I am one week away from leaving for Madrid. I still do not have my passport, although I sent it for renewal in February. I have contacted my house representative's office, and they have a staff member working on it. She is very helpful, and I would suggest this route for anyone in this situation.
I'm pumped about the trip though - hope I get the passport in time!!!
This was my first time going abroad alone (for a short time). My suggestions for anyone else planning to explore on their own:
1. Really plan your shoes. I've seen this written, but unfortunately I didn't follow it closely enough. Your shoes need to be comfortable for a lot of walking on hard and uneven surfaces like sidewalks and cobblestones. Part of this comfort needs to come from shoes having been properly worn-in. I've bought some comfortable (and reasonably stylish) shoes and worn them, but my feet have multiple blisters because I hadn't worked the kinks out yet. I'm so glad I brought a bunch of bandaids...
2. If you are alone, male or female, it's probably best not to draw too much attention to yourself. For example, I waited until I was with my sister and her husband before I bought some postcards at an outdoor stand. Why? When I'm out walking alone, that would be a huge signal that I'm not from here, and it is fairly obvious I don't have someone with me. I try to know enough of the language to ask some simple but important questions if I need to. "Se habla anglais?" Hola! Buenos dias. Perdon... Donde esta ...?
3. Find out about the metro, map it out ahead of time if possible, and buy a multipass like locals. In Madrid, there are certain passes, but for semi-frequent riders or visitors, a 10-trip pass is cheaper than buying 5 individually. The metro is fairly easy to figure out, it's fast, it's cheap, and it goes close enough to most of the places you want to visit. Also, you get to experience local culture up close. If you are a people-watcher, this is a good place to discretely take in the local color (or lack).
4. That "packing light" mantra you keep hearing? Learn it - live it - love it. You don't need all that stuff. I've got 3 dresses, 1 pair of jeans, 2 sleeveless shirts and a travel suit, and I feel like I brought too much. I've got little packets of Tide and I wash my dirty clothes every night. Most are dry or close to dry by morning. It's pretty cool.
5. Don't ask police for directions if your Spanish (or French or whatever) is not very good. I learned this the hard way. They basically laughed at me.
I was kind of worried about the couple of days by myself - whether I would stick out like a sore thumb. With few exceptions, I've felt pretty comfortable here, and people have for the most part been friendly and helpful. Oh, but if you're a woman visiting a "macho" place like Spain alone, you might want to avoid eye contact with men. Just a suggestion...
I am winding up day 4 of my trip in Madrid. Needless to say, my passport arrived in time. Thanks to Yahoo Answers and the person who suggested contacting my representative. He had a staff person dedicated to working out passport issues for his constituents, and she informed me that the passport office is not processing the passports in the order in which they come, but according to when people are departing. Of course, there is no guarantee that anyone will get theirs in time, unless they have connections on the inside, or their federal rep's office contacting them directly.
I arrived at Barajas airport at around 9:00 am Tuesday morning. I on my most important items, but checked a small, beat-up, rolling carry-on to lighten my carry-on load. This cost me an hour at a nearly empty Barajas. I'd planned to take an airport shuttle for 9 euros, but I didn't see any obvious shuttle phones, or even payphones from which to call. So I decided to take the metro. I took the advice of insiders, and bought a 10-trip pass. (Good advice, by the way. It costs less than 5 individual tickets, and the metro gets you just about anywhere you want to go. )
Short story long, I finally got to my hotel at around 11 am. The desk clerk was slightly surly, but the bellman was quite kind and helpful. My hotel is in Sol, which is a great area, and I got a great deal by paying in advance - $73 dollars - not euros - per night for a full-sized bed in a small remodeled hotel. My sister couldn't get the same deal because rooms were sold out when she was trying to book, but she found another hotel for about $90 per night - Best Western Arosa on Gran Via. I would recommend this hotel - rooms are larger, nicer, and it's also in a good area. I think it's worth the extra $17 or so dollars, but she also got a great deal by buying well in advance. The rooms are normally over $200 per night.
I crashed in my room for a few hours until my friend called me. We went for tapas at some place - I don't know the name - near Gran Via. It was great, but muy expensivo.
Day 2, I went to hotel Reina Sofia. I had trouble locating it on foot, and had comfortable, but not worn-in shoes. I have blisters on my blisters. But I finally did make it, and had churros con chocolate there. It was fantastic, even though the churros weren't fresh. Then I went to see the Picassos and Dalis. I have a new appreciation for Guernica, now that I know a little bit about the context of the painting, and the pain and suffering and world thrown out of balance. I'm trying to figure out Picasso's reason for including a horse and a bull in many of these paintings. They seem to suggest some ideal, Spanish culture or life in the horse, and the bull seems to be evil (Franco?). Anyway, they are intense.
Dinner with colleague at a small pizzeria near the college. Ok pizza. By the way, coke here costs about the same as beer in many cases. It usually comes in little (I mean little) glass bottles, and costs about 2.5 euros.
Day 3, Conference, etc. My colleague and I went to Estragon Vegatariano in a small section called La Latina. The food was good - different. The service not so friendly.
The weather is fantastic - a little on the hot side, but dry and totally comfortable except for the flop-sweat I seem to manufacture endlessly. Oh well... It's like San Diego, only less polluted and no fog. Of course, there's no beach here...
Day 4, Conference presentation bright and early. Exhausted from little sleep. I left the conference about 12:30, and met up with my sister and her husband. We went to the archaeology museum, which was really great, but we didn't stay long because we were tired and my feet still blistered and swollen from the other day. We stopped at the Hard Rock Cafe for a few drinks - we'd had lunch - and when we told them we weren't there for lunch, they told us to sit at the bar. Of course it was full and the restaurant half empty. We sat at a table near the bar, and a surly waiter made us leave. We won't be back, that's for sure.