Madrid

Madrid, Spain – 20-27 May 2019

Got myself to the train station for my trip on the AVE high-speed train to Madrid – in fancy Preferente class! Actually, it’s not all that fancy – mainly a roomier seat than Turista class. It did include access to a “lounge” at the station, which was nothing to write home about…

When it was time to board, there was again not much to differentiate the Preferente experience from an ordinary ticket. There was no one to assist with luggage during boarding and when there was no room for my suitcase in the storage area at the back of the coach, I asked the attendant what I could do. She suggested their might be room in another coach and shrugged. So fancy!

I did manage to find some space at the front of the car (once I rearranged a bunch of other luggage) and was looking forward to sitting down and relaxing – I was sweaty and anxious after the not-very-soothing boarding process. And OF COURSE there was someone in my seat. Sigh…

It was kind of surprising since it seemed to be a couple traveling together – maybe they’d been unable to book two seats together and she was hoping no one would show up? But here I was, so I indicated that I suspected she was in the wrong seat, smugly showing my ticket and seat assignment – and she responded by pointing out that my seat was in Coach 3 and this was Coach 2.

MODED. CORRODED. MY BOOTY EXPLODED.

How humiliating! I can’t tell you how many times my eyes have rolled into the back of my head on planes and trains at people who can’t figure out where there g.d. seat is, despite them being clearly labeled. And now, here I was being THAT person in front of a whole train full of strangers rolling their eyes at the stupid rube who’s apparently never traveled before since he can’t even figure out where his seat is. What a maroon!

Oh, except it wasn’t a coach full of strangers – the couple I’d met the other night at Taberna del Rey just happened to be on this train and were witness to my idiocy. Happily, they weren’t as judgey as I usually am and we swapped a few updates on our trips, before I made my way to my actual assigned seat.

It turned out to be the best seat on the train though – given that the passenger sitting next to me was traveling with his cat (in a carrier, mind you)! And really, what could be better than taking a three-hour train ride with an adorable cat?

The trip went quickly and soon enough I’d arrived in Madrid at Atocha Station. “Can’t wait to check into my apartment!” I thought to myself, not realizing I’d be spending a substantial amount of time trapped in the station, given that it was pretty much impossible to determine where to get a taxi. There was one large sign that said “TAXI” with an up arrow. Does that mean I go upstairs? Or straight ahead? I did manage to find the end of the enormous line of taxis – but they disappeared up ramp to a destination that remained shrouded in secrecy.

Finally, after several trips up and down the escalators and walking in and out of several doors, I asked a police officer where to find a taxi – and she pointed me in the direction of another building on the opposite side of the parking lot, because where else would one think to hail a taxi than in a building other than the station in which one arrived?

Anyway, I finally made it to my apartment and got settled in – though not too settled. Due to a snafu with my original reservation, I had to reserve an extra night in a different category of apartment – meaning I’d have to move to a different room the next day. NBD, I thought – and boy was I wrong, as I’d find out the next day.

In the meantime, I had to make my way to Barberia Bearbero, about a 20-minute walk from my apartment. I’d been on the road about two weeks, so was definitely in need of a fresh fade. My appointment was with Jonathan, who had an impressive beard of his own – sufficiently so that I included a beard trim in my appointment. Typically, I wait ‘til I’m back home for Luis, my regular barber in SF, to trim my beard, since I’ve had many sub-par beard trims. I’m happy to report that Jonathan provided me with both a great haircut AND an amazing beard trim. So, if you need to clean up your Madrid lewk, Bearbero is the place to go!

Spent a quiet night back at my apartment. My GI tract had been feeling a little iffy since yesterday and this evening it started veering into “I think I’ve got food poisoning” territory. I felt lousy and didn’t want to stray too far from the bathroom. Ugh. By the time I woke up the next morning, I was completely miserable, with body aches, chills and fatigue added to the mix.

And here is where I was reminded of the difference between staying in an actual hotel and this apartment/hotel hybrid I was in: they aren’t very well-equipped to cater to guests’ needs beyond collecting your money. The staff were sympathetic to my plight – but insufficiently so to come up with some solution for my changing apartments that didn’t involve me having to wander the streets of Madrid from the 11AM checkout time to the 2PM check-in time. I remain unclear on why they couldn’t either let me stay in my room for an extra couple of hours or why they couldn’t have my new room cleaned up immediately – or even offered me some other room.

So, yes, I spent the next several hours ambling through the neighborhood, praying that I didn’t shit myself (which, I’m happy to report, I did not). I spent a fair amount of time in a small plaza that was frequented by locals and their dogs – so that was kind of nice, other than painful cramps and feverishness.

Finally, my new apartment was ready and I immediately got into bed so I could wallow in self-pity. I’d just arrived in Madrid and all my carefully-laid touring plans were at risk. Plus, you know how when you’re sick and you feel like you’ll never be well again? Yeah, that was me. Sure, I was being a little dramatic, but I’d been on the road for two weeks already and I was feeling lonely and unhappy – and complained about it on Facebook. It was very nice to hear sympathetic words from all my friends back home and elsewhere – and really helped to improve my mood.

Not only that, Enger, my BFF back home (and despite my instructions not to do so), contacted his mom who lives in Madrid and is a nurse and had her checking in with me regularly via text. Even though I was a little embarrassed by the whole episode, it was really comforting to know there was someone in town who could help me out if things took a turn for the worse. I’ve got a lot of good people in my life…

But I survived – miraculously! And I was able to re-arrange the schedules for all my local tours with the exception of a bike tour, so things worked out OK. All things considered (and with the notable exception of the unpleasant three-hour wait for my new apartment), the timing of this wasn’t so bad – and it was nice to be in a spacious apartment rather than a small hotel room while I was recuperating.

My first major foray back into being a tourist was a visit to the Prado, along with a guide from Context Travel, about whose tours I’ve raved in the past. And this tour was excellent! Andrea, our guide, was extremely knowledgeable about the many different works we saw – and clearly passionate about art in general. And while Las Meninas was amazing and fascinating, I was bowled over by El Greco’s work.

His large scale portraits of scenes from the Bible are astonishing – wild, even – and his painting feels so modern. But it’s the six small portraits in the second gallery that really took my breath away. As described on the Prado’s site, “El Greco was fully able to imbue this portrait with a remarkable formal tension between the visible and the hidden.”

I did a couple of other walks with Context, one focused on the Spanish Civil War and the other giving a general overview of Spain’s history. Both very good and got to see some parts of Madrid I might’ve missed otherwise.

One morning, I was craving an American-style breakfast and took the subway across town to someplace I found online – and had huevos rancheros, which I guess is American-style… They were OK, but sadly did not really hit the spot I was hoping for.

From there, I walked for about 20 minutes to what appeared to be the flagship location of El Corte Inglés – that is, their largest location in Madrid. And, it turned out to just be a big Macy’s style department store – in other words, nothing to write home about. As I eventually learned, the store started out quite small and began expansion after WW II, largely via the acquisition of other local retailers. Thus, they never really had a big fancy location like Galeries Lafayette or Selfridges.

I took the subway back over to my apartment near Chueca – and this is when I learned that, while the Madrid metro system is extensive, it’s not especially rapid. There are kind of long waits (by which I mean 10+ minutes – which is not nightmarish or anything but adds to the travel time) and there are long walks at transfer stations. And the trains are always packed. Anyway, walking is usually a more pleasant option and often won’t take much longer.

I did get a chance to visit my local branch of El Corte Inglés – and it was frankly a lot more interesting than the one I’d schlepped too. This was thanks to the supermarket in the basement and the gourmet shop up on the top floor, where they sell both fresh and packaged gourmet foods and have a bunch of different counters for tapas and other tasty bites.

I really love visiting supermarkets in other countries and this one was no exception. There was a whole aisle of tinned tuna and seafood; and another dedicated solely to canned white asparagus. And, like at supermarkets the world over, there were slow-moving, oblivious patrons getting in my way regularly. Just like being back home!

I was quite happy that I chose Chueca as my homebase. I was actually just off Gran Via, across from Chueca proper, which is Madrid’s gayborhood. I didn’t really sample any of the gay nightlife, thanks to both my being down for the count for a couple of days and not really being properly adjusted to local time, i.e. going out to a bar at 1AM. But the ‘hood itself is both lively and charming, with plenty of nice streets to wander, some cute shops and tons of cafes and restaurants.

A particular favorite of mine was Casa Lolea. First of all, they served great sangria – by which I mean sangria that was made with wine, juices, fruit and spices. As I’d learned in Sevilla, to my great and long-lasting chagrin, restaurants most often prepare sangria by combining wine and orange soda pop. Not good. At all. But Lolea has very good bottled sangria, made even better with some fresh fruits and other flavorings. Plus the place is cute and comfy for a drink; the food was tasty; and the servers were all charming and friendly. This was my home-away-from-home-away-from-home here in Madrid.

Since I liked this place, it’s also where I took Arelis, my friend Enger’s mother. When I told him I was going to Madrid, he said I had to meet her and I was excited to do so – though when he followed it up with, “Oh, and she doesn’t speak any English,” I was somewhat more apprehensive. As it turned out, we were fine. It was a little easier talking via text (since I can copy/paste to and from Google Translate) but we made it work in person too. Though let’s face it – I think both of us felt like everything got a little easier once we were at Casa Lolea, sipping on sangria.

Another neighborhood place I enjoyed was Conservas Nudista. I mean, yes, sure, it was the name that caught my eye (heh) – but it’s got a cool modern vibe and menu full of their own conserved foods, mostly seafood, but with some vegetables as well. I had a nice afternoon snack there and stocked up on tinned tuna and mussels to bring back home with me. I’d’ve included some of the vegetables and beans, but they were packed in glass with brine or oil and I was worried about the hassle of getting them onto a U.S.-bound aircraft. Sigh… It’s the same reason I didn’t bring a case of Lolea sangria home with me. Guess I’ll just have to back to Madrid to have them again.

Arelis stopped by my apartment a couple of days later on Sunday, my last day in Spain. She had a couple of things for me to bring home for Enger. She also surprised me with a gift for me: three bottles of wine! She already knows me well…  Though when I was messaging with Enger later, I did inquire, “What exactly did you tell your mom about my drinking habits?”

I loved Madrid – and all the places I visited in Spain – but between my illness and the fact that I was at the end of three weeks on the road, I was a bit lazy about documenting my activities – and most of the museums don’t allow any photography (which ultimately is a good thing – but it def means I have fewer photos of this leg of my trip). I probably didn’t get to try as many places to eat as I’d’ve liked, given that I spent a few days just eating rice and heat-and-serve tortilla española from the supermarket. Though, TBH, I spent most of the time when not on a walking tour either wandering on my own or relaxing with a glass of wine and a plate of jamon somewhere… This by no means a complaint! And I hope the photos I’ve posted give some idea of how wonderful Madrid is and how much I enjoyed my visit.

I flew home on Iberia. Madrid’s airport is pretty nice – though getting through immigration at the satellite terminal was a bit of shit show. Iberia’s lounge was OK. Very spacious, yet still quite full. The selection of food that morning was not extensive, though the tortilla española was fine.

Boarding turned out to be fairly annoying, thanks to the dreaded SSSSS notation on my boarding pass that flagged me randomly for additional security check at the gate. The process was not especially well-managed and they had hordes of other SSSSS designees crammed into a dingy office space adjacent to the gates.

Once I’d passed muster, I got back to the gate and had my boarding delayed by a tour group leader arguing with the gate agent about boarding group numbers. It was very tempting to pull an, “I’m in business class, let me through!” but tempers were flaring and I didn’t want to add to the agita.

There’d been an equipment change – I think when I booked, it was an old A340, but instead we got a nearly brand-new A350! It was a real treat. Seats comfy, food decent and flight uneventful. I had a couple of hours layover in JFK, relaxing in the Alaska Airlines lounge before my connecting flight home in Alaska’s business class – which was perfectly fine, though after starting my trip in Lufthansa first and having just been on Iberia’s long-haul business class, the Alaska Airlines 737 business class was, while serviceable, a much less deluxe experience – but def an upgrade from coach!

And soon enough, I was back home – and planning my return to Spain same time next year.

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