It had been a hectic few months, replete with demands of work and school. I wanted to take advantage of Spring Break and the relative lull before the rush of completing the Spring semester and all that awaited at my day job. But where to go?
The study of rhetoric (one of the semester’s topics) of necessity has made frequent mention of Greece in general, and Athens specifically. Add to the academic tie in that Athens was one of those bucket list places not yet visited, so Greece was a logical choice. As is so often the case, however, options were kept open. As travel plans came together, a side excursion to Spain became an additional bonus. As it turns out, it was two side excursions. Travel both to and from Athens involved overnight layovers in Madrid.
This was my second time visiting Spain. The first trip occurred when a small team from Special Operations Command was diverted from a training mission to Mali, due to a coup there, and we conducted the training in Spain. Another blog on that trip will be forthcoming.
Someday I plan to spend a lot more time in Spain. These short trips are great, but it is difficult to really immerse oneself in the culture in a limited time. Spain is a beautiful country with an amazingly rich history. I long ago fell in love with it vicariously through the writing of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and his protagonists, the Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza. Don Quixote was, by the way, chosen by the Nobel Society as the greatest novel ever written. It’s not hard to see why if you spend any time at all with the book. In addition to this being my favorite book and the world’s greatest novel, it is considered to be the first modern novel and was written by a Spaniard.
So, what can one learn about Madrid on two 36-hour layovers spaced a week apart? Quite a lot, actually. I learned that Madrid is the largest city in Spain, the third-largest in the European Community, and was originally founded as Mayrit under the emir Muhammad at the end of the IX century. Madrid’s importance is owed mainly to this period of Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Before this time, Toledo had been the cultural center of Spain. This is a beautiful city with vibrant nightlife and an amazing history and culture.
Spain is the second-largest country in the European Union and was the world’s third most popular tourist destination in 2013 — after France and the US, attracting a record of 60.6 million visitors. It occupies about 85% of the Iberian Peninsula, with Portugal taking up the rest. Portugal was mentally added to the must-see list and was visited later, that blog to follow. The area that now comprises Spain was unified with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469. Before the 15th Century, this area was made up of several different kingdoms.
Spain has an amazingly rich heritage with incredible possibilities for the future. Of all nations in the world, Spain has the third-largest number (44) of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Only Italy (49) and China (45) have more. But looking to the present and future, Spain was the first country in the world where wind power was the greatest source of electricity. Red Eléctrica de España (REE), operators of Spain’s electricity system, revealed that in 2013 wind turbines generated over just under 54,000-gigawatt-hours of power, which is a fifth of the nation’s usage.
While I didn’t notice evidence of this, 40% of the Spanish population is over 60 years old and the UN projects it will be the oldest nation in the world by 2050. Another interesting demographic statistic is that while this statistic is getting better, only half of adults aged 15–64 have a high school diploma.
Fantastic architecture abounds in Madrid. Among the most beautiful buildings here is the Almudena Cathedral. This cathedral was only consecrated in 1993 by Pope John Paul II, but like so many things in Spain, there is a long and interesting history here. When the capital of Spain was moved from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the seat of the Catholic Church in Spain remained in Toledo. This was because Madrid had no Cathedral. There were plans to build a cathedral, to be dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena as early as the 1500s. However, attention was on expansion into the new world rather than domestic construction. Finally, construction began on Almudena in 1879, and Almudena Cathedral is now the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid.
This trip was NOT good for my diet. Of course, enjoying the local food is one of the great joys of travel, but in Spain alone, I think I gained a couple of pounds. But hey, it’s vacation and calories on vacation don’t count. Right? No?
As a little fun-fact, there is no tooth fairy in Spain. When Spanish children lose a tooth, they put it under their pillow, and a small mouse called Ratoncito Pérez comes to collect it and leaves a small gift or money in its place.
And a bonus fun-fact, did you know there are two Spanish cities in Africa? I learned this during my first trip to Spain. Cueta and Melilla are part of Spain but are actually across the Strait of Gibraltar. I learned about these two Spanish enclaves in Africa during a side trip to Morocco, which actually claims both cities as Moroccan territory.