Sunday, May 20, 2012

Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor of Madrid.

Day 14 (Monday, April 6th 2009)

From Segovia I started my drive early up to Madrid.

I reached the city limits of Madrid without any problems. However, I had issues once I began driving within the city as I attempted to find the car rental agency which was supposed to be located next to the Atocha train station. Unfortunately, my navigation system didn't seem to understand the one way streets so needless to say, I got lost. After becoming extremely frustrated from having driven in circles several times, I eventually found the train station. Thankfully I also saw a gas station right across the street, all with about 15 minutes to spare before the agreed upon drop off time. Had I dropped off the rental car off after 12:30 I would have been charged an additional day’s rental cost, so it was absolutely imperative that I arrive prior to that time.

From the car rental agency, I walked downstairs to the train station and took the metro into the central Madrid neighborhood called Puerta del Sol.

I found Hostal Acapulco easily from the nearby metro stop Gran Via. The hostal was perfectly fine; my room was bright, clean, and had a balcony with a view over Plaza Carmen. The most interesting part of the hostal however was its really cool elevator that appeared to be at least 100 years old, but was actually only built in the 1960’s (according to a plaque on the inside of the elevator). The elevator looked like something you might see in an old building in New York or London; it was wrought iron black metal with a double door that I would have to shut after walking inside. Even though I probably should have taken the stairs more often, it was more fun instead to ride the elevator each time I left or came back to the hostel.
Hostel Acapulco
Hostel Acapulco
View from my room at Hostel Acapulco.
Interesting elevator at Hostel Acapulco.


After settling into my room, I headed out into the city in order to complete Rick Steves "Welcome to Madrid Walk." I was quite surprised with Madrid; I had heard some not so positive things about the city prior to my visit (i.e. concrete jungle, dirty, uninteresting). However, as I walked the streets of the city I found that I liked it more than I thought I would have. While it was obviously a huge and sprawling city, it had a lot of beautiful architecture and was relatively clean, given its size and large population of more than three million people. Apparently, the city had placed a bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In an effort to win the bid, the city poured millions of dollars into massive city-improvement building projects and infrastructure.
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid

Museum of Ham in Madrid.
Museum of Ham in Madrid.
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid
Madrid


During my walk, I stopped at Puerta del Sol and walked inside Salon La Mallorquina, which was a bakery. After eying the many racks of goodies, I purchased two and headed outside to enjoy them.
Salon La Mallorquina in Madrid.
Pastry from Salon La Mallorquina in Madrid.
Pastry from Salon La Mallorquina in Madrid.


After completing the introductory walk of the city, my first major stop was the Royal Palace (Palacio Real) the official residence of the King of Spain. While the Royal Palace is considered the official residence, the royal family actually lives in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela, located on the outskirts of Madrid. Construction of the massive Royal Palace did not begin until the 18th century after a fortress on the same sight had burned down in 1734. King Phillip V ordered the building of the palace to be built on the same grandeur level of Versailles (Phillip was the grandson of the famous French King Louis XIV and preferred speaking French). Construction of the 2,000 room palace took 17 years and was finally finished in 1755.

I opted to pay for the regular 8 Euro entrance fee instead of 10 Euro for a guided tour as Rick Steves had a somewhat detailed tour described in his guidebook. The interior of the palace was beautiful and reminded me very much of Versailles and Schonbrunn, but I was unfortunately unable to take photos. I walked through the royal state rooms relatively quickly, especially because several of the rooms including the Royal Chapel, were closed for restoration. Afterward, I hurried outside as the sun was finally coming out and I wanted to get some great shots of the giant courtyard.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.
Royal Palace of Madrid.


From the Royal Palace, I walked towards the metro, first stopping in Plaza Mayor. This huge plaza was built during the Hapsburg period in 1619 and each of the four sides of the square are completely uniform and painted a dark burgundy. Along with containing hundreds of tourists, the square also is home to a statue of King Phillip III, who ordered the construction of Plaza Mayor.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.
Plaza Mayor of Madrid.


After taking several dozen photos in the square, I headed towards the nearby metro and rode to the Retiro metro stop so that I could visit the vast Retiro Park (Parque del Buen Retiro). This park once belonged to the royal family but was open to the public in the late 18th century by King Charles III. The massive 300 acre park has many features including a large artificial pond called Estanque del Retiro ("Retiro Pond") where one can rent a rowboat. There are also multiple gardens, statues, fountains, and walking trails. Since the sun had just recently come out, I simply walked around, enjoyed the warm breezy air and participated in people watching. It's a great park for strolling or spending a lazy afternoon and the best part is that it is completely free to visit!
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.
Retiro Park in Madrid.


After enjoying Retiro Park for about an hour, I walked over to the nearby Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid (Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid). The garden is located in Plaza de Murillo, next to the Prado Museum. It was originally founded in 1755 by King Ferdinand VI but was installed in a completely different area of Madrid. The garden was moved to its current location in 1774, finally opening in 1781. The gardens contain many different varieties of plants and trees from all around the world and cost just 2 Euros per person to enter. While I could appreciate the nicely manicured gardens, I realized that the park is probably better visited during the later part of April and going forward as there weren't many flowers blooming during my visit since it was so early in the spring.
Scenery along the walk to the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.


From the Royal Botanical Garden, I took the metro to a well-known chocolate and churro place called Chocolatería San Ginés. The small restaurant was absolutely jam-packed during my late afternoon visit but I somehow managed to find a spot at one of the tables on the main level. The restaurant had a lower level, but it looked as though it was only open to accommodate large tour groups. Along with placing an order of churros con chocolate, I also requested porras, which are a thicker version of churros. Although I had tried churros con chocolate twice before during my trip (in Barcelona and Seville) these were definitely the best tasting ones. The chocolate was perfectly thick and not too bitter nor too sweet; the churros were crispy and soaked up the chocolate pudding amazingly well. On the other hand, I wasn't too impressed with my porras as they tasted more like grease than they did dough. In hindsight, I probably should have ordered just one cup of chocolate and two orders of churros as I ended up with lots of chocolate and not enough churros to enjoy it with. I recommend that all who come to Madrid and have a sweet tooth must visit Chocolatería San Ginés; there is really no excuse as it is open for 22 hours per day, only closing between 07:00-09:00. Plus, who wouldn't want to partake in this fun and delicious tradition?
Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid.
Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid.
Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid.


After filling my stomach with yummy goodness, I walked over to El Corte Inglés, which happens to be Spain's largest department store. Along with the items you would normally expect to see at a department store, El Corte Inglés is also home to a larger grocery store. I shopped for a few items to eat a meal back at the hotel including bread, salami, juice, fruit, and some other things.

I walked back my hotel room and enjoyed the food I had purchased. I had planned on going out to dinner later that night, but I was absolutely exhausted from several nights of poor sleep and since I already had items to eat, I opted to stay in and try to rest for my final day in Spain.

Day 15 (Tuesday, April 7th 2009)

After eating some of the items I had purchased the night before at El Corte Inglés, I left the hotel room and took the metro to the Chamartin Station. Once there, I boarded a train and headed to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a town located about 28 miles northwest of Madrid that is home to a massive palace complex called El Escorial.

When I finally reached the train station in El Escorial, I took a shuttle bus up to the palace. Upon my arrival at the palace, I was greeted with crazy and insane winds that had to have been blowing at least 40 or 50 MPH; this was not an exaggeration. I had difficulty walking to the entrance of the palace and actually had to walk backwards so that I didn't have to keep my eyes closed from the millions of pieces of particles that were flying through the air.

El Escorial is a combination of a monastery, royal palace, museum, and school. The building sight of this royal palace was chosen by King Philip II who wanted to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory at the Battle of St. Quentin in Picardy against Henry II, King of France. The complex was also intended to serve as the mausoleum for the remains of the royal family and as a monastery as the king was a fervent Catholic. The building was completed in 1584, less than 21 years after the first stone was laid. The building itself is a giant at 650 feet long and 500 feet wide and has 2600 windows, 1200 doors, and more than 100 miles of passageways. While its size is difficult to put into context, its beauty is not as I considered it to be rather dull and almost depressed-looking. It's definitely the most austere and serious-looking palace I've ever seen.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial


The interior of the palace was okay; very simplistic and without much decoration, ornamentation or color.  Although my guidebooks had indicated that the palace offered English tours, I was unable to find information at the palace regarding these tours and workers assured me there was none. Instead, I relied on descriptions that the Rick Steves guidebook provided. Each of the rooms I walked through all felt very sober, cold and not at all inviting. As I walked through the corridors of the palace, I could see beautiful gardens outside; however, I did not see any option to tour the gardens, which I thought was strange and disappointing, especially given the lack of vibrancy and life within the palace walls. In addition, I felt that the palace was somewhat confusing to navigate especially with the lack of directional signs and with large tour groups that blocked the different passageways I needed to access for the next room. After about one hour, I left and headed back to Madrid feeling very disenchanted with the palace of El Escorial; based on my experience, I wouldn't recommend a visit here. Instead, spend your valuable travel time in Madrid where there are plenty of other sights to keep you occupied.

By the time I arrived back in Madrid, I was quite hungry so I decided to find a place to eat for lunch. After referring to my guidebooks, I selected La Paella Real Restaurante, which was located near the Royal Palace. Since I had had a great experience with my first try of paella back in Granada, I thought it was a good idea to eat it one last time before I left Spain. Within Madrid, La Paella Real Restaurante is considered to be one of the best places to eat authentic paella.

I arrived about 45 minutes prior to the mid-afternoon closing time, so there were only a few tables full of people. I decided to order the chicken paella. When I saw that there was croquettes on the appetizer menu, I of course also sprung for those! As the paella is cooked fresh to order, I had to wait about a half an hour before the paella arrived. In the meantime though, the croquettes came out relatively quick. They were absolutely gorgeous and cooked to perfection; crispy on the outside and filled with an amazingly delicious creamy béchamel and ham mixture on the inside.

When the paella came out, I was shocked at how large the portion size was. I wasn't sure if I would be able to finish my plate! While the rice within the paella was cooked perfectly and not crunchy as was the paella in Granada, the flavor itself was not as intense as I had hoped it would be. In addition, there didn't seem to be any lemon added to the dish nor was there any available for me to squeeze a little juice out of, so I was somewhat disappointed. The meal cost about 15 Euros, which I thought was a good deal given the authenticity of the recipes and the ambiance of the dressy restaurant. I would go back there in a heartbeat just for the croquettes alone!
La Paella Real Restaurant in Madrid.
La Paella Real Restaurant in Madrid.
Croquettes from La Paella Real Restaurant in Madrid.
Paella from La Paella Real Restaurant in Madrid.


From the restaurant, I headed back to the metro, this time going out of central Madrid in order to reach the Clothing Museum (Museo del Traje). This museum explains the history of clothing in Spain from the 18th century up until today and has a multitude of exhibits on both women's and men's clothing. As I approached the museum from the street, I wasn't quite sure what to expect as the building was modern and stark and there were very few people lingering around. Once inside the museum however I quickly realized that I should not have judged the book by its cover. While the interior was very modern, it was obvious that it had recently undergone a renovation. The entire museum only covered one floor so it was very easy to navigate and the exhibits were well done and even had English descriptions. I am absolutely fascinated by old clothing, so to be able to see so much of it up-close was thrilling. I especially love dresses from the mid to late 18th century, and there was several dozens of these on display so I was on cloud nine! It's too bad that this museum isn't more well known; I have a feeling part of this has to do with the fact that it is far away from the main sights of the city. However, it is definitely worth the extra time it takes to get there as it is one of the best designed and most interesting museums I have ever visited!

After touring the Clothing Museum, I headed back into central Madrid via the metro. At this point, my feet had taken a beating from the massive amount of walking I had completed during the last two days and were screaming at me. Each step became more and more difficult and at times, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it any further. I eventually made my way to the world-famous Museo del Prado. This well-known museum is home to a massive collection of European art, from the 12th century to the early 19th century including large numbers of the finest works of Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. As I had arrived after 18:00, I was visiting with thousands of other tourists since the museum is free for all to enter from 18:00 to 20:00. It was insanely crowded so I made sure to make a beeline to the paintings I most wanted to see including Velázquez's Las Meninas, Goya's Charles IV of Spain and His Family, and Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. As soon as I had seen those three paintings and a few others, I headed straight out. With my throbbing feet I was in no mood to fight the crowds of people.
Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Museo del Prado in Madrid.


I headed back to the hotel where I promptly rested my feet for an hour before I went to bed. I had an early morning flight out of Madrid to Paris and needed all the rest I could possibly get.

Overall, my trip to Spain was an incredible but jam-packed fourteen days. While I obviously wasn't able to see all of the country (or come anywhere near close, for that matter) I feel that I did a great job of seeing and experiencing the most important sights, activities, and food within each of the cities and regions that I did visit. While two weeks to some people might seem like a long time to spend in just a single country, one could easily take two or three months and still not see everything that Spain has to offer. It is a massive country and offers visitors a myriad of choices from bustling and vibrant cities to the quiet countryside and its rolling hills to the glitzy coast to the remote and untouched mountains; it's easy for most to see that Spain has something for every type of traveler.

I think that one of the things that surprised me the most on this trip was the lack of English I encountered. Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining about this aspect, just merely stating that very few people spoke any English, even those in highly touristy areas, such as Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. Out of the 15 non-English speaking countries I've visited in Europe, locals in Spain spoke the least amount of English, even compared to countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic where one might mistakenly assume that very little English is spoken. My best advice for those who plan to spend a decent amount of time within the country is to brush up on your Spanish skills as you will definitely need to know the basics including numbers, please and thank you, how to formulate questions, ask for the time etc.

Another thing that surprised me during my trip was the small number of American tourists that I ran into. While I saw plenty of European tourists, especially in the larger cities, I probably encountered less than a dozen American couples during my two weeks. It was quite shocking as I usually see a large number of Americans everywhere I travel. I'm sure that the horrible economy played a part in this, but whatever the true reason might have been I found it very sad that so few people from my own country were traveling abroad.

One of the biggest challenges for me on the trip was the notorious late night dinner. While I tend to eat later than most Americans (around 19:30-20:00), I found it very strange that most of the locals in each of the cities I visited didn't even begin venturing out to restaurants until 21:00 or 22:00. While my original intentions had been to blend in with the locals as much as possible, I often found myself being the very first guest to arrive at many of the restaurants I ate at. I always felt so silly and awkward doing this but there was no way I was going to be able to wait and eat dinner at 22:00. I'm sure that Spaniards find the American habits of eating dinner "early" around 18:00-19:00 just as weird as I find theirs, but these are the fascinating differences you find and encounter as you travel.

In terms of the logistics and itinerary for my trip, I learned much from my experience in Spain. Since I only had two weeks, I wanted to fit as much as I possibly could within those 14 days. However, in hindsight I realized that the schedule was too busy and taxing even for me, an experienced traveler. I've learned that in the future I need to refrain from having one night stays and absolutely prohibit more than two one night stays in a row. One might not think of how exhausting it is to constantly get up and go, especially when you have luggage, but it's not any fun and something I'd like not to repeat again. Just the hassle of having to find a new hotel in a different city each day is stressful enough; those experiences should be limited (in my opinion) as much as possible.

I am still so thankful to this day for how fortunate I was in the weather department for my trip. Of the fourteen days, I only saw rain and clouds on two of the days, and even on those days, I did have a few sun breaks at the most appropriate times (i.e. the Alhambra in Granada). For most, having perfect weather may not be absolutely crucial, but since I love to take photographs having the sun hidden behind the clouds puts me over the edge. As soon as I see blue sky, I feel so incredibly happy and it makes my travel experience so much more enjoyable!

I'll be perfectly honest; Spain isn't one of the favorite countries I've visited. That being said, I truly enjoyed the time I spent seeing the unique and varied country. Seville was simply stunning and an incredibly passionate city that I will be forever in love with. Barcelona was exciting, large and had a myriad of things to do and see, including some of the most different and fascinating architecture I've ever seen (thanks to Gaudi). Segovia was the most impressive walled city I've ever seen with character that practically oozed out of its Roman Aqueduct. And finally, the white hills towns of Andalusia were the quintessential small Spanish towns I had so hoped to be able to experience.

Spain is an absolute photographer's delight. As a result, I immensely enjoyed the huge variety of architectural style, especially in Gaudi's Barcelona and the Moorish influences seen all throughout Andalusia. In the future I would love to visit Spain again, spending more time in Andalusia and also visiting the northern part of the country (Basque Country and the Pyrenees) and eventually making my way over to the green region of Galicia and its well touted city of Santiago.

Spain is an incredibly diverse country, not only in terms of its geographical differences, but also because of its history, language, customs, and most importantly, its people. The country has a special charm and lifestyle that would appeal to even the most hardened of souls. Without a doubt, I would recommend a visit to Spain to anyone in the world and urge everyone to try it at least once!

3 comments:

  1. Thank you! I really appreciate it! There are a few more minor changes we are still working on but hopefully all be completed within a week or two!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This was such a wonderful blog...thank you!

    ReplyDelete

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