Nine Iona students headed out on a world adventure April 6. For nine days, they immersed themselves in the culture and language of Spain, blending classroom lessons with natural curiosity. And all during the most Holy season of the year.
Their first stop was Barcelona, the ancient city founded by the Phoenicians and named by the Romans, which is now a bustling international metropolis by the Mediterranean Sea. For some of our students, this was the first trip outside of North America, so everything was new. Our hotel in Barcelona was just steps from the famous “Ramblas” Street, with its florists, cafes and shopping venues. While many of the students study or had studied Spanish, being in Spain gave them direct experience with using their language skills. From greeting people, to ordering food, to shopping, to asking for directions, students were asked to extend themselves and at least try to use the native language.
In Barcelona, the tour had students riding to the highlights on bicycles, a fun way to see the beach areas, the location of the 1992 Olympics, and the graceful and elegant Santa Maria del Mar, made famous in the novel by Falcones, Cathedral of the Sea. The majesty, tradition and grandeur of the Catholic faith were also evident in a visit to the Gaudí masterpiece of architecture, the Church of the Holy Family.
On the way to Madrid, they visited the national Marian shrine in Zaragoza, called “Our Lady of the Pillar.” While the image of Mary, who appeared there in the Middle Ages, is small in stature, the students were impressed by the crowds of pilgrims visiting the sanctuary and were thrilled to experience their first Holy Week procession. Like all Spaniards, the students made their way into the various cafes surrounding the shrine to order their first tapas, though they might not have always been adventurous. One student ordered “lágrimas de pollo,” which sounded great in translation, “tears of chicken,” but turned out to be chicken fingers.
Royal Madrid impresses with its Royal Palace and the great Plaza Mayor. There the students also got a day immersed in some of the greatest art in the West during a tour at the Prado. They experienced Bosch, Velázquez, Rubens, Goya and many others. This laid the groundwork for viewing arguably the most important painting of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” a Cubist work depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. But they also got to see the stadium of Real Madrid and capped off the day with “churros and chocolate” a few blocks from the Times Square of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol.
The richness of the layers of history in Spain was laid bare at the next location, Mérida, a major Roman city and site of an amphitheater and theater. After a leisurely lunch, they headed further south into Andalusia, the last bastion of the Moorish occupiers of Spain. Seville boasts one of the greatest minarets of Islam, now a bell tower called “La Giralda.” The students climbed it after seeing the cathedral and Moorish palace to get great view of the surroundings. Later, they got to experience the moving Holy Week processions at night with folks from Seville, all over Spain, and all over the world. It is difficult to describe the mysteriously beautiful and rich processions that the natives put on almost non-stop for the entire week, replete with music, floats and thousands of anonymous participants clad in medieval garb. All could honestly say that they had never seen anything like it in their lives, and it helped give them a sense of the depth of our Catholic traditions and heritage.
On the last day, the students traveled to one of the great fortress towns of southern Spain, La Ronda. It is perched at the very top of a mountain and commands a view of the area for miles around. The town served as a mainstay in the defense of the country and was very important in the development of modern bullfighting rules and traditions. With this last visit, the students could say that they had experienced just about every aspect of the Spanish reality.