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la ciudad de las tres culturas

toledo's medieval city, as seen from the cathedral tower.

At the moment, I’m sprawled out on the couch in the living room, watching a movie about baseball dubbed over in Spanish. I haven’t been able to make myself leave the house today, aside from to go to class this morning. I’m not sick anymore (thank God) – I’m just taking advantage of finally being back home. In the last month, I’ve traveled every single weekend: Cordoba with my program, Lagos for three days of sunbathing, Toledo with my friend Michelle, and finally Barcelona these past four days. It’s been exhausting, but in the best way. But as much fun as I’ve had, I’m just so glad to be back in my flat for the foreseeable future. I was literally grinning the whole way to class this morning because I was so happy to pass all my favorite landmarks – the confiteria with the fabulous pastries, my post-siesta beer stop, the gorgeous designer bridal boutique with the feathered dress in the window…perfection.

Two weeks ago, however, I was getting restless in Sevilla. I was ready to get out and see some more of this country that’s my home for the next nine months. Cordoba was a brief day trip, and since my jaunt to Portugal (while fun) was with a company specializing in trips for American students I didn’t feel like I was seeing anything culturally significant. On Wednesday I mentioned this to my friend Michelle, who agreed, and on Friday morning at 1 AM we were boarding a bus for the first leg of an 8-hour journey to Toledo.

a view of the cathedral from the winding streets.

For those not in the know, Toledo is a small city about 20 minutes by train outside of Madrid. It’s famous for its medieval center, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. As in, the whole thing.

So as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s pretty awesome.

We got in around 9 or 10 on Friday morning, and since our hostel couldn’t check us in until noon, we went straight away to see the cathedral. Like Sevilla’s, the cathedral is from the Gothic period with a reclaimed minaret for a bell tower. But Toledo’s cathedral was built much earlier than Sevilla’s, as it was the first major Arab city in Spain to be reconquered by the Christians. I didn’t even realize the bell tower was originally Muslim; a nice security guard who ended up giving us something of a free tour told me. Overall, the church is a great example of Gothic style – I was pretty into it. And since we showed up right as they were opening the ticket booth, we managed to avoid the crush of tour groups. It’s always nice to see churches when they’re quiet; we even got to see part of a Mass going on in one of the side chapels.

the biggest bell in the tower. it's HUGE.

My favorite part of the cathedral was definitely the bell tower. The climb is actually terrifying – I can’t even begin to describe how tiny and twisty the staircase is – but it’s worth the effort. The bells are beautiful, as is the view. The biggest bell has only been rung two times. It’s cracked now so they don’t use it, but its smaller companions manage to make up for it.

One of the reasons Toledo is so famous is its history as “la ciudad de las tres culturas” – the city of three cultures. The Arabs first set foot in Spain in 711, and by 780 they had taken over most of the Iberian Peninsula. Toledo became a major epicenter during the first few centuries of Moorish rule, and the time became known as “la Convivencia” – the co-existence. Supposedly, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in relative harmony. In reality, there were probably some tensions between the three, but Toledo still carries the mark of all three. See: la Juderia, the Jewish Quarter, and the two beautiful synagogues still in tact.

the arches of sinagoga de santa maria la blanca.

The more famous of the two is la Sinagoga del Transito, which now houses the Museo Sefardi. It’s certainly larger. But I liked the much-smaller Santa Maria la Blanca better (and yes, I realize it’s a bit of a misnomer). The courtyard was beautiful, and inside was a beautiful art exposition featuring drawings of a Judeo-Christian bend. A kindly older nun was selling them, and we got to talk to her a little bit. She said she was part of an order that helped take care of the synagogue (which was converted into a church, and now back to synagogue). Either way, both synagogues are worth a visit.

After all the sightseeing we did, Michelle and I were desperate for some good food. The first night, the guy working the front desk at our hostel gave us a recommendation for dinner: “Bar Enebro,” he said. “Cheap, delicious, fun.” I can’t even begin to tell you how true that is! We had originally thought about going to a real restaurant first and stopping by Enebro for drinks after, but I’m so glad we didn’t. You see, with every drink you buy, you get a HUGE plate of fries and bocadillos. So for 5 euros each, we both got two drinks and a full meal. The sandwiches were delicious – melty manchego cheese and either ham or bacon, depending on the bartender’s mood – and I couldn’t believe the amount of fries they served. Suffice to say, I was impressed.

outside of convento de san clemente.

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san fran cisco


flowers by the bay.

The hardest part about getting myself to Spain was far and away the yearlong student visa. Anybody who’s had to deal with governmental bureaucracy knows what I’m talking about. The twisting, contradictory, impossibly complex process almost cost me my first semester abroad. Luckily, things worked out, and I got a long weekend in San Francisco out of the deal.

mushrooms in the embarcadero.

I spent a good three hours exploring the Ferry Building. It was a nice place to wander when a chilly breeze set in – so many cute stalls! And once the sun peeked out I sat down at one of the restaurants to people watch. Market Bar  – not to be confused with Michelin-starred Market One across the street (where I also stopped for a beer and fries, not realizing how ridiculous I looked ordering such casual fare at such a well-known restaurant) – has a great outdoor dining area for when the famous fog rolls in. The roasted beet and mesclun salad was delicious, and I washed it down with a great local amber ale. But even better than the food and the atmosphere was the BEAUTIFUL waiter serving me. I left him my number to see if he wanted to go out for drinks, but he called after I got back home. C’est la vie.

the portrait artist.

Easily my least favorite part of San Francisco was Fisherman’s Wharf. I can’t stand crowds of tourists, but I felt stupid visiting the city without at least checking it out. But as awful as the crowds at the bottom of the hill were, a meandering walk up the steep streets revealed a bit of local color. This woman in particular was a blast – she’s a portrait artist who was more than happy to give me recommendations for soul food restaurants to check out (though, unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could sniff out her suggestions). I’d wanted to get her drawings in the picture – they were a ton of fun – but she asked me not to include them.


a pretty townhouse in the sunshine.

I’m glad I had a little time to wander, but a good half of my trip was taken up by first worrying about my visa and then actually applying for it. I wish I’d had a better idea of what was in store. If you’re looking for some advice, or just want to know what to expect, I’ll walk you through it.

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