10th July Madrid
Stephanie drove us in to Marbella so we could catch a bus to Malaga and a train to Madrid. It was much regret that we said our farewells. We had a terrific time staying with her in Marbella.
The bus trip was interesting enough but thankfully only 45 minutes or so and we had no trouble finding the train station because it is right across the road.
The train was a new high speed electric job, very flash looking and very comfortable. There was almost no sound at all as it hummed along at a steady 225km/hr with occasional bursts to 300km/hr. We had lots of leg room, pull down tables and a movie that seemed to be both dubbed in Spanish and sub-titled in Spanish.
I was expecting some really rugged mountainous country, similar to the drive down from Ronda, but we were disappointed from that perspective. We did pass through some small ranges but nothing too spectacular and the country was mostly made up of low rolling hills and paddocks, cropped with wheat, olives, grapes or corn. Cattle were scarce although quite a few sheep were in evidence. In places, the vista was very reminiscent of Australia, more so because of the many eucalyptus trees that had been planted along side roads and fences. One difference was the occasional appearance of a castle, usually quite small affairs perched on top of a local high spot. I wonder what stories each one could tell.
The only stop we made was Cordoba, a regional centre, before reaching Madrid in the early afternoon. Actually getting out of the station and finding a taxi seemed to take longer than usual for some reason. What we could see of Madrid on the way to our apartment was impressive, a neat and orderly city that looked like a cross between Paris and Barcelona. Things don’t look quite as “Spanish” as down South in Andalusia and there was quite an impressive blend of the old and the modern.
Again, we have opted for a serviced apartment rather than a standard hotel. These give you a bit more flexibility when it comes to meals, especially breakfast. This one, the Juan Bravo Apartments on the street of the same name, is next to a supermarket and has a Metro station right outside so it is ideally located. It has such facilities as a small kitchen, sofa and dining table. Once again, the TV has many channels, all in Spanish. It is even within reasonable walking distance of many of the main attractions and with a swimming pool is excellent value for 60€ a night. We booked in and settled in before heading out for some lunch. We probably should have eaten on the train because by this time it was 3pm, but fortunately, a few beer houses around had not taken siesta and were serving simple set menus at around 9€.
The problem with menus is understanding them. With the odd item or two, we can look up items on Google Translate with reasonable results but for a full menu, or six choices or so for each course of a set menu its quite hard. We have an App on our iPhone called Babelshot that allows the photographing of a sign which is then translated into English. Although it has worked once or twice, the results are usually absolutely hilarious. We understand a few words here and there, say the difference between pork, chicken and beef but generally we are stumped. This time, a neighbouring diner read out the choices for us. Later, when we wanted to buy hot black coffee and a glass of ice to pour it over, the waiter had to grab a customer from the bar to help. We actually knew we wanted “cafe con heulo” but any attempt to say it was met with a shrug. Everyone helps with a smile, especially when they find out we are from Australia.
11th July Madrid
After breakfast and some Internet research on getting from Venice to Croatia next week, we donned the walking shoes and set off for the day to do Madrid. Of course, it is not possible to see any great city in a day but we adopted the strategy of catching the Metro in to the centre of the old city and just walking until we had had enough of old buildings. From there we would catch the Metro across town to the “Parques des Retiro”, an enormous park, to catch some cool air as the temperature started to climb. It proved to be a good plan.
The Metro in Madrid is probably the most complex we have yet encountered anywhere, just beating Paris by a whisker. Fortunately, the “Diego del Leon” Metro station that is right outside services four lines so we had lots of choice. We caught a train downtown to “Gran Via” station and started to walk.
One does not have to walk far in Madrid before coming across a plaza, usually surrounded by some grand buildings. Madrid cherishes its open spaces, a quality that has probably arisen to help deal with the stifling heat that can occur. It was warm today, but a brisk wind kept things under control. Another feature we noticed is that the pace of the city is “languid” at best. We were frequently held up by small groups of people ambling along a footpath, stopping to chat or window shop but not moving anywhere much with a purpose. Even the cars seemed to drive at a modest pace, although I wasn’t about to test my skills.
So we moved at a leisurely stroll through some delightful streets and idled away time in some glorious plazas, the “Plaza Mayor”, the “Plaza de Oriente” and the “Plaza de Espanya”. Each one is a masterpiece and great places to just sit and watch the world go by. In Plaza Mayor, we watched walking tour groups assemble to set off on tours. Here, they have a system where accredited guides can gather a group to work for tips. We listened to an Irishman spruik his stuff, claiming to be a local, and heading off with at least 30 customers in tow. All the walking groups seemed ridiculously big and I wondered how many people would fall by the wayside as the end of the tour and the time to tip drew near.
The “Mercardo de San Miguel” was fascinating and very tempting. At first we thought it was a standard wet market, selling fish, meat and vegetables but once we wandered around we found that it was really a giant Tapas market. Each stall was devoted to a certain type of food, one for oysters, one for tiny pastries, a designer yoghurt stall, one selling small kebabs made of different olives and choritzo pieces and so it went on. We could have lived in a place like this, sampling everything and quaffing all down with the wonderful wines and exotic beers on offer. The only trouble is that we would have been flat broke in no time at all. The quality was outstanding but the prices compared with what was available on the street were ridiculous. Imagine paying 3€ for a piece of toast the size of a 50 cent piece topped with smoked salmon and caviar. It would cost me 30€ just to get started.
The royal palace or “Palacio Real”, is a stunning building, still very much in use for official functions but open to the public for tours. As we wandered around and took in its many changing aspects, I elevated it to number one position in my list of all time spectacular buildings. Falling away down the hill below the palace are the Jardins del Campo del Moro and I would have loved to have had time to go down and view the palace from the gardens. I’ve seen the pictures and it is inspiring.
We stopped for a beer and tapas, drawn in by the sign that advertised beer and tapas for 1€ but somehow ended up paying 3€ (it’s hard to argue when you haven’t got a clue what they’re saying), then went on to the Plaza de Espanya. You could spend a couple of days just touring the plazas. In only a morning’s stroll, Madrid impressed us as a city. All that it lacks to beat Paris is a couple of killer features and a big bold river like the Seine.
We rode the Metro back across town and alighted at Retiro to wander through this magnificent park. It is absolutely huge and we tried to stay on the one long straight path to avoid getting lost (we still managed). At one point we came across an enormous pond and fountain display that was filled with people rowing small boats around. There was even a motorised tour ferry, though why anyone would want to cruise around on a large rectangular garden pond is beyond me. The park was filled with joggers, skaters, walkers and the like. The temperature under the heavy canopy of trees was wonderful and we really enjoyed the stroll. Unfortunately, the maps available were all in Spanish so we were unable to find some of the special features, such as the outdoor sculpture museum and the rose garden but we enjoyed it anyway.
We found a late lunch near home, ate way too much again and went home to sleep off the excesses. We can’t claim to be experts on Madrid but we gave it a good shot.