Spain 2018 – We’re on our way…
Dear Parents (mine included ☺),
As you’ll see in the attached photo, we are at the airport waiting for our flight. (I think Justin has found the most comfortable place to crash for now – on the golf cart!) We are tired and looking forward to settling into our seats and going back to sleep for the almost five hour flight to Barcelona. They have just started boarding so we are just about on our way!
Everyone is excited and looking forward to the trip. We got through security, check in, and passport control very smoothly and so far no one has lost their passport (my only fear on these trips… yes, I’ll be collecting the passports once we arrive!) Everyone had a bite to eat in the food court at duty free and there was a little shopping too. Excitingly, Rachel and Jordan had the chance to meet one of Israel’s top athletes – a 17 year old from Herzelia on his way to compete in Judo at the Youth Olympics in Rio (5 out of 9 of Israel’s Olympic medals are in judo.)
That’s all for now. We’re getting on the plane.
Barcelona, here we come!
Spain – Day 1
Wow! What a day we have had! The flight was uneventful and once we found our driver at the airport we had a smooth ride to our hotel. We enjoyed taking in the scenery as we drove along the coastline for part of the way. After taking a few minutes in the hotel to get ourselves organized, we set out on foot to begin exploring the beautiful city of Barcelona.
We arrived at the famous La Ramla and our excitement was almost palpable. For lunch, some of us enjoyed our first taste of Spanish food, including paella. We then met our guide for the afternoon, Adi, an Israeli who has been living in Barcelona for the last nine years. Together we explored the old Jewish quarter of Barcelona, located just next to La Rambla. Adi took us to a number of sites, through a network or narrow streets, and to beautiful plazas. As we toured the ancient Jewish quarter, we talked about the Golden Age of Spain and focused on some specific individuals from Barcelona, most notably Shlomo ben Aderet, the “Rashba”, a medieval Rabbi, Halachic scholar, and Talmudist who was born in Barcelona and was a leader of Spanish Jewry in his time.
While standing next to the king’s palace, we learned about the Barcelona disputation, which took place there. This was a medieval debate ordered by the king between representatives of Christianity and Judaism about whether or not Jesus was the messiah. It was held at the royal palace in the presence of the king, his court, and many dignitaries and knights. The individuals tasked with debating this topic were the Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, and Nachmanides (Moshe Ben Nachman, also known as the Ramban), a leading medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator. Adi pointed out to us that among the bricks in the building’s wall there are a number of stones with Hebrew inscriptions, and he explained that they were removed from the Jewish cemetery on Mountjuic after the Jews were expelled, and used for building purposes. While we found it sad that a cemetery was desecrated in this way, we also discussed how the stones are a testament to the Jewish community that once was and felt pride in the return of the Jewish people to a place where they suffered forced conversions and from which they were expelled not so long ago.
We also visited Sinagoga Major, which is said to be the oldest synagogue in Europe. This was a unique experience, more like entering a small cave and seeing remnants of what once was. The synagogue was only discovered when it was bought from the previous owner who was using it as a warehouse. The Jewish community excavated it less than twenty years ago and now it is a museum that thousands of Jews and non-Jews visit every year to learn about the Jewish history of Barcelona.
On the tour, we visited the square where the Catalonian parliament is located and Adi told us about the political tensions which came to a peak last year when Catalonia voted for independence and a number of Catalonian political leaders were imprisoned. Yellow ribbons were tied all around the square and painted on the ground, signifying the people’s demand for the political prisoners to be released. Adi also pointed out that the angle of the building is awkward and out of place and explained that this is due to its history; it is angled to face towards Jerusalem. Part of the building was originally a synagogue and it is built on the remains of the old Jewish quarter.
After wishing Adi l’hitraot until we meet him again on Sunday, we headed down La Rambla to the edge of the water and treated ourselves to Starbucks, ice cream, and a few other treats. Then we boarded the beautiful Goleta Karya, a stunning handcrafted wooden sailboat, and we set sail for a one-hour trip along the coast. We all had a wonderful, relaxing time, enjoying the beautiful weather and the open sea. Well, a few of us who shall remain nameless got a tiny bit sea sick, but a little nap on the couches on deck seemed to help with that (ok, no need to be embarrassed… It was Rachel H, Jamie, and me, who have decided that sailing is not necessarily for us). Back on dry land, the calm of the waters and the lack of sleep overnight started to catch up with us (as you can see in the photos) and most of us decided to go back to the hotel to shower, rest a little, and re-energize before our evening out.
However, Rachel S, Ellie, Jamie, and Jordan could not be slowed down. Instead of taking a break at the hotel, the girls set out to window shop and explore La Rambla even more. When they met up with us at dinner, we discovered that a bit more than window-shopping had taken place, but that’s another story. For dinner, we ate at a tapas restaurant where the food was excellent and the service was lousy. Nevertheless, we had a great time tasting countless dishes of local food. My personal favorite were the spicy potatoes.
The city of Barcelona is celebrating another win as their football (soccer) team defeated Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 this evening. The excitement was in the air as the city celebrated and some of us talked about the relationship between sports and politics. For example, we discussed the cancellation of the exhibition game Argentina was meant to play in Jerusalem in August featuring Barcelona’s most famous player – Messi. The team cancelled the competition at the last minute after threats from Palestinian activists. We also talked about the recent news of Real Madrid soccer club honoring Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, a teenager who was recently released from an Israeli prison after assaulting Israeli soldiers. As Adi explained to us earlier in the day, when Madrid plays soccer against Barcelona, the competition among the fans is not only about sports but also about politics.
Finally, back at the hotel for the night, everyone headed off to get some much-deserved sleep. To put things in perspective, we walked 17km today according to my Fitbit (over 26,000 steps for those of you with trackers.) Not bad, huh? And, everyone had a great time. It has been a pleasure spending this time with your children and I’m looking forward to continuing our adventure tomorrow!
I hope you enjoy the attached photos!
Spain – Day 2
Today was another amazing day in Barcelona! We spent the day navigating the city using the fun tourist “hop-on-hop-off bus” to see many of the most famous sites and landmarks. The bus is a double decker, open top bus and we were blessed with great weather again! While we were on the bus, we could listen to guided commentary giving us details about the sites all along the way. In the true style of a group from Israel, we also practiced being assertive to ensure that all of us got seats on the bus each time (politely assertive…)
Our first stop was the Case Batllo, one of famous structures designed by Antoni Gaudí. Like everything Gaudí designed, it is incredible to see! There are few straight lines found within the building and many colorful mosaics. As we made our way through the house, we used an audio guide with an accompanying smartphone device that showed us how the house would have looked when occupied by the Battlo family, complete with decorative rugs, stunning furniture, and beautiful paintings on the walls. Gaudi’s imagination is visible in even the smallest of details such as the door handles and even the ventilation system.
The next site we visited was also a Gaudi design, but on a much greater scale, the Sagrada de Familia. Construction on this basilica began in 1883 and it’s not quite finished yet… Gaudi designed this church and worked on the project for over 40 years until his death. In fact, Gaudi is buried in a crypt in the church. Funded entirely by anonymous donations, the Sagrada de Familia is widely considered the most iconic and famous Barcelona landmark. The hope is that by the centennial anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026 it will be completed. The building is massive and it felt like a cross between a cathedral and a scary fairy tale castle – surreal yet magnificently beautiful.
Hopping back on the bus, next we headed to explore yet one more Gaudi landmark – the famous Park Guell. This public park includes both gardens and architectonic elements and is located on Carmel Hill with breathtaking views of the city and coast. UNESCO declared the park a World Heritage Site and we could see why as we wandered around and took in more of Gaudi’s work.
Our last landmark today was the famous Camp Nou stadium, which is the largest stadium in Europe (and the third largest in the world), just a few seats shy of 100,000. As you know, there is a huge passion for football (soccer) in this city (and throughout this part of the world…) and we had a nice time exploring the museum and stadium. It was cool to see all the trophies and other paraphernalia, as well as having the chance to explore the physical therapy room, pressroom, part of the players’ area, and head down to the pitch. While we were not on the grass, we did get to be at field level in the area where the players, VIPs, and press sit/stand during the games. We were also able to enter the area from which the broadcasters operate and see the stadium from that height.
Finally, we visited a large shopping mall called L’illa Diagonal (no Gaudi here, but some of the students may claim that the mall is a significant landmark…) and had a lovely dinner at a nice restaurant nearby. To return to the hotel, we took the Metro and I’m happy to report that Rachel H did not get left on the train (as she did on the Aardvark trip in NY this past summer.) Finally, some of the students headed out to a jazz club to top off the day.
Despite using the bus today, we still managed to clock over 23,000 steps (nearly 15 km)!!! Everyone is having a wonderful time and we are all looking forward to more great experiences tomorrow.
All the best from Barcelona,
Spain – Day 3
Before we head out to bring in Shabbat with the local Jewish community, I wanted to update you on our day so far. We’ve had another really wonderful day exploring the city and we are looking forward to an enriching Shabbat together.
We began the day with a treat – Starbucks for breakfast! We’re becoming quite the locals, navigating our way around the city, starting to recognize where things are and how to get from place to place by foot and by metro. We made a few changes to the schedule today including skipping our first scheduled site, the Barri Gotic Cathedral, as we saw it on Wednesday with our guide Adi. Since I haven’t already told you about it, I’ll mention now that it’s official name is the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia and it is also known as Barcelona Cathedral. It was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries. One of the interesting things we learned about the cathedral is that in the late 19th century an entirely new facade was built on top of the original one. The construction was initially quite boring and nondescript, but the newer neo-Gothic façade is really stunning. Another thing we noticed about this cathedral is that all around the roof are gargoyles with a wide range of animals, both real and mythical.
Getting back on the hop-on-hop-off bus, we took a short ride to another famous Gaudi construction: Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera, which means “the stone quarry,” a reference to its unconventional rough-stone appearance. This building was the last private residence designed by Gaudí before he turned his full attention to the Sagrada Familia. The Casa Mila was built between 1906 and 1912. After exploring the beautiful courtyard, we climbed eight flights up to the roof (my fitbit loved this part of the day, my legs not so much…) and we explored the rooftop filled with wild chimneys, slopes, and warrior statues. I should mention that the weather has continued to be incredible and we’re enjoying all the time we get to spend outside! Moving down through the attic we felt like we were in the belly of a whale, which is basically what Gaudi’s intention was. Throughout the attic was an exhibit about Gaudi and his work. We learned about how he used nature as an inspiration for designing many of the structures and how he liked to incorporate the elements into his designs as well. Heading down to one of the residential floors, we saw how a typical family would have lived in the building when it was constructed. Finally, back on the ground level, we had a great time taking photos in the courtyard again.
We then boarded the bus again for a journey through the city which also took us westward through Mountjuic, or “Mount of the Jews,” which is named after the Jewish cemetery that has been there for many years. It is a prominent geographical feature of Barcelona, and the location of many very important venues and sights to the city. The fact that it is named after the medieval Jewish community shows just how ingrained and integrated Jewish history and Spanish culture is. We drove through the stunning Miramar gardens and saw the Olympic venues from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Like many Olympic cities, this was originally a depressed and run down area of the city until it was gentrified for the Olympics, and today it is still beautiful and well kept, some 26 years later.
Another important site on Mountjuic is the Joan Miro Museum and we had a nice time exploring it. Miro was a famous and influential artist from Barcelona. It is a museum of contemporary art and Miro’s later work is often described as abstract. While his surreal and modern style of art was not to everyone’s taste, we kept an open mind and everyone agreed that it was a great opportunity to see the work of a famous artist. Mike gave us a small modern art history lesson while Justin, Jamie, Sam, and Micah each took turns interpreting each piece of art they saw. I should mention that Jordan impressed us all by sharing that Miro is thought to be a descendant of a Jewish marrano family (the Jews who were forced to convert but continued practicing Judaism in secret.)
Our last stop before dinner was the Mercado de La Boqueria, a market filled with local foods and treats. Located on La Rambla Street, it also gave us the chance to do more shopping and enjoy the vibe of being in one of the most popular areas of the town.
We’re now back at the hotel, heading out in a few minutes to join the local Jewish community at Chabad for Shabbat services and dinner. Tomorrow we will visit the Picasso Museum, have a Shabbat picnic in the park, take a street art walking tour, visit the Poble Espanya, see a Flamenco Show, and finally see the Magic Fountain. Wow! We have an amazing day in store tomorrow as well!!!
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom from Spain!
Spain – Day 4
Picking up where I left off yesterday, we had an amazing Shabbat. At Chabad last night we participated in Shabbat services, which for many of the students was actually a first since the tefillah was conducted according to the Sephardi traditions – the tunes and even some of the prayers were different to what most of us are used to. Between Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat we listed to Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) being recited by a number of people in the congregation. A different person read each chapter, chanting it from their seat. It was interesting to see this kind of participatory service where there wasn’t really one Cantor/Hazzan who was in charge of the flow of the service. Again during Maariv different members of the congregation took turns chanting parts of the tefillah, including a number of children who recited the Shema and subsequent paragraphs of the prayer. After the services, everyone gathered for dinner and we discovered that there were visitors there from Venezuela, Mexico, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Peru, England, and from many more countries in addition to the locals.
Today, we began our day with a visit to the Picasso Museum. Pablo Picasso was born in Spain and although, he spent much of his life in France, he is considered a significant national figure here in Spain. Wandering through the gallery, we enjoyed seeing the different works from his different periods. My favorites were the portraits he painted of his wife, Jacqueline, as well as the ceramic pieces he painted.
Next, we had time to explore the area of the museum. It was really cool wandering through the streets and allies. From craft shops to restaurants to boutiques, there was a lot to see! As we moved on, we found a nice spot in a nearby park to have a Shabbat picnic. The weather has continued to be lovely and we had a great time relaxing a bit from the pace of the trip (we’re been cramming a lot in each day!!)
Following lunch, we took a long stroll through the city to the Poble Espanyol, the Spanish Village. As we walked we discovered a number of cool things along the way, including the Mercado de Sant Antoni, a sort of upscale shuk or market through which we wandered through to get a feel for the place. We also marveled at the impressive architecture of many of the buildings we passed… In particular, many building’s balconies give the city a unique feel.
Finally, we arrived at Poble Espanyol, which is essentially an open-air museum and gigantic souvenir shop… Built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, the site consists of 117 full-scale buildings, which replicate Spanish villages. It also contains a theater, restaurants, artisan workshops and a museum of contemporary art. Wandering around the village, we had the chance to see a glass blower working on his craft, musicians, and many others dressed in local costumes from around the country. Each of the shops offered something new to temp us! We especially enjoyed the shops with things that we could taste, such as the rosemary infused balsamic vinegar syrup and the chocolate nougat.
As our day started to wind down, the level of energy increased as we watched an incredible flamenco show along with dinner. The dancers were unbelievable! After the show a few of us tried to stomp and move our feet as the dancers did and let me tell you, it’s not easy. The costumes were also really something special.
Finally, we headed down to the Fountains of Montjuïc and enjoyed a really cool sound and light show. The fountain dances to the music and the colors and choreography of the water was truly exceptional. Thousands of people were gathered to see the fountain dance for us. As the fountain continued its dance, a number of us joined in and danced alongside! It was really a fun evening and the fountain was stunning.
After regrouping at the hotel, a number of us went out to enjoy our last night in Barcelona and tomorrow we will head to Girona before wrapping up our trip. Today was a really wonderful day and we are looking forward to the chance to get out of the city tomorrow as well.
I hope you enjoy the attached photos. Since I’m not sure how good the internet connection is at the hotel, I’m not sending you videos of the Flamenco Show and the Fountain, but rather suggest you take a look at these two videos on YouTube, which will give you a taste of what we saw:
Spain – Day 5
We are at the airport waiting for our flight, which is slightly delayed… Today was another incredible day and a great way to round off our trip. Early this morning it was chilly and we could even see our breath before we left Barcelona. After breakfast, we met our Israeli guide, Ohn, who has been living in Spain for the last ten years. Together, we boarded a private minibus and headed farther to the northeast of Spain to the town of Girona. The students really enjoyed spending the day with Ohn – he was an excellent guide who was fun and informative.
After the hour-long journey, we arrived in Girona where first we visited the toilet museum (Ohn’s joke…) and jogged alongside the Girona Marathon that was taking place today. As we crossed over the bridge between the old city of Girona and the newer modern part, we enjoyed seeing the beautiful river and the colorful buildings along the water. Entering the old city area, we learned several local legends. One of the stories is about a statue of a lioness on a pillar, in medieval times they believed that those who climbed the pillar and kissed the bum of the lioness before a trip would be guaranteed a safe journey and would return to Girona. Of course, most of us kissed the bum of the lioness and even each other’s… (see attached photo.)
When we reached the local church, we noticed that it was built outside the old city’s walls, which is strange, as one would assume that it would be within the protection of the walls. Ohn explained that the church served as a sanctuary for those who couldn’t reach the entrance of the old city. According to local legend, it was at this church that the miracle of the flies took place. They say that in September 1286, when the army of the King of France, Philip the Fair, besieged Girona, while the city surrendered without a fight, the French behaved abominably when they entered the city: they looted the church and tried to steal the bones of Sant Narcís that were stored there. At this point, huge flies emerged from the body, furiously biting the French soldiers and their horses. After being bitten, the enemies died stamping their feet. This supposed event resulted in the image of a fly becoming a symbol of Girona.
Next, we headed into the Jewish quarter of the city. There we visited the local Jewish museum, which was established at the site where the synagogue and mikva stood in medieval times. Although the Jewish community was expelled from Spain, it was once a thriving center of Jewish life. Notably, the Ramban (Moses ben Nahman also known as Nachmanides) was from Girona. In addition to seeing the museum and the ancient mikva, we visited the Chabad Jewish Center, which was established in the last couple of years to serve the approximately 100 Jews who live in the Girona area. The Center is in an old house that once belonged to a Jewish family and the Rabbi talked to us about the documents that were discovered here along with Jewish texts and Hebrew writing. Interestingly, most of the artifacts in the museum are not from Girona as basically everything was destroyed, but the community wanted to show visitors what Judaism is and what Jewish life had been like in the town. Among the artifacts were gravestones from over 700 years ago from the cemetery on Montjuïc (which we visited yesterday).
After a nice lunch in the beautiful square of Girona, we again boarded the bus and traveled to the medieval town of Besalu, which is located even further to the north, towards the French border. The town was once home to 900 residents, 500 of whom were Jewish. The entrance to the town was picturesque, as if it were right out of Game of Thrones. We entered through two gates to a view overlooking a river with the lush green mountains surrounding us. It was stunning! We really felt as though we had stepped back in time. At the gate, we learned that the Jews of the town had been responsible for collecting tax from visitors to the town. We also learned that because the Jewish community had been so significant here, every year around Purim the town has a festival to celebrate the Jews, during which everyone dresses up like a Jew – with kippot, tzitit, payes, etc. While the whole thing sounded quite offensive to some of us, the goal is to honor the Jews.
Our guide Ohn told us that many local residents are actually descendants of Jewish families who were converted to Christianity during the Inquisition. Statistically, about one third of the Spanish population is thought to be of Jewish heritage. In fact, we discovered that our bus driver for the day is likely from Jewish heritage – his last name was Perez, a known Jewish surname.
Inside the town, we visited the site where the synagogue once stood and entered the mikva, which was really a remarkable site. An interesting fact about this mikvah is that the window was shaped so that the rain would fall straight into the ritual bath. We also had time to wander through the streets and alleys. Some of us went to visit the Miniatures Museum, which was really cool. One of the more remarkable items in the museum was a sewing needle in which the artist has constructed 6 consecutive camels within the needle’s eye. It was only visible using a microscope.
Back in Barcelona, we had the best meal of the entire trip. Dinner was at a restaurant that our guide had recommended and everyone walked away happy! We couldn’t have finished the trip with a better taste in our mouth! As we waited for our food to be served, we went around and shared our personal highlights from the trip. Many of the students agreed that the Picasso Museum, the Flamenco show and being with each other were among the best parts!
Meanwhile, our evening was not without some unexpected excitement… We found out that the ER in Barcelona is very accommodating and Justin is now feeling much better after having become dehydrated from a stomach bug today. It is looking like our flight delay was not without reason as it is giving Justin and Maia the chance to make it on time…
Everyone is sad to be leaving Spain, but we are also looking forward to getting home to Israel. The memories we made and friendships we cultivated in Barcelona will surely last far beyond the trip. I’ll update you after we have arrived safely back home.
All the best,
Home Sweet Home
We are saf and sound back in Israel! It was a smooth flight and everyone is now back in their apartments sleeping. They will rejoin the scheduled programming in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this afternoon when Hebrew class starts at 14:00. Usually flight delays are frustrating but in this instance, it worked in our favor. Justin and Maia were able to make the flight after being checked out of the ER. We all cheered as they arrived at the gate!
It was a real pleasure spending these five intensive days with your children. Spain is a beautiful country and we experienced a lot together. However, what made it truly special was the group of people – we had a lot of fun and really enjoyed being together. We learned a lot about art, architecture, Jewish history, and Spanish politics in addition to so much more.
Thanks to those of you who have emailed me in the last couple of days. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about our adventures and seeing the photos!
I want to give a special thanks to Maia for all her hard work this past week chaperoning the trip with me. I can’t imagine having led this trip without her!
And finally, thanks to the students for being so amazing this week!!!
All the best,