The Spanish Life is the Life for Me

View from a park bridge recently constructed near Sebas and Pudi's house
View from a park bridge recently constructed near Sebas and Pudi’s house

There are two ways to plan a trip across the pond. The first way, plan it. All of it: where you’re going to stay, what you want to see, where you want to eat, what you want to eat, where to go, how to get there, yadayadayada. The second way, buy a flight and wing it.

My trip ended up being a little of both. And a lot more of the latter than I originally intended. Truth be told, when I crossed Croatia off my itinerary, I was a bit like a chicken with its head cut off. I had so much free time I had no idea what to do with it all! I considered going back to Munich and catching some of Oktoberfest with the Canadians, going to Romania at the recommendation of the hostel staff in Prague; I could go anywhere and it was kinda overwhelming. But as you know, I was getting that halfway-through-your-trip sickness that rendered me basically useless so I had to admit defeat and go somewhere where I could not only get medical attention, but also be relaxed and not have to stress about achieving typical tourist goals. Enter Madrid.

The architecturally modern bridge that, in part with the park, was recently constructed to give locals more open space
The architecturally modern bridge that, in part with the park, was recently constructed to give locals more open space

I went to Madrid 5 years ago with my parents and had reconnected with family friends from many moons ago. Turns out my uncle was host to Jose and his brother Luis during their high school years. Because of this, their parents Sebas and Pudi are always overly welcoming of our family out of gratitude. Honestly, I think they paid their debts long ago when their sons returned safely from Spokompton, but if they’re willing to let me hang out with them in Madrid for a few days I’m more than happy to oblige them!

Since then, we’ve been in touch through Facebook and email, which lead me to message them for my Hail Mary. Fortunately for me, my little Spanish guardian angels were more than ready to heed the call. And even picked my up from the airport, which is a real trip if you haven’t been in a car for months.

A portion of my Spanish family: Pudi, Jose, Alicia, Mireya and me
A portion of my Spanish family: Pudi, Jose, Alicia, Mireya and me

I saw a doctor my first night, got antibiotics, caught some Z’s and felt completely at home (which isn’t an easy feat when you’re thousands of miles away from home).

The next day, we had a little desayuno and headed out for the Museo de America. Everything was in Spanish, but I considered it good practice. Even though I didn’t quite understand everything these plaques were trying to tell me, I put two and two together with the words and the pictures. Sebas helped too. All in all, it was a very interesting museum. There was a lot of information about the Native Americans and early Hispanic settlers in both North and South America and you were able to learn a lot (even if you didn’t speak Spanish) about their lives, culture, religion, and early settlements across the continents. Definitely worth the time, if you have it. It’s not the Prado, but it’s interesting.

View from the Faro de Moncloa
View from the Faro de Moncloa

After the museum we took a ride to the top of the Faro de Moncloa which is a super tall and skinny tower, reminiscent of the Space Needle that gives you panoramic views of the city center and surrounding area. Recently reopened in May 2015, it was something I missed out on seeing during my last trip to Spain.

What it looked like from the inside
What it looked like from the inside

Since the Faro is not far from the downtown scene, we decided to go for a little stroll to the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, two monumental places in Madrid. Plaza Mayor is Madrid’s most central square and as such is home to the three key tourist attractions: eating, drinking, and shopping. If any of these things interest you, you will find them all at Plaza Mayor. Though, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend indulging in such whimsey here, as things are often marked much higher than outside the main square. It is still a nice place to walk around and people watch or catch a few street performers.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor

Just down the street from Plaza Mayor is Puerta del Sol, another hotspot for those three key activities, but also special for another reason. It is home to Kilometer Zero, the starting point for the six main roads in Spain that all depart from this special spot out front of the post office. Pretty cool little slab of concrete, eh?

Since it was a hot day in Spain and we had already been out in the heat for an hour or so, we decided to stop in a little bar and get some drinks and baccalo. Baccalo, as you might already know, is quite popular in Spain and Portugal. It is a preparation of cod that requires salting it prior to its preparation and can then be deep fried, dried, served in salads, with tomatoes, or however else one may see fit. Sebas and Pudi were clearly familiar with this little hole in the wall place next to the Corte de Ingles, and so were many other people since the line went out the door (although, to be fair, it was a small place to begin with). Unfortunately the name of this place has escaped me, and Google is of no help in the matter, but I will tell you it was pretty good. And cheap! Gotta love tapas!

Retiro Park by dusk
Retiro Park by dusk

Having had a taste for food and not being totally satisfied, we went back to the apartment for a more standard lunch and, of course, siesta. At about 4 or 5 o’clock, we went back out into the city and took a walk to a few more of Madrid’s finest attractions; Parque de Retiro, Puerta de Acalá in the Plaza de la Independencia, and all the things in between. Then, next thing you know it’s 8 o’clock and time for dinner.

Sebas and I out for a stroll
Sebas and I out for a stroll

Shockingly, I can’t quite remember what delicious meal Pudi made that night but I can tell you that it was delicious! And homemade, which was such a nice change of pace. It was so great not having to try to find the best and most affordable place in town. I had already found it at Sebas and Pudi’s house!

Puerta de Acalá
Puerta de Acalá

The next day we went to El Escorial, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo. This was a very special treat because in my last visit to Madrid five years ago, we had attempted to visit this monastic site, but were thwarted by the occurrence of a small village holiday. Due to whatever joyous occasion the townspeople of San Lorenzo were celebrating, the monastery was closed for business. But not this day! So, reveling in the excitement of being able to see something so spectacular, I began my audio tour. Pictures weren’t exactly allowed, but I had my flash off so no harm was done in the taking of the following photographs (aside from general rule-breaking):

Looking out at El Escorial.
Looking out at El Escorial.
The Hall of Battles, depicting many of the major wars that Spain had fought in during its long lifetime as a nation.
The Hall of Battles, depicting many of the major wars that Spain had fought in during its long lifetime as a nation.
Fresco over the grand staircase inside El Escorial
Fresco over the grand staircase inside El Escorial
Inside the library
Inside the library
Looking up from the courtyard on the inner square.
Looking up from the courtyard on the inner square.

After seeing something I had waited five years to see, I will tell you I was not disappointed! Should you have the opportunity to visit El Escorial, I suggest you take it. The village of San Lorenzo is located a bit outside of Madrid so driving there, or taking the bus may be required. Should this interest you and you are indeed carless, a forum can be found here that will guide you on your journey. But most certainly get some sort of tour, be it audio or guided because there is little to no information around the rooms of the monastery and you learn a lot more having someone in your ear that happens to be in the know.

The rest of the brood: Sebas, Jose and his girls, me, and Pudi
The rest of the brood: Sebas, Jose and his girls, me, and Pudi in their backyard, just outside of Madrid

On our way back from El Escorial we went to Jose’s house for lunch. Paella. So good! Once again, of course, homemade and absolutely out of this world. Had I not been in such a flurry to eat it, I might have thought to take a photo, but alas, my stomach got the better of me. Aside from the scrumptious paella, it was also a great time hanging out with the whole family; Sebas and Pudi, Jose and his wife Mireya, and their two little girls. It gave me the opportunity to really appreciate how lucky I was to know people all over the world, especially these people who were right there for me in my most desperate hour. Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but still it was beyond comforting to know that I had a place to go where I was treated like family when my own family was so far away. For that, I think I now owe them more than they ever owed us (which was always nothing, I mean, they had to put up with Spokane for goodness sakes!).

The Royal Palace!
The Royal Palace!

After returning from Jose’s place, we took another evening stroll to the Palacio Real. Of course it was closed at this time, but the gardens were open and the sunset had turned the sky into this soft, gorgeous orange and pink color that was too pretty to miss.

Spanish sunset over the palace gardens
Spanish sunset over the palace gardens

Also, having already been inside the Palacio Real during my last trip to Madrid, I can’t imagine much has changed, except maybe the price of admission. And next to the palace was nothing other than…a church! You guessed it! Construction of the Almudena Cathedral began in 1868 but was not finished until 1993, which in part explains its rather modern interior.

Alums a Cathedral
Alumdena Cathedral from the outside.
And the inside.
And the inside.

On the way back home, we stopped in at the church where Sebas and Pudi got married more than 40 years ago in the Real Basilica de San Fransisco el Grande. It was just about closing time, but we were able to sneak in just under the wire. After Sebas told the worker in charge of turning people away that they only wanted to show me a quick look inside, since this was the place they were married, the guy took pity on us and let us in. He even tried to turn the lights back on to give me the real feel, but it was not to be. At any rate, I was still happy to have been able to see the inside.

Tha palace and the gardens in the light of the Spanish sun.
Tha palace and the gardens in the light of the Spanish sun.

Then it was late dinner time once again! The first time I went to Madrid with my parents, the cultural schedule of the Spaniards seemed to be a disadvantage for us. Coming from a place (and a family) that eats three square meals a day at the conventional times of the day, it was a little confusing to have to wait until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon for a museum or shop to open. But the second time around, I was all about embracing the siesta! Maybe it’s because I was sick, but for some reason, I was loving the groove I was getting in to. Get up around 8 or 9 am, have a little breakfast, come home for lunch, eat a lot of food, sleep it all off, take a little walk around, eat dinner around 8 or 9 pm, then hang out an watch Spanish tv for an hour or so before bed. It was so relaxed and easy going. Whereas a lot of my trip thus far had been making sure I got to see it all, here I was just visiting my second family and catching up on sleep.

Heads as far as the eye can see! Swarming for a bargain
Heads as far as the eye can see! Swarming for a bargain

Needless to say, I was cured in a few days with all the R&R my body received over the last three days. But before I left town, there was one more thing I had to do, El Rastro. Madrid was also currently home to an old high school friend of mine who was doing a research project abroad for a year, so we made plans to meet up at this calamity of a flea market. If you’ve never seen El Rastro, words cannot describe the chaos that many voluntarily enter into. But once inside, it swallows you whole. If you don’t keep an eye on your group, they’re liable to be washed away in the tidal wave of bargain-hunting Spaniards. And even though it is more than insane, it is also a pretty fun experience too. Moving on from the rainy weather, hopefully, into Portugal and Italy, my goal was to find warm weather items like shorts and t-shirts. I was able to buy a new sun dress and a pair of shorts for a grand total of €12. A bargain at twice the price! And you couldn’t beat the company! It was a lovely afternoon catching up with an old friend and making a few new ones. I went home later that day and took yet another siesta, ate burritos, and eventually headed to the bus stop to board my 11 o’clock bus to Lisbon. I swore I would never again take a night train/bus after my experience from Berlin to Munich, but hey, when the price is right… Gotta do what you gotta do!

Me and William, Together for yet another 5 year reunion
Me and William, Together for yet another 5 year reunion

Before signing off on this post, I would like to talk briefly about the refugee situation that was currently unfolding during my stay in Madrid. Being as inquisitive as I am, I asked Jose and Sebas how they felt about the forced quotas by the EU on all their countries, seeing as how it seemed there was nothing but blowback coming from the citizens of the world. What they said I found to be rather profound, and also quite similar to the thoughts I had heard in Hungary. While the Spanish people don’t have a problem with helping their foreign neighbors in their time of need, they do have a problem with their failure to assimilate. Also, considering the violence that is also taking place in Africa, my hosts expressed that they would much rather be responsible for African refugees than those from Syria because there is much less religious affiliation. Now, I’m not completely familiar with the politics of the region of either side, but it was interesting to get an insider’s perspective on the whole situation. In the opinion of Jose and Sebas, they had a hard time understanding why they were even coming to Europe when they are culturally completely different.

Furthermore, if the concern for the safety of millions of people is in serious doubt, why is this violence still being funded by the allied nations, they asked. All good questions, and even though I try to stay out of all the political stuff, it was quite a thought provoking discovery. It was nice to be able to hear what people in this current situation thought about the refugees, the quotas, and the impact that this decision will have on many established nations, like Spain.

Just something to think about, I suppose. I mean, it can’t all be tapas and museos, right?

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