Posts Tagged ‘spain’

Inspired by Spain

Friday, September 25th, 2009
Students enjoy the medieval town of Avila, Spain while studying abroad.

Students enjoy the medieval town of Avila, Spain while studying abroad.

Alice Stephens has lived on four continents, most recently in Japan for four years. Here, she recalls how a high-school homestay in Spain inspired a lifetime of travel and intellectual curiosity. Click here for Alice’s bio.

Most of us remember 9th grade. The first year of high school. Sudden expectations for mature behavior. The looming reality of college. The first, hairy driving lessons from a terrified parent. For me, it was also a time of slipping grades and excruciating self-consciousness. As is not uncommon with teenage girls, I started to flounder in math and science. Though the year was not utter misery, I was faced with more challenges than ever before.

That summer, my parents sent me on a study abroad program to Spain, which was a relief for me, as I did not want to be shipped back to summer camp again. Spanish was one of the few consistent A’s on my report card that year, and I was pleased to be going to Europe, but most of all I was excited to be on my own.

From the moment I hit the streets of Madrid, where we stayed for the first few days of the program, I was entranced. The late night dinners, the soft lisping of Castellano, the grand cathedrals and stately architecture. Standing in front of La Guernica at the Museo del Prado(this was before it had been moved to Reina Sofía)! Strolling under the graceful colonnades of La Plaza Mayor!

One the way to a home stay in Badajoz, we stopped to visit the historical town of Toledo, the home of El Greco and a veritable living museum of Mudéjar architecture, evidence of the thriving communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims who coexisted peacefully during Moorish rule. Famous for its damascene  jewelry, I can still picture the quaint little shop on the narrow cobblestone street in which I purchased a pair of earrings for my mother. In Badajoz, a city near the Portuguese  border that still cherished the memory of the many sieges it endured, I lived with a family and became immersed in the Spanish way of life, which included a paella cookout in a pan so enormous that a metal bed frame was used to support the pan over the fire, as well as an evening of flamenco where I was intrigued by the dancing but was mesmerized by the delicate passion of the guitar, a revelation to me that rock and roll did not have a monopoly on that stringed instrument. Every day, I surprised myself by being able to communicate more clearly with the people in the shops and on the street, and with my host family, a sweet mom and her friendly daughter.

When I went back to school for the 10th grade, my summer experience in Spain did not magically turn me into a straight A student. But I actually volunteered to accompany my parents to art museums. I began to be more adventurous in my eating, becoming a connoisseur of olives and cheeses and ordering anything with artichoke hearts on a restaurant menu. Perhaps to the annoyance of my friends, I felt a certain sophistication that translated into a more confident approach both within the classroom and without. And I was on the path to a fluency in Spanish that remains with me to this day.

Click here to see our opportunities for travel to Spain.

Did you know that Smithsonian Journeys now offers Study Abroad for High School Students? We have programs in Spain, China, and Italy. Click for more information.

Q&A With Our Study Leader for Spain and Portugal

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Barbara York headed Smithsonian Journeys International Division until 2004. Here, she speaks with Study Leader Lana Harrigan about the food and culture of Spain and Portugal, among other things.

Barbara York: As someone who has an interest in food, do you find food a particularly good way to explore and understand a culture?

Traditional Paella Valenciana. Photo: Flickr user benjieordonez.

Traditional Paella Valenciana. Photo: Flickr user benjieordonez

Lana Harrigan: Absolutely. I’ve always been drawn to good food, but I’d never really understood—until I began to travel—that it is an essential conveyor of culture. In our food and drink lie glimpses of our history as well as our culture. In America, the Boston Tea Party is a perfect example. A simple beverage became a symbol of political oppression and a nation’s desire for freedom. With our high-speed lives, fast food has become an icon that defines one aspect of our current culture. Spain, on the other hand, still stops for lunch. When my fellow Smithsonian travelers and I sit down to a two-hour lunch of traditional foods in a shadowy restaurant, nestled amongst the narrow, twisting streets of medieval Córdoba, we truly experience Spain, its history, and its culture. When I eat bacalhao in Lisbon, it conjures up Portuguese history and fishermen braving Atlantic waters in their brightly painted boats. When I bite into a morsel of roast leg of lamb glazed with honey and dates, Moorish Spain comes alive. If food were only calories for survival, all cultures throughout history would not have gone to such lengths to prepare special food for special occasions. In all my Smithsonian lectures, I mention the food of the peoples who settled the Iberian Peninsula. Knowing what and how people ate in times past is another way to know them—and to connect with them across the centuries. (more…)

El País Vasco – Rediscovering Spain

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Allison Larkin is a Tour Director for International Seminar Design (ISDI) in Washington, D.C. She joined the ISDI team in 2007 after spending three years in Japan as a high school English teacher. She is fluent in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Japanese and has lived in Spain, France, and Japan. Her love of foreign cultures and travel has taken her all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Click here to read more about Allison.

Since I was young, my stereotypical images of Spain were of sandy beaches scorching under the Andalusian sun, dark-haired flamenco dancers enveloped in enviable multicolored layered skirts, and lazy afternoons of long meals and even longer siestas. But when I ventured to the Basque Country of northern Spain with Smithsonian Journeys, I was lucky enough to discover a different Spain, intrinsically distinct from the one a typical traveler might encounter.

The Basque Country is unlike any region I’ve visited, and this particular adventure would take us through the contemporary arts of Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the vine-clad valleys and hills of La Rioja, and into the seaside town of San Sebastian. But the highlight was traveling through the green, sinuous valleys and pine forest where Basque sculptor and artist, Agustín Ibarrola, has his home, studio, and enigmatic Bosque Pintado (Painted Forest).

El Bosque Pintado, Agustín Ibarrola. Photo: Courtesy Flickr user jlastras

El Bosque Pintado, Agustín Ibarrola. Photo: Courtesy Flickr user jlastras


La Alhambra – One Great Reason to Visit Granada

Thursday, February 19th, 2009
The interior of the Hall of the Abencerrajes of Granada's La Alhambra utilizes Mocárabe design, showing the deep impact of Islamic architecture throughout the Moorish world.

The interior of the Hall of the Abencerrajes of Granada's La Alhambra utilizes Mocárabe design, showing the deep impact of Islamic architecture throughout the Moorish world.

The original Alhambra was a primitive red stone castle used by Arabs for shelter from battle during the rule of Abdullah ibn Muhammad (r. 888-912). The tiny castle didn’t prove much of a shelter and fell to ruin. During the Nasrid Dynasty, the last Arab Muslim Dynasty in Spain, interest in the site was rekindled and a palace complex was completed there during the 13th and 14th centuries. Muslim rulers lost Granada and the Alhambra in 1492, when King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella conquered the surrounding region.

The Hall of the Abencerrajes, so named for knights that may have been beheaded there, is topped with a Mocárabe dome. Mocárabe, also known as honeycomb or stalactite work, may be representative of the cave where Muhammad received the Koran. The following inscription is written in the hall: “There is no other help than the help that comes from God, the clement and merciful One.”

La Alhambra was famously the childhood home of Katharine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII’s six wives. Today, La Alhambra is Spain’s most famous example of Islamic architecture; additions and alterations have been made to the site by Spain’s Catholic rulers since the 16th century.

Click here to learn more about Spain and how you can visit the Alhambra yourself.