college (hopefully in Granada!). The Spain trip was a perfectly planned look into the history and culture of a magnificent nation. I want to thank Señora Heim and Señora Brenes for their meticulous planning for the trip and I thank LCDS for this incredible opportunity!