Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Moving on to Madrid...

It was time for our visit to Madrid, the final city on our whirlwind tour. We almost didn't get there. Our original ticket request had been for a 7:30AM train from Barcelona departing from Estacio Barcelona Sants, the same train station where we had arrived. That train was not available so we were ticketed for a 9:00AM train, giving us a little more time in the morning. It meant we were traveling the subway during morning rush hour, not our first choice, but we got up early, packed our luggage and started the schlep to the subway around 8AM. We reversed the trip we had made two days earlier, complete with the up-four-steps, walk 50 feet, down-four-steps debacle, only this time with MORE irritated commuters trying to maneuver past us as they hurried to catch their trains. It seemed as if we went up and down 50 bezillion sets of steps with our bags. At the FINAL sets of steps, leading down to the subway platform, a young man took pity on us and insisted on carrying our bags down to the platform. As it turned out, he was an American going to school in Barcelona. Score a big Hooray for the good old USA! We thanked him profusely as he hurried to get on the arriving train. The car was packed solid so we decided to let it go and wait for one we could actually fit into. Three more trains came and went, all crammed full of harried commuters who eyed us warily as the doors opened, willing us to stay put with our oversize burdens. We gladly complied. Finally a train arrived that offered a sliver of space so we grabbed it. We got off at the right stop and struggled up the stairs to the street, ignoring the muttering in our ears as we slowed the flow of traffic. At last we arrived at the station and checked the board for our train. It was now about 8:40AM, just 20 minutes before departure time. Our train was not up there. We found a conductor and showed him our tickets. After a pause which seemed to last an eternity he explained that we were at the wrong train station. I thought my stomach was either going to fall to my knees or come up through my throat. Apparently, when the time of our train was changed, the station was changed also... to Barcelona-Franca, the station that was a five minute walk from our hotel! We could have spared ourselves that subway ordeal if I had only just looked at the tickets more closely. Once that registered a more immediate problem presented itself. Would we be able to get to Madrid from the wrong station? The fate gods must have had a good enough laugh at our expense to cut us a break. As it turned out, the train was leaving Barcelona-Franca and its first stop was Barcelona-Sants, the very station where we standing - sweaty, worried and feeling more than a little foolish. Ok, I was the one feeling foolish since I was the one who had booked all of the reservations. I decided the best thing to do was to give myself a "time out" for a couple of minutes and I headed for the nearest cup of coffee (Americana, gracias) and a monster pastry, assuring Meredith that I would be back in time to catch the train at 9:30AM.

The train arrived right on time and we boarded. Once again we were in separate cars...and once again, probably not a bad thing under the circumstances. She was about ready to place me in a home for the elderly and infirm. I probably would have gone willingly at that point.

The trip was relaxing. I knitted and took some pictures of the passing countryside.

We left the green terrain of the coast and headed into the more arid center of the country.

Occasionally we would pass a sleepy small town.

The topography flattened out considerably.

After a four hour ride, we pulled into Madrid's Atocha station. We caught up with each other, consulted the map and headed out to the street. Surprise, was HOT! One delightful surprise was the beautiful central garden in the station with an amazing pond just FULL of turtles!!!

After a couple of false starts, we finally headed up the right street to our hotel, the Astoria. More correctly, it was a Hostal, which meant that it was a couple of floors in a building with a very small sign at street level. We had some difficulty finding the address and finally asked a newstand vendor. An older woman overheard our question and offered to show us the address. We gratefully followed her. We arrived, checked in and headed for our room. Once again, we lucked out. It was small, but clean and had a nice modern bathroom. It was right on Carerra de San Jeronimo, a busy street, but we were high enough up that it was very quiet. Here are some pictures of the room and the view from our window:

The location was great, just down the street from the Plaza Puerta del Sol and close to the museums and the major parks.

We dropped off our bags and went to find some lunch. Around the corner we found a little restaurant that looked good. We went in and the waiter immediately seated us in a small side room. The only other table was occupied by a group of six young women who were having some sort of celebration for a birthday or an impending wedding. They were chattering away as one of the them opened her gifts. The room was small but comfortable. We ordered our lunches, some gazpacho and endive salad to start, followed by some veal scallops. We were thoroughly enjoying our lunch until the partiers decided it was time to light up their after lunch smoke. Most of the six lit up, quickly filling the small room with a foul smoke. A few polite coughs on our part were ignored. Spain does not yet have a smoking ban in their restaurants, something most of the rest of Europe has wisely adopted. We were considering having some flan for dessert but were forced to beat a hasty retreat to save our watering eyes and strained lungs. Ironically, we watched as most of the smokers just sat holding their cigarettes, not even smoking them, letting the ash just accumulate on the ends of the smoking cancer sticks. We made the decision to eat most of our remaining meals in Madrid outdoors wherever possible to avoid being trapped in closed spaces with smokers.

After lunch we took a walk along the Paseo de Prado, a long lovely boulevard adjacent to the botanical gardens and a number of the museums. We passed incredible fountains including the fountain of Neptune:

and the monument to Columbus:

We walked back down the long boulevard and decided to visit one of Madrid's premier art museums, The Museo Centreo de Arte Sofia Reina, the Central Art Museum of Queen Sofia. Chief among its exhibits is the breathtaking Guernica, Picasso's incredible depiction of the Nazi bombing of a Basque town in 1937 which killed so many innocent people, including women and children.

I saw this massive painting about 26 years ago at a travelling exhibition of Picasso's work in New York. It deeply affected me then and this time I was even more moved by the tragedy it depicts, given the pervasive images of war we encounter every day. It was commissioned by Spain's Republican government for the Paris Exposition Universelle the year of the bombing, at the height of Spain's civil war. He completed it in an amazingly short time period, driven by the powerful anti-war images that had disturbed him so deeply.

Also on display are masterpieces of other icons of modern art: Miro, Dali, Arroyo, Ernst, Gris and many, many others. Most of the artists are Spanish but there is a strong representation of surrealistic and modern artists from all over the world. Kandinsky is there, as well as Klein, and Alex Katz. There is also an eye-popping kinetic art display on the ground floor. Even the building structure is a work of art. The external glass elevator provided a great overview of the surrounding area...

...including the Atocha Train Station.

We spent about two hours in the museum and then decided to find a little cafe for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. We had covered a lot of area, walked about seven miles, and we were fading in the heat. Time for another late afternoon nap to recharge for dinner. We were getting very used to eating at 8PM or later. The late sunsets fiddled with our internal body clocks too. It stayed light until after 10PM because of Madrid's position at the far west of its time zone.

After a couple of hours of refreshing zzz's, we looked for a tapas bar. We found a great little plaza, one of so many in Madrid, with a number of restaurants on the perimeter. As we were walking around checking them out, a young man stopped us and asked us if we spoke English. He went on to tell us that he was an American from Seattle who had been in a bad car accident with his friend who had ended up in the hospital. The rental car was totalled, the police had it impounded, and all of his money and documents, including his passport were in a briefcase in the car and no one knew where it had been taken. He had a nasty cut on his nose and his scalp which he said came from some glass that had embedded itself during the accident. The upshot was that he needed money to get a temporary id from the embassy so he could retrieve money that his parents were wiring him. Was he on the up and up? We didn't know. But there was something compelling about him and we didn't feel comfortable just walking away. He said he needed 20 euros. I couldn't give him that much but between the two of us, Meredith and I were able to give him 5 euros. He seemed very grateful and said that he would be alright. After he walked away we talked about the situation and decided that if it was a scam, he deserved what we gave him just on the merit of his acting job. We found a place that served some great looking tapas, ordered four types and some wine and enjoyed another gorgeous Spanish evening. After enjoying the meal, we poked around the area, had some gelato, found the Plaza Mayor, and decided to make that the start of our adventures the next day. By 11 we were back at the hotel and getting to sleep to prepare for our last day in Spain.

Next post: Plaza Mayor, Walking tour of the Centro, the Market, the Cathedral, hobnobbing at the Presidential Palace and so much more!

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