A Life Changing Semester in Madrid Enjoying the wonders of this cosmopolitan hot spot in the midst of the tragedy and political upheaval of the last six months Budget Travel Friday, May 21, 2004, 12:00 AM Budget Travel LLC, 2016


A Life Changing Semester in Madrid

Enjoying the wonders of this cosmopolitan hot spot in the midst of the tragedy and political upheaval of the last six months

MADRID, Spain - Not again. Not here. Not now.

When I began Syracuse University's study abroad program in January, I pictured my semester in Madrid consisting of leisurely days eating tortilla and sipping sangria. This was going to be a way to hide for awhile, to get away from the evils of the world.

Then came March 11, and the terrorist bombs that killed at least 192 people also shattered my naïve expectations. Spain was subsequently thrown to the forefront of international news, with an upset election and the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq.

So much for getting away from it all.

Two months later, the frequent security announcements over the Metro loudspeakers and guards wearing neon orange vests are constant reminders of what Madrid has been through. Yet this city full of people with an indestructible love for life is trying to get back to normal, whatever that might be nowadays.

From my standpoint, normal is not letting the terrorist attacks dissuade me from going to crowded, popular places and visiting some of the most beautiful sites in Madrid, including museums, national landmarks and outdoor attractions. Of I just hide away at school, then the terrorists win (cliched but true).

Nor am I put off by the lousy exchange rate, as $1 now buys me a measly 0.85 euros. I'm going to get out and see it all before I leave--the city's attractions remain open to the public, and my favorite places usually cost no more than 15¬, relatively little dinero.

Here are just a few of the treasures that made my semester in Madrid--despite the  terrorism, and despite my relative poverty--the adventure of a lifetime.

The "cure" of culture

My student checkbook doesn't allow me the freedom to spend at will, so Madrid's plentiful museums are a lifesaver. Most charge no more than 5¬ and have one or more days when they are free.

I'm no art buff, but I've proudly learned to tell a Goya from an El Greco at the world-famous Prado, which houses approximately 8,600 paintings, including Velazquez's masterpiece, "Las Meninas." It's worth much more than the 3-$3.55 admission, which happily for me I haven't had to pay as discounts and/or free entry are available for students, the unemployed and visitors under 18 and over 65. Sundays are best because they are free for everyone, as they are for most museums in Madrid. (Note that most museos are closed on Mondays.)

I tried my hand at modern art at the Reina Sofia (same fees as Prado in addition to free Saturday afternoons). There I stood awed in front of yet another masterpiece, Picasso's famous "Guernica", a particularly moving painting to view in light of recent events.

I didn't make it to the Thyssen-Bornemisza (4.80/$5.70) but I could have done so relatively inexpensively with my student ID card. But even had I been a "normal" visitor the cost would have been low had I purchased the Paseo del Arte, a combined pass to all three museums for just 7.66¬.

But there were more than enough other museums to fill my time as Madrid offers a museum for every interest. At the National Anthropology Museum (2.40-$2.80; free Saturday afternoons and Sundays), I examined Egyptian tombs and stood dwarfed by a mammoth's skull. Still more animal heads awaited me at the Bullfighting Museum (free), which also offers an impressive-- if not slightly morbid--display of matadors' torn, blood-stained garments.

All in the family

Waiting in line among swarms of chatty tourists isn't exactly my idea of fun, but it's worth it to see something as impressive as the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace ($9.50 entrance; 3$4.15 for students, children 5-16). Besides, the crowds helped me out--I saved a few euros by opting out of the guided tour and joining one that had already started. (This, of course, only worked because I was fortunate enough to speak the tour guide's language. I apologize to those who may view this practice as unethical but maintain that I am a poor student.) Visitors also walk through at their own pace; both times I've gone, I've spent much of my time in Charles III's throne room, enchanted with its decadent red velvet walls.

The palace will be closed from May 17-23 for the royal wedding of Prince Felipe and his journalist-bride, Letizia. Spaniards are a bit obsessed with the couple, and it's a fever that catches easily. I have come pretty darn close to buying numerous items--key chains, plates, even thimbles--with their images on them. (Let's hope I hold out.)

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