I peered out the bus window as we drove from the airport in Madrid to our new home for the summer, Ciudad Real. Looking out at the rolling hills of olive trees as far as the eye could see, I knew that we were far from the rolling corn fields of Indiana, but I didn't know exactly what the summer had in store for me. Four years later, I made the same trip from Madrid to Ciudad Real but this time as a college student studying for the semester in Madrid. I looked out at the endless rows of olive trees as I zipped by on Spain's famous high-speed AVE train. Excited to go back to visit my Ciudad Real host family and reflecting upon my first Spain adventure, I could truthfully say that Summer 2004 in Ciudad Real was one of the most fun, interesting, and influential summers of my life.
Located in the middle of the region Castilla-La Mancha–that's right, home of the famous character, Don Quixote de la Mancha!–Ciudad Real is a perfect little city to explore on a 7-week trip. It's large enough to keep you busy but small enough that it's easy to find your way around and feel at home within the first couple of weeks. So, while I'm confident that anyone could figure out Ciudad Real with ease, who wouldn't like a little peek of what's to come? Whether you're considering applying to the IU Honors Program or you've already been accepted and want to know what to expect, I'd like to give everyone the "inside scoop" on the city that I fell in love with and the summer program that I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in Spanish and a hankering for adventure!
Must Do's in Downtown Ciudad Real
Our favorite hang-out spot downtown was Helados Moran, a tiny ice-cream shop in the middle of Ciudad Real's Plaza Mayor. You can't miss this old-fashioned shop front with its wooden trim and big brown awning. My classmates and I would flock there after school before going home to our host families. It was fun to grab a couple scoops of ice cream (Try the Philadelphia cheesecake or Nutella flavors–you won't regret it!) and sit out by the fountain in the smack-dab middle of town on a hot summer day. But, watch out for the speedy kids playing soccer–Spaniards take their soccer very seriously!
For a more historic hot-spot, check out the Iglesia de San Pedro. This gorgeous Gothic church is right around the corner from Helados Moran and, quite conveniently, stands among the best streets for shopping in the city. After browsing through all the great Spanish stores like Zara, Sfera, and Mango–which will all have their summer REBAJAS (sales!) when you're there–I would take a load off at this beautiful monument in the middle of the city's hustle-and-bustle.
Finally, for all of you with a big appetite and a high-schooler's budget, one of my favorite places to go with my host brother was a busy little tapas bar called La Cabaña. At La Cabaña you can get a glass of "Mosto" (white grape juice before it's made into white wine–it's sweet and delicious!) for 1.5 €. With it comes a free plate of tapas! And I'm not talking about a little saucer of cheese or olives, I mean a large plate of Spain's famous Patatas Bravas (potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce), chicken kebabs, and more! It's small, a little cramped, but loud and lively–a true Spanish tapas-eating experience!
Back to School for the Summer?!
Conversation, Grammar, Culture, Phonetics, and Literature class–while this may not seem like the most fun way to spend your summer days, don't let it fool you. This is not ordinary school! The professors are young, fun, and engaging. It's a great time to get to know your new classmates and friends and to get comfortable speaking Spanish 24-7. For homework, we would write journal entries or read famous Spanish stories and poems. Going through these stories in Literature class at a nice, slow pace had me breezing through these works when they popped up again in my Intro to Spanish Lit classes in college! Also, my favorite homework was for Culture class when we had to learn Spanish refranes, or sayings.
These are every-day phrases that Spaniards use in casual conversation. If an American student were to translate these phrases word-for-word, they would make absolutely no sense. So, it was time to get our host families in on these homework assignments! We'd sit around the table at Spanish dinner time, 10:00 PM–usually on the deck, as Spaniards love to be outside in the summer–and my family would chuckle as I'd try to decipher the sayings. Eventually, of course, they would gladly give me the answers and, for the rest of the trip, I felt like I was in-the-know as I recognized these phrases on the streets and on television. I still remember the first Spanish saying that I learned: "Divertirse como un enano", "To have a lot of fun" or, if translated literally, "To have fun like a little dwarf!" This was definitely the perfect phrase to know to describe our summer in Ciudad Real.
Finally, when I was an IU Honors student, classes were at a community center on the outskirts of town with a pool and tennis courts behind it where we would hang out after class. Now, the program has upgraded to a private school in downtown Ciudad Real where classes are held Monday through Thursday. Also, there is a gym near the entrance of town where we were given discounted, short-term memberships. I loved going with my host mom to aerobics classes and meeting other young Spaniards at the gym.
Oh! The Places You'll Go…
While we were in classes Monday-Thursday, the weekends were spent exploring the rest of Spain. We walked through the home of the Spanish artist El Greco and bought the famous little artisan swords from Toledo. In Madrid, we walked through the luxurious rooms of the Royal Palace, explored El Prado–one of the most famous museums of art in the world–and ate a picnic lunch in the beautiful "Parque de Retiro" in downtown Madrid. My favorite excursion was to Granada, home of Spanish flamenco dancing and La Alhambra, a gorgeous group of Moorish fortresses atop a hill. My friends and I spent hours wandering from palace to palace, through mazes of gardens, along ponds speckled with lily pads, and in and out of stone rooms and terraces decorated with beautifully carved Arabic poetry. We finally made it to the top of the hill where we must have taken a thousand pictures looking out over the cliff and down onto Granada. It was a view I'll never forget!
We definitely went to amazing places, but getting there was a big part of the fun. We would turn up Spanish pop music on the bus, like David Bisbal's popular song "Ave Maria"–which we later had our Spanish hosts families dancing to when we performed our funny and totally amateur a cappella rendition at the end-of-the-summer performance. I also had many hilarious conversations sitting next to new friends on the bus and trying to get to know each other entirely in Spanish. It was like a real-life game of Taboo when we couldn't figure out a Spanish word that we needed to say! Eventually, though, we got so used to getting to know each other in Spanish that I remember feeling silly when we spoke to each other in English for the first time when we got home! This was truly a tribute to how great the program was and how much we all improved in our ability to communicate in Spanish.
Years have passed since I went on the IU Honors Program. Some things may have changed–like the school building or perhaps even some of the excursions; but, as a not-so-recent alum, I can speak to how the program influenced me and the opportunities that I was able to tackle thanks to my experiences through IU Honors. I feel like I have a whole new branch of my family, my host family in Ciudad Real. In fact, I’ve seen my host family three times since the end of the program. I chose to do Spanish as one of my majors in college and found that I had an advantage among many of my fellow classmates in my ability to communicate and read in Spanish. I went back to Spain and spent a semester studying at a Spanish university and interning in Madrid. And, as a recent college graduate, I am seriously considering making my career in the field of International Education as I truly appreciate the importance for American students to get out there and see the world. In my opinion, Ciudad Real is a perfect place to start!