The International Writers
on tour in Spain
Planning a trip for
three collegiate musical groupsthe Villanova Singers, Gospel Ensemble,
and the Villanova Voicesproved harder than expected. I saw a logical
connection: I love to travel, and our previous trip to Italy was not handled
in the most efficient way. It made perfect sense to become the Voices
Tour Director, and I embraced the job with enthusiasmI collected
payments and information and planned the cities we would visit. I soon
discovered the hassle of planning for so many people, and it paled in
comparison to the work upon arrival in Madrid.
Concert Cures All
out of the road!" I exclaimed for the millionth time to my
suddenly deaf travel companions. Waiting for our coach bus, we
lined the side of a steep Madrid street and the inability to separate
caused the 90 Villanova students to block a side street. Despite
the several cars that honked through the crowd, the students ignored
my directions. Frustrated and embarrassed at my peers ignorance,
I stomped away to prevent losing my cool.
After the frenetic
bus ride, I enjoyed the quiet, and my first experience with Tapas, appetizer-like
dishes usually ordered to share. Trying to avoid the smoke pouring out
of a neighbor patrons cigarette, I longed for American cities with
smoking bans. Attempting to ignore the stench and accept a different culture,
I ordered a San Miguel beer, light and refreshing, and a Spanish Tortilla.
Expecting a crunchy, salty chip to dip in salsa, the fluffy mixture of
potato, egg, cheese, and onion delighted my taste buds.
the loss of two checked pieces of luggage that would arrive on the
next flight, our tour guide Noberto brought us to Puerta del Sol
("Sun Gate") and allowed free time for a light lunch.
As the center of the network of Spanish roads, and usually one of
the busiest places in Madrid, the relative silence of the square
startled me; the mid-siesta Spaniards noticeable absence labeled
those present as tourists.
I longed to sit and enjoy the surroundings, but our driver Jose couldnt
hold the bus long, so I arrived at our meeting place ten minutes early
and waited for the rest of the group, trying to ignore the growing fear
that not all of my travel companions would meet on time.
After a fifteen minute delay that thoroughly embarrassed me as the leader
of the group, we arrived at an almost completely American Holiday Inn
Express, and freshened up for dinner. Unsure of the elegance of the restaurant,
most of the girls erred on the side of overdressed. Noberto lead the group,
walking, across the street. Assured it would be a short trip, I kept my
complaints to myself and tried to hide my reddened face.
The way to dinner felt like an obstacle course: over the bridge, along
the dirt path that crumbled loosely under our feet, through the brush
littered with shoes, tires, and other trash, up a steep slope riddled
with rocks, and finally over a standard metal guardrail. As the guide
for the trip, each complaint felt personal-- could I have planned this
The situation only worsened with the destination of our troubled travel.
Carrefour? A supermarket? Ridiculous!
Thankfully, Noberto led us past the Carrefour to Restaurant Nostros,
which looked promising, until the food arrived. Expecting a Spanish dish
like Paella-- a saffron rice dish usually served with either meat or seafood--
the meal, like the hotel, also seemed Americanized: penne served with
meat sauce, fried chicken, and flan that looked more like vanilla pudding.
All my work seemed futile; it was as if we hadnt left Pennsylvania.
and hungry for authentic Spanish experiences, I headed out to see
Madrid by night. The March air surprisingly warm, we relaxed by
visiting a few Tapas bars and ordering pitchers of Sangria, a red,
fruity wine. Though much too early to experience any real Madrid
night life, we spied some Spaniards enjoying the weather as well.
Because of our early morning departure we decided to forgo the typical
Spanish night out, which usually began long after midnight.
The following morning offered our first official day of touring. After
a frustrating breakfast with more late arrivals I concentrated on enjoying
the sites. The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial loomed like
a fortress instead of a place of contemplation; the bare trees stood like
sentinels, and the chilly air added to the powerful impression. In 1563,
King Phillip II ordered construction of the monastery to commemorate the
victory over France at the Battle of St. Quentin in 1557. Our tour showed
King Phillips private chambers, which includes doors to view the
mass held in the chapel. In the crypt lie the remains of Spanish rulers
of the Hapsburg and Bourbon families, including Charles I, Philip II,
Ferdinand VII, and Isabel II. The last stop on the tour, the library,
wowed my English-major self: rows upon rows of ancient texts lined the
room, and at the end, a gold model of the universe with earth at the center.
I wished to stay and explore the delicate books, but our tour guide rushed
us through, briefly stopping to point out a Quran with gold-leaf
As the touring came to an end, I fretted over time and head counts. Triple-checking
the busses, we departed to prepare for Sunday mass and concert at the
Church of Nuestra Senora Reina del Cielo (Queen of the Sky). Our horrid
performance in the Vatican two years earlier haunted me; I hoped this
years would be much better.
Arriving almost two hours early to a small church tucked tightly into
a neighborhood, I had my doubts about the performance. The church looked
nothing like El Escorial, rather it reminded me of an elementary school:
all concrete with wood detailing. Communication and different practices
complicated our program for the mass. Unlike church in the United States,
Spanish mass did not have regular musical accompaniment, but I planned
for the groups to sing at the processional, communion, and recessional
and tried to ignore the looks of confusion on the priests faces.
By seven oclock, the church was packed, and my stomach tightened.
I soon realized the reason for the priests earlier confusion when
he walked to the altar from a side door. There was no processional. The
priest introduced our three groups and the local choir of "little
old ladies" (Nobertos words) that would also sing during the
mass. The plan worked: we sang at the appropriate times and my stomach
But it wasnt over yet.
The guides told me that at the end of the mass, some parishioners might
leave, but after the final blessing, no one moved. Settling on the steps
in front of the altar, I could read the expressions of the crowd: each
person sat on the edge of their seats, waiting with bated breath for our
performance. Never before had I experienced such an attentive audience,
not even during our home concerts. As our last note sounded through the
room, the crowd erupted in applause, especially the little old ladies.
Each group performed to the same reaction, and the Spaniards expressed
obvious enthusiasm when our director said uno mas (one more) in cheers
and applause. Despite our blundered Alma Mater (the three groups had never
practiced it together), the applause erased my concerns about the complications
of the trip, and my stomach returned to normal. Afterwards, several parishioners
thanked us repeatedly; we had delighted a community, and their gratitude
made all the work worth it.
© Meghan Welteroth May 2007
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