My love affair with Spain

Leaving Barcelona is always a difficult farewell for me. I can’t explain in any coherent way why this would be so; it just is. So when I moved on to spend time in Madrid, I wasn’t particularly excited about it. I know, that just sounds foolish. Madrid has much to offer a traveler, especially one interested in history and art. Some of the most interesting galleries in the world are in Madrid, including the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen. Having been to the city in the past, I had visited these museums and really enjoyed them. And while I did spend some time at them again, I was more interested this go around in walking through the city, getting to know it less as a tourist and more as a traveler. Yes, there is a difference. It’s a subtle difference, but it exists. For me, the tourist (at his or her worst) is that person running madly from one monument to the next, snapping pictures to prove they’ve been there. The traveler, on the other hand, wanders through the neighbourhoods, stopping at local cafés, talking to people in shops, and generally soaking up the feeling of the place. Some days I would be both – sometimes at the same time.

Madrid I approached as someone I’d been acquainted with, but didn’t know well, and to be honest, wasn’t sure I wanted to know better. In the end, I spent time in two different neighbourhoods, met wonderful people, reconnected with some I’d met previously, and most importantly stopped looking at the city as not Barcelona. During my first week, I stayed in a very non-touristy neighbourhood very close to Parque del Buen Retiro. I was also very ill with bronchitis that week, which left me with very little energy, and frankly feeling quite isolated and sorry for myself. It’s very strange to be ill in a place where you don’t know many people, and you’re struggling to speak the language. I’m sure I provided a great deal of comic relief to the pharmacist I visited while seeking something to curb the horrible, sleep-depriving cough. What saved my time in Madrid from being tainted with the association of being sick and alone there was my proximity to Retiro. Even if I had no energy to go sight-seeing, I was close enough to the park to walk there most days with my e-reader, find a spot, and just sit and absorb the space. I watched people walking, running, talking with each other, and just generally allowed myself to be there. The weather was co-operative, and I now have lovely memories of healing in the park, in Madrid. 

El Retiro, as it is locally known, sits on 350 acres in the southeastern part of the city, close to the Prado, and at its northern edge, the Puerta de Alcalá. Since it was first established during the reign of Isabella I (1474 – 1504) as gardens belonging to the monarchy, the park has seen numerous architectural and botanical additions. The site of a secondary palace, used for the recreation of the monarchs, most of the palace buildings were destroyed during the Peninsular War (1804 – 1814) with the First French Empire. After being opened to the public in 1767, the park became municipal property in 1868 following the overthrow of Queen Isabella II. One of my favourite places is the Palacio Cristal, built in 1887 and designed by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco as an exhibition hall that was clearly influenced by the Crystal Palace in London.

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It now routinely hosts art exhibitions open to the public.

Also attesting to the history and leisure of the Spanish aristocracy that is now enjoyed by the public is the Estanque del Retiro, or Retiro Pond, dominated by the statue of King Alfonso XII who ruled from 1874 – 1885 after he retook the throne lost by his mother, Queen Isabella II in a military coup. I find the juxtaposition of the muscular columns supporting the militaristic presence of the King on horseback and the boaters out on the tranquil pond to be particularly ironic and amusing.

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While there are numerous cafés, statues referring to Spain’s historical past as a conquering nation – including many broad avenues named after its colonial holdings in South America – my favourite thing to do was simply wander down the quieter paths and contemplate the wonder of being in such a place as this. 

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Having been restored by this wonderful park, I was ready to move on to the first of my two one-week stints as a volunteer in an English language immersion program for Spaniards. First stop: Torrecaballeros, near Segovia.

For anyone with some time to spare and the desire to have more fun than you thought possible in a legal sense, you should consider volunteering with a program like this. I first volunteered with Vaughan Systems, based in Madrid, last year. They run week-long immersion programs at 4 different locations outside Madrid. Volunteers have their meals and accommodations paid for in exchange for a rigorous week of intensive conversation in English for 10 hours a day with Spaniards looking to improve their abilities. This is a serious business, but I have never had so much fun. I have met amazing people every time i’ve done this, and now have wonderful friends, both Spanish and English-speaking all over the world. If you’re interested in checking this company out, you can find them at http://volunteers.grupovaughan.com. Each immersion course is run by a team of one co-ordinator and one Master of Ceremonies. There are one-to-one conversations, improvised scenarios for telephone conversations, conference calls, group activities, and presentations by the Spaniards that they always find terrifying at the beginning. I’ve seen a number of these presentations now on a variety of subjects – everything from tourism talks about a home-town to wine appreciation to how to cook a perfect fried egg. Some presentations are delivered better than others, but they are all done with heart and soul, and as a volunteer you want to cheer them on. The bravery it takes to put yourself out there in a language that is not your mother tongue is staggering. I always come away from these weeks with a few more good friends, and a host of stories to cheer me up when I’m feeling down. My experience at El Rancho in Torrecaballeros was no different. 

We were incredibly lucky in this group to have three Spaniards who are professional jazz musicians! So the entertainment on our first night was fantastic.

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El Rancho, the 4-star hotel where we spent the week, is about an hour south of Madrid. The meals and accommodations were really wonderful. i can’t imagine what other guests at the hotel must’ve thought as they watched groups of Spaniards and Anglos wander about the grounds in animated conversation or singing at the top of our lungs around the piano on our last night together. The hotel owner has an appreciation for art, and the place is filled with paintings and other pieces of a wide range of styles. If he likes it, he buys it and displays it in the hotel. This is how I found my future self. It’s uncanny really.

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Given that it was late April, most of us – Spaniards included – were hoping for mild weather verging on warm. We were sadly disappointed. Until the last day it was generally chilly and overcast. Except for the day when we woke up to this – when it was downright cold.

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Fortunately, this did not last. By the last day, when all the Spaniards had successfully completed their presentations – some of them bringing us to tears – and having their certificates in hand, the sun came out as we prepared to share a last meal together.

The goodbyes are always difficult, but I am still in touch with some of those i met on a course last year, and there are those from this group who I know will remain with me a long time.

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So with a very full heart, I boarded the bus that would take us back to Madrid, where I spent another week before setting off for Valdelavilla in Soria with another group of Spaniards and Anglos. 

After such intensity, the sudden and complete silence of being on my own was a bit daunting. For the first couple of days I really didn’t know what to do. The landscape was alien, and the lack of constant social interaction required some adjustment. Fortunately, I have a friend there that I met at Valdelavilla last year who is now in Spain teaching English. I reconnected with Paroma and she introduced me to her friend Ben. These are the same two who I joined in Barcelona the night we went to the Magic Fountain and experienced the worst meal I’ve ever had! We teamed up again, and i have to say that it was through Ben’s eyes that Madrid began to take on its own personality. His passion for Spain, and his interest in the history of Madrid are infectious. You can’t help but become interested in the city. On one occasion we got together to visit the Caixa Forum – a bank-sponsored art centre very close to Retiro. The exhibitions there are always free, and one of the ways you will always find it is the vertical garden that was designed and built on the side of the apartment building to the side of the open courtyard leading to the hall.

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This time I stayed in the heart of the city, just behind the Plaza Mayor. Very different from my other location near Retiro, this is a part of the city that never sleeps. There is a constant vibrant hum of life here. The Plaza is filled with cafés and tourists at all hours. It is a central meeting spot with a long and diverse history. Construction of the Plaza began in 1617, but it has been remodelled numerous times, especially after a series of fires in 1790. Its name has also changed at different times to reflect the social and political climate. It has variously been known as Plaza del Arrabal, but was rechristened Plaza de la Constitución to mark the 1812 Constitution, but shortly thereafter was renamed Plaza Real. Throughout the nineteenth century the name changed several times, finally becoming Plaza de la República in 1873. All these changes reflect the various monarchical shifts that occurred in this turbulent century. The name Plaza Mayor, which it has retained to date, was finally bestowed following the Spanish Civil War in the twentieth century. It has been the site of markets, bullfights, soccer games and public executions. 

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The bronze statue of King Phillip III was created in 1616, but not moved to the centre of the Plaza until 1848.

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Not far from Plaza Mayor is the Puerta del Sol, or Gate of the Sun. This was one of the gates into the city in the fifteenth century. Now it is a meeting place for tourists and locals. It is also the point at which all Spanish roads begin, leading it to be marked  as Km 0.

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It is also marked by a statue of a bear under a madroño tree. Historically there used to be bears living in the area. Now, of course, these are long gone, but the symbol of the bear and tree remain as the heraldic motif of the municipal flag. 

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Like Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol is a central meeting place for people, and many political demonstrations take place there, as do celebrations of festivals – of which there are many in Spain. I was fortunate to be in Madrid at the beginning of the celebrations for the week of San Isidro, the patron saint of the city. On the friday afternoon there was a parade of the giants through the streets, culminating at Puerta del Sol. The giants all reference various historical figures in Spanish history, including the Moors and the Catholic Monarchs who drove them out. 

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Accompanied by musicians, these giant puppets dance as they parade toward the square.

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By the time I was leaving Madrid for the second time to head back to Valdelavilla, I had a new respect for the city. Its history, its sense of struggle that continues particularly now as the economic crisis shows few signs of abating anytime soon, and in the face of that its people, who despite everything will come out to join in whatever celebrations are taking place to support their arts and culture. And there are puppets! How can you not love that?

So my love affair with Spain continues. I keep finding more things to love about this country and its culture – fraught and anxious, defiant and proud, and certainly not perfect, but always making me feel welcome.