Steph Sievers is a student at The College of New Jersey and a CISabroad Madrid featured blogger! She is currently studying in Madrid for the Spring 2017 semester.
One of the most appealing aspects of studying abroad for many people is the accessibility to the rest of Europe for weekend trips. Jetting from country to country every weekend has certainly been exhilarating, but I chose Spain for a reason – it was the country I thought had the most to offer over the course of a semester, so I committed myself to seeing as much of it as I could. It’s something I would recommend to those studying in any country (to not neglect the country you decided to call home for this time), but Spain in particular, with its many autonomous regions, often differing in climate or most common language, offers a slightly new, yet strikingly and comfortably Spanish, culture with every trip outside of Madrid.
Be creative with how you fit these trips in. As you likely won’t be in classes on Fridays, use the time effectively with a day trip outside of the city. CIS provided a trip to Segovia during my program, but as I had visitors for this time, I went by myself on a Monday when I also did not have class to attend. I would previously have been hesitant to take any trip alone, but it’s something I highly recommend at least once while you are abroad. Europe has a tendency to inspire awe, and it’s refreshing to sometimes be alone and allow yourself to really bask in it, moving from place to place on your own adventure completely on your own time.
I appreciated my independence the most when I reached the Aqueduct of Segovia. The city is beautiful but compact, surrounded by perfectly green pastures and farms, which are then surrounded by a huge and impressive range of snow-capped mountains – and each level of the Aqueduct that you climb reveals another of these layers of the city’s views. Other main attractions in Segovia are the Alcazar, a palace with even more views and a decadent, historical interior tour, and the Cathedral, which stands apart due to its separate altars dedicated to individual saints. These attractions cost seven euro and three euro respectively. The Cathedral was right on Segovia’s Plaza Mayor, and I ate one of my very best lunches abroad so far while sitting outside at a restaurant around the edge of the plaza and people-watching. Smaller than Madrid, Segovia is completely walkable once you reach the city part, though it requires a taxi or bus to get there from the train station. After my thirty minute train ride from Madrid, I chose to take a cab to the Alcazar, as it was my furthest of the mentioned destinations from the train station, and then made my way back while visiting the other places. I believe that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Segovia would have been fantastic, but if you’re interested, note that it is closed on Mondays.
Barcelona was one of my most highly anticipated trips, and it exceeded my expectations in every way. Its history is rich, and I wished that I had researched the city more before arriving, because so much of it is in its architecture, not in small plaques in museums; you discover Barcelona by exploring, staring up at the buildings of Antoni Gaudi and wandering through the Gothic Corner that he created. Though Gaudi is responsible for most of the city’s architecture and thus its beauty, his most famous work is rightfully the cathedral, the Sagrada Familia. One might grow tired of touring church after church in Europe, but the Sagrada Familia is completely extraordinary. It was truly unlike anything I had ever seen. Gaudi died while working on it and it is still under construction today, in accordance with his design plans. The only sight I saw that was close to topping it was Park Guell. You can wander, picnic, and climb higher and higher for incredible city-wide views. There is a large area of fountains, benches, and otherwise indescribable structures, all covered in bright mosaic of glass tiles – called the Monumental Zone, it’s the site of many Instagrams, and requires a time-specific pass for eight euro that the general park does not.
The best part of the Barcelona clubs is that they are right on the beach, which is lovely and lends itself to seeing the sun rise after a long night out. The worst parts are the terribly rude bouncers, and the sleazy fellow clubbers. Like everywhere, you need to keep yourself as sharp as you can, and don’t bother arguing with bouncers or bartenders. They won’t like you and will shove you. I can’t speak to the best accommodations when visiting Barcelona, as I stayed with a longtime friend who is studying there this semester, but everyone I know who stayed in hostels there were satisfied with their cleanliness and safety. In general, I like hostels a lot as an option because they’re cheap and it’s an awesome way to meet new people, which is especially cool in a party city like Barcelona. The app HostelWorld is exceptional while abroad. One important tip I got from my friend who is there for the semester is to not visit during Abroadfest, the large music festival held there each spring for anyone studying abroad in Europe. You’ll see a lot more rowdy Americans than any part of authentic Barcelona.
Finally, my next trip within Spain is to Valencia. I chose to visit in mid-March because it is the weekend that the Las Fallas Carnival will be there, but it is one of the best beach destinations, so you may want to save it for an impromptu trip as soon as it gets really warm. Despite the large crowds coming in for the carnival, I was able to find an Air BnB on short notice, but I was warned that the public transportation is subpar (particularly compared with Madrid’s system), so try to book ahead in order to get a prime location.