There aren’t many places I would consider moving, and less so far away as Europe, but I found one. The last week in February, Christine (a friend from my program) and I took a road trip to Castilla y León to a city in which I could definitely see myself living. In fact we went to three cities that weekend!
We took Friday off from our grammar intensive and instead caught a ride from our University to the first city, Salamanca. One of the women in Christine’s integrated class (with normal Spanish university students) was going there to adopt a puppy, so we did a car share with her and found ourselves in a very spacious van with friendly people, gazing out at the Spanish countryside.
For a while, traveling west through Valencia and then through Castilla – La Mancha, we were counting castles. We lost count. They’re just everywhere- every ten minutes there was another castle in view from the highway. It makes me happy to be in a place where driving any direction, you will stumble upon a castle.
We stopped for a break in the middle of Castilla – La Mancha, which is a very rural, farm-based autonomous community. When we walked into the roadside shop, our driver suddenly turned to us with intensity and asked if we had tried ¨Miguelitos.¨ When we said no, she told us we absolutely had to, and led us to a refrigerated wall full of sweets. She directed us toward the specific ones she was talking about, and we tried the sample. She was totally right, it was one of the most delicious sweets I’ve ever eaten. It’s a very delicate, fine pastry, filled with either vanilla or chocolate cream, and covered in a very thin layer of chocolate. It was delicious. We bought a pack of 12 and rationed them so they lasted the whole trip.
If castles are the legacy of the Middle Ages, wind farms will be the legacy of today. They are everywhere in the middle of Spain, spinning tranquilly over bucolic pastures and set off by the bright blue skies. Just one more silent sign of how much more environmentally conscious Spain is than the United States.
Our next stop was in Madrid. I had been taking a nap and woke up in a tunnel, which branched off into another tunnel and another. Apparently, Madrid has a gargantuan subterranean highway system that I found mind-bending. Driving through felt like Mario Kart in real life.
After a short stop in Madrid, in which we ate lunch, saw the back of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and stretched our legs, it was back in the car for the last stretch of our trip to Salamanca. We arrived around 5pm (keep in mind we started at 9am. . . Spain is bigger than I thought).
The first thing we did in Salamanca was enjoy the slanting, late afternoon sunlight on our faces as we walked through a park to our Airbnb. It was a lovely room in a nice lady´s apartment on the outskirts of the city proper. We then briefly googled where we should be going and wandered out in the direction of the old part of the city. As we walked, we slowly became aware of an understated beauty surrounding us. The buildings became all shades of taupe, tan, and caramel stone, with redish copper roofs. Ironwork spiraled up gateways and balconies, a few even covered by the intertwined stems of lacy climbing ivy, which must be even more lovely in the summer.
Oh and then just the every now and then turret would pop up out of nowhere. Because this is Spain, so why not?
We weren’t too worried about seeing particular things that night; instead, we wandered pleasantly and if something caught our eye, we went to see it. We ended up seeing most of the city as the light was fading or gone, and more importantly the places that are most beautiful at night. And when I say beautiful, I mean stunning, stop-in-your-tracks to absorb the awe, beautiful.
We found our way to la Gran Vía (the main street), the university (we ate our bocadillo (sandwich) dinner in the terraced garden overlooking the city), and also found our way to Casa de Conchas (House of the Shells), which, fun fact, currently houses a lovely library. Then there was the cathedral, and la Puente Romano, a bridge built by the Romans and still standing strong, 2000 years later. And as a crowning beauty, we eventually wandered into the Plaza Mayor, which lit at night is a magnificent sight to see.
But what slowly dawned on us as we wandered from street to street between all these beautiful old places was the atmosphere. It is an old city, but has a fascinating young-but-sophisticated attitude. The streets of the old part, almost entirely bereft of vehicles, are full of young people walking and talking. Despite the fact that it’s a brisk February Friday night, the Plaza Mayor is full of people, seated or standing in groups at each of the taperías, drinking wine and sharing tapas while shooting the breeze at the end of the week. It’s an atmosphere full of life.
Salamanca is home to the oldest university in Spain, third oldest still functioning in the world, founded in 1134. Its 28,000 students are probably to blame for the young atmosphere of the city. Nevertheless, the people in the plaza and the streets are of all ages, from strollers to walkers. That’s probably what gives it the sophistication; all walks of life being actively involved in a social culture. In the northeast US, ‘city’ often means traffic, bad smells, looming skyscrapers, and grime. But in Spain, somehow ‘city’ can mean a concentration of people living together, but pleasantly. Narrow streets don’t have to feel claustrophobic, grimy, and dangerous. Buildings can cap at four or five stories, instead of 100. Not all Spanish cities are like this, but Salamanca certainly is. I realized I could live here.
After traipsing the city for hours, we found ourselves laying on a wide concrete wall in front of a church, staring up at the intricate patterns carved into the stone, exchanging my obscure Ed Sheeran favorites for her obscure childhood movie favorites, and basically just having a moment. Soaking in the sense of the city.
See them walking in the park, long after dark, taking in the sights of the city. . . There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is a grace too powerful to name. . .It’s quiet uptown.Lin Manuel-Miranda, Hamilton
The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed at what felt like way to early to go see the sunrise down by the river. It was totally worth it. Beautiful.
We walked around the pink-tinted city, and eventually to the bus station to buy our tickets for that evening’s trip to the second city of the weekend, Segovia. After that, while wandering, Christine found a coffee shop called el Pato Rojo (The Red Duck) to grab a warm drink. I decided to wait, and it was worth it because on the way back to the Airbnb, we found a churro street vendor, and I tried my first churros and chocolate on the lawn of a stately old building. It turned out to be a hospital. I felt a little bit miffed that even the hospitals here are stunning.
We went back to the Airbnb, showered, looked up for real what we should be seeing in this city, and checked out. Then we walked back to the city center. We had heard a lot about the Fachada de la Universidad (Facade of the University), because there’s a frog hidden in the detailed sculpture work on it, and if you find it without help, you’ll supposedly pass all your classes that semester. But we didn’t know where it was or what it looked like, and so we stared intently at the Casa de Conchas for a while, unable to find anything but seashells, because that is not the facade we were looking for. But we then google mapped “Frog of the University of Salamanca” and sure enough, it led us to the right wall. Christine eventually found the frog without help. I did not. Oops. It’s not looking good for astrophysics.
Next we went to the cathedral, which is the most iconic place in the city. It’s actually made of two cathedrals, la Catedral Vieja, built in the 1200’s and the adjoined Catedral Nueva, built from the 1530’s to 1730’s. We didn’t know how to get in, but we eventually found the door. We paid the entrance fee not knowing that that didn’t include climbing the tower of the cathedral. But it was worth it anyway, because the vast insides were amazing. The Catedral Nueva was constructed over such a long period of time that it contains stylistic elements of gothic, renaissance, and baroque architecture. It is stunning. In addition to the extremely high ceilings, two magnificent organs, and gilded altar, there is an amazing exhibit of religious art and sculpture spanning centuries in the capillas surrounding the central nave.
Then, you go into the Catedral Viejo, which is gothic. The architecture is different of course, and incredibly old. It’s mind-boggling to think that the paint on those walls has been admired by centuries of people and outlasted all the social changes that have passed over that time. What would it have been like to be a Medieval woman, illiterate, learning Bible stories from those walls, seeing them as my salvation, rather than primarily as a fascinating curiosity of antiquity? Being in a place like that, I caught a glimpse of a time that is far more foreign to me than modern Spain ever was.
When we finally found our way out, we decided to try to go up the towers. This time we specifically asked someone how to get there, and of course we had to pay a few more euros to get in 😡 but again, totally and completely worth it.
About five minutes after arriving on the first walk, I heard the prologue from Beauty and the Beast playing behind me. I laughed. “Exactly what I was thinking,” I told Christine. The top of the Old Cathedral looks like it could be the inspiration for the Beast’s castle.
But wait, there was more. More steps, yes, but also more stunning views.
One path led through a balcony bordering the inside of the New Cathedral, so you can see it from an elevated viewpoint in all its majesty.
Then you get onto the roof, where birdsong, music, and street noise drifted up from below and the city unfolds below.
Basically, it’s beautiful. There were other things we could have gone to see, but it was 100% worth it to spend the time in there.
On our way out of the city, we stopped in a public terraced garden, full of college students who apparently come here to socialize in their free time. I really wish people in my college (or country at large) were that classy. And socially adept.
The bus to Segovia was lulling and I dozed for most of the time. We stopped to change buses at sunset, and the sun was glaring off a pink-lit building, turning the windows gold. I’ve only ever heard of that in books before.
I also encouraged Christine to climb up an embankment by the train tracks (it wasn’t specifically marked off-limits, so I say fair game) to get a picture of the sunset on the other side. And the picture came out great. So there.
When we arrived in Segovia, it was dark, but that did not at all diminish its splendor. I noticed I was getting a blister on one of my toes, but I had a city to see, and my toe was not going to stop me. We climbed back up the hill the bus had come down to get a good view of the city, which is built on the neighboring hilltop inside a castle wall. We then found a park where we could see everything. To walk toward it, we took a slightly sketchy path down a hill that may or may not have been private property of a school. But it was not well marked, so again, fair game.
The thing I love about cities here is that they’re so easy for tourists to navigate.
You want to go find a way to get into the old part of the city? Walk to the wall, then walk along the wall until there’s a doorway. You want to go to the castle? Great, you can see it from almost anywhere. Where you can’t see it, you follow the grade upward. Because of that, these cities are great for wandering. You don’t need a map because it takes only common sense to figure out where you’re going.
After exploring the entrance to the old part of the city, we ran into an older lady walking her dog outside the Puerta de San Andrés. She pointed us to a trail that hugs the outside of the wall all the way to the point of the hill where the palace is. She said it got a little dangerous at the end but that the view from a little way in was great at night, because you can see the magnificently lit wall and the palace at the end. We didn’t know exactly how far she meant for us to go, and just kept walking until we found ourselves at the end of the trail, climbing the stairs leading over the wall. The path was actually nicely groomed except for the last bit, which I suppose was dangerous in comparison, but actually was not dangerous in the scheme of things. Midway through, a point jutted out with grass and a tree, and for the first time in Spain, I was in a place dark enough to see the stars. We spent a while at the palace, admiring the view off the other side of the point, trying to find the constellations, and singing Ed Sheeran songs into the night (It was becoming a theme). Eventually, we wandered away from the palace, uphill toward the cathedral in the center of the old city. Its intricate facade was also lit up against the night, looking rather glorious. The plaza nearby was not grand in the way that Salamanca’s is, but was still lovely, with a more subdued, older-feeling, but still pleasant, atmosphere. The buildings in Segovia are more varied, adding white, grey, taupe, and some scattered light colors into the mix.
We had heard a typical food to try was cochinillo, but when we saw the proudly displayed images and realized it was roasted piglet, we decided we were okay with missing out on that particular tradition.
The thing that had made Christine really want to come to Segovia, however, we saved for last. . . Segovia is home to a magnificent, intact Roman aqueduct, which strides through a valley outside the wall of the city toward the mountains. We spent a bit of time there, basking in the glory of that monumental feat of engineering, lit bright against the night sky. We needed time to take it in.
Unfortunately Christine twisted her ankle on a very badly placed and unlit step in the dark. But after several minutes of calming the initial pain, she said it calmed down.
It worked out well because our hostel was right next to the aqueduct. Before we went to sleep, we planned what we were going to see the next day, because we had to catch a bus for Madrid in the early afternoon, in order to walk over an hour across Madrid to another station where we would catch another bus from there to Alicante and arrive at 11 pm.
We decided there was nothing to do but take advantage of every minute, and once again rose before the sun, but this time to take in the colors through the arches of the aqueduct.
When it had risen and turned the sky blue again, we took a walk along the aqueduct away from the walled city, to find some other churches. We’re not sure if the ones we found were the ones we were looking for, but it was cool nonetheless. One seemed to have been completely overtaken by birds: there were storks on the roof (again) and innumerable pigeons filling the holes left over from old-style scaffolding in the side. We were alerted to the aviary by a grand chorus of cooing coming from inside the church wall
We went back to the hostel and did check-out, then headed into the city for our rapid-fire Segovia tour. We hit all the spots we wanted to see, and a few that caught our eye as we were walking by.
It was Sunday morning, so we got to go into the cathedral for free.
However, it cost money to climb the tower. We opted to go to the palace instead.
It was unfortunate that in the palace you have to pay more to go in both the rooms that are decorated and up in the tower. We’re poor college students! Over 10 euros in one place is way too much. Regardless, we had limited time before our bus, so it was good that we just bought the tower ticket.
When we got to the first walk overlooking the drawbridge and yard below, there were turrets on each side and we realized we’d gone from Beauty and the Beast to Cinderella. It was tan with dark roofs, rather than white like in the movie, but the architecture was reminiscent.
Then we headed back inside to climb the tower. If you do go to Segovia and are only going to climb one of the two places, opt for the palace! The view from there to the cathedral on the hill is stunning.
On the way out of the city, we found a penny-pressing machine and each got a penny, then grabbed some bocadillos to try the local ham. It was very good. Then we tried the local gelato, not because it’s particularly well known, but because we wanted ice cream and it was only one euro. 😉
We were going to make it to the bus station in comfortable time to take the first stop but there was a little mix up with the address in the Google Maps, so we ended up taking a comfortable stroll through a lovely modern residential area on the outskirts of Segovia. When we realized our mistake, we decided to run to try to make the earlier bus. So we ran (downhill, luckily) through the residential streets of Segovia, laughter bubbling over and nigh on giddiness, to catch the earlier bus so we wouldn’t have to rush in Madrid. It was carefree and fun. We made it and had our tickets six minutes before the bus left. I was dying in 2 layers of pants that I still had on from the cold morning, so I ran to the bathroom to take off my yoga pants and we boarded the bus with maybe a minute to spare.
I slept on the bus and woke up near Madrid. Unfortunately by this point, what with the hours of walking, our sprint through Segovia, and the rest, when I stood up to walk, my toe was screaming in pain. Christine’s ankle was also starting to feel it.
We plodded our way through Madrid. I can honestly say it is the first time I’ve ever taken longer than Google Maps predicted to walk from one place to another. But on the upside, we got to see a lot of the city center for the first time.
We saw a park with fountains, the theater street, the main shopping street, and Puerta del Sol. Funny story, we didn’t actually realize we were in Puerta del Sol at first. I expected it to be much grander than it was; the only notable thing was the crowd and the fact that there were about eight roads entering the oval. It was kinda pretty though, there were lots of street performers, and we found km 0, the place where all the roads in Spain officially originate.
I was also paranoid with all the people everywhere that someone was going to try to pickpocket me, but luckily that didn’t happen. We watched a group of dancers doing Michael Jackson’s moves for a while, then left the plaza. The Reina Sofia, an important art museum home to Picasso’s Guernica, was on our way, we had time, and admission was free at that hour, so we decided to go.
Did you know Guernica is actually the size of a wall? I definitely did not get that when I saw it in Spanish class in the US. It’s also flanked by two very grave museum officials, whose job it is to ensure that NO ONE gets a picture of the Guernica. They take their job very seriously. You lift your phone to a 45 degree angle and they ask you to leave the room. I saw it happen.
Guernica is actually a very important historical piece depicting the Spanish Civil War. I generally am not the biggest fan of Cubism, but when I looked at Guernica as depicting the panicked fragmentation of a war-torn nation, especially knowing some details of the Spanish Civil War, the style suddenly made perfect sense.
We saw the whole first floor, which is almost entirely cubist. Not really my style, but okay for a little while. Then we headed out, now on a time schedule to reach the bus station. We saw some more pretty buildings along the way, but to me, Madrid didn’t hold a candle to where we’d been. My host family and some of my friends love it. I thought it was okay.
By this time in the trip, we were both limping and in significant pain. We were verbally abusing the universe for our bitter misfortune and praying for the end, so naturally, I was enjoying myself despite the pain. I knew we had hit rock bottom, though, when a man in a motorized wheelchair overtook us and zoomed on ahead.
We finally made it to the bus station, praise be to the Lord, and I grabbed an overpriced bottle of water (Always get the big size here. The normal one is just comparatively highway robbery. I regretted not coughing up the extra 50 cents), and we stepped on the bus with about four minutes to spare. Nothing like being right on time.
We finished the last of our bocadillos and our precious Miguelitos. I wrote for a while, then thought about doing my homework for Tuesday for about 30 seconds before I curled up my jacket under my head and went to sleep.
I woke up in Alicante to the unpleasant surprise that the bus station was still a half-hour walk from my house. Uphill.
I never thought the term “come limping home” would actually apply to me, but that just goes to show, you never know what will happen until it does.
When I walked in the door, I had just enough pride left to say a cheery hello through the kitchen doorway and disguise my limp as I walked down the hall to my room.
And yet how did Christine and I feel about our first trip unchaperoned out of Alicante? An unquestionable success.