GIRL ON THE SPANISH TRAIN
Study Abroad Experience with the SDSU College of Education
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
This 4 week study abroad opportunity allows students to stay in the small town of Ávila, Spain and study Monday-Thursday in the Universidad Católica de Ávila over the summer. Students choose which 2 classes they'd like to take, each offering 3 units that will transfer over to their SDSU transcript. On Fridays there are organized field trips to 3 different towns: Segovia, Salamanca, and Toledo. Students are free to travel during the weekends after the Friday field trips are over.
Pictured above: the view from my room in the Seminario, our home in Ávila.
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Traveling across Spain on a Train
This very small medieval town is surrounded by a wall completed between the 11th and 14th centuries for protection of invaders. Located in the center of Spain, this was our home for 1 month. We stayed at the Seminario, the town's building that used to serve to educate future priests. Today, this building functions as a sort of "hotel" for groups who travel to the town. Most places in Ávila are walking distance.
This is Spain's capital and the most vibrant city I have ever visited. We were lucky enough to visit this city during Pride month and attended Madrid's Pride parade. This parade was bigger than almost any Pride parade here in the U.S. and was one of my favorite life experiences ever. Aside from its metropolitan features, Madrid has many historical features one should visit. This includes the infamous Museo del Prado, Palacio Real (which used to be the home of Spain's royal family), and manicured parks such as Buen Retiro.
It is believed that after visiting Segovia, Walt Disney based the famous Disney Castle on the Segovia Castle. As you can tell, they do have very similar features. This historical city is also the home of the Segovia Aqueduct: a 15 km long structure made of rocks held together merely by their positioning: no cement. This beautiful city is popular for tourists to visit as it has so many monumental features such as the Castle, the aqueduct, beautiful buildings, and more.
I was lucky to visit this town during its most famous event of the year: The Running of the Bulls or Festival de San Fermin. During this week, bulls are led through the streets at 8AM every day by anyone who wants to run with them. Most people watch behind the fences as daredevils run besides these deathly 2,000 lbs animals. Every year there are deaths and injuries from runners, and it's usually drunk Americans. Watching these huge animals flash before our eyes followed by brave runners dressed in white and red was the most exhilarating, unique experience I've had.
This city is popular for being a college town. Many Spanish students leave their homes to come to Salamanca and attend the Universidad de Salamanca. Because of the demographic, the city has a vibrant nightlife. Salamanca is filled with artistic architecture throughout its various historical buildings including the university itself, cathedrals, palaces, and museums.
This ancient city was home to Christians, Arabs, and Jews who coexisted in harmony- something that didn't happen too often in ancient history. This is reflected in the city's architecture and buildings, which include mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals. The three cultures each had very specific architectural styles which is still visible throughout the city as it is decorated in 3 separate ancient styles that can easily be differentiated.
This cosmopolitan city is home to the Sagrada Familia, Parque de Gaudi, and other architectural landmarks designed by Gaudi. Gaudi was an architecture in the 1800s whose artistic style was beyond his time. Visiting his artistically designed park and his famous cathedral, the Sagrada Familia was breathtaking. This beachy city atracts tourists due to Gaudi's architectural input, Picasso's museum, and its location bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
The only true way to learn is from experience. What worked for me may not work for you. That being said, I was able to make the most out of my experience by being smart about my choices. If I were you I would probably follow my next pieces of advice: what I learned from my experience.
PACKING TIPS: TAKE LIGHT PACKING MORE SERIOUSLY THAN I DID
This is more of a "what not to do" segment as I did everything wrong in this area. When having short weekend trips, do not take a big backpack and stuff it completely. You have to remember that short trips=carrying your belongings in the train and through long walks. My repeated mistake over my 3 weekend trips was to carry more than my body could handle. Bottom line, take light packing seriously.
After my overpacking mistakes, I know what I will do on my next trip. Do:
Minimize your beauty/cleansing routine to less products (you can survive one weekend without both types of mascara)
Limit the amount of shoes you will bring (shoes take up more space than you realize, try to stick to the ones you wear on the train and only bring one other pair if absolutely necessary)
Take a backpack and not a one-shoulder bag (your shoulder will thank you later)
Pick a backpack with lots of compartments so you can easily find smaller items.
Bring your adaptor and don't forget it! Set reminders, alarms- whatever it takes. Do not leave this baby behind!
TAKE THE TRAIN: GET A EURAIL PASS
Taking the train is recommended in most instances when traveling within Spain. Because I only had the weekends to travel, this was not enough time to take planes. Besides, traveling through train in Europe is fairly accessible, cheap, and convenient.
My biggest recommendation when taking the train is to buy the Eurail pass. The Eurail pass is a ticket you can buy to travel across Europe. There are many purchasing options that vary depending on whether you will be traveling within or across a country as well as how many days are included. The pass is a day pass, meaning that if you buy it for 4 days you can take the train as many times as you want per day you purchased. If you are taking the train more than once, you should buy this pass as it will make traveling through train cheaper. The pass has blank slots to be filled out by the train staff on the day that you use it. In my experience, the staff does not always check and you might be left with blank slots that you can use later. This pass can only be ordered online. I would advice travelers to order it in advance before going to Europe and get it shipped to their homes.
THINK SAFE: TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY
There are all sorts of possible dangerous scenarios. Although there are many risks that come with traveling in a foreign country, you must not have a scared mindset. Rather, you should have a cautious mindset. Here are some tips:
Do not be that obnoxious American who speaks loud and seems unaware of their surroundings. This is the easiest way to make yourself a target for pick-pocketers and people with bad intentions. Instead, conserve your energy when in a public space and mind your voice's volume. Odds are your look already screams "tourist", don't attract any more attention to yourself than that.
Ask how much your cab fare will be before getting on the cab. This will prevent from drivers driving you around in circles or taking longer routes than necessary. Although they will not be able to tell you the exact amount, at least you will know the rough estimate. So, if they tell you 20 euros before you get on and when you're getting off they say its 100, you know there's a red flag. Cab drivers like to take advantage of tourists.
Bring a fanny pack! This one is my personal favorite. As silly as you may feel wearing one, Europe is overflowed with pick-pocketers. Having your most important belongings like your wallet and passport right at your waist does bring you a sense of peace that you wouldn't get if these items were in the back pocket of your backpack. However, you should still be conscious of your belongings even if you are wearing a fanny pack. Experienced pick-pocketers will still target your fanny pack if you are not paying attention. In the above photo, we are all wearing fanny packs either over or under our clothes- you can never be too cautious.
Do not lose sight of your belongings EVER. That is, if you want to keep them. Don't think that for a second you can leave your bag unattended. I saw many of my peers get bags stolen this way.
The relationships you will foster abroad are unlike any others. Because this experience is so unique and personal, you will learn to depend on your study abroad peers unlike any other types of relationships in your daily life. I didn't know anyone in my study abroad group prior to the trip, and although this scared me a little, I am so grateful I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I was able to meet and befriend an amazing group of people who I still keep in touch with. This is actually a very important part of study abroad friendships: when you go back home you will not be able to relate to anyone in your daily life about your experience, and it is actually encouraged in regards to mental health to stay in touch with your study abroad peers once you are home. My advice is to go out of your way to talk to people, try to meet as many people as possible but work on the friendships that are closer to you, and to say yes more often than saying no.