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Showing posts with label Madrid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Madrid. Show all posts

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Overnight in Madrid

We made an overnight trip to Madrid this week, just for the purpose of picking up a new passport at the Danish embassy and then leaving it, together with my own new passport, at the Vietnamese embassy. They needed these to process our visa application for the trip we have planned in late August following the World Library and Information Conference of IFLA in Singapore. Our train left from Alicante just after noontime on Thursday and we arrived in Madrid's Atoche Renfe station at 3:15. Amazingly we managed to catch the underground metro mass transit to Serrano station and get into the Danish embassy before 4:00. It took about a half hour there and then we were back in the metro to Santiago Bernabeû station. When we came up to the surface I saw a huge structure. If I were a sports fan I would have known earlier that we were headed for the stadium where Real Madrid plays. I am not a big fan of professional soccer, but even I can recognize an important landmark like this one. There were several groups of people in the green median on one side, photographing themselves and their friends. We could have stopped and spent time there, but we had to walk a few blocks to the Vietnamese embassy, and they were staying open a little late just for us.

We found the embassy after having walked the full length of two sides of the stadium and then three or four more blocks, up a hill. The business didn't take long, and when we were finished, moving on toward 6:00, we stopped finally to catch our breath and rest with a cold drink and a small montadito sandwich at a café back toward the stadium and station. Then it was back underground for yet another metro ride to the hotel, more correctly the hostel, where we had reserved a room. As we made our way through a couple subway connections we realized with glee that we had absolutely nothing else that we had to do before our return train left at 2:00 the next afternoon.

Every time we go to Madrid we stay in a different section of the city, depending on where we need to be in this huge metropolis and what has on offer. This time we got off the metro at Sevilla station, one stop past Puerta del Sol, the Times Square of Spain. We walked south and realized soon that we were in a very old part of Madrid. Many of the buildings along the very narrow streets had intricate ceramic tile designs at their gates, and even the street signs were ceramic. We found the small hostel after passing right by it the first time, so intent were we on observing the various restaurants we passed by, wondering whether we should have an Indian or Peruvian meal later on this evening.

For that is always the issue with us when eating dinner out in Spain. Just how late would we have to wait for the restaurant to open its doors for the evening cena? Since many people work until 9:00 it is no at all uncommon for a restaurant's kitchen to be unavailable for hot meals until 8:30. On occasion we have observed that a place may open at 8:30, and in very extraordinary circumstances, 8:00. After checking in and finding our room,  I spent an hour browsing Maps on the iPad in search of what was interesting, within easy walking distance, and opened early.

When we left our room at a little after 8:00 it was still light and pleasantly warm outdoors and we stepped into a bustling evening world. I had despaired of finding a convenience mart in his old part of the city, but on the first corner we spied a cellar store and popped in to buy water and a little wine to take back to the hotel. But, revitalized now, we continued walking among throngs of people of all ages out enjoying the early spring evening--hundreds at sidewalk cafes or, like us, moving along the streets to do some end-of-day shopping or to meet someone. We sauntered through several blocks, pausing on occasion to check a menu--I had decided by now that I didn't want much to eat--not one of those voluminous three course Spanish evening meals--but I wanted something hot. Pizza would do, so would soup. Trying to decide among a huge selection of tapas would be too much trouble.

Finally we found ourselves on Calle de las Huertas, Orchard Street would be the direct translation, though I think first of a garden of vegetables (hortalizas) rather than fruit trees when I hear the word huerta. And I found vegetables. The picturesque brick-walled restaurant that we wandered into after seeing pasta on the menu posted outside the open doorway was full of people at the bar but had no one else in the dining area. It was, after all, not yet 9:00. Johannes had the pasta, but I spied a vegetable wok dish listed as one of the house specialties. In meat-heavy Spain, this may have been designed as a family side dish accompaniment to more protein-heavy entrees, but I had it alone, with just a small glass of warm soy sauce for dunking. My hortalizas on Calle de la Huerta included long thin slices of peppers in three shades, onions, mushroom, carrots and green beans, at least, all stir-fried to perfection, still crunchy. It was delicious, and I felt satisfied and virtuous--at least until the excellent bread came when I was almost finished--then the virtuous feeling disappeared, though satisfaction did not.

During our entire supper we were entertained with the sound of a street music duo just outside the open door, a young woman playing oboe and a young man playing a trombone. Their selections were eclectic and lively, some jazz, some klezmer, some haunting, some indescribable. We talked with them when we left the restaurant. He is from France, she from some country that we did not find out in Africa. They are two-thirds of a group called Conchindon (the third plays banjo).  They gave us some links, so you can listen and catch the spit, too.

They were packing up as we talked, or rather, they looked as though they were packing up, because the police had been by and I guess they didn't have a license to play street music. Indeed if everyone who plays street music in Spain had to pay money for a  license, there might not be a financial crisis going on. On the other hand, if the police really make young, struggling, but enthusiastic musicians keep quiet if they can't afford a license, the city is going to be a much more somber place.

We continued on our way after wishing them well. We meandered back to our hostel, people watching all the way. There were still people in the streets and at cafes, and now in restaurants in large groups having dinner. We had found a delightful part of the city and looked forward to exploring it more in the morning, when it would be equally interesting but not quite so magical.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Plaza de Colón, Madrid

We had time to spare last Wednesday, March 20, as we walked along Calle de Serrano in Madrid from the embassy of the United States to the embassy of Denmark, and it was warm and sunny. After locating the Danish embassy we went across the street to the Plaza de Colón, where a number of police or military (it's hard to tell which is which) were standing about. We thought perhaps they were there in preparation for an upcoming political demonstration, as we had previously seen signs in the Metro station that there were planned work stoppages later that day. But no, they said they were there because they raise a large flag one day each month, and they are always there when the flag goes up.

We thought we might as well be there, too, since we just happened to be there on the one day of the month that the flag was raised, and it just happened to be sunny and warm, and there just happened to be an empty table at a cafetería across the street, and we just happened to have plenty of time. So we stopped and had a coffee and a granizado and read the newspaper, and a few minutes after noontime we heard music and saw that an enormous flag was being unfurled. It went up quickly, and then the band marched away and there was no more music. The flag continued flying and every so often was spread out to its full width in a gentle breeze.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Alcalá de Henares

Storks in Alcala de Henares. Photo © Johannes Bjørner 2012        
Every time I see the storks in Alcalá de Henares, it is magical. How many are there? Twenty, thirty, forty? All around Plaza de Cervantes they perch on the tops of buildings, or fly, or--at this time of year, at least--build nests. We first stumbled onto Alcalá, the Plaza de Cervantes, and the storks one June afternoon several years ago when we spent the night in this town not far outside of Madrid on a trip to catch an early morning plane out of Barrajas. In June 2009 we returned to Alcalá for an afternoon and evening with a group of Danish visitors during an engineering school reunion; we were all enchanted by watching the storks in late afternoon, as the sky turned dark blue and faded to dusk, while we waited for our restaurant to open at 8:30 for Spanish dinner. Now, the fourth weekend in March, we returned to Alcalá once again, this time with a couple we have known for forty years. We spent two nights in this old city, and that gave us the opportunity to pass through the Plaza de Cervantes many times and enjoy watching the storks go about their business.

Alcalá is also famous as the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. We visited a museum in the house of his birth. Finally. As I mentioned, we had been in Alcalá twice before, and both times arrived too late in the day for entrance to the museum. So this was a must-see on this trip. Our friends humored me and we went straightaway to the house Saturday afternoon, immediately after arriving on the regional train from Madrid, checking in to our hotel, and getting a light bite to eat at a table in the sun on the Calle Mayor, between Plaza Cervantes and the little museum. I was surprised to learn that Cervantes only lived in this house for the first four years of his life, and I read on a tourist brochure just before going that "very little is known of his early life." Still, it was interesting to see the structure of a house of that period (1547-1616). It was handsomely restored, and two rooms were devoted to Quixote first editions, or other rare volumes, in various languages.

We spent quite a bit of time walking around the old city and saw some of the Jewish quarter and some churches, and other historic sites. But I still have to see Complutense university, which dates back to 1293, so there will probably be another trip some time in the future, to meander around those ancient buildings, and to see the  storks again.

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.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday in Madrid

This Sunday in Spain I am still enjoying the memory of last Sunday in Madrid. I took the Renfe (national) train to Madrid last Sunday noon to meet a friend who was arriving from Morocco and had to spend a night before continuing on to the US. Riding the train was a treat for someone who is more used to air travel--twice as much room for my feet as on an airplane, free earphones and audio-visual entertainment, and a cafe/bar car that you can walk to and actually congregate in for as long as you want--the food is not great, but the coffee is fine. No paying for the toilet yet, either.

I did have a little trouble getting on to the Metro in Madrid once I arrived. I couldn't get the ticket machine to accept my coins, and eventually I found out that it was because I was trying to buy a Metro (city subway) ticket at the Renfe Cercanías (regional transport) machine. Of course, on Sunday afternoon, there was no human being working anywhere in sight in an official capacity. Thank goodness a young Spanish woman pointed out the reason for my problem, and after that, I had no trouble buying tickets and finding my way to the hotel, and then out to Barrajas airport, Terminal 4, to meet the plane. With luggage, we took a taxi back to the hotel, and then, past 8:30 PM and still sun shining, we set out on foot to explore the area around us on Gran Via, one of the main streets through Madrid, which incidentally is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

I must confess. In several posts I have reported that stores are generally not open on Sunday in Spain--exceptions are made in the summer in tourist areas and in December for Christmas. Well, Madrid is the big time, and stores all along the Gran Via were open--all the Spanish department stores and specialty shops, everything--and our concierge assured me that yes, they were open every Sunday, but only until 9:00 PM. So we did not take advantage of this opportunity, but instead followed the music we heard down a narrow street on the side of the hotel, back toward a church, where we found a medieval market in process. It was enchanting to walk through the open-air stalls, sampling cheese and sausages, examining the handicrafts, and even buying a couple paper star-shaped lanterns. All the stall tenders were dressed in middle-ages costume, and we saw the period band playing at one point.

But we got hungry, so for one of the few times in my life, I followed the Spanish tradition of eating late in the evening. We were directed by our sweet English-speaking concierge to a restaurant down the street, where we climbed up to the first floor and got a window table so we could observe the life on the street--vibrant at that hour, even though it had gotten a little cold when the sun went down. We ordered a bottle of wine (well, we ordered two glasses, but they brought a bottle) and a Valencian paella, and settled in for a long chat. Soon, at about 10:30 PM, activity commenced nearby as several tables were pushed together to accommodate a crowd of 10 Spaniards, men and women, who were having some sort of celebration or get-together. They ordered first and second courses, but we finished our dinner while they were still eating their main course, so we have no idea how long they sat there or how much they ate. We left at 11:30, pleasantly full, and went back to our hotel for a good night's sleep.

Monday morning started later than I am accustomed to: we got up at 8:30 and had the hotel breakfast buffet, sitting there with a hot breakfast, cold cuts, and fruit for almost two hours. Strangely, somehow we managed to sit in between a Danish-speaking table and a Hebrew-speaking table--each of us could understand one of those languages. Then we walked out in the city again, down a pedestrian street to the regional government building, where we saw a memorial to the victims and helpers in the March 2004 subway bombings. More walking and window shopping, and then back to the hotel, where my friend got a bus to the airport, and I hiked off to the Metro and then to the Renfe station for my four-hour train trip to Alicante. Home again on Monday evening in time to check email and begin the work week just a trifle late on Tuesday.