Spring Break: Granada

I had thought we had a pretty good game plan before arriving in Granada.

The Granada study abroad program is very popular with Spanish minors at UIUC, so both Julie and I had plenty of recommendations from our friends who have lived there. We had a full two days of sightseeing (and eating!) planned, but like most things during a study abroad semester things didn’t go *quite* as planned.

The train ride from Madrid to Granada was over four hours long, so it was already in to the afternoon by the time we got to Granada. We checked in to our hotel and after realizing public transportation in Granada isn’t really a thing, walked in to the center of town.

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It wasn’t hard to find the Catedral de Granada. As we walked around to the side of the cathedral we saw a small gathering of people lined up next to one of the doors (left). Being the curious travelers that we are, Julie and I decided to join the line. A few google searches later we realized it was Semana Santa!

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Semana Santa is what the Spanish call Holy Week (last week of Lent, right before Easter). While Holy Week is obviously a big deal in most Catholic regions of the world, it’s especially big in Andalucía, the southern most region of Spain where Granada is located!

There are 32 “fraternities” in Granada, and during Semana Santa each brotherhood processes through the streets of the city. Each brotherhood’s procession features two “floats”, one of Christ and one of the Virgin Mary. These floats are accompanied by women dressed in the traditional Spanish black lace, hooded cross-bearers (which is really freaky since they look like KKK costumes), and bands. That being said, each procession is unique. Each brotherhood decorates it’s floats differently, takes different routes, and process at different times during the week.

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Anyway, the crowd outside of the cathedral grew and 45 minutes later the doors opened and the procession began! Let me tell you, the processions are an absolute spectacle. I really wish I could figure out how to post the videos I took to this blog, but take my word for it and try to judge from the pictures how cool it was. The sheer number of people involved is amazing, especially when I realized the floats are literally carried on people’s shoulders. No wonder everyone claps when they make a turn or maneuver a flight of stairs.

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This was the first of many processions we saw during our couple of days in Granada. It meant the city was packed and a lot of times it took us a while to get places since the streets were blocked off, but the inconveniences of the crowds and detours were well worth it. Like I said, before arriving in Granada we had no idea Semana Santa was going on. We got incredibly lucky to be able to be a part of such a wonderful tradition, it made our experience in Granada very authentic and memorable.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and getting a feel for the city. Keeping with the religious theme, we stopped by the Monasterio de San Jerónimo and the Basilica de San Jan de Dios, each known for their history and beauty.

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That night we went Casa del Arte Flamenco to watch a flamenco show. Originally we had planned on going to a flamenco show in Madrid, but we had trouble booking a reservation (obviously very popular with tourists), so we decided to wait until Granada. Turns out this was a great decision, since flamenco originated in Andalucía!

The performance at Casa del Arte Flamenco was incredible. The venue was very cool since it was a small room like the original café cantantes, and the guitar player, singer, and male and female dancers were incredibly talented. It felt like a very authentic cultural experience, and I was absolutely blown away. There’s something about Latin countries that always makes me want to sign up for dance classes…

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The next morning we found ourselves waking up at the crack of dawn in order to see Granada’s most famous landmark, the Alhambra. The number of people allowed to enter each day is limited and since we weren’t able to buy tickets in advance we had to get up very very early to wait in line and make sure we got inside.

Luckily we did get inside, and we started at the Generalife, the palace and gardens that served as a sort of vacation spot for the Muslim royalty when they wanted to relax. It’s a beautiful estate and was a very peaceful way for us to start the morning.

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We then made our way to the Alhambra, a fortress/palace for rulers and government officials when the Muslims ruled Spain. There is a lot to see in the Alhambra, with all of the different palaces and towers and walls and such. Our scheduled time to enter the palaces wasn’t until 2pm so we wandered around and enjoyed the view.

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There was no way we were making it until our 2pm appointment without eating lunch so we walked down to the Carrera del Darro, one of Granada’s oldest streets that runs along the river. We found a cute cafe nearby where we I got one of my favorite Spanish foods, pan con tomate, as well as a cappuccino and fresh squeezed orange juice.

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From there it was back to the Alhambra for our turn inside the palaces. There are so many different rooms and courtyards and chambers it felt like a bit of a maze. Personally, my favorite was the Court of the Lions, but everything was absolutely gorgeous. Given the fact that the Alhambra and Generalife were built around the 1200s-1400s it’s incredibly well preserved and a great reminder of the Moorish rule of Spain.

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After that we walked back down to Albayzín, the old Moorish neighborhood. We slowly made our way up the picturesque (but also winding and narrow) streets to the Mirador de San Nicolas. From that vantage point there’s a beautiful view of the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada in the background. This is definitely the postcard shot.

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Once again we were getting hungry so we walked back into the center of the city and got gelato from a place called Los Italianos. Since I live in Italy I was pretty skeptical of getting Spanish gelato, but Kristen recommended it and when Kristen Cantieri tells you to do something you do it. Also the casata that I ordered came in wedge form, so I figured it was different enough that I was cheating on my host country. As usual, Kristen came in clutch and the gelato was A+

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The rest of our time in Granada was spent eating and walking. Granada is such a cute, quaint city we really enjoyed strolling the streets and stumbling upon procession after procession of the Semana Santa festivities. The city is pretty small compared to the other places we’ve visited so even though it seems like we walked a lot it was definitely manageable.

That night we had some fantastic paella for dinner (oh Spanish food how I miss you), and the next morning we actually slept in for the first time in what felt like forever. We had a long, relaxing lunch outside in the beautiful Spanish weather before heading to the Granada airport.

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Being the good, safe travelers that we are, Julie and I showed up at the airport 2 hours before our flight which ended up being completely unnecessary. The Granada airport only has a couple of flights to Madrid and Barcelona (yep, that’s it) each day so it was empty when we arrived. So while that part of our trip home to Milan was relaxed, our connection in Madrid was the opposite. The Madrid-Barajas airport is GIGANTIC, especially compared to the usual airports our budget airlines fly us to, so we were a little stressed as we ran across the airport to catch our flight.

Thus concludes Part 1 of my three week Spring Break. After being gone traveling for over a week, it felt great to get back to Milan. That being said, I loved Berlin and I loved Spain so I was excited by the prospect of falling in love with even more places in the coming weeks!

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Te quiero España ❤

Spring Break: Madrid

My feelings for Madrid can be summed up very well by Gareth Bale:

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I had been wanting to go back to Spain ever since my family visited Barcelona a couple of summers ago. Plus, Spain has such a fun and relaxed culture, amazing food, great weather, a language I can *kind of* speak and understand (though the Italian hasn’t been helping), and also blessed the world with Rafael Nadal.

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I approve of any city that puts this man’s face on it’s public transportation ❤

I was dead set on visiting Madrid over my spring break and was lucky my schedule matched up with Julie who also wanted to do a Spain trip. She had already been in Sevilla and Barcelona, and I was meeting her and her friend who had flown in that morning at our hostel. Madrid has a top notch metro system, so after landing from the three hour (long by European standards) flight from Berlin, finding my way to the hostel was easy.

It was already dark at this point, but the Spanish usually eat dinner really late so we headed over to the Palacio Real de Madrid. The palace is HUGE (actually the largest European palace by floor area), and it’s gorgeous at night.

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Around midnight we headed over to the Mercado de San Miguel to get some dinner. The market is a full of stalls selling gourmet tapas, and the three of us shared quite a few things such as calamari and potato chips and mussels.

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For dessert we stopped at Chocolatería San Ginés, the famous cafe that serves churros and hot chocolate (which is basically melted chocolate sauce). Chocolate con churros is apparently a traditional Spanish dessert, and even though it was kind of weird you can’t argue with fried dough and chocolate.

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That night was a great indication of how well we would eat the rest of our time in Madrid. Who doesn’t love tapas and paella?! As a resident of Italy I can’t say that Spanish food is the best, but I can say that they definitely know what they’re doing and I whole heartedly approve.

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The plates of food weren’t the only masterpieces we saw in Madrid. Julie and I started off our first full day at the Museo del Prado and then the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, two of Madrid’s most famous art museums that also happen to have free entry for students (woooo!). Both have impressive collections of Spanish art, and while El Prado is larger and more famous, the Reina Sofía contains Picasso’s Guernica, which I had studied in depth in my AP Spanish class in high school (would have taken pictures but photos weren’t allowed in the Reina Sofía). AP Spanish actually helped a lot, I was surprisingly still familiar with works from El Greco, Goya, Dalí, and of course Picasso.

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After spending a lot of time inside art galleries, it was time to get outside and enjoy the beautiful Spanish weather. El Parque del Buen Retiro is a huge, beautiful, peaceful park once owned by the Spanish monarchy. Inside is the Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion built as an exhibition of the Philippine Islands, the former Spanish colony. There’s also Estanque del Retiro which is a picturesque pond built next to a monument in honor of King Alfonso XII. Julie and I rented a rowboat and enjoyed a relaxing hour out on the water.

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As we exited the park we walked through one of the most iconic squares in Madrid. The Plaza de Cibeles has four corners occupied by the Palacio de Cibeles (city hall), Banco de España, Palacio de Buenavista, and Palacio de Linares. From there we headed to another famous landmark, the Estatua del Oso y el Madroño (Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree), which is located in the Puerta del Sol plaza. The bear and strawberry tree are a symbol of the city, found on Madrid’s coat of arms.

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Our last stop of the day before a siesta and then dinner was the Templo de Debod. It’s a reconstructed Egyptian temple that was given by Egypt to Spain as a gift for helping to preserve temples threatened by dam construction. The temple, originally from Debod in the Nile River Valley, is an unexpected but pleasant surprise for visitors to the Parque del Oeste.

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Madrid is of course home of the one and only Real Madrid Club de Fútbol. Julie and I have both embraced our European lives and taken an interest in football (and football players), so were super pumped to spend the first half of our second day touring the home of Real Madrid, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

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There’s a lot to like about Real Madrid. They’re the world’s richest and most valuable football team, were the FIFA Club of the 20th Century, have won countless trophies and records (10 European Cups, 32 La Liga titles, 19 Copas del Rey, the list goes on), not to mention they have a world class squad (just to name a few: Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, James Rodríguez, and oh yeah some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo…), and bonus points for being Rafa Nadal’s favorite club too! As you can imagine, their trophy cases are insane, which is why a part of their tour is referred to as ‘The Best Club in History” Room.

As a Blackhawks fan I’m used to seeing a successful team putting on a good show, but I was absolutely blown away by Real Madrid. Very very impressive, and also surprisingly moving. Go ahead and watch this video, turn the volume up, sing along, and you might get an idea of how captivated we were.

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From there they let us in the Presidential Box, and just when things couldn’t get any better they let us in the dressing room. I think Julie and I did a pretty commendable job of maintaining our composure and not making a scene.

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And if that wasn’t cool enough, next they let us on the field. It’s not like they let us run around or anything, we could only go in the technical area (which is the dugout and the area where coaches and subs are allowed), but it was still really cool to walk out of the tunnel and imagine the players standing where you are.

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The tour ended in the press room where we got to sit behind the interview table, another example of how surprisingly open and accessible the club was. This tour was one of my absolute favorite things that I’ve done so far this semester, which is really saying something because I’ve done a lot of amazing stuff. I don’t care if you’re not a Real Madrid, I don’t care if you’re not a football fan, I don’t care if you don’t like sports, if you’re in Madrid you need to do this tour.

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The rest of the day we went to the landmarks we had missed the previous day, like the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, so that we could say we had seen every site on the Madrid postcards. Las Ventas is the most famous bull ring in Spain, and even though bull fighting is pretty controversial I can appreciate the cultural significance. That being said, we didn’t want to pay to go inside so we just walked around and admired the outside. Side note (not that anyone cares but me), but Spain also used Las Ventas as a Davis Cup venue, so Rafa Nadal has played there!

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From there we went back to the area around the palace. It’s just as beautiful during the day as it is at night, so we sat on the steps of Madrid’s Catholic Cathedral (Santa María la Real de La Almudena) and admired the view.

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The rest of the day we spent strolling through the gorgeous streets of Madrid, stopping in a couple of famous plazas (the Plaza Mayor and the Plaza de la Vida) and then heading back to the hostel for a siesta. The Spanish do a lot of things right, and siestas are definitely one of them. Since we wake up early to do the touristy things before it gets crowded but we can’t eat dinner until really late at night, a quick afternoon nap is a tradition that I can definitely embrace. After our siesta we headed to a tapas bar for dinner and then went to bed (relatively) early before our train to Granada the next day.

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I’ve basically become obsessed with Madrid, it’s such a beautiful city and I could totally see myself living here. Now I just need to find a Real Madrid player to marry…

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I spy a couple of excellent options ❤

Muchas gracias Madrid, I will be back!