Highlights from Spain… as summer vacation comes to an end :(

I realized I haven’t yet written a post for the month of July, and the fact that August is only days away is a bit terrifying! I must say, however, that I have had a nice balance of “work” and vacation so far this summer. So in the spirit of summer vacation, I thought I’d do a short post with some photos from my trip to Spain, which was also a mix of academic work and fun. I mentioned before how jealous excited I am for my students who are studying abroad, but in reality my month in Spain was my own version of a professor’s summer study abroad. Though likely with more libraries, museums, gourmet foods, and wines… and with much fewer discotecas, hangovers, and kebabs than and undergraduate study abroad experience (ok, ok, there was one, quite glorious kebab!).


My final meal in Spain – a midnight-Madrid-Kebab.

Instead of re-capping my entire trip, I thought I’d pick a few of my favorite places and experiences that might appeal to my readers, and/or to students and travelers who might visit Spain in the near future. Below are four portions of my trip this summer that I thought my readers would find interesting or entertaining – excluding, of course, my conference presentation on Almodóvar’s La piel que habito and my discovery of surprisingly numerous breastfeeding paintings in the Prado, which I’ve already written about. Also, this post is giving me an excuse to play with photo collages – I used Fotor for the collages below and found it to be simple (and free!) for the basic compilations I wanted to create. I said I was going to work on my “graphics” this summer, and I suppose this is a start!

1. SEGOVIA. This small city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about a 50-minute bus trip from Madrid. I had actually visited Segovia twice before, but I still wanted to return for a day-trip, as it’s such a historical – and photogenic – place. I also went with a friend who had never been there before, so we hit ALL the tourist-stops: The Alcázar de Segovia, the Aqueduct, and the Cathedral. Unfortunately, we realized there was a 3 euro charge to enter the Cathedral and, given the quantity of churches and cathedrals we had been visiting, we decided the money would be better spent on wine and Tapas prior to climbing the 150+ steps to the rooftop of the Alcázar!


Clockwise from top left: View of Segovia from the Alcázar; a rather medieval plaza; mural inside the Alcázar; tapas > cathedral entrance fee; the Alcázar; the Aqueduct; ceiling inside the Alcázar; Segovia’s Gothic Cathedral; Segovia’s famous dish, cochinillo asado… roasted suckling pig!

There is an 8 euro charge to tour the Alcázar, but it is well worth it in my opinion. The rooms are incredibly ornate, and you can climb the quite narrow, spiral staircase to the rooftop for amazing views of Segovia and the surrounding countryside. The Alcázar’s website offers high-resolution images of the interior rooms, so you can check these out to take a sort of virtual tour. The only disappointing aspect of our trip was that we waited too long to eat! All the restaurants in Segovia close by 3-4:30pm and do not re-open until dinner at 8-9pm. We had been used to Madrid where this schedule often goes unnoticed given the large quantity of restaurants and tourists. Alas, we were unable to try the cochinillo asado (roasted suckling pig)…. though I’m not sure the trip would have been better had we experienced this culinary “adventure”.

2. IGLESIA DE SAN JUAN EL REAL, OVIEDO. I was able to spend nearly four days in Oviedo visiting a friend who had attended Penn State with me a few years ago. I didn’t realize it was such a large city, so that surprised me. I think it would be the perfect place to live or spend an extended period of time – not as large or busy as Madrid or Barcelona, and not quite as small or isolated as a place like Segovia. While the main Cathedral with its lone tower is a must-see, I especially enjoyed the Iglesia de San Juan el Real in the more central part of the city. Francisco Franco was actually married in this church in 1923. In any case, in addition to its striking exterior, three things caught my attention here. First, I appreciated the humor in the sign reminding visitors to turn off their cell phones: “God never calls your cell phone” [center image below]. Secondly, the colored murals of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden behind/above the main altar were both beautiful and unexpected – I couldn’t remember ever having seen this particular Biblical scene depicted in a church, and especially not above the altar [below, bottom right]. And finally, the crucified Christ in the back of the Church had the most “envious” mane of hair [below, center right]. Iglesia-Oviedo

I have always found the “Cristos con pelo verdadero” (Christs with real hair) to be a bit creepy, especially those I had seen in Mexico. This one, however, was really quite impressive! I’d love to know more about where and when these depictions of Christ were popular; I’ve seen them in Mexico and Spain, but not in the US (though I likely haven’t visited as many churches here as abroad, since Cathedrals and churches in other countries are part of my “tourist” itinerary). I’d love to hear from readers if you know more about the historical significance of such realistic renderings of Christ. My google-search was unsuccessful… difficult search terms, I think.

3. SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, GALICIA – This was my first trip to Galicia, the northwestern region of Spain located directly north of Portugal. It proved to be a nice change from the dry, 90-degree weather I had been enjoying in Madrid – we had several cloudy days with a bit of rain, and the temperature barely rose above 60 degrees. The combination of the cool, damp weather, the lush, green landscape, the simple white or stone buildings, and the bagpipe music that filled the plaza of the Cathedral made me think I was in Ireland rather than Spain! I was pleasantly surprised at how unique this area is. Additionally, the seafood is amazing, especially the octopus (pulpo) and squid (chipirones), both served with garlic, olive oil, and homemade crusty bread. It’s even cooked up fresh outside at the Mercado de Abastos [image below, 3rd down in right column], where you can see and buy an array of fresh seafood, chicken, beef, and pork; fruits and vegetables; and bread and empanadas sold by the kilo.


Clockwise from top left: Tower of the Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela; View from our apartment; our favorite spot for Chipirones; a street adjacent to the Cathedral; Cooking Octopus (pulpo) at the market; the Market, Mercado de Abastos; Front facade of the cathedral, which was unfortunately under construction; enormous gold angels “supporting” the ceiling inside the cathedral; and the central garden at the library (center image).

Since Santiago de Compostela is the final stop on the Pilgrimage, “El camino de Santiago”, or the “Way of St. James”, and the Cathedral houses the remains of the apostle St. James, the streets are filled with hikers and backpackers (peregrinos) who have made the journey from various starting points. Someday I’m hoping to hike a portion of the camino – if you’re interested, the 2010 movie “The Way” (dir. Emilio Estevez) does a decent job of depicting both the physical and emotional experience of trekking the camino. There are also several documentaries on YouTube.

4. FOOD – TABERNA GASTROMAQUIA: I should have made this entire post about food; I ate sooo much during the month of June – especially in Galicia and Asturias! Of all the fantastic food I ate on this trip, however, I must say my favorite meal was at Taberna Gastromaquia in Madrid. This tiny restaurant is located in Chueca and seats only 24, so reservations are a must. They also don’t open for dinner until a very “Spanish” 8:00pm, so keep that in mind if you’re accustomed to an “early” American dinner hour of 5-7. Both the service and the food were fantastic – I’m certainly no food blogger, so I won’t go into detail on any of these dishes. But I will say that the warm goat cheese with honey and basil [top right image] was absolutely amazing – and I typically hate goat cheese; I think it tastes like dirt… or goat… or a barnyard? In any case, the flavor combinations of this appetizer perfectly complemented (or covered up!) the strong taste of goat cheese. Below are all the dishes we tried… our group of four also finished up two bottles of Rioja and, though we shared all the entrees and appetizers, we each ate our own dessert.


Clockwise from top right: Goat cheese with honey and basil; Foie Gras salad; Grilled Octopus over potato and cheese mousse; my dessert – a Chocolate-mousse-pudding topped with salted almonds… which is a terrible description for communicating how incredible the taste and texture were (again, not a food blogger); Rabbit leg over potatoes; fresh guacamole and plantain chips; Tuna Tartare, which was my second favorite item behind the goat cheese.

If you ever have the chance to eat a leisurely dinner in Madrid, I highly recommend making reservations at Taberna Gastromaquia (check out their Facebook page). While it’s not exactly a “cheap” option, neither is it especially expensive for the quality of the food and the overall dining experience. For our group of four, for example, including two bottles of wine, dessert for all, and a small tip, we paid about 180 euros – or about $55-60 per person. But we sampled so much of the menu and spent over 3 hours eating dinner. I think a similar meal in a US city would easily cost twice that, especially when factoring in wine (which seems practically free in Spain) and a standard 15-20% American tip. If you do visit Gastromaquia, you MUST get the Sorbete Mojito for dessert – my friend chose it and I was quite jealous as I watched the waiter pour a very “healthy” dose of Bacardi over a homemade lime-mint sorbet.

FINALLY… Though it’s technically a 5th aspect of the trip, I couldn’t help added a few pictures below of rural Asturias – only a few miles outside of Oviedo. Now, I’m from central Pennsylvania and I currently live in Iowa, so I’m no stranger to farms… or cows! What amazed me was the magnitude of the contrast between the modern city (Oviedo has a population of 250,000+) and the “pueblos” only miles away. In the states I’ve lived in, rural areas like this are not found so close to cities; only a few miles away, such an area would be a quite populated suburb! I’m especially grateful to my friend Laura and her family for welcoming me into their home – and feeding me delicious food – for my final day in Oviedo.

Beautiful Asturian countryside

Beautiful Asturian countryside only minutes from central Oviedo

Ok, now that I’ve sufficiently “re-lived” my trip and shared some of my pictures, I’ll be taking four final days off this weekend – completely computer-less (yikes!) – before returning to the reality of my office, syllabi, article revisions, more regular blogging, and general preparations for the 2014-15 academic year.

What were some of your favorite experiences – food, trips, museums, etc. – this summer? Have you been to these areas of Spain, or will you be planning a semester abroad or vacation nearby?

¡Nos vemos en agosto!

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
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