Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Weekend in Porto

Hey everyone! Sorry for such a long time between posts! Life here in Salamanca has been pretty busy. As I'm still trying to catch up on posts about my travels, I'm going to explain how we spent the weekend of the 4th of July in Porto, Portugal.

This trip was one of the organized excursions through my study abroad program, so all of the transportation, accommodations, and tours were organized for us. We took a private bus from Salamanca after our classes finished on Friday, July 3. The trip to Porto was about five hours. Since Portugal and Spain are both part of the European Union, crossing the border into Spain was really nothing unless you were paying close attention. No passports or stopping required!

We arrived to Porto around 8 or 9 pm and then had a little bit of time before meeting up with the group to walk down to the waterfront together. The walk to the river was really pretty because the sun was setting.

The view at the waterfront was incredible! Lots of restaurants were situated along the river (Rio Duero in Spanish), so we split up into smaller groups and went off to find something to eat.

The group that I went with ended up at a small restaurant that mostly served seafood. We had an interesting time communicating with the waiters since we don't speak Portuguese. Thankfully, most Portuguese people speak at least some English. It was quite the interesting dinner because I ended up getting pooped on by some seagulls that were flying overhead, but the whole situation made for some good laughs. The photo below is with the restaurant owner and our two waiters.

After dinner, the group met up again and we trekked back uphill to our hotel.

The next morning we all got dressed in our red, white, and blue because it was the 4th of July! 

We got a guided tour of Porto and got to see many of the popular sites.

Inside the bookstore that inspired J.K. Rowling's creation of Flourish and Blot's for the Harry Potter series. See the movie interpretation below as well.

Amazing tile murals inside Porto's train station. These kind of tiles are found all over the city, both on the interior and exterior of buildings. They are said to help protect the buildings from humidity, since Porto is a coastal city.

Looking out over Porto...

Once again, we ran into/crashed a wedding inside Porto's cathedral. The cathedrals can't be totally closed to the public during the ceremony, so I guess that's a sacrifice you make for getting married in such a cool place.

Walking through Porto: so pretty!

We ended our walking tour back on the waterfront.

And then we crossed that bridge that you see in the background on foot to see the panoramic view of Porto from the other side of the Rio Duero. Definitely worth it!! This is probably my favorite view of my whole trip so far. 

With my roommate, Lynzee.

Porto is very famous for its wine, and this is just one of the MANY wine cellars found in the city.

Done with our tour of the city, we headed for a group lunch. One of the things we got to try is a typical pastry of Portugal, called pastel de nata in Spanish. Delicious!

A example of the buildings with tiled exteriors.

We had already had a great 4th of July in Porto, but the day wasn't over yet because it was time to go to the beach! For many of us, this was our first European beach experience. While it was a bit windy and chillier than some would have liked, we still had a great time. I had a blast swimming/jumping waves in the Atlantic.

After a few hours at the beach, we headed back to our hotel and had a free evening. Since it was the 4th of July, pretty much all of our group went out together. There ended up being a festival sponsored by a cider company and a band was playing, so we had a good time listening to live music there.

On Sunday morning, we had to be up bright and early to go to Coimbra, another city in Portugal. Coimbra is the home of the oldest university in Portugal. We got a tour of this university before heading back to Salamanca on the bus. It was super cool!

The view from the terrace of one of the university buildings.

Thanks for reading! Next up will be my weekend trip to San Sebastian on the northern coast of Spain.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Daily Life in Salamanca

I thought I should give you all an update on what I do on a normal day in Salamanca, when I'm not on a trip or tour! After all, I am here to study Spanish. :)

As a student at the University of Salamanca in the summer, there are not a lot of Spanish students in town. Instead, there are TONS of international students (the majority are from the United States, but there is a good variety). Pretty much everyone is enrolled with "Cursos Internacionales" (international classes), which is basically just learning Spanish.

Our group arrived to Salamanca a week before classes officially started in order to get acclimated to the city. We had three days of orientation classes just for our group of 21. After the orientation classes, we took the Cursos Internacionales placement test on July 1. I heard that over 900 students are currently studying with Cursos Internacionales, which means that many people all took the test on the same day. The test places everyone into 4 levels (beginning, intermediate, advanced, and superior) and into class groups within the levels. Most of the people in my study abroad group are Spanish minors back in the States, which means that they needed to get into Advanced in order to get credit for this summer. Thankfully, everyone got into the level that they needed and we started classes at 9am the next morning. Here is a photo of Lynzee and I on our first day of class:

We are living with a host family (older divorced lady) while in Salamanca. We live on the 5th floor in an apartment building across the street from Salamanca's train station, which is about a 25-30 minute walk from our classes. Our house is the farthest of anyone else in our group, but we are getting the best view of the city every day! It is really nice living with a host family because we don't have to worry about preparing food, doing laundry, or paying bills and we get the added bonus of practicing Spanish more. Plus, Vicenta (our host mom) is the cutest lady ever!

For the first two and a half weeks here in Salamanca, we also had another American student  living with us. Duncan goes to the US Naval Academy in Maryland and was here with a group from his school studying Spanish for a few weeks. Lynzee and I hung out a few times with his group and even got to go paddle boating with them on the river in Salamanca.

He just left Salamanca today (July 13), but we will be getting another student in two weeks, this time from Germany. Vicenta told us that she hosts international students pretty much year-round, but more in the summer.

On a normal day, Lynzee and I wake up at around 7:45 and get ready to leave for school by 8:25. Vicenta sets out breakfast for us each night, so we help ourselves to cereal, fruit, packaged breakfast pastries, and coffee. We walk to the university and have 4 hours of class Monday-Friday. No matter what level you tested into, your first two hours of class are Spanish Language. In my group, there is one other girl from my study abroad program, 2 other US students, 2 from China, 2 from Taiwan, 1 from England, and 1 from Turkey. It is really nice having such small classes. The last two hours of class are electives (all taught in Spanish). I am taking Spanish Culture and Spanish Art History. So far, classes haven't been too bad and I feel like I understand almost everything that the professors say. Classes finish for the day at 1:15 and we either hang out around town for an hour or so to go shopping or get tapas or coffee, or head home to relax before lunch. Here are some typical meals cooked by Vicenta:

As you probably know, meals are served very late in Spain (according to US standards). Lunch is usually served between 2 and 4:30 pm or so, and dinner is around 8:30-11. It seemed weird at first, but I'm used to it now. After having lunch at home, its time for a siesta. This is pretty traditional in Spain, especially in the summer, since it is so hot. In fact, many businesses (especially small ones) close down from about 1:30-5 or so. Speaking of it being so hot, Salamanca is currently in a heat wave of historical levels. The highs each day are usually 95-99 degrees F, and it has been this way for almost three weeks straight. One of my professors told me that she has lived in Salamanca for over 20 years and has never seen it like this. Most houses don't have air conditioning, so you are pretty much always sweaty.

After a few hour siesta (usually not actually sleeping, just resting), we often meet up with some people from our API group to walk around or go do something. With the heat, though, you definitely have to get the motivation up to walk to Plaza Mayor (about 20 minutes from our house) to meet up. Like I said earlier, dinner time starts at about 8:30 pm, and we usually eat in the earlier part of that window. After dinner, we often meet up with friends in the plaza for ice cream or drinks. The plaza is illuminated at night and it is really pretty.

The Plaza Mayor is about 50 yards square, I would say. It is always bustling with people, but even more so after dark. The lights stay on until 1am, I believe. One of the more popular drinks in Spain is "tinto de verano" (red wine of the summer), which is red whine mixed with lemon/lime soda. It is basically a cheaper version of sangria, but is not just for tourists. We have already found our favorite place in the Plaza to get tinto de verano.

On school nights (except Thursdays, which are a big party night), I usually head home and go to bed a little after midnight.

I hope to write more soon about my trips to Porto, Portugal, and San Sebastian! Thanks for reading :)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

To Segovia we Go

For our first excursion after arriving in Salamanca, we took a Saturday day trip to Segovia, a city east of Salamanca, back towards Madrid. Typically, Segovia is cooler than Salamanca, but we had quite the hot day. In fact, our program director, Maria, said that it was the hottest she remembers it ever being in Segovia. We drove through a lot of farm land on our way to Segovia.

Segovia's most famous (and recognizable) monument is its Roman aqueduct. While its exact history is unknown, it was most likely built in the 1st century A.D. and is considered one of the most significant and best-preserved ancient monuments on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The aqueduct spans almost 900 yards and is made of about 25,000 granite blocks, but, amazingly, no mortar. That's some pretty crazy civil engineering!

We climbed up to about the same level as the top of the aqueduct to get another view of the city. The birds were swarming all around, which made for some interesting photos.

We took a nice stroll through Old Town Segovia with our guide, on the way to the Cathedral.

Segovia's cathedral was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain, in the mid-16th century. I have seen so many cathedrals at this point that they are all starting to blend together...


However, there was a wedding going on the day we were there, and we got to see the bride being walked down the "aisle" (the wedding was held in one of the small side chapels, not at the high altar).

After finishing up in the cathedral, we walked to the Alcazar, which was originally built as a fortress but  has served as a royal palace, a state prison, a Royal Artillery College and a military academy since then. There is evidence of the Alcazar dating back to the mid 12th century, but it probably has existed in some form since Roman times. One cool thing about the Alcazar is that Walt Disney used it as inspiration for Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland. Below, see the Alcazar, and then Disney's interpretation.

The Alcazar is now mainly a museum. Inside, there are lots of suits of armor and other military/battle remnants.

There are lots of intricately decorated ceilings. This kind of work was done by Arabs.

View from the Alcazar. It looks like what I would imagine Tuscany to look like.

A few of us took the opportunity to climb the 150 steps up the tower at the Alcazar. The staircase was a little scary because it is very tightly enclosed and spirally, with only enough room for one-way traffic, but we made it to the top! The view was well worth it. :)

After finishing up at the Alcazar, we had some free time in Segovia. A lot of us split up into smaller groups and went souvenir shopping and tried the traditional Segovian dessert (ponche Segoviano) before relaxing in the shade with a cold drink! 

By this time, we were all really hot, tired, and wanted to get back on our air conditioned bus. However, we boarded the bus to find that the air conditioning was pretty useless with the number of people we had.  Nonetheless, we continued to our next destination, about 40 minutes away.

This next destination was the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso. It is the summer palace and gardens of the Kings of Spain since the 1700s, but now functions as a museums. We were solely there to visit the gardens, which are built to mimic those of Versailles in France. The main attraction is the fountains, of which there are 26 scattered throughout the gardens. They do not run all day, but selected ones are simply turned on one by one for the "fountain tour" from what I understood. Our group joined probably 1000 other people in walking through the gardens to see the fountains do their thing. It was pretty amazing, especially since I had absolutely no expectations. The water would start flowing at a reasonable level, but it would gradually increase until you could easily get a shower if you desired. Here are some photos for better effect:

It definitely felt good to cool off after such a long and hot day! I think that we visited about 4 or 5 fountains in total. Riding the minimally air conditioned bus two hours back to Salamanca was much more bearable after getting soaking wet. More stories soon!