Sun, Swords, and Smiles: Madrid and Toledo

Tori Chester is a student at UNC Wilmington and an ISA Featured Blogger. Tori is currently studying abroad with ISA in Santander, Spain.

A beautiful view of the ancient city of Toledo.
A beautiful view of the ancient city of Toledo.

Have you ever been so enthusiastic about something that your hands shake and your smile kind of has a life of its own? Have you ever felt like that for days on end? … Well. It’s day three of living in my homestay in Santander, Spain, and yes. Yes, I have.

Before I stumbled off the plane in Madrid, blinking and desperately in need of coffee, I had never been to Europe before. Now that I’m here, I have no idea how I went so long without visiting. This place is gorgeous, guys. I met my group at the airport, stepped into the bus, and just stared out the window, slack-jawed, for about twenty minutes.

Madrid is the capital of Spain. It’s also the third largest city in the European Union, and home to priceless works of art, incredible architecture, and internationally renowned cuisine. While the city is gigantic, and resembles many other cities I’ve visited in the US, there were a few cultural differences that were apparent immediately. For instance, trees aren’t just for parks. Instead, the whole city is peppered with leafy, beautiful trees that give the place a natural sort of look.

The other ISA students and I got off the bus and into our hotel at around twelve in the afternoon. But hanging around the hotel posed the serious risk of sleeping (and prolonging the jetlag), so I decided to keep moving. In lieu of falling asleep standing up in my hotel room, I opted to wander around the city with my group first. After lunch, we went to El Parque de Buen Retiro, the biggest park in the city. Everything about it was gorgeous. The sun shone; the trees were older than my hometown; the people looked so happy to be there. We were all a little loopy with exhaustion, but it was still fun to walk around.

We spent two days in Madrid. While I could have stayed two years, it was enough time to see the parks, eat the food, and visit the most famous art museums: Museo Nacional del Prado and La Reina Sofia. Our guide was a young fashion student with a Master’s degree in art history. She gave us a wonderfully personal guided tour of priceless paintings by Spanish artists like El Greco, Picasso, and Salvador Dalí.

On Saturday, we got up early and visited Toledo. This city looked as though it hadn’t changed in five hundred years; it was incredible. Our tour guide told us that before the Catholic leaders the kings were Arabic. They built the city in the style of many Middle Eastern cities—designed especially to confuse intruders. The result? A gigantic, winding labyrinth. (Seriously, I kept expecting David Bowie to pop out of nowhere.) Geek fact of the day: all of the swords from the Lord of the Rings movies were manufactured there! They sell replicas in a bunch of different stores; it’s incredibly awesome-looking.

I was really sad to leave Toledo behind, but there was something much grander at the end our bus ride: Santander! It’s in the northern part of Spain, in the Cantabria region. I’ll cover my new home more in the next blog post, but for now, I’ll just leave you with this picture of Toledo above.

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