¡Viva la Republica! ¡Viva España!
Walking to the historic Puerta del Sol in Madrid, I heard a chorus of chants from a crowd of demonstrators demanding political reforms. They waved the red, yellow and purple flag under a deep blue sky to symbolize the Spanish Republic as they marched in a huge mass down the Calle de Alcala, a street normally bustling with cars, toward Sol. Years of slow growth and a lack of economic opportunities had long disappointed many young people who for months had increased pressure on the Spanish monarchy and Parliament to make political reforms. This was history, peaceful if not pretty, and it was interesting to observe firsthand as I was sightseeing with my friends in the city.
Five days earlier and one-hour south of where madrileños were fighting for structural change, I was fighting jetlag in my 9:30AM Spanish language and culture class in the ancient city of Toledo. Relieved that I had made it through the end of class, I checked my phone as it buzzed with an unexpected CNN alert. The King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, was abdicating the throne amidst the ongoing protests and naming his son, Felipe VI, as his successor. Being the first royal transition in the post-Franco era, this was big news. What a time to be in Spain!
Without a doubt, the four weeks I spent with 28 classmates through Princeton in Spain were incredible. But what living through history made me even more cognizant of was the immortalized past that surrounded us. Having served as Spain's capital city until the 16th century, our four-week home city of Toledo in itself felt like a museum - from the individual arches to the overall architecture, each building tells its own story of the "city of three cultures," a name that honors the age-old cohabitation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. If you're in Toledo, I highly recommend visiting the gothic-style Cathedral, the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz and the Synagogue of El Transito, which are spectacular living examples of how each of the three groups relied on the others in constructing their houses of worship.
2014 was a particularly historic year in Toledo, marking the 400th anniversary of the iconic artist El Greco's death. Exhibitions celebrating the city and the artist were all over, and strolling through them felt like leaping into the past.
Visitors to Toledo walk more than the steps of history though, as I quickly found out. America prides itself on being the "city upon a hill" as per John Winthrop, but quite literally, Toledo's got that title locked up. It's said that it's always uphill in Toledo, and nothing could more accurately describe the hike from everywhere to everywhere in the city. I really shouldn't complain though - guess it makes up for my perpetual absence from Dillon Gym this past year!
While Toledo was our hilly four-week home, we had a lot of room to explore other areas on the weekends. When not stumbling upon political protests during visits to Madrid, I loved experiencing Spain's rich culture of art in the Museo del Prado and the Museo de Reina Sofia, which house some of the most well-regarded collections in Europe. During one free weekend with no scheduled activities, we broke the "Toledo Bubble" when groups of students traveled across the country, from Murcia and Valencia in the southeast to Barcelona in the northeast. Even in that free time we saw Spain's rich history in the cities we visited and the countryside we passed.
It's really amazing how taking the same language and culture class offered inside the Orange Bubble outside of it entirely changes the experience. In Spain, we saw the social shifts and symbolic structures we studied. We walked the same roads that El Greco did 400 years prior. From debating what happened to the 2014 Spanish soccer team in its unprecedented World Cup exit to simply ordering tapas, we spoke to locals in the language we learned. Living a culture is the best way of learning it, and Princeton in Spain was the perfect opportunity to do just that.
~ Kishan Bhatt '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler