Elsa Chung : Vuelta España 2022

To be honest, it took a lot of courage for me to register for this Espana Study Abroad with FIU Honors College. In reality, I received questions like “Aren’t you already studying abroad as an international student in the US?”. Yes, that’s definitely right. So what made me move forward with the decision of participating in another study abroad program? Since it’s the last summer of my undergraduate college life, I want it to be special to the point that when looking back, I will always be reminded of how cool my journey at FIU was, not only covering academic aspects within the campus but also, taking into account all of the extracurricular activities I did. 

Photos by Nhi Truong // CC by 4.0

Being an international student means being familiarized with staying far from home, living independently, making my own decisions, and doing everything by myself and for myself. Hence, I thought there wouldn’t be much difference when coming to Spain since I’m so used to studying abroad. Additionally, I did have many chances to take part in another summer study abroad program to different nations while I was in middle school at a really young age, eleven to be specific. Nonetheless, for those times, I was going with a group of other Vietnamese students who speak the same language and share the same culture but in a foreign country. 

This time was a whole new different experience. I am the only non-US citizen nor have any connection to historical or cultural roots in Spain. All of my family were born and raised in Vietnam, a Southeast Asia developing country. I consider our traditions and customs to be very conservative which is contradictory to the Western culture, either American or European countries. Therefore, traveling with a group of Americans in an alien nation posed a real challenge to me. 

“This is a class, not a vacation!”- Professor John Bailly shouted as a notice that we are here to continue studying the influence of Espana on the Americas (Vuelta). “But I’m not even American” – I thought to myself in a confused manner. In all fairness, I found myself lost several times visiting historic sites carrying deep-rooted values associated with Americans and Spaniards. 

Apart from that, the purpose of this project is designed to be a reflection on our “personal and societal commonalities and differences with Spanish history and culture”. To my realization, I certainly fall under the category of not having any link and relation to its practices. Even though this can be unfavorable to me, I will try my best to turn it into an opportunistic circumstance as a person first exposed to Spanish roots, tales, and customs, curiously exploring this civilization with a fresh state of mind and freely embracing what the cities have to offer.


the capital’s premier park

On our first walking lecture in Madrid, we visited El Retiro, the city’s green lungs with a total area of 152 hectares and is made up of more than 15,000 plants. To me, it is more than just a park. There were many stalls of books situated next to one another on an upward hill leading to the main entrance. This literary spot was known as Cuesta de Claudio Moyano. The first stall I went across was a booth for tourists where multiple travel guides appeared in the form of colorful pamphlets, leaflets, and brochures were displayed. These guides presented popular attractions and were divided into categories like Art & Culture, Parks & Gardens, Tapas & Markets,… All of these recommended directories were complimentary so feel free to grab some of them! 

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

The purpose of this huge urban park was to be enjoyed by King Felipe IV in the middle of the 17th century. Despite being partially destroyed during the War of Independence, the park regained its charm and elegance, eventually opening to the public. 

Interestingly, there were numerous sites to view in El Retiro, including symbolic monuments, art galleries, lakes, statutes, and majestic buildings. On top of that, this is such an ideal place for recreational activities. From my observation, I saw people coming there doing different kinds of tasks. As for inner peace practice, reading books, doing yoga, painting or meditating are the best forms of relaxation. Otherwise, upbeat activities like running, dancing, playing sports, rollerblading, and performing music are also very common. Since this is a major site, there will always be a spot for you to do whatever you want. 

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

We were so lucky that we lived just 20 minutes from El Retiro. Hence, we decided to come back there and held a late birthday celebration for our dear Catherine as an intimate picnic. It was absolutely one of the highlights of my trip that we had so much fun that night. Stories told, laughs shared, tears shed were what made us become so much closer.

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

 While having fun, I did notice that our group stood out the most among all of the ones on the lawn. We talked loudly, made jokes, and sang songs, that the others did not. They gave us kind of a judgmental look and I bet they could tell that we were tourists. At that moment, I was aware that even though this is a public park, people here are very cautious about keeping the place in calmness and tranquility, respecting the societal zone in this nature-appreciation site.

If I were asked to pick a favorite spot of Retiro, it would definitely be the Estanque lying in the heart of the park – an artificial lake where visitors can rent rowboats and take gorgeous pictures. Just lingering around the lakeside and listening to an impromptu jazz band was already delightful. The extravagant monument overlooking the lake is a remembrance of Alfonso XII, the Peace-Maker King. In full military regalia and mounted, he stands atop the 30-meter-monument and surveys the surroundings. 

As a flower-lover, of course, I couldn’t miss La Roselada (Rose Garden) – an angelic land that forms an elliptical shape, hidden in a corner of the park. This glorious land is the work of Cecilio Rodriguez, to recreate the charmingly graceful rose gardens raised in other dominant European capitals. Thousands of roses of favored varieties welcome visitors enthusiastically. The moment I stepped into the garden, I was awestruck by its fabulousness.

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

Exiting La Roselada, the statue of the Fallen Angel being exiled from Hell stood contradictorily. While the Rose Garden is a heavenly place, no one could expect to encounter Satan just by walking distance from it. This is said to be the one-of-a-kind sculpture in the world representing the devil, situated at 666 meters above sea level purposely. The fountain is a work of Ricardo Bellver for his inspiration of Milton’s Paradise Lost, depicting God’s punishment on Lucifer by being cast into hell. Not only is the sculpture praised for its materials and designs, but also for the artistic value of the expressions on the face and other enigmatic details. The angel’s body is surrounded by a seven-headed serpent, an emblematic animal for the devil. 

The garden, which is located on the banks of the River Manzanares, was first a botanical collection owned by King Ferdinand VI in 1755 when botany was a royal pastime. Later on, during the reign of King Charles III, it was moved to its present location, on the Paseo del Prado. The reason for the change of site was due to the King’s wish to build a complex devoted to Madrid’s natural sciences. Until now, its scientific essence still holds as it is being looked after by Spain’s National Scientific Research Research Council. 

As my group mates and I entered the garden, we were all in awe of the distinctive plants, flowers, and herbs all around the world. Interestingly, each of them has a label detailing the exact name, species, and its origin. In particular, the first frame of the garden features ornamental plants like daffodils, hellebores, camellias, rhododendrons, tulips and salvias. These flowers can be seen from February up to December because of the wide range of species and varieties. A flowering calendar table of each type is shown at the front of this section. 

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

Our walk to the garden was full of excitement and curiosity. Each small path led us to an unexpected spot where we thought we were in a maze looking for little surprises. Within this 8-hectare-garden, approximately more than 5,600 species of live plants are distributed into specific terraces and greenhouses. The gigantic greenhouses are among some of the most noticeable structures. The Exhibition (Display) Greenhouse, namely, faithfully captures the spirit and soul of this institution. Here, a thousand species are cultivated in different regions: tropical, desert, and warm weather.

My favorite section of the greenhouse was the “room” full of various types of cacti. This was my first time seeing this many cacti species in reality. In fact, I didn’t even know cacti come in so many shapes and sizes. Wandering to the end, we encounter this so-called “Estufa de las Palmas” – a special exhibition of plants that couldn’t stand outdoor conditions, such as ferns and mosses. There was also a small pond containing little aquatic plants and animals like water lilies and frogs.

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

For me, the whole cool shady ambiance with mist spraying all over recalled the exact vibe of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami at night. It was like a perfect escape from the intense heat burning outside. What I love most about coming to the botanic garden is that it’s not merely an exhibition of plants but a place to learn botanic in-depth, appreciate the discovery of new species, and be able to classify them. 

 In 1942, the Real Jardin Botanico was proudly declared an Artistic Garden. On top of that, a significant botanical research center is also being housed by the garden as an academic institution studied by scientists and graduate students. The main goal is to interpret the diversity of plants as well as how it can be preserved. Especially, with the assistance of up-to-date technology, this research is mainly focused on Spanish and American flora.


a historical neighborhood full of narrow, winding medieval streets

With a history of more than 2,000 years, the charming Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) is one of the most well-known neighborhoods of the whole city. The area, full of charisma and intriguing history, embraces the oldest components of Barcelona, including the remnants of the Roman wall and many dominant medieval landmarks.

The Quarter has a special position where it is bounded by the port to the south, Les Rambles to the west, and the major Plaça de Catalunya in the northeast. Its medieval networks of small, winding alleyways and secret plazas enchant both residents and visitors.

Constructed on the foundations of Barcino, a flourishing Roman colony established there in the first century B.C., the Gothic character of the neighborhood did not emerge well until the Middle Ages. Not until then that new churches and palaces were framed in this architectural style. 

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

Surprisingly, here comes the secret: despite being “real” Gothic for a significant era of its history, historians claim that several monuments and landmarks we see today are actually neo-Gothic. Proof givens are they were, in fact, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Cathedral of Barcelona, whose current façade dates from 1913 construction, is arguably the most well-known example.

The Portal del Bisbe (Bishop’s Gate), one of the primary Roman gateways to the Old City, is the notable entrance to the Gothic Quarter. The towers were built in the first century BC, but the adjoining Bishop’s Palace from the 18th century is where the name came from. The city’s Roman name, “Barcino,” is written in sculpted letters by Catalan artist Joan Brossa.

Located in the city’s heart, Barri Gòtic harmonizes historic artifacts dating back to the time it was ruled under the Romans through the Spanish Civil War with a thriving contemporary culture of artisan stores and legitimate food experiences. Zealous tourists will be delighted to uncover quaint terraces and an “alive” plaza surrounded by several small restaurants, bars, and local musical performances up until late at night. 

If Barcelona were to have a defined character, its distinct “personalities” and aesthetics would be certainly portrayed by Antoni Gaudi, an eminent Catalan architect who spent most of his life “shaping” the city. This Spanish-born artist incorporated some of his featured works into emblematic structures and symbolic buildings. Of those, one of his early projects upon graduating recall the street lamps in Placa Reial – the noble square. Today, even though they might appear insignificant in contrast to the enormous palm trees and encircling clubs, and cafes, the lamps still stand recognizably as Gaudi’s iconic creations.

The plaza is said to be one of the most lively and bustling spots of the city, especially at night. The young Gaudi’s two streetlamps are located on either side of the central fountain, surmounted by a dragon and a winged helmet. The royal palm trees embellish the square, adding a little tropical vibe.

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

Situated on each side are identical aristocratic buildings with porticoes and terracotta decorations. Used to be the residence of prominent Barcelona families, the site now, unfortunately, loses its affluent presence to a bohemian setting.

Local residents and tourists come here most often during lunchtime. Captivated by the lively ambiance, I and my three other friends (Juli, Jeanine, Leah) stopped at an Italian restaurant with Mediterranean essence called Rossini in the square for lunch. Having authentic food in Barcelona’s main square was a unique experience. As we were enjoying our food, there were street performers and acrobats going around and performing in each section. Professional, skillful, and enthusiastic were what impressed us.

Sitting there and indulging in the vibrant atmosphere reminded me of the exact same feeling of sitting in Plaza Mayor in Madrid. These are both the grandest square in each city and I was glad that I chose to stop by a restaurant or a cafe to oversee the whole spirited vibe. Suddenly a random question popped up in my head “Why are there so many plazas and squares in Spain?”

Photos by Elsa Chung // CC by 4.0

I then realize that all squares are located in the heart of the city that contain many major buildings, monuments, and sculptures,… telling the rich history of the respective communities. These plazas are deeply incorporated into Spanish society, serving as public gathering places and a central site for cultural festivals, celebrations, or special occasions.

By their names, they usually come in the shape of a square or a semi-circle with the main structure, statue, landmark, or fountain being placed in the center. The custom of having in the heart of each city dates back to a royal order issued by the country’s Spanish monarchs that every city needed a central gathering place. As a result, plazas developed into locations for markets, local stores, public executions of justice, celebrations of specific occasions, and even theater performances.

Carpe Diem

Professor John William Bailly

All in all, three weeks in Spain have been an absolutely amazing experience that I will never forget. Not only did I learn so much about this beautiful country from its history, culture, society, custom, architecture, religion, and influence,… but I also made the most precious memories with all the people in my Study Abroad program.

Like our professor has said “These memories will never be replicated.” – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment that you will only experience once. I feel extremely grateful to be given the opportunity to engage in this meaningful trip and grow so much as a person, a learner, and a traveler. At the end of the day, time flies, people leave but memories will stay forever.

Shall we end our journey with “Carpe Diem”? Since you only live once (YOLO), make the most out of it by living in the present, enjoying every single moment, and do not worry about what the future holds. For me, this can be done by traveling, stepping out of your “continent”, going to different nations with a whole different culture, and explore to the fullest.

Adios Espana and I hope to see you again! 

Works Cited

“Barcelona’s Plaça Reial.” Barceló Experiences, 9 June 2021, https://www.barcelo.com/guia-turismo/en/spain/barcelona/things-to-do/placa-reial-barcelona/.

“El Retiro Park.” Official Tourism Website, https://www.esmadrid.com/en/tourist-information/parque-del-retiro.

“El Retiro Rose Garden.” Official Tourism Website, https://www.esmadrid.com/en/tourist-information/la-rosaleda-de-el-retiro.

Insightguides.com, https://www.insightguides.com/destinations/europe/spain/barcelona/city-areas/barri-gotic.

“Real Jardín Botánico – CSIC.” Museums – The World Museums Network, http://museu.ms/museum/details/17547/real-jardn-botnico-csic.

“Statue of the Fallen Angel of El Retiro, the so-Called Gateway to Hell.” Fascinating Spain, 24 Sept. 2021, https://fascinatingspain.com/place-to-visit/what-to-see-in-madrid/statue-fallen-angel-retiro-gateway-hell/.

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