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Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain
I recently earned my Masters in History at NWMSU and am now working as a language assistant in a Spanish elementary school.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Story of the Ham and the Palace

Cody and I made a new purchase this week: a cured ham from the local grocery store. Usually such hams are quite expensive as it is one of Spain's most renowned delicacies. This one was cheap because several of the grocery stores are offering discounts on their hams. Ours came with two types of sausage, cured pork, and some Danish butter cookies. We also bought a stand for the ham and a knife set. We have been eating from it all week, making sandwiches, or just having it plain. Here I am with the new addition:
The students at school are studying for the Trinity exam, an oral test determined to judge their comprehension of the English language. This means I have been studying with the kids for the exam all week. I take them outside the classroom individually and ask them questions. Some of them are very good. I asked one kid where he went on his holiday and he said, "I went to Asturias." "What did you see?" I asked as a follow-up question. "I saw," he said, then paused and shrugged with a confused look on his face, "I saw Asturias."

I had a long weekend this week. I normally have Fridays off and Monday was the Day of the Immaculate Conception while today is Constitution Day. Sunday I had lunch with Cody, Liz, James, and Priscilla. Our group was smaller this week as the others either went home for the break or on trips. I ate paella (a traditional Spanish dish from Valencia made with seafood, rice, and seasoned with saffron), roast lamb, and had something called leche frita for dessert (literally fried milk). I also tried a dish this week of squid and rice, with the squid's ink. I liked it and will probably order it again.

Sunday night a group of us went in to Madrid and walked around. We went to Plaza Mayor, which was extremely crowded and filled with stalls selling Christmas decorations:
We then walked to the Royal Palace and Catedral de la Almudena:
Yesterday, Cody, Jacqui, and I took a train to El Escorial in the northwest corner of the Madrid province. The train took about two hours to get there as we made several stops along the way. It had rained earlier that day, so a thick fog stood over everything. The town is situated in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and is named after the sixteenth-century palace of King

Felipe II (Philip II), the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain). Felipe II ruled Spain through the peak of its imperial power, and the granduer of his palace shows this. It was built between 1563 and 1584 and served as a summer hunting home for Felipe and his family, and also holds a monastery. This symbolized the combined rule of the state and the Catholic Church in Spain (which was evidenced by the Spanish Inquisition). Here are some pictures of the palace, San Lorenzo de El Escorial:
We went inside the palace, which was amazing. We first walked through the basement, where several artifacts from the construction of the palace were on display, including the original blueprints and pieces of the wooden cranes used to lift the stones. The next rooms housed some private art collections of the palace. These were mostly replicas of original artworks, but some were unique, including a large painting by El Greco. After this, we entered the main part of the palace and saw the bedroom of Felipe II. The bed he died in (in the year 1598) was still in its original location and had never been moved. We also walked through a door with ornate wooden carvings and into a long room lined with windows overlooking the gardens. This was "the strolling room" where Felipe II and his children (including future king Felipe III) would take walks during the sunset. We also walked through the mausoleum where many of the royal princes and princesses are buried. In a larger chamber lie the bodies of all the Spanish monarchs from Carlos I (1500-1558, whose body was moved here by his son) to Alfonso XIII (1846-1941, who was ousted from the throne a few years before the Spanish Civil War). The mausoleum included many marble statues and tombs. We walked from this room to the central cathedral of the monastery. This was one of the most impressive cathedrals I have ever been in. It followed the desornamentado architectural style of the outside of the church, which means it was not adorned with many decorative pieces. Instead, it was enormous with what seemed to be limitless space moving upwards to the top of the domed roof. The altar was equally large, reaching nearly to the faraway ceiling and containing several original Renaissance paintings of the life of Christ. From the cathedral, we walked to the courtyard and into the private library of Felipe II. This was a long room with thousands of gold-leafed books lining the walls. Above the bookcases were paintings of several Greek and Roman philosphers and mythological figures. Paintings of the seven muses covered the ceiling, and in the center of the room were lined up several globes and a Ptolemaic sphere of the heavens.

After leaving the palace, we walked around town, looking for a place to eat. The town was quite nice (it appeared to be a wealthy area) and we found a restaurant where I had octopus. Here is a picture of the streets of El Escorial:
Today I wanted to go to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (considered one of the three greatest art museums of Madrid along with the Prado and Reina Sofia). I got there around four o'clock, but decided to go to the Prado instead when I saw the line reached three blocks from the entrance. (The museum was having a special exhibition that day). First, I went to Parque del Retiro and saw the Crystal Palace, a decorative element of the park:

At the Prado, I saw the rest of the Goya paintings I hadn't seen last time, including his black paintings: Saturn Devouring His Son, Fight With Clubs, and The Dog. These were dark-themed portraits of mythology and the Bible with themes of cannibalism, unending battle, and loneliness. These were done when Goya grew older and more reclusive and originally decorated his own dining room. I also saw his paintings, The Second of May and The Third of May, which showed the Spanish uprising against the Mamelukes (Turkish soldiers who fought for France in the Napoleonic Wars) and the equally brutal reaction of the French soldiers the following day. This is the most famous work of Spanish nationalist art. I also saw several paintings by the Italian Renaissance painters Raphael and Bocaccio as well as the German Renaissance painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer, including his famous self-portrait with gloves. The bizarre works of the early Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch, were also at the museum, including his most famous painting, the triptych titled, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The painting depicts heaven, an earth full of sin, and hell. It was painted in the early 1500s, but resembles something from the surrealist period of the early 2oth century. There are so many details and strange images that it would take nearly an hour to take everything in. Some examples are a fish eating a man, people carrying giant strawberries on their backs, and an animal somewhere between a kangaroo, a dog, and a rabbit. While I was walking through the museum's room of Spanish historic-themed art, I saw someone I thought looked familiar. I realised after a few minutes that it was Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer for The Strokes. He was talking with a member of his other band about a painting of a woman who refused to kiss her dead husband's body at the funeral. "Sounds familiar," he said. Apparently, he and his side-project, Little Joy, are having a concert in Madrid tomorrow night.
After the museum, I walked around Paseo del Prado and looked at the odd Madrid Christmas lights and Christmas trees. I plan to travel through the city sometime, taking pictures of all the Christmas trees (one is made of several pieces of illuminated smoked glass, another of pink flowers, and another looks like a pyramid with four LED screens displaying a moving game of Pac-Man). After this, I returned to Alcalá, ate at a kebab place, and returned to my apartment.
I have a short week this week, return for a full week in which I work all five days (I told Emma I would work her Friday so she could fly to England early for Christmas break). After that, I am done for three weeks. Cody and I bought plane tickets to Rome for the 29th of December and will be spending nine days there, touring the city over New Year's and visiting nearby places, such as Florence.


  1. Wow, what cool trips you are doing. That's also cool you saw Fabrizio Moretti at the museum. I'm listing to "Little Joy" as I write this. Are you going to see them play? Rome sounds like fun!
    Keep your eyes out for packages. I know we sent one and so did aunt Debbie.

  2. Great post Eric! It's amazing to me what you are getting to see. That leg of ham picture is great!

  3. Ohhhh, look at the gardens! Beautiful. I was blog hopping through links and came upon yours. Sounds wonderful in Spain. Happy Holidays!