Highlights and tips for a semester in Madrid

James W, Bachelor of Engineering

Polytechnic University of Madrid (Semester 2, 2016)

Madrid is a large, lively, beautiful and friendly city. There are always events and things to do, incredible public transport, a compact city centre and it is really safe! Even though it is a big metropolitan city it still has an interesting and different culture. It´s very refreshing to learn about Spanish history, customs and traditions that continue to influence the country a lot today in spite of globalisation and tourism.

If you ever get bored of the capital, Spain is an incredible country to explore. Every single town and city has its own festival, most of them being week long parties filled with free live music, fireworks, dancing, shows and events. Most of these are around summer but don´t miss out whilst you´re there! I went to: la Tomatina, a festival where everyone throws tomatoes at each other. Semana Grande, a week long festival of free music, theatre, sporting events, fireworks and performances. Las Fallas, a festival where artists spend the entire year creating incredibly tall statues the size of buildings and large trees before burning them all on one spectacular night. San Fermines, a week long festival where every morning they run bulls and people down the middle of the streets! There are many more someone could go to and they´re all very different depending on the local region and culture!

The universities are totally different to ours in Australia which makes for a really interesting and potentially challenging experience as well. The bureaucracy, facilities and teaching styles are quite different and seem a bit outdated but actually have a lot of advantages too. The classes tend to be smaller with attendance often compulsory, which makes it easier to get to know the professors and become more interested in the subjects. There is often less dependence on technology which can help fight against the distractions of the internet and “computer says no” bureaucracy.

Living in Madrid is also great because it´s very cheap! There is accommodation for all budgets to be able to live centrally, I lived in the city centre for less than 110 dollars a week with only a week’s search (although a reasonable understanding of Spanish may be required for this). Unlimited public transport pass is 30 dollars a month for under 26 year olds with most services run from 6am to 2am. There are also 24/7 bus routes connecting to the city centre. The university offers 3 course buffet style meals for $7.5 which are so big I used to split the meals across lunch and dinner. That´s less than $8 for lunch, dinner and dessert – they even wash the dishes for you! Coffee can be bought in cafe´s for as cheap as a dollar as well. Going out is also great as they have an incredible bar and tapas culture as well as a wide variety of clubs although most the music is reggaeton, which you´ll learn to love as well.

So go there, make some great friends, travel the country, go to some festivals and enjoy the great tapas and cheap cañas!

Austria: Centrally Located, Great for Travel

Exchange isn’t only about living in a new city, a long way from home. It’s about seeing as much of the world as you can that is now suddenly at your doorstep.

Vienna has many perks. A historical and cultural hub, a lively city and a wonderful coffee culture. For this post, however, the most important perk is its central location in Europe.

Whilst my classes were on, I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to take five subjects, one pre-semester language course, and still have been able to travel to 12 cities in 9 countries.

Devin Castle

 

Bratislava, Slovakia 

Likely to be the first international trip for many of Vienna’s exchange students,

Bratislava is a mere 45-minute train ride away (literally less time than it takes me to get to uni from home in Brisbane). The city itself is small, but the food is cheap. My tip: take a bus out of town to Devin Castle (pictured). It’s a 6th Century ruin that sits at the fork of two rivers, and it undoubtedly adds to the Bratislava experience.

The Chain Bridge and Parliament

 

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest is about 2.5 hours away, and a very historical, interesting city. There’s quite a bit to see and do in Budapest, and a free walking tour is a great way to see a lot of it (they’re great in every city, not just

Budapest!), as well as hear stories about what you’re looking at. I also loved the tranquility of the thermal baths.

Graz, Austria

If you do the pre-semester orientation and cultural program, you’ll go to Graz, but because my friend and I didn’t, we took a spontaneous day-trip instead. Although it’s one of Austria’s largest cities, we managed to see most things, including climbing the hill to the Uhrturm (clock tower) in that time.

Porto, Portugal

Whilst I was on exchange, I was lucky enough to be selected and compete for QUT at

the University of Porto’s International Case Competition. While this involved being locked in a room for 34 hours to solve a case (albeit with 3 fantastic friends), it also involved meeting some amazing people from all over the world, and getting a guided tour by local students around the beautiful city of Porto. The comp was easily one of the highlights of exchange.

Team QUT in front of the Faculty of Economics, University of Porto

 

 

Douro Valley, Portugal

After the competition, QUT and several other teams went on a day trip to the world-renowned Douro Valley.  The valley was absolutely beautiful, and it was very refreshing to see such incredible scenery after Vienna’s relatively low tree-to-building ratio.

 

Inside the Sagrada Familia

Barcelona, Spain

(Unfortunately?) There are no direct flights between Porto and Vienna, so budget airlines tend to stop in Barcelona. We booked a couple of nights there on our way back, and got to experience some Spanish culture via sangrias, several walking tours, tapas, and paella. We were also very lucky to be able to spend time with people we’d met at various competitions (including Porto), and on exchange. Be sure to book online beforehand for Park Guell or the Sagrada Familia if you’d like to enter those, because they often sell out of tickets at the venue!

Berlin, Germany

I’d been interested in travelling to Berlin for a little while, but sadly I did it the disservice of not having enough time to truly explore the city (I would recommend 2-3 nights there, minimum). In the short time that I had there, I saw the East Side Gallery (pictured), the Brandenburg Gate, and visited the museum dedicated to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

The East Side Gallery, a large remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall decorated by street artists from around the world

 

Krakow, Poland

Inside the Basilica of St Mary

 

One year ago, if you were to ask me which countries I imagined myself visiting whilst I was on exchange, Poland probably wouldn’t have made it on my list. Enticed by my friend’s stories, 5 euro bus tickets, and a very large gap in my timetable, I decided to see Krakow for myself, and I was pleasantly surprised. The city has very student-friendly prices, and the old town square is bustling at all times of day. While I was there, I took a guided tour of Auschwitz, which was hauntingly moving.

 

 

Copenhagen, Denmark

I flew from Krakow onto Copenhagen to visit friends and see a beautiful city, and I was not disappointed. We ate authentic

Danish pastries, climbed the spire at the Church of our Saviour to watch a beautiful dusk and wandered through Nyhavn and Paper Island at night. Although Copenhagen is very beautiful, it is also quite expensive, and a surprisingly small city: my tip is that you only really need 2 full days to explore it.

View from the spire of the Church of our Saviour

 

Malmo, Sweden

The main square in old town Malmo

Many of the ‘Things to do in Copenhagen’ lists suggest ‘Take the train to Sweden’ – and

with my friend’s recommendation, I did. For the same price as entry to Copenhagen’s Tivoli you take the train across the bridge (famous in the TV series ‘The Bridge’) to Malmo.   Unfortunately, it was cold, windy and rainy for my daytrip, so most of my sightseeing involved comparing Swedish and Danish aesthetic (a little more colourful, but just as expensive), eating a delicious soup in a café that was also a record store, and eating New York cheesecake (thanks globalisation!).

 

Innsbruck, Austria

This trip was meant to be a trip to Milan with three other people, but ended up as a trip

to Innsbruck with one other person. It also ended up being one of the most beautiful trips I have ever taken.  We stayed at an Airbnb in Innsbruck, and our three days there

were filled with my friend and I turning every corner and gaping at the incredible scenery. One thing we did that I thoroughly recommend to anyone who’s interested in seeing Innsbruck is to not limit yourself to just the town.

View of Innsbruck

We took a “regional” bus, and stayed on until the end (approx. 20 minutes). Because the tickets are day passes, we wandered from one small town to the next (at most it would have been a kilometre between towns), and hopped on and off the bus as we pleased. It allowed us great freedom, and some amazing views (as seen in the photo below).

A stunning panorama outside the tiny town of Rinn

 

Vienna’s location allowed me to easily travel to all of these places with whilst studying. The question isn’t “Why Vienna?” It’s “Why NOT Vienna?”

 

 

 

Spanish Exchange

Why Spain

I recently returned from my overseas university exchange to Madrid, Spain. I chose Spain because I wanted to try and learn a different language whilst exploring a continent I had yet to visit. When I first arrived in Spain, it was August, meaning it was the middle of August. It was just as hot as Brisbane but not nearly as humid which made for a pleasant environment. I did experience some culture shock having not lived in a country that speaks a different language to English but as the weeks progressed I became more and more comfortable with my surroundings.

Madrid is a city that enjoys its nightlife. There are more bars per capita in Madrid than in any other city in the world, and it was obvious. They range from quaint little tapas bars with delicious food and small beers in which you can enjoy a pleasant afternoon with friends, to world-renowned nightclubs to dance the night away.

The University, Universidad de Carlos III, was somewhat different to QUT. Its facilities, while adequate, were not of the same quality of QUT’s but one must take every experience as it comes.

Accommodation

Accommodation was notoriously difficult to find if left till late. There are an abundance of University students wanting to find accommodation in Madrid’s centre so it’s best to be quick. However, at NO cost should you attempt to acquire accommodation in the small town of Getafe in which the University is located. Although the price might be attractive, there is absolutely nothing to do and the small amount of students I knew that lived in Getafe would constantly travel into the centre of Madrid to be with other exchange students. I lived about 100m north of Puerta Del Sol, which is with out a doubt the main hub of Madrid. It was a splendid location in a third floor apartment overlooking the walking streets. The cost was 440 euros a month plus bill so it was rather expensive but about average for the location. While rooms do fill up quickly, I would highly recommend that students view a few rooms before agreeing on one because the quality differs greatly. I had some friends that lived in surrounding suburbs of Madrid, one in particular called Malasaña, is particularly nice for night life and the price can be cheaper than Sol. Be forewarned, trust your instinct when it comes to dealing with the landlords. If they seem kind of sketchy it may be because they are trying to rip you off. Insist on receiving a copy of the contract in English (although I wouldn’t attach to much legal weight to the contract) and be aware that rent is almost always paid in cash – ask for a receipt or write your own!

 

Subjects

I was rather disappointed with the subject allocation system at Universidad de Carlos III. The system was so that all the Spanish students were able to choose their classes well before the exchange students could. This meant that it made it near impossible to get the classes that you would like to get. Also, being enrolled in Law specifically, I was forced to wait until a day after the other exchange students could enrol into classes meaning I got very few of my class preferences, leaving me with classes that I was not only semi disinterested in, but were barely beneficial to my overall academic career. Also, I chose to do some of my classes in Spanish because I wanted to learn the language. While the University did have some organisations that offered some programs for exchange students, such as group get togethers and weekends away, the University itself was not very well equipped to handle exchange students that wanted to study in Spanish. The Spanish language course that was offered for two weeks preceding the University semester cost 250 euros. Then, throughout the semester, Spanish is not even offered as a language course within the University. You must pay another 250 euros to take the Spanish language as a semester course. Furthermore, it came as a surprise that even after spending 500 euros on two Spanish courses, I was made to print off my own course material each week at my own expense. I question the validity of this system.

Finance

Financially speaking, the entirety of Europe is going to be a budget nightmare. The Australian dollar to the Euro is not a great exchange rate and will lead to an empty wallet if not closely monitored. If you’re after a shoe string exchange, including rent, food, some weekend trips, I would take no less that $10,000. If you would like to experience what Spain, and Europe, have to offer, the budget would be more like $15,000. Food is slightly cheaper in Spain and the quality usually surpasses most things in Brisbane. However, they specialise in their own types of food, processed meats, sausages, some seafood, and to expect exotic cuisine would be naive. I just used a Commonwealth Travel Money card for all my expenses. But be warned, the majority of places will only take cash (including your rent/deposit/bills) because Spain is a country seemingly built on its flippant accounting.

Tips

Safety in Madrid was rarely an issue. However, in saying that, about 50% of the people I knew were pickpocketed. It does happen if you are not careful. Wallet front pocket always for guys, girls, purse/bag under your arm at all times – especially in populated areas.pic 1

In conclusion, I would recommend Spain overall as a country. The diverseness of the cities throughout the country is mesmerising and the food is second to none. Football fans will be in heaven and the slow paced lifestyle will benefit the highly-strung. However, Madrid itself is one for the partygoers. I myself partook in the festivities but I have to be honest when I say I grew tired of the party lifestyle and preferred to travel on my weekends. The University is adequate if you want to study in general courses and in English. If learning Spanish is high on your priority list then it may be wise to consider a different learning environment than Universidad de Carlos III.