Immersed in Madrid

Lauren Teresi, USCHS Senior, TODAY Intern

Upper St. Clair High School offers a myriad of student travel opportunities to broaden our horizons and enhance our education. Students may choose between exchanges to places like Germany, France, or Spain, or tours to China, Argentina, Iceland, or Peru, among others. World language and other teachers spend a considerable amount of personal time preparing itineraries to educate traveling students in culture, language, and even science. While tours allow students to experience many popular sites and highlights across a country or larger geographic region, exchanges, particularly homestay exchanges, give students the opportunity to immerse themselves into deeper aspects of a culture, often over longer periods of time.

When presented with these opportunities, the homestay exchange option to Madrid provided the best prospect of truly experiencing the daily life and culture of Spain. As student travelers, we benefited from the knowledge and experience of Señora Lynne Kopaz and Señor Cephus Moore. Señora Kopaz, one of the teachers who organized the exchange, believes, “All who participate gain so much more from an exchange. On an exchange, I can show students why it is that I love world language and, even as a teacher, I have an opportunity to continue to learn. Everyone you meet is your teacher.”

This summer, the high school’s world language department completed a yearlong exchange with students from its sister school, el Colegio Santa Maria de la Hispanidad. After hosting the Spanish students in Upper St. Clair last October, it was our turn to explore their home, Madrid. Chef, author, and world traveler Anthony Bourdain wrote that “If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them wherever you go.” And while we are not quite 22 and slept in lovely homes rather than on floors, we certainly learned and grew. With an international airport and extensive public transportation, Madrid makes a fantastic “base of operations” for experiencing this region of Spain, no matter your age.

As the capital of Spain, Madrid is a cultural center where visitors can easily spend a month exploring the art, architecture, and heritage. We spent several days exploring world-famous museums, including el Prado, el Museo Reina Sofía, and el Museo Thyssen. El Museo Reina Sofía, Spain’s national modern art museum, houses what is perhaps Picasso’s most famous protest piece, Guernica. El Prado museum, considered one of the single best collections of Spanish art, has an expansive collection covering early through modern art. A more intimate art experience was found at el Museo Thyssen, which holds a little over 1600 paintings, ranging from gothic to modern art.

Architecture holds equal relevance in the beauty of Madrid. An afternoon was spent in the Retiro park, boating and visiting el Palacio de Cristal, a glass castle with a striking resemblance to Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory. A stroll through the Retiro takes you to el Palacio de Velázquez, an exhibition hall featuring the works of contemporary artists. Other famous architectural masterpieces demanding attention were the Royal Palace and Catedral de la Almundena, as well as picturesque views of the entire city from the roof of the Circulo Bellas Artes. When you’ve exhausted the arts options (and your feet!), Madrid features world renowned cuisine, including the famed Mercado de San Miguel gourmet market, but local dishes, such as churros y chocolate, a bocadillo de calamares (calamari sandwich), tortilla de patata (a Spanish omelet), and paella are the regional favorites. Students also enjoyed home cooking and social meals with their host families and for me, an amazing paella cooked by my host’s grandmother. Shopping options also abound for any budget and taste. Favorites of the student travelers included el Gran Via, Madrid’s busiest street featuring high-end retail shops, and el Rastro market, the weekly open-air artisans and crafts market. To round out the cultural experience of Madrid, we attended a dramatic flamenco show, though taking in a bull fight or a Real Madrid match would easily round out a Madrid adventure.

Madrid’s geographic location and easy transportation offerings also make it the ideal launching point for day trips and explorations. Along with our Spanish guide, Marisol, a former classmate of Señor Moore, we boarded the AVE high speed “bullet train” from Madrid’s city center, arriving in a fantastic, old train station in the heart of historic Valencia, a city on the Mediterranean Sea. A short bus ride delivers you to the modern side of the city and El Oceanogràfico, the largest aquarium in Europe, where a thrilling dolphin show dominates the exhibits of exotic fish, sharks, rays, and penguins. Next up, the beautiful beaches of Valencia were, according to Señora Kopaz, “the perfect break from the city. I felt completely restored from jetlag and the endless walking by the end of the day trip.” Lying in the white sands, watching sailboats float by on the Mediterranean, and enjoying relaxed conversation with friends was the best way to decompress from the hustle and bustle of Madrid.

Another day, another amazing day trip, venturing by ticketed coach bus to Toledo. This medieval city one hour south of Madrid features a unique combination of Arab, Jewish, and Christian architecture within its walls. The day began at the Synagogue of El Transito and Sephardic Museum, learning about the significance of the Mudéjar stucco decorations from a local tour guide. The Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo particularly stood out among the Mudéjar architecture for its distinctively gothic style and height. Walking through the cobblestone streets of Toledo, handmade swords, daggers, and beautiful gold damascene jewelry line the windows of the shops and studios of local artists. It is impossible to leave Toledo without a beautifully crafted treasure.

Yet another easy bus ride leads to the ancient city of Segovia. A little over an hour north of Madrid, Segovia is home to the imposing Catedral de Segovia and one of the finest Roman aqueducts in Spain. El Alcázar de Segovia, the breathtaking medieval fortress on the edge of the city (and a cliff!), features ornate Mudéjar decorations and the rich history of Queen Isabel I and King Ferdinand II, the monarchs who initiated the Spanish Inquisition. Visitors who are up for the challenge are invited to climb the narrow spiraling staircase of the tower of John II of Castile, which culminates in a flat terrace with gorgeous views of the entire city. All the walking earns visitors a trip to the famed Pasteleria Limon y Menta for a bite of ponche segoviano, a delicious, lemon-infused sponge cake coated with marzipan and topped in icing sugar with a criss-cross pattern. The bakery also proved a perfect place to purchase a special treat for our host families.

Forty minutes north of Madrid lies another ideal excursion, Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. One of the prides of the city, la Universidad de Alcalá, has two main campuses and is one of the major landmarks of Alcalá de Henares. The university, originally founded as the Complutense University in 1499 (which transferred to Madrid in 1836), was reopened as the Universidad de Alcalá in 1977, though many of the buildings retained their medieval exteriors. Exiting the university through a beautiful garden area, visitors arrive in the city’s picturesque plaza. A small gem, visitors can tour the birthplace of Cervantes, who is often compared to Shakespeare, in el Museo casa natal de Cervantes, which lies on a bustling street with retail shops and tapas restaurants. Anthony Bourdain believed that “the journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Our teacher, Señor Moore agrees, sharing that exchanges “require us to leave our comfort zone in such a way that we learn more about ourselves, and ultimately more about the culture and language of the people we are visiting. Through these experiences we may become more comfortable when dealing with uncertainty and perhaps more willing to take risks in order to make the most of new and unexpected situations. In my personal and professional life, I have greatly benefited from having spent time in Spain, becoming familiar with the culture and language. As a hopeful teacher, I want my students to have the opportunity of experiencing the language and culture up close.”

Whether the marks are stubborn tan lines, a newfound independence, a broader worldview, or a new friend, by staying a bit longer in one place and immersing ourselves in the daily life of Madrid, Spain, this experience will remain with us for years to come.

The group photo on the magazine’s front cover, as well as the accompanying photos in this article, were taken by Lauren Teresi. Young Writers Guild is for any Upper St. Clair student grades 8–12 who would like to contribute to our community magazine by submitting articles or artwork of interest. Email to find out how.

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