A Week in the British Isles

Semana Santa, the week leading from Palm Sunday to Easter, is pretty big in Spain. Some cities, like Seville, are especially known for their Holy Week processions, which involve giant scenes from the Passion carried by hundreds of people wearing traditional clothing that resembles that of the Ku Klux Klan in the US. Of course, Semana Santa traditions are much older than the KKK, but it definitely makes most Americans do a double (or triple) take when they first see it. Last year, I went to Zamora, in Castilla y León, for a day to see one of their processions. Although a small town, Zamora has one of the biggest such celebrations in the north of Spain, and it’s an easy day trip from Madrid.

This year, however, I did something completely different for Semana Santa. Since the week (plus the Friday before and the Monday after) functions as spring break for students and teachers in Spain, most auxiliares take advantage of the time off to do some heavy traveling. It was hard to decide where exactly I wanted to go over such a long break, but in the end, I decided to go to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland… and my aunt decided to fly over and go with me!

We thought we might have to wait for some sheep to cross the road at some point... Ducks were unexpected. Yes, the rental car does have a big sticker reminding us to drive on the left.

We thought we might have to wait for some sheep to cross the road at some point… Ducks were unexpected. Yes, the rental car does have a big sticker reminding us to drive on the left.

I don’t even know where to start to begin describing this trip. It was easily one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken, and Ireland is warring with Germany for the position of favorite country I’ve visited. I think it’s a tie. I can’t choose. Spain, I believe, is third. The only downside is how expensive everything is… though that’s nothing compared to when I had to use the pound in the UK!

Dublin, Newgrange, and Howth

Dublin was my first and last stop in Ireland, and it ended up being my favorite city in the country. I did a free walking tour here with Sandemans, and I learned a lot about the city this way. Free walking tours are pretty much my favorite way to get to know a city when I first arrive, and this one did not disappoint! Other things I did were seeing the Book of Kells in Trinity College (a must see for anyone interested in books or religion, despite the high price tag!), stumbling across Sweny’s Pharmacy (made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses), wandering around Grafton Street and downtown Dublin, and a couple of nights in different pubs, enjoying an obligatory Guinness and then switching to Bulmers apple cider (marketed as Magners in the rest of the world). My favorite pub was called The Cobblestone and had live music, and I highly reccommend going if you’re ever in Dublin.

Sweny's Pharmacy

Sweny’s Pharmacy

About an hour north of Dublin is Brú na Bóinne, an area that includes several megalithic monuments and passage tombs from the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. To compare, that’s 500 years older than the pyramids in Egypt and 1000 years older than Stonehenge! We only had time to visit one of the sites, and we chose Newgrange. It’s a passage tomb, which means that inside the mound is a long passage to the top, central chamber. Three smaller chambers are formed off of that, and in the back one, remains of several human bodies were discovered. The outside of the structure had collapsed by the time it was discovered, but the inside remained just as in tact as it had been when it was built, with a domed ceiling held up entirely by stones. Once inside the doorway, you walk along a very narrow and low passageway (so you have to bend over and walk sideways at points) that slopes slightly uphill to the main chamber, whose ground level is at the same point as the little window box above the door. On the Winter Solstice (and two days before and after), light streams through the little window and into the chamber for 17 minutes at sunrise (8:58-9:15am). It barely reaches the back of the chamber, where the human remains were found. It was really, really cool.

Newgrange

Newgrange

After we went to Newgrange, we spent the afternoon in Howth, a small fishing town just east of Dublin. It’s turned into a pretty touristy spot, but Dublin Bay is gorgeous. I could have easily spent an entire day sitting by the water with a good book, but alas, I didn’t have time for that. I’m sure there’s a lot more to the town that I didn’t see, but the area by the bay is pretty and filled with lots of restaurants to choose from. With more time, it looks like it would have been a great location for a hike!

An island called Ireland's Eye as seen from Howth

Dublin Bay

Cork, Cobh, and Blarney

A perfect place to stay in the south of Ireland is a town called Cork, and from there, it’s easy to travel to both Cobh and Blarney. The highlights of Cork for me were the English Market (which reminded me of the Market of San Miguel in Madrid, except a lot less crowded) and the University College Cork campus (which is absolutely gorgeous in spring!).

Inside the English Market

Inside the English Market

Cobh is a little town on Cork Harbor, formerly known as Queenstown. It’s best known for being the last port of call for the Titanic before her disastrous maiden voyage back in 1912, and the White Star Line office has been transformed into an exhibit on the ship (which I didn’t visit). There’s a small monument to the Titanic, as well as a large one to the Lusitania and other small ones for other boating disasters that all happened in the area. It was a cute town, but pretty much good for half a day.

Former White Star Line office

Former White Star Line office

The highlight of this part of the trip, however, was Blarney Castle. It was one of the places in Ireland I’ve been dreaming of for years, and seeing it in person was all I had hoped for and more. The grounds around the castle are absolutely gorgeous, and I’d bet they’d be even more so once it warms up just a little bit more. The castle itself is partially in ruins and is one of the more dangerous buildings I’ve gotten to walk around.

Blarney Castle in the background

Blarney Castle in the background

At the very top, though, in the northern wall of the castle, sits the legendary Blarney Stone. Legend has it that a kiss to this stone will give you the gift of gab, and there was no way I was missing out on this! Now, you have to know that you don´t just walk up and kiss the Blarney Stone. No, you have to lie down on your back on the battlement of the castle and reach out over your head to grab two support bars. Then, using those bars, you have to pull your torso off and away from the floor, lowering yourself backward to be able to kiss this stone that’s about a foot and a half below you while you’re hanging upside down. There are a couple of bars going across in case you fall, but otherwise, you can see all the way down to the ground 90 feet below you.

It was a windy day (I’d say extremely so, but that leaves no adverb appropriate for the rest of Ireland), and I was wearing a big scarf. I took off my glasses and handed them and my purse to my aunt, as instructed by all the signs. I got into position, and once I was there, a worker showed me exactly which stone to kiss. I took one look as my scarf started to fall over my face and sat up again. I believe my exact words were, “That’s not happening!” Between the wind, the height, not being able to see properly without my glasses, and my scarf trying to escape down to the ground, I was disoriented and scared.

First attempt to kiss the stone - it's the bottom stone below my head, and I needed to be hanging about a foot further out.

First attempt to kiss the stone – it’s the bottom stone below my head, and I needed to be hanging about a foot further out.

After I failed, my aunt–who had originally said she wasn’t going to do it–changed her mind and went for it! She inspired me to give it another go, but we were halfway down the spiral staircases of the castle before I told her that I wanted to return. I thought she was going to kill me, but she dutifully climbed up again, and on the second try, sans scarf, I did it! Only time will tell if the legend holds true for me, but if we’re judging based on how verbose this blog post is, I’d say there’s definitely a bit of truth to the story.

Western Ireland: Galway and the Cliffs of Moher

I didn’t have a lot of time in Galway compared to the other cities in Ireland, so I might be biased, but it was my least favorite place that I visited. The half day or so I had there was plenty. I mostly saw a lot of shops, with a couple of cool statues. It’s probably because I didn’t know what to expect, but the Spanish Arch that I saw listed on my tourist map was a pretty big disappointment. It would be a good headquarters for some day trips, such as to the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher, but the town itself was not very exciting.

Eyre Square, with fourteen flags for the fourteen tribes of Galway

Eyre Square, with fourteen flags for the fourteen tribes of Galway

The Cliffs of Moher, on the other hand, were one of my favorite sights in Ireland. Of course, things couldn’t go smoothly for us, and after driving through the beautiful countryside in County Clare, we arrived at the Cliffs only to see a big orange sign warning us that weather conditions were too dangerous to continue. Along with all of the other tourists that day, though, we ignored it. We had to battle 60+ mile per hour winds, and that’s not gusts. That’s all the time. But hey, we got in for free!

It would have been nice to be able to explore a bit more of the area, but because of the wind trying to literally knock our feet out from under us, we stuck to the areas that had the most shelter. And by shelter, I mean a thin stone wall that we clung to as if our lives depended on it… because they did. The cliffs were absolutely stunning, though, and I could have stayed there a lot longer than we did just to watch the waves crashing into their base. They rise about 700 feet above sea level, and it’s just a straight drop all the way to the bottom. It was easily one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been.

Just a little windblown at the Cliffs of Moher

Just a little windblown at the Cliffs of Moher

Northern Ireland: Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway

Northern Ireland was similar to Ireland in appearance while at the same time being very different culturally. I don’t know how much of it was in my head, as someone who’s experienced British culture and was expecting a different, but I’d say the Northern Ireland definitely felt more like Great Britain than it did Ireland (though of course, it’s something separate from both of those). It felt more prim and proper, though it did have some of the laid back vibe I got in the Republic of Ireland as well.

Like Galway, Belfast didn’t charm me, though I also didn’t spend much time there. The Writer’s Square was interesting, with various quotes scattered throughout, as well as a monument to the Irish men and women who fought alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I spent most of my time at the Titanic Belfast museum, though, because this is the city where the ship was built. I learned a lot in the museum, starting with how it was built, then going into what the ship actually looked like, followed by survivor and recovery stories, and ending with information about the final resting place and what remains today. It was eerie, but if you have any interest in the Titanic, it was well worth the visit.

Titanic Belfast in the background (designed to be the same size as the hull of the Titanic) with the Nomadic, the last surviving White Star Line ship

Titanic Belfast in the background (designed to be the same size as the hull of the Titanic) with the Nomadic, the last surviving White Star Line ship

In addition to Belfast, we spent an afternoon at the Giant’s Causeway, along the northern coast. Legend has it that an Scottish giant challenged an Irish giant to a fight, and the Irish giant built a causeway between the two countries. He disguised himself as a baby, and when the Scottish giant arrived, he fled in fear of how large an adult giant must be, and he destroyed the causeway behind him, leaving the thousands of hexagonal stone columns we can see today. In reality, the causeway was created by volcanic activity millions and millions of years ago. I really enjoyed what I saw, but again, it would have been more fun to wander around with less wind and rain. I was afraid to wander too far out on the slippery stones, but it was also nice because the weather kept a lot of tourists away!

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Edinburgh

View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill

View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Edinburgh! What can I say about Edinburgh? In just two short days, it became one of my favorite cities in the world. Everything looks incredibly old, but it’s actually the bustling capital city of Scotland! There’s a lot to see and do, but I stuck with some of the cheaper–and free!–activities. The main sight I passed over was the castle, partly because of the price tag and partly because of the long, long line to get in. I saw it from outside, though, and it was really cool that it’s right in the center of town!

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

As a pretty big Harry Potter nerd, it was obviously mandatory for me to go on a free Harry Potter walking tour of the city. The tour was definitely aimed at a younger audience than most walking tours, and it was obvious why with the dozen or so children under the age of 8 in our group. The tour guide was dressed up in a robe and round glasses, and he had wands to hand out to the children for the duration of the tour. (Okay, some adults, too. Yes, I grabbed one. Hush! I’m a child at heart!) There wasn’t a lot of new information on the tour for me, but I did see a lot of places I wouldn’t have known to check out on my own.

The Elephant House

The Elephant House

Aside from this tour, I also had breakfast on Saturday and dinner on Easter Sunday in The Elephant House, a café right in the center of Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling spent some time writing some of the books. It was really fun to just sit in there and enjoy the atmosphere, even if the ratio was probably something like 80% or more tourists and 20% locals. I was able to write a little while I waited for my food, but the most fun part was the bathrooms. … Did I just say the bathrooms? Yes. Yes, I did. The bathroom stalls are absolutely covered in Harry Potter graffiti, and it’s actually really cool! Walls, doors, ceilings… even the hand dryers were drawn and written on. I loved it!

This way to the Ministry!

This way to the Ministry!

Other than letting my inner nerd out for some fresh air, I did a lot of wandering in Edinburgh. If I didn’t know better, I’d think -burgh meant City of Hills, because both Pittsburgh and Edinburgh definitely live up to the name! While Edinburgh is pretty hilly to walk around in general, there are two major hills that can be visited: Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat. Calton Hill was fun and had a lot of monuments, but if you only have time to visit one, I cannot recommend Arthur’s Seat enough. It’s actually an extinct volcano, and rises about 800 feet above sea level. I spent four hours there on Easter, though half of that was spent sitting at the top, writing and enjoying the view. You can see Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, and the sea depending on which direction you look, and the views were spectacular.

At the top of Arthur's Seat

At the top of Arthur’s Seat

It was a very bittersweet day when it was finally time for me to fly back home to Madrid. I had an incredible time on this trip, saw some truly amazing places, and fell in love with an entire country, but it’s always nice to be able to relax at home, with your own bed and your own shower. There is so much more I’d love to see in Ireland and the UK, and one week was simply not enough… but it was a good start. It just means that I have plenty of reason to find a way back!

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Kids Say the Darndest Things, Part 3

A short story for today. The fifth graders had an assignment to write the ending to Cinderella in a new and unusual way. Some of the stories were hilarious, but my favorite was the story that ended like so:

I tell you good Cinderella and the prince married and they do those things that all the old do to have a child and then the[y] have a… GIRL named Natasha.

Fun in Madrid: Cerro de Los Ángeles

Two years ago, when I first found out I’d be working in a suburb of Madrid called Getafe, one of the first things I remember discovering is that the geographical center of the Iberian Peninsula can be found in this town (read: it’s as far from the ocean as it’s possible to get here). It’s called Cerro de Los Ángeles, and it’s pretty much a hill with a church and monastery on top.

Selfie with the new monument and church entrance below.

Selfie with the new Sacred Heart monument and church entrance below.

Last year, I would take the train back to Madrid after school was over, and from the outdoor train station, I could see the white church proudly standing above Getafe’s Air Force base. Then, when I moved to Getafe back in September, visiting Cerro de Los Ángeles became one of my goals for the year… and Google Maps told me it was just about an hour away (5 kilometers or 3 miles) from my new apartment by foot. There’s also a bus (number 447, between Legazpi in Madrid and Getafe) that stops nearby, but where’s the fun in that?

Originally I’d planned on going back in November or December, but by then the autumn chill had already settled in. I decided to wait until the weather turned nicer again, and I’m very glad I did! This past Monday, I woke up and decided to take advantage of the gorgeous spring weather. It took a little over an hour to get there, walking past the Air Force base as well as the Airbus site (which is pretty much the biggest employer in town–one of my flatmates as well as some of my students’ parents work there!). Following Google Maps’ directions all the way was not a good idea, as it tried to make me walk along the highway, so about halfway there, I took a detour… and ended up finding orange signs indicating the pedestrian path to the top. The signs weren’t everywhere, so I had to guess a bit, but I got there in the end.

The climb to the top wasn’t bad at all! If you go, stay along the rocky path next to the road. I was tempted into taking one of the paths up through the woods, and when I got to the top, I discovered a fence in my way and had to backtrack to get around it.

Madrid from Cerro de Los Ángeles

Madrid from Cerro de Los Ángeles

The view from the top is pretty nice, and as it was just before lunchtime on a Monday, there was hardly anyone else around! I think I saw about a dozen people total while I was up there, which really made it feel quiet and peaceful. Since it’s a hill, you can see the countryside, town, and city all around you… and in the distance, I even saw snow-capped mountains! In Madrid! In April! (My family and friends in Pittsburgh are probably shaking their heads in frustration right now because it was actually snowing there yesterday… but I digress.)

The two biggest sights at the top of the hill are the old and new Sacred Heart Monuments. The old one was built in 1919 and was destroyed during battles of the Spanish Civil War, from 1936-1939. The head of Jesus and other parts of the monument still remain and are on display across the street from the new monument, which is the giant white column I could see from the train station last year. This monument is huge in person, especially when compared with what remains of the old one, and beneath it is the entrance to a modern church, sunken into the ground. Mass is held daily at 8:30am, and it is free to visit at other times (they ask for no tourists during service).

Remains of the original monument.

Remains of the original monument.

My favorite part of the visit was climbing as high as I could go on the new monument. (Via stairs. I’m not that crazy.) It was a nice little trip, and it could easily be done in a couple hours, including the bus ride from Madrid!

Fun in Madrid: The Royal Palace

Another one of those things that, “Oh, it’ll always be there whenever I’m ready to see it,” is the royal palace. I’ve seen the outside numerous times, starting way back in 2010 when I stopped in Madrid for a few days on my way home from studying abroad in Salamanca. The most memorable time after that was when Felipe VI came out on the balcony to wave to all of his people the morning he became king. Still, after over a year and a half of living in Madrid, I had managed to never have gone inside the building.

Last June, waving a Spanish flag while waiting for the new king to arrive

Last June, waving a Spanish flag while waiting for the new king to arrive

You can read more information about prices and opening times here, though it’s kind of hard to follow. I got in for free because I asked my school to give me a teacher ID. It’s very official-looking: a slip of paper printed with my name and the name of the school, plus a passport-sized photo glued on with the school’s stamp on top, and it’s all laminated… but they took it. It will also get me free admission to other Patrimonio Nacional sites, like El Escorial and Aranjuez Palace, whereas a student discount (up to age 25, which I no longer qualify for) only gets you a reduced price. Getting a teacher ID from your school is well, well worth it in my opinion!

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

I had to wait in line for about ten minutes, but it was a gorgeous day and I didn’t mind at all. Once inside, I snapped a few photos from the outside courtyard and went to see the special exhibit of royal portraits that ended the day I was there. Portraits aren’t my favorite style of painting by a long shot, but some of them were interesting. I especially enjoyed the ones of young boys years and years ago, wearing dresses. It’s such a culture shock for us, but it was completely normal back then!

From the portrait exhibit, I went inside the actual palace. Where to go wasn’t very clearly marked, but with enough wandering, I found my way around. When you enter, you go up a beautiful staircase, and from there, you circle around through several of the rooms on the top floor of the palace. Photos weren’t allowed, and they wouldn’t do the rooms justice, anyway. (Though if you really want to see some, look at what Wikipedia has here.) Every room was different, and I fell in love with all of the ceilings and chandeliers. My favorite room was, perhaps, the one made entirely of porcelain from floor to ceiling.

Entrance

Entrance

What really struck me about the royal palace, though, is that it’s still in use. I’ve visited a lot of castles and palaces in my travels, but the majority of them have been turned into museums. Spain is still a parliamentary monarchy, though, and official events still take place in the palace. Items on display included the Juan Carlos’s abdication letter, Felipe’s coronation speech, the crown and scepter used during official events, and the table where Juan Carlos signed his abdication letter. One year ago, three of those things didn’t exist. Well, I take that back. The sphinx table existed, but it was not specifically designated as the table where he signed that letter. The king is hardly as powerful as kings of the past were, but visiting the royal palace really made me realize how much history is going on right now, and I think that’s really cool.

Fun in Madrid: Chamberí Metro Museum

How many times have you said to yourself, “Nah, I’ll do that later. It’ll be here when I’m ready for it!” in regards to some of the sights in whichever city you call home? If you’re anything like me, that’s pretty often. Since I moved to Madrid a year and a half ago, there have been many things on my ‘to do’ list that just haven’t gotten done, because I’ve been under the impression that I have all the time in the world to see them. Well, I’ve recently realized I only have a handful of weekends left to take advantage of all the wonderful things Madrid has to offer, and I’m starting now.

First stop: the Chamberí Metro Museum.

Cost: absolutely nothing!

Old platform

Old platform

Unfortunately, this museum has really weird hours. It’s open for four hours on Fridays (all of which are when I’m working) and from 10am-2pm on Saturdays and Sundays. I tried going once before and arrived at 1pm, only to end up in a huge line and for a security guard to tell a bunch of us that we most likely wouldn’t get in before they closed at 2. I decided to leave and come back another time. This time, I got there at 11am on a Sunday and there wasn’t a line at all; I walked right in!

Exit turnstiles

Exit turnstiles

The museum starts off with a ten minute video, in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, about the history of the metro system in Madrid. I learned a lot! Some people even went on the metro to see the novelty of young women working the ticket counters. After the video is the really cool part, though. The museum is actually located in an old metro stop (formerly Chamberí, between Bilbao and Iglesia on Line 1). If you’ve ever noticed a random section of track with people standing off to the side between those to stops… this is it. They stopped using the station back in the 60s when they started to use new trains and the station platform wasn’t able to be expanded properly to accommodate them. Since then, they’ve returned the station to what it would have looked like when it opened in 1919. There are lots of different displays with things from the past. Possibly my favorite is the ticket machine… for the elevator down to the metro, instead of having to take the stairs.

Ticket machine for the elevator

Ticket machine for the elevator

It was a quick museum to visit, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. You could easily do it in half an hour or less when you happen to be walking around that part of the city!

Falling into Las Fallas

Thursday was a holiday of some sort in Madrid. It was March 19, which meant that it was Father’s Day, but last year, we definitely had school on Father’s Day. Oh well. I’m definitely not about to complain about a random Spanish holiday giving me a day off of work!

One of my favorite fallas - notice the detail in the mirror she's holding!

One of my favorite fallas – notice the detail in the mirror she’s holding!

This day off, however, gave me the perfect opportunity to go to Valencia for the last day of Las Fallas, one of the most well-known festivals in Spain. Click the link for more details, but basically, it’s a two-week long party, originally celebrating St. Joseph and characterized by fire–lots and lots of fire. People spend months building giant sculptures that satirize anything and everything, and these sculptures are burned the last night of the festival in an impressive display of light and heat, somehow without managing to set the nearby trees or buildings on fire. There are also parades and fireworks throughout the festival, and people set off firecrackers all day long. Some are the little tiny snaps that I remember playing with as a child on the Fourth of July–you know the tiny things that you throw on the ground and give off a little crack when they hit? Well, those snaps were few and far between. Instead, people set off large firecrackers that sounded like gunshots and created a strong enough blast that you could feel it in your chest. I quickly learned why the mom of one of my students told me to bring earplugs!

I wonder what this falla is satirizing...

I wonder what this falla is satirizing…

While the firecrackers were annoying, the rest of the festival was exciting and fun, despite the overcast weather. The big parade for the last day was unfortunately canceled, but that gave us time to explore the city a little more. I really liked visiting La ciudad de artes y ciencias (The City of Arts and Sciences), which had a lot of cool architecture! I didn’t get to go inside, because everything was closed for the random Spanish holiday that got me off of work, but it was well worth the visit just to see the buildings from the outside. I wanted to go to the beach, too, but that was much farther away from the city center than I expected it to be, so I missed out there.

Ciudad de las artes y las ciencias

Ciudad de las artes y las ciencias

At the end of the evening, there were two rounds of burnings, first the children’s fallas starting around 10pm, followed by the regular fallas at midnight. Both were preceded by fireworks throughout the city at the various locations of the individual fallas. I thought the burning of the children’s falla was impressive, but then I went to see a larger falla get burned, and it was mind-blowing. Fire simply consumed the sculpture, and within seconds I could feel the heat of the five-story high flames in my face from hundreds of feet away, and firemen were spraying water on it from multiple sides to keep the burning controlled so as not to catch anything on fire that wasn’t supposed to be.

The children's falla as it caught on fire.

The children’s falla as it caught on fire.

We did end up missing the burning of the town hall’s falla, which was easily my favorite of all. The streets were far too crowded to get close enough to see it, but I found someone’s video on YouTube. It would have been extremely cool to see in person!

Standing in front of the town hall's falla - easily my favorite!

Standing in front of the town hall’s falla – easily my favorite!

What was most surprising about the entire event was how emotional it was for the people involved in creating and burning the fallas. The children who were dressed ceremonially for the children’s falla that I saw burned ended up crying pretty badly while the hard work of their family and friends was destroyed in a few minutes, and there were definitely some wet eyes among the adults, as well. Although the festival was beautiful to me as an outsider (minus the firecrackers!), I definitely didn’t have the same connection as the people who spent months of their lives every year preparing all of the fallas. I’m really glad I went, despite the huge crowds and ridiculous firecrackers, and I can definitely see why it’s such a popular festival!

Several minutes into the burning of the larger falla, only the wooden structure remained.

Several minutes into the burning of the larger falla, only the wooden structure remained.

Enchanting Trip to Cuenca with Be Madrid

After my last two disappointing trips with tour groups (We Love Spain and Citylife Madrid), I swore off paying companies for trips to places that I could easily plan on my own with much more enjoyable results. Well, that lasted a few months until a friend invited me to go with her on a trip to Cuenca and la Ciudad Encantada with Be Madrid. I was skeptical that this would be any less disastrous than the last student-oriented tour I’d been on, but the trip only cost 25€ and said that it included a guided tour of the city, so I figured I might as well give it a shot!

I’m so glad I did–what a fantastic way to spend Valentine’s Day!

Cuenca from above

Cuenca from above

Be Madrid was really on top of things for this trip. We left more or less on time, they kept us well-informed throughout the day, and the employees who went were great to talk with.

The first stop was la Ciudad Encantada, or Enchanted City. It’s a national park a few miles away from Cuenca, and it’s filled with rock sculptures that were created by the weather and the river Júcar over a long period of time. A lot of them have different names, and if you use your imagination, you can see some ships, a bridge, and various animals. The best part of all, however, was that the park was covered in a nice fluffy layer of snow! This Pennsylvanian definitely misses the snow sometimes, so it was a great surprise–despite having to walk through a couple inches of snow in my Converse.

El puente romano, or Roman bridge

El puente romano, or Roman bridge

After we left la Ciudad Encantada, we took the bus over to Cuenca. Cuenca is a very small, old town built, like many old Spanish towns, high up on a rock in order to have a good defensive position should they ever be attacked. We were led into the city and given some free time for lunch, and afterward, we had a guided tour (in English and Spanish) that was followed by a little more free time before we went home again. We missed seeing some things, like the inside of the cathedral, because they were closed before our free time was over, but I enjoyed wandering through the narrow streets. It was a very cute town, and it was well worth the trip!

On St. Paul's bridge, with the famous 'hanging houses' of Cuenca on the hillside behind me

On St. Paul’s bridge, with the famous ‘hanging houses’ of Cuenca on the hillside behind me