I will never forget the first time I went to Europe. I was a junior in college, doing a study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain, with one of my closest friends. My parents had driven me to Boston so we could fly to Madrid together. We boarded the plane with suitcases we feared were overweight and so much excitement.
Flying to Europe involves an overnight flight, and, from most destinations, at least one connection. It’s a grueling way to travel; an ability to sleep on a plane is to the traveler’s benefit. I managed to get enough sleep that I could function when we arrived. My first piece of advice: sleep on the plane. I know the lure of movies is strong. Still. Sleep.
To everyone’s great surprise, Jen got airsick, so I can’t say for sure what she remembers of our first minutes in Spain. I remember the crispness of the early morning air as we stepped off the plane, the distinctive smell of Spain, the long line to go through customs, and even the Spanish woman who asked to go ahead of me. Exhausted and reeling though I was, I can actually still remember the words she used. The impact of this first European trip was that incredibly strong.
We were picked up by representatives from our program – though I truly believe the most exciting part for both of us was that our suitcases had arrived. We had been warned repeatedly before leaving about packing extra clothes and toiletries in our carry on luggage, because bags are often lost on overseas flights. I have taken this advice on every trip I’ve taken since – and it has saved me at least once. This is my second piece of advice to you: pack a good carry on bag.
Luggage in hand, we were whisked away to our hotel to begin the pre-academic adventure. Our program had set up a weeklong tour of Spain for us before classes began. I have never once regretted the decision to take part in the tour, and I know Jen hasn’t either. It was an amazing way to see Spain, and to acclimate ourselves to the culture, to reset our internal clocks, and probably most importantly for the courses that were to follow, to adjust to speaking and hearing the language all day, every day.
We began, of course, in Madrid. I don’t remember much else about that first day, but I do remember waking up the next morning to the sight of Jen, curled up on the floor of our Juliet balcony, writing in her journal. Another strong admonishment from our study abroad office had been to journal as much as possible, so we wouldn’t forget details. Again, this is advice I have never once regretted taking. They are absolutely right – at a time when everything is so new, so exciting, and so unfamiliar, it is easy to lose details, to lose memories, and to come home to pictures without context. This is my third piece of advice: take a journal, and write every night, even if you’re tired and don’t feel like it.
In all honesty, Madrid did not captivate me on that first visit. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting of Spain – it seemed far too metropolitan. It was not until I returned to live there, rather than just to visit, that I truly learned to love the city. Though, as one of my friends and I have since discussed, the jet lag may have had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm. Jet lag is a huge challenge, but it will be overcome. My next piece of advice, and probably the most challenging to follow: don’t take a nap when you arrive in Europe. Stay awake until a normal bedtime, and get up at a normal time the next morning. It will help you get used to the time difference. I promise!
In what has strangely become a somewhat common occurrence for me, I didn’t get to tour the Royal Palace on that first visit. It was closed for official acts. I have since toured it, and been utterly amazed. Take the palace tours in European cities. You won’t regret it!
After a short stay in Madrid, we were off to see central and southern Spain. Our tour took us through Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, Sevilla, Granada, and Córdoba. These cities were and are “Spain” to me. They show the different styles of architecture that represent all the cultures that have melded to create Spain – the Roman, the Gothic, the Sephardic, the Moorish, and so many others. Each city has similarities – for example, massive, impressive cathedrals are found in every one. However, they all have their own special identities and charms. Toledo represents the best melding of the tres culturas – the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures coexisted in brilliant harmony there, creating one of the best centers of learning and advancement in the world during the Medieval period. Segovia’s Roman aqueduct was built in the year 50 AD but is still functioning today. Ávila is still encircled by its Medieval walls – walking on them is one of the greatest thrills of my life. Granada’s Alhambra Palace showcases the very best of Moorish culture and architecture, and must be seen to be believed.
Our tour ended in Salamanca, where we would spend the semester. It won my heart within the first few days, and has never let go of its grip on me. Because I was in Madrid longer, it is my Spanish “home,” but Salamanca will always be my first love when it comes to Spanish cities. Its size and walking culture make it the perfect city to explore. Its university was founded by St. King Ferdinand in the 13th century; it is the third oldest university in the world. Its plaza mayor is one of the most impressive in all of Europe. It has two adjoining cathedrals – the “old” and “new.” The new cathedral was built in the 1400s, so perhaps it isn’t so new by American standards. One of the things I learned about the United States when I was in Europe the first time was how new everything here is - even things we think of as old.
Perhaps the best advice I can give about visiting Europe is to truly experience it. Live it. Leave your preconceived notions, both about Europe and the United States, at home. Do the touristy things – see the palaces, the cathedrals, the museums, the shows. But do the local things, too. Eat in a café that doesn’t have menus in English. Spend time in a park with good friends and a bottle of wine – in Spain, bring a bottle of red, some Fanta limón, and ice to make tinto de verano. Go to the plaza mayor, take a table at a café, and spend the evening lingering over drinks and a meal while you people watch. Wander the streets without a definite purpose, and go into all the interesting places you see.
And when you read your journal when you come home, even months later, you’ll be shocked by how much you learned about the country – and how much you appreciate it.
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