Since approximately 3500 BCE, humans have manufactured glass, using it for practical and artistic purposes, often both. Colored glass, created by different minerals present in the sand and silicone used in the material’s creation, has been around since that year, too. Stained glass as we in the West often think of it – church windows, symbolic representations of biblical and religious scenes, kaleidoscopes of brilliant color falling on pews or floors – developed in the seventh or eighth centuries CE, however, and reached its quintessence in the Middle Ages.
Whatever its past, stained glass continues to enchant people across the world in the present. It adds variety and richness to light, or rather reminds us of these qualities of light in singling out particular wavelengths of the full spectrum. Just as in the Middle Ages, stained glass can communicate meaning to us, whether the traditional depictions of Jesus and saints or modern scenes both religious and secular. Spaces with stained glass windows almost automatically, in my mind, become special places, sacred places.
One of the most popular words or symbols used to describe God in the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is light. Light is the first thing God creates, saying “Let there be light” in the first chapter of Genesis. God’s face or God’s presence is overwhelmingly radiant, causing the ancient Israelites to fear death if they see it or – in the case of Moses- resulting in one’s face gaining a similar, if much lesser, brilliance. The clothes and person of Jesus become blindingly bright at his Transfiguration. The Quran calls God “the Light of the heavens and the earth” (24:35). Of course, God in these religions is also affirmed as completely transcendent, always and everywhere beyond the full comprehension or description of humans, but the symbol of light has worked well over the millennia and continues to resonate with modern believers (or at least this one).
If we believe that light helps point us toward God, guide our steps toward Her or “see” Her a bit better, how could or should we then view ourselves and our world? Are we inert objects upon which the light falls? Are we shrouded in total darkness? Are we capable of giving light ourselves?
I like to see myself, ourselves (humans), and the world itself as stained glass. We are created; we are fragile; we are diverse; and we are, like many stained glass creations and as we are increasingly learning (or perhaps relearning), we are connected and at our best in being so.
In my view, we as humans cannot produce our own light: we cannot make something out of nothing, nor can we truly help ourselves or anyone else by our own volition or efforts. Based as I am in the Catholic and larger Christian traditions, I believe that every good thing – every instance of kindness, of enlightenment, of existence itself – is supported and made possible by the presence, the will, and the love of the living God. “In your light we see light” (Psalms 36:10). Even if we deny God’s existence or God’s love for us, God still exists and loves us. God makes our denial and our rejection possible, as well as our most selfless and noble thoughts and actions, whether we perform them in God’s name or not.
Just as we cannot produce light, we cannot fully understand or grasp the true Light, God. We as created beings have our limits, and God is unlimited. We perceive and receive God within these limits, through the glass of this world and our lives “stained” by our own experiences, faults, virtues, and personalities. We see God “indistinctly, as though in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NAB) – and sometimes that mirror is pretty warped or dirty.
The implications of a self-conception as stained glass and a perception of God as light aren’t entirely negative or depressing, however. (And thank goodness for that: theologies and analogies that see the world or humans only in a negative light aren’t all that healthy, in my opinion.)
In recognizing our limitations, we open ourselves to the limitless love and infinite life of God. In recognizing our dependency on God, we come to a deeper, more fulfilling connection with Her, with ourselves, and with the world around us. In recognizing our fragility, we gain a firm foundation and steadfast strength in God. This tension lies at the heart of our relationship with God: God wants us to be in free and eternal communion – in heaven – with Her, but God will not infringe on our freedom, our choice to accept our reject this offer of life in abundance. The choice remains with us in every moment to accept or reject God’s perennial offer, to let the light enter us or to shroud ourselves in self-imposed darkness.
As stained glass allows light to pass through itself, so we are called and made to make God known through our lives. It is impossible to truly experience God’s love and keep it to oneself: if you profess to believe in and love God but do not pass that love on to your neighbor in your words and actions, you contradict yourself. If you’d like firmer proof than my word, look to Mark 12, Matthew 22, or Luke 10 to find Jesus’ affirmation of this second of the two great commandments.
Just because we’re “stained” glass doesn’t mean that our efforts to bring God’s light into the world are useless or unnecessary. Remember: in this life we experience God indirectly, through the “stained” glass of creation and of our lives. Each of us has a unique staining, a particular color through which God’s light shines and manifests itself in the world. The more people who let God’s light shine through them, the better understanding we have of God, a more holistic, colorful image – even as the divine ultimately remains beyond our full comprehension and grasp. God does not shine through or for a select group of people but rather through and for the whole creation, the entire universe.
Together, we who gratefully receive and generously give the light of God form an intricate, interconnected, and beautiful stained glass window: the Body of Christ. This window weathers the storms that come its way and grows through time as its members who die and accept God’s love enter the communion of saints. We can rely on each other as we all rely on God to light our paths and grant us fulfillment.
As I go through life, I increasingly aspire to become a shard of stained glass (metaphorically, of course; literally, that’d be a bit tricky and, frankly, weird). I want to realize and accept my limitations as a human but also to realize and accept the gifts and love God offers to me: I want to be humble. I pray to be as honest to God and to myself as I can be, to let God’s brilliance shine through the lens of my life and shine on, inspire, and help others. I desire to be the best me I can be, and I believe that will happen the more I open myself to God.
That’s probably enough blathering on stained glass and light for this post. Thank you for bearing with me through it all, reader. May you recognize God’s light shining on and around you, and may you let it shine in and through you each day. ~
Because it does no evil to the other, because it seeks the flourishing and fulfillment of the other as its true, authentic, best self, even if that means the law must be ignored, suppressed, or even broken in certain circumstances.
Love never tires, even when the one who loves is physically spent. It goes case by case, seeing each individual as a whole and embracing it as such instead of viewing and disregarding it as an object.
At the same time, love has a profound respect for the law. Love acknowledges the law as coming from God, who – let’s remember – is love (1 John 4:8) and is geared toward our flourishing. Love holds the universal law and the individual situation in creative tension, showing mercy to all sinners in the way that will best bring about their healing and blossoming.
Love does not shy away from reprimand, denouncement, or sanction when they prove necessary, nor does it try to conceal or ignore sin. However, love always seeks the growth of the other, never its diminishment or destruction, and love understands that gentleness and patience are often the best traits to bring about this growth.
Love fulfills the law because it fulfills us, for whom God pronounced the law.
Please, O Giver of Law and Source of Love, may we follow your commandments always in love and with love. Thank you. ~
Hola, ¡lector/a! You’ve just started (what I think is) my last post related to my semester abroad in Europe in the spring of 2017. Below, I’ll be reflecting on what I experienced in Toledo and in my travels, how these experiences influenced me, how I’ve changed as a result of them, and how I will (or at least how I hope I will) carry what I’ve learned from them into my words and actions the rest of my life.
I want to make it clear that it’s rare for me to sit for un rato largo (a long while) and reflect. I’m almost constantly thinking and pondering, but I’m also almost constantly doing something. At home, it’s reading, writing, doing schoolwork, fulfilling extracurricular duties, or completing REH (Residential Education and Housing) tasks. Abroad, it was planning and going trips, uploading and editing my photos, keeping track of my funds, exploring the Toledo area, and completing work from the Fund. I reflect on my actions as I do them; that’s just how I function. But sometimes I (like all people, I believe) need to just stop, not do anything, and open up myself to silence. I’m trying to do this at least once a day through contemplative meditation, something I recommend for everyone. In any case, what follows will not always (or perhaps even at all) be sage wisdom, but I’m grateful to have had the chance to reflect and to write down what has come to me in this post.
How have I changed? I’m not entirely sure. I still work harder than I need to and sometimes should; I still have a problem setting aside enough time for fun and relaxation. I’m still timid and I don’t do a whole lot of fun activities with other people as a result, even though I sometimes want to do these things with my friends. I don’t know or speak as much Spanish as I would like. I still want to do more things than there is time to do (at least with the schedule I create for myself). In many important ways, I’m quite similar to the person I was before I left in early January.
The above “stills” are rather negative; I realize that. Another “still” is my low self-confidence and my reluctance to accept the overflowing, freely given love God offers to me and all creation. It’s a struggle I’ll have my whole life, but as time goes on, it becomes easier. So let me list another series of “stills,” one a bit more positive.
I’m still gifted when it comes to academics: I received all A’s in my courses at the Fund, and, even if I didn’t learn as much Spanish as I would have liked, I still learned and improved a lot in the language. I’m still a dab hand at organization: I didn’t lose anything from my bags in my final week abroad, and I planned almost all of my transportation, lodging, and activities for my travels, as well as much of those of the people with whom I traveled. I’m still a leader, for whatever reason(s). I’m not sure why I am one, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to serve others and accompany them to better places. I’m still a loyal friend, a devoted son, and a sentimental individual. And I’m still an active Catholic – without God or my faith in God, I would not have survived, thrived, or had as good a time as I did while I was abroad, nor might I have even gone abroad at all.
So, those are the “stills,” but what about the “then-and-nows,” the changes? I think I’ve grown or advanced in important ways during my time abroad. I’ve learned and adopted (even if only a little) a more relaxed attitude toward time and toward academic and other tasks. Sometimes, the most important thing to do is to do nothing. Moreover, it seems to me that the most important “task” for anyone, and the deepest need for anyone, is to freely give and receive love, to be generous, patient, accepting, and willing to affirm and protect the dignity of oneself and others.
I’ve learned to be more comfortable taking risks and to take more risks in general. While at the Fund, I started and led a spiritual discussion group. It was never very large, but it helped me and the few students who were part of it to talk about how our spirituality was challenged, affirmed, and changed in Spain and differences between religious observance and life in Spain and the United States. I had to take risks sometimes, asking for directions in unfamiliar cities and choosing a train or taxi without knowing for certain that it would arrive on time or in the destination I wanted.
Finally, I chose to take more risks with people. Like I said, I’m still shy, but I made a conscious effort during the semester to talk to more people and to talk more with them. A lot of my worries about people judging me or being unfriendly were, I realized, unfounded or exaggerated. Was I a social butterfly or everyone’s favorite person? By no means. But did I learn different perspectives and stories and create some amazing friendships with wonderful people from St. Norbert College and the other universities present at the Fund? Emphatically yes. I’m not going to waste my time and energy worrying so much about what others, especially my friends, think of me. I will care for people, work for their fulfillment and realization, but I will not care whether they bless me or curse me, laud me or revile me for doing so. If a person loves me as I am, despises every fiber of my being, or (perhaps worst of all) is entirely indifferent to me and my existence, I will do my best to love them as human beings and children of God. I know that this isn’t the most ground-shaking realization, but I have to repeat it to myself each day to prevent falling back into the fruitless hunt for constantly popularity and affirmation. God offers me and all of us affirmation, acceptance, and support in every moment, and if I accept these totally undeserved but lovingly offered gifts, I will be more myself and more of a shining light in the world.
I gained a greater appreciation for communication and even a little loudness from Spanish culture and especially my host family. I was and still am a naturally quiet person, but sometimes this refrain from noise keeps me from making my true feelings and thoughts known or from truly engaging with other people. My host family and other Spaniards would shout to, chide, and tease each other often and openly, but they would also and often express care and kindness for each other in their words and actions. And they did not hold back from laughter when it came on them! In addition to all the generosity, support, help, patience, and food(!) showered upon me by my host mother and family, they provided me with a lesson in opening up more and not shrinking from letting others know that I object to an opinion or action – or that I appreciate, find joy with, or love these same people.
My travels gave me a greater appreciation for both public and private transportation. I appreciated and admire the public transportation system of European countries. The ease and cost-effectiveness of traveling between towns, cities, regions, and countries is flabbergasting to me as a United States citizen; I could hardly have seen as much as I did without the highly developed and systematized bus, train, metro, and plane routes in Europe. This system is possible in the United States, and I hope that our country invests in expanding, renovating, and recreating our public transportation infrastructure soon and regularly so that people of all economic levels can travel more easily within their states and this varied, breathtaking nation.
At the same time, boy am I glad to be able to drive again! Being able to decide when I want to leave and arrive, where I want to go, which (if any) stops I wish to make, and with whom I want to travel (even if it’s just me) are multiple blessings for which I now have more gratitude. Public transportation in Europe helped me gain patience, flexibility, and openness to other people of different backgrounds and personalities, but it also gave me an appreciation of the solitude and freedom of driving. It would have been nice to have a bus or train to go from Stevens Point to Green Bay to West Bend when I visited my friends at St. Norbert College the week after I returned to the United States, but it was also incredible to drive by myself and listen to WPR. (Another “still”: I still am a huge fan of public radio and television!)
I went to SNC to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen for months and especially to wish well to my friends who were graduating at this year’s commencement. The friends and professors with whom I spent time helped me to reflect further on and clarify the lessons and changes imparted on me by my semester abroad. Most of all, my visit to St. Norbert College and to my home region of the Kettle Moraine reminded me of how generous, talented, and kind so many people at that college and in that area are (and how so many of these people exist throughout the world). Four friends allowed me to stay in their apartment while I visited, and they and multiple other people on campus were just as happy to see me as I them. My aunt in West Bent opened up her house to me for a night’s stay, and my best friend from Campbellsport simply radiated joy. I was overwhelmed and humbled by their sincerity and friendship. To all of you whom I met during those five days, thank you. To all the people with whom I studied and traveled in Europe, thank you. To my family, thank you. To God, thank you. I cannot say it enough nor with enough zeal: thank you.
What I’ve learned perhaps more than anything from my time abroad is that everyone makes mistakes. Revelatory, right? For me, however, it was truly an epiphany of sorts. I’ve begun to see and accept that I’m imperfect and that this is okay. I cannot and should not be the best or extremely skilled at everything I do, nor should anyone. we all feel powerless, moronic, lost, abandoned, ignored, or foolish at various points in our lives. What helps in these moments is realizing that all people feel like this, too, and that we can accompany each other in these moments of darkness. If we live with and through these trials, these moments of dying to self, with love and trust, we can grow in incredible ways and bring goodness and healing to ourselves and the world around us. These results don’t justify the suffering we experience or make it inherently good, but they do show (to me, at least) that goodness and light can be brought out of even the worst and darkest situations, that good in the end does have the final word.
Good for me is God, and God was and is the greatest “still” of my experience abroad. God accompanied me through every setback encountered, every church entered, every photo snapped, every churro eaten, and every laugh shared. The more I’ve learned about, prayed to, and experienced God, the more I’ve seen that God is both stability and dynamism beyond our comprehension. The Trinity, one united God in three distinct Persons, is the basis for this thought. Our universe is in constant flux, and we are never the same person from day to stay. Small changes happen constantly, many beyond our control. God is present throughout all the variables of life, however, and we can choose to react to the changes that come our way with God in love and life or without God in apathy and lifelessness. Whatever we decide and whatever happens, God abides; God still is; and God is love.
I’m not the same person I was when I left for Spain, but nor am I the same person I was when I came back. I change each day, and I have to learn to be comfortable with that and to rely on God to make that change positive. I pray that I grow in wisdom, faith, hope, and love every day, that I change for the better, and I pray the same for you, reader.
Thank you for coming with me on this journey, reader. Whether you’ve kept up with my blog from my flight to Charles de Gaulle or started with my flight back from it, I truly appreciate your taking the time to read through my rambling thoughts. If you have any recommendations, questions, or general comments, please let me know about them! I’ll continue posting in this blog, but it will return to its original focus of reflections on Scripture passages and on my general thoughts. If you want to keep up with it, great! If not, no worries, of course!
Again, thank you, reader. For what may be the last time saying it on this blog, hasta luego y vaya con Dios. May you see God walking beside you in every step.
Welcome back, reader! That is, welcome back to my blog if you’ve visited it in the past and have returned to read another post. If this is your first time here, I extend a regular but just as hearty “Welcome!” to you.
On Saturday, 6 May, I left Europe and returned to the United States, officially ending my semester abroad. Having left on 7 January, I spent just about four months in Europe. My time in Toledo through St. Norbert College was quite short compared to other study-abroad programs: 3.5 months, when other SNC students abroad had/have classes from the beginning of January to mid-May in France, from mid-February to the end of June in New Zealand, and from the beginning of April to the end of August in Japan. Of course, differences in duration do not make any one program better than another, but it was interesting for me to feel ready to come home and joyful upon doing so and then see the activities of other Fund students and SNC students who continued to travel past my departure or are still doing so now.
I spent my last week in Europe traveling with my friend Alyssa, another SNC student who spent her semester abroad in London. We started our travels with a whirlwind one-day exploration of Venice on Sunday, 30 April. On Monday, 1 May, we arrived in the city of Brno, the Czech Republic, on our way to that country’s capital of Prague, where we would stay until 3 May.
Our Regiojet bus arrived in Brno around 6:30 a.m. We switched to another Regiojet bus that left at 7:30 a.m. and arrived in Prague around 10:20 a.m. I really enjoyed this last leg of the journey: the Czech countryside reminded me a lot of Wisconsin in the late spring and summer with its verdant green fields, rolling hills, and small towns.
The language did not prove quite as familiar, however! Czech, a Slavic language, baffled my ears and brain when I heard it, since it is a Slavic tongue rather than Germanic (like English) or Romantic (like Spanish). I think that it discombobulated me more than a more foreign language, such as Arabic or Chinese, would have because I had an ingrained expectation that it would instantly sound familiar. Learning that the Czech word for “yes” is ano, however, proved that assumption a bit unfounded. At the same time, as one of my friends from the Czech Republic pointed out, Czech and most other Slavic languages are easier to learn than English. I’ve definitely come to have more gratitude for knowing English as my native tongue over the course of my time abroad; its many, oft-broken and oft-contradicted rules, both written and intuited, make it pretty difficult for non-native speakers to learn.
Once we arrived at Florenc, the main bus station in Prague, Alyssa and I made our way by metro and electric tram to Pohořelec (literally, “the scene of fire,” due to the many fires that have broken out in its square over the centuries), a section of Hradčany, the Castle District that contains, unsurprisingly, Prague Castle. Right by Pohořelec is the district of Strahov, in which sits Strahov Abbey, a Premonstratensian monastery where Alyssa and I would be lodging during our stay in the city. The canons here, thanks to the help of Father Ciferni, the director of the Center for Norbertine Studies, had graciously reserved a set of rooms for us and agreed to give us a tour of their home. Before I go on: Thank you, Fr. Ciferini and the canons of Strahov! Your generosity is deeply appreciated and made our stay in Prague truly unique and wonderful.
After putting our bags in our room and unpacking a bit, Alyssa and I had lunch with the canons in their refectory. It was nice to meet them as a group and to try some typical Czech cuisine. I never found out the exact names for what we ate, but it was all delicious!
After lunch, I went on a walk alone through the grounds of Strahov. The community was established after the bishop of Olomouc, Jindřich Zdík, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1138. He decided to found a community of regular canons in Prague on his return, but the first community struggled to survive. Zdík thus invited Premonstratensian (Norbertine) canons from Steinfeld, an abbey in the Rhine Valley in Germany. The Premonstratensian Order had been founded just two decades before by Saint Norbert in northern France, but the order had been enjoying great popularity and growth in Europe. The Norbertines from Steinfeld established themselves in Prague in 1143 and, through ups and downs over the centuries, have survived to the present day.
Between 1950 and 1989, the abbey was controlled by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia. During this period, the other Norbertine abbeys in the region were destroyed, along with most religious houses behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Strahov Abbey was kept relatively intact due to its smaller size. Looking at it and its size today, I cannot imagine how large the other abbeys in Bohemia were!
Since 1994, after an extensive restoration, the canons of Strahov returned to their historic home, and the abbey and grounds have since been a major tourist site, as well. There are restaurants and tourist shops on the abbey grounds today, but the biggest draws are its stunning architecture and especially its two libraries, the Philosophical and Theological Halls. It was odd to be in Strahov and see so many people who obviously knew about it and wanted to see it. In most other areas of Europe and especially in America, the Premonstratensians/Norbertines are a relatively unknown order, even though they had a significant presence in Western and Central Europe until the 1800s.
Alyssa and I would have an official tour of the abbey the next day, but for now I simply looked in the church (the Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption, with a Baroque design from the 1740s) and then walked in the park the adjoins the monastery.
It was an absolutely beautiful day: the trees were in flower, there was a beautiful view of Prague, and many people were walking in the park. It was actually Labor Day in the Czech Republic (and much of Europe), so a lot of people had the day off work and there were celebrations throughout the city.
After I returned from my walk, Alyssa and I went on a walk downhill east from Strahov, toward the Vltava River and Prague’s New Town (“new” as in from the 14th century compared to older sections of the historic city center). On the way, we saw the Church of Saint Nicholas, many beautiful Baroque buildings, and tons of souvenir and food shops. Once we reached the Vltava River, we crossed the Legion Bridge, passing over Střelecký Island on the way, and reached the National Theatre in New Town. After watching a Communist Party protest-parade pass by, we walked to the Charles Bridge in the Old Town district.
The Charles Bridge was constructed in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries by the order of King Charles IV (1346-1378), who presided over Bohemia’s Golden Age and was also crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1355. The Charles Bridge is the most famous of Prague’s many bridges, with over 30 statues of various saints (including one of Saint Norbert!), a Gothic bridge tower on its Old Town end, and numerous tourists each day.
Alyssa and I crossed the bridge and made our way back to Strahov, stopping for trdelník on the way. What is trdelník, you ask? Good question! It is a “chimney cake” made on a spit and covered in sugar and walnuts and a traditional dessert in Central Europe. However, its popularity has surged in the last decade among tourists in Prague, opening up a whole new world of toppings possibilities, including cinnamon, berries, and chocolate. You can even get a trdelník filled with ice cream! I ended up getting the basic version of the cake and a raspberry tea with it: both were scrumptious. After enjoying our cakes, Alyssa and I bought some groceries for the next two days and then returned to Strahov, from which we soon departed for the park I had visited earlier in the day.
In the park, Alyssa and I climbed the Petřín Lookout Tower, a structure built in 1891 as an observation and transmission tower that strongly resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris (which I would visit later the same week). It is significantly shorter than the Eiffel Tower but also, technically, taller due to its location on a tall hill overlooking Prague. There were certainly magnificent views of the city in the twilight once we climbed up the tower. I found myself charmed again and again by the Baroque architecture of Prague; I felt very at home there, somehow.
After the tower, Alyssa returned to the abbey, while I went to the other touristy attraction in the park, the Mirror Maze (Zrcadlové bludiště Petřín, in Czech). Like the Petřín Lookout Tower, it was built in 1891 for the General Land Centennial Exhibition, the World’s Fair for that year. It is basically a hall of mirrors, but it sure was a lot of fun to explore! It also includes a diorama of the battle between Czech and Swedish soldiers on the Charles Bridge in 1648 right in its middle, an interesting break between the two mirror sections. Once I was done in the Mirror Maze, I went back to Strahov, ready for a good night’s rest after spending the last night on a bus. Even a bus as nice as the ones run by Regiojet are not quite as good as a soft and clean bed!
On Tuesday morning, Alyssa and I had breakfast with the canons and then shortly after were taken on a tour of Strahov Abbey. Our first stop was the Philosophical Hall, a gorgeous library built in an early Classicist Style at the end of the eighteenth century. Despite having two stories, the space has no obvious staircases, but our guide pointed out a bookcase that had fake books on it as the door to a hidden staircase up to the top level. In addition, he showed us a chair built into a desk that one could simply roll out and then sit in and a rotating book arm. Basically, this was my dream library!
From the Philosophical Hall, we walked through the museum of the monastery to the Theological Hall, viewing old and valuable manuscripts and other objects the abbey had acquired over the centuries of its existence. The Theological Hall, built in the 1670s in the Baroque style, also blew me away with its beauty.
Our tour also took us to and through the church of the abbey, including the choir stalls where the canons sit for the Liturgy of the Hours and the chapel containing the relics of Saint Norbert. Norbert died in Magdeburg, Germany – where he had been serving as archbishop since 1126 – on 6 June 1134 (his feast day), and his remains were buried there for centuries. In the 1520s, however, the city converted to Protestantism, requiring the bones to be moved. It took about a century, but the remains of Norbert were finally brought to Strahov Abbey on 2 May 1627, an event known as the traslatio. Alyssa and I were seeing these remains (in a golden container in the chapel) on 2 May, as well, exactly 390 years after the traslatio occurred: it was a surreal moment!
After the church, we saw more of the abbey’s museum and eventually ended up on a patio overlooking the city of Prague. It was another fine day, and the city spread out beneath us in the morning sun. If I had admired Prague yesterday, today I loved it!
Our tour finished just after 10 a.m., so Alyssa and I decided to visit one of the main historical and tourist sites in the city, Prague Castle or Pražský hrad. Dating back in its oldest sections to the ninth century, it is the largest ancient castle in the world, with a total surface area of 7.28 hectares (or 18 acres for us Americans). The castle today serves as the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic, as well as, in a secret room, the crown jewels of the Bohemian royal family.
The castle is also a complex that contains St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, two other small churches, and an impressive array of gardens. The gardens and the main square of the castle are free and open to the public, while the interior of the castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, and other sites require a paid ticket entrance.
Alyssa and I first visited St. Vitus Cathedral, a Gothic church that was actually dedicated to Saints Wenceslaus and Adalbert too in 1997 but still mainly goes by St. Vitus. Built in the fourteenth century but only completed in the twentieth, it is the largest church in the Czech Republic and a magnificent example of Gothic architecture.
From the cathedral, Alyssa and I walked to the castle. In our tour of it, we had the opportunity to see the window of the Defenestration of Prague in 1618. For a history major and lover like me, this was a dream come true! (Click the link if you don’t know about it.) Perhaps my favorite part of the whole episode is the word “defenestration” itself. I mean, how often do you get to use this word meaning “to throw out of a window”?
In our journey through Prague Castle, we also saw the throne room, St. George’s Basilica, the Golden Lane (a street of small houses in the complex that received its name from the goldsmiths that lived there in the 1600s), medieval torture instruments (always fun!), a dungeon, and replicas of the Bohemian Royal Jewels. We ended our day at Prague Castle by going through two museums about the history of the castle, the royal families that lived within it, and the region of Bohemia.
Once we exited Prague Castle, we caught a tram to Prague’s New Town and walked to its Old Town Square, the other major tourist site in the city. The big draw here is an astronomical clock built in 1410 that, amazingly enough, still functions, making it the oldest operating astronomical clock in the world. Charming and impressive buildings line the square and stand close to it, too, so there were understandably a lot of people milling about. Alyssa and I looked around a little and then headed back to Strahov in order to arrive in time for the 6 p.m. Mass.
I must admit I didn’t understand much of the Mass, it being all in Czech, but it was still wonderful to attend it, especially when the canons and the locals sang a song to Mary after the Mass (May being the month of Mary).
After Mass, Alyssa and I treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at one of the restaurants on the Strahov grounds. We ate typical Czech food, such as sausages, Czech dumplings (a mix of wheat and potato dumplings), marinated beef with cream and cranberries, and plum dumplings. We also tried Strahov beer: Strahov, like Grimbergen and many other Norbertine abbeys, has beer recipes from centuries ago that it has given to a company to make and sell in return for a portion of the profits. It was a relaxing and delicious way to spend our last night in the city.
Wednesday morning, I went for a walk and encountered the Černín Palace, today home of the Czech Republic’s foreign ministry and the site of the official dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991. Just across from it, I saw the Loreto, a beautiful church. Further on, I came to the west end of the Prague Castle complex and, right outside of it, the Archbishop’s Palace. It was a glorious morning to see all these detailed and enchanting buildings, and I came back to Strahov ready for a great day – and breakfast!
After breakfast, I went inside and looked around St. Nicholas Church, dedicated to that famous bishop of the fourth century who provided the base image for Santa Claus. This large church is an impressive example of Baroque architecture, and it was amazing to stand inside it and simply stare. I’d seen advertisements outside this church and other locations throughout the city for concerts of classical music throughout the month of May. I can’t imagine how amazing it must be to hear beautiful music performed in equally beautiful spaces!
From St. Nicholas Church, I went to the nearby Church of Our Lady Victorious. It houses the Infant of Prague, a statue of the infant Jesus that attracts pilgrims from all over the world, especially Spain, Portugal, and nations that were colonized by them. The church is run by Carmelites, the order reformed by Saint Teresa of Ávila; tradition holds that the image belonged to Teresa herself. Whatever its origins, the Infant of Prague is a popular sight for tourists and especially religious visitors to the city. I enjoyed my visit there, though I must admit some of the care given to the statue, especially in the elaborate costumes made for it over the centuries, seems a bit excessive to me.
After visiting the Infant of Prague, I went to the Czech National Museum’s music museum, full of instruments and musical accoutrement from the Renaissance to the modern day. From there, I walked to Charles Bridge, and this time I found the statue of Saint Norbert with Saints Sigismund and Wenceslaus and got a picture with them from a friendly tourist. I felt like I had to, given that one doesn’t see statues of Saint Norbert many places!
I walked back to Strahov from Charles Bridge. There, Alyssa and I ate lunch, packed out things, checked out of our room, and headed to Florenc for our bus that would leave at 5 p.m. for Paris, France. We arrived in plenty of time, allowing me to use my last korunas (the Czech currency) to buy us kolache and koblihy, traditional Czech sweet pastries.
The bus we took this time was from Flixbus, one of the most popular European bus companies. Though it didn’t have seat-back screens or free drinks, it was just as comfortable as the Regiobus to Prague. It even had two levels, so Alyssa and I had a beautiful vantage to watch the Bohemian, and later German, countryside roll past as the evening wore on.
I really enjoyed my time in Prague, and I hope to return there some day. My experience was made that much better both by having Alyssa with me and by staying at Strahov Abbey thanks to the generosity of its canons. To Alyssa and to Strahov, thanks!
Our Flixbus arrived in Paris around 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning. Alyssa and I made our way from the station to our hostel in the north of the city, close to the famous Mouline Rogue theatre and Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Much to our surprise and frustration, the Paris subway system has very few escalators: we got quite the workout lugging our suitcases up and down multiple sets of stairs!
After leaving our luggage at the hostel and freshening up a bit, we headed out and climbed up to Sacré-Cœur. This imposing church built in the Romano-Byzantine style in the 1870s sits atop Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. It thus commands an impressive view of the city. Unfortunately, it was a chill and foggy morning when we visited the basilica, so the vista was not quite as clear or incredible as it could have been. The interior, however, was of course unaffected and dazzled me with its mosaics. Our visit, so early in the morning (around 8:30 a.m.), coincided with the last sections of Lauds, or Morning Prayer, from the Benedictine sisters who live near the church. Their ethereal voices floated through the church and made my experience there truly touching and incredible.
Close to Sacré-Cœur is the much-older church of Saint Peter of Montmartre; Alyssa and I visited it after the basilica. The earliest church known to exist on the site was established in the ninth century; the current structure was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the nineteenth century after being destroyed in the French Revolution. It had a more intimate atmosphere than the basilica due to its small size and was another site I was grateful to have visited during my time abroad.
From Montmartre, we went back to our hostel for a few minutes and then headed via the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. I knew this was a large structure, but I was completely agape when I saw just how large this arch was! I can see why it is such a popular destination for visitors to the city. Thankfully, we did not have to negotiate the roundabout to get to the arch; underground passageways link the surrounding boulevards to it.
Alyssa and I took one of these boulevards to another famous structure in Paris: the Palais Garnier, the main seat of the Paris Opera until the construction of a new opera house in 1989. The building takes its name from Charles Garnier, who oversaw construction of the opera house from 1861 to its completion in 1875. This building is bursting with decoration, reader: it’s been called the one true masterpiece of France’s Second Empire and also been criticized for gaudiness. I found the Palais Garnier magnificent, especially because it was the site of Gaston Leroux’s famous novel (later adapted to a musical and many films) The Phantom of the Opera. I got to see and climb the Grand Staircase, step into the auditorium, and walk through the Grand Foyer; it was superb!
After exiting the Palais Garnier, Alyssa and I took the metro and walked to the Île de la Cité, one of two natural islands in the Seine River and at the center of Paris. Here is where one can find the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the most well-known churches in the world. I was humbled, ecstatic, and a bit incredulous to be visiting this sacred site, and, even with all the people jostling each other inside the structure, I appreciated and still cherish the time I had there.
From Notre-Dame we walked across and then north along the Seine, where we saw many book, art, and – of course – souvenir vendors. We reached the Louvre museum complex and walked around it but decided to visit the Musee D’Orsay instead. This museum houses works from artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Vincent Van Gogh. Thankfully, the museum has extended hours on Thursdays, so we were able to spend a lot of time viewing the art there. Not only were these pieces beautiful; so, in my opinion, was the interior of the Orsay!
After a day full of walking and touring, Alyssa and I returned to our hostel, making a stop at a supermarket a block away for food. The next day, we would meet with my friend Amy from the Fund in Toledo and tour the Palace of Versailles and the Eiffel Tower.
It was great to see a familiar face from the Fund so soon after leaving it! Amy met us at our hostel, from which we traveled to a station for the train to Versailles. The Château de Versailles was built by King Louis XIV of France, or the Sun King, in the late 1600s to serve as the seat of the French government and showcase his wealth and power as the absolute monarch of France. As if the 721,182 square-foot, 700-roomed palace weren’t enough, the royal compound also includes 800 hectares (1976.84 acres) of gardens and two smaller palaces, the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, that were built by Louis XIV and Louis XV, respectively, to serve as retreats from the bustle of life at Versailles proper. Visiting all of these locations on Friday while knowing the poverty and hardship of the vast majority of the people in France during the late 1600s and 1700s made the anger and acuteness of the French Revolution more understandable to me.
We first went through the Gardens of Versailles, which today had Baroque music playing throughout their speaker system to entertain visitors. The landscaped gardens through which millions of tourists walk each year actually form only a small part of the Gardens; the rest is cultivated woodlands. I could make a whole separate blog post about the Gardens, but I won’t get into much detail here. Suffice it to say that they were impressive and, even just in the landscaped sections, immense. For history, photos, and routes of the Gardens, try the official site of Versailles.
Halfway through our tour of the gardens, we walked from them to the Estate of Trianon and toured the Grand and Petit Palaces. While certainly smaller than the Château, these were still palaces and thus pretty darn large for a Midwesterner like me. These estates have their own gardens, including an imitation English hamlet and farm that Marie Antoinette ordered built during her time as France’s queen.
From the Grand and Petit Trianons, we resumed our tour of the Versailles Gardens, eventually making our way back to the palace. We entered the monumental building complex and saw its royal chapel first. “Chapel” makes you think of a small room; this two-story space full of decoration and nearly as big as Old St. Joe’s Church in De Pere most certainly was not!
Much like the Doge’s Palace in Venice, I was flabbergasted by the sequence of opulence as we passed through giant room after giant room of ornate and expensive architecture, decoration, and furniture. There were also plenty of portraits of the kings of France, especially Louis XIV, a fact that did not surprise me that much given that this was the man who epitomized, even though he probably never actually said, “L’etat, C’est moi,” (“I am the nation.”) in reference to the country.
The best known room in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces in French), a corridor linking the Queen’s and King’s apartments bordered by windows on one side and mirrors on the other. Mirrors at this time were highly expensive (in fact, the Republic of Venice had a monopoly on the product), so you can imagine just how great a display of wealth and power this room displayed when it was finished in the late 1600s.
After the Hall of Mirrors, we toured the War and Peace Rooms and a statue gallery of famous philosophers, kings, and religious figures through the ages. With those sections explored, our time in Versailles came to an end, just as the complex was closing, in fact. I was and am so grateful to have explored this mind-bogglingly luxurious palace and its grounds with good friends.
We got off the train from Versailles at the station closest to the Eiffel Tower and proceeded to walk there. Even though it is today perhaps the best-known and most-reproduced symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower was only built between 1887 and 1889 for the World’s Fair in 1889 and was meant to stand for only 20 years. However, Gustave Eiffel’s massive work of wrought iron was maintained beyond that point, with its creator’s encouragement, and still stands to this day. According to its website, it is the most heavily visited monument one must pay to visit in the world, drawing around seven million visitors each year.
When we first arrived at the tower, we simply gazed at it in the setting sun. Then, we walked across the Seine in search of a restaurant for supper and eventually settled on a sandwich cart close to the bridge we had crossed. My three-cheese sandwich was delicious, easily on par with (perhaps even, dare I say, better?) than the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve had in Wisconsin.
After our supper, we returned to the Eiffel Tower, went through security, and waited in line for about an hour before going up to its second tier. The top tier was closed, apparently a common occurrence, but that wasn’t a problem for me: the second tier still gave a breathtaking view of the city, lit up now that it was night. The tower itself was just as striking as in the daytime, and we even caught one of its light shows before we descended to the ground. We only ascended the Eiffel Tower thanks to Amy’s desire to visit it, so thank you so much, Amy! I’m so glad we waited for such a spectacular sight.
It was now around 10 p.m., so we headed to the nearest metro station and back toward our hostels. Alyssa and I said hasta luego to Amy at our stop and walked to our hostel, where we packed for our departure then next day and then went to bed.
The next morning, we enjoyed the free breakfast offered at our hostel for the second time: a free baguette piece and croissant with jam and butter was a great way to start the day! We then checked out from the hostel, got on the metro, changed to a train to Charles de Gaulle Airport, and finally took a tram to our terminal. Thankfully, unlike the metro system itself, the airport had escalators everywhere!
It was weird to be back in Charles de Gaulle, now waiting to depart Europe four months after arriving and worriedly waiting for the SNC class to find me and go to Mondaye Abbey. I was happy to be going home, but I knew, as I know and feel now, that I would miss Europe and all the things I had seen and done there, not to mention the delicious cuisine I had tasted and, above all, the remarkable people I had me.
A funny thing happened as our flight was boarding. I looked ahead in the line, and there I saw Adam, the SNC student who had also gone to Mondaye Abbey with Father Ciferni’s class and who had traveled with me from there to Toledo to study at the Fund. It was an unexpected but pleasant surprise to see another classmate before heading home!
The flight to O’Hare went smoothly. I had another pleasant surprise in finding out that the two other people in my row were also Wisconsinites! We arrived safely (and, to my pleasant surprise, ahead of schedule) at O’Hare around 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, or 8 p.m. in Paris. After making my way through security and getting my baggage, I walked out the doors to find my parents and grandmother waiting for me. It was so nice to see them after four months of separation, and they seemed just as glad to see me. At the airport, I bid farewell to Alyssa, who had been such a patient and knowledgeable travel buddy over the past week. Alyssa, thank you so much for making my last week in Europe fantastic!
From the airport, my family drove me back to Plover. On the way, we stopped at two of my favorite places: Culver’s, that staple of Midwestern fast food, and Gille’s, a drive-in restaurant with delicious custard in Fond du Lac. My stomach was definitely unaccustomed to American food after four months abroad, but I ignored its protests for the moment and enjoyed my cheeseburger, fries, lemon ice, and – best of all – custard in bliss.
I managed to stay up most of the day after arriving in the United States. I even stayed up later than I probably should have unpacking, especially since I would have to get up early the next day for Mass. My neatnik nature compelled me to get as much as I could unpacked and organized, however; at least it got done quickly!
On Sunday, I attended Mass at my home church of Saint Bronislava, an odd but enjoyable experience after months of mainly Spanish and sometimes Czech, Italian, Dutch, French, and English Masses. Though the church is from the 1990s instead of the 1700s or earlier, it was nice to be back and worship there (and, even though it wasn’t necessary anymore, heating!).
I continued organizing my things on Sunday and uploading photos while my oldest sister visited. It was a relaxing day and one much appreciated after the frequent travel of the past week and, in general, the past four months.
And that, reader, was my last week in Europe. I’ll be writing a post reflecting on my experience abroad in the future, and that should pretty much wrap up my study-abroad posts. Thank you so much for reading my posts, whether every single one of them or only this one. I hope that you have had or will have the opportunity to go abroad or travel much within your own country and have experiences as and more wonderful than my own. As Saint Augustine never actually said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Ever the logophile, I’d like to read as more pages of this grand book in the future, but for now I am grateful for the ones I have been able to view.
Again, thank you, reader. Until the next post (and ever after), may God be with you.
Buenos días y bienvenido, reader, to another edition of my study-abroad blog. As you know, I’m a bit behind on posting, but, slowly but surely, I am nearing the end of them. That, of course, means that these posts are nearing the end of my time abroad, causing both a little sadness and nostalgia in me as I write them. If I haven’t made it clear, let me do so here: studying abroad was an irreplaceable and invaluable experience and gift in my life. If you have the opportunity to do so or to travel outside of your home country, I would highly recommend it!
Friday, 28 April 2017 was the official end of my time in Toledo, Spain, in St. Norbert College’s program in that city through the University of Minnesota and the Fundación Ortega-Gasset y Marañón. In reality, however, I only had two-and-a-half days left in my host city, since I returned from Zamora early Tuesday afternoon and left Toledo early Friday morning. I tried to make the most of this little time left to me, and I was lucky enough to encounter some incredible sights and make a few indelible memories within it.
First, though, let me tell you the rest of my experience on the Fundación’s trip to Zamora, Spain. I intended to return to Zamora from Toro, where I had stayed Sunday night in the Premonstratensian convent of Santa Sofía (the only Norbertine institution surviving in Spain), by taking the first bus headed to the city. This would have gotten me to the bus station and then the hotel (only two blocks away) in plenty of time for our departure to el Lago de Sanabria at 9:30 a.m.
Remember how I said things didn’t go exactly as planned Monday morning? Well, it turns out that Monday, 24 April was a festiva, or holiday, throughout the whole of the autonomous community of Castilla y León, of which Zamora and Toro are both members. Such regional and city holidays are more common in Spain than in the United States, especially since each town, city, and region has its own patrón o patrona, patron saint. If you go back to my post from 29 January, you’ll read about Toledo’s unique festiva, the feast day of Saint Ildefonsus on 23 January.
The previous Saturday, 22 April, was the 401st anniversary of the death of Cervantes, an important figure for all Spaniards, including those in Castilla y León. Alcalá de Henares, a community located just northeast of Madrid, was a Castilian (Castilla) town at the time of Cervantes’ birth in 1547. Even more important for Castilla y León, however, was the next day, Sunday, 23 April. This happens to be the feast day of San Jorge (Sant Jordi in Catalan; he is Catalonia’s patron saint), or Saint George of England. Most of us know this saint from the legend about him killing a dragon in the days of yore.
What most of us don’t know is that 23 April also marks the day when, in 1521, the Battle of Villalar took place. The Battle of Villalar was the turning point of La Revuelta de los Comuneros, the Revolt of the Communities, a revolution of Castilian citizens, especially nobles, between 1520 and 1521. Castilla had entered into a period of instability after the death of Isabel the Catholic in 1504, even as her husband Ferdinand the Catholic, with whom she had united Spain, continued to rule his inherited kingdoms of Navarre and Aragón. This allowed the local nobility to exercise more power and increase their wealth. The arrival of Charles V (known as Carlos I in Spain) to the Spanish throne in 1516, however, changed the game.
Charles was only 16 when his father Ferdinand the Catholic died, and he had been raised in the Netherlands since early childhood. Thus, when he arrived in Castilla in 1517, he knew almost no Spanish (Castilian) and had Dutch instead of Spanish advisers and confidants. The Castilian nobles could perceive the threat to their privilege and power, so they conspired against Charles and started a rebellion in, of all places, Toledo. At the height of their success, the comuneros controlled the cities of Toledo, Tordesillas, and Valladolid, all in the center of Castilla.
The Battle of Villalar marked the beginning of the end of the Revolt of the Communities. Charles’ forces crushed those of the Castilian nobility and captured three of its most important leaders, who were soon beheaded. After the battle, liberals in Spain held up Villalar as the unfortunate end to the laudable struggle against autocratic monarchy and the reduction of regional autonomy. Such a view obviously didn’t curry the favor of centralized governments in Spain, including the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, so the Battle of Villalar did not become officially or widely celebrated in Spain until after the transition to democracy. 23 April was pronounced El Día de Castilla y León in 1986 and has been observed ever since.
Sunday is already a day of rest in much of the Western world, including Spain. Thus, just like in the United States, the observance of the Battle of Villalar and Castile and León Day was postponed until the next business day, that is, Monday, 24 April. Many businesses had reduced hours or were closed throughout the region this day, and, most importantly for me, bus schedules were shifted. The first bus to Zamora from Toro would not leave until 9:20. True, Zamora was only 25 minutes away from Toro, but the group had a strict schedule to follow and could not wait much past 9:30 a.m. Thus, I arrived in Zamora only a quarter-hour after the rest of the Fund group had left the city, leaving me most of the day to figure out something to do.
Thankfully, the most stressful part of the day – trying to figure out when the bus would come and wondering whether or not I would make it back in time – was over. I had the key card to my hotel room with me, so I went to the room to rest and regather myself since I had left the convent at 6:50 to arrive at the bus station in time for my non-existent bus. I then left the hotel and struck out for Zamora’s historic center, mainly in search of old churches but also for cool sights in general. I did not have high expectations of entering any museums or attractions, and for good reason: Mondays are traditionally off days for these and other more tourist-oriented institutions so that their workers and other locals can enjoy a respite from the crowds. Combined with the festiva in the region for Castile and León Day, this Monday was particularly sleepy in Zamora.
Closed businesses and museums did not prevent me from walking around and taking photos, however. The first major sight I saw was Zamora’s plaza de toros, or bullfighting ring. I then went past the Church of Saint Vincent and through the city’s old judería, or Jewish neighborhood. After that, I walked around and past (and may have briefly and illegally climbed up) the medieval city walls, eventually making my way to the Duero River and the base of the plateau that rises from it and on which Zamora’s Alcázar, cathedral, and old city were built. I walked away from all this briefly to find and admire the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Hermitage of the Remedies, then returned and started walking around the plateau.
The Duero has a bend beyond the point of the Alcázar, making space for a broad incline down to its banks that contains the neighborhood of Olivares. I visited the church of this neighborhood (known simply as El Arrabal de Olivares), walked through a park on the banks of the Duero, and made my way to the centuries-old stone bridge that crosses the river. I crossed the bridge, came back, and walked up the plateau to the old city, where I discovered the Diocesan Museum, the Semana Santa Museum, and the Ethnographic Museum of Castilla y León, all of which were, naturally, closed.
(A note on the Semana Santa Museum: Zamora has it because Semana Santa is huge in this city, so much so that Zamora is one of the most recommended sites for tourists to visit in Spain during Holy Week. As it is in the northern half of Spain, the nocturnal processions and observations are steeped in silence and solemnity, more so than in Toledo and especially in Sevilla. Sixteen hermandades participate in the celebrations, while thousands of people flock to the city during them.)
By this time, I was ready for another rest. I returned to the hotel and enjoyed its sauna (called a baño turco or Turkish bath in Spain). I went out from the hotel again late in the afternoon and went to the old city once more, where I visited the churches of Saint Andrew and of Santa María de la Horta. The Fund group returned from Sanabria Lake around this time, so I eventually regrouped with my friends and enjoyed dinner with them while we exchanged stories of what we had seen and done during the day. It was wonderful being able to be around and talk with people whom I knew, both in English and in Spanish!
Tuesday was our last day in Zamora. After breakfast, we left the city, made it to Madrid after a few hours, dropped of the Fund students who studied there, and then returned to Toledo in the early afternoon. I spent most of the rest of the day unpacking from my most recent trip and packing for my upcoming departure from Toledo and, after another week, Europe. I also took a walk through the judería and by the church of San Juan de los Reyes in the casco (old city) to bid adieu to these places.
One final note on Zamora: I ate a lot of helado (ice cream), while I was there. As a goloso (sweet-tooth) and a resident of Wisconsin, I feel that it is only natural that I’ve grown to adore ice cream more than any other dessert. What I had in Zamora wasn’t Italian gelato, but it was still certainly delicious!
Wednesday was a pretty busy but incredibly enjoyable day. It started off with a delicious breakfast of churros y chocolate at the Kiosko Catalino, the best churrería in Toledo, in the park just outside the Puerta de Bisagra that I passed every day on my way to the Fund. I met my friend Lexi there and dived into my churros, porros (basically, larger and straightened churros that are served hot), and chocolate. After we had finished, we walked across the river and trekked to La Piedra del Rey Moro, the Stone of the Moorish King, one of the highest points overlooking Toledo and the spot where, supposedly, the last Moorish ruler of Toledo sat, gazed at the city, and cried as the city was conquered by the Spanish Christians. Centuries after this supposed episode, Lexi and I gazed down at and admired the city in the morning sunlight.
Once Lexi and I were done looking at Toledo, we climbed down from the rocks and walked to the Puente de Alcántara, where we parted. I headed into the old city to sit in the Fun for a bit and then go to the cathedral and climb up its famous bell tower. The day had just started but had already been incredible, especially since I had gotten to share good conversation, delicious food, and beautiful scenery with a friend. Lexi, thanks for walking with me!
I had already visited the cathedral with my Christian, Muslim, Jewish Art class to learn about the Gothic and Baroque styles of architecture as they appeared in Spain, as well as on Easter Sunday for Mass. Thus, when I went in this time, I knew most of what I was seeing and made a beeline for those areas where I hadn’t had much or any time to look before. One of these areas was the bell tower: my ticket granted me entrance to it at 10:30 a.m. At 10:35 (Spanish time, remember), I went up to the second level of the cloister within the cathedral complex and from there ascended the bell tower. The view from within the tower isn’t the most breathtaking, given that it itself is one of the major points of interest in the Toledo skyline and that its windows are covered in grilles to keep birds out, but the opportunity to be in it and see its set of bells – the heaviest and largest in all of Spain’s cathedrals and centuries old even with its “newest” bells – certainly was. I also explored the Chapel of Saint Blaise, the Major and Minor Sacristies, and the Chapel of the New Monarchs. The last space is the burial space for the grandparents of Isabel the Catholic and, in its antechamber, has some of this famous queen’s religious objects (translation: a lot of gold), as well as some richly illustrated manuscripts.
Once I was done with my tour of the cathedral, I went on my second – and last (¡qué triste!) – Patrimonio Desconocido tour, a program run by the government of Toledo to show its citizens (and anyone else interested who can understand Spanish) lesser-known aspects of its history. My first tour with the program had been of El Convento de los Concepcionistas in February. Today, I would be visiting another convent, that of Saint Isabel (Santa Isabel).
Due to the time I had taken in the cathedral, I actually missed the first part of the tour, during which the group visited El Convento de Comendadoras. I was lucky enough to run into the group as it went to the Convent of Saint Isabel! This convent, still functioning, is near the major and minor seminaries of the city. We visited just one cloister in the complex, but it provided plenty to look at and talk about. It is one of the best-preserved examples of mudéjar architecture in the city, especially because some of the wooden beams used in it still bear carvings from the 1400s! I was so grateful to have signed up for the tour and to have understood what was being said by the guide, especially since a few minutes’ difference would have made me miss the group as it went to the convent.
Once the tour was finished, I finally treated myself to a full, multiple-course meal at a restaurant in Toledo. The one I chose had been on my list since my first weeks in the city: it was the Cafetería Alex, so of course I had to visit it! I had a delicious meal, with gazpacho (a soup of tomatoes, vegetables, and spices served cold) as a starter, carcamusas (a traditional dish of Toledo consisting of pork stewed with tomatoes, bay leaves, and vegetables) as the entrée, and torta de manzana (apple cake, which tastes much like apple pie) for dessert, with vino tinto (red wine) and the ubiquitous pan (bread) on the side. I savored every bit of this meal and thanked God for it and the wonderful day I was having.
After lunch, I returned to the Fund to sit and relax a bit before meeting with most of the other SNC students, as well as another SNC student visiting from London, where her program had just ended. From there, we headed to the Piedra del Rey Moro for some photos with the scenic backdrop and contemplation of the vista and our time abroad. Yep, this would be my second time to the Piedra in the same day! The scene laid out below the stone was no less awesome, however. Moreover, it was unique from the morning with the shift in light. I cannot adequately express or give gratitude for this beautiful vista and the opportunity to share it with friends.
From the Piedra, we SNC students made our way back to the city. I walked a little in the shopping district just off the Plaza de Zocodover; I was searching for a damasquinado to take with me to the United States. Damasquinado is a traditional handicraft of Toledo in which artisans use small mallets to hammer gold onto plates and other objects in intricate designs, both of Moorish and Spanish origin. Today, damasquinado objects are both man- and machine-made. This night, I found an example of the art form that appealed to me – and, even better, my wallet! I was so happy to have finally gotten this souvenir and reminder of my time in Toledo.
After my long but satisfying day, I headed home for dinner with my host family. After dinner, my host mother presented me with a big bag chock-full of stuff from and about Toledo from 2016, its 30th anniversary of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site by the UN. My host parents also gave me a book on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route that ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, and a box of – wait for it – mazapán (marzipan)! Before this, I had already been beyond grateful for the day; now, I was simply speechless. My host family had itme and again proven themselves to be generous, friendly, and patient, and this was just another example of the first two traits. I thanked my host parents as best I could for their gifts and went to bed both looking forward to and sadly musing my last full day in Toledo.
Thursday was, unfortunately, not as fun as Wednesday. I spent most of the day gathering all my things and packing them into my bags as I prepared for my departure the next morning. I ended up having to ship a box of souvenirs and books to the United States in order to have space in my suitcases. I should have done this long ago: the process at the post office ended up taking forty minutes and costing me 90 euros (about $98). Let me be honest, reader: I was disappointed in and frustrated with myself, and I questioned whether I had really learned anything while studying abroad. The answer, of course, was that I had, but I had (and have) trouble seeing beyond one mistake to life in general.
Thankfully, my Thursday evening went much better than the rest of the day. Starting at 6:30, we Fund students could look at our final grades for our classes and talk with our professors if we had any questions or final comments. I showed up later than 6:30 due to the whole package debacle, but I was able to get my grades (all As, yes!) and talk with my professors and thank them in person for the semester.
At 8 p.m., the closing ceremony for the Fundación’s Spring 2017 program occurred in the auditorium of the building. My host parents attended the ceremony and the party (with lots of tapas, fruits, vegetables, and desserts!) that was held afterward. There, I got to talk with them and my friends from SNC, the University of Minnesota system, and Notre Dame. I had such a wonderful time (and such amazing food!) that I forgot about the drearier aspects of the day. It was sad to say goodbye to so many people in so little time, but we all told each other it was only hasta luego (lit. “until later,” so “see you later” is the best English translation) and not adios (goodbye). I returned to the house in San Antón that had become my second home for my last night there and went to bed.
At 5:50 a.m. the next morning, my host father drove me (and my bags, ¡gracias a Dios!) to the bus station in Toledo, and I left the city for the last time of my semester abroad. I arrived in Madrid and used the metro to get to the bus station of Avenida de América in plenty of time for my bus to Barcelona and, from there, Venice, in plenty of time for its departure at 9 a.m.
You read right: I was taking a bus all the way from Madrid to Venice, a trip of 31 hours spread over two days. I had opted for this mode of transport because 1) flights from Madrid or even Barcelona to Venice ranged from slightly to way more expensive and 2) I did not want to pay the additional cost to check my luggage for even the cheapest flight available. All in all, the trip went smoothly, though it deteriorated in quality the longer it lasted.
The first leg of the trip from Madrid to Barcelona went swimmingly. ALSA, the principal bus line in Spain, had one of its own buses for the journey, so I got to enjoy free movies and wifi onboard and frequent-enough stops at gas stations along the way. I sat next to a man from East Asia who appeared to be on a long journey himself. He knew a little Spanish and a bit more English, so we talked a bit. The Spanish woman in front of us was kind enough to give him some of her food throughout the trip, as the man did not have much with him.
We arrived in Barcelona around 5 p.m. Many of the passengers on my bus in addition to other people waiting at the station boarded a Eurolines bus that would make stops in Spain, France, and Italy before the final stop in Venice. This bus was good, certainly, but not quite as comfortable as the ALSA bus. The wifi had a limit of about 10 minutes, without any notice given to those on the bus, so for the next day I had no way of contacting my friend Alyssa, whom I would be meeting in Venice and with whom I would be traveling for the next week, or anyone else. All the same, my baggage was securely stored and I had plenty of food and water and a place to sleep for the night, so I was grateful to e where I was.
The bus drove through the evening through Catalonia, arriving at the French border around 10 p.m. Here’s where the first stressful incident of the trip occurred.
The French border with Spain is pretty heavily guarded at the time of this writing. My guess (though let me be clear that it is only a guess) is that the security is due to French experience with the ETA, the Basque separatist group that for decades practiced terrorism and based themselves in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain; the potential for illegal immigrants coming from Morocco or other African countries through Spain to France; and the spate of terrorist attacks in the past three years in France. Whatever the reason(s) behind the security, all passengers on the bus had to present their passports or other legitimate documentation to two security guards while dogs were taken around the storage compartment.
The inspection should probably have taken no more than thirty minutes; we stayed at the checkpoint for an hour. Six people were taken off the bus for improper documents, and only two were allowed back on it. The other four were held at the checkpoint, probably for eventual deportation. Even though my passport was immediately OK’d (as another passenger put it, “You’re American. You can go anywhere!”), I still felt very anxious as the process of inspecting documents unfolded, especially when arguments sometimes broke out between passengers and the guards. I think most of the other people on the bus felt this second-hand anxiety, too. I felt (and still feel) bad for the people left behind at the boarder, but when the bus finally pulled away from it I was glad to leave the situation and get a little sleep.
I slept through most of the ride through southern France; our first stop in the morning was in the Alps in Italy. We drove through them and past them, making stops in Genoa, Bologna, Verona, and Padua before reaching Venice around 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. At this point, I was one of only two passengers left on the bus. It was great to have more and more space as time went on, but it was much worse to keep staying on the bus. It produced a sense of dread in me, as though I would never reach Venice or that, if I did, I would be completely lost and have no idea what to do.
Thankfully, neither of these scenarios turned out to hold truth. We did arrive in Venice, and from the bus station where the Eurolines bus stopped I walked to the Chiara bus station, a main tourist hub due to its proximity to the Santa Lucia train station that connects to the mainland and its own bus services to the mainland. I hopped on a bus that took me to the neighborhood of Tessera, just southwest of Venice’s Airport (perhaps I should have taken a flight…). From the bus stop there, I walked to my hostel, where my friend Alyssa – worried since she hadn’t heard from me for so long – was waiting. I was incredibly happy to see her, to see anyone at all that I knew, and I thanked God that I had made it safely from Madrid to this location. Alyssa showed me our room in the hostel, and I quickly connected to wifi to let my family know that I was safe.
Due to how tired both of us were after traveling and the late hour of the day, Alyssa and I decided to remain in Tessera for the evening and explore Venice as much as we could on Sunday. We went to a local supermarket and bought groceries for dinner and breakfast, then purchased bus tickets from a Best Western hotel in Tessera (yep, they’re all over the world!) for our trip to the city the next day. That night, we enjoyed pizza while we exchanged our experiences of studying abroad (Alyssa had been in London for the semester) and got ready for our subsequent travels.
On Sunday morning, we checked out from our hostel and took a bus first to Venice Mestre, a train station on the mainland that connected to the islands of the original city. Actually, we ended up about a twenty-minutes’ walk away from the train station, so first we trekked there – with all our luggage, mind you! At the train station, we checked our heaviest bags at a luggage storage available there so that we would not have to worry about them as we toured the city. We then hopped on an extremely crowded bus (Venice is a pretty popular tourist destination, surprise!) and eventually reached Chiara station.
Venice has its origins in the invasion of the Huns, a group of nomads from Central Asia, into Europe in the 450s CE. As the Huns, under the well-known Attila, pillaged through Europe to Italy, many Romans fled to swampy land bordering the Adriatic Sea and the marshy islands just off its coast. They made the wonder city that is now Venice, stretching over 118 islands through canals and bridges. The city is sinking at a rate of about 1 inch every ten years, though, so the city is frantically trying to stop Venice from being drowned. Still, Venice receives up to 70,000 tourists each day, so many that it is (or at least was) considering putting a cap on the number of people allowed to visit the city each day in order to preserve its monuments and its citizens’ sanity.
Alyssa and I made our way over the canals and bridges of Venice, following the signs for Saint Mark’s Square on the opposite end of the city. I wanted to take pictures at almost every stop, but I knew that we had to keep going in order to make the most of our day. Suffice it to say that Venice is an extremely beautiful city, especially in areas less-frequented by tourists (and the trash they sometimes leave behind them).
We made it to Saint Mark’s Square and Basilica just as Mass was ending there. Saint Mark is the patron saint of Venice, and a magnificent cathedral with numerous golden mosaics in the Byzantine style decorating its interior was constructed in his honor in the 800s, with the present church’s construction begun in the 1000s. Believe it or not, this massive church was the private chapel of the doge, the leader of Venice when it was a republic, until the early 1800s, when it was made the cathedral of the city.
Alyssa and I toured first the museum of the cathedral, which goes through the building itself, and then the cathedral’s main floor and nave. Even with its interior lighting off, it was still an incredible sight. The mosaics were hands-down my favorite aspect of the church: as I’ve mentioned before, I adore the Byzantine style of Christian architecture and art, and the mosaics inside St. Mark’s Basilica display the Italo-Byzantine style to a tee.
After St. Mark’s, Alyssa and I ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and then went across St. Mark’s Square to the Correr Museum, where we bought tickets for that museum, the National Museum of Archeology, the National Library of Saint Mark, and the Doge’s Palace. The nice thing about this bundle (other than the savings we got for buying them together and as students!) was that the first three buildings are link, allowing visitors to pass through them and get glimpses of St. Mark’s Square as they look at the exhibits.
The Correr Museum showcases Venice’s history, from its origins to its height of power as a republic and major force in the Mediterranean arena to its time under Napoleonic rule in the early 1800s. Rooms from the palace created by Napoleon in the Correr’s current site start off the tour.
The National Archeologic Museum displays vases, statues, coins, and other objects from Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as relics from Egypt and Assyria (modern Iraq). Beyond that lies the National Library of Saint Mark, a beautiful set of two rooms with rich wood paneling and impressive paintings on the ceiling of the larger room depicting the various sciences. (Can you tell I love libraries?)
Once we exited the first three museums, Alyssa and I went to the Doge’s Palace, which we toured at near-lightning speed due to the museum’s impending closing and our need to return to the luggage room at Mestre before its closing at 8 p.m. The palace is connected to St. Mark’s Cathedral (remember that it used to be the doge’s private chapel) and speaks of the wealth and opulence of the city and its leaders in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Doge’s Palace also housed the various branches of the government of the Republic of Venice; both these and the private rooms of the doge are, to say the least, impressive. Take the Chamber of the Great Council, for example: at 53 meters long and 25 meters wide, it is the largest room in Venice and one of the largest rooms in Europe as a whole. You can even get a glimpse of it through the Google Art Project.
Our tour in the Doge’s Palace also took us to and over the famed Bridge of Sighs. The palace, being as it was the seat of the judicial as well as the executive and legislative branches of the government, had prison cells close by, just over a canal behind it. An enclosed bridge was built over this canal in 1600, and prisoners walking on it got a last glimpse of Venice from its barred windows before entering their cells. The bridge was much romanticized in following centuries, but in reality one can see little from the bridge’s windows (I speak from experience) and the prisoners held in the palace after 1600 were mainly petty criminals. Still, the Bridge is a famous sight in Venice today, and I’m glad I had the chance to traverse it and even more grateful to have toured the palace that contains it.
After gazing in awe at the palace some more, Alyssa and I went to a dock on the canal right next to the Doge’s Palace and Saint Mark’s Square. We bought tickets for a public water bus, a less-glamorous (and way less-expensive) alternative to a gondola ride through or around the city. I have to say, this was, to my surprise, one of the most efficient forms of public transportation I have ever taken. The workers herded passengers on and off the boats rapidly but did so in a pretty friendly manner. We arrived back at Chiara in only twenty minutes and from there took a bus (much less crowded this time) to Mestre, where we picked up our bags at 7:45.
We had some food in the train station and then walked outside to the bus stop where, we believed due to our research, our bus to Prague would pick us up at 9 p.m. It turns out that we were right; the bus indeed showed up, just a bit later than we expected. Thankfully, this delay was only fifteen minutes, but it still caused us a bit of anxiety as we waited…and waited…and waited for it to arrive. We boarded the bus without problems and settled in for the trip of approximately nine hours to Brno, where we would switch to another bus to Prague, where we would arrive around 10 a.m. the next morning.
Regiojet, the company with which we booked our tickets and that runs many lines within and from the Czech Republic, has my approval for sure. The bus had comfortable seats, wifi, free movies and music, and even free drinks (which the bus attendant had to tell us first before we accepted them, cheap college students that we are). I was able to watch The Shawshank Redemption for the first time on that bus ride, so during it and now I am very appreciative of it.
We made a few stops the night of Sunday on our way to the Czech Republic, but otherwise that was the end of another week in Europe for me. I’ll write more about my feelings toward and thoughts on Toledo and my semester in Spain in another post (yep, there will be more!); I think I’ve written enough in this one! Thanks as always for keeping up with me, reader, and until next time, ¡hasta luego!
Hey, everyone! In my continuing efforts to catch up on my blog posts, I bring you this description of my week in Spain after Easter. It was finals week at the Fund, and on the Saturday following these tests a group of us students embarked on the last trip organized by our school, this one headed to Zamora and Toro.
Easter Monday was a pretty relaxed day for me. I did not have to go to the library for my internship because it was closed, in addition to many other businesses and organizations in Toledo and Spain in general. In the morning, I went on a run and ended up going around Toledo on the opposite side of the Río Tajo (Tagus River). The air was fresh, the skies partly cloudy, and the views of the city spectacular. I considered it my first and fullest goodbye to the city and a blessed opportunity to see it in its entirety.
The rest of my day was markedly uneventful. I studied for my first test, Politics and Society of Latin America, with some friends at the Fund in the afternoon.
I also started preparing my things for my departure from Toledo and, eventually, Europe on 28 April. I could not (and still cannot) believe how quickly the time abroad passed. It seemed as though I had just arrived, even as I also had the impression that I had been abroad for way longer than three months. In any case, it was both exciting and sad (as well as a bit stressful, given my compulsion to order everything perfectly at once) to begin the packing process.
On Tuesday, I took my final for Politics and Society; on Wednesday, the final for Theology of Spanish Mysticism; and on Thursday, the finals for Christian, Muslim, Jewish Art and Spain Since 1936. I felt confident about my performance for each of them, especially given that most of my free time that week was spent studying for them! However, I also took the time to walk in different parts of the city and bid each one farewell in doing so.
Friday was another completely free day for me, so I decided to visit El Museo del Ejército one more time to view its free exhibit on Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s most famous authors and the writer of Don Quijote (Don Quixote to us Americans). I had visited the section of the exhibit shown in the Museo de Santa Cruz (only two blocks away) that discussed Cervantes as a poet; the section in the Museo del Ejército focused, unsurprisingly, on the man as a soldier. The exhibit was neat and informative, and I was happy to have now seen it in its entirety.
After walking through it, I visited the museum’s other free exposition, this one permanent and focused on armies from prehistoric times through the Crusades. After that, I walked out to the back patio of the Alcázar (the building in which both the Museo del Ejército and the Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha are housed) and enjoyed its gardens and views of the opposite bank of the Tajo and the river itself. The back patio also holds a couple of tanks and a massive statue from the time of Spain’s dictatorship under Francisco Franco. The Alcázar was almost completely destroyed in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and afterward rebuilt under Franco’s orders.
After leaving the museum, I went to La Posada de la Hermandad, another museum that I had passed almost every time I went to or from the Fundación. The Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood) was an organization created by farmers in the rural areas of La Mancha to protect livestock, workers, and travelers from bandits. They built their headquarters and a prison for the rogues they captured just to the east of the cathedral, and that is where the museum I visited now sits. There are explanatory plaques for the prison in the lower level of the building and for the brotherhood in the room leading to them. Otherwise, the Posada houses temporary exhibitions that change every few months.
When I visited, the focus was on catapults and siege machines: I learned about the origins of catapults in ancient Greece, looked at (and definitely did not understand) the equations showing the physics of the catapult process, read the story the museum told of these machines through the Middle Ages, and viewed recreations of and fragments of them. I was pleasantly surprised that the Posada had bilingual signs for the exposition and that the English versions of these signs were excellent (even better than those of the Museo del Ejército!), especially given that this was a relatively small museum and its expositions do not last more than four months. I left the building happy to have checked another site off my figurative list for Toledo, particularly one that I saw so frequently.
Once I returned home, I finished packing for the Fund trip to Zamora the next day and did some more preparation for my final departure from the city and my one week of extra travel in Europe with my friend Alyssa, a St. Norbert College student studying in London for the semester. We would be visiting Venice, Italy; Prague, the Czech Republic; and Paris, France together. That, however, is its own blog post!
On Saturday at 8:30 a.m., the students who had signed up for the trip to Zamora left from the Fund for Madrid, where we picked up a few other students from the other branch of the Fundación in that city. Before even reaching Madrid, however, Miguel, one of the directors of the Fund in Toledo, gave each of us on the bus 50 euros. This had been the security deposit and total “cost” of the trip, and now we got it back! Let me tell you, reader, everyone on the bus was pretty darn happy when Miguel passed out that money: it was an indicator of how much we had come to appreciate budgeting over the semester (i.e., how much money we had spent and how little money we had left).
We arrived in Zamora around 1:30 p.m. Just like for our trip to Granada, the Fund had reserved rooms at a very comfortable hotel, the AC Hotels from Marriot, for us. This was also where we would be eating almost all of our meals for the weekend, too: thankfully, the food was delicious and plentiful!
After a few hours given for unpacking and relaxation, we had a tour through the city of Zamora with two local guides. Zamora is the capital of the province with the same name in the autonomous community of Castilla y León, a large region to the northwest of Madrid. It has approximately 66,000 inhabitants, but during our time there I did not get that impression. Sure, 66,000 people do not constitute a huge city (even for a small-town citizen like myself), but Zamora had a very calm and quiet atmosphere. It was almost dead when we arrived on Saturday, probably due in large part to the siesta. At the same time, even during the busiest times of day (around 7 p.m. each night), the city still felt safe and small.
That tangent done, here’s another fact about Zamora: it has the most churches in the Romanesque style of any settlement in Europe, so much so that it is often called a “museum of Romanesque art.” The Romanesque style was the dominant style of architecture for churches in Europe between the tenth and twelfth centuries. It was still prevalent beyond the twelfth century, but it was at this time that the transition to Gothic architecture began. Round arches, low ceilings (compared to Gothic churches), small windows, thick walls, and a general sense of weight and massiveness characterize Romanesque architecture, which took many traits from the architecture of the Roman and Byzantine Empires (the former empire resulting in the name for the new style). Below is a photo of the interior of just one of the many Romanesque churches in Zamora, la Iglesia de Santa Maria la Magdalena.
Our tour began in the shopping district of Zamora and then made its way to the historic city center, only a few minutes away walking. Our guide pointed out the Romanesque churches that we saw, in addition to the examples of Modernist architecture (a style pioneered by Antoni Gaudí, who built the Sagrada Familia Church), including the Teatro Ramos Carrión of Francisco Ferriol; the old ayuntamiento building (or casa consistorial) from fifteenth century and the current one from the twentieth; the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Ildefonso from the eleventh century (Romanesque), with substantial renovations from the fifteenth (Gothic) and eighteenth (Baroque) centuries; and a statue of Herminio Ramos Peréz, a famous – and still-living – resident who has chronicled the history of the city and region for decades.
Our tour guide also took us to one of three viewpoints overlooking Zamora’s famous medieval bridge. As you can tell from the photo, it makes for a pretty great photo!
From the bridge, we visited the cathedral of Zamora, the city’s largest and most famous example of Romanesque architecture. It was built in the twelfth century, boasts a dome with sixteen smaller surrounding domes built in the Byzantine style, and has many added Gothic elements from the style’s last years in the sixteenth century. The choir inside the cathedral has stalls built in the mid-1500s that feature not only mythological and religious scenes but also depictions of common life and vices, some even featuring priests and nuns.
After touring the cathedral with the group, I almost lost it! The rest of the students went to view the tapestry collection of the cathedral, while I, who had fallen behind, left the building. Thankfully, Miguel found me and called me back before I went too far.
Once we were done in the cathedral, we ended our tour at Zamora’s Alcázar, or palace, just a few hundred feet away. It was built in the tenth century and overlooks the Duero River that runs past Zamora and served as a natural and formidable defense in the city’s past. The palace is in ruins today and only opened to the public a few years ago, but it was still an impressive sight.
From the Alcázar, I started walking back to the hotel with my friends. On the way, I saw people heading into the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Ildefonso and decided to follow them. It turned out that it was the vigil Mass for the week, so I stayed in the church and gratefully attended it. Afterward, I walked around in the city center a bit more and then returned to the hotel, where I tucked in for a good night’s sleep.
The next day, the Fundación visited Toro, a town of just over 9,000 people and the home of the only surviving Norbertine institution in Spain. Our first stop was El Monasterio de Sancti Spiritus el Real, the Royal Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The monastery was founded in the early 1300s, with the church and choir that we visited built soon after. The foundation and construction were both supported by the royalty of Castilla y León at the time, hence the addition “El Real” to the monastery’s name. The monastery complex, as well as its collection of tapestries, religious objects, Christ Child dolls that many nuns brought with them when they entered the cloister (since many entered during or even before their early teens and were thus still children), and even the burial clothes of a nun (!) was impressive and an excellent way to start our day.
After touring the monastery, we had some free time before lunch, so my friends and I walked to one of the historic gates of the town and back. Along the way, we saw a few murals of wine-tasting monks: in addition to its religious past, Toro is know for the fine (and cheap!) wines produced in the region. We would try some of it later in the day. In this total non-expert’s opinion, it was excellent!
Once lunch was over, my friends helped me find the Premonstratensian institution in Toro, El Monasterio de Santa Sofía, or the Monastery of Saint Sophia. Don’t let the name confuse you: the foundation is a convent for Norbertine canonesses. They were given the building they currently occupy by Maria de Molina, a queen of Castilla, in 1316; in fact, it was her palace. The canonesses had previously lived in Toro, but their building was decrepit, making Molina’s gift much needed and appreciated.
The Premonstratensians of Toro, like other Norbertine women, live in cloister, that is, separated from the outside world. The community does take visitors in their guest house, however, and I was blessed to be such a visitor for the night. Dr. Sands, the Assistant Director the Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College, has done a lot of research on the Norbertine Order in Spain and has thus gotten to know the canonesses of Toro well. She contacted the guest master of Toro to reserve a room for me. To her and the canonesses themselves, I cannot thank you enough for your generosity and friendliness!
I not only received a room in the guest house of Toro: I received a suite of them! The two canonesses who greeted me showed me a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and sitting room for my use. I would really only use the bathroom and bedroom, but it was still wonderful to have so much room in so many rooms, especially since they were still cool despite the afternoon heat.
I walked through Toro a bit more with my friends after “checking in” to my rooms, then went back to the convent and rested a bit. I then visited the church of the convent, where Mass is said every day. I did not make it to Mass but did attend Vespers, which allowed me to meditate a little as well as gaze at the beauty of the church. Afterward, I headed out into Toro and did a walking tour of its churches, gates, and other historic monuments. The old city was small enough that I could do this pretty completely in about two hours. I walked past the former Church (and now Museum) of San Salvador de los Caballeros, La Colegiata (the cathedral of Zamora), the Royal Church of San Lorenzo, the Church of San Julián of the Knights, the Church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the Palacio de las Leyes (where the will of Isabel I was read in 1505), the Church of the Most Holy Spirit, the Church of Saint Peter of Olmo, and the Palace of the Marquis of Alcañices.
I came back to the monastery content and tired, ready to rejoin the Fund group in Zamora the next day for our tour of the Lago de Sanabria, the largest glacial lake on the Iberian Peninsula. Things would go a little differently than I planned, however! On Sunday night, I was simply happy and grateful for another fantastic week in Toledo, in Spain, in Europe, and simply on the earth.
Thanks for reading another installment of my study-abroad blog, reader! And thanks for your patience with them, too. I’ll catch up eventually!
Happy Easter, everyone! True, it’s been a number of weeks since the holiday, but it’s still the Easter season in the Catholic Church! Basically, I’m using any excuse I can for the tardiness of my blog posts. I apologize for the delay! The last few weeks of my time abroad were even busier than the rest of the semester. I hope to finish the rest of my posts by the end of this month.
I hope you had a marvelous holiday with friends or family, reader. I am happy to say that I was gifted with such a day this year with my host family in Spain. I had the chance to experience most of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain, Monday and most of Tuesday in Seville in Spain’s southern province of Andalusia and the rest of it in Toledo.
At midnight on Palm Sunday/Holy Monday, I boarded a bus in Madrid for Sevilla, as it is known in Spanish, and arrived there around 6:15 a.m. I stayed in the bus station and took a nap for an hour, then struck out in the direction of the historic city center and, in that district, my hostel. I couldn’t check in and drop off my luggage until 8 a.m., so I walked around the old city and took photos of the buildings and monuments that caught my attention. The city, even in its newer parts around the bus station, was basically silent; I was one of the few people walking on the streets. I found this quiet atmosphere delightful, especially because I was expecting (correctly) large crowds of people later in the day for the Semana Santa celebrations.
After walking through the Plaza Nueva and past the Ayuntamiento (town council) building, I ended up at Seville’s cathedral, the heart of the old city. The cathedral of Seville is the largest in Spain and, technically, in the world. Larger churches do exist, like St. Peter’s in the Vatican City, but these are officially classified as basilicas. This cathedral was begun in and finished in ; it is an immense and impressive example of the Gothic style of architecture.
The cathedral naturally formed the focus of my attention (and camera) for quite a while. At one of its many doors, I found a sign for Mass at 8 a.m., which was only a few minutes away! I stepped into the side chapel to which the door led (it could have qualified as a church in itself with its size and decoration) and received the gift of the Eucharist during a nice Mass. Afterward, I took some photographs of the chapel, walked through the connecting door to the cathedral proper (open in some sections to visitors before official tourist hours), and took photographs of while gaping in awe at the massive space in which I found myself.
After exiting the cathedral, I walked around a bit more and took some photos of the neighborhood and the outside of Sevilla’s Alcázar, or castle, before arriving at my hostel. After checking in, I freshened up for the day and then enjoyed the free cookies, Nutella, coffee, tea, and milk provided as a morning snack by the hostel. The hostel staff and the guests there were very friendly and cheery, so I quickly felt at ease there. A little after 10:30, I headed out with most of the people at “breakfast” to the plaza in front of the cathedral’s north side for a free tour through the city.
The tours were provided in both English and Spanish; I took the easy route and joined the English group. Our tour guide was originally from Italy but had lived in Spain for several years, and he gave us excellent information about every site that we visited. We went from the plaza, where we learned about the cathedral and the Alcázar, past the General Archive of the Indies, through a park and past the Torre de Oro, to the regional government building, to a +5-star hotel (where a room in the low season costs at least $400 a night and during Semana Santa at least $1000 a night), through the old tobacco factory (now a university building), through another park, and to the Plaza de España. This last site, a huge semicircular space surrounded by buildings that appear to be from the medieval and Renaissance eras, is actually fairly recent. The Plaza de España was built in 1928 in both neo-Mudéjar and neo-Renaissance styles for the first Ibero-American Exposition, a sort of World’s Fair for Spain and all the American countries with which it has historical ties (i.e., most of Latin America and the United States), in 1929.
After the tour ended, I walked around the plaza a bit more and took quite a few pictures. The Plaza de España has tile sections of every province in Spain, appropriately named the Alcoves of the Provinces. I took a photo of each province I had visited during my semester in Spain; it was a great way to review and remember all that I had seen and done in my host country over the past three months.
From the Plaza de España, I made my way to the Torre del Oro, a tower (torre, in Spanish) built on the Guadalquivir River that runs through Seville. It was erected as a defensive edifice in the first half of the 1200s during the Almohad Caliphate, a Muslim kingdom that ruled much of North Africa and all of Islamic Spain during the height of its power in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. This “Tower of Gold” received its name from the golden color of its reflection on the river it guarded; this was caused by the mortar, lime, and hay used in its construction. The tower itself does not appear all that golden but rather a light tan. The Torre del Oro served numerous functions and received various additions and renovations through the centuries. Today, it houses a museum dedicated to itself and the maritime history of Seville and Spain in general. It also offers spectacular views of the city!
After visiting the Torre del Oro, I walked to the old city and visited the Archivo General de Indias, or the General Archive of the Indies. This is a valuable and unique collection of documents relating to Spain’s colonial presence in and relationship with the Western Hemisphere and, as a result, a must-see for me. What’s more, the archives call home a beautiful edifice designed in 1572 by Juan de Herrera (a name that popped up in my art and architecture class) in Renaissance style to house the consulado de mercaderes, or merchants’ exchange, of Seville. The building obtained its current function in 1785 when Rey Carlos el Tercer (Charles the Third) ordered that all the documents from the Council of the Indies be housed under one roof and specifically the roof of the merchants’ exchange.
Entrance to the archives was completely free, so I happily entered the building and marveled not only at its ordered beauty but also the rare and fascinating materials on display in its halls. I watched a short video about the history of the building and the archives and walked through an exhibit on one set of documents created in the sixteenth century concerning society in what had been the Inca Empire and was now a Spanish colony. Basically, I was in an archivist’s heaven for about an hour!
Once I was done visiting the archives, I went back to the hostel, officially checked in, freshened up and relaxed a bit, and then headed to the cathedral. I thought that I would arrive in time for a tourist entrance into and tour of the church, but I had arrived just after its closing at 5 that day. This was an earlier closing time than usual due to the Semana Santa celebrations. Luckily for me, the processions of Semana Santa in Seville end in the cathedral, so I joined a line that had formed outside its easter portal and, after some waiting, entered the building.
Only a section of the cathedral was open, but it was an area I had not been able to reach that morning, probably because of the preparations for the Holy Week events. Folding chairs were set up on either side of the eastern portal, and they were soon filled with those eager to see the floats and their associated hermandades enter into the cathedral. I ended up sitting next to a woman who took part of her name for one of the pasos, or floats, that was carried on Holy Monday each year: la Virgen del Rosario, or the Virgin of the Rosary, carried by the hermandad of Las Aguas (the Waters). A native of Seville, she explained to me some of the traditions of Semana Santa in Sevilla and in Spain in general. It was wonderful to chat with her a little as I watched the floats come in and pass with groups of cofradía members before, around, and behind them. After three pasos (the floats) entered the cathedral, I decided to leave to get some food and then head back to the hostel, where there would be free dinner – one of my favorite word combinations!
Getting food proved to be a bit trickier than I expected. Though there were grocery stores open in the old city, getting to and from one required me to weave around, into, and out of the crowds that turned out to watch the processions on the streets. Imagine trying to work your way through a Fourth of July parade in a major city in the United States, except the streets are usually not straight but usually are narrow: that was basically my experience in Seville early Monday evening. I even ended up walking in a procession (though thankfully not under a float!) before getting myself and my groceries back to the hostel.
I arrived with time to spare for dinner at the hostel. Speaking of dinner: wow! One of the workers made a delicious pasta dish (in vegetarian and meat versions) in huge quantities, allowing everyone present to dig in and then indulge in seconds and (in my case) thirds. I met people from Costa Rica, Great Britain, the United States, and other countires while eating, and we had some great conversation. To top it all off, we had a delicious dessert of cookie squares topped with chocolate shavings and berries. It was one of the best meals I’d ever had in a hostel!
A little after dinner, I headed out into the streets of Seville again, this time to view a procession on the street. I headed in and placed myself just northeast of the cathedral, putting me near the end of the procession route. A lot of people were still gathered for the processions, many with sandwiches and other snacks to tide them over before they headed home. Now that I was outside the cathedral, I also got to see and hear more clearly the bands that accompanied each paso. These groups stopped outside the church when the floats entered, so I had not heard their interesting music – a mix of joy and sorrow, sweetness and bitterness – the first time I had watched the processions.
One float was enough for me, so after seeing it pass I returned to the hostel and went to bed. I was excited for the next day and hoped to see Seville’s other major complex, its Alcázar.
The next morning, I arrived at the Alcázar a little after its opening time of 9 a.m. I wasn’t very surprised to see a line already stretching through the plaza in front of it, given the amount of tourists in the city for Holy Week and, as I would find out in about two hours, the wondrous realm that lay beyond the palace’s exterior walls.
I entered the Alcázar just after 11 a.m. and was almost immediately enchanted. With sections dating from the twelfth century and its upper levels still used by Spain’s royal family as its official residence in the city, Seville’s Alcázar is the oldest royal palace in Europe still in use. It is also considered one of the best examples of Mudéjar architecture, the style created by Moorish artisans working on Christian buildings (whether sacred or secular).
The complex reminded me of a smaller Alhambra, with intricate gypsum-work, breathtaking wooden ceilings (artesonados, in Spanish), tranquil fountains, and lush gardens. One nice difference was that it was warm and sunny instead of cool and rainy this time around! Here’s just one photo from the complex to give you an idea of its beauty.
After wandering in wonder through the palace complex for over two hours, I hurried backed to my hostel, inhaled some lunch, gathered my things, and speed-walked to the bus station. The streets were busy – the processions for the day were just getting started – but thankfully I made it to the correct dock before my bus even arrived. There I found my friends Emma and Danielle, who had traveled to Morocco for spring break and had stopped in Seville on their way back to Toledo. It was great to see them and exchange travel stories as we waited for and then rode on our bus to Madrid.
In Madrid, the three of us made our way to the bus station and dock for Toledo, got on a bus, and arrived to our host home around 8:30 p.m. I was happy to see my host family and excited to spend the rest of Semana Santa in Toledo, but my first focus this night was on getting to bed!
On Wednesday evening, I went with my host mother to La Iglesia de San Juan de los Reyes to watch the processions for the evening. We were supposed to meet one of my host sisters there, but we were unfortunately separated by the crowds of people that had already gathered to see the paso. This one was la Procesión del Santísimo Cristo de la Humildad, or the Procession of the Sacred Christ of Humility; it depicts Jesus sitting with his hands bound with a Roman soldier at his side and Simon the Cyrenian behind him lifting the cross. The float is so tall that the men carrying it each year have to kneel in order to pass it through the door of the church. It was incredible to see this process unfold and then view the paso, as well as the band that accompanied it, make its way through the streets from San Juan.
After the float passed our section of the crowd, my host mother and I joined with my host sister and went with her (and many other toledanos!) to another spot on the route of the procesión to see the float pass again. Just before it passed, however, it stopped at the door of Convent of Saint Anthony, where the door to the convent was opened and a group of nuns (and, I think, regular parishioners) inside sang to the float. It was an unexpected but delightful addition to the procession!
After the second pass of the paso, my host mother took me to the Convent of Saint Dominic the Old (Convento de Santo Domingo el Antiguo), from which we saw another paso leave, this one of Christ the Redeemer. This float had a statue of Jesus in a full scarlet robe carrying the cross, while its brotherhood (hermandad) wore white robes with black hoods. Some of the brotherhood members stood by the entrance from which the float left and sang a cappella to it.
13 April was Holy Thursday or the commemoration of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. My host brother Alonso and host sister Edith were attending a youth event for the Triduum and Easter Sunday at the minor seminary in Toledo. My host parents went earlier in the day to drop them off, while I went on a walk through Toledo and eventually made my way to the seminary to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass with them there. I would end up attending Good Friday and Holy Saturday Masses in this place, too, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of zeal and sincerity produced by the young people attending the event and their family members.
After the Holy Thursday Mass, my host parents and I walked to the Plaza Zocodover, where we watched the processions for the evening. These included statues of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the pillar of flagellation, carrying the cross, and being crucified, as well as Nuestra Señora del Amparo (Our Lady of Shelter/Protection). There were a lot of people on the sides of the streets and in the plaza for the processions, but, as I had noticed the previous night, the mood was in general a bit calmer and more sober than that of Seville.
The music played by the bands accompanying the pasos reminded me of a Tim Burton movie: a mix of fun, joy, and humor with sadness, scariness, and the macabre. I enjoyed it quite a bit! There was also some impromptu music: a woman standing in a balcony close to us sang to one of the floats of Jesus and later to the float of Mary. I couldn’t understand much of what she sang, but the songs were obviously ones of sorrow and mourning. Members of the cofradías for each paso gave the woman flowers from the pasos, gifts that were well deserved, in my opinion.
Once we got back from the processions for Thursday, it was almost midnight, and, thus, almost Good Friday. Since we had eaten supper early that night (5 p.m.; compared to 9 p.m., it’s really early!), we had a little more food so that we would start off the day of fasting on Good Friday not too hungry.
The morning of Good Friday, I went with my host father to a male monastery a few kilometers from Toledo, the only contemplative male monastery in the city’s diocese, for a Via Crucis, or an observation of the Stations of the Cross. Just off of a highway, the monastery maintained a very tranquil atmosphere and a feel of wilderness within its grounds. The Stations started in the monastery church (from the Middle Ages, no big deal) and then made its way down and back a path in the garden. The monks and those attending the Stations took turns carrying the crucifix and candles or reading Scripture passages associated with each station. Even I ended up carrying the crucifix and reading! According to the other Spaniards there, I read well enough to pass as a native. In addition to the centering experience of the Stations, this compliment provided a wonderful start to my day.
From the monastery, my host father took us to a spot just beyond the old city’s walls, from which we walked to the old city and took in los monumentos. What are these “monuments”? On Holy Thursday, when the Eucharist is taken from the main altar after the day’s Mass, it is stored in a temporary altar. In Spain (and, according to Father Ciferni from St. Norbert College, the US over fifty years ago), these altars receive a lot of decoration and attention, and people visit them throughout the morning of Good Friday. A lot of churches in Toledo that are closed most of the year are thus open these days for people to visit and pray before the Eucharist. Walking through the city, my host father and I visited around ten churches, affording remarkable opportunities for photography and prayer. I was so grateful to him and to God for this day, especially after we visited the Church of Saint Justus (San Justo). This is the church connected to the Fundación (recall that it used to be a convent), and I had wanted to visit it since my first week in the city. Now I had my chance! The church has a beautiful side chapel dedicated to the Eucharist (or Corpus Christi, the body of Christ) in the Mudéjar style from the fourteenth century that was recently restored. This was where the monumento for the Church resided for Good Friday, allowing me to gaze in awe at the chapel while praying before the Eucharist.
After our tour of los monumentos, my host father and I visited his parents briefly and then returned home for the main meal of the day. That evening, we returned with my host mother to the minor seminary for the Good Friday service, after which we ventured into Toledo for the last major processions of Semana Santa. We met with my oldest host brother, Francisco, and his wife and children and found an excellent spot to watch the pasos. All the floats for the night – ten in all, eleven counting a reliquary carried on a float – passed by us with their hermandades, some of whom dressed as Roman soldiers, and bands. Good Friday is the biggest day of Semana Santa in most of Spain, and this was certainly true for Toledo. I was incredibly happy and grateful to spend this evening with my host family and so fully immerse myself in the local culture.
Holy Saturday is often characterized as a day of expectation, of waiting for the coming Resurrection of Jesus. I indeed spent much of the day waiting for the Easter Vigil Mass with my host family, but I also visited another church in the city, that of Saint Luke, with my friend Amy. This is one of the Mozarabic churches in Toledo that celebrates Mass according to the rite of the same name. The city’s consortium (consortio), the same group that runs free historical tours at different sites in the city each week, was offering tours of the building for the day. They were in Spanish, of course, but at this point in the semester Amy and I were perfectly fine and even happy with that.
The main church of Saint Luke, only a two-minutes’ walk from the Fund, is in the Mudéjar style and dates back at least to the eleventh century, but it also boasts a Baroque chapel added in the seventeenth century. It is the only church in Toledo with a walled garden. Another unique feature is a song for la Virgen de la Esperanza (the Virgin of Hope, the patron saint of the church) portrayed in a painting with its lyrics expressed through pictures instead of words. I found it incredible to discover yet another historical treasure in Toledo, a city of seemingly inexhaustible surprises; it was even better to discover it with a friend from the Fund!
That night, I returned to the minor seminary with my host parents for the Easter Vigil Mass at 11:30 p.m. This Mass, the highpoint of the liturgical year, is my favorite of all Masses, and getting to experience it in Toledo with my host family was truly incredible. The Mass was held in the courtyard of the seminary building; it filled with the soft glow of candles in the beginning of the service. Even after we blew the candles out, I still felt a glow around me and all those in attendance for the Mass. We joyfully commemorated the Resurrection of the Lord and listened as bells across the city pealed to do the same. Jesus Christ had risen!
Easter Sunday is a public and – of course – religious holiday in Spain, but it is not marked with the same pomp as Semana Santa. It’s mainly a day to be with family and enjoy a meal together. Before the main meal of the day, I went to the cathedral in Toledo for the Easter Mass celebrated by the archbishop. The area immediately in front of the high altar and its elaborate Gothic reredos (retablo) was opened for this special occasion, and I got to sit in it! The boys’ choir for the cathedral sang for the Mass, as well. I considered and consider myself blessed yet again to have this experience abroad.
After the Mass, I returned to my host home and enjoyed a lovely meal with my family. We had great conversation, and it was even better for me because I was able to actively participate in it. For the past couple of weeks and for the remainder of the semester, I felt confident in my conversational fluency and talked much more with my host family, allowing me to learn about and enjoy my host country even more.
On Easter Sunday, I also had the chance to video-chat with my parents and my grandmother and aunt. It was fantastic to see and talk with them. For some reason, I was not feeling as homesick as I had been two or so weeks before, but I still gave thanks for the technology that enabled me to talk so easily with my loved ones.
Well, that’s the rundown of my Semana Santa, reader. Any questions, concerns, or comments? Feel free to let me know here! I’d love to hear about your Semana Santa experiences, too, if you’ve had any. Thanks for your patience with my posts, and, until the next one, ¡hasta luego!