Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Post 12: I went to Barcelona and turned 21!

Andrew and I in Barcelona
This past week has been a big one for me.  First off, the 6'5" monster (aka Andrew) was with me for the week.  I also went to Barcelona, turned 21, and trekked to what has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

To mix things up and show Andrew a place I haven't seen yet in Spain, I decided to take him to Barcelona.  We got there late Wednesday night and were quickly greeted by some youngsters trying to pickpocket Andrew.  Personally, I don't know why you would want to mess with someone of his size.  After Andrew stared at one of them straight in the eyes, they ran away looking terrified and all of our belongings remained with us.  I think they will reconsider who they choose to target next time.

The inside of La Sagrada Familia
On Thursday, we started off the day by slowly making our way to La Sagrada Familia, a basilica that has already been under construction for over 100 years and will take another 30 to 80 years to finish.  Next time you complain about how long the road construction is taking in the U.S., be thankful that it hasn't been going on for well over 100 years.  La Sagrada Familia was designed by Antoni Gaudí, an amazing architect.  It was pretty cool to learn about Gaudí's artisitic style; he takes a lot of his inspiration from nature.  Before we toured the inside of La Sagrada Familia, we enjoyed a lunch of paella and sangria.  Up until this point, Andrew only liked the chicken and coffee in Spain.  This lunch made him change his opinion a little bit about Spanish food, but I'm pretty sure he still prefers the food in the U.S.  I can't say that I blame him.  After lunch and the Sagrada Familia, we went to Plaça de Espanya, then went to the top of a shopping center and saw an amazing view of the city.  At night, we explored La Rambla, a street filled with street performers and little souvenir shops.   

Park Guell
On Friday, Andrew and I did something that is rarely done by students abroad.  We went to a zoo.  For those of you who know Andrew, this shouldn't come as a surprise.  He's practically the next Steve Irwin.  For this reason, it's a real treat to go with him to the zoo because you learn a ton of information about the animals.  It's hard not to feed off of his enthusiasm.  Seeing a 6'5" tough guy get giddy about baby animals is definitely fun to observe.  After the zoo, we checked out more of Gaudí's masterpieces.  We went to Park Guell, a beautiful public park that has an almost whimsical theme.  Tiles decorate the park in a way that just accentuates the nature within it.  Later on, we walked by La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two other buildings that Gaudí designed.  We returned to Bilbao late Friday night.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Saturday was my 21st birthday.  Most Americans celebrate their 21st birthday by becoming heavily intoxicated.  I spent mine in a rather unconventional way.  I actually spent most of the day hiking to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and I did it wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt that my friend customized for me for my 21st birthday.  One girl asked my if it was a Georgetown t-shirt.  I took this as a sign that she needed to be educated on the greatness that is the Green Bay Packers.  The hike was hot and a lot of it was uphill, but it was definitely worth it.  Our final destination was a little island with a church at the top of it.  I made a wish and rang the bell at the top, just as the Spaniards do, and enjoyed the amazing view of the Bay of Biscay that the island had to offer.  At the end of the hike, I couldn't resist the water, and found myself soaked in the salt water of the Bay of Biscay.  It didn't necessarily feel like my birthday, but it was definitely a great day.  I finished off the day with some drinks outside of a bar in Bilbao and called it a night.  The next morning, I had to leave at 4:00 a.m. to get Andrew to the airport.  It was sad to see him go, but I'm so happy that he was able to come over and share some of my experience abroad with me.  He even picked up some Spanish along the way.

Andrew and I at the top of
San Juan de Gaztelugatze
My Spring Break starts this Friday and ends on April 15th.  I will be starting off in London, then hopping over to Ireland.  After Ireland, I'll be spending Easter in Germany.  I've done a little research and apparently Easter is a HUGE deal in Germany.  It should definitely be interesting.  Also, everyone in Bilbao seems to think I am from Germany.  They will literally point at me and say, "¡Alemanian!," which means "German" in Spanish.  Hopefully, this means that I'll actually blend in somewhere, which would be a nice change of pace.  After Germany, I'll be touring my way through Italy.  I'll spend a little time in Milan, Venice, and Rome.  To say I'm excited for break would be a complete understatement.  It should be the trip of a lifetime (kind of like the rest of this semester).

Being that I am basically backpacking the next two weeks, I will not be carrying a laptop and will therefore be unable to post on my blog.  I know this might put a damper on people's Mondays, but I assure you that I will try my best to make up for it when I come back.  I should have some amazing stories to share after spending time in four different countries.

I hope everyone is having a great Spring so far!  Until next time...¡Adios!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Post 11: I have a visitor!

Andrew and I at the top of the bridge overlooking Getxo,
the city right next to Bilbao.
In terms of school, I've actually been pretty busy lately.  I had a midterm this past week and three essays due this week.  It's probably a good thing; it can be easy to forget that I am here to STUDY abroad and not just explore.

On Thursday night, the Athletic Bilbao soccer team played Manchester United in Bilbao.  The cheapest tickets to the game were 220 euros, so I decided to save my money and just check out the crowds around the stadium.  It was crazy!  Imagine the world is ending, but people are happy about it.  This is what the streets looked like.  There was garbage everywhere.  Broken glass was inevitable.  There were police there, but I guess it wasn't wild enough to intervene because they just stood to the side in a small group.  The people were friendly enough, but it was definitely one of the craziest sights I've ever seen.  After realizing that we'd only be able to see a fourth of a small TV screen from 30 yards away, my friend and I opted to hop on the metro and watch the game elsewhere.  As luck would have it, we ran into some friends in the metro station and ended up having a great night.

View of Getxo
In other news, I have a visitor here for the week!  Andrew arrived in the Bilbao airport in the early afternoon.  After dropping off his bags, I immediately started showing him around.  He was exhausted, but letting him sleep would have just made it more difficult to adjust to the time change.  We grabbed some lunch, walked the beach, went to the top of a bridge to see an amazing view, and watched the Bilbao Athletic soccer game against Valencia while sipping on what Andrew now refers to as "dope" hot chocolate.

Andrew took a picture of this cafe.  The owner ran out
and looked like he was going to yell at Andrew.  The
owner was then stunned at Andrew's size, so he
just turned around and ran inside.  He looked scared.
My host mom is very nervous about how tall Andrew is.  She keeps on thinking that he'll hit his head on everything.  She is constantly telling me that she has never seen someone so tall in her house before.  All of the people here seem shocked at his size; they point at him and talk about how tall he is.  The average Spaniard is probably like 5'6" (and that's being generous).

In other news, I had my first beer from a Burger King today.  It was a mediocre draft.  I felt obligated to order one.  My meal included a beverage choice of water, soda, or beer.  I don't like soda and I already had a full bottle of water with me, so beer was really the only logical option.

I hope all of the U of I students are enjoying their break!  My Spring Break isn't for another couple of weeks, so I guess I'll just have to suffer through the rough life of a study abroad student for a little longer...

Until next time...¡Adios!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post 10: Madrid

The aqueduct in Segovia
This past weekend, I went with all of the students in my program to Madrid.  We also stopped in Segovia along the way to break up the five hour bus ride.  Not surprisingly, we looked extra touristy walking around in a group of eighty, but it was definitely a good time and a lot different than Bilbao.   

Segovia was a pretty amazing place to see.  In Segovia, we toured the Alcázar de Segovia, a beautiful castle, and saw a Roman aqueduct.  The Roman aqueduct is especially amazing because there is no mortar anywhere within the aqueduct.  The aqueduct is constructed solely out of granite blocks.  It's even more impressive when you learn that it has been around since the mid first century.

After Segovia, we continued onto Madrid.  We arrived at 9:00 pm, just in time for dinner.  There was no sarcasm involved in that sentence.  Dinner here is always around 9:00.  In fact, the afternoon is considered to go until 8:00 or 9:00 pm.  After dinner, everyone went their separate ways and enjoyed the night.

Alcázar de Segovia, an amazing castle
The next day, we saw the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral.  Both places were beautiful.  After checking these tourist attractions out, we hit the streets.  The street performers in Madrid were really something else.  Some were definitely more impressive than others.  Spongebob was an extremely common costume.  At points, I'd see five Spongebobs all next to each other.  For a child, I imagine this must be incredibly confusing.

On Sunday, we went to El Prado, a museum that houses some amazing pieces of art.  For me, this was definitely my favorite place that we visited.  I  saw some of the pieces that I've studied back in the U.S.  I think my excited reaction to seeing Diego Velázquez's piece "Las Meninas" might have freaked some people out though.  I've learned so much about the symbolism in this peace, so it was a real treat to see it in person.

One of the street performers in Madrid...
he never strayed from this position
Another highlight of the trip was when my friend Maggie and I were carded for the first time in Europe.  We tried to order drinks, but the waiter initially denied us.  The man guessed that we were both fifteen. If we truly look that young, then most of Europe should probably stop saying that they have a legal drinking age because we've never been questioned here before.  Also, we saw a vending machine that had beer outside of a hotel.  Obviously, a vending machine can't card someone.  I guess they just follow the honor system.

I did love Madrid and I do believe that it would be a great city to live in, but it is not my favorite city in Spain so far.  As of now, my favorite Spanish city is Seville.  I think part of the reason that I prefer Seville is because Madrid is a more Americanized city, so it didn't feel like it was as culturally enriching as other cities that I've seen thus far.  Madrid is still awesome and definitely worth visiting though.  It is the capital of Spain and it definitely has some interesting and unique people.

I realized this past weekend that I'm over halfway done with my time abroad.  So far, it's been the trip of a lifetime.  The U.S. will always be home, but I'll leave here with an even greater thirst for adventure.

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Post 9: "Remember how we're supposed to be in Granada?"

El Catedral de Seville
The plan for this past weekend was to fly to Seville, Spain, and then immediately get on a bus to Granada.    That was the plan; however, my friends and I decided when we arrived in the Seville airport to just stay in Seville.  The quote of the weekend quickly became, "Remember how we're supposed to be in Granada?"  We quickly called our hostel in Granada to cancel our reservations with the excuse that we were dumb tourists who didn't realize that the hostel we booked was in Granada and not Seville.   It might have been a little bit of a lie, but when people stereotype about American tourists, sometimes you need to turn lemons into lemonade and use that stereotype to your advantage.  We found a new hostel to stay in and were ready to explore Seville.  Our first impression: this city is beautiful.  By the end of the trip, it was truly hard to leave.  We all made the mature decision to return back to Bilbao, but the windy, rainy weather that welcomed us back really made us question ever leaving Seville.

Plaza de España
Seville truly felt like a vacation.  We ate some amazing homemade gelato, kicked a soccer ball around with some locals, toured the city in a horse-drawn carriage, enjoyed each other's company while sipping on sangria, relaxed in the sun's warmth, watched a little flamenco dancing, and saw some amazing things.  We saw the Catedral de Seville, which is the third largest gothic cathedral in the world.  It was huge (obviously) and absolutely beautiful.  It did make me a little sad though that the cathedral really doesn't function as a cathedral anymore and has become almost solely a tourist attraction.  They even charge admission.  We also saw the Plaza de España, which is definitely one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen.  It was built for the Iberio-American Exposition of 1929, a world's fair.  This plaza is decorated with beautiful hand-painted tiles.  This plaza is exactly how I imagined Spain to be before I came.  In the plaza, there is a small moat which people navigate through with row boats.  The tourists on the row boats entertained us for hours.  Apparently, it's not universally known that you have to use both oars to move the boat and that using only one oar will make the boat circle.  We also some beautiful gardens in the Alcázar, a royal palace in Seville that was originally a moorish fort.  The gardens here were awesome on their own, but the fact that there were peacocks roaming freely throughout the grounds made the palace even more amazing.

One of the gardens in the Alcázar
Another highlight of the trip was definitely the food.  Ironically, we ate very little Spanish food.  Normally, I would think of this as a bad thing, but we've all been in Spain for awhile now and definitely needed a change of pace.  We found an amazing little Mexican restaurant the first night here and ate spicy food.  This is what Charlie Sheen would refer to as "winning."  Spicy food in Spain is unheard of.  If they warn you that something is spicy, chances are it is usually about as spicy as an ice cream cone.  We also ate some delicious Italian food with shockingly small portions.  Being used to American portions, I almost split the pasta dish I ordered with a friend.  The dish came with about 10 noodles.  Thank goodness we didn't share.

I think a big part of why the weekend was so great was because I was surrounded by such great new friends.  I know that one of the hardest parts about leaving Spain will be leaving them.  Hopefully our newfound love of traveling will help us to see each other in the U.S.

In other news, I'll be exploring Madrid next weekend with all of the students in my program here.  I'm sure it will be another great trip!  I hope all is well for everyone and that my fellow Illini had a safe and fun Unofficial.  Until next time... ¡Adios!