Travelogue – Madrid, 2009

DRAFT: need to edit for accents, links, etc.

Moleskin makes pocket-sized travel diaries. Who knew? I found one at B&N and had to have it – how convenient, with a Madrid Metro map inside and a city map in sections. It ended up being the best prep/planning I did before my trip – went with me everywhere, so I could take notes and jot things down (gift ideas, random thoughts, observations that tickled me) as I went. Most of my notes were written in Spanish, but I won’t inflict that on anyone, since it was repetitive and not always grammatical.

Friday: arrived a little later than scheduled due to some miscellaneous problem at take off from Philadelphia. Wind, maybe? Flight landed at Barajas T1. Apparently I looked helpful or knowledgeable, because two people asked me where to go while we were in the customs line. Sadly, they were disappointed, because I had no idea 1) where the taxi stand was or 2) if they had to go through customs if they were going to be taking another flight. (In retrospect, the answer to the second question was probably yes, since that was the first European leg of her trip.)

Took the Metro downtown: start out on the pink line, change to the dark blue, then again to the light blue, which dropped me at Tirso de Molina. The apartment is right on the plaza. Met Carlos, co-owner of the apartment and Letango tours. Gave me a nice sketch of the neighborhood, some recommendations and advice.

After freshening up, I went for a walk around the neighborhood to orient myself. After getting lost and then finding my way back to the plaza, I went grocery shopping. After unpacking, I went for another walk, getting lost again (I have a VERY poor sense of direction and rely heavily on maps), then finding my way to a neighborhood bar, where I had a merienda. By then, my internal clock was all screwed up, so I found my way back to the apartment, where I fell into bed for >10 hours.

Saturday: Off to Atocha train station, where I bought a ticket for a cercania to San Lorenzo de El Escorial. In retrospect, taking a bus would’ve been faster. Oh, well. While waiting, a group of high-school aged girls asked me if the train would stop at Cercedilla. Uh, the sign said so. (Again, I must’ve looked safe and approachable?) The cercania was slow, but finally arrived at El Escorial. Took the bus up to the old town, then walked around and headed toward the monastery.

The landscape on the train ride changed so gradually (from urban to suburban) that I didn’t realize how close and beautiful the mountains were. The weather was relatively warm; standing in the plaza of the monastery, waiting for entrance, was comfortable, even in a brisk wind, until the shadow of the monastery moved and cast us all in the shade and left us shivering. The sheer scale of the building dwarfs humanity; the patio outside; the gardens; even the interior patio. The museum in the basement that is dedicated to the building and the architecture was interesting, as was the mausoleum. The art collection is beautiful, of course. The room that fascinated me, though, was the gallery of maps, sixteenth century maps. The details of Mexico and Central America are surprisingly accurate, while the rest of North America, especially the west coast, is amorphous and not-quite-right. The library upstairs, with its 40,000 volumes, some dating back to the 16th century, is enough to make a bibliophile weep. The ceiling of the war gallery appealed to me, with the grotesquery art, much more than the panels of the king’s victorious battles.

Wandered back through the old town, stopping for a chicken empanada, and caught the bus back to the train station. While waiting for the bus, I chatted with a lovely couple from Iowa, who were on a tour of Portugal and Spain – Saturday was one of their “free” days, and they were on their own.

Was this the first night of Carnaval? There were people out and about in costumes, enjoying themselves.

Sunday: The day of the flea market, El Rastro. Located on Calle de la Ribera de Curtidores, the Rastro goes for several blocks, down the street and onto side streets. Up one side street, frames, oil paintings and sketches abounded. Down another were a bunch of tech related stalls – batteries, discs, gadgets. Off another side street and into a plaza was a plethora of book, magazine and comic stalls. Everything from junk to beautiful leatherwork could be found. Need a Metallica t-shirt? Find in there. Need a homemade rucksack? Also can be found there. I arrived earlier and walked down down down the street, stopping and doubling back to check out the side streets. By the time I reached the bottom and looked back, there was a sea of people up the street.

Wandering back toward the Big Three Museums, which are open and free on Sundays, I ended up hitting the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The new part of the building is very modern, which matches the collection. The temporary exhibit was of Paul Thek, whose work . . . didn’t really speak to me. Modern art just doesn’t do it for me, really. I can analyze it, but it often doesn’t interest me, and I wouldn’t want it in my home, really. The most intriguing part of this exhibit (for me) was how Thek was inspired by the mummies of Palermo, which I’d just read about in NG. In the old building, there is a beautiful patio, with benches and a fountain, where I examined the map of the building and decided where to go next. Lots of Picasso, of course. Is it sacrilege to admit that I don’t really care for his work? Whenever I see the oddly-featured people and geometric shapes, I wonder how much drugs he took. Or maybe I’m just too pedestrian to understand his inspiration and vision. /shrug/ Still, stopping to see Guernica is obligatory. I always forget the size of the work, and am surprised when I see it again. The piece that I enjoyed most was on the uppermost floor – a carving of a huge, huge bookshelf by Miguel Vasquez, titled Libros IV, of course. It was all wood, but if you squinted, it looked like books and tchotchkes and stuff, crammed onto towering shelves. Only sour note: got stuck in an elevator with about a dozen other people – a glass elevator in the new wing – we were stuck for about 15 minutes, then the elevator went back to the basement; it unnerved me enough that I walked up the four flights to get to the exhibits I was interested in, rather than try any of the other elevators in the building.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous and it seemed like every Madrileno was out to enjoy it. Had lunch at Las barandales off the Ibiza metro stop, which seemed like a residential neighborhood that I probably wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t found a recommendation for the restaurant online. After lunch, I wandered around the neighborhood, then back through the Parque de Buen Retiro. People were out on the pond rowing, and playing soccer/football, tossing Frisbees, rollerblading, biking, lounging in the sun. What a beautiful day.

Monday – Meant to get up early, but that didn’t happen. Got a late start, walking to the Palacio Real. On the way to the Royal Palace, I walked by the Almudena Cathedral; as I walked by, I realized that although I’ve visited a variety of cathedrals and churches in Spain (as monuments, not places for personal worship), I’d never visited a church in Madrid. Although the city is younger than many others, that youth is relative, so I had to wonder why I hadn’t been to the Almudena on any of my visits. (Still haven’t – it was pretty from the outside, but I didn’t go in.) Although the cathedral is near the palace, it didn’t seem as central to the city for some reason. I’m sure if I did some research, I’d learn more about the religious history of the city. Maybe next time. Anyway, the palace. Photos are not permitted. But official photos abound. My favorite rooms: the Gasparini Room, the Porcelain Room, and the Royal Pharmacy. The sheer number of clocks was a bit perplexing – they were everywhere – until the guide mentioned that one king was fascinated by them, and had acquired a very large collection. Particularly enjoyed the four portraits by Goya.

In the Royal Armory, the swords of Fernando el Catolico and El Cid were points of interest, as was Boabdil’s dagger and the display about Juan de Austria. Swords blessed by the Pope on Christmas Eve abounded; apparently they were both political tools (binding the king and church) and useful weapons.

Tuesday – Took the bus to Avila. The 8:30 bus is apparently rather late, so it wasn’t full, with fewer than a dozen people aboard. Two of them were nuns, and they were determined to see all of the important churches in the town. It took a long time to get out of Madrid proper, then suddenly we were in the country. I could see El Escorial off in the distance, and later El Valle de los Caidos, which is a bit odd and unnerving, just a huge cross among the mountains. As we approached Avila and got off the highway, there were windmills, modern ones, dotting the tops of the hills. Oh, Don Quijote, where are you? Runty trees pop out of rock-strewn ground, as if it took all of their energy just to grow at all, forget about growing tall. Cows and bulls graze among them. From a distance, the trees look like broccoli-tops and the rocks look like a toddler’s discarded building blocks.

There seemed to be more churches per square kilometer there than I’d ever imagined possible – but that makes sense, since the town was a religious center of sorts, known as the birthplace of Santa Teresa (mystical poet) and home of San Juan de la Cruz. Although I went to the cathedral, my interest was in the wall of the city – it fascinates me, dating back hundreds of years and determining the life and growth of the city. The growth going on now – all outside the wall, outside the old part of the city. Building seems to be going at a frantic pace there, but not so much in the old part of the town. The wall itself can be walked – there are four puertas where you can get access, although they are not all connected. At the Puerta del Alcazar, the steps are old, narrow and steep. A previously unknown fear of falling assailed me as I crept up the stairs. Once up I was fine, but the idea of meeting another tourist on the stairs made me nervous – too narrow, too uneven, it seemed like an invitation to disaster. Fortunately for me, it never happened.

The cathedral in Avila . . . well, on one hand, it’s just another church. But still striking. It was surprisingly cold inside, given the temperature outside. Ancient, dark, beautiful. I was struck by the incredible amount of art work and sculpture in the building, and the immense amount of work that went into not just the basic building (erecting such a huge edifice without bulldozers, etc.), but into the detailed carving. It would have been a stonemason’s life’s work, just to complete a portion of the cathedral. The vast wealth that it must have taken, in terms of labor and materials, fairly boggles my mind. The older art appealed to me – it seemed less three dimensional than the relatively newer art. And on the exterior, intrigued by the different materials used for different parts of the building. Some parts looked red and yellow and very old, while other stone looked grey. Sandstone and granite?

Also though provoking to me was the fact that catty-corner to the cathedral, across the square, was a chemist/pharmacy. And on the exterior of the building is a condom dispenser. The co-existence (seemingly peaceful) of the old church with its conservative policies and the open availability of birth control and all the sexuality inherent . . . it impressed me. Obviously, because I’m still thinking about it and the message it sends.

Outside the wall is the Basilica of San Vicente, which was remarkable to me mostly because of the figures carved on the exterior. Were they gargoyles of some sort? They were all different, and looked a little grotesque from below.

While in Avila, I bought a tin of tartas de San Juan – little butter cookies with pine nuts, marcona almonds, and walnuts – and a box of yemas. The tartas were a hit at the office; the yemas not so much – very rich but with an odd texture.

The bus ride home was a local one (servicio general or al pueblo) rather than an express (directo) — I didn’t see the sign up front until after we’d left the bus station, but it was all good in the end. Unlike the ride from Madrid in the morning,the return bus was FULL — a family was going on a trip and a group of Italian tourists were aboard. The two nuns from the early bus were aboard, as was another woman from that bus – we sat together. She’d been to Avila to visit a friend who was in hospital with cancer that had spread to her bones. We chatted for a bit, and she recommended that I visit Toledo. The bus took longer going back to Madrid, since it was a local. The first stop was a tiny, tiny town (Villacastin), and the street was so narrow that I could’ve reached out the window and touched the houses and buildings outside, but the bus driver never stopped or hesitated. We passed a small plaza mayor, where there seemed to be a festival of some sort going on. The other stops (Coto de San Isidro, El Espinar, San Rafael) were unremarkable, really, other than for the amazing maneuvers of the bus driver (three point turns! Narrow streets!) and the opportunity to view the gorgeous sunset over the mountains as we headed back to Madrid.

Wednesday – the goal for Wednesday day was to visit the Museo de America and the Museo del Metro. I got a late start and then got lost, so I ended up making in only to the Museo de America. It is located a little outside the main tourist area, near the Moncloa metro and the bus intercambio, up on the Calle de los Reyes Catolicos, past the Arco de la Victoria. (Side note: I couldn’t figure out how to get to the arco as a pedestrian – there must be a walk way to it, but I couldn’t figure it out, and it is surrounded by a traffic circle of express lanes.) The Museo de America is organized by anthropological ideas, beginning with writings of the “discovery” of the Americas, and then going through social organization, religion and communication. There were video displays, maps, artefacts, tents and cabins from various indigenous American cultures, etc. I found the last section most interesting, especially the video about languages and their loss/mix in the Americas.

Liverpool was in Madrid to play Real Madrid on Wednesday. I’d noticed the herds of boys and men walking around in red shirts, but hadn’t paid much attention. In fact, one group walked by on the sidewalk and I didn’t realize they were speaking English until they were almost a block past, because the accent was so thick. Walking to the Plaza Mayor, I noticed a significant police presence, and once in the square, I understood why. The crowd was quite rowdy and the beer (and testosterone) had clearly been flowing freely. Despite having tailgated at American football games for years, I found the crowd disconcerting – maybe because it was nowhere near the stadium? And it seemed a lot more aggressive? I’m not sure. But as I walked through the plaza, I suddenly understood the phrase “football hooligan”.

Was asked for directions to the Plaza de Espana by a couple of handsome young Italian men. Probably I got them more lost than they already were. Again, I must’ve looked approachable? Must’ve had “another tourist” stamped on my forehead 😉

Thursday: Off to Toledo, via the bus intercambiador at Plaza Eliptica. Took the express, but the local probably would’ve been a more interesting trip – it was all industrial-looking neighborhoods and farms along with highway. The Museo de Santa Cruz, off the Arco de Sangre, near the Plaza Zocodover, has an excellent exhibition about Spain from 1806-1814, which was when Jose Bonaparte was the emperor of Spain, courtesy of his brother Napoleon. Art, clothing, jewelry, weapons, all little bits of history of the age. There were performers dressed up as Fernando VII, and as campesinos and soldiers. The ladies clothing fascinated, in part because it was tiny, down to the itty bitty shoes — how did they walk on those slippers? In the patio, there was a collection of azulejos that dated back centuries, along with Roman sarcophagi and Arabic memorial stones; Toledo is a very old city, dating back to Roman times, and was an important city for the Arab Caliphate, and later the capital of Spain until Felipe II decided to move his government to the relative backwater of Madrid.

The casco viejo is a rabbit warren, and I read somewhere that the inner city is dying because it is not very negotiable for vehicles. On the surface, I would not have guessed that, based on the amount of renovation going on, but it kind of makes sense. A couple of times, I had to step up into a building’s doorway as a car went by, and at one intersection, pedestrians had to help a car make a very tight turn — another car was parked in the street, making the turn very, very tight. I could see the driver cutting the wheel hard, edging the car back and forth in minute degrees to make the turn without hitting either the wall or the car illegally parked. The streets are narrow and the buildings tall; without being able to see the spires of the cathedral, it was hard to orient myself and easy to get lost – the streets are not as well marked as those in Madrid, IMO. At one point, I was lost and ran into an older Spanish couple who were also lost – we both had maps, but couldn’t get ourselves oriented. Eventually, I made it back to the Zoco, and on the way I stopped at the Real Monasterio de Santa Ursula to buy some mazapanes made by the Agustin nuns.

I stopped in a ceramic shop and chatted with the potter/owner. Ended up buying two very different pieces to give as gifts, and received a lesson in the schools of pottery that were popular in Toledo, one being the older, Arab-influenced style, and another being the Talavera school. There’s a third, which I didn’t care for much and have forgotten the name of. Nice fellow, with a lot of gorgeous work in his collection — he let me check out all the stuff downstairs, away from the store front, and I had a hard time just selecting two smallish pieces that I could carry home. And he kept a pet rabbit behind the counter, which was certainly different.

Friday: I spent the entire day in the Museo del Prado. In retrospect, I wish I’d visited the Thyssen-Bournesmizsa on Sunday instead of the Reina Sofia, because I like its collection better. Too late. On Friday, I had to choose between the Thyssen and the Prado, and the Prado won. No contest, really. There was a temporary exhibit of Francis Bacon. Again, more modern art. Bacon interests me mostly only because of his studies based on Velaquez’s portrait of Pius X. At a certain point, the works of the masters all seem to run together. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that, really, because objectively they are extremely different works…but after five or six hours, it’s just another painting of christ on the cross or of angels or whatever. But some works always stand out: the galleries of Velazquez and Goya, among others. There was also a small exhibit of Victorian painting titled La bella durmiente, featuring one of my favorite paintings, Sir Henry Leighton’s Flaming June.

Saturday: It was rainy and overcast for the first time, which made leaving a bit easier. I bought a few souvenirs, then headed to the airport and home.

Random observations:

Loved staying in an apartment rather than a hotel; will do so for my next trip.
Madrid is cleaner than I remember, with municipal employees everywhere in their green suits, armed with brooms and dustpans.

Building and renovation seemed to be going on everywhere; cranes and scaffolding were all over.

Street performers abounded – in Sol, in the Plaza Mayor – performance artists, musicians, dancers.

La Mallorquina – oh, the tronquita (or tronchita? I can’t remember) de nata, yum.

La Txakoli (I think? specializing in Basque wines and tapas) – a bar on Calle de la Cava Baja (or Alta?) – good wine and pinxos

The Metro has grown immensely, and the entire system of metro, light rail, buses, and cercanias/trains is incredibly impressive. Clean and affordable and wide-spread. I understand the differences in geography, finances, and social orientation (park my car? /gasp/) that make the same degree of public transportation impossible in most of America, but still. Frankly, it puts the public transport of metropolitan areas like NYC and DC and Chicago to shame.

On the shuttle from Philadelphia, we never got a lot of altitude – I could see the Conowingo dam and the Susquehanna River as we flew over, which was kind of cool.



Filed under spain, spanish, travel

3 responses to “Travelogue – Madrid, 2009

  1. Your post reminds me of my honeymoon. I remember wandering around Avila starving because I woke up after midday and by the time we were ready for lunch, everyone was having their siesta. Also, my husband doesn’t eat pork and had proudly memorised how to say this in Spanish. We wondered why he kept getting funny looks until I looked it up and realised he was saying, “I don’t eat pig.” Heh.

  2. jmc

    The town was deadly silent during siesta time, I noticed. Avila much more so than Toledo. Siesta-time in Madrid was much less noticeable in comparison to them both, though. Of course, since I was doing touristy things, the schedules were probably set to accomodate the tourist schedule.Did you enjoy the trip? (That seems like a nosy question, but I mean as a vacation, apart from it being a honeymoon?)

  3. I loved the trip. I was very cranky in Toledo, though, because my husband PROMISED me a day of no walking and we found out when we got there that we could only see Toledo on foot. Once we got used to it, I loved the Spanish hours and the fact that we could always find somewhere to eat close to midnight. On the whole, I preferred Barcelona to Madrid, but we only stayed in each city a few days, so there wasn’t much time to get a proper feel for them.

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