October 13- 15, 2012
MADRID- Day 1
We left London and got to Madrid on Saturday evening. After going through customs we were finally able to start utilizing our EuroRail pass. This allowed us to head to Atocha Station in Madrid. This station was full of sketchy people, and I think we saw the aftermath of some girl getting robbed. After figuring out our next train from Madrid to Lisbon at the EuroRail office, we got some cash and hit the Metro.
We went a couple of stops then got off the Metro to head on over to Chris’s apartment. Chris is one of Sam’s friends from summer camp and UNC. Chris was allowing us to stay at his apartment for the next couple of days, despite the fact that he would not be there on the first night. His roommates were not home when we first arrived, so we hit up a local bar right near their apartment. This bar was an introduction to our first Spanish beer Estrella. Estrella is a high quality beer that I would have to compare to a Stella. It went down smooth, had a nice aftertaste, but did not make me feel full at all. In Spain it is an older tradition to provide people with food while drinking, so while enjoying our couple of beers we were provided some olives, nice Spanish bread, as well as jamon and cheese. The Spaniards love their Jamon, which I will say I love as well.
After our quick bar trip we headed over to Chris’s apartment. His roommates were home from dinner at this time, so they welcomed us into their apartment. Only one of his roommates, Alejandro, could speak fluent English, so it was going to be an interesting evening. We walked in, put our luggage down, then proceeded to enjoy some cervezas. Alejandro made sure to make us feel welcomed and comfortable. All of the roommates were extremely nice to us throughout our stay, which we greatly appreciated. The beer of choice in the apartment was Mahou beer, which in general seems like the Madrid beer of choice. You can see signs for Mahou everywhere in Madrid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it tastes that great. It is not bad at all, but I would have to give it a mediocre rating. It would fall into the Miller Lite/Bud Light/Coors Light category. It is cheap and gets the job done.
The roommates were having friends over that evening as one of their friends was moving to London, so they were having a going away party. Other people come over during the night, turning things into a real party. We had a great time speaking Spanish with them, teaching others some English, drinking, and singing along to American songs. I was also given some Brugal, which is Spanish rum. It was very similar to Captain Morgan’s, it is not very expensive, but goes very well with a Coke/Diet Coke. I had several of these along with some Johnnie Walker Black Label. Sam and I also drank some sort of carbonated Italian rose wine. It was very good and turned out to be very cheap as well, which works for us on our travel budget.
One thing we learned is that Spaniards do not follow the same time clock that we do in the US. They don’t even start to get ready to go out until say 11:30-12, pregame until about 2-3, then go out until 6 or 7 in the morning. As Alejandro told us, “A good night in Madrid is coming home at 8 in the morning.” We had arrived at their apartment around 11 pm and I ended up staying up until about 4-4:30 am. Some of the roommates and friends ended up partying until about 6:30 in the morning. Alejandro was up until 6:30 am then had to work at 8 am, which earned him even more respect in my eyes.
We arrived into the Madrid airport on Saturday evening, then took the train transfer to the Madrid train station, thus officially initiatling our EuroRail pass!
Somewhere along the way the main zipper on my purse broke. I’m not too upset as it was a cheap H&M purse, and I guess now I have to find a replacement.
An old friend of mine from my camp counselor days happens to be studying in Madrid right now, so we headed to his place to crash. Chris was actually out of town for the weekend, but warned his roommates about us coming and invited us to use his room while he was away. When we got there the roommates were nothing but very friendly and hospitable to us. The apartment was a true-form bachelor pad reminding me of college days. That evening we spent chatting, drinking and singing with the Spaniards. Many of the people over that evening were eager to chat with us and practice their English. As we passed around someone’s laptop to for song selections I was quite impressed with how perfectly they imitated the American accent while singing along to Katy Perry, Britney Spears, etc. (And yes “Call Me Maybe” is well loved in Spain as well.)
Even when Eric and I tried to gradually and subtly bow out of the festivities in the living room (we were exhausted at this point), somehow the party kept following us. Somewhere in the conversations Eric and I were listing off things that we associated with Spain, like flamenco, paella, bull-fighting and jamon, and a few of the friends nodded in agreement, Alejandro (the roommate with the most fluent English) adding “and tortilla” to our list. Eric and I looked at each other, shrugged and said “Nah, we don’t think of that as particularly Spanish; they have those in Mexico”, to which our Spaniard friends gasped in disgust. We were informed that Spanish tortillas are NOT the same as Mexican tortillas. In fact, Alejandro thought that it was such a shame that we did not appreciate tortilla that he offered to make us one the following night. Finally, finally we somehow managed to escape to bed (we certainly are not able to keep up with the Spaniard party hours).
MADRID- Day 2
The next day we started off lazily and set out to explore Madrid. We checked out the Realdo, a weekly street market that happens every Sunday (and is said to be Europe’s largest), where I easily found a cheap replacement purse. (I’ll give it a few weeks). It was a lively atmosphere with street performers, plenty of crafts to check out, and lots and lots of tourists.
From there we wandered around central Madrid, making our way up to Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the center hub of the city. Along the way we stopped at a grocery store to grab some picnic lunch supplies, then eventually found ourselves in Plaza de la Puerta del Sol where we sat by a fountain, ate and people watched.
After our picnic we checked out a few cell phone stores to get a SIM card for our European phone (I had a cheap one from a previous Europe visit). Seems that any pre-paid SIM card we bought in Spain would not be economical to use anywhere outside of Spain- how does the EU have the same currency, integrated infrastructure and transportation, but not cell phone coverage? So we’re still without a cell phone for the time being.
Next we wandered over to Plaza Mayor which is quite obviously THE square –slash- tourist destination of Madrid. It was impressive with outdoor restaurant seating, street performers and gobs of tourists walking around in tour groups. It’s very scenic around this part of Madrid, and in the (very impressive) tourist information office we were pointed in the direction of some good scenic streets and good areas to pick up a drink or tapa. We ended up on Calle Baja, a lively district where we stopped to have a beer (naturally). Random observation- while nicer establishments here have tapas (bowls of olives, bread and cheese, jamon, etc), the slightly cheaper places have public bowls of puff-style chips/munchies to suffice.
Back at Chris’s apartment that afternoon, we met Alejandro who just arrived home and promptly took a nap. While he was recharging after a full day’s work off of two hours of sleep, Chris came home and we caught up. Alejandro eventually resurfaced around 10:00ish, and made us tortilla as promised. Turns out tortilla is similar to an omelet with plenty of potatoes and friend onions (certainly not the flat round bread used for tacos in Mexico). Once again we found ourselves on Spanish time, eating dinner at 11:00pm.
Due to the fact that we were up so late on day one, day two ended up starting a little later. Sam and I ended up getting out of bed around 1 pm to start our day. We then went around the corner to a couple of shops to replace the booze we had consumed, as well as to purchase groceries for that day and evening.
Since it was Sunday, we were told to head to the weekly Madrid flea market. This only takes place on Sundays and goes until 2:30-3 pm. We got there for the tail end of it, but this flea market stretched for blocks. It was rather impressive and if you wanted a Messi or Ronaldo soccer jersey, you were in the right place. Sam of course had to purchase something at the flea market.
From there we wandered in the direction of Plaza del Sol and Plaza Mayor. On the way to Plaza del Sol, we ended up stopping at a grocery store to buy some food to enjoy at the Plaza. We ended up stocking up on jamon, cheese, bread, water, and boxed wine. The boxed wine came in little juice boxes, which cost a single Euro. While it wasn’t the greatest wine, it was only a Euro so I can’t really complain.
Plaza del Sol is a very interesting place. It has several streets that come together and has numerous street performers. Plaza del Sol is also full of complete weirdos. We were sitting down to eat in the Plaza del Sol, which did not have much room to sit. There was a young couple beside us staring at each other and honeymoon making out with one another. Some dirty, homeless guy sat down next to them and started to mumble nonsense to them. It made me start to lose my appetite as this guy smelled like he bathed in garbage. One thing I did note about Spainards is that in public places it seems like people didn’t necessarily believe in good hygiene.
This guy was an example of a trend I saw in Madrid. Spain has roughly 20-22% unemployment right now which led to seeing numerous poor people on the streets harassing people, as well as setting up shop all over the place. I found this really to be the one downside of Madrid, as besides this I found it to be an amazing city.
After our picnic we walked on over to Plaza Mayor. Plaza del Sol and Plaza Mayor are very close to one another, which allows you to see two of the main highlights without having to walk all over the city for them. Plaza Mayor is a huge open square with restaurants, tourist information, shops, as well as artists selling their work. Plaza Mayor is the Faneuil Hall of Madrid. This area was bustling with people, it contains a lot of history, and also has numerous street performers. It is a great place to sit down and have a cup of coffee while people watching.
From there we walked over to the Mercado right next to the Plaza Mayor to enjoy some paella. This market contains any type of food that you like, coffee, beer, wine, etc. While it is a bit pricey, it is a great place to visit while in Madrid. Our last stop for the day would be to head over to Calle Baja. This area is full of bars and restaurants which are found on both sides of the street. It is very popular on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We ended up going to one of the small bars near the end of the street to enjoy a Mahou for a Euro apiece. This particular bar ended up playing American music and held about 15-20 people. It was nice to take a break from walking around and to soak even more of the Madrid atmosphere.
After our little bar experience we went back to Chris’s apartment. We got home then proceeded to unwind for the evening, speaking with Chris, and getting ready to watch the Patriots-Seahawks game. I don’t really want to talk about that, but I kept myself pretty composed as I was at someone else’s place and didn’t think it was appropriate to freak out at 1 am. Chris, Ivan, and I watched the end of the game together. They tried to console me a bit, but it was of no use.
A highlight of the evening was Alejandro making us proper Spanish tortillas. The tortillas were fantastic and were a nice meal to close out our second day in Spain. I tried two more beers this evening, San Miguel and Burgemeister. San Miguel and Burgemeister were both good beers, probably would not write home about either one. We also bought a random bottle called Pony Malta. It was disgusting. We asked the roommates what it was and they didn’t seem to know either. Our best guess is that it is a malt-only non-alcoholic beer-like drink from (we did buy it from a random corner neighborhood bodega).
MADRID- Day 3
Monday morning started off with us waking up, packing up our things, then heading off to the Madrid train station to drop off our bags in a rental locker. That night we were taking an overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal, so we wanted the freedom of walking around all day without our luggage. From train station we went back to the Mercado to enjoy some Empenadas. We tried several flavors including curry chicken, beef, plain chicken, and duck. These were all very good which gave us fuel to walk around Madrid all day. Before we went back to Plaza Mayor we went over to McDonald’s to get some coffee. I will say the number one thing I miss besides family and friends at this point is American coffee. I don’t think I am a coffee snob at all, but I truly miss American coffee. I think I would kill someone for a large hazelnut coffee with skim milk and three splenda from Dunkin Donuts.
Our next stop was the Plaza Mayor to participate in a free walking tour around Madrid. This tour was put on by SANDEMAN’S, a company who runs numerous free tours throughout Europe. Their idea is that you don’t pay for the tour, but based upon your experience you tip your guide at the end what you think is appropriate. Our guide was a woman from Washington DC, who had come on over to Madrid and just never left.
This tour gave us an appreciation of Madrid that we were not able to pick up on our own the day before. We learned about the Kings of Spain, the Spanish Civil War, the buildings, etc. This tour allowed us to meet people from all over the world including Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, US, etc. If you have not done much travel around Europe, you will find that there are Australians everywhere. I think taking a year or two off from life and traveling the world is a regular thing for Australians to do. We have met Australians everywhere we have gone.
After the tour we went to a restaurant to enjoy the menu del dia, or menu of the day. This is big in Spain, around two or three o’clock you will be able to go to a restaurant and get a three course meal for around ten euros. The meals typically consist of a lot of food, which is why many people in Spain don’t eat dinner until nine or ten at night. These meals will include a beer, glass of wine, and/or coffee. It is the best food deal that you will find in Madrid.
Eating all of that food made us want to take a nap so we went off to McDonald’s to get access to some free Wi-Fi, until we had to head to the train station. We worked on our blog, looked further into Lisbon, and mapped out the next steps of our trip. Once it was time to head to the train station we found a super market and stocked up on the essentials-jamon, water, orange juice, and boxed wine.
The train we boarded was straight out of the 70’s. It had no electrical outlets, no AC, and the seats were cramped. We ended up being around some very annoying people including a German couple who I think never smiled, as well as a fat teenager who reminded me of the fat kid from Willy Wonka. I knew this was not going to be a good night so I decided to drink wine and read. It was the only thing I could do to fight back against being stuck on a terrible train.
The next morning we set off to attend a free walking tour of Madrid. It took a few hours but was well worth the time. Our guide was an American who knew an astonishingly lot about Spanish history. I would highly recommend this tour (by SANDEMAN) to anyone visiting Madrid. In fact, we will be making a point to catch this tour in all the cities they offer them. What I appreciated most about this tour is not only did we get to see the “sights” around the city, but we got plenty of historic background to give us a more complete context for what we were seeing and why.
During one part of the tour our guide lined up volunteers to help illustrate the history of kings of Hapsburg dynasty. Coincidentally Eric was the stand in for King Charles II or otherwise referred to as “Charles the Loser”. Of course Eric embraced this title. The tour took us around a lot of significant places and monuments that we would probably have missed when exploring on our own. The tour ended at the Palacio Real where our history lesson concluded with the dramatic story of the 1981 attempted military coup.
I will say, that there is nothing like travelling to help you really appreciate a culture’s history. While Americans are notoriously under-educated in the history of the rest of the world anyway, the little bit that I did learn was mainly from an American-centric perspective, and I rarely retained the details and timelines of the affairs of other countries. Being able to associate a place with a historic figure, or a custom with the original intent, is definitely one of the most rewarding and insightful aspects of international travel.
Both Chris, our guidebook, and the tourguide have all recommended that we find a restaurant with a cheap (10 Euros is a good price) “menu del dia” for lunch. So after the tour we found ourselves a restaurant with outdoor seating and a menu del dia selection. Reading the all Spanish menu turned out to be an adventure, but finally we ended up just pointing to a few things and our picks ended up being quite good. My favorite part- the Sangria 🙂
With a few extra hours left before our train, and with some internet legwork still left to do before our arrival in Lisbon, we wanted a place we could settle down with a cup of coffee and some wifi. Inevitably we end up at McDonald’s. Mind you, neither of us have ever been big fans of McDonald’s back home. And we certainly don’t love McDonald’s food, but before you judge us too much, just realize that European McDonald’s (at least the ones in the middle of tourist-friendly cities), are not the sketchy dirty places we see at home. They are big and sprawling and squeaky clean with a usual crowd of clean-cut and respectable people. It’s almost like the McDonald’s brand is more coveted here in Europe. Perhaps that’s why their menu seems shockingly expensive for fast food (though everything in Europe is expensive- even McDonald’s).
Adios Madrid, Vamos Lisbon!
Our Overall Madrid Experience (scale 1 to 10): 9
Madrid has great history, is very walkable, safe, with lots of areas to discover. It had its own character and felt like a real functioning city, not just a tourist destination. Food can be expensive, wished we could read Spanish menus better to have more/better experience eating out.
Check out our full Madrid picture album in Picasso.