Sunday, 5 February: From Sevillana to Salamanca

Feliz martes, ¡todos! I hope this next blog post finds you doing well and experiencing your own adventures in whichever corner of our marvelous world you call home.

Over the past week, I settled into the comforting routine of classes at the Fundación Ortega-Marañon (or the Fund), partook in a musical tradition from the south of Spain, journeyed to three of Spain’s multitude of historic sites, saw snow for the first time in my host country, and even went shopping (which obviously merits inclusion in this post because I did it abroad).

After returning from a weekend in Madrid with my fellow travelers from St. Norbert College Sunday evening, I slept in a little on Monday. (For those of you who know me, this meant I slept until about 7:30 a.m.) I then went on my fist run in Toledo. The city offers a lot of possibilities for those who like to walk, run, or bike: paths run around the city on both sides of the Tagus River (Río Tajo); sidewalks border most of the streets in the neighborhoods surrounding the Casco (old city); and parks appear pretty frequently outside of city center. Most of Monday was then spent on homework (and writing last week’s blog post).

At 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, I started my first day of work at La Biblioteca Castilla-La Mancha, the central library for Toledo and the province of Castile-La Manca located in the impressive Alcázar just south of the Zocodover, Toledo’s main plaza. My regular shift is 4-8 p.m., but this Monday only lasted about 45 minutes for me and Ben, the other Fund student working at the library, during which we received a tour of the library’s portion of the building (the Museum of the Army also calls the Alcázar home) from Jesús, one of the library workers.

The tour of the library left me asombrado (amazed). The library takes up all of the top floor of the Alcázar, meaning that it has access to all four of the building’s towers and, from these and its main floors, some of the best views of Toledo and the surrounding area. The library has rooms for children up to 13; for adolescents; for books specifically on Toledo and its heritage; for general readings, work, and study (quite popular with high-school [colegio] and university students); and for some (not even all) of its large collection of old books, the most important in Spain after that of the Biblioteca Nacional. This collection finds its base in the Borbón-Lorenzana Collection, created in the eighteenth century by two cardinals with the mentioned last names.

A Visigothic codex from the Borbón-Lorenzana Collection. Courtesy of

With no further work at the library past 4:45, I headed to the Fund to work on class assignments (and last week’s post) some more. At 9:30, I joined other students from the Fund in a gymnasium just behind it for a class on the sevillana, a combination of music and dance known in much of the world as the flamenco. Our two teachers, Flor and Elena, guided us through two of the four sections of the dance over the next hour. I really enjoyed going through the steps and listening to the sevillana music: the process included a lot of movement and a lot of laughs as everyone tried to keep up with the beat and our teachers.

On Tuesday, my Latin American politics and society class resumed after a week’s break due to a conference our professor had to attend. Right after the afternoon session, I headed to the library for my second day of work from 5 to 9 p.m.. This day was even shorter than the first: 15 minutes and I was headed out the door! I received some of the same information from Monday: I would be directing English workshops every Monday and Tuesday evening and could prepare for their start the next week. There are three age groups for the workshops: infantiles (children up to 11 or 12), jóvenes (adolescents), and adultos (adults). I will be working with the first two groups. We can use books, videos, Powerpoints, music, worksheets, activities—basically, whatever we think will connect best with our groups—and the library will provide the resources we need for our sessions.

I did not learn much about the withdrawal—return process or the organizational system of the library during my first two days, but I hope that my work will involve some traditional library work each week. After leaving the library on Tuesday, I went back to the Fund to work on an introductory presentation for the first sessions and wait for the second and final sevillana class.

Starting at 9:30, Flor and Elena gave us another hour of instruction for the sevillana, this time for the third and fourth sections of the dance. One we learned and practiced those sessions, we danced all four in a row. Though I am certainly now an expert, I felt pretty confident as I went through the steps and enjoyed seeing how much progress the other students and I had made over the past two days. Our teachers, of course, were the true masters, and we thanked them repeatedly for sharing their knowledge with us (and took some pictures with them!) after our class ended.

In between the two sessions of my theology class on Wednesday, I went shopping at Zara for an hour before heading home for the midday meal (la comida). Zara is a well-known clothing retailer in Spain; like most clothing stores (and businesses in general), it was currently in rebajas season. Rebajas is a roughly month-long period that occurs twice every year in Spain and during which businesses sell their goods at reduced prices, sometimes as much as 70%. Deals can also be obtained through a BOGO system that halves the price of one item if you buy a pair. Rebajas season is very popular in Spain because clothing prices in the country for the rest of the year are higher than those in the U.S. and because other sales are not common.


After indulging in rebajas and eating la comida with my host family, I returned to the Fund for the afternoon session of my theology class starting at 6:20 p.m. A few minutes into the class, however, the lights went out! Apparently, a problem with the building as a whole had left us without power. Undaunted, our professor continued to discuss our lesson for the day; ironically enough, it dealt with illumination (of the soul, not of rooms). As the classroom grew darker, students took out their phones in order to take notes, and one student used a flashlight to display the board for the professor and for the rest of the class. Though I hope it’s not repeated any time soon, it certainly was an interesting class!

On Thursday, my busiest day of the week, I did not do much apart from attend my classes and take la comida at the Fund. Though studying abroad is not constant traveling or new experiences, I’m rather glad and grateful to have regular, “boring” days. It does not take much for me to become burnt out on traveling, for one thing. Moreover, sometimes the best experiences of life, including those of living and learning in a foreign country, are had in small moments and quotidian circumstances.

The Fund took students on its second day-trip of the semester on Friday. This time, we traveled to El Escorial, a royal palace and monastery located about 50 kilometers northwest of Madrid. Work on this complex began in 1563 and ended just under 21 years later, truly a marvel given the era in which it was built and the massive size of it. To illustrate: approximately 1,000 people—fully one-fourth of the Madrid area’s total population—lived in or around and worked for El Escorial at its height in the 17th century.


Before we got to El Escorial, we passed by what looked like a Christian memorial: a large cross jutting up from one of the many prominent hills around El Escorial. WE found out from Paco, one of the administrative staff of the Fund, that this cross actually marked the tomb of Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain between 1939 and his death in 1975. The fact that the tomb remains standing and is even accessible to visitors today speaks to Spain’s history in contrast with most of Western Europe.

Spain’s fascist regime did not crumble during or after World War II, nor did it end in an extremely violent revolution. Instead, Franco maintained control of the country for over 30 years, and Spain went through a tense but relatively peaceful transition to democracy once he died. As noted by John Hooper in his book The New Spaniards, citizens of the country wanted to move into the present and the future rather than confront the past after the dictatorship ended. There were no trials for top members of Franco’s political party, the Movimiento Nacional, and Spain retained many plaques, statues, and streets bearing his name or that of his allies. One will not encounter a Mussolini Avenue or a Hitler Street in Italy or Germany today but can find Franco’s tomb. Salamanca just decided to remove a stone medallion of the Generalísimo in the past month. Though more people have realized the importance of recounting history and knowing how it is recounted, coming to terms with the dictatorship is an ongoing process in Spain.

A happier sight also greeted us on our way to El Escorial. Sun, clouds, wind, and rain marked the whole of the day, and on our bus ride the perfect conditions were met for the creation of un arco iris (a rainbow). We could see this marvelous optical phenomenon for almost twenty minutes, vivid colors and both illusory ends captivating our eyes. It was the best rainbow I can remember seeing; even though I didn’t find a leprechaun with a pot of gold (a particular dream of college students) anywhere near it, I gave and give thanks to God for this beautiful natural event.

Having left Toledo around 8:45 in the morning and stopped for about 30 minutes at a gas station along the way, we arrived in the town of El Escorial around 11:15 and made a 10-minute trek to the actual building. Before describing all the wonderful aspects of our visit, I’ll identify the two downsides: 1. Like many historic buildings in Spain, El Escorial has no modern heating system, making for quite a chilly walkthrough of the complex. Installing modern heating would probably cost the government more than doing so is worth, and, obviously, using the traditional heating system (wood fires and coal) would not do wonders for visitors’ lungs or the environment. 2. Photos are not allowed inside the palace and monastery. The most frustrating aspect of this prohibition was not so much that it existed as that no signs or persons announce its existence before one enters the building or rooms inside it, resulting in embarrassing moments of security guards speed-walking to students whisper-shouting, “¡No fotos!”

The pleasures of the tour of El Escorial far outweighed the annoyances, however. We started with what is probably the crown jewel of the complex: the library. You can imagine how loudly I screamed (internally, of course), when I found out we would be touring a royal library and how much louder that screaming became when we actually entered the room. The library is a long rectangle with bookshelves lining its walls. The vaulted ceiling is decorated with glorious paintings, with the personification of Theology on one end leading to that of Philosophy on the other through the seven arts of medieval education, a progression meant to illustrate that reason and faith, far from being eternally at odds, can and should draw from, lead to, and enrich each other.


Philip II, the Spanish monarch who ordered the construction of El Escorial, had a deep devotion to the Catholic Church, as evidenced in the dual purpose of the complex as a palace and monastery. His keen interest in religion also manifested itself in the commissioning of numerous works of religious art and the modest personal chambers of the royal family in the palace, both of which we saw during our tour (and the former of which can also be seen in the Museo del Prado).

After the library, we went to the church, to which only the royal family, nobles, and clergy had access. The church is massive and speaks of imperial power (at least to this traveler). Side chapels, built for each noble family in Spain, line the perimeter of the space. Despite the select audience of the church, the decorations in its main space reflect the tastes in religious art of the common people of Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries: emotional and vivid. These inclinations often resulted in gruesome depictions of the Passion of Christ, with blood streaming from Jesus’ body before and during his crucifixion (despite the fact that crucifixion is a largely bloodless death).


To illustrate the different tastes of the Spanish nobility and especially Philip II at this time, our guide took us to a small room off of the church that contained a few pieces of art. The central work was a depiction of the crucifixion, with a white marble statue of Jesus on a black cross. No blood, no crown of thorns, and even no wounds appeared on the artist’s rendition of Christ, whose face appeared serene rather than despairing. The tranquil, simple design, our guide stated, was the preference of Philip over the more expressive tastes of the “rabble.”

After leaving the church, we headed to the royal crypt, stopping along the way at a beautifully decorated ceiling and passing through a collection of religious art. The former was one of the few places where everyone, including me, took photos. This probably wasn’t allowed, but there were no guards in sight, so the group decided en masse to break the rules. The latter contained a piece by El Greco, The Martyrdom of St. Maurice. Due to its bright colors and its relegation of the actual martyrdom of the saint to the background, Philip II rejected the work, prompting El Greco to move to Toledo and begin his famous works there.


For a morbid person such as me, a royal crypt is a definite plus to any visit to a palace. Though below the main level of the palace, the crypt was most definitely not your typical spooky graveyard. Many of the finely carved coffins stood in galleries with windows looking onto the gardens surrounding the palace, and the atmosphere as a whole felt rather serene. Not only kings and queens rest in peace in these chambers but rather their siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts, too.

The lowest level of the crypt, the Pantheon of Kings, is reserved for the monarchs of Spain since Philip II and their consorts (the spouses with whom they bore children who came to reign as monarchs). The twenty-six marble sepulchers that sit in the room have taken up all of the available space, creating an as-yet unsolved problem when the retired king Juan Carlos I and his wife Sofia die, not to mention the current king Felipe VI and his wife Letizia.


After the Pantheon of Kings, we headed through the personal chambers of Philip II, his family, and the royals who followed him, getting a glimpse of his austere lifestyle—for a king, at least. The beds, while certainly better than those of regular Spaniards at the time (and for long after), they more closely resembled those of a merchant than of a king. This last part of the tour also included a sunroom that had a solar clock: as the sun descends in the afternoon, its light hits marks installed on the floor corresponding to certain times. When we visited, we couldn’t tell the time due to all the clouds, but the clock was still a very interesting sight.

We had a delicious lunch once our tour of El Escorial finished. We thought the first plate of pasta would be the end of the meal or, at most, followed by dessert. Instead, we received another plate of meat and patatas fritas (French fries) and then a custard-filled crepe, leaving us most definitely stuffed. Those of us traveling to Salamanca managed to shake our food-induced lethargy off and make our way to the train station, from which we travelled to Salamanca.

Salamanca, like Toledo, is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conquered by the Carthaginians (from Carthage, near modern-day Tunis; think of Hannibal and his army of elephants) in the 3rd century BC, it came under Roman and then Visigothic rule before being conquered by the Moors in the eighth century and reconquered by the Spanish Christians in the eleventh.

Salamanca is a university town and has been so since the twelfth century, when its Cathedral School was founded. The University of Salamanca’s oldest building today is its Recotrate, formerly the Hospital del Estudio, built in 1413. Students still attend the university today, giving it an attractive night scene for young people while maintaining a small-city charm akin to that of Toledo.

Centuries-old educational facilities are not all Salamanca has to offer, though: The city counts a Roman bridge, an Old Cathedral from the twelfth century and a “New” Cathedral from the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries attached to it, a Pontifical University located in a seventeenth-century college established by the Jesuit Order, the Casa de las Conchas (built by a knight between 1493 and 1517, decorated with over 300 stone shells, the symbol of San Santiago [James], and currently a library), and a Plaza Mayor from the eighteenth century. I consider myself blessed to have visited all of these sites over the course of our Saturday in Salamanca.








Another blessing: both Friday and Saturday, the SNC students ventured to the supermercado (supermarket), bought bread, cheese, meat, and other foods that appealed to us, and returned to our hostel to make our own supper. Table fellowship has come up time and again in my theology courses as a key experience for connecting with others and coming to know them and oneself, and I have to agree with this point. It was wonderful getting to share food and laughter with my peers from De Pere (apologies for the awful attempt at wordplay)—and also quite economical!

On Sunday morning, we left Salamanca and went by train to Ávila, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of one of the Catholic Church’s most famous saints and Doctors, Teresa of Ávila—or, as she is known in Spain, Teresa de Jesús. Ávila sits 3,714 feet above sea level on the top of a hill, making it Spain’s highest provincial capital. Before the Romans, it was inhabited by the Vettones. Like Salamanca and Toledo, Ávila went through the procession of Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, and Spanish rule. It boasts many Romanesque and Gothic churches and also, most famously, an intact set of medieval walls built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.


The walls (muros or murallas) of Ávila have a perimeter of 8,256 feet, enclose an area of 77 acres, have 88 semicircular towers, contain nine gates, stand an average of 39 feet tall, and count 2,500 merlons (those stone sections that jut up from the walls themselves). The walls are the largest lit monument in the world. About half of their perimeter can be walked by visitors, an activity in which I partook Sunday afternoon, taking in the commanding views of both the city and the surrounding countryside and marveling at the history so solidly under my feet.


I got a bit ahead of myself with the walls: right as we arrived in the plaza that sits before Ávila’s Puerta de Alcázar, the bells of San Pedro Apóstol, a church that sits in the square, started ringing for mass at 11:30. We promptly went in and attended what seemed to be the youth mass for the week, with many young people in the front rows of pews and a small group tocando a la guitarra and cantando (playing the guitar and singing). The higher level of energy shown in this mass and the presence of other Americans there made me feel more at home and helped with the homesickness I have been experiencing regarding Mass and religious practice in the States. Also, San Pedro Apostól is a Romanesque church, so experiencing Mass there was a delight for both the soul and the eyes.


Once Mass had ended, we rested for a little in a café on the Plaza de Santa Teresa and then made our way to Ávila’s cathedral. The building, on which work began in 1172 and ended in the early seventeenth century, exhibits the transitional stage between Romanesque and Gothic architecture and is considered to be Spain’s first example of a Gothic church. The apse (the rounded section of a church, usually at its eastern end, that contains the altar), known as the cimorro, was actually built into the city walls, creating a formidable obstacle to would-be invaders. Though we did not take a tour of the cathedral, it was obvious that it was another beautiful treasure of history and spirituality to be found in Spain.


Back to the walls: once I had finished the walkable section, I descended and walked as close as I could to the walls through the other half of the city, passing through the Plaza de la Santa and the Convento de Santa Teresa de Jesús that borders it. Saint Teresa lived from 1515 to 1582 and became a key figure in the Catholic Reformation. After experiencing a conversion in her twenties, she went on to reform the Carmelite Order with Saint John of the Cross, eventually leading to the Discalced Carmelite Order. Teresa is regarded as an important Christian mystic today, with her best known works being her autobiography, The Interior Castle (El Castillo Interior), and The Way to Perfection (Camino de Perfección). Though the museum dedicated to Teresa was closed until February 6 (the next day!), I was glad to have visited the city of this illustrious and fascinating saint.



Once my rapid walk through Avila’s old city was complete, I headed to the train station, from which I traveled to Atocha station in Madrid. Having a few hours before the 7:50 train to Toledo, I made a quick trek to the Prado Museum. Yep: for the third Sunday in a row, I visited the Prado, this time to see Francisco de Goya’s famous pinturas negras (Black Paintings), so called for their dark tints and even darker mood. Students get free entrance to the Prado at all times, but since I showed up past 6 p.m. on Sunday, everyone was being granted entrada gratis before the building closed at 7. I quickly made my way to the room showcasing the paintings from Goya’s last years, had enough time to contemplate each one, and even strolled past works I had previously seen in the museum.

Once out of the Prado, I made my way back to Atocha and eventually got on the train to Toledo, arriving around 8:20 to the station and around 8:40 to my host family’s apartment in San Antón, where I gratefully tucked into dinner with them.

Thus ended another crazy, marvelous, eye-opening week abroad. Captions will be added to this post eventually; sorry for the delay! Thanks for reading, everyone, and buena suerte with all of your endeavors!


  1. I was blown away by Salamanca and Ávila, figuratively and almost literally. Strong winds of 50-60 kilometers per hour (31-37 miles per hour) blew through their section of the province of Castilla y León over the weekend, making otherwise pleasant and sunny days a bit chilly and daunting. The merlons of Ávila’s walls provided intermittent protection from the powerful gusts as I walked on them on Sunday, for which I was quite grateful.
  2. My host family taught me a uniquely Toledoan word: “bolo.” It is similar in meaning to “tonto,” “silly,” but with greater connotations of affection than of derision. To say “¡Qué bolo!” is to good-naturedly tease a friend or family member for acting in an odd manner, whereas “¡Qué tonto!” is often used as a mild insult.
  3. Ever hear the phrase, “The rain in Spain stays/falls mainly in/on the plain”? It comes from the musical My Fair Lady, based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Unfortunately, this elocution exercise is not true: most of Spain’s rain falls in its northern mountains, while the meseta on which Toledo sits receives about 14 inches of rain per year (compared to Wisconsin’s annual average of 30.89 inches).
  4. Ávila is famous not only for its walls and its saint but also for its yemas, little pastries made of egg yolks, lemon juice, and cinnamon and then formed into small balls. Unfortunately, I did not get to sample one while I was in Ávila. I’ll keep an eye out for them here in Toledo, though!
  5. Salamanca has another distinctive trait: its own font. Students at the university 600 years ago marked their graduation with a “Vitor” (standing for “Victory”) painted in bull’s blood on the sandstone walls of the building. (The bull is a symbol of dominance and power in Spain.) The unique font has endured to the present day and can now be found throughout the city center. In fact, shopkeepers there are required to use such red lettering (though it doesn’t have to be of bull’s blood anymore).

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