Monday, June 25, 2012

Charlie's Angels in Toledo

Day 2 in Spain, and loving it already! 
Last night we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant, so today was our first day to try the real Spanish cuisine. The breakfast buffet offered at our hotel had a big selection of pastries, churros, eggs, cheese, meats, fresh fruit, yogurt, breads, and more. I tried a few different things, including Spanish tortilla, which is like an omelet with potatoes. I've read that breakfast is typically small in Spain, so I'm wondering whether the hotel makes a big spread especially for tourists, and I expect that it will be different once I move in with my host mother.
After breakfast, my program group visited Toledo for a tour through the Old City. My group includes our director, Andrea, the other students, Jessi and Milan, and me, so it's nice to have a small group to travel and tour with. We took the metro and a half-hour train ride to Toledo. We met our tour guide, Mario, who was a prime example of what I expected of a Spaniard. He greeted us with kisses on each cheek, spoke very close to us, and made lots of comments on how beautiful we all are. He seemed to know everyone in Madrid, and greeted people we passed on every street. He quickly nicknamed us "Charlie's Angels" and told us that the other guides were all jealous of him because he had the best group. We walked around Toledo, which is the old capital of Spain, and the center for the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures in Spain. The streets are very narrow because the city was built in the middle ages, so we had to step very close to the walls as cars passed. Much of the architecture of the Jewish and Christian buildings also appears Muslim because during the middle ages when the three cultures were on good terms in the city, the Muslims were the best builders and sculptors, so the Christians and Jews commissioned them for building. We visited the Santo Tomé Chapel, which houses El Greco's famous painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz. We also went to the Sinagoga de Santa  Maria la Blanca. Synagogue of Saint Mary the White... ironic, right? It was built as a Jewish synagogue by Muslims, so it has a Muslim look with arches and geometric art - no images of people. It later became a church when the Christians took power, and gained it's name for Saint Mary. Our final stop on our Toledo tour was the Toledo Cathedral, the second-biggest cathedral in Spain. It is a beautiful gothic-style building that was constructed over the course of about 300 years. The detail of the building, art, and sculptures is very intricate and beautiful. After saying goodbye to Mario, we returned to Madrid for lunch. 

In Spain, the afternoon meal is the biggest of the day, eaten around 2-3:00 pm, and often includes multiple courses. Jessi, Milan, and I were on our own for lunch, and we went to a traditional Spanish restaurant that Andrea recommended. The menu was all in Spanish, and the waitstaff spoke no English. We were seated, and our waiter offered us a taste of some word that we didn't quite understand, and turned out to be a beer on tap, which he brought us with a small plate of olives to start. We decided to wing it when we ordered. Most restaurants here offer a "Menu del Día" which offers a selection from which you pick one appetizer, one first course, one second course, and a dessert.  I chose an appetizer of "pan y chorizo" (bread and sausage), a first course of "pastel de verduras frescas," and a second course of "bocaditos de merluza".  We knew what to expect for our appetizer, but the rest was guesswork. "Pastel de verduras frescas" translates directly as "cake of fresh vegetables," okay, but what does that mean? I like vegetables, so I'll see what I end up with. My plate came out with a spongy-looking cut of food covered in a light tomato sauce. With a "just go for it" attitude, I dug in. The texture was very unusual, but it tasted good, and the sauce was fresh and delicious. And I still don't know what was in the "pastel." My second course was "bocaditos" or "little bites," and I correctly assumed that merluza was a type of fish. It was a light-flavored white fish that was battered and fried, and served with buttery mashed potatoes and another tasty sauce. For desert, or "postre", we got custard-filled pastries topped with powdered sugar, and a side of strawberry sorbet. Everything was delicious, and my four course meal cost only 16!    

We spent the afternoon shopping in la Puerta del Sol area, which is a block away from our hotel and has lots of shops and restaurants. I went to Spain's major department store, El Corte Inglés, to buy a new digital camera, because mine was broken when I took it out yesterday. The various departments of the store are housed in two or three different buildings, each with multiple floors. In other words, it's HUGE. We found the store with the "electrónica" department, and headed up to the third floor. The woman working in the camera section did not speak English, which was a challenge but I was able to understand well! She helped me choose a camera that was reliable, and the better value for the price compared to others I was looking at. After a little more shopping, we headed back to our hotel, which brought me here to my blog! It's now 9:17 here, and the nightlife starts late, around 10:00-11:00, so we'll relax a bit before we go out for tapas, our small dinner :)

No photos today :( but I'll definitely be taking lots now that I have a functioning camera!

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