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Un Semestre en España

a travel blog by Laura Hanson

I am studying abroad in Bilbao, Spain from January to May 2010!!

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One Week until Spain

Minnetonka, United States

In exactly one week I will be getting up to leave for Spain! I'm flying to JFK airport in New York and then leaving from there to Madrid for a three day orientation. It still doesn't feel like I'm leaving, and the realization that I'm actually spending 4 1/2 months in a different country probably wont hit me until I actually arrive in Spain.

Like any other person who's just about to change their life, I feel super excited (I get to go to school directly across the river from the Guggenheim, I get to live in one of the best food regions in Spain, I get to travel, etc. etc), nervous (who will I be friends with?, how the hell am I going to be able to communicate with people?), and am suffering from a serious case of cold feet (why would I stop my life and leave all my friends and family to travel there?, I'm seriously not ready to do this!). Ultimately I know that my trip will be amazing, so right now I just need to focus on not forgetting to pack anything (which will for sure happen)...I guess the countdown is down!!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on December 30, 2009 from Minnetonka, United States
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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Orientation in Madrid

Madrid, Spain

So I finally made it to Spain! Yesterday I landed in Madrid, after barely making my connection from JFK to Madrid, only to find that all of my luggage was left behind in New York. Thankfully my luggage arrived at the hotel today, which was perfect because I was starting to feel very smelly! Anyways...my orientation group is about 15 - 25 girls who are either studying in Santander, Salamanca, or Bilbao. From noon until 5:30 yesterday we had free time, so the girls who had all arrived and I all went out for lunch which was fun! I realized that I'm pretty good at understanding the drink menu, but that was about it... last night we took a bus tour of Madrid and three of my Bilbao roommates went out to dinner with my and we had fun eating paella and drinking sangria.

This morning we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, and went to the Prado museum...it was fun and interesting to see all the pictures that I learned about in my spanish classes in real life! This afternoon we had free time and my roommate and I discovered that our favorite part of the hotel are the electronic shades in our room, which is definitely helping us recover from jet lag. Our group then went to Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso and Dali art, which was for sure more of my style of art. We were able to see the Guernika picture which was huge and amazing, and even more exciting because my group is visting Guernika next Friday.

The weather is a lot colder than I planned, but I'm still enjoying the people (or most of them) and being able to have a lot of free time to walk around and explore the city! Tomorrow we are going to Toledo for the day and Sunday we're finally heading to Bilbao!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 8, 2010 from Madrid, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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Holy Toledo!

Toledo, Spain

So we woke up this morning and went to Toledo, which is about an hour south of Madrid. It was really beautiful there and they said the city has existed for thousands of years. We took a walking tour, and I learned quickly why the term "Holy Toledo" was coined because the whole tour was basically looking at churches and mosques and such...not really anything I'm remotely interested in, but it was still fun to walk around the cobblestone streets and look at the architecture. It was also really cool to see El Greco's masterpiece and hang out in the little town squares, which reminded me of something you would see in either Italy or England. Since it was so cold out, there were barely any people in the streets when we started out tour which was a little eerie, and made me think that if vampires existed in ancient cities, like they do in New Moon, they for sure would be lurking in Toledo. Tomorrow we finally head to Bilbao and get to meet our host families so I'm very excited!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 9, 2010 from Toledo, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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First Impressions of Bilbao

Bilbao, Spain

This morning we woke up around 7am in Toledo and after breakfast, we took the coach bus back to Madrid, and were dropped of at the public bus station. We took the ALSA bus, a Spanish version of the Greyhound, to Bilbao, which is about a 4 1/2 hour bus ride. As we started to approach Bilbao, I started to internally freak out because what did I see looking out my window? SNOW. Uhg and I thought that I had left all the snow behind in Minnesota. But immediately after we crossed the Bilbao city limits, all the snow suddenly disappeared and I was happy and relieved to see green grass and even some palm trees.

My host mother Jone, or Juana in Spanish, is very kind and my roommate Summer and I decided that she looks super fun and laid back...and I'm guessing purely on initial judgment, that she was quite the party girl back in her day. Anyway..she introduced herself and immediately established that she doesn't speak any English at all...this will be interesting. We drove back to her apartment, which is a sort of suburb of Bilbao, and I love it..it's super cozy and clean here, and each of our rooms are more modern and sort of Scandinavian in design and decoration. She made us pasta and fed us ice cream cake and peaches for dessert, and I have a feeling that I will return to the States about 500lbs heavier with all this food! After settling in, Jone showed us how to get to the metro from her House, and we were able to walk down to the sea! Yep, I live about a mile and a half from the Bay of Biscay..

Tomorrow we're meeting up with the rest of the girls in the city center for a little tour and shopping. It will be interesting because I've never taken the metro before and Summer barely speaks Spanish..an adventure for sure!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 10, 2010 from Bilbao, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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First Impressions of Bilbao Continued

Bilbao, Spain

So today I had a new first...I took my first metro/subway ride! At first I was nervous, but we ended up riding it so much today, by this evening I was feeling like an old pro. Summer and I met up with the other Bilbao girls: Arielle, Brittany, and Natasha this morning and took a little walking tour of Bilbao with our site director. I love downtown Bilbao! It is clean, and beautiful and perfect...probably the most beautiful city I've ever been to. All the buildings are old and sort of french looking, and three sides of the city are bordered by rolling, snow capped hills and the other side faces the sea. There is a big river that splits the town in half; the new part on one half, the old part or casco viejo, on the other. People seriously fill the streets even in the middle of the day, and the shopping is amazing! The only hard part so far of living here is the fact that we're 25 minutes away from downtown by metro, and a ten minute walk to the metro station on top of that..making quick trips to town complicated.

Tomorrow we're doing our orientation at the university and get to meet more international students studying there!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 11, 2010 from Bilbao, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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The First Important Aspect of Spanish Culture: Art

Guernica y Luno, Spain

Yesterday the weather was horrible! Not only was it cold and rainy, but we had to battle pretty much straight line wind and ended up seeing broken umbrellas strewn all over the sidewalks and in the garbage all over the city. To avoid the weather outside, we took a tour of the Guggenheim museum..which is beautiful. I don't think that I have been in such an architecturally amazing building; the perfect combination of metal, stone, and glass. The art inside is amazing...it honors all modern art from sculptures by Richard Serra, to the fine art of Gauguin and Picasso, to architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Today we went to Guernica, Guernika in Spanish, and visited the Peace Museum there. I think that if you ever visit Spain and are in Basque Country, you should visit this museum. There are a lot of museums in the world that house some of best art work or most famous art work in history, there are some that house interesting historical artifacts, there are some that are just very interactive and fun, but very rarely do these museums, even the most famous ones in the world, truly evoke such strong emotion that you leave feeling changed. This one does. The museum itself is small and plain, but the message, that universal call for peace and the remembrance of such a violent act could quite possibly touch even the most stoic individual. It was beautiful in every definition and worth the trip! We also visited the Biodiversity Center on the nature reserve on the outskirts of Guernica. It was more of a lighthearted trip and the center was amazing! It was just fun to walk through and look at all the pictures and wildlife they use to teach biodiversity!

I had a great time on our first excursion! After we got back from our day trip, Summer, Natasha, and I were able to participate and experience another important aspect of Spanish culture: soccer. This evening we were walking around looking for a little pastry to tide us over until we ate dinner, when we came upon a HUGE crowd of people in front of the Hotel Carlton in the Plaza Mayoua. Well it turns out that the Bilbao soccer team, Club Atletico, is playing against Real Madrid tomorrow, one of the top teams in Spain and the world. Knowing that some of the best soccer players in the world were coming to Bilbao was almost too much for me, and it was amazing watching them walk off the bus in my city! I was freaking out the whole time, and Summer even let me sit on her shoulders so I could get a better look at them over the crowd! I hear that Bilbao and other Spanish cities go crazy when there's a match and I can't wait to participate tomorrow!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 15, 2010 from Guernica y Luno, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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Fútbol, Clubs, and Cool Kids

Bilbao, Spain

The other night I was talking about how we were able to see Real Madrid, one of my favorite teams, enter their hotel amongst a huge crowd of fans and onlookers. Well yesterday was the big game, and it was a very interesting experience. Summer and I were leaving the metro in the main Plaza, right by the Hotel Carlton, when we once again stumbled upon huge crowds, this time waiting for the team to leave their hotel. We waited for about a half hour with the crowd, and I was amazed to see that not only was it teenagers and young adults waiting to see these famous players, but the elderly had come out, as well as toddlers. Families and couples maneuvered strollers and stood in the middle of the road - and then I understood the importance of soccer in Spain. Just as Summer and I were about to give up and continue shopping, the team left the hotel, and we had perfect spots to see them enter and walk down the aisle of the coach bus. Of course I was waving, and screaming, and pointing out all my favorite players to Summer, thinking that everyone else was following suit. Not until all of the players had entered the bus and sat down did I actually look around and realize this was not the case. I was surrounded by people wearing the red and white stripes of the Bilbao team; people were spitting at the bus, children were energetically flipping the bird at the bus, and waving basque and anti-madrid flags...oops! That's when I realized why the riot police were present around the bus and why police with large guns were stationed at every corner of the bus route. Basque Country is largely known for its Basque nationalism and strong provincial pride, and the rest of the night I could see Basque flags and the red and white of Club Athletico throughout town. Good thing Bilbao won, or else there would of been heads rolling for sure.

Last night some of the girls and I had our first weekend night out in Spain. Most people say the nightlife here is crazy and goes until the sun goes up, so of course we were all excited. We had decided to try going to this hip-hop club called Club Fever, which ended up being in the middle of nowhere down a long abandoned street in the side of a warehouse. As we walked down the street, it was like something from a movie...there were all these cars parked on the side of the road, with people sitting around them blasting music and cars racing down the street. It seemed pretty cool until we realized that the cover charge was 12 euros and that the other clubbers hanging out with their cars and drinking openly from bottles, looked like they were about 16 years old. Needless to say, we didn't end up going to the club and somehow ended up eating gyros and making friends with a older, Russian-sounding, chain-smoker at a Pakistani bar at 2:30am instead..which leads me to my final observation of the day...

Cool kids. The kids here are just too cool...way cooler than I can ever hope to be. A couple nights ago I saw a 10 year old boy on the metro listening to an ipod and texting friends at 11 o'clock at night. Last night these high school kids, who are always dressed fabulously, racing cars, going to clubs, and drinking openly in front of cops (the drinking age is 16 here)...waves of kids were on the metro at 3am, awake and ready to find a new bar to try out..and here we Americans are, in our 20s, asking kids almost half our age where cool clubs and bars are. Maybe it's because they speak a different language, or it's the culture, but the kids in Spain are just damn cool!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 17, 2010 from Bilbao, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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Adventure #1

Algorta, Spain

Today we started school! I had two classes: Business Spanish and Basque Language and Culture. Both were only 50 minutes long, and I was home by 2 in time for lunch and a nap. Since it was a beautiful day yesterday (sunny and about 60 degrees) Summer and I had our friends Arielle and John come up to Algorta/Gexto, which we just found out was the name of our town, to go check out the beach and explore. I thought it was warm, like late April in Minnesota, and was surprised to see that neither my American friends nor the Spaniards agreed with me, and as I walked around yesterday I recieved many stares as people in coats, hats, and scarves stared at me, my tank top, and light sweatshirt. We walked back down to the beach that Jone had showed us the first day we got there, and it is so beautiful there in the daylight! After we left the beach, we decided just to find our way around the town by just walking wherever, and on this walk we discovered: 1. That our town is much bigger than we thought, 2. The most amazing, delicious little pastry shop, where I know I will spend a lot of my money, 3. Cute little bars and cafes really close by, and 4. A beautiful and busy boardwalk right next to the beach! It was fun walking around, with everyone from the age of 1 to 90 out walking around with their friends and families. We decided that people in Spain and probably Europe in general are much happier, especially the elderly. I can't even count how many groups of 80 -90 year old men and women I saw out hobbling around on their canes with their friends; the women gossiping and the men smoking their cigars. It was the perfect day to finally get out of the apartment and see a little bit of our town (we live in what Summer calls "the 'burbs"). I can't wait to explore further in the future!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 18, 2010 from Algorta, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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Vino, Pintxos, y Toros

Pamplona, Spain

We just got back from a two day excursion to Logroño and Pamplona! We left yesterday morning and took the bus to the town of Logroño, which is apparently the wine country of Spain. Once we arrived, we took taxis to a bodega, where we were able to learn about the history of wine, the wine making process, and finished our tour with a wine tasting, which was very fun! After the tour, we went back to downtown Logroño, where we had a couple of hours to eat before we needed to catch the bus, so Arielle, Ellen, and I decided to go Pintxo (Tapas) hopping. Down one street, there are all these tiny, mostly standing room only, shops that offer many, but usually specialize in one specific type of Pintxo. At our first stop, Ellen ordered the snails, which are actually very good, and I ordered octopus served in its own ink...totally something Andrew Zimmern would eat...and it was actually really yummy once you got past the look of it. We went to another store and got chicken kabobs with guacamole on bread, which was also delicious!

At the Pinxto place, I realized that I left my camera in the back seat of our taxi, but thankfully Logroño is a very small, safe place and not only did the taxi driver drive back to give me my camera, but he told me how he had driven to the bus station earlier to try to find me there. What a great guy! Anyway, we hopped another bus after lunch, and rode to Pamplona. We stayed at the Hotel Blanca de Navarra hotel, which is very nice and is where the King and Queen of Spain have stayed in the past! We had the night free so Summer, Natasha, Arielle, Ellen, and I walked downtown to find dinner and ended up in this cute, two story restaurant in the center of town and got a three course meal for a very good price!

This morning we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, and met our tour guide in the lobby. We had a great tour of the city, which included a visit to the beginning of el camino de Santiago (where people begin their 800km pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain), a tour of the streets where the Running of the Bulls takes place, and a visit to the 3rd largest bull fighting ring in the world! After our tour, we went out for more Pinxtos and chocolate before we left for Bilbao. Pamplona and Logroño are both beautiful places with friendly people and amazing food!

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 23, 2010 from Pamplona, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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Beautiful Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain

I just got back from an amazing long weekend in Barcelona with the girls, and there were definitely some unforgettable memories made on our trip! Summer, Arielle, Natasha and I flew out from Bilbao on Wednesday night and the flight was so short that I literally listened to about five songs on my ipod before they announced that we had arrived in Barca. After a bus ride, and several confused references to our map, we finally found our hostel, the Barcelona Sound Hostel, and it was amazing! We chose to stay in a room of 8 people, and the first night we stayed with two New Zealanders who were traveling around Europe for a month. Our hostel is right off of the main street Las Ramblas, and that night the four of us decided to explore. Las Ramblas is filled with different bars, restaurants, and clubs, so there were tons of club promoters handing out fliers and vouchers for their clubs. We ended up going to this lounge where we got a deal of shots, sangria, and tapas for 3 euros, which was the best deal I've seen since I got to Europe.

The next morning, we woke up and decided to walk down to the harbor, which is about a mile and a half away from our hostel. The weather was perfect, and the sea was so beautiful! We spent the afternoon roaming around along the shore, took a siesta on the beach, stumbled upon a Gaudi fountain in a gorgeous park, and made our way back towards the center of town. Some highlights of the afternoon was Summer getting her lip pierced and going to the market a couple blocks away from where we were staying. Apparently Rachel Ray has been to el mercado, and it is amazing and huge...we got any type of fresh squeezed juice we could think of, there were huge stands of fresh fruit, fish, and vegetables, and amazing looking candy and chocolate booths as well. It is seriously a paradise for people who love to cook. That night, Camile (who had just arrived that day), Summer, Natasha, and I got ready and headed out for a night on the town. We ended up trying to follow this club promoter to her club, which ended up being about four miles away from where we lived and eventually gave up the search and headed back into town. We tried going to this club, City Hall, around 2am and met a promoter named Jordy, who was super goofy and we all were immediate friends. Deciding that the club wasn't worth the cover charge, we made our way back to our hostel, and ended up meeting a Swede, and a Turk who were sailing from Sweden to Turkey, and invited us to their boat for coffee the next day. Unfortunately we never found them again because all the information we received was that their boat was "the second from the left"...little did we know then, that with hundreds of boats sitting in several different harbors, there are many "second from the left" boats to choose from! Anyway, we ended the night at about 4 or 5am after making a stop at Pepe's for hot dogs and french fries.

The next day we woke up, grabbed some fresh fruit and juice from the market, and decided to explore for the rest of the day. Camile had heard about a fashion event called the Brandery going on during the weekend, so we took the metro over there. We ended up not going in, but the building and location of the show was beautiful, and the people watching was great! Later that evening as we were walking home, we ran into Jordy again and he told us about a party he was hosting at a club nearby that evening. Because time is so different in Spain, we didn't end up leaving our hostel until 12:30am..when parties and clubs really start to get busy. The club was pretty fun and very trendy, and we ended up leaving about 2am. We walked back to our hostel, and as we were about to walk in the door, a guy grabbed my wristlet bag that I was holding, ripped the bag clear off, and ran away. Natasha and I ran after him, but this guy should of been in the Olympics, because we lost him a couple blocks down the street. Unfortunately for the guy, I only had: one check card (which I canceled right away), a half pack of gum, a student ID, some club fliers, and a hair binder in my purse...I was flat broke that night and didn't even have spare change laying in the bottom. Nevertheless, it was a surreal experience..and one that I hopefully will never have to relive! I heard that in the off-season in Barcelona, particularly during tough economic times, 80% of people are robbed..and we knew two other people from Bilbao who were pick pocketed over the weekend there. This is especially bad for tourists, because here, the Spanish police are essentially useless...they don't really do or care about anything, and I am told that you NEVER stop a police officer and ask them a question..they are notoriously disliked among the Spanish people.

On Saturday morning, we woke up early in order to make it to the free Gothic walking tour that the hostel and a local travel bar offer to hostel stayers. The thing I love about Barcelona is the incredible amount of foreigners that visit..and during our trip we met so many interesting people from all over the world. In our tour group, the guide made us meet one other stranger and introduce ourselves...I met James from Liverpool who is a plumber by trade and an avid futbol fan like myself. Other tour group members included people from Australia, the States, England, and South Korea. Our guide was great and showed us all the interesting places around the city: the building that Picasso drew when he was drunk on Absinthe, the art school that Picasso attended and also the place where he lost his virginity, the Real Plaza that was funded by the Bacardi Rum family...etc. etc. The tour was fun, interesting, and ended with a pint of beer at the bar, so if you ever go to Barcelona and aren't a real fan of boring, historical tours...go to this one! After a paella lunch and siesta at the hostel, we headed out again to see some of Gaudi's famous architectural works: La Casa Mila and La Sangrada Familia..both were awesome to see and though I don't know much about him, Gaudi seems likes a very interesting guy, and his work is one of a kind. For dinner, we went to a travel bar, where we grabbed a cheap dinner and met a very fabulous and flamboyant hairdresser by day, waiter by night named Allan. After dinner finished at about 10:30pm, we went back and got ready for the night. There were some other groups of students in our Bilbao program staying in our hostel, so for our last night we planned to go out with some of them. We left for a club with the ridiculous name of Razzmatazz, where I was barely allowed to go into the club, because apparently I don't look like I'm older than 16. Anyway, the club was huge and amazing, with different levels and rooms that play different types of music...a room of every type of person. It was so much fun, we didn't end up leaving until about 5am, and weren't in bed until 6am...a bad idea considering the fact that we needed to leave for our flight by 10 this morning.

Our flight was extremely long today, it took us 1 hour to fly to Barcelona, and 7 1/2 to fly back...when we first booked the tickets, we knew that we had a layover, we just didn't know where. Turns out, our layover was in the Canary Islands...meaning the islands off the coast of Africa. Yep, we flew down 2 hours in order to be able to spend an hour in 80 degree weather, looking at the ocean, just to get on the plane and fly 2 1/2 hours back to Bilbao. It was great spending so much time in Barcelona, and it is interesting being in a new place, because after a while you really do start to think of that place as your place. The people were so friendly there, and we met a ton of great people both Spanish and foreign. I would have to say that my favorite person during the trip is a middle eastern man who worked at a sandwich shop down the street from where we lived, every time we passed by whether it be 10am or 11pm he would shout out across the street "Good Morning! Are you hungry?" and energetically smile and wave...and by the end of the trip we were returning the greeting. I will miss eating amazing gelato, or going to the market for juice, or seeing what random person will show up in our hostel room each day. It's nice being back in Bilbao, and we start classes with the Spaniards tomorrow, but Barcelona is truly an amazing place to visit.

permalink written by  Laura Hanson on January 31, 2010 from Barcelona, Spain
from the travel blog: Un Semestre en España
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