01 June, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Madrid

We're almost at the half way point of the year and so far our new years resolution to get out of the Netherlands at least once a month is on track!  We’ve just arrived home from a weekendje weg to Madrid in Spain, and what a weekend!  We packed so much in I really needed an extra day off to recover!

As is customary, we flew with EasyJet after booking an insanely cheap sale flight. When we landed at Madrid, we were loaded into those ridiculous airport buses that budget airlines are so fond of and ferried off to the terminal and before we knew it we were on a train and bound for the city.

The public transport in Madrid is absolutely fantastic.  Fast, clean, safe, on time and most of all, cheap!  We bought a three day ‘tourist’ pass for €13 each.  The pass was valid all through the city (except the absolute suburbs) on the metro and the buses.  The only way that you might slip up with this pass is by the way the days are counted.  In most passes like this your paid amount of days begins when you first activate the card, but in Madrid the days begin at midnight on the first day you use it.  So, if you first use the pass at 2pm, you will have wasted the entire day up til then as each day expires at midnight.  To get the most out of it, you want to use the pass as early in the day as possible.  On the flip side, a single trip is €1.00, so you have to take 13 trips over three days before the tourist pass has paid for itself.

Our first stop was our hotel.  We stayed at the Hostal Acupulco just off the Gran Via right in the centre of the city.  I found the hotel room to be perfectly adequate, although on the small side.  The (small double) bed was pushed against one wall and the bathroom could have used an extra 20 cm in width.  But, the room had airconditioning (split system) and shutters that made the room completely black.  The bathroom was also fitted with a foot washer, which at first I thought was a bit ridiculous, but after one afternoon of hoofing it around town I was very grateful for!

City emblem at Puerta del Sol.  
At the bottom of our street was the main shopping district (although I stayed well away to save my wallet) and within 2 minutes we were on the Puerta del Sol. If you’re thinking that that name sounds familiar, it could be because there have been about 10 000 protestors camped there in recent weeks.  These people are protesting the current government and the state of the economy, pushing for change.  The unemployment rate in Spain is currently sitting at about 27%, with the youth unemployment at 40%.  Reason enough to protest?  I would say so!  However, it was really difficult to take the protestors seriously in my opinion.  There were perfect ‘protestor’ stereotypes as far as the eye could see and all looked like they could do with a good wash.
Protest slogans at Puerta del Sol
Iberian Ham, delicious!
Our first stop was food.  The Spanish food was one thing we were both really looking forward to and Madrid really did not disappoint.  Lunch on the first day was a bocadillo and although tasty, I was slightly shocked by the cafe.  Filthy probably doesn’t really even begin do describe the state of the place.  Even a hardened iron guts such as myself was quite horrified.  But hey, it’s difficult to get food poisoning from bread and cured ham so I just got on with it.  After that first experience I decided just to turn a blind eye to the surroundings and focus on the food.

Once we had stuffed our faces, we went straight to our first museum.  Madrid is quite famous for its masterpiece-filled museums, so we wanted to make the absolute most of it.  We began with El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza which is like a tour of the evolution of art.  It begins with early 13th century art and progresses through to the 20th century.  You can see how art has changed and grown, with a few glorious masterpieces thrown in for good measure.  A room filled with Flemish masters and another with impressionists.  For want of sounding like an art wanker, it was difficult to choose where to look!  Rembrant, Pisarro, Monet, Mondrian, Picasso.  Everywhere I turned there was something wonderful to see.

These works of art are such a far cry from my experience with art growing up.  I had heard of these artists, but couldn’t tell you who painted what.  My first trip to the National Gallery in London and seeing Velasquez’ Venus changed me.  Although I still have no clue about art, I love losing myself in a painting and just can’t get enough.  The list of masters that I have seen is now far longer than the list I have still to see.  Makes me think I must make a list of the paintings I absolutely must see before I die.

From the Thyssen-Bornemisza, we were very eager to go to the Prado. It is one of the most impressive art museums in Europe, filled with masters such as Rubens, El Greco, and Bosch.  And of course, Velasquez (name dropping much?).  We missed out on Goya and Carvaggio; both either under construction or on loan.  My two favourite paintings were by Rubens and Brueghel (working together) with paintings that really made me chuckle.

All right.  Before you start to think that this is only about bloody art (and are already dreading the castle raving still to come), let me get onto the city itself.

The Royal Palace
Madrid is gorgeous.  Although there are no great monuments, it really doesn’t need an attraction like the Eiffel Tower to make it special.  The buildings are beautiful, the churches are on a grand scale and there is music everywhere (although we did keep seeing the same spooky wind flute player at different metro stations everywhere we went).  The biggest must-do thing that I found is to visit the Rastro Flea Market.  It is only open on Sundays and it is easy to lose yourself for a day.  Next time I go back I’ll be taking an empty suitcase and a wad of cash.  I could have spent a fortune and we only really went to the Campillo Terrace.  We missed antiques, art and furniture.  The weather was glorious, the stalls covered in shade and I was in shopping heaven.  I picked up a pashmina for €2.  Very much the same as a couple I found in Turkey that I was smug about paying 20 lira for....
El Rastro Flea Market

Maarten with The Mahones
Maarten with Mike from the Street Dogs

We also went to a concert.  Maarten is a HUGE Street Dogs fan, and they were performing together with one of my fave live bands: the Mahones.  Now, Maarten fancies that he knows these people (he’s really just a shameless groupie), so he had managed to wangle us guest list tickets via Katie from the Mahones.  Fantastic night.  Both bands were great, especially as they’ve been playing different cities every night for more than a month!

Enjoying my wine while keeping dry...
Castle Alert:  On Monday we decided to get out of the city and go to Segovia.  It’s a Unesco listed city and has the world’s tallest and longest Roman aquaduct and one of the most spectacular cathedrals I have ever seen.  We had a truly amazing lunch at a beautiful little restaurant that served the Segovian speciality: suckling pig.  Thank goodness we weren’t served a whole piglet as I don’t think I would have coped, but the meat was so tender and juicy, and the crackly was crispy without threatening to break your teeth.  I was in pork heaven!  Then, just as we finished our lunch the sky opened and it began to absolutely pour with rain.  Thunder, lightning, the works.  It was reminiscent of Alice Springs storm weather, which I love.  Obviously I could see that the rain was coming, so made sure we picked our spot on the terrace accordingly.  While everyone else was scattering for cover, Maarten and I were perfectly positioned to finish our wine!

We took a bus to get to Segovia, and I think it may well be the easiest way to do it.  For about €10 return, you depart Madrid from the Principe Pio station and the journey takes just over an hour.  The scenery is fabulous along the way (once you finally get out of the sprawling Madrid suburbia).  There is a fast train from Atocha, but it is more expensive and quite a hike from the Segovia station to the centre of town.
Segovia Cathedral from the Alcazar castle
Segovia Cathedral jutting out of the surrounding houses

Church, Segovia

Suckling pig

Waking up on Tuesday, we had no idea of the drama that was to come as we packed our bags and said our goodbyes to our lovely hotel receptionist.  Little did we know, but the planning gods were not our friends and were about to give us a good kicking.  We had a spectacular breakfast of churros with chocolate soup (under €5 for the two of us!) and then headed up to the Reina Sofia museum which was the last on our list of must see museums.

Chocolate soup and churros for breakkie anyone?
We had bought a three museum pass, which would give us entry to the Golden Triangle of Madrid museums.  Beware!  The museums are not all open every day, as we found out when we fronted up to the Reina Sofia on our last day only to find that the museum is closed on Tuesdays!  It was our own stupid fault for not paying attention, but there was no reason for us to assume that the museum would be closed.  Now we have a ticket that we never used.

Maarten was especially upset as it is the home of Picasso’s most important work, the Guernica, along with works from Dali.  As we didn’t make it inside, you should head over to The Weekend Traveller’s post to read all about it.  You won’t be disappointed.

So, as our plans were shot for the day, what did we do next?  What any self respecting tourist would do.  We found a shady spot in the Botanical gardens to play Angry Birds on our phones, of course!  We eventually headed to the airport to come home, only to discover at security that Maarten was without his passport.  Really, I’m not kidding.  It was gone.  Stolen?  Lost?  We had no idea.  We only knew that it was in his daypack when we left the hotel and it wasn’t there when we arrived at the airport.  Now, if something goes wrong when you’re in a bit of a rush (read: panic), the absolute last place you want to be is in Spain.  Spaniards lack a certain sense of urgency that seems to come in handy in these sorts of situations.  

What did we do?  First stop was airport information to find out if his photo driver’s license would be acceptable ID.  They couldn’t tell us anything.  They also couldn’t find a number online for the hotel.  We did have plenty of time (was the above museum drama a blessing in disguise?), so we decided that Maarten should race back to the hotel to check if it was there while I checked his luggage and tried to find something out from EasyJet.  No help there.  A note to EasyJet if you’re reading this:  Please give your customer service team SOME information on acceptable forms of ID! Lots of shoulders were shrugged and I was sent over to airport police to ask.  And, because I was in Spain and I speak zero Spanish, I couldn’t communicate with them at all.  Sigh.  I checked the bag, but had to go back to the customer service desk to pay.  It was there that I found out that they don’t accept cards on the Maestro network (even though I asked and I was told I could use my card), so I was directed to another part of the airport to get cash and come back, pay, then give my receipt to the baggage check guy so he would give me back my boarding pass.  Sigh.  EasyJet is wonderful, just as long as you don’t stray from the path...

Then through security and to call Maarten to see where he was.  But wait, no phone. I had it in my hand not ten minutes earlier.  Bloody disaster.  Cue sprinting back to security, maybe I had left it in a container there, but nothing.  Back through to security to the baggage drop counter and the lovely guy there still had it, bless his cotton socks.

Did I mention that we still didn’t know whether or not Maarten would be able to 1. find his passport at the hotel, 2. board the plane without his passport and 3. make it back to the airport in time?  It wasn’t until I was at the gate and the plane was beginning to board that I spoke to someone who responded “Yep.  No problem,” (that is a direct quote, by the way!).  On the phone to Maarten who was still on the metro coming back to the airport (without his passport), and passengers were beginning to board.  At this point my heart was racing and I was what you could describe as being beside myself.  Not only was he potentially not going to make it, he’d screwed up my EasyJet ritual!

When he appeared around the corner as the last group was boarding I nearly burst into tears.  He made it.  And not only did he make it, but we were even able to sit together and weren’t even the last to board!  It was such a stressful afternoon we drove straight to the pizza place when we arrived home in Almere.  My heart has only just begun to get back to normal a week and a half later!

So what are my tips for visiting Madrid?
  1. Don’t look too closely at the cleanliness of the restaurants.  You might never eat again and the food is just too good to miss!
  2. Buy the Tourist Travel Pass.  Fast, easy and cheap.  It also comes with a map of the city, metro and bus network.  You can’t beat it. Airport to Gran Via in 40 minutes?  Yes please.
  3. Stay in a Hostal.  Hotels are expensive and you can get fantastic accommodation and service from a quite often family owned and run hostal (not backpacker hostel).
  4. Buy the three museum pass.  It’s valid for around a year, so if you have a planning brain fart like us you can always go back another time.
  5. Get out of the city and go to a city like Segovia.  I also wanted to go to Toledo but didn’t have the time, so now have a second reason to go back aside from the Reina Sofia museum!
  6. Relax.  Spaniards take their time and really know how to enjoy life.  Don’t try to rush, just go with the flow.  I’ll be honest, I think I would fit in better in New York than Madrid.  I’m in too much of a hurry and need to be doing half a dozen things at once.  But, I made a conscious decision not to let the relaxed pace get to me and I really enjoyed myself.
  7. El Rastro Flea Market.  Just go.

All in all, I absolutely loved my trip to Madrid.  It is highly underrated as a destination and after having visited some of the biggest and most amazing cities in Europe, it’s definitely at the top of the bunch.  If I was given the choice to go to Berlin, Paris or Madrid I’d choose Madrid every time.

What are you still doing here?  Go book you tickets!

Stay tuned for my next Weekendje Weg post, I’m off to Bretagne this weekend to visit Mont St Michel, Rouen, Caen and Giverney.  Can’t wait to test out my awful French!

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