Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Unplanned in Madrid

For most vacations I am the planner, or as my family would insist, the over-planner. I research destinations months in advance. Where is the best place to stay, the most interesting activities, the most efficient or interesting way to travel from one point to another. Where should we eat, what should we do, what streets should we be sure to walk down; I leave nothing to chance.

Maybe it is a result of the upheavals and uncertainties of the past year, but I had to force myself to do a lot of planning for this trip. Lee made the plane reservations months ago. He got us business class tickets using miles. I found us an apartment in Barcelona using (vacation rentals by owner; a great website) and a nice hotel in Madrid using Trip Advisor. I bought a couple of guidebooks, but then didn’t bother to look at them until a couple of days before we left. The day before we left I checked to see if I could download Google Translate to my phone (I couldn’t) so I ran to the bookstore and bought a Spanish phrasebook. That was it.

We arrived in sunny Madrid on a Wednesday morning and managed to find a taxi to take us to our hotel. Once settled in there I decided to go for a quick run. I thought it would help wake me up and give me a chance to figure out where we were. I hadn’t even bought a guidebook for Madrid! Somehow it had entirely skipped my mind that we were going to be spending an entire day there.

The front desk clerk pointed me in the general direction of a nearby park. The streets of Madrid reminded me of New York, but the architecture looked like a cross between New Orleans and Paris. Beautiful stucco buildings with ironwork graced narrow cobbled streets. Periodically a traffic circle appeared with a fountain or a statue in the middle. The people were dressed fashionably and ethnically I could have been anywhere in the US or Europe except that everyone was speaking Spanish. I jogged and walked slowly, taking in the sites and managed to get back to the hotel without getting too lost.

The Spanish eat their big meal of the day between 2 and 4 pm. After a shower we once again asked the desk clerk for a suggestion and he sent us to a “real” Spanish restaurant. Slowly we made our way there, figuring out the street names with our meager Spanish. Once inside the restaurant I used my Spanish phrasebook to order a couple of cervesas. We chose several small plates to share. The food we had was good, but it looked like our neighboring table’s food was better. They had a lobster stew that looked delish. At least my profiteroles for dessert with espresso and some kind of liquor in a little glass was excellent.

Then we went back to the hotel to take our first siesta of this vacation. We set Lee’s alarm just in case but I managed to sleep a little bit and wake up without feeling totally out of it. We were rapidly getting ourselves on Spanish time.

Happy Lee Eating Mushroom Tapas

The Spaniards eat a light meal at around 9pm. Lee did some research and found a place that served grilled mushrooms in an area close to our hotel. We had fun wandering around a little Mercado with lots of different food stands. I had Sangria and we shared a plate of olives at one stand. Lee sampled the wine at another. We wandered into the mushroom restaurant: Meson_del_Champinon. We stood at the bar and ate some fantastic mushrooms, white caps in olive oil and some kind of vinegar sauce, with parsley and a bit of ham in each. More wine and a cheerful atmosphere. This was fun!

This sign says that peppers ARE available!

Then we wandered around a little more. We found a café where we could sit outside. We ordered something called a baby tortilla which was basically a frittata (eggs and potatoes baked in a round). We sat there for awhile, admiring the people as they passed by. I like the way people dress here and we had some lively discussions about whether various women were dressing for women or men. No definitive conclusions were reached and eventually we strolled back to our hotel.

We slept like the exhausted creatures we were. We woke up briefly at 8am but both of us fell back asleep and slept until 10! This is unheard of for us 5:30am risers! We staggered out of the hotel and sat down at one of the nearby cafes for coffee and bread, the usual Spanish breakfast. I love their café con leche, basically espresso with warm milk. The Spanish know how to do coffee, that’s for sure.

Next it was time to go to the train station. This part of our unplanned vacation made me nervous. We had our Eurorail passes but we still needed our seat reservations. I had tried to get us reservations online for the train from Madrid to Barcelona but was unsuccessful. What if we couldn’t figure it out? What if the trains were all full? Ai-ya, this was not my style of travel!

We found the ticket counters and after asking around, found the right line. Some people ahead of us got tickets, others walked away empty-handed. We didn’t have enough time to make the 12:30pm train. Would we be able to get tickets on the 1:30pm?

Right before it was our turn a young man sidled up to the people in front of us and stood there like he was part of their group. When it became obvious that he wasn’t Lee told him in English that he was cheating and to go to the back of the line. He pretended not to understand, but then the rest of the line started yelling at him in Spanish…too funny! It was too much for him and he finally gave up and went away.

The second class tickets for the 1:30pm train were sold out, but first class wasn’t that much more money so we bought a couple of those instead. Now we just needed to find our track and our seats, which we managed to do without too much trouble. Whew!

Now we are speeding toward Barcelona on one of those marvelous high speed European trains. The European economies might be on the verge of collapse but their trains are still wonderful! The countryside looks a lot like New Mexico, with olive trees. Sunny blue skies, red rocky soil, distant mountain ridges. So far unplanned is working out very well!

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