Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mas de Madrid y Adios!

Day two in Madrid was another beautiful but hot one. We had really been lucky throughout our trip, having gorgeous sunny days every day but one. We got up early to maximize our last day in Spain and headed over to the Plaza Mayor to start off with a leisurely breakfast in one of the many plaza's outdoor cafes. We settled on the Cafeteria Magerit and ordered pastries, coffee and some delicious peach juice.

Zoom in on those glasses and see if you can pick out something that was a surprise... yes, there are not one but TWO ice cubes in each glass!!! We were astounded! Meredith seems to be staring in disbelief. It was a delicious breakfast. Shortly after it was served we were joined by a visitor.

He was very cute...

...very tame...

...and VERY persistent

but we reluctantly opted not to feed him since there were other sparrows very nearby and we were concerned about causing a "sparrow riot." He was not very happy with us.

The morning was so gorgeous and we felt so lucky to be enjoying it in such a beautiful place. We even had a very friendly waiter who actually seemed to be enjoying chatting with us!

This was the view from our table into the center of the Plaza.

After breakfast we took a walk around the Plaza, starting with the majestic statue of Felipe III in the center. The origins of the plaza go back to 1581 when plans were drawn up to build a central plaza to replace an older, smaller plaza. Construction did not begin until 1617 and finished in 1619. A series of fires nearly destroyed it and it was completely renovated in 1790. The statue of Felipe III dates back to 1616.

Hanging with Felipe

The Plaza Mayor has been the scene of a wide range of events: markets, bullfights, soccer games, public executions, and, during the Spanish Inquistion, "autos de fe" against supposed heretics and the executions of those condemned to death. The Plaza Mayor also has a ring of old and traditional shops and cafes under its porticoes. Celebrations for San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid, are also held here.

Along one side of the plaza is the Real Casa de la Panaderia, named for the Royal Bakery that was built here in 1619. The current building was done in 1673 after one of the many fires and now houses the Madrid Bakers Guild.

The frescoes were added in 1992.

We left the plaza through one of the nine archs that are placed symmetrically around the plaza.

It took us out onto some quaint old streets, so narrow and winding, and filled with very interesting old shops and buildings.

This cookware shop has probably been there since the middle ages.

We walked past a beautiful small church and found ourselves at a wonderful indoor market, not as opulent as the one we had visited in Barcelona. This one was obviously frequented by the locals rather than aimed at the tourists. The merchants seemed surprised to see us. One of them declared Meredith to be "muy bonita" (very pretty) and embarrassed her completely. As with the other markets, the best and freshest were on display.

Who knew there were so many different kinds of eggs?

These little piggies went to market...and probably wished they hadn't!

It was a double decker market. This was the view from the second floor.

We left the market and continued through the streets, reaching the Iglesia San Andres

and a fascinating fountain.

We passed this beautiful little park with the statue of Don Alvaro de Bazan, a 16th century Spanish admiral whose successes included suppressing piracy at sea, conquering the Turks in the Holy Alliance with Austria, and enforcing Spain's claims of land won in battles with Portugal. He also commanded the Spanish Armada which met a disastrous fate against Sir Francis Scott and his British fleet, when, due to delays in supplies, they were surprised in port and destroyed. He was named the first Marquis of Santa Cruz by King Felipe II and was a distinguished naval architect who designed the Spanish galleons which were so instrumental in transporting the riches of the New World back to Spain. He died in 1588 in Lisbon shortly before the Armada was ready to sail after being rebuilt.

It was noon and we suddenly heard a thunderous peal of church bells. Looking through the buildings we saw the towers of the Cathedral.

A few more turns and we were facing the Catedral de la Almudena, the largest Cathedral in Madrid.

Inside it was cool and very dark. I noticed bouquets of flowers on the floor and at first I thought they had fallen or been dropped there. On closer look, I realized that they had been placed there deliberately. It turns out we had entered the crypt and the floor was covered with gravestones. I started doing a kind of hopscotch dance to avoid stepping directly on these graves, much to the amusement of a couple of young priests chatting up by the altar. It seemed very strange to have all of these people buried INSIDE the church instead of in an adjacent graveyard until I realized that in the middle of an ancient city like Madrid, there was no room for any adjacent graveyard. The land was all spoken for. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of those graves must have had to be some very special parishioners to have merited such special final resting places. The Cathedral was built between 1879 and 1993 and most of the available space was occupied. We weren't able to go into the main part of the church but the crypt was most impressive.

The main entrance to the church faced the Presidential Palace...

...separated by the huge Plaza Armeria.

It contains 2800 rooms but only 50 are open to the public. It is used for visits by Heads of State and other Official Ceremonies but is not the official residence of the Royal Family. They actually live in a smaller palace outside of Madrid, a former hunting lodge. I have a feeling that it bears no resemblance to any hunting lodges here in Moose heads on the wall or rocking chairs on a porch.

We walked along the east side of the Palace and crossed the street to the Plaza de Oriente, a large park with meticulous gardens and many statues.

The most prominent one is a large statue of Felipe IV, erected in 1843.

A short distance away we came to the Plaza Isabel II and a statue to the controversial queen. Her father, Ferdinand VII abolished the Salic laws which declared only sons to be heirs to the throne, thus paving the way for her to become regent at 13. Her ascendency to the throne was challenged by her uncle, Ferdinand's brother who declared himself King Carlos V, precipitating a series of wars between his supporters and those who believed that Isabel was the rightful heir. She married her cousin at 16 to insure a continuation of her line and had thirteen children, of whom eight survived. Her husband/cousin probably fathered none of those children since he was gay and very open about his sexual preferences. Isabel was also very open with her many love affairs. She was dethroned in 1868 by reformists and sent into exile to France with her husband and children. She soon divorced her husband and abdicated her crown in favor of her eldest son. She died in 1904 and was returned to Spain for burial.

Adjacent to the Plaza Isabel II is the Teatro Real, Madrid's main opera house.

We were getting hungry and had walked almost 8 miles so we stopped for some lunch and a chance to rest our feet. Since we were close to the main shopping area near Puerta del Sol we did a little window shopping and picked up some souvenirs. It was now late in the afternoon and, once again, the heat was making us drowsy so it was time for a siesta. Fortunately, we were close to the hotel so it made sense to take a break from our travels.

We had decided that our last night in Madrid would be Paella night. We had enjoyed the Barcelona version but wanted to sample how madrilenos prepared this classic dish. We decided to try one of the many cafes at Plaza Mayor so we could sit outside and enjoy the evening while waiting for it to be prepared. Paella is cooked to order so it can take 20-30 minutes or more to be served. We enjoyed a glass of wine and did some serious people watching in the Plaza. It was a truly spectacular night. Despite being close to 9PM, it was still quite light.

The paella was delicious and very filling. We lingered over our dinner until after 10 and then took a leisurely walk through the center of the city for one last time. The streets were full of couples, families, groups of friends and all were enjoying a beautiful early summer evening. I took a couple of last shots of Plaza Puerta del Sol before heading back to the hotel for the final time.

(Sorry about the blurriness...I almost didn't post these but then I thought they had kind of a cool, kinetic feel to them much like the atmosphere on the street.)

The next morning we packed our bags and checked out. We hadn't been on Madrid's subways yet so we were expecting a repeat of our Barcelona experience with steps everywhere. To our delight, the subways were very "wheel" friendly, extremely clean and efficient. We purchased a special ticket that allowed us to take the train directly to the airport where we were scheduled to take a short flight back to Milan on one of Europe's many smaller discount airlines, Easyjet. We didn't know what to expect in terms of the time it would take so we gave ourselves plenty of time. It turns out we gave ourselves WAY too much time. We were at the airport in no time at all, leaving us with almost four hours until our flight. We checked in at the gate, had lunch in a small restaurant at the airport and waited to board.

Easyjet does not give assigned seats so you basically take whatever empty seat is available once you board. That could have been a recipe for disaster, given the European decided aversion for waiting in line in an orderly fashion. I had visions of being mobbed and elbowed as everyone jockeyed for prime boarding position. It turns out that they do have a system after all. We were allowed to board based on our check-in time. Having arrived so early gave us a decided advantage. We were among the first group allowed on the plane so we had our choice of seats. We watched as people who boarded later got more and more agitated and frustrated, especially groups of people who wanted to sit near each other. Finally everyone was aboard and seated and the two hour flight to Milan took off. We were served a soft drink and, before we knew it, we were on the ground.

It was cloudy in Milan and still beastly hot. We took a bus from the airport to the train station, instead of the Malpensa express train which I had taken when I first arrived. Our hotel was near the train station, one of the hotels we had stayed in before we left for Naples nearly two weeks earlier. It was the swanky one with the suite and the ballroom-sized bathroom where we had been able to store Meredith's large suitcase and a couple of other bags from her four month stay. This time we didn't get the suite but rather a smaller room but still very comfortable and with the highly prized free internet. We hungrily caught up on emails and checked our favorite websites, feeling as if we had been exiled to Siberia without that contact.

Meredith got in touch with a couple of her friends from the Collegio who were still around and we arranged to get together for a final dinner before we left for the US the next day. It started to rain as we left the hotel, the first real precipitation we had seen since I arrived fifteen days earlier. It cooled things down a little and felt very refreshing.

We met Kyle and Aleyna and had dinner at a great restaurant in the Porta Genova area of Milan. We followed it up with some wonderful gelato, including my first-ever Chocolate with Pepper gelato...a-may-zing stuff!!!! Truly good times!

The next day we packed up everything and headed back to the train station where we boarded the bus to Malpensa Airport. It was time to come home. I was sad to see my 15 days in Europe ending and I know Meredith was feeling even sadder about seeing her four month adventure in Italy come to an end. The flight home went smooth as silk and, before we knew it, we were in Logan airport. There was a bit of an uncomfortable moment as we went through Customs. As luck would have it, we had a tough female customs agent who found it hard to believe that Meredith had spent four months in Italy and had not purchased more than she declared. Meredith just looked her straight in the eye and said, "Everything was much too expensive. College students can't afford Georgio Armani!" The woman smiled, knew she had been bested, and let us go on through. It was a priceless moment.

We boarded the bus to Portland and headed home in a torrential thunderstorm. A very different weather picture than we had been used to the previous two weeks. Brendan met us at the bus station, gave his baby girl a big hug, packed our many bags in the car and we went home to recover from a wonderful vacation. We both hope to go back someday but this trip will always be a special one since it was our first taste of travelling abroad. So many wonderful memories.

Here are some things that made it so successful (in no particular order):

* Chris, our wonderful travel agent at AAA
* advance reservations for hotels and museums on the internet (I particularly would recommend for hotels and for museums)
* Lonely Planet travel guides (
* Streetwise Maps (
* Eurail passes and reservations (Again,thanks to Chris at AAA)
* A digital camera
* Good luggage on wheels
* Space-saver bags to help with compact packing
* A sense of humor and an adventurous attitude
* A flexible agenda and a willingness to change course for something interesting
* Using a smile as a universal language
* Knowing when to ask for help
* Patience

Armed with the above things, your journeys are bound to be successful!



How wonderful that your trip went so well - as far as I can tell you really lucked out! No pickpockets and only a few glitches with directions and hotels. How wonderful that you and Meredith had this time together. This trip will go down in the history of your family and always be something that brings you and Meredith closer. Love Sue

sappmama said...

A fantastic travelogue! I think Spain is my favorite. I'd like to apologize on behalf of France.

I think you've made me finally see the value in getting places early!

Thanks for the fun journey. :)