Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Spain Trip Report and Photos - Madrid

Be forewarned, this massive essay comes in multiple installments, and if I’ve managed it correctly, should also have integrated photos to help illustrate.  Last May, my wife and I took a nice long trip to Spain.  Although we’ve traveled together quite a bit since we met in 2008, we had never traveled internationally together.  So our 10 nights across four cities in a foreign country was going to be an interested test for us (which hopefully we would pass, given we’re already married.  Spoiler alert: we passed)

This might have been more topical had I written it, oh I don’t know, 10 months ago, but things kept coming up and keeping me from sitting down and writing everything out.  Now that I’ve done that, what follows is our best recollection as to everything we did, saw, and ate (lots of those) on our trip…


We started planning months before, conspiring to leverage all the travel benefits I’ve gotten from consulting and making them work for us on our big vacation.  So before describing what actually happened on our trip, a brief overview of where we went and how we got there.

-          Booked a flight from ORD to Madrid (connecting through Dulles), leaving on Wednesday May 16th and arriving Thursday morning May 17th, using my United Airlines miles (economy class, because I’m cheap)

-          Our trip would take us into Madrid (3 nights), then to Seville for two nights (via train), then over to Granada for another two nights (also by train), and lastly, to Barcelona for three nights (on a short flight from Vueling airlines)

-          We flew back from Barcelona, connecting in Madrid (which was a surprise to me), using the British Airways Avios I got as part of their Visa promotion. 

Anyway, our trip started in Chicago where we took off for Madrid.  The brief stopover in Dulles was pretty uneventful, apart from the airport having a Fuddruckers (which is a great idea before a 9 hour flight over the Atlantic).

The one thing we were hoping for at Dulles was a brief stint in an airport lounge, rather than spending hours sitting at our gate.  I was hoping to use this Priority Pass Select card I got with my Amex, which promotes itself as a way to get into airport lounges all over the world.  This card does look like something a slick international traveler would have, jet-black with fancy script.  Of course, it turned out to be as effective as a Blockbuster Video card at getting us anything.  The only lounge at Dulles it works for is the British Airways lounge, but even then, as a Priority Pass member you’re only allowed in between the hours of 10am and 2pm.  That wouldn’t have been a problem, except the lounge didn’t open until 3pm.

So we spent time wandering around Dulles (and at the aforementioned Fuddruckers), before boarding our United flight to Madrid.  What we didn’t know, is that it would be an Aer Lingus flight merely operated by United.  Aer Lingus is the official airline of Ireland…and if you didn’t know that before getting on the plane, they remind you with the overpowering shamrock green coloring of 98% of the surfaces on board.  And yet…no Shamrock Shakes.

The flight was uneventful, except that on the national airline of Ireland, they apparently don’t believe in turning off the lights for an overnight redeye flight.  So sleep was a little tough to come by, even when we watched Tower Heist on our video screens, not even that could put us down.

So, fresh as daisies, we landed in Madrid’s Barajas airport around 7am (first bad sign, the Madrid airport is named after one of the worst Phillies Free Agent signings of all time)

But more important than any distant connection to backup catchers of the past, we were finally in Spain!  Bueno!  Now for our first test…getting to the hotel from the airport!

As a preface to the rest of our Spain story, let it be known that my wife basically lived inside the Rick Steves’ Spain guidebook for the two months leading up to the trip.  Reading the thing cover to cover, she took it upon herself to basically plan everything we were going to do (which I guess is what happens when you marry a planner and she thinks you’re not planning fast enough).  I can’t be sure that she didn’t sleep with the book under her pillow.

Anyway, Rick said the best deal was to take this airport express bus straight to downtown for minimal euros (and by the way, for all this talk about how the euro’s collapsing and Spain’s economy in the tank, everything was still reasonably expensive.  What the hell Eurozone?)

So we went to go look for this bus, and it gave me a chance to prove to my wife that I could get us through Spain without a problem.  I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe that I could do it, but dirty little secret she didn’t know, they put up signs for everything at the airport…especially buses!  And since I can read Spanish at a 2nd grade level, we made out just fine.

A brief ride on the autobus (which is Spanish for bus!), and a brief walk (with giant luggage in two) and we made it to our hotel, the Westin Palace in Madrid.  The hotel was pretty neat, built in the early 1900’s, and a staff full of English speakers.

We took a break in our room to relax for a minute, where we had to convince each other to get excited for a full day in Spain (remember, we were there early in the morning and had the WHOLE day to stay up and see Spain things).  I had also packed some 5-hour energy bottles to get me through that first day, so
I drank one before we headed out for our first day of activity.

First up, a walking tour of Madrid originating from the Plaza Mayor.  The five hour energy was going to play a critical role in keeping me vertical during the one-hour walk around the city.  Based on the product’s description, mathematically, it should’ve worked.

We waited for our English speaking tour guide in the Plaza, which was fun in and of itself just to look at the elaborate hierarchy of panhandlers and street performers in the plaza. There were so many performers, and so much variety, like a cornucopia of people who can’t hold regular jobs.

In my mind, at the top were the actual performers.  People who were actually putting some effort into things…this included the ‘Goat man’…some guy who would sit hidden underneath a glitter blanket on the street while manipulating a plastic goat head like a puppet (assuming the goat was not actually magic).  I liked Goat man, that stuff takes effort and commitment. 

Then there were the weird looking dudes who just walked around in costume like a college team mascot, but clearly weren’t playing any kind of role.  Definitely half-assing it, doing a casual wave to try and entice someone to take a picture with them, at which point I’m assuming they’d ask for money?  I don’t get their business model and I didn’t like them as much…hard to see the magic in a middle aged dude with a pot-belly dressed like a regular dude but with a giant Mickey Mouse head.

Then there were the squeakers.  These guys seemed to follow us around everywhere, to the point where it seemed odd when you didn’t hear a high pitched squeak.  Picture a guy wandering around a plaza constantly talking in atrociously high-pitched squeals.  It looks like magic until you realize they have a small plastic tube in their mouths.  And since you can’t make out the words of what they would say in their high pitched squeak, they’d just make really long noises and babbly nonsense.  And this was an effort to make you want to hand over money for them. 

Anyway, we waited around and eventually found our tour guide, who would walk us around part of Madrid over the course of an hour.  The tour was a good introduction to the city, and showed us lots about the city’s history.  First fun fact, all the big Spanish kings were named Charles or Phillip.  That’s a fact that proves I was paying attention.  Of course, despite the 5 hour energy shot, I was definitely flagging.  At one point as our guide was describing some building or other, I actually fell asleep standing up for a few seconds.  Didn’t fall over though.

We finished up the tour, which basically set our course for the remainder of our time on Madrid, and then decided to make our first foray into the world of tapas.  Anyone who knows me understands my distaste for small plates, sharing plates, mini-meals, or whatever other nonsense name the promoters of Communist eating have come up with (Small plates that everyone shares with each other and no one gets their own?  That’s right, it’s Communist).  So I’m by no means a tapas kind of guy, but for the sake of this vacation, I set aside my politically-motivated philosophical opposition.

We had received multiple recommendations for a chain of restaurants called 100 Montaditos (there were other words in the title, but I don’t remember them), and happened to walk past one in downtown Madrid shortly after our tour.

It’s a pretty neat concept, in that the menu is largely comprised of montaditos, mini sandwiches of all different shapes and sizes (actually not many different shapes, the shapes were mostly the same).  You just go in and fill out a list of what you want and in a few minutes you have mini-sandwiches.

They also had cheap alcohol, which seemed to be a common thread across all of Spain.  So between a variety of cheap tiny sandwiches and easily available alcohol, we made a nice transition into the Spanish style of eating.  However, we did not make a nice transition into appearing like Spanish locals, as we struggled with some of the vocabulary on the menu and I’m pretty confident the waitress had a high level of contempt for us.  But there’s also no tipping in Spain, so maybe it’s more of an incentive problem.

After that stop, we also got our first exposure to the world of Churros at Chocolateria San Gines.  The Churros themselves were nothing special, as most Churros tend to be (fry any kind of dough and it tends to taste pretty good).  However, we also got a cup full of hot liquid chocolate to dip them in.  While it wasn’t my thing, I practically had to rip my wife out of her chair on the plaza and promise that it wouldn’t be our last taste of Churro.

After our snack, we marched onwards of our cultural tour of Madrid straight to the Prado art museum.  There are a couple big art museums in Madrid, and I had just remembered that the Prado was old stuff and the Reina Sofia was new stuff.  We went to the Prado first, and rented our first art museum audio guide (basically because we know nothing about art).

I can confirm the following details about the Prado.

-          They have lots of paintings there
-          The paintings are really old
-          Back in the day, 98% of paintings were about Jesus

If the paintings weren’t of Jesus, they were portraits of other people.  Now I realize they didn’t have Instagram back then, but just topically, weren’t there any other things worth painting back then?

We definitely enjoyed the Prado, and I think it made us feel like we were getting more high-brow exposure to Spain (more so than my urge to try their take on a McDonald’s), but art museums can be tough, especially when they’re big and you feel compelled to see everything.

After the Prado we took a detour on the way back to the hotel to do a swing through some botanical gardens.  The gardens were OK, but honestly, how were they going to compare to the 6 dozen paintings of Jesus on the cross I just saw?  I was so tired at that point, that we had to get back to the hotel for a reprieve before heading out for more tapas!

So we rested and relaxed at the hotel for a bit, steeling ourselves for our first foray out into the Spanish nightlife.  We had an idea of the area thanks to our walking tour and the guidebook, and picked one area that was supposed to have a wide array of tapas places to hop around.

Our first stop was a giant (and crowded) place called Museo de Jamon.  Jamon means ham, and this place was full of it.  Ham was everywhere, which for my wife meant she’d have to forget about the fact that she doesn’t eat ham (I was OK with tapas, she was OK with ham…if anyone was ever going to get us try meth, they missed their opportunity).

But we walk into the Museo (which means museum), and I look at the menu and quickly see what looks like their biggest seller, a $1 mini ham sandwich (note: using the dollar sign in place of Euros because I don’t know where the Euro sign is on my computer…so when I say dollars I mean Euros).  This early in the evening, I felt like we didn’t need to rush anything, so I ordered two of those and some drinks for us.

The bartender comes back and gives me two tiny ham sandwiches, each maybe slightly bigger than a golf ball.  Makes sense to me.  Only he immediately follows that with two GIGANTIC ham sandwiches, each of which must have been ten inches long.  I looked at the now four sandwiches in front of me, two minis and two massives, and wondered what the heck got lost in translation.  But when I gave him the money, it still only cost me $2.

I was fascinated by this.  What the heck just happened?  Why did he give us these massive sandwiches?
It’s not that the big sandwiches were good…they absolutely were not (90% bread that seemed stale with small thin slices of ham).  But he seemed to give them to us for nothing.

The mini sandwiches were good, and for some reason I forced myself to eat most of the bigger one (maybe it’s there as a joke to play on American tourists).

Once we finished up, we quickly threw our garbage on the floor of the bar (also just something they do there), and went out looking for the next one.  I could get used to this.

The next place we found was a heck of a lot different than the Museo, which had pork parts hanging from every part of the store.  This place, Txakolina, was definitely more cosmopolitan.  A more sleek modern feel, with a large central bar area with wrap-around glass display cases like a bakery (but with bar seating).  Unlike a bakery, the display case was filled with awesome looking appetizer-type food and mini-sandwiches.

The food was great, and we got the chance to try some different Spanish alcohol (as opposed to the regular beer and wine the two of us had been drinking beforehand).  I went for the vermouth, which is big over there (for reasons that remain unclear to me), and my wife had her first tinto de verano, which is like a more basic sangria.  For her, that was a home run.  It would not be the last time we ordered tinto de verano.

But after downing a couple more plates of tapas, we decided to leave and keep moving, after all, there was more food to eat.  We wandered around the streets of Madrid before making our way to Plaza Santa Ana.  We had a couple of restaurant suggestions, and even though our ultimate destination made us wait quite a while for a table, it was such a nice night that we were content to hang around the plaza waiting.

We eventually got a table on the plaza at Lateral, by this time it had to be close to midnight, and ordered another series of tapas.  The food was great, although it may have been a bit much (it’s very hard to transition into the Spanish world of ordering only a little bit of stuff and multiple places when your instinct is to try everything and go as big as possible).  My wife was convinced the table next to us spent the entire evening laughing about how much food we had.  Even if that were true, we’re American, that’s what they would expect from us.

After wrapping up the meal, we decided it would be a more prudent decision to head back to the hotel.  After all, it was 1:30 in the morning, we hadn’t slept the night before, and we had just eaten dinner three times.

Friday 5/18

The revelry from the night before left us with a bit of a problem in the morning.  Namely, the fact that we were both still full from dinner.  But to be true Americans on any vacation, you have to eat constantly, so we pushed through our discomfort and started the day with breakfast at the hotel (thanks to new SPG Platinum benefit giving to us for free)

We had planned out a general idea of how the day should go, because we were planning to do a day trip out to Toledo on Saturday and wanted to make sure we spent Friday, our last full day in Madrid, hitting the other big sights.  This would include the big items like the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia (art museum sans Jesus) as well as the Spanish opera show my wife had purchased tickets to before we left Chicago              .

Again, we got lucky with the weather and had a beautifully sunny day.  Using the Rick Steves’ guidebook, we had our own walking tour of the city already mapped out, which would take us across the city towards the Palace/Cathedral area.  Strategically, it would also take us past a number of places where we could eat more.

We started the walk and didn’t make it past the first plaza when we hit our first destination, La Mallorquina.  Not sure what it means in English, but it was a pastry shop, and even after having four meals in the past 12 hours or so, that didn’t stop us from having what my wife felt was one of the best chocolate croissants she’s ever had (and would continue to bring up for the rest of our trip). 

The croissants would be high the point of our mid-morning dessert crawl through the streets of Madrid. 

We had one other stop to make, which my wife was also particularly excited about, even if it turned out to be an epic disappointment.

Our guidebook detailed a convent in Madrid.  In this convent lived a group of nuns.  And with these nuns were cookies that they baked and sold to the people who stopped in to see them (sounds like an ideal children’s book for fat kids).   Getting the cookies was a relatively unique process, detailed in the book with very specific instructions.  Knock on the door, wait to be let in, go to some secret window and slide your money in and cookies will appear.  Something like that anyway, sounded very National Treasure-y. 
So you can imagine our excitement for an activity that involved dessert (for my wife) and unnecessary spy movie secrecy (for me).  But when we arrived at the convent fresh after polishing off our morning pastries, we were met with unfortunate news.

No Hay Dulces.

With a simple card taped to the door, the nuns shut down our super secret cookie operation.  That was a bummer.

But don’t worry, we still found plenty of places to eat later on in the day.  Of course, that would be well after going to some of the significant sights of Madrid and, you know, actually doing something other than eating.

We had made good progress and were almost at the Royal Palace, but stopped just before getting there to take a quick walk through Madrid’s cathedral.  At this point, we hadn’t been in any cathedral, so the novelty factor was huge in persuading us.  This cathedral, unlike many others in Spain, was a recent addition, which I thought was obvious from the flat screen TVs posted around the pews to let people see the action.  It wasn’t at the point where there was a Jumbotron or anything, but the TVs seemed odd to me.  The cathedral itself seemed nice, even if I wasn’t really sure what any part of it was for.  I’m consistently impressed with the ceilings of cathedrals and the sheet enormity of the buildings, although in this case this particular cathedral wasn’t finished until 1993.  So it lost points given they had the advantages of computers, protractors, and modern engineering. 

Finishing our first cathedral relatively quickly, we moved across the way to the Royal Palace, which if I remember correctly was built as part of some kind of competitive rivalry with the palace in France.  It’s like just what you did back then when you ruled an Empire and weren’t dying of mysterious diseases.
The palace was an impressively laid out area, with a huge expansive lot in front of it that only made it seem more impressive as you approached it.  Walking up the massive marble stairs and through the ornately decorated rooms really was an experience (how long it must have taken the Royal Family to go anywhere in that great big palace!).  It was hard not to feel like a Lannister wandering through the halls, admiring the tapestries, and wondering exactly how much stuff you could touch before a security guard would admonish you.

The Palace also featured a nice view out over a large forested area, referred to as the King’s backyard (sans pool, what kind of royal family are they?), which was on the way to the armory.  The armory was interesting in that it featured swords, shields, armor throughout periods of Spanish history and made it clear that 1) people were tiny back then (the suits of armor looked like they were made for 12 year olds, although some of them actually were), and 2) fighting must have been terribly slow back then.  Not only is the average combatant shorter than I am, but he’s weighed down by a ton of heavy armor.  It’s a wonder anybody got killed back then.

But overall the palace was incredibly interesting, and left us to our plan of heading to the Reina Sofia for the next cultural attraction of the day…until my wife called an audible.

It was such a nice day outside (probably in the high 70’s and sunny), that my wife was turning on the idea of spending the afternoon in another art museum, or indoors at all.  She does this at home to, which often places her agenda at odds with my goal of not going anywhere and avoiding people.  But in this case, I was quick to approve of her plan to postpone the museum until tomorrow and go to Retiro Park instead.

Retiro Park is a large 350 acre park in Madrid that used to be royal property (but then what wasn’t!).  We wandered through the park, admiring all the individual statues of figures from Spanish history (many named Charles or Phillip).  We spotted a pond in the middle of the park dotted with dozens of small rowboats and angled for a nice bench in a shady spot.

We sat for a while, just enjoying the nice day and watching all the people walk by (or row by in the case of the boats).  The boats looked torturous…older wooden rowboats with splintery oars, typically manned by the oldest male in the group who was charged with paddling around and simultaneously avoiding the 50 other boats each with an independently minded captain.  To make things interesting, some of the boats were full of screaming teenagers who couldn’t get themselves organized to do anything more than rotate the boat in the water, splashing others with the oars and proving why the Spanish economy stinks.  And since you were on the open body of water, there would be no shade to protect you from the sun.  It looked totally miserable.

“I think we should rent a boat,” my wife said, seemingly right as I was making these observations to myself.

I pushed back a bit, but could tell this is something she really wanted to do, so a few euros later and we were out at sea as I manned to oars.

Honestly, it actually turned out to be a lot of fun.  It wasn’t nearly as hot as I had expected, and dodging the other boats and/or going faster than them made it into a game.  My wife took over paddling for a good 20 seconds before realizing it was a stupid idea, but other than that we gracefully circled the pond for a while.

Once we safely disembarked, we were off on the way back to the hotel to prepare for our night out at the opera.  As we got back to our hotel, we stopped across the street at another 100 Montaditos outlet and had some pre-dinner, because we planned to eat a regular meal after the show.

So we had more sandwiches and cocktails, took some time in the room to get ready for the evening, and set off for our night at the Zarzuela.  My wife had bought the tickets before we left online, after reading about how much fun it would be in the guidebook.

Zarzuela, defined by Wikipedia, is a lyric-dramatic opera genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, incorporating dance.  From what I understand, they’re typically comedies and were very big in the 20’s.

We had printed out the tickets, and went over the theater for the show, where I was quick to point out that were the youngest people in the crowd by a good 30 years.  Apparently if you loved it in the 20’s, you still love it now.

I took our tickets and handed them to the usher, who immediately looked confused and explained that there was a bit of a problem.

The tickets we had ordered were for the wrong day.  Someday the following week or so, when we would be nowhere near Madrid.

Uh oh.

Now normally this type of thing would be on me, because I’m usually the one in charge of logistics.  However, in this instance, it was all on my wife, who must’ve clicked the wrong day on the website when she bought the seats.

The usher looked perplexed and asked us if this was the only night we’d be in Madrid.

Yes I said, wondering how we could possibly make our trip complete without being exposed to 1920’s style lyrical opera.

She told us to sit tight while she saw what she could do, and much to my surprise, she quickly returned with another usher who she explained would take care of us.

That new usher took us up to the upper level and around the side of the seating to an individual box near the stage (think Waldorf and Statler territory).  He didn’t speak much English, but we soon realized that they were giving us our own box for the show.  Even though it was slightly obstructed, it sure beat our other seats (which were in the main center of the upper level and would’ve forced us to sit in an among the Spanish natives, who wouldn’t have appreciated our discussion).

With our own box safely away from everyone else, that left us free to talk the entire time.  That was great, because as soon as the show started we realized we had absolutely no clue what anyone was saying!

The show was obviously all in Spanish, and there was an accompanying screen with the Spanish words in subtitles to help read them.  Between my wife and me, we kind of got the gist of it, but let’s just say a lot of the jokes were lost on us.

The plot seemed to revolve around a love triangle between a cleaning lady, her boss, and a young gentleman.  There was also a subplot involving an older woman and her suitor, as well as another subplot about a man and his kid where I think the man was a painter but also a con man.

They all sang and danced and dressed in old timey clothes, as it was set back in the 1920’s or some era when people used to do choreographed song and dance routines as a regular habit.

Our seats in the private box were extraordinarily helpful, because we kept trying to help each other figure out what was going on.  But we were totally lost, and started to wonder how good an idea it was.

The opera was divided into three acts, and when the lights were turned up after a big musical number, we assumed the first act had come to a close.  It was intermission time, and we looked at each other wondering whether it made sense to leave now, as our understanding was not going to improve with another couple of hours of exposure.

We debated it, and I secretly wondered how we could walk past the ushers who graciously accommodated our wrong tickets with a private box.  How could we leave early, they’d wonder, ruing the day they helped the ignorant American tourists and vowing never to do so again!

We decided to stay for the second act, and then bail at the next intermission.  Only once the lights went down and the next song started up, I realized that they had changed the structure of the opera and moved the intermission around.  That meant while we were only ~30% through the opera, there would be no breaks until the end!  Classic rookie opera-goer mistake!

So we sat there and vainly tried to follow along with the subtitles.  The opera continued to drag on and on through a number of plot twists and turns.  This guy loved that girl…now he loves someone else! that girl is drunk!!!  Now EVERYBODY FLAMENCO DANCE!!!

Who says I’m culturally bankrupt?

The opera finally ended (btw, no one ended up with anyone in this thing, everyone went home single), and we made our way out of the theater with me carefully avoiding crossing the paths of either usher from before. (Didn’t want them to ask me how I liked it)

I think we got plenty of culture for one evening, and I don’t think I’d be rushing back to the Zarzuela house anytime soon.  But I can check off ‘Spanish Lyrical Opera’ from my bucket list.

We had a tip from the concierge about a paella place not far from the theater, and given that it was after 10pm, it made sense to try and find some dinner.  Whenever people talk about Spanish food, the first thing they mention is tapas.  But one of the next things they mention is the paella.  It’s like a big thing there, and essentially it’s a big rice-based dish with a variety of ingredients (typically seafood like mussels, shrimp, etc., but can also be other types of meat, vegetables, I don’t think there are any restrictions).

I have no idea why people like this stuff.

We found the restaurant, and after a wait and some chit-chat with another couple on a European vacation, got seated and ordered the paella.  It was exactly what I expected, a heaping bowl of rice with all kinds of random seafood creatures, some of which still had heads.

Neither of us were big fans, and we wondered why everyone talks about it.  I think it can be traced back to Seinfeld, in the one episode where George’s parents make paella for the Seinfelds and they don’t go. 
Then I think Kramer goes because he really likes paella.

But you know what Kramer?  It’s not any freaking good!  It just has a fun name to say!

The big lessons from the day as we got back to the hotel and slept…no more lyrical opera, and no more paella!

Saturday, 5/19

The next morning had a far more ambitious travel agenda than the day before.  Not content to cross the ocean and visit four cities, we arranged a day trip down to Toledo to make it five (because when else would we get to Toledo?)

We got up early, had a good breakfast, and got ourselves to the train station.  I have to say, the Spanish train system was very nice.  Smooth ride and it even had a movie.  The ride wasn’t all that long out to Toledo, and we used the time to debate how rainy it looked.

My wife’s instinct to take advantage of the beautiful Madrid weather the day before was paying off as the drizzling clouds appeared across the sky.  We weren’t too excited at the prospect of walking through the town in the rain, but what could we do?

We knew a little bit about Toledo from the guide books, and knew a couple key facts:

-          It had a massive cathedral
-          The city was formerly like, the Jewish capital of Spain, or at least that there were lots of Jews there at one time

So it was going to be a religious day, and we quickly strategized to skip past the Cathedral and go right for the Jew stuff once we got there to miss the big crowds.  But first, we’d have to get from the train station up the mountain to the town itself.  And to do that we’d have to risk kidnapping.

I should probably explain.

When we got off the train with the other tourists, we slowly drifted through the train station and out the front door where a large bus was waiting.  The bus would take anyone up to the center of town (vs. a long uphill walk) for a few Euros.  So we slowly approached the bus, when a man with a foreign accent who was also waiting for the bus asked us if we wanted to share a cab with him and his wife.  It would cost half as much and we could leave right away.

Made sense to me, so I said sure.

Well, I didn’t realize this at the time, but ever since I made my wife watch the movie ‘Taken’, she’s been extremely suspicious of anyone offering a ride, particularly in foreign countries and with foreign accents.
So even when we got in the cab with the guy and his wife and he told the cab driver to take us to the center of town, my wife was still pretty sure we were going to be sold into a life of sex slavery (and she didn’t see the upside to that).

At one point, the guy said something to the cab driver in Spanish, which was even more convincing to my wife that we were doomed.  Of course, once the couple asked where we were from and told us they were from Israel, she relaxed considerably (because no one evil could ever be from Israel!), and sure enough, we arrived at the central plaza in Toledo and were left to wonder what might have been had we been kidnapped instead.

No fancy high class sex slave future awaited us, instead, we walked through the central plaza of Toledo and straight towards the oldest synagogue in Spain!

It was still drizzling a bit as we wandered through the streets of Toledo.  Long and windy, paved with cobblestones, it was amazing anyone was able to walk around there (we saw one shortsighted woman stumbling around in high heels).  The drizzle made things a little more interesting by making them slippery, which made it even harder to focus on exactly how lost we were getting as we tried to keep from falling.

We ultimately emerged from some narrow winding roads to find ourselves near the synagogue (it was actually a synagogue/museum, which basically means if you have a bar mitzvah there you have to find your own caterer and that you should never touch anything).  It was also the first of two we were supposed to visit in Toledo, both of which we planned to knock out early before the big cathedral.

The synagogues were interesting as they had Islamic elements in their architecture.  It was kind of neat to see the designs and imagine yourself in a world where the women weren’t allowed to be in the same service as the men. 

Another interesting thing I noticed when we were visiting the synagogue-uems, was that we were by far the youngest people there.  There were a couple tours of older folks (one of which had an English-speaking tour guide we made sure to stand near), but obviously no one under thirty felt like learning about really old synagogues.

We took in the sights of the two different locations, and wandered around checking out the views from the nearby cliffsides before heading back towards the cathedrals.

One thing we noticed on our walk back was Toledo’s overpowering obsession with knives.  Picture a tourist driven town filled with tons of tiny shops.  Typically, they’re selling stupid Marijuana-themed T shirts to idiot teenagers on school trips right?  Well picture that, but instead of T shirts, they’re selling knives.

All kinds of knives, big ones, small ones, it’s a TSA screener’s nightmare!  Apparently Toledo is known for making knives (or maybe just selling them, the distinction was hard to tell).

But we didn’t buy any knives in Toledo.  Instead we went over towards their giant cathedral, which if I remember correctly is one of the biggest in Europe (and the world).  With the exception of the brief walk through the cathedral in Madrid, I had never been in a cathedral, so I thought it would be interesting.
It definitely was.  Now I didn’t understand what anything in there meant or what it was used for, but I couldn’t help being impressed by the magnitude of the structure, the intricate details build into all the different sections of the building, and the general fanciness of everything.  Those places must have been ridiculous compared to the hovels most of the regular people would’ve had to live in around the same time.  I just Wikipedia’d it and it was completed in 1493.  I can’t even imagine how much regular life had to suck in 1493.  And then here’s this giant building with amazingly high ceilings and gold plated everything.  No wonder people worshiped everything in there.

We walked around the cathedral and took in all the different areas and things to look at.  It really helped that we had a self-guided walking tour from Rick Steves’ book, otherwise we would’ve been a little confused at what everything was (except for Jesus, we had heard of that guy)

We spent a lot of time in the cathedral before calling it a day and heading out for some Toledo tapas at el Trebol.  Taking a left at the Don Quixote statue (or maybe it was a statue of Cervantes, either way) we found a recommended spot and sat outside.  Fortunately the umbrellas were out over the tables, because the rain came and went as we sat trying yet another version of some montaditos.

After our break, we walked some more around the town, looking out over some new vistas and understanding how the city’s terrain and the mostly surrounding river offered good natural defenses from invades (which I’m a little sad isn’t still a consideration when looking for a house or apartment. 
Most people never think about how their land is situated in the event they have to repel a band of marauders or withstand a siege.  That’s why we like high rises, because medieval knights would have a tough time getting their horses up the stairs or in the elevator).

Back at the main plaza in Toledo, we had a little bit of time before our train, and used it effectively to find more dessert!  Toledo, as per a Rick Steves’ TV episode we saw (seriously, this guy was everywhere, is known for its marzipan.  The stuff is basically sugar and almonds, and is used to make small cookie-like snacks (often in the shape and flavor of fruits etc.).  Certainly it was a dessert I would like, while the bakery on the plaza also had some chocolate stuff the wife could eat.  I’d say the marzipan was good, not necessarily something I’d eat all the time, but certainly a good way to ensure I checked the dessert box on our visit to Toledo.

All that excitement of cathedrals, knives, and tiny cookies made for an uneventful train ride home.  I’m pretty sure I slept on the way back to Madrid.  Of course, we were only halfway through our day.  Because we put off the Reina Sofia the day before, we had to hit it when we got back.  So we went straight there through the sporadic raindrops off to see a bunch of art that would be a little less heavy on the Catholicism.

The Reina Sofia did turn out to have a lot less religion.  More modern works from all kinds of painters promised to be interesting, and the guide mentioned that some of the paintings were accompanied by video and other media from similar periods, which I thought would be fun.

I think I can say that while it was an interesting museum, we wouldn’t exactly be in a hurry to go back.  I really liked seeing lots of the paintings, although there were times when it seemed like everything in the place was either a Picasso, a Miro, or a Dali.  It didn’t help that our audio guide was really pretty weak.  Significantly worse than the ones we had at the Prado. Some of the art was a little weird also.

The biggest attraction at the museum was Picasso’s Guernica, a massive painting offering the artist’s take on the Spanish Civil War offered as an exhibit during a world’s fair (again, if I remember correctly).  What was most interesting was seeing all the individual pieces, sketches, etc. that Picasso did as part of preparation for the painting itself, which is huge.  It was impressive to see all the prep work that would go into one of his most famous pieces of work.  The painting itself was a mob scene, with a huge throng of visitors and a couple security guards who took alternating turns correcting the dumber tourists who couldn’t understand that taking pictures of the painting wasn’t allowed.

With another museum under our belts, we went back to our hotel and got ready for our last night in Madrid.  My wife was already starting to get depressed that the vacation was one city closer to being over.

For dinner that night, we had reservations later at a restaurant called Sobrino de Botin, but before that we stopped for pre-dinner drinks and appetizers as the Mercado San Miguel.

The Mercado was a fully enclosed market with individual stores operating tiny counters and offering a wide variety of food and drink.  At a couple key spots, there were sets of tables or stools for people to congregate around and enjoy their tiny plates.  There were also people, a ton of them.  The whole place reminded me a lot of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, just with about 500% more classiness.

It was a fun place to hang out and enjoy a snack, but only if you could actually decide what you wanted.  That proved difficult, as we did at least two or three laps around the entire market before finally picking out some food and grabbing some wine.  I remember the food being good, but honestly can’t even think of what I had (so why did we spend so much time choosing???)

But the atmosphere was lots of fun, with crowds of younger people (assuming they were young professionals, but then again it’s Spain where no young people have jobs, so maybe they just looked that way) everyone was just having a good time.  We wondered why there wasn’t a place like this back home in Chicago (like a smaller self-contained Taste of Chicago, but with real money, less sketchiness, and no teenagers).

The market primed us up nicely for Sobrino de Botin, which is in the Guinness book of world records as the oldest restaurant in the world.  Apparently it’s been in operation since 1725, although the menu has changed a bit since then (not sure they serve mutton anymore).

Walking into the restaurant you notice that the building, which has at least three floors of seating, seems a little older.  The frenetic pace of the host was amazing, flying around the entrance to simultaneously check people in, sit people down, and direct others to where they were supposed to go. 

He quickly found our reservation and told us to sit tight by the stairs to the upper level dining area.

As we sat there, I noticed a door opened behind me that didn’t appear to be a normal part of the dining area.  While we were waiting, I also noticed that every now and then, some people would walk by and take a look inside.  Some even took pictures, so naturally that got my curiosity piqued. What could be in there?

I told my wife to wait a minute while I took a look.  In the back room was a series of shelves, almost like bookshelves along the wall.  On each shelf sat several cooking pans, arranged one-by-one in a row.  And in each pan, with its tiny head poking over the edge to look back at me, was a tiny pig.

It was a shelf full of cochinillo asado, or suckling pig.  An eerie sight, all those dead little pigs staring back at you.  I hadn’t wanted to try suckling pig before seeing it, and the thought of getting it after seeing all of them creeped me out a little more.  I told my wife she’d be better off not checking it out.  She didn’t, and we didn’t order it for dinner either.

The restaurant was tight and tiny, which I’d expect for something that was operating about 300 years ago.  Just trying to reconcile that was a struggle, picturing what people could’ve been doing in the same spot and how different it must’ve been.  Like if you went to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and threw a party in there.

We had a nice long dinner (and sampled more Spanish wine), before heading out into the street (it had long stopped raining and was pretty nice).  We had gotten a recommendation for a fun bar to visit, but as we passed it we noticed the place was completely empty (and not because we were too early).  The last thing we wanted was to be the only people in a bar, so instead we set our sights on another place for dessert (writing all this now a month or so after the fact, and I’m amazed at how often our activities revolved around eating…it actually seems pretty gross now that I’m looking at it, but it was delicious at the time)

Anyway, it was after dinner, which means we were after ice cream.  The guidebook had referred us to a place somewhere in the city that had Argentinian ice cream (how this differs from regular ice cream?  I have no idea.  Maybe you just eat it in the winter because that’s summer down there).  On our way to find it, we were both struck by the amount of people out and about having a good time.  The ice cream place was along a busy street packed with bars and restaurants, and accompanying Spanish revelers. 
When we did find the place, it turned out it was more of a bar that also happened to sell ice cream. 

Interesting concept (Chicago again, feel free to take note).  I have no idea what the place was called (may have something to do with the bottle of wine I had at dinner), but we both enjoyed the fact that it was late in the evening in a bustling Madrid nightspot, and the two of us were having ice cream.

Then we went back to the hotel...

 Next stop - Seville

No comments: