How many times will I go back?? ps. You will notice only a few pictures since all that I took in Madrid and Florence got corrupted due to a bad memory card!
10/02/2008 - 10/06/2008
Madrid Day 1 (Trip Day 2)
The flight into Madrid was short, smooth, but with a bit of a dicey landing. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a Spanish woman about my age who turned out to be one of the few Spaniards who spoke English. She was living and working in Dublin for the past year, and was flying to Madrid to attend her friend's wedding. She and I had a lively conversation, and she was good about forcing me to practice my own Spanish. She was sweet enough to draw me a little map of Madrid so I could start to get familiar with the city from a local's point of view, and we laughed alot! Departing the plane, I got caught up in customs, and she started to wait for me, but I let her go on to her waiting parents, exchanged emails, and bid her farewell.
So began the toughest part of Madrid, and an experience that was initially daunting, and still conjures up mixed feelings. This was the fact that few people in Madrid speak English, and they are not very friendly to tourists. So, to be travelling alone in such an atmosphere definitely took some of the greatest assets that I have within.
My first night in Madrid made me think that it may have been my last. I had to wander in the dark to find my hostel, which was very poorly marked in a poorly lit area. It was a small hostel that mainly had private rooms, so it was like a small, dingy hotel on the 5th floor on a non-descript building. I finally found it, and was buzzed up by the keeper. He showed me to my room, which was small but nice, and I readied myself to get on the internet and plan what I was going to do in Madrid. At this point, my trusty laptop crapped out on me, and confident that I could fix it, I searched for my precision screwdriver that brought for just this occasion. Well, it was to no avail; I had forgotten it at home. So, it was time to scour the streets of Madrid to find the needed screwdriver. Sure.
I wandered out of the hostel without a map, and made it through what I eventually discovered was the beautiful historic city center. It must have been 10:30pm, and every square foot of every block was packed with people! As I wandered around, I realized this was a town that had no Long's drugs, no Walgreens, nothing but places to eat, drink, and party. Even all the store fronts had steel doors that rolled down, and everything was covered in grafitti. I finally found the one department store, which has a monopoly in Spain, El Corte Ingles, and it had just closed. It had been a bear trying to communicate, and even though the locals understood my Spanish, I couldn't understand theirs. So I decided to give up on fixing the laptop, and continued to wander around. I stopped in at an internet cafe, jumped on IM, and cried to my friend Liz at home about feeling so lonely in this city!
I decided to roll back home, picked up a rock off the street, went up to my room, and used the rock to filed own the small pocket knife that I had brought with me. It now doubled as a screwdriver, and I was able to fix my laptop! Things were getting better. I had already known that this would be my last night in a private room, and scoured HostelWorld.com for a social, lively hostel that would be more like my Dublin experience. It turned out that the most famous hostel in the world, Cat's Hostel, was one block away, around the corner, and I booked a bed to see me through the rest of my time in Madrid.
Madrid Day 2 (Trip Day 3)
Life in Madrid:
Day two in Madrid was a Friday, and my experience here rapidly improved up until the time I left the following Monday. It started by seeing my "dark, dingy" neighborhood in daylight. Plaza de Tirso de Molina, the plaza of the heart of the city, was beautiful. In fact, my building was the most nicely finished, with fresh paint, nice trim, and embellishments in the old architectural style. I walked 30 seconds around the corner to Cat's hostel, and was immediately greeted with loads of young people waiting to check in and out. I was feeling very excited! The staff were two sweet, beautiful young women (as they all are in Madrid), and the one helping me even noticed my name and began to speak to me in Arabic. Between them, they could get by in at least 10 languages. I heard french, english, spanish, german, and some others I didn't recognize. I was given the intro about living in the hostel, and proceeded to my room to lock up my bag and and make a plan for the day.
My three and a half days in Madrid became a wonderful blur, and a dream and conviction to go back. The first thing I noticed was the food. The typical style of eating is in a Cerveceria or other casual eatery, some of which have tables outside, and some of which have small counters where people stand up and eat. Tapas-style dishes were everywhere, so was a chain called Museo de Jamon (Museum of Ham). This is like a combination of a deli case full of Spanish cold cuts, a tapas bar, and a sit down cafe. What was most prevalent was the Jamon de Serrano, something similar to Prociutto, but slightly more dry. The cheese (mostly Manchego) and cold cuts were served in numerous ways, and a small baguette with some combination of the cheese and jamon was 2-4 Euro, was simple, plain, and oh-so-tasty! I must have had two of these sandwiches each day, along with other culinary delights that came along. People were again drinking beer in the middle of the day, and beers were generally on tap, served in small glasses, and very very cheap. Stand at a cerveceria counter and order a beer, and the guy behind the counter will eventually give you a complimentary Tapa; at the Museo de Jamon, of course, it would be bits of the different hams and cheese, and at more typical places it would be some olives, bits of seafood, or whatever type of dishes that particular place specialized in.
I continued to battle with the very unfriendly people, and the total lack of English, but this turned out good both for my soul and for my ability to speak Spanish, which was was rapidly improving. I perused gift shops, the Corte de Ingles (where I finally found and bought my precision screwdriver, and have yet to use it!) and the magnificence of the archtecture, personality, and layout of the old part of the city which is teeming with people, unlike anywhere I have been. The streets were cobblestone, and ran in everywhich direction, creating intersections and plazas every block or two which had unique shapes and hosted cervecierias, little parks, and newspaper and flower stands.
Madrid is world famous for the nightlife. This is a place where people can go to clubs or do pub crawls, and its typical for people to come out to party around midnight, and stay out until 4, 5, or 6 in the morning. Since partying is not too much of my thing, I decided that I was going to see some flamenco on friday night. I had met a few people at the hostel, but they were mostly very young, and I figured I'd have a better time painting the town red solo style. I researched the Flamenco, and came to discover that in Madrid, Flamenco was really just a tourist exercise, and very expensive at that. It occured at dedicated restaurants, and although very good, it was generally required that one would pay 35 Euro for the show, along with what is about the most expensive meal in Madrid, entrees costing upwards of 20-30 Euro. Flamenco is an artform from the Andalucia area of Spain, which is in the south, and in this area, Flamenco is plentiful, and either free or cheap depending on the venue. Since it was looking unlikely that I would see cities in this area, such as Seville, Granada, or Cordoba, I decided to try and catch a show and save the eating for afterward. The shows are usually about 45-90 minutes per troupe, with about 2-4 troupes in evening of Flamenco, starting at around 9 and ending at about 1:30 am.
I wandered through town on foot and finally found the restaurant. I was turned away since I was only one person, and did not want to also have a meal, though they offered to let me in at midnight for full price of the show. I did have the chance to peer through the door for a few moments and saw one of the dancers doing her thing; a stoic facial expression, a still body, and feet that were flying, sounding out rhythms to the clapping that her troupe was accompanying her with. Just those few moments lit a new fire in my heart!
Marginally disappointed, I walked toward home and stumbled upon a an area consisting of two streets that were lined with bars and packed with people. It was the non-clubbing nightlife of Madrid, and it looked great! I decided to sit down for a beer and see what I could make of it. I picked a place that was more of an artsy bar, with a silent film being projected on one of the walls, and films for rent throughout. This place specialized in Mojitos, but I chose it since it wasn't packed with people. Just a few minutes after sitting with my first beer, two fellows came and sat next to me to my right at the bar, and they were joined by a gal shortly after. I started to chat with them in my dicey spanish, and discovered that they knew some english! And they were friendly! Well, it turns out that one gu and the gal were brother and sister from the Ukraine, living in Madrid for the last two years, and the other was a Spaniard from Barcelona visiting the gal. We had a great time talking, as they were all well-educated and engaged in great things in their lives. Of course, they were curious to hear my take on American politics, and I happily obliged. They let me in on some locals perspective of the life in Madrid, and assured me that not everyone does the all-night clubbing scene. In fact, the guy had never been to a club in the 2 years he spent in Madrid, and his sister had been only once! They do, however, frequent the bar scene, which is apparently more typical for the socialite crowd.
After some time, they called it a night, and I decided to stick around and continue what was turning out a great night. I turned to my left at the bar, and there was a nice looking Spanish gal sitting alone. I began to chat with her, and she turned out she was from Parma de Mallorca, and was visiting her friend here in Madrid for the weekend. Her English was poor, but she was very sweet and we managed to have a great conversation in Spanish for a couple hours before I decided to call it a night.
Returning to the hostel room, I noticed that Alex, a mexican girl from LA, was still in her bed, crashed out. I had met her earlier in the day and our bunks were next to each other. She was studying in Paris, and decided to come solo to Madrid for the weekend. She wanted to chack out the club scene, and assured me that she was ready to go alone. So I inquired whether she had gone, and she was appaled to discover that she had crashed on her bed, missed the alarm, and never made it to the club! It was about 2:30am. I offered to go to the club with her, and off we went!
The most remarkable thing about the club was that it had a huge dance floor, dance music, but nobody was dancing! People were swaying, talking, drinking, and smoking on the dance floor, but no dancing. It looked like a major meat market. So, she tried to get girls to dance with me, and I tried to get girls to dance with her, and overall we did OK. The club went to close at 6am, and although I had seen her just moments before, she was nowhere to be found. I was a little worried, as I was holding her map for her, and she appeared to be not very good around directions when getting to the club, so I felt the responsibiity to get her back home. Long story short, I searched around for her until about 7:30, to no avail. I finally decided that she had gotten luckier than I, and I left her fate to the wind.
Madrid Day 3: (Trip Day 4)
Saturday was a slow day, I spent most of the day recuperating from a hangover, as the night (and morning) was the heaviest I have drank in quite some time. I was lucky to finally spring back to health only on the way to the bullfight, and was excited for this much anticipated event. I will spare the details except for the VIDEO and PICS I took, and the fact that the stadium was beautiful, and packed with older Spanish people. I was lucky enough to sit next to an older Spanish gentleman who spoke some English and was friendly. He was a commercial pilot with regular routes to the US, and was happy to step me through some of the nuances of the fights we were watching. Bullfighting is a common, cultural sport and artform, though the younger generation appears to have some dissent on this bloody, age-old sport. Long story short, although the fight is bloody and ugly, and ends in 6 dead bulls by the night's end, I was convinced that the treatment of these animals is far better than the way we treat animals in the US in our foodservice industry, and I felt OK about seeing the bulls killed, whose meat would be butchered and eaten throughout Madrid.
The Saturday night was reasonably uneventful; Alex and I hung out at the hostel, met Guy, a guy from Australia, and we enjoyed a mellow night on the town having a drink and some grub. We stayed up with Alex to see her off on her Shuttle at 4am, as her flight back to Paris was at 5:45am. Guy and I made a plan to see some historical sites the next day, and visit the flea market, which is touted as the largest in Europe.
Madrid Day 4: (Trip Day 5)
The flea market on sunday was a good time. Guy and I met up with two Canadian travellers on the way out of the hostel, Lisa and Cindy, who were also looking to find deals. It was a more of a marketplace/bazaar, than a typical flea market. Mostly new articles of clothing, interspersed with the occasional booth with electronic gadgets. Lisa and I found a nice connection as we discovered each other's educational paths and career pursuits. She had narrowly averted a Psy.D. and chose to obtain her Master's in Occupational Therapy instead, and had just accepted loans to study in Australia. Little did I know, but this was the begining of what became a streak of interacting with Australian and Canadian travellers, mostly a great experience!
As we exited the flea market, and bid farewell to Lisa and Cindy, who were departing to travel to Toledo, and then on to another eurpoean destination, Guy and I found the fringes of the flea market, and I was suddenly greeted with tables of tools and hardware gadgets, more typical of the kind of flea market I am used to perusing. He and I both found a good deal on a small electrical outlet extension, and moved on to see the Palacio de Real.
The palace was pretty, though not my kind of thing. We paid the 8 Euro to get in, and Guy was sneaking pictures along the way, almost getting caught once. I would say that the highlight of this visit was seeing the amazing marble work, both on the floors of the palace, and embedded into tables and models of large structures which were a part of the adornments in this heavily embellished prior home for the kings and queens of Spain. Interestingly, the palace is still used for certain international and political events, such as the signing of Spain into the European Union some 20 years ago.
Finally, we head toward our final historical destination, the Thyssen Museum, which is the largest private collection of Spanish art in the world. I decided not to bother Guy with my lack of cultural refinery, and instead sat in a park across the street waiting for him. In typical style, I happen upon two young Spanish women taking interviews about an art exhibit in the park I am sitting in, which made for a good hour of strained but interesting conversation.
Back at the hostel, Guy and I make a plan to go enjoy a last night of drinks and tapas when Lisa and Condy rolled in, to our our suprise. They had seen Toledo, and returned to get their luggage and go off to the airport to make an overnight wait for their 6AM flight. We also meet and American girl from Indiana in the lobby, and all decide to go out togther. The evening was fun, but uneventful, and later in the eve after the girls had split off, Guy and I stumble upon an Irish bar where we have the worst carpaccio ever. It appears to have been a carpaccio ceviche, browned by lemon juice, and served on toasted bread. Never again! He and wrap up late in the night at the hostel bar where we met and chatted with two female Brazilian travellers, exchanged information, and bid our farewells.
Madrid Day 5 (Trip Day 6)
Waking up on Monday morning, I finally felt frustrated with the ever-present cigarette smoke in every molecule of the air of Madrid. I searched for a cafe where I could take a coffee and write some postcards, and smokers were all around me. I walked outside, and was constantly in a waft of smoke, and my lungs and soul were feeling the stress. After writing and mailing off the postcards, I sorted out my luggage, and headed for the airport. It was a nice flight into Rome, and had some conversation with a Spanish couple who were heading to Italy for a vacation. I decided to steal the in-flight magazine, since it was printed in both English and Spanish, making for good language practice, and listed the set of excelent latin/salsa tunes from the latin music station that I listened to on the way to Rome.