Off To Madrid

Having lived with gloomy and rainy skies for months, I decided to head to sunnier places–namely Spain. Lucky for me, I happen to know three Spanish ETAs (all of Spain’s ETAs are based in Madrid), and they agreed to let me stay with them and show me around the city when they weren’t teaching.

Having studied Spanish in high school, I was excited to see how well I would manage in Madrid. I rapidly realized that my comprehension and reading is still pretty good (especially considering that I haven’t used Spanish for about five years), but that my speaking ability has deteriorated considerably. Thankfully this wasn’t too much of a problem since I spent about half of my time with my near fluent ETA friends.

Once I arrived, I met my friend Sara and we were off. Our first stop was Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid’s most bustling plazas. Although it’s certainly a pretty plaza, there isn’t too much of note here. The big landmarks are a statue of King Carlos III, the zero kilometer marker, and El Oso y El Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree–the symbol of Madrid).

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From there it was just a short walk to another plaza, Plaza Mayor. Personally I preferred Plaza Mayor to Puerta del Sol. It’s a bit more closed off than Puerta del Sol and also tends to have fewer people wandering around. It also has a fairly colorful history that includes things like bullfights and executions. I would argue that the most notable thing in the square is not the statue of King Felipe III, but the frescos on the 17th-century Real Casa de la Panadería (Royal Bakery). While the building is quite old, the frescoes themselves are relatively young. They were painted in 1992 by Carlos Franco and helped boost Madrid’s 1992 title as the European Capital of Culture.

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After that we stopped by the popular Mercado de San Miguel and grabbed some frozen yogurt before continuing down Calle de Toledo to the Rio Manzanares, the river that runs through Madrid. The area by the river has been made into a beautiful park, and there were plenty of people there walking, exercising, playing, and picnicking. Something that surprised me were the number of couples canoodling around the grounds–I suppose in Norway it’s generally too cold for people to really want to show signs of affection outdoors.

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We continued walking until we hit Matadero, a slaughterhouse that has been converted into a contemporary arts center. There were two big art exhibitions that we managed to see there. The first was one by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist art collective started in the 1980’s that is well known for wearing gorilla masks and for using statistics to push back against women’s position in the art world. I was actually pretty shocked to read some of the statistics and to realize how few female artists are shown in the world’s major museums.

The second display was by Eugenio Ampudia. He had a great display where a shallow pool of water was built beneath a burned out construction, giving you the illusion of vast depth. When I first saw it I was convinced that there was a gaping hole in the floor. Unfortunately my picture doesn’t quite do the art justice, but it was pretty incredible to see at first glance. Another interesting thing about the piece was that you were able to call a telephone number that would trigger one of several small fountains, causing the reflection to ripple and destroy the illusion.

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After that we went for some lovely tapas near Sara’s place and called it a night.

Snowy Bergen and Pepperkakebyen

First a quick PSA. In case you’re wondering why I’ve been traveling more this past month, it’s because things have drastically slowed down at my schools. Classes ended at NTNU on November 21, and December at Byåsen has mostly centered around exams and final projects. The Christmas holiday also helps in terms of giving me more free time. Additionally, I’m prone to separate more jam packed travel days into multiple posts to make things easier to read.

I was excited to travel back to Bergen for a short trip this week. Having talked with Kyle in Oslo, I managed to confirm that not only is Bergen a very rainy city–apparently it’s the rainiest city in Europe! In a fit of irony, the Fulbright Commission happened to give grants to a lot of Portlanders this year, and to the best of my knowledge they all ended up in Bergen with the exception of one person. I suppose that they all feel right at home. So, it was with Kyle’s warnings ringing in my ears that the first thing I packed in my carry-on was an umbrella. To my great surprise however, it wasn’t raining when I arrived in Bergen with Alix and her husband, Chris, it was snowing!

After we got settled into our Airbnb, Alix, Chris, and I headed out into the city. The thing that I desperately wanted to see on this trip was Pepperkakebyen, a gingerbread replica of Bergen. Residents of Bergen are allowed to bring in gingerbread houses and they are arranged to mimic the city of Bergen. Of course the gingerbread town doesn’t replicate Bergen exactly. There are plenty of world landmarks that make an appearance, such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, yet happen to be nowhere near Bergen.

Now, my family has been making gingerbread houses for years since it’s our traditional post-Thanksgiving activity. It’s taken a few years, but now our houses no longer look like they’ve been hit by tornadoes. I would even venture to say that now that I have an attention span longer than that of my five year old self, some of our houses even look pretty good. So for me Pepperkakebyen was a must see it Bergen.

I wasn’t disappointed. Getting there was initially a bit confusing. Google Maps had no problem leading us to the building, but the three of us hesitated upon arrival. It looked like the building contained an odd assortment of businesses such as a gym. Alix then skeptically pointed out that there was a sign for a public pool. This renewed my hopes because Pepperkakebyen is actually held at the local pool (the pool is obviously covered and drained). So, after about a minute of searching we found the appropriate entrance.

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Once we finished playing around, the three of us headed off to grab some dinner and a good night’s sleep.