Mar 162007

March 15th, Madrid

So much for plans. I took my chemical help on take-off from Miami, but I think I only slept 3 of the 8 hours on the flight. Not exactly the sleep I was wanting for a full day in Madrid. I also managed to forget to charge my mp3 player up, so I just barely got started on my Spanish lessons. I’ve actually gone through most of them before, but that was six months ago, and most of the language has once again drained from my head.

We’ve touched down in the stylish new terminals of Barajas. Its undulating stripe ceiling evokes more Scandinavian than Spanish design in my mind, but I’m sure that’s just my ignorance shining through. After disappointing the customs agent – I didn’t know which hotel we were going to – our first task was to get train tickets for the next day. We were due at Valencia the following night. We followed the directions of the green umbrella helpers until we found the Renfe office in the airport.

When we inquired about tickets for the next day we were given a slightly sad and smug shake of the head. No tickets she proclaimed, Las Fallas de Valencia, you know. Yes, we know. Damn. OK. Next plan. How about flights or buses? Not having much luck at the airport we decided to check into our hotel and head to a travel agent from there.

I love the metro. Easy, cheap, and speedy. I also love the underground car traffic in Madrid. The streets are lively but not jarringly loud as most cities of this size are. We checked into Hostal Luis XV and received a decent room at a decent price. Overall they were helpful, modern, and clean. The only troubling thing was they asked us to pick which room & key was ours on returning from the day. It would have been incredibly easy for someone so inclined to visit our room without fuss.

After check-in to the hotel, we head out in search of the travel agents to try for bus or plane reservations. The travel agent informed us there were no bus tickets sold here. My mind was beginning to race. Why not train, he asks. We relay our earlier story, but he is determined to find us a ticket. After some hunting, he finds two tickets on a 7 AM train. Needless to say, I’m even more relaxed after that.

We stumble on Museo del Jamón and decide to have lunch. We order a sample plate, some tomatoes and olives, and a couple beers. Nothing better than great lunch and people watching. A younger Japanese guy came in and ordered a ham sandwich. Or rather, pointed at one since he didn’t speak Spanish, and the bartender didn’t speak English. The meat and beer slinger seemed to have it in for the guy. I’m not sure if it was simple a language issue, or something deeper. Either way, the distaste was palpable. We ended up talking to both of them, and facilitating a rough conversation with much gesturing between the two about the difference between Japanese and Chinese, and slanted eyes. More than a little painful and amusing at the same time.

As with the other people we spoke with, our server warned us of distractions, pick-pockets, kids, and wearing your bag around front. I usually temper these warnings a bit, as some places I’ve been seem to warn much more than situations demand. But here and in some other European cities there seems to be plenty of evidence that there are plenty of professionals that will make you sorry you weren’t paying attention.

An hour into the Prado I hit my wall. I’ve only got three hours of sleep from the plane, a few more the night before. Add in the time change, and I’m dragging. I head to the cafeteria to down a coke. That keeps me from stumbling on the stairs at least. We finish up the museum and head out into the sun. The sunlight seems to kick me back into gear. I’m not sure what wind I’m on by now, but I’m happy to have it. It lasts until I head to bed that night.

After the museum we continue our wandering and people watching. We stop in at a bar proclaiming fantastic chocolate on a scrolling LED sign. We’ve missed the churro times, but I still had a cup of soupy hot chocolate with some miscellaneous baked treats. Anna had a coffee, and instantly regretted her choice. That’s not to say the coffee was bad. In fact, she says it’s been good everywhere so far. Probably because no one half-asses it here. Every little spot has a full blown espresso machine and a trained barista. Her regret was due to the fact that my hot chocolate was just damned good. It is much more akin to chocolate that you drink, rather than the water and milk mixture we have at home.

We stopped in for drinks and tapas at a few places, but didn’t stay up late enough to really explore all the spots we wanted to – our seven am train was responsible for that. The little bits of food you get with your drink are slightly different at each place. Sometimes it is something simple, like a little pickle stuffed in an olive. Other times, you get a mixed plate of various marinated things, like tomato, tuna, olives, and onions in olive oil. I occasionally encounter my favorite, Pimientos de Padrón, as a beer freebee, but usually have to order it. It is fried or grilled little green peppers with olive oil and salt. So simple, yet so damned tasty. They are the perfect complement to a beer.

We don’t need dinner after all the tapas and drinks we’ve consumed, but it wouldn’t matter. No one serves it until 10 PM or so. Which is about the time we make it into bed. Getting old, I know, but the early train and travel are wearing on us.