Sunday, 29 January: Madrid – the Other MAD City

Hola, ¡todos! Espero que estén bien. In other words, I hope you all are doing well. Welcome to another entry of my experience abroad for the spring semester of 2017.

The second week of classes at La Fundación Ortega-Marañon started off swimmingly. For one, I don’t have classes on Monday! In addition, this past Monday in particular, 23 January, marked the feast day of Saint Ildefonsus (San Ildefonso, in Spanish). Ildefonsus was the metropolitan bishop of Toledo in the mid-7th century who was canonized for his good life and theological work. Not well known outside of the Iberian peninsula, Ildefonsus is considered one of Toledo’s patron saints (yep, it has multiple), and his feast day is a holiday for the city. Classes are cancelled (for native students; classes still happened at the Fund – ¡que lástima!), public institutions are closed or have reduced hours, and people generally relax and enjoy the day.

Saint Ildefonsus of Toledo. He is often portrayed as receiving a chasuble from Mary, an episode included among Toledo’s many legends.

For this Día de San Ildefonso, my host family went to a festal Mass at the hospital chapel where they go to Mass every Sunday. Other Masses for Ildefonsus were held throughout the city, including one in the Mozarabic Rite, unique to the Iberian Peninsula and deriving from the worship life of Christians who lived in the Muslim caliphates that existed there for centuries. After the Mass, we stopped by a grocery store nearby for a few items. Sidenote: food stores and restaurants exist on almost every corner in Toledo, Madrid, and, I am willing to wager, most of Spain. Many supermarkets (supermercados) exist, but there are even more small stores and specialty vendors such as fruterías (fruit sellers) and carnecerías (butchers).

This particular grocery store had a little of everything, including a bakery cabinet. As we passed, I perused it, as a goloso (sweet-tooth) like me is bound to do. I noticed while doing so what looked like a humongous s’more without chocolate: three inches of white cream betwixt two layers of graham cracker. My host mother, Mámen, explained that it was milhoja, a dessert consisting of meringue between two thin crusts of which she was particularly fond as a child. She then promptly bought two pieces (huge, following what seems to me to be a wonderful Spanish preference for dessert in large quantities) for me and my host brother.

Before trying milhoja, my host mother took me on a walk around Toledo – and I truly mean around Toledo. On both sides of the Tagus River exist ecological zones and walking/running trails with many benches and recreation areas. Due to Toledo’s long history, an abundance of incredible architecture can be seen along the route and, if you have a native, history-loving Toledoan with you like I did, a fascinating story can be found around every corner.

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The Puente de Alcántara of Toledo, one of the two medieval bridges preserved in the city.
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La Puerte de Alcántara, which stands opposite the bridge of the same name.
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One of several dams on the Tagus that are used to produce electricity for Toledo. They also make beautiful sights in and of themselves!
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My host mother told me a legend about this site about a star-crossed love, but I do not want to mangle its details and thus ruin it for you. Sorry!
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The Puente de San Martín, the other medieval bridge preserved in Toledo.
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La Ermita de Cristo de la Vega, or Hermitage of Christ of the Meadow. A church existed on this site in Visigothic times.
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Toledo was Toletum, a Roman city in the province of Hispania, for almost two centuries before the birth of Christ. A circus (chariot course), baths, and other edifices stood in the city, but most were destroyed or had their stones taken for other buildings in the following centuries. Here are some Roman ruins that sit casually in a park in the city.

The walk around Toledo took about 2.5 hours in total, shocking short to me given all that I had seen and heard. I am so grateful and glad to have been placed in a host family not only generous in terms of food and help but also of knowledge.

After la comida on Monday, I decided to take a walk in the city center, or Casco, of Toledo. I ended up visiting two museums in the process and paying only five euros to do so. The first was El Convento de Santo Domingo el Antiguo, a convent and church that houses the remains of El Greco, one of Spain’s (and history’s) most famous painters. Photography was prohibited, but I can say that the convents holdings were increíbles (incredible). There were works of art from El Greco but also from the Middle Ages all the way to the 1800s, in addition to papal documents, manuscripts from the Spanish monarchy (including one king’s will!), and a beautiful cabinet built for the convents archives. On its other side, the convent also sells sweets! Though I didn’t buy any, I might return in the future. In any case, this was a fantastic experience.

After Santo Domingo, I wound my way through the streets and arrived at La Iglesia de los Jesuitas, also known as La Iglesia de San Idelfonso, fittingly enough. Though the museum closed only about twenty minutes after I arrived, I feel satisfied with my time there. The workers immediately directed me to the towers of the church, from which I had a fantastic vista of Toledo bathed in the light of the setting sun. It was another incredible moment for which I give thanks to God.

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La Iglesia de los Jesuitas, facade.
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The interior of the church.
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The view from the walkway between the two towers of the church.

All in all, my Día de San Idelfonso was simply wonderful – one could say blessed, even. (Ha ha ha, how droll I am.)

On Tuesday, I did not have my one Tuesday class (Política y Sociedad de América Latina), but I went to the Fund in order to work on homework and go over travel plans for the upcoming week. In the late afternoon, I walked across the Bridge of Alcántara and made my way to La Piedra del Rey Moro, a high point looking over Toledo from the south from which, so the legend goes, the last Moorish king watched Toledo conquered by the Christian Spaniards in the eleventh century and wept. The view, as so many in Toledo are, was magnificent. The trek up the hill to the stone definitely vale la pena (was worthwhile).

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A view from the Piedra del Rey Moro.

On Wednesday, in the long break between the two sessions of my theology class, I went with the SNC crew to las termas romanas (the Roman baths) and las Cuevas de Hércules (the Caves of Hercules), both close to each other and free to visitors during their open hours. The sites are two of many run by Patrimonio Desconocido, a group in Toledo that also offers free tours of the city. My host mother told me earlier about the organization; it seems like a fantastic way to reach out to both tourists and natives about the heritage of this historic city.

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The ruins of the Roman baths sit beneath the current level of the city center of Toledo. Patrimonio Desconocido operates tours of the site, as can be seen in the photo.
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Outside Las Cuevas de Hercules.
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The lower level of the caves.
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The main level of the caves exhibit.

Thursdays are, as I explained last week, my busiest days. After my class for my internship (curso de prácticas), I skipped (with permission!) the first hour of my Spanish history class to be introduced to my job site, La Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha in the Alcázar of Toledo. Another student at the Fund is working there this semester; it will be great to have someone to talk to about any questions I have concerning our work. The bulk of my internship will actually consist of directing talleres (workshops) of English for young children, adolescents, or adults. The library will provide whatever materials I need for the weekly session; these sessions will be more informal than a class and serve mainly as vehicles for Spaniards to practice the English they already know and receive guidance from a native speaker. A few things went over my head in the introductory session, but I generally understood what was going on and felt genuinely welcomed by the director of the library and its other workers.

After returning to the Fund and my Spanish history class, I went down to the lobby of the Fund to meet with my Christian, Muslim, Jewish art class for our first visita to La Mezquita de Cristo de la Luz, about ten minutes walking from our building. We got to enter the site for free (words of delight to a college student’s ears) and learn about its architectural styles, date of building, and history in the city. This first excursion has further solidified my appreciation and excitement for this class and for my time in Toledo.

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La Mezquita de Cristo de la Luz, north side. The original mosque is the rectangular section, the rounded section an addition from after the Reconquista when it was converted into a church.
Medieval wall paintings in the Christian addition to the mosque. Islam prohibits the representation of living creatures, most especially humans, as violations of God’s commandment against idolatry.  
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The central bóveda, or dome, of the mosque. Eight other domes surround it, each with a unique design created by their arches. 

On Friday, I joined many of my fellow students on the Fund’s first (free!) day trip of the semester to Madrid. Here’s where I finally start talking about the city that I put in the title for this post.

After making our way by bus from Toledo to Madrid, we stayed on the bus for a tour of Spain’s capital. Due to the reflections in the windows and the obstructions on the road, I didn’t take any pictures. There sure were numerous interesting buildings and spaces, though, as well as an inundación (flood) of information attached with them. I’ll share just one fact: Madrid is a relatively young city compared to Toledo. The area has been inhabited since the Stone Age, but no town of note developed on its site until the 9th century. Madrid stayed relatively small until King Philip II of Spain decided to move the royal court (and, thus, the capital) of the country there from Toledo in 1561. Since 1606, the city has continuously been the nation’s capital. Madrid thus experienced massive development and expansion from the late 1500s onward, while Toledo decreased in importance, population, and prestige starting in the same period. However, Toledo’s relative obscurity until the 1900s actually helped it retain much of its physical history, since there was little to no need or desire for new buildings and, thus, the destruction of old buildings.

Once our tour ended, we hopped off the bus and, after a bathroom break (always important!), received a guided tour of El Museo de la Reina Sofia, a museum of contemporary art whose most famous holding is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a massive piece created in the wake of the horrific Nationalist and Nazi bombing of a northeastern Spanish town of the same name.  Pictures weren’t allowed in this section of the museum, but you can take a look at Picasso’s work below.

Guernica: Pablo Picasso, 1937, oil on canvas

After viewing Guernica, we went through some of the Reina Sofia’s vast holdings. I am not a huge fan of contemporary art, especially abstract art, but I was struck by the immensity of the physical space of the museum and the great quantity of its possessions, and I did find a number of the works intriguing. I am glad to have visited the museum with the Fund, because I probably would not have gone on my own.

Once our tour was complete, we got back on the bus and, after a drive and a walk, partook in a buffet lunch. After that, students were free to do what they wanted: those heading back with the Fundación that night had to return by six, but those of us who were staying in Madrid for the weekend could grab their bags and go. The St. Norbert College students stayed at the same hostel over the weekend, so we made our way to it, checked in, and took a short siesta before heading out to explore for the evening.

Our hostel was conveniently close to Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, a charming square surrounded by spectacular buildings. Nearby sits El Mercado de San Miguel, a glass-walled structure containing different food vendors, similar to Milwaukee’s Public Market. There were many tempting choices there, including a whole station dedicated to dulces (sweets)! Nearby the market and the plaza, however, was a gelato shop, where I indulged in delicious flavors of the Italian confection both Friday and Saturday.

The Plaza Mayor, with its statue of King Philip III of Spain (r. 1598-1621)
The San Miguel Market.
The interior of the marketplace is always bustling during open hours.

On Saturday morning, I took some time to explore the city and found myself at La Catedral Almudena, a huge church next to the Royal Palace in Madrid that is actually a pretty recent constructing, having been consecrated by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1993. Its youth does not draw from its beauty, however, as I soon found out.

The eastern facade of the cathedral was brilliant in the morning sun.
The nave of the church. Sorry that it’s a bit dark!
A devotional area to Mary stands in the western end of the transept (the horizontal section in the traditional setup of a church).

After the cathedral, I returned to the hostel and then went on another walk with one of my SNC friends. We discovered another interior marketplace and, nearby, a thrift store! I love thrifting in the United States, and in Spain it was just as enjoyable. I found a Sherlock Holmes novel and another book in Spanish and got them both for 1 euro.

At noon, the whole group headed to the Museo de América for those of us in the Politics and Society of Latin America class. This time, I saw the whole museum (I only got through two rooms the first time). Its collections are impressive, but I did feel uneasy in that the museum never addressed at length or, in my eyes, sincerely with the fact that most of its possessions were taken by force from the native peoples of the Americas. While a museum on the Americas and the European encounter with them certainly has importance for the people of Europe and especially of Spain, I believe it should deal more explicitly and sincerely with the fact that this encounter almost always involved condescension, exploitation, violence, and discrimination.

After the museum, we stopped briefly at La Puerta del Sol, another of Madrid’s famous squares and one similar in activity to New York’s Times Square, and the gelato shop we had visited yesterday. Later in the evening, we went to a Galician restaurant close to our hostel with a woman some of us had met the previous night. Oihane had come to Madrid from the Basque country in northeastern Spain; we learned that she was fluent in Basque (Euskadi, in the Basque language), Spanish, Japanese, and, of course, English. It was interesting and enjoyable to hear her stories and answer her questions about our country as we tried and failed to eat all of the food set before us. We had plate after plate of delicious Spanish tapas (appetizer-like foods) until we were all ready to explotar (explode).

While the rest of the group went out to enjoy Madrid’s night life, I got a few hours of sleep before connecting via, a great video-chat website, to a special event in New Orleans. The youngest of my two older sisters got married at 6 p.m. CST that evening, or 1 a.m. on Sunday my time. Though I was sad I could not attend the wedding in person, I was glad to be present in some form to see her marry a spectacular man that truly loves her and she him. (I typed rather than screamed my excitement so as not to wake up the other people in my hostel room!) To Sam and Vince, my most sincere and warm congratulations!

On Sunday morning, I attended Mass at a church nearby our hostel. Like Toledo, Madrid is teeming with churches, most of which are open to public viewing except during Masses. As I’ve grown accustomed to, the service was short. I have to admit, where I am experiencing homesickness most is in my spiritual life. Religion seems like an obligation and custom in stead of a source of joy and community to many people I see at Mass in Spain. It’s not only the churches that feel cold; it’s the spirit of the people in it. Music is usually kept to a minimum if used at all, and the priest never comes out after Mass to greet parishioners. I realize that many of these characteristics come from Spain’s culture and history, but I can’t help but think, from my biased viewpoint, that its religious life could be improved by a greater focus on community.

After Mass, I stopped quickly at the San Miguel market for a delicious zumo (juice) of berries and lemon and a plátano (banana) before indulging in some churros and chocolate at the chocolatería of San Gines, one of Madrid’s most famous vendors of this delicious combination and an establishment so popular it is open 24 hours a day. I have to say, the churros and chocolate I had were divine and really started my day on a good note.

After returning to the hostel and checking out, I walked with one of the SNC group to the Museo del Prado. I saw the works of El Greco again but also viewed many pieces from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (even more bizarre in person than online) sculptures from ancient Rome and Greece and the “Treasure of the Dauphin,” a collection of vases and other containers created from lapis lazuli, rock crystal, and other minerals in elegant (and fragile-looking!) forms. I was so happy to make it back to the Prado, and I may return yet again in the future to see Goya’s Black Paintings.

From the Prado, we walked a bit through the city, touched foot in Buen Retiro Park, and then lunched at ôven, a wonderful pizza and pasta establishment on Madrid’s Gran Vía. We then walked to the Atocha train station, met up with the rest of our group, and made our merry way to Toledo to eat supper in our respective homes and, I am guessing, collapse into some much-needed sleep.

I had a fantastic time in Madrid and hope that I can spend a day there in the future before or after trips to other sites in Spain and Europe. It was helpful and fun to be with a group of people I already knew, and I am looking forward to our trip to Salamanca and Ávila this upcoming weekend. Until next time, everyone, ¡adios!

Observaciones: 1. You know why ham is so popular in Spain? I found out on our tour of Toledo. After the Expulsion of the Jews in 1492, many Jews remained in Spain and converted to Catholicism. Many of these converts secretly practiced their original religion, though, as did Muslim converts to Catholicism. the Christian authorities in Spain devised a means of sniffing out these individuals. When holding public feasts and celebrations, free food would be provided to all attendees, but the only meat there would be pork, forbidden to both Muslims and Jews. Since non-attendance cast great suspicion on one, most people came to these gatherings and then had to either break the laws of their religion or risk discovery by the authorities. This inquisitorial practice eventually became a culinary norm in Spain, and ham has remained the king of meats here for centuries.

2. The symbolic animal of Madrid is the bear (oso), due to the presence of the animal that lived in the forests of the area in ancient times.

3. The symbolic plant of Madrid is the strawberry tree (madroño).

4. Madrid’s night life is, as the youth say, hopping. I did not partake in it, but I could certainly hear the party in the streets from the room of my hostel.

5. In Spain, oranges are huge, both in popularity and in size. Valencia is famous worldwide for its oranges, and you can find them most everywhere in Spain (especially my host family’s home, since my host father loves them).


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