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21 Days of Spain

Author: Betsy Lubis
Date of Trip: November 2013

21 Days of Spain

My husband and I were neophytes in terms of international travel as we embarked on a three-week trip to Spain in November, 2013. He’d been to Peru several years prior delivering computer equipment to a charity but he’d known where he was going and that someone would meet him when he got there. And, I hadn’t used my passport since my 20s, when my parents took me on a professionally guided tour of the UK one year and a friend dragged me to an all-inclusive Mexican resort the next.

Before leaving, we’d bought tickets for the Alhambra in Granada for day eight and registered to run a marathon in Valencia on day fifteen. We’d also made hostal reservations for nights one through eight along with booking a Holiday Inn Express for the marathon week-end. For the rest, we intended to remain flexible knowing full-well that I am not the calmest person when unsure of where to sleep.

I also tend to be slightly uptight when lost. And, though we’d packed both a tablet and hand-held electronic device, we don’t own smart phones or carry internet access over our shoulders. So, we’d have to figure out where we were going before we went, ask someone along the way, find Wi-Fi accessibility in transit or resort to a becoming-difficult-to-find printed map.

Probably, it was best just to get going:

Day 1, USA to Spain
We boarded our Madrid flight through first class, as a rowdy old Texan whose wife was leaning down to arrange stuff on the floor, loudly proclaimed, “Shirley, what are you doing? You can’t do that here,” while watching for our reaction. Laughing dutifully, we continued on to our tourist seats.

From the dreariness of the terminal into which we de-planed, we might as well have arrived somewhere in the Eastern Bloc of the early `60s. Outside, the morning loomed almost as grey. The first ATM we attempted didn’t work. The second managed to spit out some euros after which we found the express bus to Atocha Station on our second pass by its stop. I noticed more litter than I’d been expecting strewn along the highway leading into town, but failed to interpret it as an omen of anything to come.

Our bus passed a 5 or 10K as we neared Retiro Park. The runners were progressing beside Atocha Station, so, once off the bus, we followed their path around a corner before realizing we were off course for our hostal. Referring to our map didn’t help. A lady walking by pointed out the general direction we should be going. We returned to the station to reorient ourselves before trudging on.

Hostal Numancia: Fourth floor of a building with apartments on the lower levels and another hostal on the floor above. The infrastructure needed a bit of maintenance, i.e., the sink in our room wouldn’t turn off. But, the staff was friendly and helpful. And, as the courtyard was strung with clothesline, we could hang our hand-washed stuff out there to dry. The shared bathrooms were relatively clean, given their age and decrepitude and the filthiness of some of our fellow guests. The Wi-Fi proved adequate.

We arrived too early to check-in. So, we left our backpacks and ventured out to stand on the zero kilometer mark in Puerta del Sol before heading into the café at the El Cortes Ingles department store for lunch.

Later, we drank American coffee at the Dunkin’ Coffee up the street from our hostal, and then walked around Plaza Mayor, on to Palacio Real and along the edge of Campo del Moro. We couldn’t decide where to go for dinner and ended up at the crowded Mercado de San Miguel. Without finding anywhere to sit, we ate standing up. I washed down my insufficiently micro-wave heated potato omelet with a glass of wine.

In bed by 10:00 p.m., my husband slept while I listened to the girls in the next room getting ready to go out. When they returned well after midnight, I was still awake.

Day 2, Madrid
Out for a run, we looped around Retiro Park a couple of times, managing not to get lost. Finishing, we bypassed a McDonald’s on one corner of the street for a café on another where we ordered the basic Spanish breakfast: juice, coffee, and toast spread with olive oil and tomatoes. Outside, a street vendor cooked sweet potatoes and corn over a relatively crude but functioning home-made grill.

After spending several hours admiring art at the Prado, we left the museum as evening arrived. Walking in the general direction of our hostal, but overshooting it a bit, we were distracted by a boisterous parade. In response to 1,600 or so Madrid sanitation workers losing their jobs, they and masses of their compatriots were marching in protest and leaving little trash fires in their wake. Bypassing the fires, we ended up on Calle Magdalena, our hostal’s street, only we didn’t realize we were there until we’d gone at least a block past the place.

We ventured into nearby Lavapies, which one of our guidebooks described as a traditional Spanish working class neighborhood now filling with immigrants. Looking for something to eat, our first dining option appeared as a string of Indian restaurants each with a nicely dressed young Indian planted out front to lure in business. We succumbed to the first where we got a small beer, salad, main dish, and little dessert for seven euros each.

Day 3, Madrid
We ran down Paseo de Castellano going as far as the Real Madrid futbol stadium. Coming back, we stopped at a café near the Prado for toast, jam, juice and coffee. The price of this “continental” breakfast posted on the chalkboard outside was the “bar” price. But, pegged as tourists, we were instructed to “sientense aqui” and motioned to a table. And, of course, there, we were charged the “table” price. So, our breakfast ended up being a euro or two more than advertised. For the cheapest price, you have to insist on sitting at the bar. Or, clarify beforehand that both bar and table are priced the same. If you know enough Spanish to do so, that is. Because while many servers will speak English quite well when it comes to the food, they turn decidedly monolingual when getting down to paying for it. Of course, I’d read this all before our trip. Yet, in practice, standing there, being weak in the native tongue, it was hard to implement.

For the second installment on our three museum pass, we headed to the Thyseen-Bornemisma. And, while I enjoyed perusing its art, it will be the museum I always remember for its rare water fountains. We’d already found a couple of them out in the open air. And, surprisingly in November, they were still turned on. Inside buildings, though, except for the Thyseen, they were virtually non-existent. Department stores, malls, bus and train stations: none. We routinely filled our water bottles from bathroom faucets.

That night, we didn’t walk far enough north of Puerta del Sol to find the restaurant we’d picked out of our guidebook though we did come across a second place we’d noted, where the Socialist Party of Spain was founded in 1869 or sometime around then. There, we walked in only to be ignored. So, we left and went to yet another place where, at least, we were escorted to a table and shown the menu. But, it was an expensive menu, so, we left it, also. Finally, we ended up at a restaurant near our hostal where we ate a nice three plate menu del dia for nine euros each. And, this is where the equally nice server sat the wine bottle on our table after we’d ordered only a glass saying, “A glass, a glass and a half. Is fine. Same price. Don’t worry about it.”

Day 4, Madrid
Heaps of trash line Calle de Magdalena and used packets of ketchup and jelly are streaked along the sidewalk. The sanitation strike has hit. Some of the major thoroughfares, Paseo de Castellano, for one, aren’t as trashed as other, more residential streets. We repeat our run from yesterday but go further, past the soccer stadium all the way to the Puerta de Europa Twin Towers…Tores Kos, which lean at 15 degree angles and also the golden obelisk by Spanish contemporary architect Santiago Caltravea. Some Japanese business people are there, too, taking pictures.

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