My experience abroad with CIEE was made most memorable by the organized excursions and activities. I studied in Alcalá de Henares, Spain and my class schedule revolved around the siesta culture: I attended two classes per day for a total of five hours with a break midday for coffee and snacks with friends in the plaza, and classes would be done by 2pm. School took place Monday through Thursday, and Fridays were reserved for CIEE activities included with the program, although they could sometimes take place during the week as trips that connected to classes through the university. These excursions were entirely optional but great ways to bond with other students within the CIEE program and outside, and I was able to build Spanish proficiency through conversations with staff members. Overall, trips aided with my immersion and brought cultural awareness.
Some of my favorite trips revolved around food. Going to restaurants familiarized me with new vocabulary and introduced me to new cuisine. One of our first group activities was a restaurant outing in Madrid where I accidentally ordered fish thinking it was chicken. With time, I learned to recognize words on the menu and loved trying new things. I enjoyed granizados (slushies) with CIEE staff members and patatas bravas (a spicy potato tapa) overlooking the San Juan reservoir in Madrid. I highly recommend lemon Fanta which is only available in Europe and tastes delicious, which I frequently ordered to accompany my food.
The CIEE excursions helped me acclimate to my new surroundings. I learned how to use the train to visit Madrid with the help of CIEE staff members, and in turn how to organize trips and travel on my own. The easy access to public transportation made travel throughout Spain possible, including vacations to places such as San Sebastián, Valencia, Barcelona, and Granada. I never needed to take a flight because trains and buses were so reliable. My friends and I took advantage of our free time on the weekends and went to museums (for free with our student cards!), Puerta del Sol and surrounding shopping sites, the Rastro market place on Sundays where I bought fun souvenirs, and the pride parade in July in Madrid, as well as the local pool in Alcalá de Henares to relax on a hot day.
My Favorite Adventures:
The best excursion through CIEE has to be our kayaking trip: a tour guide led us through the San Juan reservoir, taking occasional breaks to rest on the sand and swim in the water. The views were incredible and we ended the day eating food overlooking the water and mountains.
Other very fun excursions that were possible due to their proximity to Madrid were day trips to Toledo, Segovia, and el Escorial. In Toledo, we stopped at a point that overlooked the entire city and received guided walking tours through the city and many beautiful churches and synagogues. Segovia was also beautiful and we saw the famous Roman aqueducts. We received a tour of the Alcazar de Segovia, which is a famous castle. My favorite castle, however, was el Escorial. Its exterior makes it seem much smaller than it truly is: I believe we explored its gardens and rooms for hours and still did not get to see every feature. I loved the artwork in its library hall and the history that the tour guide shared with us, as well as the massive church within. All are so rich with history and I was fascinated by our visits.
CIEE planned very meaningful activities to build our exposure to Spanish culture and promote learning. I liked how well my course selection applied to my surroundings: I took art history and culture and civilization of Spain courses, among others, which connected directly to exhibits in the Reina Sofia and Prado museums and the historical sights we visited during the program. These opportunities took the stress away from needing to plan my own excursions and I enjoyed attending them with friends. They sparked my love for Spain and I hope to return again soon!