Since I’m heading to the Basque Country with NYU tomorrow (San Sebastian and Bilbao), I’m most likely going to blog about it sometime in the future.  So I’m going to do an update now, otherwise I am going to fall behind with all the things I need to update on!

First things first: We had an incident of the very smokey variety over a week ago.  Not going into the details but let’s just say we all learned that you should never leave the kitchen unattended while cooking.  However I will say this country seriously needs to invest in smoke detectors (and fire escapes).  What if there is a fire in the building and you’re asleep in the middle of the night? I know as college students we cursed the fire alarms for forcing us out of bed at 3 AM in the morning all because someone had burned their hair with a straightening iron… but the alarms do come in handy when there is an actual fire.

The only evidence from last week’s incident are the swirly patterned soot streaks on the kitchen and hallway ceiling which kind of liven up the decor if you ask me (though our landlord would probably disagree with me on that one).  We did a decent job of getting most of the soot out of the walls in the kitchen but our landlord had a cleaning lady come in and really get into the nooks and crannies.  Probably just as well because none of us really had time to do that since it was the week before midterms.  All that needs to be done now is a fresh coat of paint on the kitchen/hallway ceiling.  Voila, kitchen is as good as new.  Obviously our landlord sat down with us and explained to us what we really should have already known: don’t ever leave the kitchen while you are cooking! Ever! Ok.  Lesson definitely learned. In all seriousness, we were all lucky none of got hurt and that the damage hadn’t been worse.  Our landlord obviously wanted to make sure something like this wouldn’t happen again, but she also had legitimately been scared for us.

Moving on:

A couple of days before our kitchen turned into a smores pit, Nicole and I decided to go explore Casa de Campo, a gigantic park that lies west of Madrid’s city center.  When you google map Madrid, there is a huge green area that shows up on the satellite image to the left of the city center.  Well that is pretty much Casa de Campo.  I had been wanting to go for awhile and it was supposed to be a gorgeous Saturday.  Nicole agreed to come along and see what it was all about.

We got off at the metro stop and it was in the high 60s at the end of February.  I was wearing a t-shirt and flats, not going to lie that it was pretty awesome and that I am so thankful I didn’t have to deal with the boatloads of snow the US had to deal with this past winter.

When we looked at the map and tried to find the man made lake with rowboats, we ended up wandering in the opposite direction for about two hours and a half.  As usual, I have a terrible sense of direction.  But it’s just as well because we ended up having a great time taking the path we chose.

Casa de Campo (Spanish for country house) used to be a former hunting estate for Spanish royalty and is about 6.6 square miles (eat your heart out, Central Park, it’s about five times bigger than you).  It opened to the public during Spain’s Second Republic in 1931 (a few years before the Spanish Civil War broke out).  Apparently some fighting went on in the park during the Civil War but I’m foggy on the details.

So we started walking down a lane/bike path surrounded by trees on both sides and oh my god, I can’t tell you how happy I was! It was such a beautiful day, it felt like mid spring, and I was surrounded by a forest! Casa de Campo is very different from any other urban park I’ve seen.  You don’t feel like there is a city surrounding the park at all.  The bike paths go on and on forever and many paths fork out into the woods and snake up the hills.  I hadn’t seen so much natural green space since I left the US (and while the Retiro is beautiful, it doesn’t have the same feel to it.  Casa de Campo is definitely more wild).

We found the amusement park and zoo which we didn’t go in, but always good to know where they are for future reference.  We then set off to find the teleferico/gondola type ride set up in the park, said to be one of the best places to get a good view of the Madrid skyline.  We walked up the hill to the teleferico and the view did not disappoint.  Beautiful green trees with the white buildings of Madrid off in the distance with a blue sky–it’s not the most overwhelming skyline out there (such as NYC for example) but it’s got its own charm.  We didn’t actually go on the gondola either but I will most likely do it at some point before I leave Madrid.  We were even able to see the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains on the outskirts of Madrid and were able to make some snow all the way at the summit!

Afterwards we finally found the man made lake/pond with rowboats, similar to the one in El Retiro.  Nicole and I sat by the water’s edge for awhile and pretended that one of the couples out in the middle of the pond had just gotten engaged (well, the girl looked really happy and then made a big show of sitting on her boyfriend’s lap so maybe we weren’t too far off).  Anyways I am definitely going back to this place–you could legitimately spend all day getting lost in there/do actual hiking.  It’s such a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of Madrid, you forget the capital of the country is actually sitting nearby.

And then on to my last section:

I finally got a visitor! Yay! I didn’t get any visitors the first time I studied abroad so this was incredibly exciting.  My friend Katy, who I met at Dickinson (and actually known since my very first day since she was a late start January student too) and also a sorority sister, came to stay for a few days.  She is currently au pairing in Rennes, France which is pretty much the crepe capital of the world.  It was a little chaotic since she became right before midterms started and right after our smokey incident.  I hadn’t seen her since graduation so I was so excited to see her.

So stuff we did: I took her to the Reina Sofia museum (the contemporary art museum), which I hadn’t been back to since I’ve been living in Madrid.  We got in for free (yay student ID cards!) but I forgot how confusing navigating this museum can be.  They didn’t have any maps for visitors and just had really unhelpful small signs pointing in vague directions reading stuff like “cubism, this way.” I made sure Katy got to see Picasso’s humongous Guernica (if you have never heard of this painting… well you probably should google it, it’s one of Picasso’s most famous works) but apart from that, we kind of wandered around like lost sheep in the museum.  At least I know where the permanent collections are for future visitors.

We also went to the Gran Via/Fuencarral shopping area and I took Katy to the tea store I had been to a few months back.  Also took her to the creperie and the Jardin Secreto which Katy absolutely loved! We both got the “orgasm by chocolate” dessert–an incredibly gooey and chocolaty brownie covered chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce.  I am so indebted to my intercambio Laura for introducing me to that place.

I obviously also took Katy to the Puerta del Sol (where she got her picture with the Madrid bear) and Plaza Mayor.  But I also got to do something I had never done in Madrid before: visit the Palacio Real! The royal family no longer lives there (they now live somewhere on the outskirts of the city) and only uses the place for official ceremonies.  Apparently some Moorish fortress used to occupy the site the Palacio now takes up.  A palace for the Spanish royal family was built sometime in the 1500s but that one burned down in 1734.  So a new one was built and construction finished sometime around 1755.

We obviously don’t get to visit the entire building as tourists (apparently the place is bigger than Buckingham Palace) but the few rooms we do get to see are pretty cool, including the throne room which has the thrones of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.  The main staircase alone just kind of took my breath away–it reminded me so much of the Paris Opera House.  I am such a sucker for grand staircases.  We also got to see the “royal armoury,” which included armors, shields, and weapons used by various members of the Spanish royal family spanning back several centuries. Oh and the Royal Pharmacy… we got to see a bunch of bottles and herbs used for curing Spanish monarchs? Not too sure about that one haha.

The whole area around the Palacio Real is actually really nice–it’s by the Almudena Cathedral, the Sabatini Gardens, the Campo del Moro (another park), Plaza del Oriente and the Madrid Opera House (which is very modest in size compared to other European cities).

On Katy’s last free day, I had to do homework much to my chagrin so she went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza and wandered around with my guidebook and did one of the walking tours.  She got her churros with chocolate so I think she was satisfied by her visit overall.  Oh and she also got to go to Dunkin’ Donuts.

I guess I forgot to mention this–along with Starbucks all over the city center, Madrid is also home to Dunkin’Donuts which is huge in Massachusetts since that’s where it was founded.  Katy is from outside of Boston so obviously she was thrilled to see Madrid had adopted her favorite donut store.  It’s the same thing as in the States–except here for some strange reason they call it Dunkin’ Coffee.

OK well I’m off to the Basque Country for the weekend.  I’ll add pictures to this post later.

Amelie