A Life Changing Semester in Madrid

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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.)

For those of us who have caught the bug and want to see where they'll tie the knot, the Almudena Cathedral, right next-door to the palace, is free of charge. It's stunning inside and out; take particular notice of its brightly-colored ceilings.

When in Rome

How could I live in Spain and not go to a bullfight or two? Though I wasn't sure how I would react to the corrida de toros, I soon found myself shouting "Ole!" as the matador completed artistic passes with his cape. The excitement is especially evident now that Madrid is in the thick of the fair devoted to its patron saint, Isidro; there's a fightevery day from now to June 5.

Tickets at Plaza de Las Ventas start at just $3.60-$4.25. Yet the less you pay, the more you'll sweat (and I can attest, burn), as seats in the sun (sol) are generally cheaper than those in the shade (sombra). In any case, they tend to sell fast.

Other seats that sell out quickly are to soccer--ahem, futbol--games. While I went mainly to see Beckham and what were once his long golden locks, true madrileños are devoted to all of their home team, RealMadrid. Tickets sell for as little as 15-$18 at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, or call 902 324 324.

After seeing the toros and cheering on the team, it's time to go out (calling this Madrid's nightlife is hardly accurate, as things usually don't get started until at least midnight). My budget Bible for finding out about theater, concerts, restaurants, clubs and special events is the Guia del Ocio, a weekly Spanish magazine published every Friday and available at newsstands for $1.20. For English publications, I read InMadrid and The Broadsheet, free at many bars and bookstores.

The great outdoors

The rain in Spain often fell mainly on the plain this winter, so I didn't get as much outdoors time as I would have wished. But when I did I often explored the city's Retiro Park. Like New York's Central Park, Retiro Park is always bustling with activity, especially on weekends. Top sights? The numerous free street entertainersand the exhibitionist young lovers publicly displaying their affection for one another (another favorite Spanish pastime). The $4.75 my friend and I spent to rent a rowboat on the lake for 45 minutes was well worth it, even if people did laugh at us for our less-than-stellar rowing ability.

Another relaxing option is the Botanical Gardens ($2.40 adults, $1.20 for students, free for seniors, children under 10), where I leisurely walked around this "living museum" that dates back to the 18th century.  It's filled with plants from around the world, from tulips to cacti.  Curiously enough, I found myself stopping to read the labels.  Who knew I had an inner botanist waiting to come out?

Jumping from plants to pharaohs, the Templo de Debod, an authentic Egyptian temple with beautiful reflecting pools, is one of my favorite spots in all of Madrid.  Not only is there free entrance to the temple, but the site also affords a picturesque overlook.

Sunday mornings are often reserved for a visit to the Rastro, an outdoor flea market to beat all flea markets. This is where I pick up inexpensive souvenirs ($3.50 black-market CDs of the latest Spanish craze, $5 scarves). I've tried my hand at haggling with the vendors to bajar el precio (lower the price), and always make sure to watch my purse--pickpockets frequent this area--or this budget activity could turn costly.

Finally, I've never appreciated life and how lucky I am to be in Madrid--even with the horror of the attacks--as much as when I sit in the Plaza Mayor, listening to the strumming of guitars and watching the tourists and natives interact.  The former generally gravitate toward the tourism office there, where they pick up free maps to guide them around some of the city's most beautiful plazas, such as Plaza del Oriente and Plaza de España. 

And yet it is difficult to walk around Madrid without being reminded of the recent events, whether I'm witnessing an anti-war rally in the Puerta del Sol or reading the sorrowful memorials at the Atocha train station.

Being in Madrid during such trying times has forever linked me with this city. It is a place I hope to return to, for despite the tragedy, I had some of the best experiences of my life here.

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