December 8, 2005:
We arrive in Madrid (at the Chamartin station) right around 0830...on a Thursday...which also happens to be a major holiday (a fact we will not completely figure out for about a day. Thanks for the help Lonely Planet. You too, Fodor’s. We didn’t REALLY wanna know about Constitution Day). The Metro isn’t running this morning so we’re forced to hop in a cab and set off for (what we believe to be...) our hostal – which I reserved online yesterday morning through Hostels.com.
The hostal is in a great location – just a few blocks away from Puerte del Sol and right on top of a Metro station. It looks great. Clean, quaint, a little bit funky. It also doesn’t have room for us. The owner/manager explains to us that he e-mailed me immediately after receiving my reservation request from Hostels.com to refute any claims of vacancy. He refunds the 5 or 6 Euro down payment usually due to Hostels.com and calls a hostal down the street which, he assures us, has much lower rates.
All goes (almost...) well: we end up getting to our NEW hostal (Cervelo), and discover too much quaint, not enough clean, and a heavy dose of funk best personified by the sagging mattress and musty bed cover that immediately begins to bother Mel’s allergies. Welcome to Madrid! Hey, it’s only one night. We toss our bags in a corner and start a-walking...right?
Of COURSE not! This is Spain, dummy! We settle in for a couple hour siesta in an effort to develop a better feel for the culture and THEN set off for Madrid’s famous modern art museum, Reina Sofia.
By the time we get to the museum, my hunger has overwhelmed my civility. Mel pulls me into a half-Italian place next to the museum and shoves a few breadsticks in to get me back on track. It seems to work and we proceed to the museum.
Now I’m not really a big fan of modern art if it doesn’t showcase the artistic talent of the artist. Sticking half a fluorescent light bulb into a block of concrete isn’t art. Smearing bull’s blood all over a big tarp isn’t art. Filming yourself jumping into a brick wall isn’t art. It’s pretentiousness personified (“I’m so important that you should watch me jump into this brick wall…and subsidize it as well.”). Hey, blogging is ALSO, to a large degree, pretentiousness personified but I don’t expect anyone to read what I write because it is shocking (thus proving my ability as a blogger). If you like what I write and what I write about then it’s there for you to see…and I’ll even let you take photos of it if you like. Something that is strictly off-limits in the Sofia (phooey).
ANYway…Mel loves Picasso and he has a large display here. I like a lot of Dali’s works so we look at those as well. We check out a couple of the temporary exhibits (some good – i.e. created by talented artists – and some bad – i.e. created by guys who shove light bulbs into concrete…).
After finishing up at the museum, I notice the botanic gardens are right across the street. Yeah, I know...it’s winter. We can’t really expect much from the gardens, right? Well, we’ve been spoiled by exposure to some fantastic gardens (most notably Wellington, NZ) and Mel enjoys taking photographs of flowers and unusual plants – so off we go.
Um...yeah. Note to self: don’t go to botanic gardens in the winter, moron. Note to self, don’t go back to Madrid’s botanic gardens anyway. But as long as we learn our lesson, it’s not time wasted, right? Right...?
The gardens are situated about midway between the Sofia and the Prado, Madrid’s other major museum of art. We head in the direction of the Prado with a clear understanding that I will NOT be going into another museum today. Too much culture spoils the Petri dish. Or something like that.
Instead, we buy two-day tickets for the hop-on/hop-off bus tour that departs from near the Prado and jump on the first bus we see. Skipping the Prado to ride around Madrid on top of a tour bus? Some would call this sacrilege. Ah well. We just call it "our vacation."
As usual (or at least as is BECOMING the usual), we get some great shots of buildings, statues, and sights that we really can’t locate on the map or the tour guide. So look and enjoy! Sort of like us. Who likes those snooty intellectual-type vacations, anyway? Bring on the sangria!
There are a FEW sights we can identify...La Cibeles, the football stadium, and Independence Plaza, sculptures near the Museo Arqueoligico and Biblioteca Nacional, being four of those. Remember that comment about the need to hop OFF of tour buses to get the full effect? Yeah...we didn’t do so well on that one this time around. We only jump off as the bus slows to a crawl in traffic building up around Puerta del Sol (which has become a MADhouse, by the way. Again...the mysterious holiday strikes). Notice there are two links within Peurta del Sol...one to the Wikipedia entry and one to a blog from an American living in Madrid.
We wander through the crazy masses and finally manage to squeeze into a small tavern right off the square. The house red, olives, and some ham (they do love their ham) serve to settle us down and warm us up before we make a break for Palacio Real and the nearby Almundena Cathedral for some impressive night shots (or at least I think they’re impressive. But it’s my wife taking them…what ELSE am I going to say?).
Having finished our night shots we fight our way through throngs of merrymakers and finally get back to the hostal. It’s early and we really haven’t had dinner yet, but we’ve both had enough of our first day of Madrid. Lights out on day 1 of Madrid.
December 9, 2005:
Of course we get another late start...clearly that's just part of our M.O. (we like to call it 'charming quirkiness').
This morning, we decide to try what appears to be a very popular breakfast and snack choice in Madrid (at least based on what we see as we walk by the various cafes along the street). Chocolate con churros. Otherwise known as sticks of fried dough (the churros...) served with a cup of what appears to be melted chocolate (and I don't mean "hot chocalate" - let me be very clear about that) for dipping. I let Mel sample the chocolate and stick with coffee con leche. This will be our last experience with churros. This is not something we regret. The plan (if there is one...our time in Madrid seems much less well-managed as opposed to our time in Lisbon) involves a bit of walking a bit more jumping around major sites on the hop-on/hop-off bus (with BIG plans to actually hop off today).
From our hostal, it's a fairly short walk back to the Prado...no, not to go inside. I'm stilling feeling too uncultured for that. We check out some of the local artists' work for sale on the sidewalks around the museum and buy a small painting before heading back over to the tour bus stand that will take us out into the city. We run across the Fuente de Neptuno (located near the heart of the Plaza de Canovas del Castillo on the way to the Prado) and take a few photos of the Roman god of the sea. No...I can't tell you how this relates to the 19th Century Spanish politician. I imagine the statue to Neptune was built before the plaza was dedicated to del Castillo. For a more in-depth look at many of the monuments we will be passing by today, click here.
Our first exit from the tour bus puts at the base of Puerta de Toledo. We get some photos of the monument and pop into a small cafe for coffee (Mel is having a hard time staying awake today) and a beer. Hey...it's after noon. We're on vacation. Cut me some slack. Besides, it was just one.
Walking north along Gran Via de San Francisco, we inadvertently begin following in the tracks of a recommended itinerary from AboutMadrid.com. We next come across the Basilica de San Francisco El Grande - which has obviously seen better days since its construction in 1760. It is currently in what appears to be the early stages of renovation.
After snapping a few photos of the Cathedral, we turn right and begin working our way through the fascinating and historic maze that surrounds Plaza Mayor. The older warrens of the city are somewhat reminiscent of Lisbon - although many of the alleyway streets seem wider than their Portuguese counterparts and, of course, none of the distinctive Lisbon tiling is present on the sides of the buildings. Instead, they tend toward tans, reds, and oranges...a pleasing sort of pastel blend.
One of the few 'planned events' of our trip to Madrid was a visit to Botin, supposedly the oldest restaurant in the world. We arrive a bit late for lunch and get sent on a one-hour holding pattern while the lunchtime crowd clears. Hm...an hour to spend around Plaza Mayor before lunch...that sounds like sangria time! We duck around the corner to a small, slightly over-decorated bar and order up a pitcher and some patatas bravas - another popular dish that we've had recommended to us by friends. Guess what? It's chunks of potatos in a slightly tangier version of ketchup...sometimes with some mayo thrown in. Not exactly what we were expecting.
The hour passes as quickly as the pitcher of Sangria runs dry. We return to Botin, get seated in the basement (right next to the wine cellar) and enjoy an outstanding (and quite lengthy) lunch. It was well worth the wait.
Having completed our lengthy lunch, we decide to continue our exploration of the area around Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. I've got the tripod in my backpack so we expect an easy transition to night shots. The area directly around Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol is, once again, a madhouse so we skirt around the edges of the crowd, occasionally slipping back into the quieter sections of the maze we had explored over lunch as we wind our way back toward Palacio Real.
Once again, the palace and surrounding grounds draw Mel's photographic interest so we spend some time testing different angles, settings, and light conditions.
Our last tourist stop before returning to the hostal for our bags and heading off to the train station for our overnight trip to Barcelona is the Plaza de Espana. We set off along Gran Via and arrive after full darkness has descended on the plaza. Mel's mom is a big fan of Don Quixote so we spend some time trying to get a decent low light photo of Don, his sidekick Sancho Panza, and (of course) Rosinante.
We wrap up around Plaza de Espana earlier than we'd expected; we still have at least an hour until we need to gather our bags and head for the train station. Hm...night in Madrid. An hour to spare. What to do? Hey...does that place serve sangria? Problem solved! The small bar we duck into has walls plastered with bull fighting calendars, picture of famous bull fighters, and even a few pictures of famous bulls. It is most definitely a family affair. After deciding to try our luck with more than just sangria (let's give those patatas bravas another shot!), we watch the waitress wake her dad up and usher him back to the kitchen to fry up some more potatoes for us.
This time, we find ourselves unable to reach the bottom of the sangria pitcher (if only I knew more sizes than "Grande!" when ordering from Spanish waitstaff...). With our time in the city winding down, we venture back down Gran Via, pass back through Puerta del Sol, and retrieve our bags from the hostal. With a recommendation from the desk attendant to avoid the Metro (and its crowds) tonight, we instead flag down a taxi an enjoy the show as he honks, curses, brakes, and accelerates his way through traffic. He leaves us at the train station with a friendly wave and we haul our bags into yet another of the rather small sleeper cabins on the train to Barcelona.
December 11, 2005
Looking for a photo log instead?
So we get up early and hit the road as the sun rises, right…? Riiiight. ANYway…we roll out of bed late (as usual…hey, vacations are kinda fun like that) and head down the street to grab some coffee and pastries at a nearby café (they’re scattered fairly liberally through this section of town - just south of Placa de la Universitat on Sant Antoni). As usual, the coffee is strong and the pastries not quite as sweet as we expected (have ALL Americans been spoiled by Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts? I shudder at the thought). It’s a chilly morning today – but sunny. We have high hopes that it will warm as the day progresses.
From the pastry shop, we start working our way down toward Placa de Catalunya where we hope to jump on the hop-on/hop-off tour bus for our journeys to the Casa Batllo (they have a fantastic website, by the way...), and Park Guell. As you can see, we’re starting to get a better idea for just how much ground we can cover in a day. Based on our experiences yesterday, each Gaudi exhibit tends to take between 1 and 3 hours if we hope to really appreciate his work.
Anyway…we jump on the bus and hop off as it stops alongside Casa Batllo. Again, if viewed as part of the neighborhood, the house looks horrifically out of place. Too many curves, too many colors…just too much. Viewed as a standalone piece of art and architecture…very impressive. We spend nearly an hour and a half wandering through the house, periodically listening to the free audio guides we were given at the entrance. Are the guides a bit heavy on hyperbole? Of course they are! Gaudi may not be quite the savior of mankind portrayed by the friendly recorded voice chattering away in my ear, but his talent still shines through and there are enough facts buried within the praise to make the audio experience worthwhile.
The photos here offer a glimpse of how unusual the building looks compared to its neighbors...and truth be told, the building to the immediate left is...um...a bit overdone as well (making it difficult to get a feel for the uniqueness of Gaudi's work).
Inside the house, Gaudi has chosen to go for a...how to define it? An underwater look? There are swirls, scales, and deep blues throughout.
If the interior of the building stirs images of an underwater kingdom, stepping onto the roof is like surfacing into a rolling sea. Many of the lines strongly resemble waves cresting and falling.
A tough tour (and small pastries in the morning…) tend to build an appetite. We cross the street and enter yet another restaurant for our early afternoon snack. What would that be? Tapas and sangria, maybe? You bet. We’re getting predictable now, aren’t we? Or were we already predictable? Hm. A question I ponder deeply while drinking my sangria.
Hopping back onto the tour bus, we set off for Park Guell. Enroute, we pass by the Sagrada Familia and some other photo-worthy stuff (or so my wife tells me as she clicks away...).
Park Guell (yes, it deserves separate links for each word) is about a five minute walk up from where the tour bus drops us off. We wind our way around slower-moving tour groups and individuals (don't these people know we're on a SCHEDULE! Okay. Just kidding. We're not really that bad. Then again, we WERE walking faster than everyone else. Hm...). I'll let Wikipedia give you a better description of the park than I can offer:
The design of the Park is clearly the work of an architect and Gaudí's unique style is also easily distinguishable. Wavy, lava-like shapes, at places tree-like or in form of Doric columns or stalactites, sometimes lavishly decorated with ornaments of broken ceramic fragments. The landscaping of the Park is largely in tune with the natural terrain; steep slopes and cliffs have been allowed to remain, with winding paths, cuttings and grottoes adding to the natural feel.
Although it sounds unlikely, the place is skillfully designed and composed to bring the peace and calm that one would expect from a park. The buildings, though very original and remarkable, are relatively inconspicuous, considering other buildings designed by Gaudí. They have fantastically shaped roofs with unusual pinnacles. The focal point of the park is the main terrace, surrounded by a long bench in the form of a sea serpent. Gaudí used a naked man, sitting in clay, to design the bench. The curves form a number of enclaves, creating a more social atmosphere.
The large cross at the Park's high-point offers the most complete view of Barcelona. It is possible to view the main city in panaroma, with la Sagrada Familia and the Montjuïc area visible at a distance.
Pictures, you ask? Well...we can handle that part.
The park is more than just Gaudi's artwork. There were throngs of visitors during our wandering hours-long tour visit. Some were tourists, some were lovers, some were performers, and some appeared to be locals just enjoying a beautiful day in beautiful surroundings. After much dilly-dallying (and with some reluctance...) we finally wandered away from the park and back to the tour bus stop, anxious to get in one more stop before the sun sets.
From the top of the tour bus we catch a glimspe of La Rotonda and Mel gets the best picture she can under the circumstances.
Another impressive architectural work in a city that seems filled with them. We continue on the bus until reaching the small neighborhood of Sarria. The small chapel, the narrow streets, the quaint neighborhoods, and the interesting public squares all make for great photos as the sun slowly ducks below the horizon.
Although most of the shops and restaurants are closed, we spot a small cafe open for business and step inside to grab a sandwich, some drinks (non-alcoholic...if you can believe it), and a pastry to tide us over until dinner.
By the time we've jumped back on the tour bus and ridden back to the head of Las Ramblas, night has fallen. We walk the alleys between Las Ramblas and El Raval and wander (somewhat lost...) through Barri Gotic before settling in for dinner at a small seafood restaurant near the harbor. This is our chance to try seafood paella (washed down with...of course...sangria). We've had our share of paella in the States...and while we've always HEARD good things about it, the restaurants never really came through. Sadly, that seems to be the case here as well. Perhaps it's time to admit...we just plain don't care for paella.
We take our time at dinner and wander off into Barri Gotic afterward, anxious to wander through the narrow streets and soak in more of the ambiance. Speaking of ambiance...who's up for a Foodball?
No? Good choice. It seems a bit odd to us as well. We laugh a bit at the concept and continue our exploration, eventually winding up at a small bar buried deep in the heart of Barri Gotic. We compete for the "best photo taken without moving the camera off of the table." The competition is fierce...
...but I think Mel wins. Somehow I'm not surprised. Our walk back to the hostal takes us by some interesting night shot opportunities. Of course we stop.
By the time we finally get back to the hostal, we fall quickly asleep with one clear objective for tomorrow...Sagrada Familia.
December 12, 2005
Looking for a photo log instead?
We have two primary objectives for our third day in Barcelona. #1 visit the spectacular (if extremely unusual…) Sagrada Familia and...#2...WASH OUR CLOTHES. Bold vision, eh? Well, you know what they say…”Who dares wins” – right?
To start things off on a proper note we wind back through the narrow alleyways leading from our hostal to Las Ramblas and make a beeline for Café Le Opera. I dunno why...but the place has received great reviews in our travel manuals. After going through a fairly average breakfast and a decent (if not exceptional) cup of coffee – all punctuated by the faint whiff of B.O. that seemed to float through the café’s seating area – we head back out (slightly puzzled by the hype) and set out for the train station to buy tickets for our next trip leg.
Having decided to spend an extra day in Barcelona, we are now faced with a bit of a dilemma. Our next planned stop had been Nice, France...but having taken an extra day in Lisbon and an extra day in Barcelona, we’re starting to run out of flex time. Our plane departs Rome on the morning of the 18th and we don’t want to cut short our time exploring such an historic city.
Another problem? If we skip out on Nice, the train ride from Barcelona to Rome will be monstrously long (one night and most of a day). Nice serves the same role is Madrid in our travel plans...a brief stopover to break up the train ride that also offers some touring possibilities. What’s a trainbound couple to do?
The helpful attendant behind the ticket counter solves ALL of our train problems in one fell swoop: “I’m sorry...the French railworkers are on strike for the next three days. There are no trains from Barcelona to Nice or Rome....”
Um...yeah. Did I ever tell you the story about the French bathroom cleaners I saw go on strike at Charles De Gaulle? Note to bathroom crew: don’t go on strike if your job can be done by marginally trained monkeys. But that’s really neither here nor there, is it? Back to the narrative....
Luckily we stopped at the train station early enough to fix the problem before it’s insurmountable. First stop? The travel agency in the train station to check on ferry prices and times along with airfares. Yes...the ferry is cheap. Yes…the ferry is slow. Yes…Mel gets seasick…and yes, a private cabin is pricey. I see our options quickly shrinking. The travel agent is extremely helpful, funny, and very comfortable with his English. After about fifteen minutes of jumping back and forth between different fare schemes, we’re able to lock in a fairly decent rate for air tickets that will add yet another day to our Barcelona adventure. Somehow we really don’t mind.
We leave the train station with our next leg locked down and a loose idea of where to find a Laundromat near the hostal. The line is long and our desire to wait very short. On our way to the NEXT nearest Laundromat (as designated on the sign in Gat Raval’s main foyer), we happen across a small, somewhat decrepit looking laundry place run by a rather round and thoroughly Spanish lady. Exchanging absolutely no words either side truly understands, we negotiate a rate, a time to drop off our laundry, and a time to pick it up. Who says we need all those stupid words, anyway!
After dropping off our laundry and checking the map for nearby points of interest, we have two hours to kill while she runs our clothes through her machines. We set off for Sant Pau to see what we can see.
What do we see? A giant cat (complete with brass balls...), another Ramblas (that has likely seen better days), a Muslim enclave, and an old Roman fortress. Better than sitting and watching our laundry spin? You bet. The highlight of our time in Barcelona? Well...did I mention the cat had brass balls?
ANYway...we finish our whirlwind tour, grab our laundry (ready to the minute), and stop off at a café next door to Gat Ravel for coffee and croissants while we regroup and prepare for our ‘assault’ on Sagrada Familia.
We’d been warned by friends to show up at the Sagrada early…lines are normally quite long. Luckily, our visit falls in the offseason. The Metro dumps us off within a short walk of the temple and we get inside with no hassle and no waiting in line. After a quick tour of the museum, we rent audio guides and begin our exploration in earnest. What does that mean? It means we don’t pay for the elevator. We walk up the tight, winding stairs, occasionally bumping into fellow tourists. I can’t even imagine how slow our progress would be if there had been large crowds.
Quite simply, our time spent inside the temple is fascinating. It is an amazing structure that continues to grow and develop with time. I highly recommend renting the audio guides before venturing inside - even if you choose not to walk through all of the listening points, it makes for an interesting experience.
We stay until the time mandated for the return of our audio guides. Afterward, we jump back on the Metro and hop off near the Universitat - just in time to re-visit a small tapas restaurant across the street...that also happens to have white sangria (cava in place of red wine...great stuff!) for a sort of late lunch/early dinner/snackish sort of thing. More interesting than the food, though...is the Mullet. Yes. It's making a comeback...and we saw one of the better examples mounted on a waiter's head.
Remember. You saw it here first. Don't say I didn't warn ya.
Our next stop is the Basilica De Santa Maria Del Mar (and surrounding area). A great spot for night photos, we soon discover.
Also a great spot for dinner and drinks. We stop in at Miramelindo for a drink, soak in the ambiance, and take a few more photos. They've only just opened so there isn't much to see outside of the interesting layout of the bar.
We cross the wide pedestrian boulevard and manage to snag a small, crowded table at Origens 99.9%. Why the name? 99.9% of the items sold there originate in the province of Catalon...why else?
Our waitress could probably have told us that...if she wasn't so darn goofy. But it's the sort of goofy that makes you feel good. Between the interesting food selections and her oddities, we thoroughly enjoy the experience.
By the time we finish eating, it's already getting late for us. We work our way back to the hostal and hit the sack.
December 13, 2005:
Looking for a photo log instead?
Day 4 in Barcelona is really sort of a bonus. We’re here because the French rail worker strike forced us to change travel plans…and that meant booking a flight for tomorrow morning.
Our goals for the day are limited. We want to take a closer look at the “dragon gate” designed by Gaudi, tour the Monasterio de Pedralbes, and check out a few other recommended sites from our different tour guides.
As I’ve mentioned previously, wireless Internet access has been pretty easy to come by throughout our trip. However, our room at Gat Raval is buried deep inside the building and the only network I can detect is the pay-for-service Telefonica. I feel the urgent need to connect and upload more pictures and shell out the cash for 24 hours of service (which turns out to be fairly cheap).
We decide to stop at another of the small cafes that seem to surround Gat for coffee and pastries…at which point I discover a strong, free wireless signal. Ah well. That’s how life goes. I don’t think Mel is all that interested in sitting there all day while I shuffle pictures to Flickr anyway.
We wrap up breakfast (if you want to call a pastry and coffee “breakfast”) and set out for Catalunya Square. From the Square, we hop a bus for the monastery and pull in to the monastery some time around noon(ish). It's an interesting place. We spend over an hour wandering through the different rooms and the inner courtyard, catching much of it on digits.
Having gotten our fill of the monastery, we jump back on the hop-on/off bus and hit the stop near Gaudi's dragon. An impressive work.