Monday, March 07, 2005

Mi Viaje a España, Capítulo Dos: Madrid

Okay, so here's a quick rundown of my time in Madrid.

First, let me provide some (more) background to my trip. Although I love European travel, I've only ever been three times now: Paris, Rome, and now Madrid. Unlike Paris and Rome, at least in my personal experience, Madrid doesn't have the obvious tourist sites that major European capitals have. When you go to Paris, there's clearly touristy stuff the first-time tourist has to do: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Cathedral at Notre Dame (among others). Same with Rome: the Vatican, its museums, St. Peter's basilica, the Trevi Fountain, the Collisseum. When thinking about Madrid, at least for me, no big landmarks spring to mind. So research is essential.

But Madrid is great after you read some books and figure out what you want to see.

And it doesn't hurt if you know people who know people who live in Madrid and speak English.

Day One. After spending the night with a cute boy (not in the way one would have hoped), I caught the next flight out, 24 hours late, to meet up with Elizabeth, who was there now a full day-and-a-half without me. Luckily, she had friends of friends who lived in Madrid, so she had people to hang out with. I got there and almost immediately set to work seeing the city. Elizabeth and I explored Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol before meeting up with one of Elizabeth's friends. We then walked around the Jardin Real -- the Royal Gardens, kinda like New York's Central Park -- and eventually had tapas for lunch. It was pretty fun. The gardens were gorgeous, and just soaking up the city was a good exercise for me.

Later that afternoon, Elizabeth and I went to check out El Rastro, reputed to be a well-renowned flea market. Everyone says to go visit it and find some great deals on cool stuff. Elizabeth and I were, frankly, bored by it. There was nothing there worth purchasing, frankly. And it was crowded and not terribly fun. So we quickly gave up on it.

That night we went out to a party held at someone's house. Elizabeth and I were the only Americans there and thus the only people who were not fluent in Spanish. Thus, we spent most of the night standing off to the side feeling kind of antisocial. This is not a good thing for me where there's a party involving free flow of alcohol. I ended up upending a Jonnie Walker bottle repeatedly into my glass. Although it made for a loosened tongue -- I started talking to random people in my crappy-ass Spanish while they responded in their relatively decent English -- it did make for a messy evening. That's particularly bad when the hostel you're staying at doesn't provide toilets in every room, but down the hall. Yeah, I think you know what I'm getting at.

Day Two. Elizabeth's last full day, we took a day trip to Toledo, a city about an hour by bus from Madrid. It's a beautiful, cute little town which everyone says you have to visit. It's cute and quaint -- and the landscape is beautiful because it's on a hill -- but frankly, I didn't find it to be all that exciting. Perhaps that was because we got there relatively late on a Sunday, when a lot of stuff were closed in general, or closed during the siesta. So we wandered around, did some light shopping, ate quickly, then split.

That night, as it was Elizabeth's last night, we weren't so much up to going out and partying. Instead, we decided to take a walk around the city. (The city feels remarkably safe, so walking around at 11 pm wasn't such a big deal, even in parts of the city where the restaurants weren't so bustling.) Elizabeth decided she really wanted to find this bridge -- the Segovia bridge -- because one of her books dubbed it a great-looking bridge in need of a river. (I don't understand that, personally.) We didn't find it that night. But the walk was fun.

Day Three. After having breakfast with Elizabeth and seeing her to a cab to the airport, I walked around on my own. The weather was delightful. Madrid is a very walkable city; from the Puerta del Sol (literally the center of the city and of the country) you can walk almost everywhere. So with the weather outside as nice as it was, I decided to dedicate this day to be an outdoorsy day. (Besides, it was Monday, and most of the museums are closed on Monday.) I saw the outside of the Palacio Real, a lovely royal palace, but opted against going inside and checking out the museum in there. Instead, I walked over to the Jardin Sabatini (Sabatine Gardens) and took a few quick pictures there. Then I walked all around checking out other general sights. Boring and generic, I know, but hey.

That night, I tried my hand at the gay bars. First of all, there's a pretty lively gay scene in Madrid. The city never sleeps to begin with (many of the guides I read basically lists bar hours as "open 10 pm through 4 am" -- including weekdays), and gay bars for some reason don't start hopping until around midnight. (Don't these people ever work?) I spent a little time in one bar with a hideously overpriced nonalcoholic drink before someone actually hit on me. Flattered, I was chatting with him for about ten minutes before it became abundantly clear that he expected me to pay him for the pleasure of his company. I backed off of him real quick.

Day Four. I remember this day well. It rained most of the day, which made indoor visits ideal. I was shopping near my hostel for a man-bag (love those things!) when I started chatting up with the sales guy. At first it was about how the bags I was picking out were more for girls than for guys (I really didn't agree with him, but he still somehow managed to dissuade me from buying certain bags for that reason), but then we started to talking more personally because he was of Chinese extraction. We spoke a little Chinese to each other, then reverted back to Spanish, which both of us were better at. It's kind of surreal to me that on each of my three trips to Europe thus far, I've had the opportunity to break out the skills (again denying myself the temptation to use a "z" there) in several different languages. This kid, Stephane, grew up in Paris, where he graduated high school before his family moved to Madrid. So basically he really knew Spanish and French better than Chinese.

The coolest part about our conversation was that he told me about a (fairly belated) Chinese New Year Celebration going on at Plaza Mayor that very afternoon. I was pretty stoked about that. Seeing as I was a lazy ass who never made it to the Chinese New Year celebration right here in my own back yard, I made sure I attended this one in Madrid. Again, it feels surreal to me to be (I know I'm weird) to be in Spain surrounding by Chinese and Spanish speakers at once. Score still more for diversity. I'm all about that.

Anyway, it was on this day that it started to rain. Pretty hard. I called it an early night and hit the sack after dinner....

But not before I watched some tv in my room. First, I should comment that there are some fun-looking game shows in Madrid. I say "fun-LOOKING" because I couldn't understand what they were saying. But they looked kinda fun. (And it didn't hurt that one of the contestants was really hot.) One basically focused around the city and its subway system: "Where would I be if I needed to go from A to B?" Kinda fun. But my fave just in terms of excitement and gimmickiness (is that a word?) was "Pasapalabra" (something like "Pass on that Word" -- NOT "Password"). Basically, the key is to come up with a word starting with the right letter given a definition. Handy for those of us who don't really speak Spanish. Oh, and for those people who say I speak English really fast (and I do), man, I ain't got nothing on Spanish speakers. The number of syllables they utter in a second is insane!

Anyway, after the game shows -- I kid you not -- my hostel featured free porn. Porn! I think it was infomercial-type porn though, where you'd get interrupted every so often for things like "Text this message to 7777 for hot live girls!" There was even a running text "chat," where I think you could text messages in, and it would get displayed on a running screen, and you could keep running along with responses and everything. Did I mention there were variants of this on THREE DIFFERENT CHANNELS? So basically I saw more than enough lesbian porn on one station, followed by the nastiest woman doing things that made me want to hurl with a bunch of men (at the same time)... Anyway, I digress.

Day Five. My last full day in Madrid. I had made plans to take a second day trip into a city called San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It's another cute little town with cool old stuff to see.

I woke up on this day (remember, it had rained the day before) to find out that it snowed the night before, and was continuing to snow during the day. Snow. The most snowfall Madrid has seen in a single day since something like 1985. Niiiiice. I have no snow boots with me. This will be fun.

However, I decided to trudge throught it anyway, because, well heck, I could by new shoes if I had to. Made my way to a remarkably insane and not terribly well-laid out train station and, after some difficulty, found my way to buy a ticket (from a machine) and get to the right rail. Found myself opposite a very affable old man who was born in El Escorial and was visiting his family. Remarkably, our conversations in Spanish weren't completely retarded. He told me how to get to the monastery after I got off the train (catch a bus then walk from the bus terminal), and was quite nice.

The monastery itself (there are still monks in seclusion there) was gorgeous, probably because it doubled as the royal palace of King Phillip II back in the day. So the palace grounds were awesome, as were the state rooms and antechambers. The basilica literally took my breath away, just because I'm such a sucker for the awesome grandeur of a church even though I'm totally not religious. I snapped quite a few pictures then trudged back out into the snow.

Lunched in El Escorial (again, managed to survive without any English-speaking, although it did mean basically ordering stuff without knowing what it was and assuming that it would be palatable). Trained back to Madrid and spent the rest of the day just milling around the wet little town. Indoor activities were key, so of course this was the day I finally visited all the museums I had meant to see, like the Museo del Prado and the Museo Thyssen. I even took in a bit of the Museo de la Reina Sofia. I was all museumed out by the time it was all over.

Day Six. Not really a full day in Madrid, but I caught the subway to the airport, and that's worth discussing real quick. Madrid has an awesome subway system. Similar to Paris's, but Madrid's is much more extensive. You can get anywhere! And they run well and fast. At one point, the train I was planning on getting on literally ejected all its passengers due to some malfunction. So the platform was filled with passengers from the train, plus those who had wanted to get on. Me with all my carryon shit for the plane, I was not going to shove myself on the next train. But I kid you not, the next train came by not more than a minute later, and suddenly the platform, so recently crowded, was no longer so crowded. The next train following was also less than two minutes in coming, so managed to get on without any problems at all. Oh, and the train that runs to the airport appears to be "dedicated," in that it has little luggage racks that the rest of the subways lines don't.

Anyway, there's much much more to say about my trip, but a lot of those boil down to "you had to be there" moments which would be insanely boring otherwise, so I'll spare you all the details. I do so love European travel. Now I just need an E.U. passport. I hear Spain is moving toward legalizing gay marriages. I need to find me a European sugar daddy....

PS: Because I'm lame and don't want to take the effort to post pictures on this site, I found this other website of a couple who went to Spain in 2002. In the summer. So the pics would look much better than mine. And, well, I look nothing like either of the pair that went. And I was only in Madrid, Toledo, and El Escorial. But still, you get to see some pics.


p.p. said...

Dennis, sounds like a fun time! You neglected to describe, in more detail, your nightly activities (I’m referring to clubs). You went to one club on one night? What about the other 5 nights? hmmm? ;)

Most European cities have free porn at night! It's great. Amsterdam had some good shit!

Speaking "your" language in a foreign country is really cool. In 1998, during my first non-parent trip to Europe, we landed in Brussels and I overheard a Hungarian family say about a "dark" guy, "he must be a terrorist." Typical!

Glad you had a good time, and got back OK. Take care.

Jon said...

Yup, I too have seen free porn on the tv in Europe. Too bad our country was founded by religious nutjobs who either left or were thrown out of Europe for irritating everyone else. :P

Anyway, I enjoyed reading of your travels. I, too would have loved to see the Chinese New Year celebration in Madrid. Pork fried paiella could be tasty ^_^

Steve said...

It sounds like you really enjoyed your trip, and got quite a bit in during your visit. I've seen a lot of places, but haven't been to Madrid yet. Maybe soon. Glad you had a good time!