Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Madrid! February 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 8:33 am

I am going on a quick trip to Madrid this weekend, for an art project that requires going to the Prado and the Reina Sofia. Hasta lunes!


Figueruelas: My European Debut February 24, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:57 am

The Siervas de María convent is located in this unassuming little church on one of Zaragoza’s busiest commercial streets!

A wonderful weekend started, like all weekends, on Friday, when I met up with Jenny and caught the bus to Miralbueno for our weekly gastronomical adventure, vegetarian cooking class. This week we made a garbanzo and spinach soup (it lacked a bit of flavor, but that is easily modified), champiñones a la plancha in parsley-garlic oil, and artichokes dipped in a velouté (like a bechamel but with broth as its liquid base) then breaded and fried. After the class I went to the tiny Filmoteca to see a Woody Allen movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. The small independent and cheap movie theater that plays almost exclusively American oldies and foreign films from the 80s is located about 3 minutes from my house and is running a Woody Allen cycle – what luck! I went alone, of course, because although I have lots of friends, none of them really want to see a movie from the 80s by Woody Allen with me.
Saturday morning was lovely – I met up with a friend under a perfectly blue sky and went to the Pablo Gargallo Museum, which features a great collection of the Aragonés artist’s sculptures, to look and to sketch.
My host aunt, uncle, and 2-year-old cousin were visiting this weekend to celebrate my host grandfather’s 82nd birthday, so we had a family lunch of huge proportions but with very good food and relative peace. I also met for the first time my host mother’s twin sister, who is building a large house near Madrid. Dinner was also a lovely gastronomical experience – after a bit of shopping, a couple friends and I picked up broccoli, peppers, and Spanish big flat green beans to make a stir-fry and curried rice. Delicious!
Sunday was another jam-packed day: I went back to one of the monasteries I visited to photograph the nuns (and they remembered me!), walked back home to another huge family lunch (this time with brazo de gitano, literally “Gypsy’s arm”, as my special vegetarian main course: thin cake rolled around a vegetable/mayonnaise filling…I still don’t like mayonnaise, but I eat it if I have to!), then I had to go to my violin concert!!! I’m playing with a mutli-aged, multi-level-of-talent group at the Escuela Popular de Música, the music school were I take lessons. We performed in a benefit concert for Haiti in Figueruelas, a small town 30 km from Zaragoza. It was a wonderful 5 hour ordeal…Jorge, aka “George”, a flautist who loves American oldies and sings them in English while driving, picked up myself, a pretty saxophonist, and another violinist. We met up with Figueruela’s informal group and practiced all together for the first time, and then loitered around the snack table before the concert began (food before playing didn’t seem like a good idea to me, nor did the abundance of alcohol there, but that’s Spain for you). The concert was opened by a great Spanish guitar group, and then the Figueruelas band alone, and then us! Playing so much at Deerfield has completely conditioned me to being in front of an audience and I wasn’t nervous at all. And nothing compares to hearing a crowd (well, the sparse audience in the little civic center) applauding you! I was in ecstasy to be performing again – I’d missed being on a stage!!! Our repertoire was exclusively popular – a few American blues and rock pieces like “Let it Be”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and “Go West”, and our best and most astonishing piece, “Pirates of the Caribbean”. What fun!! I only hope the audience enjoyed it as much as I did.
Last night, the school had a talent show in the basement of a local bar, la Campana de los Perdidos. The whitewashed brick walls and low arches supporting the ceiling created a great ambiance and all the student performers were wonderful – either hilarious on purpose or actually really talented. Seeing as all my violin music was for a group, I didn’t perform…but since my “talent” is baking, I decided to make mini-muffins for the whole school! After a meeting that didn’t get out until 6:15, and buying a kilo of strawberries, I didn’t end up getting home until 7 – and the show started at 8! However, I managed to crank out exactly 60 mini strawberry-chocolate muffins (I’ll post the recipe if you’d like), and they were a bit hit. Judged on the batter that stuck to the sides of the bowl, they were delicious. 🙂


Córdoba: A Pleasant Surprise February 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 5:29 pm

At first sight, Córdoba was a bit disappointing. (Side note: Spanish accents mark where the emphasis falls in the word; hence, Córdoba is COOR-doe-bah.) Although there was a great mudéjar medical college building next door, the other edifices surrounding our hotel were tall and nondescript office and residential types. However, a quick 10 minutes walk across a park and down a boulevard led to first the commercial and then the old part of the city. Walking a straight line led us to the main entrance of the mezquita de Córdoba, the famous 8th century mosque.

The technical name of the breathtaking building is the Cathedral of Córdoba. After the Christians reconquered the city, they built a Baroque cathedral smack dab in the middle of the vast mosque. One of their legitimizing claims was that the Arabs constructed the mosque over a Roman basilica – they have even excavated part of the floor to reveal the Roman mosaic.

When we studied the building in art class, I became angry with the Catholics: how could they ruin such a precious and singular building with just another run-of-the-mill church? I decided that I would dislike the disruptive cathedral…until I saw it.

Against my will, I found the Catedral de Córdoba to be the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. And although I would have loved to see the mosque in its full and uninterrupted splendor – as a true forest of red and white arches, rather than the hypnotic rows being more like a garden for the Christian centerpiece – I really did enjoy the church. Carlos V (King and Emperor) must have known that in order to destroy the mosque – a polemic decision even in his time – he had to build a cathedral worthy of such a horrible honor.

The mezquita, however, is still the more stunning of the two pieces. After walking through the orange grove patio inside the tower-marked gates, one is faced with a row of 19 (if my memory doesn’t fail me) doors, now closed off with lattices but originally open to the sunlight.

The entrance leads into the original section of the mosque, built when Córdoba was the capital of the emirate of Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for their territory in the Iberian peninsula, where the modern word for southern Spain, Andalucía [Andalusia in English?] comes from). The columns were “recycled” – taken from old Roman and Visigoth buildings – and hence a bit mismatched. But all were topped by parallel rows of stone and brick arches, creating the effect of a red-and-white striped forest of columns.

The city soon grew, and another addition was added on, continuing the rows further. Then Al-Andalus split from the rest of the Arabic empire and became its own caliphate, meaning that the leader now had political and religious power.

This is the period in which Córdoba reached its utmost splendor, and the richest addition to the cathedral was made.

The columns were again continued onward, but this time they were specially made for the purpose, and alternate pink and black. The arches are beautiful as always, but the true gem of the second addition is the quibla – the wall that points towards Mecca.

Well, ideally – technically, the wall points more south than southeast, and the reason for the incorrectness is unknown but well-speculated. The arches become lobed and intertwining, and more richly decorated with the same themes as before: geometric, calligraphic, and organic patterns. The wooden crossbeam ceilings are more opulently decorated, and before the wall they open up into stunning cupolas.

The wall itself, especially the mihrab, a special part of the wall which in Spanish-Arabic art has a recessed apse and also indicates towards Mecca, is especially gorgeous, with its golden paint and bright colors, intricate detail, and horseshoe arch.

Our tour of the mosque/cathedral was followed by a quick run-through of the old Jewish neighborhood, la Judería. The walk was cut short by rain, though, and we took shelter, of course, in a tetería. Seeing as the rain did not let up, we decided to take advantage of Córdoba’s Arab roots and hop to another tea lounge, and after relaxing on the low couches with the Middle-Eastern background music for a couple hours, we decided to search for some Arabic food. We found a delicious and authentic restaurant, which also happened to serve tea although we resisted, and feasted on hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, falafel, harira, and other new delicious discoveries whose names I’ve forgotten. So much time in teterías had got me into the Arabic mood, so at each place I took my leave with a sentence or two in Arabic: Shrukran, ma’salaama, a’shai kaan jayed judan – thank you, goodbye, the tea was very good – which never failed to pleasantly surprise the waiters.

Andalucía was the perfect blend of cultures for me – I fell in love with southern Spain. And although I suffered a bit of a heartbreak on my return to Zaragoza, I know that my new favorite cities will be there waiting for my return.


Úbeda y Baeza: Tierra de Olivos February 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 5:44 pm

I’ll preface this with a warning that I’m having photo issues…go to my blog at to see them – wordpress is being disagreeable!

“Qué nunca visites a Jaén; no hay nada en Jaén.” That was the recomendation of the girls we met in Sevilla: Don’t go to Jaen, the easternmost province of Andalucía, because there is absolutely nothing there.

True, movie theaters, restaurants, bars, and parks for botelloning were lacking, but Jaen is filled to the brim with olive trees, small quintessential Spanish towns, and renaissance architecture.

Never-ending landscapes of olive trees…olives and olives as far as the eye could see, for our entire bus ride from Granada to Baeza to Córdoba!

Our first stop after Granada was Úbeda, where we went to a painfully boring Museum of Olives; we then had a few hours free in the town to eat lunch with the 15 euros the school had given us as our meal allowance that day.

My three friends and I wanted to eat well. So rather than hop into the first restaurant we found, we asked a fruit vendor where a good place to eat was. He directed us to “El Seco”, a delicious gem hidden on a side street. I ordered habas con huevo y limón, broad beans with fried egg and lemon, and an olive oil cake with red wine reduction for dessert (the menu had a major typo as far as dessert was concerned: they had translated “postre”, the Spanish word for dessert, as “prostrate” – we kindly informed the waitress of her error and laughed for a while!). The olive oil in this region is absolutely delicious, so we made sure to ask for extra for bread dipping purposes.

When the entire group of teachers walked into the same restaurant as our main courses were being taken away, we knew we’d chosen a great place to eat! We went over and said hello to our professors, but retreated back to our table as not to bother them too much.

In fancy Spanish restaurants, it is a custom to bring complimentary chupitos – after-dinner shots – to the table after dessert. As the waitress approached with a bottle and chilled shot glasses, we all turned white – the teachers were sitting just a few tables away!! The waitress laughed at our reaction and showed us that it was non-alcoholic…thank goodness!

The exterior of Baeza’s church.

After Úbeda, we progressed to Baeza, a small town full of renaissance architecture.

Interior of Baeza’s cathedral.

We managed to find a tetería and passed some time there after our guided tour of the small town, which surveyed a renaissance church, a palace with a strangely erotic facade,

A tower of the aforementioned palace…

the university,

This is the old exam room of the university. Two students would debate a topic as their final exam, and the one who won passed – the other had to repeat the year. Hence the university had a graduation rate of exactly 50%…ouch.

a few town hall buildings, renaissance palaces, and amusing folklore. After dinner we set out to explore the small city center in the dark, amusing ourselves by posing for a multitude of photos…

According to our tour guide, these little connecting bridges between houses used to be popular secret meeting places for lovers…however, this one connected the church and the bishop’s residence, and he used the window to control who entered the church.

Despite the girls’ precaution about the region, we managed to have a montón of fun!


Granada: Huellas Árabes (es decir, Chock Full of Teterías!!) February 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:15 am

Our stay at Granada was sadly short. We only passed one full day in this city, which I think I would never tire of, and which I will try to describe more with photos than with words. Walking just a bit past the end of the wide Gran Vía, where our hotel was located, we found a delicious vegetarian restaurant far from the beaten tourist path. The menú del día was under our school allowance, so I proceeded to order a gouda and walnut salad as the primer plato, followed by a segundo of seitan curry, and a slice of chocolate cake for postre. The salad was fresh and crisp and tastefully dressed, a refreshing change from the average Spanish salad, and the seitan curry was one of the best plates I have ever eaten, period. The scent of curry sent us all back to the little ethnic restaurants so common in the states that we all miss dearly!

Returning to Gran Vía and turning up, one can wander past the Universidad de Granada through the narrow winding streets of the Albaicín and Sacromonte neighborhoods,

stopping to rest in a tetería, where Arabic music, low couches, and embroidered cushions provide the perfect ambiance for a pot of té palestino, spiced hot milk served in a metal teapot with a decorated glass cup,

or perhaps continuing upward to the mirador at the top of the hill,

a patio equipped with benches and a giant cross that looks out over the Alhambra (whose name comes from the Arabic word for “red”).

The lookout is flanked by a mosque-turned-church and a modest modern mosque.

On the descent, one can turn into an enclosed monastery, the Monasterio de Santa Isabel la Real, inhabited by nuns who decide to never leave the building once they enter and spend their days in service to God, and baking. We were lured into the patio first to look at the convent’s architechture, and then a sign reading “Hay dulces” – “There are sweets today” – led us to pull the doorbell chain, and soon we heard a voice asking us to open the wooden door.

Opening the door did little as far as vision goes: Apparently they also vow not to see people from the outside, as we were now greeted by a lazy-susan type wooden rotating shelf. We explained that we’d like to buy sweets, and were informed that today there were only mantecados de almedra y limón, lemon and almond cookies, which suited us just fine. The nun placed the box of cookies on her side of the shelf and spun it around, where we took the sweets and placed our 5 euro bill in its place. We thanked her profusely, and left rather stunned by the intensity of the experience: a business transaction with a nun who we couldn’t see, who had vowed to live a solitary life and only interact with other sisters in the convent.
The experience of that night couldn’t be farther removed. After dinner, we boarded a mini bus and headed to a cueva – cave – where we’d see a flamenco performance. We passed through the narrow streets of Sacromonte again, stopping at the mirador to gaze out at the Alhambra at night, hearing folkloric stories from the flamenco-bar man who led the way. Flamenco is a typical Spanish dance that was born in Andalucía and originally performed in white-washed caves like the one we went to. The dance is always accompanied by Spanish acoustic guitars, a singer, clapping in complex rhythms, and occasionally a cajón – a simple box-drum played with the hands. The dancer improvises copiously, combining set steps in new ways with clapping, hand twirling, stomping, foot tapping, spinning, and light steps.

The show was incredible. The caves are naturally at the perfect temperature year-round, 21 degrees Celsius, and we were a bit crowded. The music absolutely filled the small space, decorated with photos, posters, and articles about flamenco, and the dancers were incredibly talented. The women’s heels slapped the floor faster than I would have thought possible, and the room reverberated with their rhythmic pounding. I was fascinated and enthralled – and of course I would now love to learn flamenco!
But I have left out the most famous aspect of Granada – the Alhambra. Built as a residential “city” for the Arabic monarchs in the thirteenth century, the building was augmented by Christian kings as well. However, the 16th century Carlos V’s palace is true to its Renaissance style: incredibly boring, especially in comparison to the rich decoration covering the Arabic buildings. The Nazarí palaces, on the other hand, are stunning.

The decor is intricate and breathtakingly beautiful:

sculpted plaster with traces of its original bright coloring,

cut and mosaic-ed ceramic, carved wooden doorways, horseshoe and other styled arches resting upon slender columns,

all surrounding lush patios with lovely fountains.

Contemplating the tendrils and geometric details of the plaster with the calming bubbling sound of the fountains in the background, I felt as though I truly would have loved to live in the Alhambra, and then began to imagine actually living there in the 14th century.

Imagine waking up every morning and hearing the sweet gurgle of a clear fountain and the rustle of leaves. Imagine walking out your intricately carved door, looking up at the latticed windows and elaborate cornice, and hearing birds chirping, and then reaching up and picking an orange.

Imagine relaxing on a couch set into a ceramic-ed recess with a mocárabe overhead,

with a silver plate of olives contrasting against the bright color of the embellished cushions.

Imagine watching the sunset through an aisle of slim columns topped with decorated arches. What a beautiful life – almost as great as the one I am living now.

Sevilla: Catedral, Alcázar, y Amigas Españolas February 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:36 am

La Giralda, the tower outside the Catedral de Sevilla. Rather than stairs, the top is reached by ramp, built by the Arabs so that the muezzen, the man who calls the faithful to prayer, could reach the top quickly on horseback.

A view from the Patio of Orange Trees in the Sevillan Cathedral.

Looking down on the Patio de Naranjos from the top of La Giralda.

Our first full day in Sevilla was filled to the brim by an interesting myriad of experiences. After breakfast, we were given maps and told to be at an obscure Spanish high school by noon.

The Arabic roots of the city still shape its modern architecture, such as this neo-mudéjar bank, a building we just randomly passed wandering around. One thing I love about Spain is the beautiful architecture around every corner!

We wandered through the old part of the city down to the water again, and then began to work our way up to the school, passing the Plaza de Toros (bullfight ring) and the Torre de Oro (where the gold from the Americas was stored when Sevilla was a bustling river port city in the sixteenth century).

The Torre de Oro

Once at the school, a group of 15-year-old dance students demonstrated the sevillanas for us.

Sevillanas is similar to flamenco, but with set steps and without improvisation.

In a slightly awkward activity, we proceeded to the gym where we met up with Sevillians our age. We had about half an hour or so to chat with them, in which we exchanged tuenti and Facebook contacts, and then proceeded to lunch at the school’s cafeteria.
A few girls invited a couple of friends and me to come watch their basketball game that night, so we were excused from dinner at the hotel and allowed to go. Spectators were sparse, but we picked up quite a few colloquial phrases talking to the few students who were also there.
After the game, five Spanish girls accompanied us to dinner, taking us to a restaurant specializing in montaditos. The food was wonderful: we could choose from about a hundred mini-sandwiches, all priced around 1,50 euros. There were even great vegetarian options, mainly a cheese-arugula-fruit sandwich and a delicious brie one. And the company was great! How is it that after five months in Zaragoza, I still have no Spanish friends, but after one day in Sevilla I had five?! After a great hour or two of talking and laughing, we ended up taking a taxi back to the hotel in order to get there before our midnight curfew.
Between lunch and dinner with our Spanish counterparts, we visited the city like the tourists we were. Orienting ourselves towards the cathedral, where we’d have a guided tour that afternoon, a group of friends and I passed the old Real Fábrica de Tabacos (Royal Tobaco Factory) building, now a site for the University of Sevilla.

Entryway to the Real Fábrica de Tabacos.

We popped in to look around, and lost ourselves in reveries about going to university in Spain…

A university patio.

but pulled back to reality by security guards telling us that we couldn’t go up those stairs!
The Cathedral was rather impressive.

The “Puerta del Sol”, Sun Entryway, to the Cathedral

A boveda in the cathedral.

La Giralda

Its fifteenth-centry Gothic architechture is flanked by La Giralda, a tower based on the minaret which stood as part of the Arabic mosque.

View of the Plaza de Toros from La Giralda.

View of part of the Alcázar from la Giralda.

Another view from La Giralda.

The next day we visited the Reales Alcázares, led there by our teachers in a labyrinthine route. Due to a pesky traffic light, however, my group was separated from the leaders. However, using my stellar sense of direction (also known as asking people who look like they know what they’re doing), we took a lovely scenic route through little plazas and wound up arriving before the other group.
The Real Alcázar – meaning royal fortified palace – was first begun in the tenth century, by Abd al-Rahman III, the first Andalucían Calif.

Remains of the original tenth century walls.

It was later expanded during the Reino de Taifas and then adopted by the Christian kings. The Reyes Católicos (Isabel and Fernando, who finished the reconquista and were reigning when Columbus discovered America) were those who most greatly enriched the alcázar.

Mixtilinear arches finished off with geometric decoration, then calligraphic decoration, followed by vegetate decor, more arches, and the beginning of a mocárabe, or roof with stalactite-like decorations.

I love Arabic decoration. The intricate details and the painstaking concentration result in a meditative decoration that covers almost every inch of the palace walls.
The multifoil, horseshoe, and mixtilinear arches are gorgeous.

A patio with naranjos (orange trees) and a pool. The orange trees are in lowered beds so that the fruit could be picked while passing with less effort.

The patios give the palaces a lush, relaxed feel and are inspired by the muslim idea of Paradise as a garden.

Even the doors, doorways, and door-frames are decorated down to the last inch.

After lunch at Bar Ajoblanco (a steaming hot curry quesadilla and a beet-stained-pink couscous salad) and dessert at a French juice bar (hot and soft crepe with honey and mountains of whipped cream), we boarded the bus to head to Granada, where even more Arabic decoration and ambiance awaited us!


First Stop: Sevilla February 16, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 12:36 pm

The 1929 Plaza de España

Usually the travel part of trips is hardly worth mentioning, but in Spain on the AVE, it becomes definitely noteworthy. Broken into groups of six for ticket distribution, my posse ended up with a section of seats in the very back of the train – on the other side of the last door, and hence separated by a sliding door. Delighted with our little table and the opportunity to be obnoxious Americans without disturbing the Spaniards (who all travel in silence), we pulled out cards and I passed around the gingersnaps I’d baked the day before to use up the valuable molasses left over from gingerbread oh-so-long ago. Honestly, nothing tastes like home the way gingersnaps and a glass of soymilk do…
Seeing as the AVE reaches speeds of 186 mph, the trip passed incredibly quickly and we soon stepped foot in sunny Sevilla, land of so much Spanish lore. Following lunch at the hotel (vegetarian option: an assorted array of picked vegetables and olives), two friends and I headed out to explore the city. We oriented ourselves towards the river and took in the gorgeous bridges and parks.

The river Guadalquivir is a bit more impressive than the Ebro...

Walking past a pastelería, the unsubstantiality of lunch hit me, and we ordered some typical Andalucían sweets to tide us over until dinner.

Our first glimpses of the Cathdral of Sevilla.

After wandering the narrow streets of the Santa Cruz neighborhood and popping into the clove-scented cathedral to watch part of a mass, we found our way to the Plaza de España, constructed as part of the 1929 Expo hosted in Sevilla.

I loved the blue and white ceramic adorning the Plaza.

The construction lasted 15 years, and the impressive investment shows in the incredible result.

A vast expanse of arched portico...

Playing around by the fountain in the center of the Plaza de España

A portico-ed curved building is lined with benches, each designated to a Spanish province. Unfortunately, Zaragoza’s bench was undergoing restoration, so we had to make do with a life-size photo erected in front of it.

Our attempts to trick the eye into believing that the Zaragoza bench was real...

Rumor had it that the tapas around the Giralda, the famously striking tower marking the entrance to the cathedral, were rather good, so we walked to that barrio for dinner.

La Giralda, the mudéjar tower of the Sevilla Cathedral

First stop: a rustic tapas bar that still chalks up your bill on the wooden counter. The food was delicious, and I enjoyed my montadito de queso manchego, a typical Sevillan mini-sandwich involving scrumptious bread and fillings varying from blood sausage (murcilla) to my very vegetarian Spanish cheese option, and pressed like a panini.
We then wandered to a bar near our hotel called “Bar Ajoblanco”, motivated by my love of the garlicky-almondy chilled white soup of the same name. We tried some of the ajo blanco (although I think mine is better) and also a bowl of salmorejo, a type of thick gazpacho served with hard-boiled egg very customary of Andalucía. I loved the bar’s jazz-themed decor, with American records and concert posters adorning the walls.
The rain in Spain decided to not fall mainly on the plane, and we dodged the raindrops heading back to the hotel, ready to enjoy each others’ company and snuggle in against the drizzle.