Barcelona, Catalan Identity, and Gaudí

Written By: Isabelle Giaquinto’ 26 (Session 2)

We arrived in Barcelona on the evening of Thursday, July 27. Our first site in this beautiful city was Parque Güell on Friday morning. Originally an exclusive development for only the most elite residents of Barcelona, this park showcases ceramic architectural elements in the signature modernist style of Antoni Gaudí, as well as beautiful gardens. 

Gaudí was a Catalan modernist architect that lived from 1852 to 1926 and designed a number of buildings that are now extremely famous. The most famous of his projects, the Sagrada Familia, is the largest unfinished Catholic church in the world. Gaudí designed this beautiful building, and its construction began in 1882. With many delays caused by funding, the Spanish Civil War, and the untimely death of the architect himself, this project is not expected to be finished until around 2032. Nevertheless, this church is truly one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever seen. Throughout the tour we took of the Sagrada Familia on Friday afternoon, our guide gave us insight into how Gaudí’s mind worked. The architect did not particularly favor the traditional gothic arches and flying buttresses of other churches, because he did not like that these structures limited the amount of natural light inside the churches. Instead, Gaudí looked to nature for inspiration and decided to use chain arches to construct the church to allow for maximum natural light. This design concept definitely paid off, as the amount of natural light that floods the Sagrada Familia through the stained-glass windows is breathtaking. Gaudí’s incorporation of nature into every aspect of his designs is so beautiful and so unique, it is simply amazing.

Aside from the incredible work of Gaudí, the Barcelona atmosphere was so lively and fun. It is such a beautiful city with so much to do and see, and the strong sense of Catalan identity permeates almost every aspect of life. There were symbols of Catalonia everywhere, whether it be in graffiti, flags, or the magnets in tourist shops. There are also so many delicious traditional Catalan foods to try! My personal favorite is fuet, a dry-cured pork sausage. Overall, this Barcelona excursion was super fun and we all learned so much!


Written By:  Lauren Poltorak ‘26 (Session 2)

Ongi etorri Bilbora! This weekend, we made our way to Bilbao on the northern coast of Spain in the Basque Country. For the first three hours of the four hour bus journey, the landscape remained typical of the rest of Spain: parched, yellow fields over short hills with the occasional farm or town. However, as we approached the north, the earth returned to life. Fields of giant sunflowers stretched over hills that grew into immense, pine tree covered mountains. These mountains are the same ones that have separated the Basque people from the rest of Spain and ensured the preservation of the unique Basque language and culture. 

Two important parts of Basque culture started to appear as we approached Bilbao: the Basque-style house and the Basque tongue. Basque-style houses (Baserri) are usually square-shaped with a wide, sloped tile roof, white stone walls, cobblestone base, and wooden beams on the upper levels. The house (etxea) is an essential symbol in Basque culture as it represents family ties. Many of the highway signs had text in both Basque and Spanish. The Basque language is truly fascinating and unique, so if you need a brain exercise, give it a try!

Bilbao greeted us as we passed through a tunnel bored through the towering mountains. High-rises and apartment complexes stretched from the tapering edges of the mountains down to the Atlantic coastline. We finally arrived! The atmosphere of Bilbao is markedly distinct from the other cities we have visited so far. The most noticeable difference is the climate. The mountains we passed prevent the dry Mediterranean air from reaching us and allowed a cool Atlantic breeze to surround us. A thin blanket of clouds gave us refuge from the summer sun, further contributing to the refreshing weather.

After settling into our hostel, I walked around town to get a feel for its true nature. As I walked through Casilda Iturrizar Park, a crisp breeze blew yellow leaves off the trees that lined the walkways, giving it an almost autumnal feel. The rustling of the trees mixed with the sounds of children playing on the green lawns as the elders made relaxed chatter on the benches. Further into the center of town, I reached the Federico Moyúa Plaza, where major streets from all parts of the city meet. In its center lies a brilliant fountain surrounded by pink and yellow flowers in full bloom. Friends and families strolled through the plaza slowly, absorbing every moment they spent together. Everywhere I went, it seemed that the cool climate of Bilbao was even reflected in its people.

On our second day, we visited Getxo, a beachside neighborhood. I exited the metro to a central square full of friends and families who had come to enjoy their Sunday by the ocean. In the commercial center of Getxo, the buildings were constructed in a very modern style; however, as we reached the cozy neighborhoods, the houses assumed the traditional baserri style. It was interesting to see modern architecture integrated with the ancient Basque style. In a way, the mix of styles shows how the Basque people will always carry on despite all that they have endured throughout history. 

I reached an overlook that gave me a spectacular view of the cerulean waters of the Atlantic Ocean gently beating against a beach with golden sand, both surrounded by verdant mountains. As I descended to the beach, I passed through Puerto Viejo, a peaceful neighborhood where the bright basseri style dominates and every house has a name. Small restaurants inhabit some of these houses, the most prominent being Pintxo bars. Pintxo bars are named after the tapas-like dishes that they serve, which are composed of any variety of ingredients on a slice of bread and stabbed with a toothpick–or pintxo–not only to keep the ingredients from falling off the bread, but also to track how many pintxos a person has eaten. It was wonderful to slow down, relax, and enjoy some pintxos the way locals do. 

After lunch, I continued walking down to the beach. I noticed that most people here were locals, many being families. Everywhere I walked, there was a prevailing sense of joy and harmony. My worries over final projects and flights home disappeared. In these moments, I did not think about the past or the future, only the beauty around me.

Bilbao is truly a wonderful city. On the surface, it may seem that Bilbao lacks Madrid’s grandiosity or Seville’s opulence, but that is precisely what makes it so special. Bilbao embraces its authentic self, proudly displaying its Basque identity while welcoming people worldwide into its tight-knit community. Bilbao is not just a place people visit but rather a place where people live. I adore Bilbao and I cannot wait to return someday and learn more about the Basque people and culture! Agur!


Written By:  Michelle Cepeda ’24 (Session 2)

Flamenco dancing is a passionate and expressive art form, and it has the power to captivate audiences worldwide. Rooted in Spanish culture, this expressive dance style goes beyond just moving. Flamenco is a way to show emotions, tell stories, and bare one’s soul. 

My maymester group attended a Flamenco workshop, and I’ve learned that it’s all about technique! Dancers spend years perfecting their footwork, body posture, and hand gestures, all while staying attuned to the rhythm of the music. The rhythmic complexity sets the foundation for flamenco’s mesmerizing appeal, allowing the dancer to communicate in the language of beats and steps. 

When attending the Flamenco show, I saw that dancers paint their emotions, and the only way to feel the raw emotion they show is by being in person. Through this art, they go deep into their souls, revealing their deepest sentiments. Every step, every turn, and every tap is infused with an individual’s unique expression, allowing an intimate connection between performer and watcher. 

The soul of flamenco lies in raw, unrestrained emotions, allowing a rollercoaster of feelings in those who witness it. Within the intensity of flamenco, there is space for improvisation. Allowing the dancer to improvise allows spontaneity and surprise. This will enable dancers to interact with musicians, creating a dialogue of emotions through music and motion. 

Before learning and seeing Flamenco, I honestly thought it was like any dance and performance. But after the workshop and show, I noticed Flamenco dancing is much more than that. It is a strong connection between the artist and the observer. In every rhythmic pattern, every expression, and every powerful gesture, there lies a story waiting to be told. The dancer’s energy during the show resonates with the audience. Flamenco dancing is an enchanting interplay of soul and technique, where emotion and movement merge harmoniously. This passionate art form celebrates the human spirit, where dancers allow themselves to invite us to connect and feel the profound depths of human expression. Flamenco goes beyond borders, reaching out to touch the hearts of all who experience its breathtaking beauty. When in Spain go see a flamenco show to truly be captivated by the performer and their talent.


Written By:  Nicole Pimentel  ’24 (Session 2)

I was very excited to travel to Granada, because I have many friends who have studied abroad here and loved the city and their experience. In addition, Professor Lokos has been hyping up the Alhambra since Day 1, which has truly made me so excited! We arrived to Granada on Sunday, and in the afternoon, we visited the Royal Chapel. The Royal Chapel is home to the graves of Queen Isabella of Castile, King Ferdinand of Aragon, their daughter Joanna and her husband Philip, and their grandson Miguel. I was truly amazed when Professor Juan Iso informed me of the story behind Miguel. I was surprised to see the tomb so small but it was interesting to have learned that Miguel would have united the thrones of Europe if he had lived. Miguel is considered “The failed hope of a completed union,” and he would have been the King of Portugal, Aragon, and Castile. Another fact I learned was that the Catholic kings initially intended to be buried in Toledo, but after the reconquest, they decided to have the Royal Chapel constructed in Granada. With its intricate Gothic and Renaissance architecture, adorned with delicate stone carvings and dazzling stained-glass windows, the chapel showcases a blend of artistry, making it a true gem of historical and architectural significance. Visiting the Royal Chapel is not just a tour of architectural wonders; it is an immersion into the heart and soul of Spanish history. The chapel holds a trove of stories waiting to be discovered, tales of triumphs and challenges faced by the Catholic Monarchs as they sought to unite Spain and reshape its destiny.

We visited the Alhambra on the second day of our Granada trip. In the morning, we visited the Alcazar, which had the most beautiful and amazing views of Granada, I was truly amazed. The moment you set foot within the Alhambra’s walls, you are transported to a world of enchantment and wonder. The intricate Islamic architecture, with its exquisite arabesques, delicate stucco work, and mesmerizing tile mosaics, bears witness to the skilled craftsmanship of the Nasrid dynasty that once ruled these lands. The renowned Nasrid Palaces and the ruins of the nobles’ and peasants’ homes can also be found here. Next, during our morning visit, we headed to the Generalife, the refuge of the Granadine kings, which is a standalone palace in front of the Alhambra that is surrounded by orchards and gardens. I could not believe how beautiful and aesthetic all the gardens were, it felt like it was never going to end and it could last forever. When the Catholic Monarchs captured Granada in 1492, the Alhambra became a Christian court. Later, a number of buildings, including a church, a friars’ monastery, military barracks, and homes for influential people, were constructed. I also learned that the Arabic phrase for “red castle or vermilion” is the source of the name Alhambra, which may have been inspired by the color tone of the towers and walls that entirely encircle the hill of La Sabica, which appear silver under starlight but takes on a golden hue in the sunlight. We came back towards the later afternoon for our final stop at the Alhambra. I felt as if this location and area went by pretty fast, but again, seeing all the architecture continues to amaze me. It reminds me of a comment Professor Lokos made back in Toledo, we are not able to do this today because all the thought, effort, sweat and thought that went into building this cannot be done today truly, and it makes it so unique. When I first arrived in Granada, I did not feel such a strong connection as the other cities, but after visiting the Alhambra and exploring more of the area, it truly captured my attention, and I fell in love (although Toledo truly has my heart).


Written By:  Lindsay Hult ’25 (Session 2)

On July 14th we arrived in Seville, Spain from Malaga. The bus ride from Malaga was about 3 hours and many of us used that time to catch up on some sleep in order to prepare for the rest of our excursions this week. Once we arrived in Seville we checked into our hotel room and went to find lunch. We ended up at a place conveniently located right across from our hostel. After lunch the entire group came back together to walk to the Cathedral of Seville. This specific cathedral was the third largest in the world, which was amazing to experience and even more incredible to see with my own eyes.  

The cathedral was beautiful inside and out. Throughout the trip so far, we have seen multiple cathedrals and my favorite aspect of the cathedrals we have seen this trip so far has been the stained glass windows and the main altars. Specifically in the Cathedral of Seville, the stained glass windows and main altar were breathtaking. Below is a photo of the group walking towards the Cathedral of Seville for our tour!

One unique thing that the Cathedral of Seville had that the other cathedrals we have seen have not had was a “La Giralda ” which is a bell tower. We walked as a group all the way to the top, the way to the top consisted of ramps at a steady incline. There were no stairs to the top as when it was originally built, the creators made it possible for horse drawn carriages to make it to the top. When we got to the top, approximately 37 levels up the view was amazing. When you looked out at the view you could see forever, one of my favorite things I saw was the bullring in Seville where bull fights take place. I was intrigued by this because I have always known about bull fighting and matadors, however I have never seen it outside of fictional movies or television. I wish I had the opportunity to see it in real life. However, a lot of other students were just as interested as I was so we made sure to ask Juan and Professor Lokos plenty of questions. However even though I could not see a bullfight  in person I was still glad I was able to get a good view of the stadium itself. As we were wrapping up and getting ready to make the trek back down to the cathedral from “La Giralda” some of the bells actually rang right over our heads. It was incredibly loud and scary at first until we realized what was happening, but after that we quickly made our descent down before any more bells rang.

During our second day in Seville we went to Reales Alcázares  which was originally a mosque but was destroyed and remodeled into a Christain palace. The palace was filled with colorful tiles and many archways that are a staple in Spanish architecture. Along with seeing the interior of the palace, we also were able to see the Royal Alcázares gardens. The flowers and all the water fountains were gorgeous and so picturesque that no matter the angle or the lighting that you took a photo from it did not do the gardens justice. Again as we saw in  the cathedral, there were also many arches in the garden. One of my favorites that I saw was a bright orange one, which you can see in the photo. From this visit I truly was shocked at how vibrant the colors were throughout all the architecture and I was fascinated with how  many different shades of blue and greens there were. Which then got me thinking about how elaborate and extensive the building process for this palace must have been. This day in Seville it was extremely hot, but that did not hinder our experience when it came to seeing and experiencing the amazing views throughout both days. 

One of my friends and I’s favorite things to do in any city we are in is find a new gelato place. As we were strolling through the streets of Seville one day we came across a gelato place that immediately caught our eyes, it was called “La Abuela ”. I always tend to lean towards the more fruity flavors such as strawberry and mango, which were the two that I got from “La Abuela ” and it was in my opinion the best gelato we had tried on the trip so far. The mango tasted so fresh and the strawberry was very creamy and smooth. Gelato has been the perfect midday pick me up treat in between meals or right before or after siesta.

Catedral de Sevilla

Written By:  Sally Zinsner’25 (Session 2)

“Catedral de Santa María de la Sede,” or the Cathedral of Seville, is the third cathedral we have visited in Spain and the third largest Cathedral in the world. The expansive structure and magnificent 104.1m bell tower, known as La Giralda, can be seen on numerous streets throughout Seville. Upon entry into the Cathedral, a beautiful inner garden draws visitors inside. The garden has meticulously placed fountains that resemble Islamic designs and the Cathedral’s Visigothic origins that can be found all around Spain. This feature comes from the time in which Muslims controlled the now Cathedral and the then mosque; the Catholics later overtook it but kept some Islamic elements. We learned from Juan and Professor Lokos that Muslims used the fountains to wash their hands and feet before entering the Cathedral, which parallels when Jesus cleaned the feet of his twelve apostles on the night of the Last Supper. The act symbolizes a want of purity that transcends the believed religion. 

The Last Supper is a historic Catholic event that has been frequently depicted by famous artists. However, there are no paintings of the Last Supper in the Cathedral. This surprised us because of the subject’s wide prevalence in churches worldwide and in art. Instead, we were met with images of the beheaded John the Baptist and an abundant focus on Jesus, Mary, and symbolism of the Sacred Heart. Many of the side chambers and chapels demonstrated this focus on the Holy Family. This could be explained by the fact that the families who donated money for the completion of the chapels, separated from the main chamber, wanted to represent their family by portraying the image of the Holy Family. The practice assimilates to the present day with donors donating to emblemize their passion for a school or group and plant their name within it. 

We then as a group, ascended the 37 flights of ramps to reach the top of La Giralda. The windows provided a vast view of the city including Plaza de Toros, used for bullfighting and the Guadalquivir River, a historic port for transportation. La Giralda also offered us a little scare as one of the numerous bells above us rang loudly to signify the half hour mark. 

After a much easier descent from La Giralda, we could not help but notice the similarity between the Cathedral of Seville and the Cathedral of Toledo, which we visited last week. The main altar in Seville sat amidst hundreds of gold-plated religious figures adjacent on the wall, which we also saw in Toledo. Then, directly across from the main altar sat the choir box with surrounding chairs showing carvings of animals and biblical figures, another similarity to Toledo. Further, both Cathedrals have a large portrait of St. Christopher to the side of the main altar area utilizing St. Christopher as a “protector.” However, the Cathedral of Seville has a unique element that differs — next to the portrait lies the remains of Christopher Columbus. Columbus had been buried in the Dominican Republic but was later moved to the Seville Cathedral where his tomb is guarded by St. Christopher and large sculptures of soldiers. 

Another differentiating element of the Cathedral of Seville was the “Altar de Plata,” or the Altar of Silver. The Cathedral is filled with gold painted sculptures and gold sacristies, but makes this one main altar decorated with silver as a focal point. Silver offers a biblical connotation with daily trade and commoners. The use of silver shows there was a widespread belief in the purpose of the Cathedral and that religion embraces all social classes.  Showing different classes balances the presence of the family donated, gold plated chapels with an altar for the common people who believed in the same religion and constructed the Cathedral. 

Intricate detail is something the group is constantly discussing in each visit to a cathedral or historical location. The walls of the Seville Cathedral are covered from top to bottom with unbelievable design. In the Seville Cathedral, the Holy Family was the main message and placed at eye level. However, if you look up to the very top of the Cathedral, you see stained glass windows portraying numerous saints. Although difficult to discern because the images are so far away, the beauty is breathtaking, and it is worth the eye strain. 

The Cathedral of Seville and La Giralda are magnificent structures constructed with intricate detail and passion. As a Catholic baptized at a young age and one who has grown up in the Church, seeing the beauty of these Spanish landmarks has been an incredible opportunity.  Understanding the toil and passion it took to construct the structures centuries ago has had a profound impact on my faith. 

Picasso The Artist

Written By:  Sarah Crinnion ’24 (Session 2)

After a fun day at the beach in Málaga, we went to the Picasso museum! When we first walked into the museum we saw a small video of Picasso showing how he works very quickly, always standing up and very relaxed. I was blown away when our tour guide said that Picasso started painting when he was 5 years old and did it everyday for the rest of his life. My favorite part of the visit was getting to see works from a wide range of ages and styles and works that aren’t as well known. The museum was full of Picasso’s personal collection of works he didn’t try to sell so they weren’t even signed or titled. We started by seeing two portraits that he painted when he was 13 years old and I was amazed. They were extremely detailed and conveyed such strong expressions, which was extremely impressive for a 13 year old! It was very exciting to see these paintings because they were much different from the works I associate with Picasso. Our tour guide informed us that Picasso’s father was an artist and taught him how to paint in a very academic and traditional way so his early art was classical. Picasso later changed to more abstract art because he wanted to create something entirely new, which is also why he moved to Paris.

I was excited to see a painting which our tour guide said was the beginning of cubism. It has very geometric shapes and is almost abstract. Some thoughts about what it looked like were either something musical, maybe a piano or guitar strings or a cutting board, city, or soccer field. Picasso did not like to explain his work, instead he wanted us to reconstruct it to figure it out, which I really love. One of my favorite aspects of art is how one piece can evoke completely different feelings and thoughts for each person. I think Picasso created this opportunity very well.

The next painting we saw was of a young boy, his first son, with a toy and it was very realistic. Picasso created this piece later than the cubism piece, which showed how he went back and forth between cubism and more classical painting throughout his career, which is something I think is not well known so I was excited to learn about it. I also learned that at one point in his career he worked with Coco Chanel designing clothes for a ballet company which made him regain interest in classical painting, which I found super intriguing and exciting!

We also saw a sculpture of a bull’s head made out of the seat and handlebars of a bicycle that Picasso allegedly found on the side of the street. People were angry about this piece because they thought then “anyone could be an artist” if sculptures don’t have to be made from expensive materials like bronze. But Picasso believed that art should be for everybody, not just the super rich. He also viewed art as a way to take anything and transform it into whatever you want, which was a shift in the 20th century of who can be an artist and what can be called art. The bull is a strong symbol in all of his works because even though he left Spain at 19 and never came back, his Spanish roots stayed with him.

The last painting we saw was made when he was 91, which was absolutely amazing! I am so impressed that he kept painting at that age and created such a beautiful, meaningful piece. Some of the ideas about this painting were a matador because of the hat and he could be holding a sword, which would make sense given that at that time Picasso was very obsessed with Rembrant. The main thing that stood out to me about this painting was how much energy and color the painting had that wouldn’t be expected from a 91 year old.

The Muslim Reconquet

Written By:  Melissa Frausto ’25 (Session 2)

When visiting Toledo, you can visibly see the three major influences of religion: Jewish, Islam, and Christianity. These major religions created historical sites and led me to its architecture and layouts’ beauty. The influences create the beauty of this town and gearing towards its future. 

The Muslim reconquest had the community become tight-knit. Like any community would do in its difficult times. Their faith and approaches to their religion made me realize how similar religion can be. How most religions believe in a higher power. How humans and the world around them are descended from a higher power. Even when it came down to separating the groups, they still thrived in their element of morals, values, network, and trade. 

I would say that humans tend to align themselves with religions but we must remember that we thrive most when there is a community among us.

In a recent site, the Alhambra, I could not help but think about the beauty of the gardens. How the colorful selection of flowers and the walkways through them all. I was most struck by the water fountains and how these gardens are meant to get in touch with our senses and ground us in the beauty of nature. 

When we think of other countries, we often think of the stereotypical approaches and have the mindset of going to tourist places (which we did) but I know and believe that whenever we encounter these kinds of places; we need to ground ourselves. Stop the moment and take in the senses and also believe that we are where we are, Spain.

Markets and Food in Spain

Written By: Trevor Johnson ’26 (Session 2)

Spain is a country filled with a truly diverse culture. From tapas to tartas, the gastronomy of Madrid alone entertains enough dishes to have you eating something new and never before seen–every night! It was exciting to be able to go to the Antón Martín Market, filled with shops selling fresh fruit, fish, and all other kinds of delicious Spanish food! What was especially interesting to see was a stall selling olives cooked in all types of ways! The most common (and cheapest) form of Spanish markets is called an alimentacion, which directly translates to mean “nourishment,” or “nutrition.” One distinct difference between shops in the United States and those of Spain is that Spanish shops tell you exactly what they sell, then tell you the name. For example, an ice cream shop (such as Ben & Jerry’s) in the U.S. will simply show its name. It is up to the customer to either know the product or further investigate the store. In Spain, however, an ice cream shop will say heladería, a shoe shop zapatería, a fish shop pescadería, etc. These names directly and deliberately tell the customer exactly what the product is. Another difference between American and Spanish markets is this: oftentimes, Americans tend to go to a large supermarket, as opposed to a small market. This “supermarket” archetype is also present in Spain, however, from what I have experienced, aside from El Corte Inglés the most prominent form of buying food is by cultivated friendships from streetside markets. As a result, instead of chain grocery stores and mass-produced food, small markets sell fresh food, some bringing in their produce same-day! All this is not to knock Spanish supermarkets, however. The idea of an American supermarket must be put to the side when describing a Spanish one. Although the layout may be similar, the food and the regulation of it differ. As a result of this, the name supermercado does not carry the same weight as its english counterpart: “supermarket.”

The Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) is the Spanish counterpart to the FDA, with its headquarters located in Madrid. This agency regulates the sale of food in Spain, and, according to 2013 obesity rates, they’re doing a good job. Compared to the U.S.’ whopping 42.8%, only 18% of men and 16% of women were considered obese in Spain. This is, of course, partly due to the regulation of food by AESAN, but also due to the culture surrounding food in Spain.

When it comes to fast food, the U.S. can hardly be beat. With a McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts around every corner, there is no shortage of “quick bites.” In contrast, Madrid (the second biggest city in the European Union) has only 105 McDonald’s covering its 233.3 mi2, almost 20% of all McDonald’s in Spain. To put this in perspective, New York City has over 250 golden arches across its 302.6mi2, with 74 locations in Manhattan alone! The culture of fast food is by far an American one, and the lack of said culture contributes heavily to not only the consumerism tendencies of Spaniards, but also their health. 

          Because Professor Iso was feeling under the weather, Professor Lokos brought the group to Apetit’Oh!, a restaurant in downtown Madrid that specializes in cooking classes. The group had an eventful night cooking a Mixed Paella as the main course, Spanish Tortilla for the appetizer, and Santiago Cake as the dessert course. It was a fun and eventful experience for the entire group, although a few students could not eat the courses due to allergies. Nonetheless, Professor Lokos fearlessly declared the meal to be the best one cooked by students thus far. All in all, the evening was quite a bonding experience, and will not soon be forgotten by any of the chefs involved!

Toledo and the 3 Cultures

Written By:  Madeline Morton ’25 (Session 2)

This past weekend, we had our first excursion outside of Madrid to the beautiful, historical city of Toledo. Although our walk from the train station to the hotel was a grueling uphill battle with all of our luggage in the 95-degree heat, the views of the previously Visogothic kingdom surrounded by the Tagus River were well worth the journey. After crossing a bridge and passing through stunning horseshoe archway entrances, we trekked up narrow, winding staircases and entered the city. 

Toledo is known for its blending of the three main cultures of Spain: Islam, Muslim, and Christianity. This blend of cultures was quite apparent when walking up and down the cobblestone streets of the city, especially when going from synagogue to mosque to cathedral in just minutes. On our first day, we visited the Gothic-style Cathedral of Toledo. Originally the building was a Visigothic basilica, then it was a Muslim mosque for over 300 years, and finally the construction of the cathedral began in the 13th century. Wandering around this cathedral for almost two hours and exploring the endless forms of art and architecture was an incredibly emotional experience for me. I was able to learn about the history of the cathedral and hear descriptions of the breathtaking sculptures and paintings by renowned artists and the magnificent “Transparente”, as well as light a candle and say a prayer for my uncle. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that I found out minutes later that this cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The feast of the Assumption of Mary is August 15; which is also the same day my uncle passed away; one of the holiest days in the Catholic tradition, when Mary, mother of Jesus, ascended into Heaven.

It was beautiful to be able to appreciate my own culture and then the next day be able to have another personal experience within a different culture. After a delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel, we saw two synagogues, a monastery, and a mosque. The first synagogue, Transito Synagogue, was named after a painting of the Assumption of Mary that was placed in the synagogue when it was converted into a church after the expulsion of Jewish and Muslim people from Spain in 1492. Entering another building that was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary felt like another sign from my uncle. It was interesting to see how even after the expulsion of Jewish people from Spain due to the Christain Reconquest, remnants of all three cultures still remain prominent in Toledo. Throughout the city, and throughout all of the religious buildings we visited there was an evident blending of the cultures that became so much more meaningful when I felt the blend of the cultures impact my own experience. 

One of the main themes throughout our course is “convivencia”, regarding the period of Spanish history when Muslims, Jews, and Christains lived together in harmony and weaved their three cultures together. In just the first week of classes discussing the construction of identity in Spain, we learned about history’s importance in shaping one’s identity. If you know your history, you know where you’re coming from, and maybe you can figure out where you are. Unfortunately for the case of many cultures, the people in power have often determined the sole personal identities of Spain. Religion has often been used as an excuse to conquer and control people and territories. However, despite the constant lack of tolerance in a country that was built on tolerance, Toledo was a wonderful representation of the beauty of sharing culture, as well a reminder of the pain that’s caused by taking one’s culture away.