A City Called Bilbo

Yes, fellow Tolkienites, you read right. There exists a city in this world called Bilbo, and it’s as awesome as the name. Located in the north of Spain in El pais vasco (Basque Country), it’s known more widely as Bilbao, but Bilbo is the name in Basque, the local language.

BILBOBUS! It never wore off seeing them. There were also Bilboats but they were sadly out of commission when we tried to go

BILBOBUS! It never wore off seeing them. There were also Bilboats but they were sadly out of commission when we tried to go

I don’t even know where to start with the crazy interesting history of this place! Split between France and Spain, the Basque Country is a small region full of spirit and unique culture that has remained true to itself for thousands of years. Example: the Basque language, Euskara, is a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language, long words comprised of all k’s, z’s and x’s.  Here are some phrases we learned this weekend:

Thank you = Eskerrik asko

Goodbye = Agur

Cheers = Topa! 

The important words to know.

Bilbao itself is a small city of 360,000, nestled in the mountains and the shore, making for some truly beautiful views. The landscape is also very different; I was amazed by the unreal green of the grass and trees, and as we flew in we were able to see the dramatic land-forms and rifts, getting a feel for the entire area. 

bilbao from above

Many people jokingly say that in Basque Country, you aren’t in Spain, and it’s not just because of the landscape: it has retained its strong cultural identity despite becoming part of Spain.  It’s true that Bilbao felt very different from Madrid for many reasons. There is a tremendous amount of Basque pride and nationalism, stronger in the Spanish side than the French side, to create a separate country. They have some pretty good reasons too beyond their cultural heritage: the Basques are doing pretty well for themselves, with the highest per capita income and lowest unemployment rate in Spain (around 14%, while Spain’s overall is a disturbing 26%). Probably the most well known nationalist organization is ETA, an armed group that has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the EU and the USA (although in 2011 they announced that they were going to stop using arms).

THAT BEING SAID now I’ll reveal that I have Basque ancestry, and not even too far back: my great-grandfather was Basque and my grandmother still has a Basque last name. I definitely got some genes from that side of the family: every time I meet someone here they say I look Spanish, and seeing all the dark haired and eyed Basques, I could easily see how I inherited that, because it certainly didn’t come from my Austrian and Hungarian side. Not to mention that I’m a strong-willed, opinionated and proud person, so maybe I got some of that from these headstrong northerners. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, but in any case, the trip held an extra element for me. I normally don’t advertise the fact that I’m part Spanish since it seems like so many Americans love to cry the second they meet someone from a distant part of their heritage, “OMG I’m Irish/Italian/German/etc too!!!” about a million generations back, with no connection to the culture. I don’t feel connected to the Basque culture at all, nor do I fluently speak Spanish, which is why I don’t feel like I can say I’m part Basque because I don’t feel it, so I only mention it if the subject comes up. But being in the Basque Country definitely sparked a desire to discover more about that part of my family, and really what made me start Spanish in university in the first place was to connect with that side of my family (I tried German, and Hungarian, man I wasn’t even gonna go near that).

Mundaka and the Basque flag

Coastal town of Mundaka and the Basque flag

Turning back to Bilbao, these days it’s most known for the Guggenheim, an art museum housed in a crazy building designed by Frank Gehry.  One of the 12 Treasures of Spain, it was on our top list of things to do while in Bilbao, but actually we never ended up going inside. Half of it was closed and we chose to spend our time on the coast, a decision which I do not regret in the least. Art museums aren’t really my thing, and I can go when I return to Bilbao for the Camino de Santiago. But anyway, the outside of the building is pretty cool.

The Gug.

The Gug.

Food was another reason I was excited to go to Bilbao, all I kept hearing was how tasty it was; and it did not disappoint. The food is delicious and fresh, full of seafood dishes and delicious white wines to accompany them. A dish that we kept turning to was rabas, aka calamari, but so much more light and tasty than any I had ever had.  Tapas are called pinxtos , and the best way to experience a night in Bilbao is to bar hop for a pintxo in each one. If you head out of the bar with your glass of wine and mill in the street with the rest of Bilbao,  you might even get to experience some local culture like we did in the form of a traveling group of Basque people singing traditional songs and meandering through the Old Town. I sadly didn’t get any photos, as my camera phone is completely dysfunctional in the dark and I don’t carry around my nice camera at night. Ah well, next time!  

Pinxtos by the sea, with the Basque flag proudly flying in the background

Pinxtos by the sea

But the true magic of Bilbao lies the surroundings. I’m not used to mountains so close to cities; whenever I see the Madrid mountains from afar I’m amazed, and they’re not even blanketed in an unreal green like those in the Basque Country. Saturday we headed to the UNESCO listed Vizcaya “Hanging” Bridge, an interesting site to see as it’s a bridge that functions unexpectedly: by transporting cars and people in a hanging chamber! Of course we giddily traveled across and walked along the water until hunger overtook us and we stopped for some rabas. 

That little pod on the left is what moves across!

That little pod on the left is what moves across!

Sunday’s coast destination was Mundaka, internationally renowned for it’s surfing scene, where the waves are perfect 1/3 of the time and people are crazy enough to surf even in February.

surfer close up

mist cliffs edited

The coast was savage and wild, the February winds stirring up huge waves that tumble and crash with enough force to bring down a break wall (not while we were there, but we saw the aftermath). The mist rose above the water like wraiths, swirling and lingering in the air until plunging down into the hungry sea again. We all stood for a solid half an hour on the outermost point staring into the tempestuous water, lost in contemplation, overwhelmed by the immensity of nature until the bitter cold forced us to head onward to a nearby fishing town and cup of hot caldo, or broth. I had noticed that every bar and restaurant was advertising Hay caldo, saying that they offered it. What’s the big deal about broth? I wondered, until I wrapped my non-functioning fingers around a two-handled bowl and experienced the warming properties of a bowl of hot caldo, inside and out. Because it wasn’t a boring old chicken broth; each bar/restaurant has their own recipe and the one I had just the right amount of hint of seafood to be tasty without overwhelming.

Boats in the harbor at an old resort town

Boats in the harbor at an old resort town

"We'll always have Bilbao" on Calle Libertad

“We’ll always have Bilbao” on Calle Libertad

Where has natural beauty blown you away? Have you ever reconnected with a part of your family’s history? 

A Pilgrimage to London

Full disclaimer: I’m a huge Anglophile. I watch mainly British television (sometimes so much that I accidentally say some words with a British accent – I’ve been called out on it before by English friends, I’m not lying), listen to a shit ton of British music (just saw the Arctic Monkeys for the first time in Madrid but can’t wait to see them again in a smaller setting), I love the accents (OK, I know I’m not even remotely alone here) as well as the sayings (I think ‘taking the piss’ is my current favorite, meaning ‘mock/joke, be unreasonable’); I even wrote my undergraduate thesis about Anglo-Saxon burial practices (the medieval occupants of England). So it’s truly amazing that I still hadn’t managed to get there until this year. I have this stupid hangup of doing things 100% when I really love them; I didn’t want London to just be another stop on a Eurotrip or just a weekend trip from Madrid, I wanted to do it ‘justice’, staying for at least a week and then continuing on to travel throughout England, going to all the archaeological sites I had studied as well as places I’d been seeing in films and series for years. (BTW, that’s still the summer plan, stay tuned for extreme nerd posts starting in about August).

Big Ben 2

HOWEVER, when I was left with 5 extra days by myself at the end of traveling in Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands with my boyfriend (stay tuned for more on our awesome trip!), I knew I would want to look forward to something after he went back to China to finish his English teaching contract there. Buses from Brussels to London were 44 euros, and I had friends to see and stay with in London. I thought it would be only fitting to start off 2014 with a trip I had been wanting to take for so long. I took the plunge, treating those five days as only an introduction to London so as not to get overwhelmed. There’s still so much I want to go back and see (that’s what this summer is for!), but what I did see made me fall in love.

mews

I never got that wide-eyed, excited, ‘first time in New York’ feeling before, frantically looking around exclaiming, “I’ve seen this in movies, oh my god, it’s really like that!” But now I totally understand it, because that was me in London. Walking around by myself on that first day after an overnight bus from Brussels (which I highly do not recommend), I must have looked ridiculous, as I was working on two hours of sleep but still insanely giddy, snapping photos of everything while murmuring to myself, “I’m in London, I’m in London…” It was love at first sight.

street scene with black cab

I’ve visited many cities at this point, and I always think to myself, ‘Could I live here?’ I could see myself doing stints in Krakow, Amsterdam, Prague, Budapest, but not on the long-long term. Even Madrid, where I’m currently living, is not a place I could see myself living for more than a year or two. London was the first city I’ve visited that I could see myself living in for a long time. So much in fact that I was already daydreaming not only about when I was going to return (if is not even a question, it’s when) but about how I could live there (I may have visited University College London’s campus, where I’ve been hallucinating about attending – I say hallucinating because the price tag is not cheap). It was a guttural reaction that I wasn’t entirely prepared for, even though I should have been. Also yes, I’m sure  a decent part of this was the fact that I was in an English-speaking country for the first time in three and a half months; even though I have no problem getting around in Spanish, it’s not my native language.

Covent Garden

Covent Garden

But it wasn’t just seeing the beautiful skyline or visiting the iconic sights and all the nerd hot spots (entire post coming on that next, sorry not sorry) that made me start daydreaming of buying some good rain boots and settling across the Channel (seriously that would be my first purchase, I thought I was going to get trench foot walking around in rainy and finicky London weather). It’s not like I would be living at 221 Baker Street and working in Knockturn Alley. London is a mecca for BBC worshiping nerds like me, but it’s also so much more. The level of diversity in its people was amazing, especially after coming from less diverse countries (Poland, Spain). Restaurants packed together – sushi next to Thai food next to Indian food next to a cozy French cafe. Heaven! I became ridiculously excited in Camden, the alternative neighborhood and market in which I wanted to buy everything (I had to be dragged away).

Camden Market

Camden Market

London had everything I had been missing in Madrid: constantly in motion and alive, no infuriating siesta, and a huge, albeit expensive, metro system that actually made sense and could get you to where you wanted to go fairly easily, even if I couldn’t pronounce the names of all the stops-Southwark seriously threw me for a loop (fellow Americans, its Suthark: see this super helpful link: http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2014/01/pronounce-deliberately-offputting-british-place-names/).  The cosmopolitan nature of the city reminded me in many ways of New York,  but with a more complex, deeper history and without the ever-so-helpful grid system that it’s easy to take for granted in New York. Nope, this was completely absent in London, not to mention that streets seem to have an affinity to change their names every few blocks, as if they are amused by seeing tourists bumble around in circles.

Even the big streets change names constantly...like what is that even.

Even the big streets change names constantly…like what is that even.

Place has always been pretty much the first thing I think of when making big decisions; I chose my university based on its location in New York, I moved to Madrid based on the location in Spain, not the job, and I dreaded applying to graduate schools in places I didn’t want to live for the 8-10 years it takes to do a PhD in the U.S. (jury’s still out on this one, the U.S. application cycle has ended for this year without a single application sent in from me).

I want to live in a place that makes me excited every day to be there, which was New York for me, and I know would be London as well. Yeah I hear what you’re all saying, ‘but you were only there five days! And as a tourist! That’s not enough to know if you want to live there. Besides, it’s expensive and would be hard to live there.” WELL. People move to cities they’ve never been to all the time (I’d never been to Madrid before moving here), and the energy I got just by being there is enough to tell me that I need to spend more time there. People idealize living in New York all the time, and I’ll admit it was difficult to live there and that it’s not for everyone. But when you love a place enough, you’ll try everything to make it work. I’ve already got practice living in another hugely expensive metropolis, so I think I’m good to go. Besides, I’ve already moved to a country where I wasn’t fluent in the language, so London would be a piece of cake.

old car in chelsea

That and the fact that my flight back to Madrid was the first time when I wasn’t excited to get on a plane. Maybe it was the anger still seething inside me at Ryanair’s ridiculous fees (don’t even wanna talk about it), but I really REALLY didn’t want to get on that plane and leave London. Normally, take-off is one of my favorite feelings ever. The rush as the wheels leave the ground and the knowledge that you’re going to be somewhere else (relatively) soon  is an addicting sensation that makes me shamelessly grin every time, even if I’m going somewhere I’ve been. It means change. Sometimes it means seeing friends and family I haven’t seen in a while, sometimes it means a new country. I’m almost sad I don’t remember my first flight and my first experience with this wonderful feeling.

However in the early hours of a Tuesday when I had to be working in less than 7 hours, trapped inside the bus that is a Ryanair flight, the only thing I felt was melancholy (and residual Ryanair fueled anger) as I stared out of my tiny plastic window, silently whispering a ‘See you later’ to London.

Londoners are quite creative when it comes to naming their architecture: The Cheese Grater, the Gerkin, and half in the picture, the Walkie Talkie. On the other side of the river is the Glass Testicle.

Londoners are quite creative when it comes to naming their architecture: The Cheese Grater, the Gerkin, and half in the picture, the Walkie Talkie. On the other side of the river is the Glass Testicle.

In Belgium, we met a Flemish woman who was a few months away from picking up her life and moving to Argentina indefinitely. After a week in Buenos Aires five years ago, she fell madly in love with the city and returned a few times in the following years. She knew she had to move there, that visiting wasn’t enough, and began the plans to open her own BnB there. A few years later and she is now on the cusp of moving, and couldn’t be happier. She said to us, “I’ve only got one life to live, so I’m going to go live it.” Which are wise words to live by, no matter what the topic, but I’m gonna apply it to London. Why shouldn’t I move there in the future? I’ve got one life to live.

kynance alley

Does place matter a lot to you, or is it more about the people or your job (obviously a balance between all three is the ideal!)? Have you ever fallen instantly in love with a place? I know I’m not alone, tell me where!

Feliz Navidad: Winter Holiday Traditions in Spain

So I know it seems like the holidays are over, but in Spain the holiday season stretches until January 6th, so I’m not late with this post! Read on to learn more about the interesting holiday traditions around this time of year:

The Basics

December 24th & 25th: Nochebuena, (Christmas Eve) and Navidad (Christmas Day)

On Christmas Eve, people mainly eat dinner with their immediate family, whereas on Christmas Day people visit their extended families in other villages and children receive presents from Papa Noel (Father Christmas aka Santa). Getting coal if a child is bad is a tradition as well, although it’s not real coal, but candy (what a punishment)!

December 31st & January 1st: Noche Vieja (New Years Eve) and New Years Day

In Spain, people generally stay at home with their family to ring in the New Year, and after midnight go out on the town with their friends.

At home, people follow the hugely popular tradition of eating 12 grapes to count down the last 12 seconds before the New Year. Sitting front of the television every December 31st are millions of Spaniards watching as a news anchor eats the twelve grapes while simultaneously furiously stuffing their cheeks with grapes until they look like chipmunks. One year, the announcer messed up, causing a nationwide scandal that is still remembered. There are strict rules surrounding the eating of the grapes, unless you are a child or old, in which case you’re excempt. But you are now allowed to peel the grapes or take out the seeds – cheating! The grapes must be obtained in advance, because if you wait to the last minute either they’ll all be gone or you’ll be left with the hugest grapes at the store, an undesirable outcome indeed!

January 6th: El Día de los Reyes Magos (3 Wise Men Day)

This is the day the Three Wise Men reached the baby Jesus to give him their infamous presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Here though, they’re called the Reyes Magos, which translates to the Magic Kings, which personally I think is a way cooler name than Three Wise Men (who wouldn’t want to be a king instead of just a wise man?). Spanish children call the Magic Kings by name, which surprised me at first because I definitely never even thought about them having names.

Traditionally, this is the day of the present exchange and only recently have presents begun to be exchanged on Christmas Day.

Seems like a win-win for kids, not only is there a longer school vacation (which starts before Christmas and goes until the 8th of January), but they get presents on two days!

Belenes

Belenes, or Nativity Scenes, are traditional and very popular tradition in Spain. Many students and teachers urged me to go see the Belen of the city at the Town Hall near the Main Square, and some proudly showed me photos on their phones of their own Belens that they had set up in their own homes.

Now while we do have Nativity Scenes in the United States, set up outside churches, or sometimes little ones in people’s homes, Spain takes it to another level completely. The reason they have the name Belen (or Bethlehem), is because it’s not just the scene of Jesus in the manger, but the entire city of Bethlehem on Christmas Day.

2013-12-17 11.11.15

Sheep being led by shepherds on the outskirts of town, little intricately made houses with balconies, street scenes, and bridges under which real water flows. Of course the centerpiece is the manger scene and the three wise men.

Belen manger scene

I was blown away by the Belen in Madrid. It was so intricate, so carefully put together, one could only imagine how long it took to put together. One of my students showed me a small one in his house that he said took him 6 hours alone! I love models like this of all kinds, whether it be an aerial view of a city or Christmas villages, so I was super excited about this awesome tradition!

FOOD

The best part of any holiday is always the food (I dare someone to disagree with me on this one, and okay you can’t say family), and Spain does this quite well. Europeans in general love their pastries, and Spain is no different, especially around the holidays. I asked my students to give me some examples of traditional Christmastime foods, and I was immediately bombarded with voices from all over the classroom yelling out different foods. And they were all pastries, something I can definitely get on board with.

Here are the main ones:

Turrón

turron

Basically a brick traditionally made of honey and almonds, turrón comes from a town called Jijona turrón in Valencia. Actually it’s an Arabic food, as many of the foods you can find in this region of Spain, since it had (and has) a heavy Arabic influence. I was lucky enough to try some turrón from the town itself (one of the teachers brought it back from a weekend trip there), so I’ve had the most authentic turrón possible, and I can attest that it is pretty delicious! Today turrón comes in many different flavors from coconut to chocolate, but the almond is the original.

Rascón

A giant ring of pastry with fruits dotting the top sometimes filled with custard, my students were very divided on whether they hated or loved it. My personal verdict still remains to be seen, as I haven’t had it yet!

woman cutting fudge

Marzipan

marzipan

This one isn’t just Spanish, as I’ve had marzipan in other European countries before. But it still is a traditional Christmastime treat. I’m not a huge fan of the taste, but they sure are cute in their little figurine form!

 

So there you have it, some of the holiday traditions in Spain! What are some of your favorite traditions?

 

Madrid Mondays: Christmas in Madrid

I have to be honest in prefacing this post; I haven’t been feeling the Christmas spirit too much this year. Maybe it’s because it’s my first time away from home during the holidays (gotta admit, Thanksgiving was kinda sad, though we did have a successful turkey dinner to make up for it), or maybe it’s the lack of snow, which I associate with winter and Christmas. While I notoriously hate on the snow (driving, shoveling, generally just dealing with it isn’t something I enjoy – living in Buffalo definitely instilled a deep seeded resentment of snow in me), now that it’s not here, I miss it. It is nice to sit outside in the park in a sunny day with only a light jacket on and not freeze every time you have to go outside. But there also isn’t the need for peppermint hot chocolate or hot gingerbread tea while cozied up with a blanket watching Christmas movies or making cookies, which I love!

So I put in this disclaimer because I’m not sure if it’s Madrid or me that’s not in the Christmas mood, but I have to say that I just don’t think Madrid is a very ‘Christmasy’ city (despite being on National Geographic’s list for best Christmas lights in Europe…first time I’ve disagreed with trusty NG, but I think they’re confusing quantity for quality). Sorry for any Madrileños that I might offend with this post, but I gotta speak my mind! Stay tuned for a post about Spanish holiday traditions in general – they have some really interesting and cool ones! Here I just wanted to share how Madrid specifically is during this time of year.

Markets

Now I was really excited to see the Christmas Market in Plaza Mayor, or the Main Square, as it was my first Christmas market in Europe! Unfortunately I chose (okay, didn’t really choose, it just kind of happened that way) to go on the Saturday of a long holiday weekend when everyone from the surrounding areas had come into Madrid to partake in the festivities. So the excessive crowds were my fault for not planning better. But when I finally reached my destination, I was a bit disappointed to find more of a carnival than a Christmas market. The stalls were mainly crammed with people selling wigs and novelty hats instead of traditional Spanish artisan booths like I expected. I lost count of how many older men I saw wearing bright neon wigs – still don’t understand the deal with Christmastime + wigs. And if you needed any kind of balloon shaped with a cartoon character or an opportunity to take photos with bullfighters, look no further than the market carnival.

Also sorely missing from the Christmas market was food, which just truly upset me. There were dessert foods being sold, such as traditional pastries and cakes, but in terms of actual street food, nothing. I’ve never been to a market that doesn’t sell food! What is this!?

pm stalls - hats

Looks more like a theme park than a holiday market

Trees”

Okay, this is one place where I might sound like a brat, but I just have to say that a giant, yellow metal cone is NOT a tree.

yellow cone

It doesn’t sparkle, it doesn’t twinkle, it just feels cold and neon. This is the main city ‘tree’ and I’m not the only one in thinking it’s ridiculous (I have some Spaniards on my side with this one, so it’s not just me!).

Also, since Vodafone (phone company) basically owns the city of course they have their own Christmas cone affectionately adorned with Vodafone symbols right outside the huge McDonalds on the street known as ‘prostitute street’. YAY CHRISTMAS.

Christmas capitalism at its best. Merry Crisismas!

Christmas capitalism at its best. Merry Crisismas!

Questions I would like to ask Madrid’s Christmas lights

Photo credit: ogoblog.com

What skyline are you?! Definitely not Madrid’s!!
Photo credit: ogoblog.com

ufo lights, yellow cone

Colorful UFOs, are you trying to crash into your friend the giant yellow cone? Be nice, he’s sad he’s not a real Christmas tree

 

What are you even?! Keys, bubbles, what? And why is there a small army of you that feels like it's going to fall down on me at any second?

What are you even?! Keys, bubbles, what? And why is there a small army of you that feels like it’s going to fall down on me at any second?

 I like you. You I have no questions for because you make sense.

I like you. You I have no questions for because you make sense.

Why didn’t I like the Christmas lights? Do I sound like a Scrooge? Mainly I thought they were too tacky and flashy, I like more understated but elegant lights, and the colorful, flashing, and downright weird lights were amusing but didn’t bring out the holiday spirit in me; it felt more like Las Vegas.

Belen of Madrid 

This one was my favorite part of Christmastime in Madrid. A recreation of Bethlehem on Christmas, it’s a Spanish tradition to build these ‘Belens’ or Nativity Scenes every year. But it’s not just the manger and barn, but the entire town, and it’s pretty damn impressive.

Belen boy shepherd

I love this traditional Spanish building on the hill!

I love this traditional Spanish building on the hill!

So there you have it, Christmas in Madrid, Spain! I know I sounded like I was being super negative, and I kept racking my brain to think of some parts of Christmas in Madrid that I really liked to offset the negativity, but this is my blog and imma tell it how it is! Of course the holidays are really all about family and those traditions, not about lights and markets. Stay tuned for a guide to the plethora of Spanish holiday traditions coming soon (hint: lots of delicious pastries).

Ironically, I actually wrote this from a plane headed to Kraków, before heading up to Warsaw where I am actually going to be spending Christmas. I’m looking forward to seeing how Christmas is celebrated in Poland, where I expect there to be snow!

What’s an essential part of the holiday season for you? What’s your city/town like during this time of year?

Madrid Mondays: Relaxing in Retiro

So I posted a little while back about wanting to write more about Madrid. I had in my mind ‘Madrid Mondays’ to write about Madrid every week! Although I have a decent amount of free time, last month I was writing every day for National Novel Writing Month, and although I managed to complete the challenge (50,000 words in 30 days, whoot!!) I was quite burnt out from writing after that! So I’ve vowed to start anew and hopefully actually keep Madrid Mondays going! (or..erm..started..)

What better place to start than one of my favorite places in Madrid: El Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat). 

retiro bench edited

There are many parks in Madrid, in fact it has one of the highest acreage of green space of any European city! The grandest (and in my opinion best) of them all is El Retiro, which is conveniently located just a few blocks from where I live. Score! The park was born as the backyard of a monastery over 500 years ago, in 1505, and began to take more of a formal shape following King Philip II’s move to Madrid in 1561, finally making Madrid the capital. Since then it was constantly updated and enlarged until it became the labyrinth of paths and green lawns that it is today.

Some of the many paths in Retiro

Some of the many paths in Retiro


 

Squirrels! You can go see them in the Retiro!” One of my students exclaimed once during a lesson on animals. This wasn’t the first time I had heard about the mythical squirrels in Retiro Park, in fact. Several Spaniards had already recommended that I go there to view the little tailed creatures. The first time someone told me that I could see them there, I straight up laughed.

“But…squirrels..you can see them anywhere!” I answered with mirth. This was in my first few weeks in Madrid when I had other things on my mind besides noticing the city’s rodent population.  But then after I had been in Madrid for a few weeks I realized something. I hadn’t seen a squirrel yet. And then suddenly all the tourists in New York parks stopping to gawk and take photos of what I deemed to be perfectly normal and at times undesirable animals made sense. (I will admit I was guilty of squirrel photography in Poland, but the squirrels there were red with cute tufty ears! They needed to be documented.) I tried then to explain the squirrel situation in the United States. “Squirrels are like rats…they’re everywhere! Not special.” I said, which didn’t seem to help at all and I realized maybe rats weren’t as abundant over here either. I was still urged to go see the squirrels.

Adorable Polish squirrel

Adorable Polish squirrel

I spend a lot of time running in Retiro Park but I have yet to see a squirrel. Liars! I was deceived!

Luckily for visitors, squirrels aren’t Retiro’s only draw. The main event is a large rectangular man-made lake over which a statue of a man on a horse towers while park-goers in rowboats navigate the waters below. Around this hub congregate all the usual suspects at  a touristy location, from knock-off bag sellers to puppeteers, which seem to be a European thing; I remember seeing them as a child in Paris (of course that’s one of the things I remember of my first time in Europe).

retiro lake and statue

A walk through its 350 acres can lead to stumbles upon a variety of cute little buildings, including some that aren’t so little. My first time exploring the park I happened upon a sign that said ‘Palacio de Cristal’. “Yes, park. Crystal Palace, show me that.” I thought, and meandered down the path. I was not disappointed.

crystal palace outside edited

girl crystal palace bw

As with many parks, there are musicians tucked into every leafy nook, their tunes softly wafting up the paths at all times of day and into the night until the park closes. In my first day of explorations, I happily stumbled upon a smiling man playing El Valse de Amélie on the accordion and a man playing bagpipes. Spanish, bagpipes, what? You might ask. The northwestern region, Galicia, actually has a lot of Celtic influence, including playing the bagpipes!

bagpipe player

Retiro also claims the only statue of Lucifer (available for public viewing) in the world, a work which was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I had the misfortune to ‘read’ while I was in my wayward first years of undergrad while I was still trying to figure out what to study. As if being the only statue of the devil in existence wasn’t enough, those who put it up in Madrid in the 1920s (it was sculpted in 1878 but was housed in El Prado first) decided to locate it exactly 666 meters above sea level. Getting flashbacks to The Omen now…

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The park is also home to The Forest of Remembrance, or The Forest of the Departed, which pays homage to the victims of the March 2004 (earning the attacks the moniker 11-M) terrorist bombings in Madrid, when bombs exploded on four commuter trains, killing 192 people. In remembrance of each person, there are 192 cypress tress in the forest.

Finally, there are also gardens more in the royal style located nearest to El Prado, the world-famous art museum.

Gumdrop Trees

Gumdrop Trees

El Retiro is without a doubt one of my favorite places in Madrid; I’d urge any first time visitor to make a bee-line there as soon as possible!

Retiro leaves

Are you a fan of parks too? Where is your favorite?