madrid! (also, happy 3 year blogiversary to me!)

My trip to Spain was probably my most-anticipated trip of the year because I finally got to see this guy after 5 months of being apart:

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And then we spent 2 whole weeks together, which we figured out is as long as every time we’ve been together since June combined. We saw Madrid, Salamanca (where Daniel is studying until May), Avila, and Porto, Portugal. It was a long trip and I couldn’t possibly write about it all at once! But I guess I need to start somewhere…

I arrived in Madrid Wednesday evening. Because I have to take a bus to Berlin when I want to fly anywhere, my travel times aren’t the most efficient, but this time it wasn’t so bad: 2 hours on a bus, 2 hours waiting in the airport, 2.5 hours in the plane. Daniel met me at the airport accompanied by his dad and his uncle, who lives in Madrid, and they drove us back to the family’s apartment. Daniel has met some of my extended family when they’ve visited Austin, and it was nice to meet some of his, even if there was somewhat of a language barrier.

Because I was hungry and tired (a bad combination) after my trip, we went to dinner at about 9 pm… really early for Spaniards! My first introduction to Spanish food was a mix-and-match meal of different sandwiches, and some really good Spanish beer.

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At the suggestion of Daniel’s cousin, we checked out a “free” tour on Thursday morning that took us all around old Madrid. We saw the Plaza Mayor, the world’s oldest restaurant, the old city hall, the cathedral, and the royal palace, among other sights, and  learned about the history of Madrid. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and the city has a fascinating history: it has been ruled by Moors (the founders of the city), Spaniards, and a long line of Austrian Hapsburgs/Holy Roman Emperors, who were replaced by the French once they inbred themselves out of existence.

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After the tour, we took the Metro to the newer part of town to check out some of the city’s main streets.  The city is organized in a system of streets and plazas, the largest of which is named after Columbus which contains a statue of the man himself, probably the world’s biggest Barclays bank,  and a giant Spanish flag. We found a reasonably priced lunch menu near the new city hall and enjoyed some salmon (for me), veal meatballs (for Daniel), and the first of several questionable Spanish mixed salads.

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Our next stop was the Retiro Gardens, a large park in the eastern part of the city. It was a really beautiful day, and we enjoyed people-watching, taking photos, and catching up with each other while the weather was nice.

We had heard from our tour guide that some of the museums were free after 6:30, so we made our way to the famous Prado art museum only to learn that it would have been free all day for students. Regardless, we spent a good hour and a half admiring the work of famous Spanish artists, the most famous being El Greco, whose work was stunning in person. I am a huge fan of sacred art and loved seeing so many works depicting Biblical stories and saints. St. Sebastian is always really popular, but this time there was a lot of love for St. Bernard.

Unfortunately, we had both chosen style over comfort when it came to our shoe selection that day, so we were in serious pain by this point. We staggered (after tragically getting lost to the tune of a few blocks) to the nearest Metro station, and after much complaining we made it back to the apartment mostly in one piece. We found an affordable Asian restaurant, laughed at ourselves for eating Chinese/Thai/whatever food in Madrid, enjoyed a dessert of Spanish chocolate, and watched some 30 Rock before calling it a day.

Because we had seen most of the big sights on Day 1, we started the next morning by retracing a few of our steps to the opera/palace area. We said hello to our “friends”, the statues of Spanish kings that were supposed to go on the roof of the palace but are instead scattered around Spain, in this case in the park next to the palace. We took a second look at the cathedral, which is known for its architectural oddness, and took a walk across the bridge to the basilica, which we hadn’t seen on our tour. It is a giant building, and although we had to pay to go in (major European pet peeve), we also got a fantastic tour that guided us through all the side chapels and frescos.

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Of course, in Madrid the plazas are the points of orientation, so we headed to a major one we hadn’t seen yet. Plaza España has a huge Don Quixote statue (the pride of Spain!) and a few impressive buildings that were puzzling in that we couldn’t figure out what exactly they were. We found ourselves walking down Gran Via, literally Madrid’s main street, searching for a “very cheap” restaurant that had been recommended by Daniel’s cousin. And it did not disappoint: 5 beers for 3 Euro and enough fried food to fill both of us for a week, probably. I got to try some eels… they were okay. And of course fried calamari is always wonderful.

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We continued our trek down Gran Via… I bought a few postcards, we scoped out the different shops and restaurants, and we (I…) developed an insatiable appetite for ice cream. However, by the time we decided to follow through on the craving, it had been about half an hour since we had seen an actual ice cream shop, and we couldn’t agree on where we thought it had been! So we made a bet about who would be right and split up in search of the alleged ice cream. I ended up having to buy Daniel’s ice cream because I was wrong, but it was worth it because it was delicious.

One really interesting thing about Madrid is how unimpressive it is. Don’t mistake that for discontent with the trip… Madrid really is a charming town, but it is not a European capital on the level of London, Berlin, Paris, or Vienna. It started as a fortress protecting nearby Toledo, and even once the Spanish empire became incredibly rich, most of the fortunes were funneled into Toledo and Seville. For my purposes, it ended up being good that Madrid isn’t a gigantic, bustling metropolis, because on Saturday morning we departed for Salamanca!

4 thoughts on “madrid! (also, happy 3 year blogiversary to me!)

  1. Why, pray tell, was the tour “free” (as opposed to free)? THIS IS THE QUESTION THAT HAS BEEN HAUNTING ME ALL POST LONG

    • On these “free” tours (much better whens said with a Spanish accent but I can’t imitate it as well as Daniel), the tour itself doesn’t cost anything, but the tour guides don’t get paid by the company so they work for tips. So it’s very economical in that you can pay what you think it’s worth (and after the tour is over), but you generally look like a jerk if you don’t pay anything. 🙂

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