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Madrid and the Costa del Sol

Author: Bob W. (More Trip Reviews by Bob W.)
Date of Trip: May 2008

Friends my wife and I met on a trip to Costa Rica had been urging us to consider a vacation in Torremolinos on Spain's Costa del Sol. When they scheduled their twelfth consecutive vacation on the Spanish coast, we were convinced!

On Sunday evening, May 11, we flew from JFK (NY) to Madrid on Iberia airlines. An uneventful flight put us in Madrid mid-morning on Monday. After disembarking, we were met by a representative of Grand Circle Travel (GCT). At the airport, we met a couple, Bob and Gail, who were to become good friends and dinner companions throughout our stay. A prearranged bus took us to our hotel, the Tryp Washington, located on Gran Via (Grand Way). After an orientation session, we crossed the avenue to an ATM machine, then entered VIPS restaurant for a very tasty ham and cheese sandwich. Our Master Card was accepted without question, a scenario repeated throughout our stay.

In the late afternoon, our GCT representative led a walking tour up Gran Via to Plaza de Calleo, where there is a department store and many smaller shops, then along Preciados to Puerta del Sol. From there we wandered to the Plaza Mayor where archway entrances lead to a square surrounded by a large rectangular building. Outdoor cafes occupied three sides of the square. Towards the center, workmen were assembling scaffolding, speaker systems and lights for the coming celebration of the patron saint of Madrid. After studying the pictures of meal choices (from point-to-order menus intended to overcome the language barrier for non-Spanish speaking customers), we selected a cafe and ordered a vegetable pizza by pointing to the appropriate picture. Just to prove the system isn't foolproof, our waiter delivered a different pizza from the one ordered. Being hungry, we accepted it and washed it down with a glass of pleasant house red wine.

Our impressions of Madrid were very favorable. We enjoyed the elaborate wrought iron railings and artistic embellishments on older buildings. Architectural styles were an eclectic mix. Despite an efficient subway system and frequent buses (standing room only at commuter hours) the roads were filled with a steady flow of (mostly) smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. We noticed many small but pleasant parks.

Tuesday morning, we took a bus from a stop convenient to our hotel to Plaza de Cibeles where Rhea, Goddess of the Earth, is perched above the Cibeles fountain. From there, we walked south on the Paseo del Prado, the broad avenue leading past three outstanding art museums. We headed first to the famous Prado Museum whose spectacular collection currently featured a special Goya exhibit. After spending several hours viewing exhibits, we stopped for an enjoyable lunch in the Prado's pleasant cafeteria.

We returned to our hotel mid-afternoon for a scheduled bus tour of the city. This was a get-acquainted tour with lots of peering out bus windows but a limited number of stops. We stopped to wander the gardens and walkways of the beautiful Royal Palace and neighboring cathedral (but hadn't time to enter either) and stopped to view an Egyptian temple, which had been shipped stone-by-stone from the area of the Aswan Dam in grateful thanks for Spanish help in saving historic sites in the path of rising waters of the dam. After the bus tour, we headed back to the Prado to resume viewing its magnificent display of Spanish art. At closing hour, we returned to our hotel and selected the nearby Cafe Mario, an excellent and atmospheric Argentine restaurant, where we enjoyed ribs and chicken and a very nice house red wine.

On Wednesday, our third and final day in Madrid, we headed first to the Reina Sofia National Art Museum to see its impressive collection of abstract and modern art, including works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali. Picasso's Guernica occupies its own gallery together with many of the drawings and preparatory paintings by which he developed the imagery and themes depicting the terror and suffering of civilians bombed during the Spanish Civil War. I regretted that the Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums all forbid the use of cameras, even without flash.

After viewing the extensive exhibits at the Reina Sofia, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed north on Paseo del Prado to the Thyssen Bornewisza Museum. The Thyssen, located in an old palace, is known to have one of the best and most varied art collections in the world. Its masterpieces range from old masters (dating from as early as 1390 AD) to late 20th century artists. Although we found the Thyssen to be much less crowded than the Prado, its exhibits were very impressive. We stayed at the Thyssen until its 7 p.m. closing time.

After returning to our hotel, we dined at the nearby VIPS restaurant. Despite having pointed to the desired item pictured on the menu, we were brought the wrong order. After what my stomach told me was a long delay, the correct order was delivered and was delicious. Since we were scheduled to fly to Torremolinos early in the morning, we went to bed shortly after dinner. When returning to our hotel, we had noticed large crowds of young people surging into town and drifting into taverns and restaurants, something we were surprised to see on a Wednesday evening. We soon learned that this was the eve of the celebration of the patron saint of Madrid. The next day was a citywide holiday. It was not to be a prayerful celebration.

During the two previous nights the neighborhood around our hotel had been very quiet. The narrow street outside our window had been deserted after the vegetable market had closed. This night began with the whining and banging of a trash truck. A three-day strike of trash collectors had been settled just in time to clean up a backlog of trash before the holiday. When that din subsided, a group of rowdy drunks settled into doorways. Soon, cars began to arrive, with much honking of horns and the occasional blaring of radios. Ambulance and police sirens soon joined the cacophony. Stuffing toilet paper in our ears didn't help. Finally, at 6 a.m., the racket subsided just in time for our wake-up call.

Thursday morning, we flew from Madrid to Malaga, then traveled 30 minutes by bus to our hotel, Bajondillo Apartments, in Torremolinos. Our Grand Circle group consisted of 86 people from 22 states and Puerto Rico. The group was divided into manageable numbers assigned to various program directors. Ours, Natalia Lopez, was especially pleasant, helpful and informative throughout our stay.

We unpacked, enjoying our view of the Mediterranean and the Bajondillo's pool from the balcony of our fourth floor efficiency apartment. First order of business for our group was an introductory dinner at an area restaurant, El Dorado. We had chicken in a mushroom cream sauce and plentiful house wine. For each night of our stay, we received coupons good for dinner (appetizer, main course, dessert and beverages) at any one of 13 restaurants within walking distance of our hotel. Each we tried proved to be excellent. We also received coupons for each day's breakfast at the extensive Bajondillo breakfast buffet. An ID card gave us access to light beverages from the bar. That reduced our need for currency.

The coastal section of Torremolino is a hillside sloping to a beach. Stone stairways lead from the beach road to parallel streets at higher elevations. Along these stairways, and on the streets are a great variety of stores and stands selling shoes, clothes, jewelry, wallets, watches, art objects, beach towels, etc. To accommodate those who would have difficulty climbing the steep stairs, there is an elevator costing half a Euro per trip. Across from the beach, hotels restaurants and shops line the road.

On the beach side, small restaurants are positioned about a block apart. Behind each is a concession area (7 Euros for two chaise lounges and an umbrella for the day) reaching about halfway to the water. The entire waterfront beach area is public and free of charge. The water was calm most of the time because the wind, which seemed to arrive late afternoon, blew from west to east, not towards the beach. The beach was uncrowded in May but, we were told, would be jammed in July and August. Unlike most Americans, Spaniards receive a full month of vacation when they begin a job.

Saturday morning, we returned to Malaga, where we had landed on our flight from Madrid. Malaga is a small, attractive city -- the main city of coastal Andalucia-- located about 20 minutes drive west of Torremolinos. The port area is clean and lined with palm and plane trees and adorned with bougainvillea, aloes, geraniums and other flowering plants. Two ocean liners were docked near the waterfront promenade. A large Moorish fortress, La Alcazaba, sits on a hillside, overlooking the harbor. A tall, domed tower of a cathedral also dominates the skyline. The cathedral was designed for a second matching tower; but, the funds for construction of the tower were, at the request of Spanish General Galves (?), used instead to support the American Revolution. [We were told that Galveston, Texas was named after the General, who settled in Louisiana following the revolution.]

On the Plaza de la Merced, we walked past the home where Picasso lived after his birth in Malaga. Then we visited the small museum that houses sketches and paintings by Picasso once owned by members of his family. The museum is interesting but has few of Picasso's more significant works. Picasso was a great fan of the Malaga bullring. The bullring was inactive when we visited it, still being cleaned up after a concert. Ten minutes seated in the ring told us two things. Two hours in the direct sun during bullfights (the cheaper seats) would be incredibly hot! And the stone seats provide no comfort. Bullfighting fans bring special cushions to make them bearable. Attached to the bullring was a small bullfighting museum containing some of the elaborate costumes and paraphernalia of famous matadors, photos of bullfights and a few mounted heads of bulls.

We stopped to see the remains of a Roman amphitheater, currently under restoration, in the shadow of the Moorish fortifications. Near the amphitheater, we entered a building housing two of the elaborate and beautiful floats carried in religious processions by various brotherhoods. Members of forty brotherhoods hand-carry heavy floats during 10-hour processions. One of the floats we saw was an elaborate gold-trimmed wood crypt elaborately carved of a variety of beautiful woods. The other was completely silver-plated with a tapestry roof and a woven silver train like that on a royal bridal gown. Each was a treasure.

We enjoyed a walk through the center of Malaga, which houses many majestic churches and small restaurants. Spanish families, dressed in their colorful Sunday best, were pouring out of one large church after a confirmation ceremony, then standing outside to chat and enjoy the beautiful weather. We picked a small restaurant for lunch and enjoyed both the food and the view of happy families.

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