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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Less Than 36 Hours in Madrid

A certain major U.S. newspaper is known for its travel stories with advice for passing a quick but action-packed weekend in world cities. Sad to say, my trips to Madrid are usually less than the 36 hours in length described by the New York Times in this series. I have been to Spain's capital probably ten times since moving to the country, but with one exception--a four-night meeting and reunion with three of Johannes' Danish engineering college classmates and their wives in 2009--all my trips to Madrid have been connected in one way or another with an airport. There have been few opportunities for sight-seeing.

In the early days, when I traveled twice a year back to the U.S., it was not possible to make the trip without spending a night in Madrid or in London. That's why I found myself one January 5 in the center of Madrid on the last shopping night before Three Kings' Day, when Spanish children get their Christmas presents. The main department store, El Corte Ingles, was open until midnight, and we watched the parade and fireworks on TV after we made our way through the crowded streets to our center-city hotel. The midnight shopping trip and parade were the memorable events from that Madrid trip.

Since then. most Madrid airport trips have been to fetch visitors from the airport or take them back for their trips across the Atlantic. Since transatlantic flights almost invariably land here in the early hours of the morning, we usually book a hotel room close to Barajas airport so we can be at the door letting passengers out from the baggage area at 6:00 or so in the morning. My longest airport trip occurred when we made the six-hour drive from Roquetas to Madrid to pick up my mother one winter day and were awakened from our fitful sleep a few hours before her scheduled arrival with the news that her flight had been cancelled due to bad weather, she was somewhere around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and she would "probably" arrive on the next day's early morning flight. That flight delay gave us an unexpected 24 hours in Madrid, and I saw the Prado.

Last year I took the train from Alicante to Madrid to spend an overnight with an American friend who had a 24-hour layover on her way from Morocco to Washington, DC. Together we had a very enjoyable respite and saw several attractions, though not those recommended by the 36 Hours article.

But over the years, most Madrid airport trips have not leant themselves to exploring Madrid or even the environs of Barajas, the suburb that is home to its four airport terminals. We generally drive instead of taking the train, because who wants to lose money on return train tickets if the plane one is meeting is delayed? We start out the day before, find our way through the exasperating Madrid traffic, check into a hotel, and try to find something to eat nearby at a shopping center, because real restaurants are not open for dinner early enough for us to get enough sleep before we need to be up at 4:30 or 5:00 AM.

When we picked up our latest visitor last month, our trip was improved, even though we still did not do any sight-seeing. Gloria Pèrez Sànchez, the lady who lives inside the GPS, got us to our new hotel in record time, with no wrong turns and no frustration. A large shopping center was a short walk away, and we found what we wanted to eat and browsed a bit before returning to an early night in the sack. Breakfast was, of course, not available next morning prior to our 6:00 AM free shuttle ride to the airport, and Spanish hotels do not have coffee service in the rooms. But there was a coffee machine in the lobby! The plane came in on time, and our passenger and her luggage were on it. We took the free transportation back to the airport, rested, and were soon on our way for the four-hour drive home.

Taking this guest back for her midnight flight to Buenos Aires last Thursday, we booked the same hotel so that we could climb into bed after she was swallowed up by the security gates at 10:00 PM, and we took the train from Alicante to Madrid to provide a little variation in scenery. It is relatively easy to use the metro in Madrid to go from Atocha station, where the train comes in, to the Barajas terminals, though it does take two transfers and it was a good thing that we had three people to manage the six pieces of luggage (only one of which would be returning to Alicante). Our plan was to go to the airport by metro and take the hotel transportation back to the hotel, where we would find something to eat at that convenient shopping center, and then return to the airport for the flight check-in. Unfortunately when we walked into the terminal at 5:00 PM, we learned that there was a 95% chance that the midnight flight would be cancelled: the ash cloud from the Puyehue Chilean volcano was settling over Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires.

Yes, we had read the reports and had monitored the situation as best we could, and when we had left our house at 10:00 AM, there was no reason to expect that the flight would not go off. But something had happened during Thursday our time, and now there was nothing to do but hope. We were tired and did not want to wait for the hotel shuttle. So we piled into a taxi and headed for the hotel. A longer-than-expected ride later, we pulled up in front of the AC Feria, which was not the hotel that we asked for: the Axor Feria. An understandable error, but the driver was not happy. Nor were we. The driver muttered, and I heard Spanish words that I had only read in books, and not very good books at that.

We did get to the Axor and explained that we may turn out to be three people instead of the intended two in the reservation. They were most accommodating. We used the free wireless connection to get as much information as we could, and to send messages to those waiting in Argentina. We walked to the shopping center. We had dinner. We walked back to the hotel, collected the luggage, and went to the airport. The flight was indeed cancelled. Although the European Union has established strict rules about compensation and emergency arrangements for travelers when flights are cancelled, those rules do not apply in cases of unforeseen and uncontrollable meteorological problems, or "acts of God," as I translate the clause on which Air Europa was basing its actions.

We received a tentative reservation for Monday evening, four days hence, with a phone number to call on Sunday to confirm that the flight would go through--if it did not leave as scheduled after that confirmation, the cancellation arrangements would be enforced, and a hotel would be supplied. We returned to our hotel and phoned Renfe to add another ticket to the two return fares for Friday noon. No way, Jose. While the Thursday afternoon train to Madrid had been half empty, there were virtually no places available on the train from Madrid to the coast on a summer Friday afternoon. So we were up before dawn--at 5:30, I believe--to get a cab to the Renfe station, and by 7:00 we had gotten a credit on our two afternoon tickets and bought three for the morning train, which left at 7:20.

By noontime--26 hours after leaving the day before--we had retrieved our car at the Alicante train station and were back home in our Montebello house, adjusting to the four-day vacation extension and hoping for strong winds in the southern hemisphere to move the volcanic ash out of Buenos Aires.

We have just made the phone call and been told that the Monday midnight departure is scheduled sin problemas. We have reserved our now favorite hotel for Monday night, for two persons. We are driving instead of taking the train, trusting Gloria to get us to the hotel, and the hotel to get us to the airport. And we are hoping for an uneventful trip and less than 36 hours in Madrid.

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