Friday, May 21, 2010

La Despedida

There's an inevitable feeling, when you leave a special place where you have spent time away from home, that combines two contradictory emotions simultaneously: one half of your brain sends the message that you have lived there forever, the other half insists that you had just arrived yesterday. The past three weeks has been an eternity of events that have flashed by in the quickness of a ray of light. And although we are excited to see our friends and family, no one wants to leave, no one wants to let go. And really, we don't have to.

I have tried to give you all a little peek into the world we have been living in for the past three weeks. A snapshot here and a metaphor there, I wished to give you the full effect of the magic we experienced in Segovia. But the truth is, no amount of words or pictures hold the power to convey the message I am trying to send. To experience something through reading is impossible; the only true way is to live it. Still, I hope that with this blog I have been able to give you a part our journey and given my classmates and I something to reflect on and keep as a memory forever. Because there are pieces of our hearts that still haven't left Segovia and will be there always.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

La Granja

Most students at Elmira College, and even their parents, have visited at least once the Corning Museum of Glass just a short drive away. No matter how many times you have visited, you can always find something new and exciting, another dazzling creation formed with this shiny clear solid composed of tiny swimming molecules of silica, sodium carbonate, and calcium oxide. After class, on this gorgeous eighty degree sunny day, we took a similar tour at La Fábrica Real de Cristal, or Royal Glass Factory, in the nearby town of La Granja, that despite its extreme similarities had one major difference from the museum at Corning: the glass made here was produced specifically for the use by his majesty Rey Felipe V in El Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso in the eighteenth century.

We began our trip at the fábrica de cristal, where the royal creations glowed in glass boxes that lined each room. Pairs of balloon shaped bottles for olive oil and vinegar were engraved with pencil thin gold flowers. Next to them, was a table of "S" shaped and spiral decorated cylinders that are meant to hold the candles in chandeliers. Aqua colored glass bottles and tea cups labeled with the calligraphy inscribed names of royalty flashed their brilliance, taunting our hands that blocked by glass, could not touch them. What was even better than seeing these antique works of craftsmanship shimmering nicely in their displays, was to see them put in place in the Royal Palace.

It almost makes no difference that photography was prohibited inside the palacio, because no digital image, no matter how refined could capture what we saw today with our own two eyes, some of which, Cassie could tell you, were crying of amazement. Wooden carved flowers and angels adorned with leaves of real gold trickled down from the ceiling onto the walls, whose colorful satin and velvet sides were covered with paintings even more famous than the painters themselves. We continued walking until all students came to an abrupt halt at the hallway crossing all of the rooms in a horizontal line: extending in front of us were lines of arañas, what the Spanish call both spiders and chandeliers, adorned with fifteen square feet of sparkling glass ornaments made at the fábrica real. We worked our way down this hall to the royal bedroom where a bed shaded by a silk canopy faced opposite a large window through which one could see straight into the center of the extensive gardens that surrounded the palace.

The gardens at La Granja are rumored to be modeled after the Palace of Versailles, as King Felipe V was raised in France, and missed his old "backyard." And we were quite lucky to walk through the luscious greens today, for it was one of the three days of the year that the town "turns on" the fountains. Following a man with an ear-piercing whistle who carried the Spanish flag, we traveled to four different fountains, each decorated with statues of humans and animals alike. At the sound of his whistle, three men stood to the side and activated the fountain system, one that involves no electrical or gas powered machinery. Hundreds of chanting children lined the edges of the fountains screaming "¡Mójame, mójame!" "Get me wet, soak me!" Because when each fountain was activated, what started as a simple stream became a towering gush of water that drenched all things within a fifteen foot radius of its outer edges. Some of us rushed to the waterspout with the children, others ran for cover, screaming at the top of their lungs. Despite our contrastive efforts, at the end of our garden tour, everyone had gotten wet. But who could complain? We had the water with a three hundred year royal history soak into our bodies and had made the visit of a lifetime.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

El Acueducto

Before coming on this trip, one of the only things we students knew about the city of Segovia was that it was the site of a landmark aqueduct, one of the oldest, most significant, and best-preserved monuments left by the Romans on the Iberian Peninsula. It is the city's top tourist attraction and its foremost symbol as evidenced by its presence on Segovia's coat of arms. Coincidentally, the first fact we learned about the place we would be spending the next three weeks, turned out to be the first place we stopped when we had arrived. And what before we had only read about on Wikipedia, we can now recite to you our own knowledge and interpretation of this incredible structure.

Today, we began our tour at the far end of the Acueducto. Not where it stands at picture perfect height in the center of the azoguejo, or central market, but a couple minutes walk uphill, where the stones are stacked only a few inches above my head. This superb work of construction held together not by mortar, but by the laws of physics, was built as a means to transport water to the area, and consequently is the reason for Segovia's existence. The water transportation structure actually begins in a region known as La Acebeda, collecting water from the Fuente Fría River some 17 kilometers from the city. After first being gathered in El Caserón, or Big Tank, then led to a second tower called the Casa de Aguas (Waterhouse), the water travels on a one percent grade toward Plaza Azoguejo as the arches continue to grow in length and soon start to pile on top of one another. Although it is an astounding view from the ground at its full height, what is even more amazing is being able to view it up close.

As we walked up a set of steps to stand on the water bridge, we could see far down the canal whose pin straight edges created a perfect line that extended toward the horizon. Small black holes stood out on the gray bricks and marked the use of a type of pliers that the Romans used to place them. Every single stone was cubed and placed in its precise location held there by the force of gravity pushing on the mathematically sound structure dreamed up by the men of Rome. It was almost too hard to believe that as we were walking atop the gray stone, it was only the equal and opposite reactions proposed by Newton, the opposition between the pull of our feet and the push of the pillars below us that keep us from falling away.

In its entire two thousand years of existence, the Roman Aqueduct has kept the city of Segovia alive. First, it provided the essential transportation of water to the entire population. And now it serves as a highly targeted tourist attraction whose presence is vital to maintain the flow of people in and out of the city and to furnish Segovia's economy. And after touring the aqueduct today, I feel like an important part of the two thousand year success of this city, for without my being there, the power of the aqueduct to aid the Segovian people, would be one less visitor strong.

Monday, May 17, 2010

La Catedral

Everyday on my fifteen minute walk to class, I pass on my right side La Catedral de Segovia. With its tall and decorative Gothic style architecture, so high that it blocks the sun from stinging my eyes, it did not seem likely that the amazing building would just be another reference point in my everyday routine. What I first saw as an astounding work of architecture jutting into the sky, craning my head just to get one more look, had begun to lose its magical touch with every time I walked past on the way to my house or to school. But today, I got the chance to relive that magic again, when we took a tour of the building I had almost forgotten.

At the end of the twelfth century a new artistic movement apart from Románico began to move into the Peninsula from northern France. As a protest against the excessive luxury of the order of Cluny, the monks of the order of Cister adopted a naked simplicity of architecture, of pointed instead of rounded arcs, popular among towns in northern Europe and the origin of the name "Gothic." Just as we can with the churches built in Románico style, our class can identify and explain the Gothic elements of the high columns, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, and gargoyles for both their symbolic and constructional value. However, it was seeing the beautiful works of art inside the building that truly left an impact that will change my view of the outside forever.

At the center of the cathedral, three aisles are formed that all lead to the highly decorated altar piece adorned with golden flowers and statues of baby angels surrounding Mary and her son Jesus. But I think that the most beauty is actually seen around the edges in the individual capillas that line the edge of the building, each dedicated to a religious figure and each with a story of their own to tell. Past each separate gate stands sculptures and altarpieces of Mary, Jesus, and certain saints. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are pictured holding their characterizing symbols of the angel, lion, ox, and eagle respectively. Spanish bishops are honored, their statues standing high in a three dimensional frame of gold above glass cases of robes worn by the men themselves. The room that had the greatest impression on me was the "Cristo Yacido," which contained a wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ laying in a glass box. Just the way he lay their, wisps of hair lightly touching the pillow as small streams of blood traced his skin flowing from his puncture wounds was eye-catching. And his brown eyes reflected such a serene agony that no matter your religion, you could feel his pain.

Although the cathedral is astonishingly gorgeous from the exterior view, the true beauty in its existence was meant to be in what it represents, the stories of the Bible and the institution of the Catholic church. With excessive ornamentation and brute realism, each capilla tells a story of its own more beautiful than the figures that represent it. After that visit, my morning walks past La Catedral will be forever changed. Maybe my eyes will still gaze beyond its colossal structure, but my mind will always wander inside, to the stories unseen for thousands of years.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


When traveling in Spain, or even Europe in general, a trip to Madrid, the country's capital located at its center, is an essential part of your vacation. With a population of five million, Madrid is characterized for its intense cultural and artistic activity and a very active night life as a city that is sure to be a destination on bucket lists across the globe. To our great fortune, last Saturday everyone arrived at the bus station on time so we could spend the weekend away from the small, quaint life in Segovia in one of the great cities of the world.

After an hour long bus ride and some time in the subterranean world of Madrid's metro system, we dropped our bags at the Aparthotel Madroño and stepped into La Puerta del Sol, or in English the Gate of the Sun, a wide open plaza that acts like Times Square does for New York City, a place where masses of people from all walks of life gather like ants on an anthill scurrying in and out of designer stores and souvenir shops and scrambling to capture with a camera lens the magic of the city. From there, we took a walking tour of the Antiguo Madrid, seeing the Royal Palace where King Juan Carlos I and his family live, la Catedral, and the Plaza Mayor that is encircled by café tables topped with and café con leche. Everywhere we walked, musicians played flutes, accordions, and guitars in front of an upside down hat that held their coins, and men who appeared to be headless walked the sidewalks in search of viewers. Although one could spend hours just watching the variety of people pass by on the street, the main attractions of our visit were el Museo del Prado and el Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia that combined hold the greatest collection of the works of Spanish master painters: Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, El Greco, Salvador Dalí, José Ribera, Joan Miró, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, and many others.

It was crucial that we studied our maps and chose carefully which rooms in the museums we wished to study, because to see the entire museum, would take much longer than the two hours we were allotted. As we entered each room for the first time, it was like the walls were a giant plastic bag, as the paintings hanging there sucked the air out of our lungs and halted our process of respiration; the view was breathtaking. To see a painting you have studied and analyzed in classes for years and years in its true form, suspended and larger then you would have ever imagined raw before your eyes is a completely unique experience. Each painting became a river in the current of our emotions. Some brought tears, like Picasso's Guernica or provoked curiosity like Velázquez's Las Meninas. The feeling was such that everyone who had walked into those museums, had walked out feeling more connected to the world, an essential link on the six billion year old chain of the Earth that without such link, would not exist as it does today.

Following the museum visit, we were of course given free time to explore the city for ourselves. Some took a walk in Madrid's beautiful, nature-packed botanical gardens, others went out to eat at tapas bars sharing small courses of exotic foods, and others headed toward the Corte Inglés, where the street made for shoppers begins. All in two days we had experienced what we could of the capital. After much walking, picture viewing, and spending some euros, we were all exhausted, and despite the grandeur of the city, we couldn't wait to return to the smaller city we now know as home: Segovia.

Friday, May 14, 2010

La Casa de Antonio Machado

We've all seen it on the entertainment channel, the glamorous lives of celebrities with their 2,000 square foot homes and their Infinity swimming pools to match. Just watching them walk with chihuahuas in their designer purses and expensive shades over their eyes, we can imagine the fairytale life that they lead. Even of our own idols who are famous, we seem to dream up a magnificent portrait of how they might live. And although it might not involve limousines and butlers, to us, it still represents something unreal. My freshman year of college, I took a Spanish course called 2oth Century Peninsular Literature, where I read the works of Spain's most acclaimed poets and prose writers. And because I want to be a writer myself, these distinguished authors seemed to me a different breed of human, and I could only imagine how they lived their lives. Until today.

This afternoon after comida, we went as a group to visit the house of Antonio Machado, a very talented poet and one of the leading figures of the Spanish literary movement known as the Generation of '98. Although he was born in Sevilla, he moved to Segovia, where he spent twelve years, in 1919 to teach French at the Instituto de Segovia. As we walked in the rain down the hill in a slippery alley, I expected to arrive at a well-maintained mansion, but we arrived instead to a small five-bedroom pension, where the great writer Machado spent twelve years of his writing career.

Maintained in its early twentieth century condition, we started our tour in the kitchen of the house equipped with cast iron appliances so heavy they could kill a man. In the corner sat a smooth brown rock on top of a wooden stand that was used to pound meat. And hanging from the overhang above the stove were thin wedges of newspaper clippings that critiqued and praised republican Spain. On to the kitchen, we saw a simple dining table decorated with velvety purple flowers and a gold campanita, that would sound its shrill ring when the meal was ready. In what used to be other guest rooms rested cases of Machado originals beneath old photographs and paintings of the poet and his lovers. The final room, just as simple as the rest, was the poet's bedroom, in the same state he left it seventy one years ago. A small bed and a nightstand took up the space on the left, while a table of manuscripts that circled an ashtray on the right gave the impression that someone had been diligently working just minutes before.

On our way out we signed a guest book whose blank pages stared me in the face, taunting my inability to come up with the words I wanted to say. There was nothing magnificent in the house, nothing inspirational that caught my eye, and not one thing took my breath away; it was old, but it was normal. And that's when I realized, that no matter what one achieves or how famous one is, in the grand scheme of things, we are all just regular people living regular lives. In order to be a great writer, you don't need a beautiful house or beautiful things, all you need, is a beautiful mind.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Los Zapatos

Over the course of our trip, we have walked a total of almost twenty miles already. Although it is a city of 55,000 people, all stores, businesses, and schools are all located within walking distance from one's own home. Apart from our field trips, we make our way to every destination, whether it be the school, our homes, the bank, or even the post office, on foot. Because the streets here are made of cobblestone and designed only to fit one car, the amount of walking is sure to take a toll on anyone's feet. Combine this need for comfortable transportation and the high fashion sense of Europe, and you can understand why Spain is, out of all things, famous for its shoes.

When I stepped foot onto Spanish soil with my Payless brand flip-flops, I immediately felt inadequate. Walking past the airport and to our taxi, I found myself looking at peoples' feet rather than their faces; their shoes were breathtakingly beautiful. While I am used to cheap sandals and old muddy running sneakers, shoes here are about quality and style, and nothing else. Even children under the age of two wear penny loafers and leather boots that match their coats and scarves as well. All along the Calle Real, the main street in Segovia, shoes of every kind, boots, heels, flats, peep-toes, loafers, sneakers, high-tops and more glisten under the lights in the well-lit display cases outside of every store. And it works of course, because every time, the gleaming zapatos pull us inside.

All but Sam have bought at least one pair of shoes during our stay here. And how could we not? Every time we put them on it's like slipping elegance onto our feet and standing on pride; because the bottom of the shoes make no reference to China, but rather, they say "Hecho en España." Maddie bought electric blue heels made of suede, that will raise her height so high she will float like a supermodel. Jovanna, half of whose wardrobe is in shades of gray, could not resist the urge to splurge on a pair of snake skin gray pumps to match almost every outfit she has. And Cassie and I both got open-toed black heels with straps that we agreed to share, because finally, we have found someone with the same miniature size feet.

Spain has always had a tradition of great handmade shoes. Dr. Shaw even admits that when she studied abroad in the late 70s that she went a little out of her budget just to get those special pairs. One could even attend shoe-making school in Spain at La Escuela de Diseño y Artes Aplicadas in Palma de Mallorca. And to get by here in Spain, not only do we need to talk the talk, but we have to walk the walk as well.