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The Last Weeks and Coming Home!! July 29, 2013

Posted by mjmaurer7 in Travel Log.
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I am currently writing this thousands of feet above the Atlantic on my way back to Atlanta! During the last weeks, it became very difficult to travel anywhere due to the amount of group projects that were assigned. Still, this did not stop me from having a great time in Barcelona.

The first major event after Sant Juan was the 4th of July. Of course, this is not celebrated in Spain, but this did not stop us from having a good time. In order to celebrate, a large group decided to climb a mountain in Barcelona around midnight, stay up all night on the mountain, and watch the sun rise over the city. We all donned some red and white and started the climb.

It was one of the most memorable nights of my life. The hardest part was getting up the mountain considering the path was not well lit. Once up though, the view was amazing. The mountain was located near the center of the city near Parc Guell. From the top, we had a 360 panoramic view of the city at night. Everything was lit up, and it was beautiful. There is something different about a skyline when there are only one or two skyscrapers. Plus, from the top of the mountain, we were located at the end of one of the main streets in Barcelona, and so we could see directly to the beach.

The night consisted of Budweiser, stories, and a few occasional naps. All of the sudden, the sky started to  get brighter. Everyone looked to where the light is coming from, and eventually a bright red orb started to appear from behind another mountain. The sun perfectly illuminated  the fog that was gently spread around the city under us. Once we could see the sun, the rest of it appeared over the mountain incredibly quickly. It covered everything in a morning glow that was made even better from my lack of sleep. After enjoying the view, we had to soon head back down because some people in the group had class that morning.

Enjoying the View

After this, I still had one four day weekend remaining. I had a friend from Kentucky who was studying in Paris, which was also celebrating its independence day that weekend. However, at the same time, Pamplona was hosting the annual running of the bulls, which I know I did not want to miss. I decided to spend the first night of the break in Pamplona for the night and the afternoon. Then, I would head to Paris for three days.

Stepping out of the bus to Pamplona was one of the oddest experiences of my life. Because it is a small town, it has no hope of housing all of the visitors, so most people sleep outside somewhere. So, when I stepped out of the station, people were everywhere even though it was two in the morning in a non-central part of town. There was trash everywhere, the city smelled, and everyone was wearing the red and white bull running attire. We made it into the center of town, and it resembled a war zone. There were people passed out everywhere, and trash covered the streets along with police.

We stayed up experiencing the culture until it was time to run. Everyone packed into a small portion of the track until they let everyone spread out. You could really feel the tension. People were saying prayers and making the sign of the cross. Everyone seemed very anxious. Soon enough, we heard the first firework. The bulls were released. Some people started running, but most waited for them to get closer. I was getting pretty jumpy waiting. People started jumping up after the second blast to see the bulls. Soon after that I could hear them and even feel them. Then people started screaming “Vamos!!” and I knew it was time to go. I started a sprint down the path. It was hard to move anywhere because of all of the people. I felt people spread out, and then I saw a huge pack of bulls rush past. We moved into the middle to follow the bulls, only to see that there was one still behind us. People immediately went to the sides to let it pass.

In the Arena

In the arena itself, they let the bull roam with the racers. I eventually managed to get close enough to one to smack it. After a while, it ended, and we spent the rest of the day enjoying the city and sleeping until it was time to take a bus back.

The next morning I had a flight to Paris. I was flying by myself but my friend was meeting me soon after I got in. Despite neither of us having data or messaging, we managed to find each other. My friend was studying Paris during his time there, so he gave me a very thorough tour of the city. He took me by a lot of the main sites in the city and explained why they were important. My personal favorite was going to the Arc de Triomphe and climbing to the top.

Later, we got dinner by the river and had one of the funniest waiters ever. At first, he told me I had to order in French, and I thought he was going serious (it was a pretty touristy place, so it wouldn’t make much sense). It turns out he was just giving me a hard time. He kept joking that I was ruining the French language. I worked during the whole meal to deliver the perfect line of French when asking for the check. I delivered it well, and he followed up by more French. I just looked at him and continued to make fun. I left a tip for the first time in a while that night.

We spent the rest of the night relaxing with a guitar in the nearby Luxembourg park. We then roamed the city, meeting people along the way.

The next morning I woke up early to meet up with the group from the Barcelona program that was visiting. We went to a lot of the same sites, and I tried to pass on any knowledge I had. The best part of the day by far was loading up on wine, cheese, and baguettes and going to the Eiffel Tower. Once it got dark, a few of us went up to the second floor. We were shocked to see a huge light show and fireworks lighting up across the city. It was another great night.

The next day was Bastille Day! We went right to the parade because we had to leave at 6 in order to catch our flight. After seeing some of the parade, a few of us split off to go the Louvre, which was free that day. We thought that this would make the line huge, but we only had to wait for 40 minutes! The Louvre was my favorite site in Paris. Being in the presence of history like that is very humbling. I got to spend around 4 hours, and I used every minute. Unfortunately, eventually we had to leave to catch our plane.

The rest of the time in Barcelona was spent either working on group projects, relaxing on the beach, or seeing any sites we happened to miss. Now that I’m on the plane, I still can’t believe I’m going back. I have a feeling it might even be strange to speak English again. I will miss so much about Spain, but I can’t wait to get back home. This has been one of the best summers of my life, and I can’t describe how thankful I am. I hope you enjoyed hearing about some of my adventures!! If you are reading this and have the opportunity to study abroad, please do it!

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Remember that one time I ran with the bulls? July 8, 2013

Posted by sofiatuttle in Travel Log.
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Well I definitely just crossed something off my bucket list that I never actually knew was on there… running with the bulls in Pamplona!!!

We left at 5:30am on Friday to get to the train station in time for our train at 7:30 from Madrid to Pamplona, and the entire weekend, for me, was absolutely incredible! Most definitely the highlight of my study abroad experience so far, although only having been here for barely a week and half I can’t wait for what’s to come!

So now allllll about Pamplona: we arrived around 10:30 at the train station there. The train was on time and so convenient – it makes traveling so easy! No one had directions to our hotel, so we wandered in the general direction we thought it was for 2 or 3 hours. It was completely on the other side of town, so it was quite the trek. We stopped for lunch along the way, and I got a tasty bocadillo of chicken, tomato, and lettuce (a huge sandwich made with baguettes). At the hotel, we chilled out and napped for a few hours. Some of us had an eventful night the previous day, so the sleep was much appreciated. Then in the evening we all headed back into town for the nighttime festivities! The festival of San Fermin didn’t start until noon the next day (Saturday), but the town was full of partying nonetheless. To prevent a 45 minute trek all the time, we mostly took taxis to and from the hotel over the weekend (about 2 euros a person when we split a cab, so not too bad). That night we went out and walked around town – already very much alive with the nearly 2 million people that swarm to the town of a mere 200,000 residents for the festival of San Fermin. After staying in the main plaza amidst the crowd, we left when the concert stage shut down around 1 or 2am.

The next day I woke up a little late with a few others, and we went to the mall right across the street from our hotel to pick up some white clothes and a red bandana and sash – necessities for the festivities over the next 9 days. Dressing up along with hundreds of thousands of other people was SO MUCH FUN! It definitely complicated finding anyone in particular, since everyone looked the same in the crowd, but seeing packed streets full of thousands of people dressed the same was so neat! Around 11:45 we took a taxi into town, just in time for the opening of the festival of San Fermin at noon. We made our way into the outskirts of the crowd in the main plaza, not close enough to see the stage but definitely close enough to hear cannons going off to announce the festival’s start, and more than close enough to get completely sprayed with wine! That’s the hallmark of the start of the festival,  and we definitely left with wine-soaked white clothes.

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The craziest part was definitely the crowds though – when we headed into the side streets we were thrown into an absolutely crushing mob of people. Definitely an insane experience that we would have to get used to for the rest of the festivities! And, as we found out later, the people that were already partying at noon are the same people we saw the next morning after dawn still carrying on. I don’t know how the Spaniards do it for 9 straight days!

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So after a few hours of the crowds, finding food after searching countless streets and ridiculously crowded bars, and talking to newfound friends in one of the many parks throughout the city, we called it a day and headed back to the hotel. For me, at least, I planned on running with the bulls the next morning – and wanted to have plenty of rest.

Turns out, casual things like running with the bulls are easier said than done. The group that planned on running decided to watch videos and do some homework just to make sure we gave ourselves the best chances possible.. of survival. Such a Techie way to approach the “situation”. After over an hour of “highlight reels” and “worst gorings” compilations, we were all pretty quiet and contemplative. We had narrowed down our strategy to a few key pieces of advice:

1. If you fall, stay down. Countless people had told us that if you try and stand up, you’ll get knocked down by the bulls and/or crowd. The rule is to curl up and put your hands over your head and wait until someone taps you on the shoulder. We were told that the bulls would jump over you if you stayed on the ground. Some pretty scary advice.

2. Stay to the inside of the turns, especially on Deadman’s corner, because the bulls lose traction and slam against the outside wall when they’re running around. If there’s one place you DO NOT want to be.. it’s between a rock wall and a 1200 moving mass of horns and hooves.

3. Don’t run. Our teachers, guides, even fellow students .. could not express this enough.

Needless to say, falling asleep that night was not easy. I literally thought I was going to die. I’ve done some crazy things, but I can’t think of any that actually made me face possibly dying. Literally dying. It was more than terrifying. But I knew I just had to do it. Sometimes I don’t understand myself, and when I get an idea in my head, whether it’s erging for 24 hours or cliff jumping or running with the bulls… I HAVE to do it or else. I was already committed mentally, so it was just a matter of following through.

5:30am: The next morning we were all strangely calm – walking to the city before dawn to make sure we were let in. Turns out, we ended up climbing through a crowded fence into the street right in front of police officers. “Getting in” wasn’t as hard as we had expected. And the city was completely different from when we had left it the last afternoon. Passed out and sleeping people were in every spot of open grass, trash was piled in the streets sometimes knee high, and awful.. awful smells were drifting heavily through the entire town. Day 1 down.. 8 to go. Good luck Pamplona Sanitation Department.

6:20am: We get into the street and picked our spot – about a hundred meters up from the starting corral and on the inside of the first turn. We bought our newspapers – kind of a trademark item the runners have (supposedly to be able to tap fallen runners to alert them it’s safe to get up). The 1.5 hour wait was strangely calm. That all changed when things started picking up. The police started closing the gates – we were stuck inside whether we liked it or not. You saw the experienced guys casually smoking a cigarette, even reading their newspapers amidst the anxious crowd. We opened our newspapers.. to find profiles of all 6 bulls we would be (hopefully) evading. No thanks.

7:55am: The canción de San Fermin is sung 5 minutes before, 3 minutes before, and 1 minute before the run starts. For some reason, after the first singing the crowd panicked and bolted. We knew that wasn’t right, but when thousands of people are screaming and sprinting – you don’t stand still. A hundred or so meters down and everyone finally realized it was a false start. Probably caused by tourists who hadn’t known there were 3 singings and not just one. We had to quickly get back to our spot – the false start had pushed us farther up the street than we wanted to be. Had we started at that new spot, we might’ve gotten caught at “Deadman’s Curve” when the bulls passed.. something that was most definitely not wanted.

8:00am:We walked back and had a few more minutes of increasing anticipation.. until BOOM. The first cannon, signaling the release of the bulls, went off! The crowd erupts into excited yells and everyone starts jogging down the street. Then BOOM the second cannon goes off a few seconds later – signaling that the last of the bulls has left the corral. That’s like the branding iron on a bull’s rump (ha ha ha) because suddenly you’re sprinting along with an incredibly frantic crowd, whipping your head around to glance behind you every chance you get. Turns out, you can’t actually see the bulls until they’re right next to you. But that’s okay because the terror amongst the crowd increases exponentially when the bulls are on you.

8:00:40am: When I heard the fear and volume spike in the screams of the people behind me, I jumped to the wall and pressed myself against it as much as possible. It was incredible – a memory I see as a flash and slow motion all at once. I remember seeing a flash of brown and white run by, then very clearly seeing a guy on the ground – not even curled up, just spread across the center of the road. Then, two brown & white speckled bulls IN TANDEM leap over this guy. They got some serious height and I cannot believe I was literally mere feet away from a pack of running bulls.

Luckily, the bulls passed me right where I wanted them to: immediately before the first gradual turn, where the street was wide enough to where I could safely (statistically) get far enough to the side to let them pass me. After that, it was incredible relief. For a few seconds. The crowd, not knowing that the bulls had all passed, was still very panicky. I was still running, but just to keep up with the crowd and keep moving on the course. I ran the rest of the way with a crowd that was still terrified to run in the middle of the road for fear of more bulls charging up the streets. In all the chaos I had actually forgotten about the steers; there are six bulls released and then six steers to prod the bulls along. The steers are a lot slower than the bulls, so they passed me right as I was running in the street leading into the stadium. Luckily the crowd again alerted me to their presence, and I jumped into a group of people fighting for a spot on the side of the road. The steers passed by, and suddenly I was done! I still had to get out of the crowd, now packed in the tunnel to the stadium (the doors are closed once all the bulls and steers are inside), but knowing I was free from fear of bulls suddenly coming up behind me was such a relief.

Everything else that day I saw with rose colored glasses. I had run with the bulls in Pamplona (on the first and busiest running, mind you), and lived to tell the tale. We had the rest of the day to kill since our hotel checkout was at noon, so we found a shady spot in a park and relaxed in the grass for the entire day. It was a sad goodbye to Pamplona – the city that gave me one of the best weekends of my life. Hopefully I’ll return one day.. until next time, Viva San Fermín!!!

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Bulls, Beach, and Backpacking July 27, 2010

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My Weekend Trip to Bilbao, Pamplona, and San Sebastian

On Friday the 9th, our group of LBATers woke up at 5:00 in the morning to head to the north of Spain for the weekend with nothing but our backpacks (yes, you heard right: the queen of overpacking traveled for 2 day with a single backpack).

After a 6 hour bus ride, we arrived in the town of Bilbao. Bilbao is more modern and industrialized than other towns, but still has remnants of the traditional Spanish architecture that I love! As we walked through the city, we came across an old pavilion surrounded by brightly colored flowers with a stage that looked over the park. Standing on the stage, I couldn’t help but let out a couple of my old ballet steps before my group rushed me along. (more…)