Family Roadtrip Part II

Vega de Pas and Orbaneja del Castillo

On our way to Burgos, we first stopped in Vega de Pas, one of the Villas Pasiegas of Cantabria. Wedged in a lush valley, Vega de Pas is a rural hamlet secluded by steep mountains on both sides. It is Julia’s (my host mother’s), father’s hometown. To make his pay as a young man, he herded cows on the mountainside. Julia told us that one winter, Vega de Pas received so much snow that her father could not return from the mountains to town for seven days. She remembers spending some of her childhood summers here with her grandparents, but couldn’t remember with complete certainty which house she used to visit. The area is known for its prados, meadows enclosed by medieval stone walls.

The form of the local Romanesque church demonstrates that Vega de Pas was a poor village. Churches like this one which have a simple belfry indicate less resources and wealth, while wealthier towns have churches with rectangular shaped bell towers. The four ox heads on this church’s frieze are a homage to the four oxen that carried the building materials to the church’s grounds. This type of homage is common in Romanesque architecture.

We drove through heavy fog on our way to Orbanejo del Castillo.

We lowered into Orbaneja del Castillo, nestled deep in the canyon. There is a fantastic waterfall that drops from the top of the canyon and streams through the town, as well as many windblown arches and spires in the surrounding walls.

The city of Burgos deserves a gallery of its own. Click here to read about the final leg of my trip.


Family Roadtrip Part I

Almorox –> Ávila –> Aguilar de Campóo –> Santillana del Mar –> Santander –> Vega de Pas –> Orbaneja del Castillo –> Burgos –> Almorox

Last Thursday, the family, Sierra (the Canadian student staying with the family) and I piled into the Fiat and drove all the way to the Cantábrian (northernmost) coast of Spain.

Ávila is famous for its murallas, ancient city walls. The walls date back to 1090, and exhibit a Romanesque military style. Click on the photos to see in full size.

Next stop was Aguilar de Campóo, where we visited the Monasterio de Santa María la Real, a monastery recently converted into a public school. The architecture is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic style, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

Aguilar de Campóo is known today for its cookie industry, so we stopped for a quick treat across from a medieval castle. No big deal.

Santillana del Mar was our final stop of the day. It is supposedly the “town of three falsehoods” — it is not santi (holy), nor llana (flat), nor does it have a mar (an ocean). This medieval city does not permit vehicles in the casco viejo (old quarter), so while strolling the streets, you feel taken back in time. Many of the houses were built in the 14th and 18th centuries, but almost all of the town’s public structures were built around the collegiate church La Colegiata de Santa Juliana, dating back to 1200. This church also exhibits Romanesque architecture. We slept the night at the really cool Altamira Hotel, and walked around town the next morning. The hotel is named after the nearby world-renowned caves of Altamira, discovered in 1879. We went to the museum which has a replica cave, because entrance to the cave is now limited to researchers only. Notice how the north of Spain is green and wet. Click on the images for full size and to read more!

After the morning in Santillana del Mar, we drove to Santander, where we had lunch at Playa del Camello and visited the Palacio de la Magdalena.

You can continue reading about my roadtrip (Vega de Pas, Orbaneja del Castillo, and Burgos), in Family Roadtrip Part II.

Back to school, back to school…

As I approach the school with the principal, Jesús, I hear music that I can’t quite place. I ask him, “Is there always music in the morning?” Before Jesús can shake his head, I distinguish the song as nothing short of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. The students are under an outdoor canopy waving little American flags made of paper, parents are watching on the other side of the fence.

Welcome to Almorox

I couldn’t quite process that this was a welcoming, for me. I am so used to blending into to the melting pot of New York that the singular attention embarrassed me a little bit. I am the village celebrity this year. I don’t say this because I’m proud of it, but simply because it is true. For the Spanish countryside, American culture is something of an exoticism. A couple times now, Susana (the daughter in the Rubio family whom with I’m staying,) has told me that her friends have seen a rubia walking around town. Rubia means ‘blonde’. People know that I am new here, but they don’t know who I am or why I came.

We file into the school building after the welcome ceremony, which consisted of thanking the parents, teachers, and students, and giving me a round of applause. The kids pass me by the door, some with with smiles and hellos, others with timidity. I spend the first day introducing myself to several grade levels. There are about 20 to 25 students in each grade, so every grade has its own single classroom. Throughout the day, the teachers of different subjects rotate rooms to teach the students, opposite of what we do in the States. There are separate rooms for PhysEd, Art, Music, and Special Education. CEIP Silvano Cirujano is kindergarten through 6th grade, and in a separate building across the street is the colegio infantil, preschool. I will get to work with all of the students at least once a week.

The school day here is 9 AM to 2 PM, with a thirty minute break for teachers and recess for students. School ends at two o’ clock so that the children can eat their lunch at home, the largest and most important meal of the day. On Tuesdays, I’ll stay an hour late to assist the staff with their English language skills. There are 22 teachers in total, and all of them are learning English, some already proficient enough to teach their classes bilingually. Silvano Cirujano is a bilingual school, so I am not only placed in English language classes but also in math, science, and art classes to teach the material in my native language.

Already I’ve noticed some striking differences from the American education system. Students call teachers by their first name. They also like to call out “profe” (as in, “hey Teach!”) to get the teachers’ attention. Staff may dress informally and almost always wear jeans.

Being a small and innovative school, Silvano Cirujano permits a lot of creativity. There are yearly field trips in which the students explore the local natural environments and processes. Every year the school adds on to their various indoor and outdoor murals, and almost every item in the school is labeled in English.

Mural of Almorox's famous Pine Forest

First floor hallway

My 16 hour schedule looks like this:

  • Monday: 4th grade English, 6th grade English, 2nd grade Music, 2nd grade Science
  • Tuesday: 3rd grade Science, 1st grade Science
  • Wednesday: 1st grade English, Preschool
  • Thursday: 5th grade Mathematics, 6th grade Science, 3rd grade English, 3rd grade Science, 5th grade Art

Light Pollution & Stars

Like the U.S., Europe has a high level of light pollution, that is, artificial light visible in the night sky. It affects our ability to see stars. It also affects our life in positive ways by allowing us to see where we walk at night by the light of suburban homes or city street lamps. One can see exactly where our cities are located, even discerning which are most populated, advanced, or just plain busy by looking at maps of artificial light like the one above. In NY, I was lucky to see a star once every so often, be it fault of local lights or the height of the
buildings. Out in Almorox, though close to Madrid, I can see most of the stars that are visible to the naked eye on clear nights. Spain is about the same latitude as Utah, 40°N, where I first learned the winter-spring constellations. One of my goals is to continue my knowledge of constellations. I highly recommend The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H.A. Rey (who most know as the author of Curious George) for those interested in learning constellations. Right now Jupiter is passing through the ram (for all you Aries), super bright and blue. You can probably see it even in NY!

10 Money-Saving Travel Tips

Budget travel can quickly become expensive if one is careless with their preparedness and expenses. Here are ten money-saving travel tips that allow for an economical, comfortable, and interesting trip!

1. Bring a reusable water bottle with you.

I never leave my Sigg bottle behind, and it has saved me hundreds of dollars that I would have otherwise spent on bottled water in locations where tap is perfectly potable. Many countries with potable water have water fountains in parks, museums, and plazas. If all else fails, entering a bar and politely explaining that you could not find a fountain should be enough for them to fill it without any problem.

2. Wear comfortable shoes!

This may be a given, but if you travel ready to walk, than you only have to use public transportation when absolutely necessary. This can also be said for heavy purses, cumbersome duffels…anything that may make you uncomfortable or tired during the day.

3. Ask a local how to get from one destination to another, but judge for yourself how long or short is the distance.

Culture to culture and person to person, opinion varies over what exactly is “too far away to walk”. A good question to ask is “about how much time will it take if I decide to walk?”, than you can decide for yourself if you want to go for the long (or short) haul.

4. Research before your trip!

Know your cheapest transportation options and find out if there are day/week passes that are also valid for other types of public transportation or museum discounts. Additionally, there may be significant savings between buying individual tickets and purchasing a reusable card (even if only used for one trip). For example, the T (commuter rail) in Boston gives you the option to purchase a Charlie Card or a single-ride ticket. Ticket and cash-on-board customers pay a surcharge. In New York City, ticket machines give you the option to recharge your card with $5, $10, $20, or ‘other amounts’, yet those who only need two rides only need pay $4.50 (which can be selected with ‘other amounts’). Researching public transportation ahead of time will help you save over the course of your trip. Also consider renting a bike!

5. If you are lucky enough to be enjoying a long stay in one country, ask around about a youth card.

Maximum age varies by country. In the U.S., the equivalent would be a College I.D. In the EU, anyone under 26 years old is eligible. Once you receive your card, don’t forget to use it! It will equal tons of savings on train and bus fares, museum and movie tickets, just ask if it is accepted wherever you make a purchase.

6. Look into museum hours and specials before you plan your itinerary.

Many museums offer specific days or hours of suggested admission or entry free of charge. In touristy areas, beware of companies offering museum “deals” where for a single price you can visit multiple museums. Often the museums included are more affordable on their own or completely free of charge to visit! Furthermore, check out local holidays to make sure that the museum is not unexpectedly closed.

Madrid's Parque de Retiro

7. Enjoy city parks.

They are free and offer great forms of local culture and art such as public sculpture, music, dance, and sports. They are a place to socialize with the local people or share a picnic with your travel companions. Getting sun helps jet lag!

8. Eat local, eat cheap.

Picnicking can be one of the most affordable ways to eat while traveling. I always attempt to visit a grocery store even if it is only to grab a snack to keep on me. If you are staying in a place with a public kitchen, try to experiment with the local foods! It is healthier and less costly to eat at “home”. When you do eat out, wander away from the touristy areas and enter a restaurant where locals are eating, or ask a local for a good restaurant that is away from all of the crowds.

9. Be wary of tourist deals, but find the tourist discounts.

In international cities, department stores may offer tourist discounts. Additionally, save any $50+ purchase receipts to see if you are eligible for a VAT (Value Added Tax) refund at the airport on your way home.

10. Pay in cash!

You will be more aware of how much you spend day to day than you would be by paying with a credit card. You will also avoid any foreign transaction fees, and if you can withdrawal sufficient cash before you leave your home country, also avoid foreign ATM withdrawal fees.

I find that the less money one spends is relative to the amount of cultural interaction one experiences. By attempting to travel on a budget, one usually ends up eating common, regional foods, enjoying drinks at authentic bars of the country, wandering the streets and absorbing people’s mannerisms and accents…the list goes on. Watching one’s pennies makes for an interesting, genuine, and affordable cultural experience!

A Bike into Escalona

Today I biked to Escalona with Pablito, the 13 year old son of the host family with which I’m currently staying. Starting in Almorox, our first stop was Paredes de Escalona. Named after the historic walls (paredes) and entrance that once safeguarded the center and castle of nearby Escalona, it is now a separate town from Escalona. It was a strenuous, hilly, 7.5km to Paredes, and another 5km to our final destination. Escalona is quite a bit bigger than Almorox and home to the classic Spanish tale El Lazarillo de Tormes and the Castle of Escalona, historically one of the most important castles in Castilla-La Mancha.

Escalona is a medieval city which originally existed only within the castle walls. What used to be a moat is now a main road that leads to the (slightly) newer area of town. On two sides of the castillo flows the Río Alberche, naturally defending the structure. Documented history of Escalona began in 1083 when King Alfonso VI defeated the Muslims of Al-Ándalus that were then in control of the area, yet historians believe civilization in Escalona dates as far back as 556 B.C. During Alfonso VI’s reign, the castle was used as a military base to defend Toledo (29 miles away) from the Muslims. After biking all those miles, Pablito and I arrived at 2pm, one hour too late to tour the castle. It turns out the castle is only opened on Saturdays, 9-1. However, the exterior of the castle was very impressive as was much of the city’s architecture. I will have to return another Saturday to tour the rest.

Click on the photos to enlarge and read more about Escalona’s history.