Our flight to Madrid seemed like a breeze after all the long flights to Asia and South America we have endured during the first three years of our recent travels. There was also more legroom than we are used to having. The Span Air flight is operated by Air Canada and they are obviously more used to long-legged Canadians. Anil and Donna were able to take advantage of the wine service with meals, but I had to avoid the French wine they were serving, so opted to have a refreshing gin and tonic to celebrate Anil’s birthday.
We were delighted to learn that the Madrid metro has a line all the way to the airport, but we were a little confounded by the automated machines for purchasing tickets. There was an option to purchase a ten-ride ticket at a discounted price but we also learned that we needed to add a surcharge for the line to the airport and it wasn’t obvious how to add that to the ticket.
It turns out that all three of us could use the same ticket to travel on the metro (and that’s a good thing) but we needed to add three surcharges to the same ticket and that took us a while to figure out how to do it. Oh, the challenges of international travel! We were beginning to think that we had all the metros of the world figured out and Madrid threw a new feature in to humble us. We are always up for the challenge; once we had our surcharged ticket in hand, the rest was easy.
In the past, I have often encountered what is known as ‘culture shock’ when arriving in a new country and dealing with a new language, a new currency and new systems of moving around. After a few days in Madrid, I realized that this was not the case here in Spain. I had spent some time thinking about the fact that this would be the first time we would be dealing in Euros, and that the exchange rate would add an extra sixty percent to the apparent cost of goods and services. In most of our previous travels, the exchange rate worked in our favor and our Canadian dollars stretched to our advantage overseas.
I think that because this is our fourth year of retirement, of what we initially thought would be a five-year plan, means that we are prepared to spend more for hotels and transportation that we would have when we first started out. There are ways to economize on food such as packing picnic lunches and staying in apartments with kitchens when the opportunity presents itself, but hotels are a bigger budget item than almost anything else.
Donna pointed out that in the past we have paid much more for airfare to get to our destination, and then less for hotels and meals, and on this trip, we got a steal of a deal to fly to Madrid but are paying more for other necessities. It all works out in the end. The major factor in our travels is that we don’t have fixed expenses back in Canada and are really only paying for our ‘home away from home’ each night.
The other major reason that I have not experienced culture shock here is the fact that we are back in a Spanish speaking country after only a four-month break. We are finding that all the words and phrases we learned in Mexico, Chile and Argentina can be put to good use with only a small adjustment for the accent of local Espanol. In fact, the Spanish spoken in Madrid and southern Spain is more like what we think of as Spanish, than what we struggled to learn in South America.
Enough about adjusting to life on the road again. It is time to tell you a little about Madrid. What can we say – it’s a stunningly beautiful city, spotlessly clean and wonderful to explore on foot. I am so glad that we traveled to Buenos Aires before coming here, because the buildings here are so very well-maintained whereas so many of the architectural beauties in BA have been left to deteriorate due to the tough economic conditions Argentina has faced in the past decade. Spain has been very hard-hit with the recent global recession, and the government has undertaken huge infrastructure projects to keep people employed. It seemed that much of Madrid was a huge construction zone.
Our daughter Adia helped us to find a terrific apartment in the heart of the city, very near the Puerto del Sol (Gate of the Sun) metro station. The attic suite was located on what we were told was the fifth floor, but as the ground floor is ‘numero uno’, there were really six flights of stairs to climb to our casa de Madrid. It wasn’t really a problem except for the first day when we had to haul our luggage up to the top.
We loved the apartment right away, but I was correct in assuming there wasn’t a lot of head-room as we were tucked right under the huge roof beams that I could see in the photos on the internet. The apartment has its own little terrace and that more than made up for the limited space along one side of the rooms.
The apartment was well stocked with anything one would need to live there for months at a time, but I wouldn’t recommend it for tall foreigners. The three of us each had a small goose egg on our heads before our five nights were over and we left to explore more of Spain. We did appreciate having a washing machine and did our laundry before leaving.
I developed a migraine headache our first evening in Madrid so took to the bed with the skylights closed and my head under the covers. I couldn’t be sure, but it was probably the red wine I had at Raj and Vy’s the night before we left. Raj had been sure to buy wine from Argentina for me, but I may have mixed up the glasses and had a taste of the wine he brought from Napa Valley by mistake. Anil and Donna were left to their own devices, but managed to navigate their way around the neighbourhood without me and they even arrived home with bags of groceries and bottles of wine and Mexican beer.
We suffered from a little bit of jet lag but it was probably more the rush at work for Donna and the hurried packing that tired us out before leaving that made us wake at all hours and sleep in the air-conditioned comfort of our apartment for much of our first day in Madrid. I was able to catch up on emails and Anil happily read newspapers on the internet. We were really enjoying the luxury of having two computers this year and a good WiFi connection in the apartment. We enjoyed the terrace and the cool breezes not to mention the fine cheeses, olives and beverages from the nearby deli.
Jet lag behind us and no headaches (I knew from my time in Mexico that Sol cervesa didn’t trouble me) it was time to explore the city and set out on the walking tour described in the Lonely Planet. The route passed within one block of our apartment and the Puerto del Sol. One of the first things we encountered there was the statue of a bear eating from a strawberry tree. Donna explained that this was considered to be the emblem of the city of Madrid and indeed, every Spanish tourist who passed near it posed for a photo.
Madrid On Foot
The main streets in Madrid radiate out from the Plaza del Sol and on out into the Spanish countryside. The heart of the city was once an old Muslim quarter and many of the streets are narrow and winding as they rise and fall over the small hills in the heart of the district. We were pleased to see that many are closed to vehicular traffic and for the first time, I saw large kite-like sun shades strung between the buildings in order to provide shade for the shops and shoppers below. The temperature was only slightly above thirty degrees in the afternoon, but I knew the shade would be most welcome when the thermometer soars well into the forties during the summer months.
As I mentioned before, this is the first time that we have set off on a trip with another traveller. Donna and I had to work out who would be the navigator. I learned that when she travels with her husband and three sons, she is usually the one in charge of finding the way from one place to the other. She did admit that she gets it wrong some of the time, and gets a lot of flak from the men. It didn’t take her long to realize that I have superior GPS skills and she let me pull rank and be in charge of the Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s a good thing as I have an incredible need to know where I am and where I’m going so it would have driven me crazy to have the book in someone else’s hands.
Editor’s Note: As for me, I just follow my wife. All I have to remember is what colour shirt she is wearing that day so I can spot her in a crowd.
It turns out Donna likes to walk a lot too, so we decided against the hop-on/hop-off bus tour and opted instead to use the LP walking tour as a guide for Madrid. We had fantastic weather, sunny, clear blue skies and a light breeze. We walked for hours, stopping here and there to take photos and have a light lunch. We planned to take a tour of the Royal Palace when we reached it, but were disappointed to find that it was closed from 11:30 am onwards, even though all the signs indicated it should be open for the afternoon. Donna was especially disappointed. We were feeling pretty jet-lagged, so we headed back to our apartment, had a light meal on the terrace and called it an early night.
We were pleased that our apartment had air-conditioning because the nightlife really gets going around midnight in Madrid and the revelers carry on until at least 6:00 am. Because we slept early, I woke up early too and had to go onto the terrace to figure out what was going on in the streets below us. I was reminded of the riot that broke out on Canada Day one year in Edmonton and I thought something must had happened in Madrid. Instead I learned that it was just the party people winding down just as the sun was coming up. Apparently, this happens all the time and no one thinks anything of it.
Our second day in Madrid was devoted to seeing the masterpieces at the Prado. We arrived shortly after noon and opted to get audio guides to learn more about the art works we would be viewing. We stopped at one point for a café con leche and a croissant but other than that half hour, we were on our feet studying the magnificent paintings. We were working our way through the various galleries when all of a sudden an alarm sounded. I looked around to see if it was a fire alarm, and was shocked to see that one of the guards was ushering the visitors out because the gallery was closing. The three of us were all equally stunned that we had spent eight hours in the museum and hadn’t even realized it was so late in the evening. We looked at each other and knew we would have to come back again to see the remaining paintings.
The Rastro Flea Market
Sunday morning we headed out early in order to take in the huge flea market that occurs each week in the Rastro area of Madrid. We had read that there is mostly junk for sale there, but here and there one stumbles on a great find. We were also warned that pickpockets work the crowds at the market and to be on our guard. I didn’t take anything of value except for my camera, but I carry it on a strap that is attached to the shoulder strap of my purse and as an extra precaution, I clipped the camera case to the purse as well using a carabiner clip.
The crowds were pretty thick at the market and the stuff was mostly useless, but we were happy to wander around for the ‘shopper-tainment’ value. This was a term I heard for the first time from Donna, but thought it was very appropriate. Now that we are traveling with little or no intention of acquiring more ‘stuff’, it seems we pass a lot of time entertaining ourselves by looking but not buying.
For the most part, we moved through the crowds with little difficulty until suddenly, a tall young man crossed my path and slowly but surely pushed me aside to the left. Then all of a sudden he stopped in his tracks and I bumped into him. He didn’t seem to take notice and I thought it was pretty rude of him. Until then, I didn’t even think about how busy the market had been. When I next thought of taking out my camera to shoot a photo, I was surprised to see it hanging outside my purse, with the carabiner clip and the strap holding it as it dangled in the air. I suddenly realized that the guy had been trying to steal my camera; that he had opened by purse as he crossed in front of me, and that he had pulled it out but found it attached securely to my bag.
Had I not taken such care to prevent the theft, I would have been without my new camera only days into the start of our Mediterranean adventure. It’s shocking how bold these pickpockets are, and how good they are at getting into a purse without anyone suspecting. If you are reading this, I strongly recommend you get a long strap for your camera and don’t rely on the small wrist strap that usually comes with most automatic cameras as one of the accessories. I have never liked to hand the camera around my neck, but wrapping the strap around my purse strap seems to keep the camera easy to use and safer from thieves as well.
After finishing off with the market, we headed over to the large Retiro Park to pass the remainder of the afternoon while we waited till 6:00 pm. We wanted to spend some more time at the Prado seeing the master artworks, and admission is free for the last two hours every day. The park was lovely on Sunday afternoon, with many families and lots of tourists enjoying the gardens. Most shops and businesses are closed on Sundays, so there isn’t a lot to do in Madrid otherwise. We had to take shelter from a passing cloud that sprinkled a little rain on us, but while we waited we heard some drumming coming from near the large monument, so we headed that way and spend a wonderful hour listening to an impromptu group of musicians playing an assortment of drums. Their energy and enthusiasm was very entertaining.
We headed back to the Prado and once again, couldn’t believe that the two hours from 6:00 till 8:00 passed so quickly, there was still one more important gallery we didn’t get to see. Who knew that one could pass so much time in one art gallery and not see everything of interest?
Picasso And Dali
Our last day in Madrid was spent finishing off the portion of the walking tour that we had missed earlier, taking us along Grand Via. We were delighted to see all the beautiful buildings on this major artery, and I was glad that I had visited Buenos Aires before seeing Madrid. It was clear that the Argentine capital had attempted to rival the Spanish capital with incredible architecture, but Argentina has fallen on very hard times and many of the buildings in Buenos Aires have not been well maintained.
Madrid suffered greatly during the Civil War in the 1930s, most of the churches were burned or destroyed outright. However, there is little evidence of that today, and the city is a feast for the eyes. The sidewalks are clean and in good repair and the parks are well-tended with grass, flowers and fountains with bubbling water. I cannot say what a surprise it was to wander the streets of this beautiful city, we all enjoyed every moment here.
There are three major art galleries to see in Madrid and we only had time for two. Anil and I are planning to leave from Madrid when we return to Canada next May, so we saved one for the spring. It was a tough decision which one to leave for now, but we wanted to see the famous painting by Picasso called ‘Guernica’, so we headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art on our last afternoon in Madrid. The painting was stunning, but we didn’t enjoy the rest of the gallery as much as we had the Prado. There were several other paintings by Picasso and some by Salvador Dali but the audio guides were a disappointment, and we left wishing that Guernica was in the Prado instead of being in a different location.
The sun was setting as we left the Museum of Contemporary Art, but we spotted the huge Atocha train station nearby. It’s a wonderful building and we were glad to know where it was located, because the following day we planned to leave from the station and take the train to Toledo to begin exploring a few of the major cities outside of Madrid. We had already used up five of the twenty days Donna would be with us, and there was a tremendous amount to see and do.
We had decided to focus on Southern Spain because the transportation options allow travellers to pack in a lot into a limited amount of time. We had wanted to visit the Basque region and Barcelona, but it was clear the cities of Pamploma, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela would require more time that we had left before Donna was booked to fly home. So many places to see, so little time.