What every college student should do on a trip to Spain

February 28, 2013
SubmittedEmilee Anderson on the patio of the Valle de Los Caídos in front of the view of Madrid.

Emilee Anderson on the patio of the Valle de Los Caídos in front of the view of Madrid.

Emilee Anderson fondly remembers relaxing with close friends on the terrace outside of a small pizzeria atop Escorial, a mountain that overlooks Madrid, Spain, and watching the colors of the sunset illuminate the sky. Anderson, a University of Alabama student majoring in international business and minoring in Spanish, studied abroad at the Real Universidad de Maria Cristina in El Escorial in the summer of 2012. This university is unique in that it is attached to the royal monastery, and she said the experience was unforgettable.

“We are one of the only American institutions allowed to live in the school and monastery itself, so that was incredible,” Anderson said. “I took an arts and museums class that was taught by one of the monks, Padre Antonio. He took us around the monastery, and we learned its history and explored the secret passages that only the monks have access to.”

However, she explained that the best part of traveling to Spain was making friends with the Spaniards.

“If you go somewhere with a different language than your own, it will be so beneficial to have friends that are locals,” she said. “I learned the most about the language, culture, and lifestyle through my friends. I made friendships that I intend to keep for the rest of my life. They open your eyes to a new country more than any tour guide could.”

In fact, Anderson became so attached to Spain in the time she was there, mostly because of the close friendships that she formed, that she had a difficult time adjusting back to life in America.

SubmittedAnderson and her friend, Isabelle Akers, standing in front of the Valle de Los Caídos.

Anderson and her friend, Isabelle Akers, standing in front of the Valle de Los Caídos.

“Initially, I was really sad to be back in the United States,” Anderson said. “I missed everything about Spain and my friends there. It took awhile to adjust emotionally. I knew I would never be able to go back and we would never all be together again, so that was a depressing thought. At the same time, the memories I made there will be dear to my heart for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

And what memories Anderson has! In composing her bucket list for the average college student traveling to Spain, Anderson advises to begin in Madrid.

Bucket List No. 1: “Get a hotel in the middle of the city and walk around all day exploring the shopping and dining options. The Plaza Mayor has a lot of stores close by, including Zara. While in Madrid, also tour the Royal Palace. It is a miniature Versailles and is absolutely breath taking.”

Since Escorial is not far from Madrid, Anderson often took a bus down to the capital city and meandered through the streets, stopping to sip a glass of wine at a café with friends or browsing at her favorite store, Zara.

“We have Zara here in the U.S., but it is a lot more expensive,” Anderson said. “In Madrid, it is priced more like Forever 21. I got a number of outfits there!”

In keeping with many travel experts’ advice not to over pack for Europe, Anderson knew she would buy several items of clothing on her trip abroad. However, she learned a bit about Spanish fashion trends along the way that was surprising.

“They told us going in that we shouldn’t wear shorts because most people don’t, and it’s disrespectful. That was not true!” Anderson said. “But, most of my wardrobe still consisted of tank tops and skirts. It was perfectly sunny every day, which made it very hot.”

SubmittedThe streets of Toledo decorated for Corpus cristi.

The streets of Toledo decorated for Corpus cristi.

Since shopping was one of her favorite pastimes in Spain, Anderson rifled through countless stores before finding the item that would become her favorite souvenir from the trip: a hand made serving dish that she purchased on a sojourn to Toledo.

“The bright colors and design really captured the essence of Toledo and Spain in general,” she said. “I bought it as a gift for my mom. She loves it and has on our kitchen island at home.”

On the weekends, Anderson and her passé often took small excursions, such as the trip to Toledo, and marveled at the adventures they found at any given place.

“The weekend we went to Toledo, they were celebrating Corpus Cristi (or the feast of The Body of Christ),” Anderson said. “The cobblestone streets were decorated with flowers and canopies. It was beautiful and very colorful. In the Plaza Mayor they had a stage set up with these giant dolls. Later that day, there was a concert of some kind, but while we were there, there was some music playing that you could hear through all the streets.”

Another weekend wandering took Anderson and her friends to the beach in Valencia to enjoy the local restaurants and culture.

“We chose to go there instead of most touristy places because we wanted to be fully submerged in the culture and explore Spain without a guide,” Anderson said. “Almost no one there spoke a word of English, so our Spanish skills were really put to the test, but it was so much fun! We were also there during the Euro Cup (that Spain won), so we watched the game in the hotel and then watched fireworks in the streets afterward.”

However, out of all of the weekend excursions that Anderson could recommend, she suggests her favorite, Segovia, to fellow travelers.

Bucket List No. 2: “Go to Segovia and see the aqueducts, an old Roman structure that surrounds the city. They are incredibly tall and majestic. The city itself is filled with skinny winding roads that are easy to get lost in, but that’s the fun part. “

Anderson said the important thing for other travelers to remember is not to ever say ‘no’ to new experiences.

“I did more things than I ever thought I would do or try, and it made for a truly memorable trip,” she said. “If you don’t like it, you don’t like it! You’ve made memories and that’s the most incredible part of the trip.”

SubmittedAnderson's favorite spot in Escorial, a balcony on the side of the Monestary that only monks (and her class) had access to.

Anderson’s favorite spot in Escorial, a balcony on the side of the Monestary that only monks (and her class) had access to.

In between the fun weekend excursions though, Anderson had to remember that she was in Spain for school, and so most of her time was spent in El Escorial where the monastery is located. Typically, her mornings were filled with classes, conveniently attached to her building, until 12:30 p.m., and then she had a quick lunch break before classes resumed until 2:30 p.m. Her afternoons were reserved for eating late lunches, laying out at the pool with friends, and exploring the local shops in Escorial.

“Dinner was usually at 9 p.m.,” she said. “Afterward, we all went out to a local bar owned by some friends called La Generra. We would spend the night there eating tapas and drinking wine.”

Anderson said that, as a whole, she found the nightlife in Escorial to be pretty laid back.

“We mostly just talked and hung out at the bars, but there were some nights when we were at the beach or in Madrid that we went to clubs,” Anderson said. “It was interesting in these clubs, because here in America everyone is grinding and dirty dancing, but that’s not at all how they dance in Spain. Most people danced [in a style that was] more holding hands and keeping space between partners. This was a lot more fun and honestly refreshing! I did not expect that at all.”

She said the culture in general is a lot more laid back and casual in Spain, and she enjoyed that the whole town of Escorial closed down from 3 to 5 p.m each day for an afternoon siesta (nap time).

“It was relaxing! “ Anderson said. “When you eat out at a restaurant, you are there a minimum of two hours. Usually the table you eat at for dinner at is your table for the night. The waiters at a restaurant will not bring your check until you ask them to. They won’t even offer it until you mention it, because most people are there drinking wine or beer for hours after their meal is finished. They often made comments about how we Americans were always in such a hurry.”

Again, imagine Anderson’s favorite pizza parlor on a Friday night. No hurry, no bustle, no rush. Everyone is truly relaxing and enjoying each other’s company, savoring some of the best food that Anderson said she has ever had in her life.

Submitted Anderson with her friends Isabelle and Miguel at their favorite local bar La Genera for a costume party.

Anderson with her friends Isabelle and Miguel at their favorite local bar La Genera for a costume party.

“Food there in general was great because nothing is processed. So all their meats and cheeses are completely fresh and not artificially enhanced,” Anderson said. “It was my favorite place partly because of the food, but also because of the memory of the sunset and laughing with friends.”

For her final bucket list item, Anderson advises taking the bus up the mountains to El Escorial to tour the monastery in its entirety, drink in the view, and enjoy a relaxing dinner in a sidewalk café before moving on for after-dinner cocktails.

Bucket List No. 3: “Go to La Generra and taste the drink, tinto verano. This sweet drink is made from red wine combined with lemonade and lemon-flavored Fanta. It was my favorite from the whole trip.”