Saturday, September 1, 2007

Tours around Spain...

El valle de los caidos:
My favorite tour so far has been the valle de los caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen. Just a little background…Franco was the tyrannical leader of Spain from the 1930s to 1975, and is comparable to how Hitler was to Germany. He was a conservative radical who intended to purge Spain of anyone who did not support him politically and even some who were ethnically different such as the Basques of Northern Spain. Franco built this memorial for his people that died in the war in Spain in the 1930s and he built it as a tomb for himself. Therefore, the visit was somewhat bittersweet because it typifies one of the most cruel and oppressive political eras of Spain.
The structure is so beautiful! El valle de los caídos includes a basilica and tombs mainly. The basilica looked over a large brick landing that was actually supposed to be a reflection pool to reflect the 150-meter cross (when I put pictures up you’ll know what I’m talking about), but Franco ran out of money, so he couldn’t finish the reflection pool. He probably ran out of money because it was so dangerous to build that each worker worked one day and got 6 days off. That’s the only way Franco could get enough people to finish it.
Inside the basilica, it’s a little bit different than the other Spanish places of religion (for lack of a better word) because it is not nearly as ornate with gilded bronze and so much detail that your eyes start to water. There are some spectacular mosaics, though. The entire dome is a mosaic representation of the people that had fallen, and they were up in heaven havin’ a good ole time (a typical work of art in a basilica’s dome in Europe, except they are usually frescos instead of mosaics). In the smaller rooms off to the side, the ceilings were also done in mosaic, and the work was so detailed it must have taken someone forever to finish it. I wish I could have taken pictures of everything inside, but you’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the historical places.
We also visited the monastery of San Lorenzo de el Escorial. It is still in use and houses 52 monks. Also, it serves as a school for K-12 children – there are about 900 students that attend. Ironically enough, the school is actually secular and only a couple of monks and nuns teach there.
The cathedral in the monastery had more typical Spanish decoration than the basilica at el valle de los caídos. There was gilded bronze EVERYWHERE, it was all very busy, lots of movement and expression. I think I am taking a Spanish art history class while I’m here, so hopefully I’ll have more accurate knowledge of the style of art by then. It reminds me of the baroque style, and I can’t say for sure that it’s classified as baroque, but I think that is the norm for Spanish churches.
For me, the most impressive part about the monastery was the tombs. There are rooms upon rooms of white marble tombs that were carved by hand. They were so detailed, too. Some of the tombs had the fleur-de-lis all over them (because that was the symbol of the Borbones, one of the Spanish royal families) and they were so perfect that it was unbelievable!
Another thing worth mentioning was this sun calendar that they used back then. Basically, it is a strip carved onto the floor in one of the rooms and each month is labeled up and down this strip (they were labeled by their astrological signs which is interesting since astrology and religion don’t mix very well). There’s a hole in the wall placed to where at noon everyday, the sun shines so that it indicates the month on the calendar. So if it’s August 15 at noon, the sun’s rays coming through the hole will stop in the middle between the marks for August and September. Unfortunately, the hole is closed up now, so you can’t witness it anymore.
The tour guide that took us through the monastery was so funny; if it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention to anything because I was so exhausted. In the chapel, he was explaining about four children who were born of one of the Spanish kings – 3 of them died and the only one that was left was named Mary. Apparently, the bloody mary drink was named after her and he asked us was a bloody mary was called without alcohol…are you ready?...”a bloody shame”! Haha, maybe you had to be there, but we all thought it was funny.
We ended the tour in this little room with an arched ceiling, and it was sort of an archway of secrets. The tour guide described it as a place where you can tell a secret in secret because two people can stand across from each other diagonally and speak into the corner, the sound travels via the arched ceiling and the person in the other corner can hear, but the people in the middle cannot hear at all. We all tried it and it really works!
So those were the tours of today. I understood a lot more of what they were saying today than I have the past couple of days. Carmen, one of our ISA advisors that has been touring with us, was explaining the history of the Franco era in Spain before we toured el valle de los caídos, and I caught almost all of that I think because I already knew some of the history from the book I’ve been reading. I used context clues to figure out what she was telling us that I didn’t already know. It’s still really frustrating because everyone speaks so quickly that it just blows me away, but sometimes I’ll be listening and pick up on words and language that I didn’t realize I even know. I’m doing ok, I do a LOT more listening than talking at this point, but I have gotten the courage up to ask a few questions here and there. I’m actually doing really well considering that even a few days before I left I couldn’t understand anything at all when I would listen to Spanish speakers in the States. Here, the ISA advisors don’t ever speak in English, so it’s either understand them or not know what’s going on. And if you are late meeting for the tours then you will get left behind, we left 7 people behind on the first day because they heard the wrong time or something and they had to take taxis to the museum. This is definitely not middle school anymore where they count heads 3 times before you go anywhere.

So now I’m in Toledo and we had such a great time tonight. My ISA group is basically split into 2 groups, those of us who can’t speak Spanish and those who can and don’t want to talk to you if you can’t. Anyway, so 10 of us went out for tapas and drinks tonight. At the first place we went to, we got wine and beer for all 10 of us for 20 euros total and we got 2 plates of tapas for free. We had all pitched in 5 euros at the beginning so we had 30 euros left. So we went to another place and got 2 pitchers of sangria and 2 pizzas for 28 euros, and got free tapas again. So for 5 euros a piece (about $8), we each got 2-3 drinks and lots of food. I really don’t understand how all of the Europeans stay so thin (and they ALL are thin) because this is what I had for dinner: at the first restaurant the tapas consisted of French fries covered in ketchup and mayonnaise, meat kabobs (not sure what the meat was), and breadsticks (like the kind you find in gardetto snacks). At the second tapas bar we had pizza and potato chips ( the other free tapas – I think they opened a bag of lays and poured it on a plate, it was kind of strange). And of course all of the fruity wine we had. I had tinto de verano which is red wine with seltzer at the first restaurant – it translates as summer red wine because it’s iced down and has soda in it, it was really good.
Lunch was a good deal, too. I ate with two other girls at a really nice restaurant in el Escorial that had tablecloths and servers in suits and a beautiful view of the monastery. They served your choice of appetizer, entrée, dessert, and drink all for 10 euros. It may seem kind of expensive for lunch, but lunch in Spain is like dinner in the States, and vice versa – lunch is the main meal of the day. (Plus, you don’t pay tips and the tax is always added in beforehand, so I paid 10 euros and nothing more, whereas in the states, if a meal is $10 on the menu, I would end up paying like $13). One thing that takes getting used to is that you really do have to pay as much or more for water than beer and wine in Spain. It’s not tap water either, it comes in a fancy glass bottle, and that’s really the only option. In fact, last night when we went out for dinner, one of the girls in my group asked if they offered free water from the tap and the server gave us a pitcher of water, but she was so mad and rude for the rest of the meal. When she was taking our order, she stopped right in the middle of it to help some other customers and then came back 5 or 10 minutes later to finish taking our order. Haha, I could just imagine what would happen if a server did that at Cajun’s. Well, its not like she’s working for a tip, so I guess she can get away with it. Anyway, there are definitely small differences between Europe and the US that I’m figuring out, but I’m still in tourist mode and it hasn’t quite hit that I’m going to be here for a whole semester. I guess I’ll realize it when I can’t speak English at all anymore in Salamanca starting Sunday.

9.1.07 I believe Toledo must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world! Madrid was really interesting, but it was like New York or Paris or any other major city of the world. Toledo is so Spanish and different than what I’m used to, although it was still a little touristy. Spain is so different from the United States because it has always been a monarchy. You can go to Washington D.C. and visit 200-year old government buildings (and don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love D.C.), but in Spain you see palaces that are several centuries old and statues of kings riding on horseback, and it just reminds me of a fairytale almost. The historical sites of Toledo did not impress me as much as the ones in Madrid. Today we took a tour around the city and visited a monastery and a church. The really remarkable thing about the church we went to was that, historically, it encompassed the three primary monotheistic religions – it was built by Muslims, utilized by Jews as a temple, and then later converted into a church by Christians. There are elements of all three religions present in the church. (to be continued...)


Aunt Kathy said...

Dear Jessi,
We're so glad you have arrived safely and are having so much fun already. Your blog is great; add our addresses so we can get email from you and we'll also check your blog often. We miss you and love you!
Aunt Kathy, Aunt Lou, Da and Dada

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