Sunday, April 18, 2010


This past weekend my interest group took an excursion to Toledo, Spain, which is right in the middle, about 30 kilometers from Madrid. This blog won't be one of the more extensive descriptions because Toledo is an old, sleepy town lacking anyone under the age of 50, and although I feel extremely guilty that 1000 year old buildings don't hold my attention like they used to, I'm human.

On the way we stopped at Castilla-La Mancha to see a castle that was built by Christians on the frontier of reclaimed lands during the Reconquista. It's about 900 years old.

Had a great view of the small town as well as surrounding countryside:

These are pretty cool: the actual windmills Cervantes writes about in his epic Don Quixote where Quixote fights against giants that are really just windmills.

Friday afternoon we arrived in Toledo, which was one of the biggest fortresses during the Reconquista, and as such is a legitimate walled city.

For anyone wondering about the reconquista, a short summary is that it was the conquest of Muslim lands by Christians from northern Spain that marched southward over the span of about 700 years until the Muslims were expelled from Spain entirely in 1492.

Here's the town square:

First off we went to the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, where we climbed up the bell towers and looked out over the city, including the cathedral of Toledo:

Here's the inside of the Monastery:

Saturday morning we took the longest string of escalators I've ever seen up to the old city and got a great panoramic view of the city:

Then we went to a 1000 year old mosque that sits on the site of an old Roman temple. The Mosque is called the mosque of "Christ of the Light" because it was converted into a Catholic church at one point, and also has a really cool legend. The legend goes that at one point, King Alfonso XI came to Toledo and came to this church to worship, and as he faced the church his horse saw a bright light and knelt down in front of the church. Ever since, it's been known as Christ of the Light.

The white stone below actually marks the spot where Alfonso's horse knelt:

Another view of Toledo from the back of the Mosque:

Next, we visited the Synagogue of El Transito:

This synagogue is one of the oldest in Spain and serves as a reminder of how influential the Jewish population was in Spain before they started being burned alive during the Inquisition.

And as a perfect segway, here are chains of prisoners from the Inquisition hanging on the Synagogue of Saint Maria the white. This synagogue is only called a synagogue because it was built over an old Jewish place of worship. It's out of use now but in the past was a convent. I think they could've chosen more welcoming decor.

From the inside:

Next, we visited the grand cathedral of Toledo, which is, in the nature of every Spanish cathedral, grand. I only got in one photo before realizing that none were allowed, but it shows the ornate cloister in the center. If you're curious about the rest, you can look up pics of the cathedrals from Sevilla and Granada because the layout is the same.

Saturday night we went to the theatre and saw a play from Prague that didn't have much dialogue but had a lot of black lights and cool effects. It was about a fantasy adventure and at the end they rolled a giant blow up Earth into the crowd. Overall, very entertaining.

As we left the city Sunday morning, we took, yes, another panoramic view:

On the way home we stopped in the small town of Almagra to see a 1000 year old theatre and the national museum of theatre. Interestingly, there was a military parade going on in the town square:

1000 year-old theatre:

The trip was overall completely worth doing, but on the way home I was feeling ready to do things rather than just see things. My average spirits were lifted when I won a crossword competition on the bus, and the prize turned out to be a sword. Toledo is famous for its swords and actually supply swords to the US marines and Swiss guard at the Vatican. My sword was not quite as ornate, but I hope the picture gives you a feeling of how big it is. How I'm getting it home, I have no idea.

Last Week

Last week was an absolute whirlwind coming off London and Normandy (post coming soon), and leading up to Feria, or fair, which is our second spring break and apparently the festival of festivals. I decided that with so much going on I needed to keep focusing on learning and seeing more of Sevilla, so Tuesday afternoon I went to Casa de Pilatos, or the house of Pilate, which is in the center of town.

Sevillanos love legends, and Casa de Pilatos is full of them. The stories surrounding this palace spiraled so far out of control that some people now claim this to be one of Pilate's houses, or at least an exact copy, his palace in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the real story is this. The first Marquis de Tarifa, who also became Duke of Alcala was an extremely religious figure in Sevilla during the 1500's and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he discovered that in paces, the distance between Pilate's house to the Calvary hill was the exact same as a distance between his house, now known as la Casa de Pilatos, and a temple of Sevilla. He placed high emphasis on this to the point where descendants named rooms to show the correspondence, such as "The Passion". The locals ended up circulating stories and more stories about the palace, and here we are.

Here's the main courtyard:

The palace was constructed in the mudejar style, with its Muslim roots fitted to suit Christian tastes, so the palace exhibits more exquisite tiling all over the walls.

Pictures were prohibited in most of the palace, but because the family that lived here, the Enriquez de Ribera, was incredibly wealthy and lived in the golden age of Sevilla, where it had a virtual monopoly on all trade with the New World, they were able to collect art, ceramics, cutlery, tapestries, and furniture from China, Japan, Great Britain, and India, and it was all impressive.

However, in part of the palace where photos were permitted, I stumbled upon a large painting that was a bit worrisome. You tell me what's wrong with this picture.

Maybe you need a closer view:

I don't remember the names, but this painting depicted a powerful man of Sevilla with his wife, who was known as "La mujer con barba", or the bearded lady. I'm not making this up. Why the wealthy man chose to marry a bearded woman is one question, why he decided to pay to etch this strange family in history, quite another.

After the interior, I went out (which is still in, technically) to the gardens.

After the palace, I had a little lunch with my spanish friend, Paula and we talked mostly about what to expect with Feria, but mostly other typical things. I'm kind of accustomed to spanish people now and realize they're just like me, so I don't have as many things to comment on, it's just normal.

Thursday morning I had a field trip in my anthropology class, so I took the long way to the museum and passed through a park, where the sunshine was in full force:

And then I made my way to Plaza de America to hang out before entering the Museum of Customs and Arts, which sits adjacent to the plaza.

The museum was nothing to phone home about, but considering I was on a field trip and not just seeing it as a tourist, it was definately worthwhile. I have no idea how spanish women had the patience to sew these lacy mourning shawls.

And as it was a museum of popular customs, there were giant wine barrels in the basement, apparently a couple hundred years old, and once a year there is a ceremonial day where some of the wine is served to patrons of the museum in commemoration of one of the most popular customs here: drinking. I would like to point out however that drinking here has none of the negative connotation that it does in America, unless you're talking about a "botellon", which is the practice of a lot of young people who get together by the river and drink a lot. I'd say binge drinking is way less prevalent here, where it's much more popular to just grab a glass of wine or beer with meals or during a break in the day.

Seeking yet more culture, Mark, our friend Lauren, and I walked to the oldest bar in Sevilla Thursday afternoon. This bar was established in 1670, and continues today. Take a moment to let that date sink in. This bar is over 100 years older than our country. Inside, there are bottles on the shelves that are so old, the companies themselves have tried to buy them back. It's noteworthy that the bar is also famous for its spinach, and when we were trying to find it, whenever we would say, "El Rinconcillo, the bar with famous spinach", literally everyone knew what we were talking about. I should also note that the spinach was the best spinach I've ever had, which says a lot and nothing at the same time.

In other news, strange things have been happening at my homestay. Before London, I bought a cheap box (think small dictionary sized) box of wine because I thought I was meeting up with friends that night. The meeting never happened, but when I came home from London, the box of wine was still there on my shelf, however it was a different one. And about every other day since, the box of wine has changed. I want to ask my senora about it, but I'm going to see how long it lasts. Also occurring last week, I went to the bathroom, and one of the small turtles from the basin on the floor had been swapped with a large turtle from the bidet, and all four turtles were moving around as if they were all very uncomfortable with the new situation. Later that night I went into the bathroom, and all turtles were back to their rightful homes.

As far as school is concerned, I'm still going even though it may not seem like it. I'm actually really enjoying most of my classes. My writing class pretty much does discussion and a little grammar everyday, but our teacher is the man and keeps it fresh. In Anthropology we're learning about the economy of Andalucia, which can pretty much consists of wine and olives, and in history, we're learning about the Spanish monarchy under Charles V, and although the material is interesting and completely new to me, our teacher uses the blackboard very sparingly, and no sort of technology, so it's a constant struggle to pay attention to the 2 hour spanish lecture in the strictest sense of the word.

That's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Thursday night of 2 weeks ago, during my stay in London, I went to Normandy, which is the northern region of Spain facing the Channel. I knew the travel there would be stressful since it included a metro, train, overnight ferry, and two buses to reach my destination, but I was feeling up to the challenge. Getting off the train at Portsmouth Harbor in the south of England, I was a little unnerved by the lack of people and it turned out that I was at the wrong station, and had a little walking to do.

Nonetheless, I made it to the ferry station and got on my boat. I didn't take any pictures but these "ferries" are basically small cruise ships, with a theatre, multiple restaurants, a dance club, and various lounges. Nonetheless I just found a seat, reclined as far back as I could, threw a shirt over my eyes, and fell fast asleep. I woke up at 5:45 in perfect time to get off the boat and grab a bus to Caen, which is a small city in northern France which is the heart of all the war memorials. I was excited to be back in France but the early morning drowsiness combined with the heavy fog that was literally everywhere combined to put me into a cold, soggy, zombie like state that required 3 cups of coffee.

Then I grabbed another bus which took me to the Normandy World War II Memorial. (More fog)

Outside the entrance there were stone blocks from each country involved with the Allied cause, and each with a certain saying upon them.

So we've got America with a classic quote from Ike:

France, with a typically airy and poetic call: (Translation=I was born to know thee, to call thee Liberty)

And then we've got Greece: "We prefer peace to war." Eloquent.

I literally had no idea how to see Normandy before I talked with a woman in the tourist office at the France ferry harbor, but it seemed that the best option was a 4 hour guided tour. Our tour guide turned out to be awesome and we saw a lot of major major sites during the war.

The first thing we saw was an artificial harbor called a "mulberry" that Churchill drug over from Britain to serve as a supplies harbor to the town of Arromanche. (I should note that Normandy is a province of northern France encompassing all these towns). Since Hitler fortified all the harbors in France so well, Churchill decided if they couldn't take a harbor, they'd bring one. Unfortunately there were only two constructed and within the first 2 weeks of operation a storm badly battered them. The other mulberry off Omaha beach was destroyed beyond repair, and this one required 2 months to repair.

A more efficient supplies strategy came from the Americans, who just bull-rushed everything over in ships.

Picture of Sword Beach, the eastern-most of the five landing zones, and taken by the Brits.

Climbing up these cliffs proved to be the most deadly part of the invasion.

And here's a German cannon bunker. Untouched by the bombing, it remains exactly as it was during the war.

After Arromanche, we went to the American cemetary and memorial, which was in a very somber and powerful way the highlight of my trip. We started out in the Garden of the Lost, with every one of the 1,557 Americans whose bodies have never been found.

Inside, there was this map of the overall plan for "Operation Overlord", which most people would agree saved nearly the entire world from Hitler. Plans of Hitler have been found to invade very nearly the entire world, so it's hard to understate the importance of June 6, 1944 for everyone worldwide.

Reflecting pool:

The actual cemetery is staggering. It's hard to grasp 9,387 graves, and furthermore that there were around 20,000 Americans who died in the invasion of France that are buried in the States. The exact totals from D-Day and the invasion of Normandy in total are incredibly unreliable, and to this day in this rural part of France, farmers will occasionally plow up a body from the war, sometimes with I.D. But generally it looks like around 3000-4000 men died during the morning and afternoon hours, and just on Omaha Beach. Casualties there were so high that they were a little easier to calculate. What I didn't realize was that securing the beaches didn't constitute any sort of victory. Allied forces continued to fight for months to push the Germans out of France. Normandy was just the beginning.

Pardon the drama, but for me, the most powerful thing was to look at the names. When there are so many of something, you forget the importance of each. Each one of these gravestones has a name and a story, family, job, and everything else, that ended in France, literally saving the world.

View of Omaha Beach from the cemetery:

After the cemetery, we drove down to the actual Omaha Beach. The thing about it is that it's just a beach now; people have houses there. As our guide pointed out, the beach didn't choose it's role. None of the Belgian doors or hedgehogs are there anymore, but it's still arguably the most famous, and important site of World War II.

For me, going down to the water where this famous photo was taken...

...was the most moving part of the beaches. Looking back at the vast (and Omaha Beach is about 100 yards deep) beach and the imposing bluffs behind it gave me the chills. I've seen Saving Private Ryan but to touch the water and the sand that so many men died on was very moving. In a very strange way, being on Omaha Beach made me question myself in ways that normal life never does. I couldn't help but wonder if I would've had the courage to storm these beaches. Would I have the strength to watch friends die and keep moving forward? And then if I did reach the base of the bluffs, would I have the fortitude to climb and push forward instead of staying below in relative safety. I hope I never have to know these questions but it was scary to think about the fact that I'm 21, and many many men that lived and died on this beach were my age or younger.

Many of the German foxholes are gone now but some still remain. Spooky:

After the beaches we drove up to Pont Du-Hoc, where 7 German cannons used to be positioned. The Allies knew about the location and decided it was crucial to disable the cannons which each had range to fire up to 25,000 yards. Around 140 of 220 men died climbing (literally they had to climb) the cliffs, and when the Army Rangers 2nd Battalion got there, they realized the cannons had been moved back to safer locations because the Germans didn't want to lose them in the inevitable air raids. Those air raids left giant craters in the ground that are still a sight today. Sadly, the battalion lost over 140 of 225 men.

German fort:

Another German fort:

Bigger view:

After the tour, I had lunch, and then went into the museum back near Caen. The picture archives took me through the entire process of Overlord, from the planning to the conception, to the march to Berlin.

Here are a few of the best pictures:

The landing:

Allied soldiers at leave and playing baseball in Normandy:

The thick hedges used to separate cattle made the task of reclaiming France a brutal one. Here you can kind of see the hedges on both sides. And also, this is one of those pictures that makes me realize how brave these men really were:

French gratitude:

At the end of the photo archives I had taken over 300 pictures that day so I put the camera away for a little while. I watched a couple movies on D-Day in the museum theatre, and then wandered through the new cold war exhibit they had which made me realize how little I understand about the state of the world 50 years ago and on.

After a very packed day in every sense of the word, I took a bus back to downtown Caen, which was much more lively without any fog.

And as it goes with every part of Europe, there's a lot of old stuff. As in, older than America. This is an old castle that is right in the middle of Caen. Despite its grandeur, the inhabitants seemed to have no idea what it was or how old it was. But one man told me it used to be a private castle and it's around 500 years old.

And as if I need to see another old church, here's just your standard gothic-style European church. Remember, this is in Caen, France. There's nothing that makes Caen very special other than the war memorials, so you can try and think about how many incredible, old churches there really are in Europe.

I was exhausted after the day, but in my usual manner, managed to miss my bus stop, and would've continued happily riding along had we not gotten to the bus depot, where I clearly had to get off. When I asked the bus driver where to go and that I had a ferry to catch, he told me to keep walking straight. The directions were spot on, but after stopping into a couple hotels (there are much fewer english speakers in Caen than in Paris), I finally could piece things together that I was on the right street, but very far away from the ferry port.

I didn't really have any options so I just strolled along through a quaint little French town. I've gotta tell you I continue to be shown that France is just a great place to live. Really everything is attractive and clean and the people are very friendly. Nonetheless, walking through a French town by moonlight, not knowing how far you've gotta go or remotely where you are on a map, isn't as much fun after a half-hour or so. And after 45 minutes I was about ready to just give up on the ferry and wait to be kicked out of France. But luckily I kept walking and then in an act of divine Providence, a man drove past the other way, stopped, and asked me if I was headed to the ferries. Sounds like the "last voice he heard" type story, but like I said, I was feeling pretty desperate. He ended up knowing a little english and I was able to decipher that I had at least an hour of walking ahead of me. Instead, he turned around and drove me right up to my gate.

I was very relieved to be on a boat headed to London, and I probably feel asleep within 10 minutes on the ferry. All in all, the travel it took to get me to Caen and back to London was terrible. However, the war memorials and things I saw in Normandy I will remember forever, and I hope other people will remember the many men of June 6 as well.