Thursday, April 19, 2012

We head home

When we were getting close to moving from Valencia to Madrid, I asked the rental agent at our destination if there would be any problem finding a taxi on the day we packed up to head home. I didn’t get an answer so we spent part of our wandering time assessing the cab situation in the streets around our place. There were two options – try to flag one down on Calle Mayor or to take advantage of the taxi stand that was located in the opposite direction across the plaza in front of the Teatro Real. When you don’t live in a city, the regular workings of the taxi culture are an alien scheme. Taxis are just not part of our lives here in New Mexico, and I’ve pretty much forgotten what it was like in China. So you worry about urban things like this a bit, but a couple of times out walking suggested that the either of our options would work, so what we planned to use the option that involved walking down hill instead of climbing.

There was plenty of time before our check out so we went off in search of breakfast, planning to reenact what we’d done the day before – coffee and a slice of tortilla de papas at San Miguel. Unfortunately and much to our surprise, the Mercado was not open and would not be for at least another hour – or, the time we needed to leave. Instead we stopped at the Chocolate and Churros place on the corner of our street. We opted for coffee instead of chocolate, figuring that we could live without the sugar blast at that early hour. In any case, the Napolitano (their version of our chocolate croissant) was slightly tastier albeit without the negative metabolic effects. This coffee experience was different – My Lovely Wife ended up with the small, demitasse cup for a change. Ordering coffee has sort of been a crap shoot. There are three options at most places – con leche which is usually a regular cup with milk, Americano which is supposed to be two shots of espresso with hot water added and solo which is supposed to be black. I alternated between solo and Americano and received large and small cups for both. Sometimes from the same restaurants (on different days.) I was never sure what I was going to get but My Lovely Wife always got a big cup until today.

Juan the apartment guy arrived promptly at 10 to return our deposit and collect the keys. I waited until I had money in hand before pointing out that the latch on the washer was broken. These little European washers are funny, they lock solidly until the cycle is done and a reasonable waiting period has passed. Someone clearly got tired of waiting and pulled this one open too soon and broke the point where the handle and the locking mechanism meet. We were able to use the machine, but in order to get our clothes out I had to sit on the floor and pry the lock open with a butter knife. I pointed this out to Juan and told him it should be fixed. I said, “Yo soy enginero así yo puedo usarlo.” He thought that was funny.

We had a chat with him about the apartment which was by and large pretty darn nice. It had a few flaws such as no hairdryer, no trash can in the bathroom and a poorly designed shower stall that, like every Chinese version, flooded the floor. But the location was perfect, the building was safe and the streets were quiet. We were curious about the hairdryer in particular and he said it’s because they get stolen. I asked if they often had problems with clients and the answer was interesting, although perhaps expected – very few issues in an expensive place like this, many more so in the less expensive units. He also said towel theft was problem although considering the quality of the linens, I’m surprised. We made our farewells and headed down the hill to the taxis.

There was one waiting for us and we had allowed about 3 hours to get to the airport figuring that we had no idea how long it would take and that we had to do an international check in. The first 20 minutes of the trip were spent trying to get around the block in Madrid morning traffic which was compounded locally by no signals, steep streets and a traffic cop that had no idea what she was doing. After that the sailing was clear and the total time was about 45 minutes. Once again we had a great driver; I’ve had so much fun talking to these guys. Barajas airport is enormous by any standard I’d care to apply. On the first day there, the cabbie had pronounced it “enorme” and he was right. Our check in went fast, the product of having priority access tickets. What shocked us was the sign that said it was a 22 minute trip from the desk to the gate. We also had priority security which was nice - it was empty and fast compared to the proletariat line. From there it was a host of escalator rides and a long trip on the train and then more escalators before we arrived at the U concourse. It had taken darn near the time predicted on the signs and we arrived about 35 minutes before boarding (90 before departure.) It was plenty of gap, but I was glad we’d allotted what we did and I wondered if people often got surprised. The last bit of time was spent in the business lounge where I found a slice of the tortilla de papas I’d longed for earlier in the day.

There isn’t much to be said about the flight home other than 10 hours is a really long time unless you compare it to the 13 it takes to get to China. This was our first time flying to Europe from the Midwest (Dallas) and it was different. In the past we’ve flown to Chicago or Washington and thus broken the trip up into 4 and 7 hour segments with some waiting time at the transfer point. By this route, it was 10 on the long leg and 1 on the short and so a bit more painful crossing the ocean. I’d do it this way again though.

We flew up and over the northern suburbs turning to the west in front of the Sierra de Guadarrama, all cloaked in snow, no doubt the chillier result of the rain we’d had in town. They average about 5000 feet in altitude, reaching a maximum of 7965 atop the highest peak, Peñalara. Given that their bases are at 1500 feet, they’re not very big and so the amount of snow was surprising. Putting the mountains behind us, we headed northwest across the plains and crossed out into the Atlantic just south of the Portuguese city of Vila do Conde. I know this because of the wonders of Google Earth. Take a picture, search the coastline and there you are.

It was lucky that we were in the front of the plane and that we’re fast walkers because we were able to beat a whole bunch of Americans getting off a plane from Cancun through the Immigration and Customs checks in Dallas. After spending two weeks among urbane, well dressed and stylish people, it was a bit of a shock to our systems to be forcibly mingled into a horde of sunburned people wearing bathing suits, board shorts and ball caps. It didn’t do much for my mood, as I was already pretty close to considering selling all of our stuff and moving to Spain. Maybe I wonder how the rest of the world sees us, or maybe I don’t. We got out of there, caught the Skylink for another stomach churning tour of DFW and after securing coffee, settled in for our wait. Not much to report about that other than presidential candidate Gary Johnson (our former governor) showing up and being fawned upon by some loud Texan. John was on his way to New Mexico and I am happy to report that he rode in coach.

The trip home was uneventful other that the annoying people surrounding us. A woman behind us who liked to pull our hair when she got out of her seat and her daughter and granddaughter in front of us both of whom belonged to that class of traveler who simply pushes the recline button on the seat and jams it back as hard as they can. I’ve spoken of those people before. We landed, collected our bag and availed ourselves of the newly installed self-service checkout at the parking garage. A short drive home and a reunion with a squirmy dog that turned himself inside out with happiness at our return.

As vacations go, this one was pretty darn nice. All the arrangements worked, the weather was great, the sights, history and food, all excellent. We made some new friends and did some new stuff. About all you can hope for any time you hit the road.



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One final day wandering

El Rastro is Europe's largest and most diverse flea market and it's held each Sunday in Madrid's La Latina barrio. The notes in the guidebooks are not favorable, varying from "you're going to be kidnapped into white slavery" to "don't bring a wallet, don't bring a camera, expect to have your pockets picked" to "tourists are the target and it's a spectacle of them being mauled by gangs while the police stand by and watch." We found it none of those things, but we did find it amazing, entertaining, crushing and a cool place to spend the morning gawking equally at the shoppers and the goods.

We came down on the side of modest caution and left our bags and my fancy camera at home, choosing instead to bring some loose money and a smaller camera that could stay in my coat pocket. My phone was tucked into an inner pocket in my jacket and My Lovely Wife zipped the apartment keys (which unfortunately had the address on them) into a pocket in her vest which was under her jacket. In short we were armored and ready for the lightest of touches. The precautions made us feel better, but turned out to be unnecessary - I never felt I was a target for a moment; perhaps the thieves were more interested in the tourists with the long lenses and video cameras. I generally think we don't look like visitors due to our dress and demeanor, and I still relish the memory of the German fellow in China who, with a genuine look of shock, told me he couldn't believe I was an American. I think being a tiny bit less arrogant and not wearing big white athletic shoes pays off.

A sunny Sunday morning in any major Spanish city is a wonderful thing to experience. The streets are empty, the traffic is light and the shops and bars are either just closing or cleaning up from the night before. We stopped at the San Miguel Mercado for a slice of that special Spanish tapa that is known as tortilla but is really more of a quiche. This one had potatoes as the main ingredient. Today was our first pleasant opportunity to have a bite at San Miguel because it wasn't mobbed. There was room to sit and you could actually walk around. We had coffee with our breakfast and I played English-Spanish with the attractive young barista at the counter. I complimented her on her language skills and she smiled. San Miguel runs like a giant restaurant with no tables. The individual booths share silverware and plate supplies, the customers collect what they want - tapas, sweets, wine, beer, pastries, ice cream, olives, caviar, sausages - and meet at some standup table to visit and eat. From the late afternoon into the late evening, it's a place for the wealthy young to see and be seen. We just liked visiting and grabbing something to go.

We had a rough idea about where to go and probably should have followed the crowds but chose instead to take what we thought was the correct route. Ending up in a square that showed the first signs of retail - some booths selling t-shirts, we had to choose at a fork in the road and opted for the shady street figuring it's always nicer to be out of the sun. The vendors vanished almost immediately which was consistent with the guidebooks which said in addition to the big market, things were for sale on every street. We ended up off track by only a couple of blocks, but the reward was a nice quiet stroll through a genuine neighborhood where people were waking up and heading out for bread, juice and the paper. Not wanting to have to go back up the giant hill we were descending, we decided to get serious with our navigation and after looking at the map, took a path cross-country which brought us straight into the heart of the action.

I've been to flea markets all over the world including the organized Panjiayuan market in Beijing and the antiquities market in Shanghai. I've been to farmer's markets in the US and Europe and I've been to the evening and morning markets in every major city in China. But I've never seen anything like this. El Rastro stretches from the top to the bottom of a 1 mile hill along two major streets and off into each side street within that distance. It is mobbed in the way where once you're in the flow of people, you don't walk. You just slowly shuffle along, wondering at what point you're going to be lifted p and ferried along by the crowd. One street is dedicated to new things - horse tack, clothing, art, scarves, underwear, kitchen supplies, CDs, toys, sports paraphernalia, jewelry, African/Asian/Indian souvenirs, small appliances, power strips, and just about everything you can imagine. The vendors on the other street specialize in antiques of who knows what provenance and so is a bit less crowded and interesting. I did stop to look at a cart where a man was selling nothing but antique keys. Thousands of them, from something that once opened a locket to one a foot long that must have opened a door to a castle. Of course everything is Spanish in origin which is belied by the blocks of Chinese import companies that line the street as it enters the district. The connecting streets are a mishmash of both with cafes thrown in for good measure.

When someone stops walking in the middle, society collapses until the impediment is cleared. You find yourself cursing the people who brought strollers into this chaos. The people watching was epic, with a spectrum that ran from pasty, overweight college students to stylish young Madrileño couples in skinny, designer jeans and enviable leather jackets. My absolute favorite person was a middle-aged Latin woman in tan riding britches, brown knee boots, a fashionable short jacket, and sporting a big Hermes belt buckle. Her golden blond hair was parted at the side and swept back grandly from her richly tanned face that was mostly obscured by a very large pair of very dark glasses. She belonged in an ad for an expensive Italian espresso maker where she would be sitting on the hood of her Bugatti in front of a palazzo complaining about the temperature of her Americano. Her much younger boy-toy was almost as interesting between his Prada shades, skinny jeans and matching tight gray denim jacket and perfect hair, combed back in precisely uniform ridges and undoubtedly held decisively in place by some product we've never heard of. What a pair, simultaneously a joy for the eyes and the soul.

We spent most of our time shopping for scarves to bolster my growing collection of Palenstinos as they are known locally. Modeled more or less after the Arab kaffiyeh, they make great neck scarves. I picked up my first in Barcelona when we were there in 2009 and got a couple more during the Hound’s-tooth craze in China. I bought a nice one at the street market in Valencia on this trip and actually found one lying on the sidewalk in Madrid's Chinatown on our first day here. It was subsequently boiled and washed lest anything be alive in it. Quite a few vendors were offering them here, 3€ for one, two for 5. I found a nice one but the true object of my desire was elusive. All of the inexpensive versions are some combination of a black or white field and a complementary color. The one I was seeking was the more traditional red, black and white version worn prominently during the Intifada by all those rock throwing hooligans. After a lot of searching I finally found what I wanted in a table off of the main path for the princely sum of 4€.

By mid-afternoon we'd covered the better part of the place and so we headed back towards the apartment to collect our bags, my camera and some money. Passing through Plaza Mayor My Lovely Wife stopped again to visit with her favorite street performer, sort of a Jar Jar Binks in a suit made out of multicolored Christmas tinsel. There are so many of these crazy performers in the popular open spaces that it's hard to figure out which one to patronize if you're going to pass by regularly. This one though captured our hearts because of her personality. It's often hard to know who is under all that costume, but one night we happened by while she was packing up for the day. A tiny woman of indeterminate age.


Coffers replenished we stopped for chocolate and churros hoping to once again replenish our immune systems. Next on the agenda was one last sight - The Temple of Debod - a 4 thousand year old stone artifact located in a park just behind the Palacio Real. Of all the things we went looking for, is one turned out to be very easy to find. We simply walked to where we thought it was and there is was.

Located on an island in a long rectangular reflecting pool, the temple consists of two stone arches and a small square building to the rear. Given as a gift by the Egyptian government in 1968 to the Spanish for their help in rescuing the Abu Simbel temple complex during the Aswan Dam flooding, it's a bit out of context relative to the Palacio behind it and the Baroque apartment buildings across the street. But viewed against the rolling hills of Madrid and the snow covered Sierra behind them, it looks very much in place. We opted out of visiting the inside - the line was too long and too slow - and sat down instead on a bench for a bit of people watching. That decision was rewarded with the sight of a Segway tour group rolling by.

This was our last night in Madrid and we decided to spend it at the little hole in the wall we'd stumbled upon one night when leaving the San Gines Chocolateria. On our first walk by we'd been invited in by Rashel, the very polite owner for a sample of Cruz Campo, the beer of Spain. We'd gone back the next night and made friends with his business partner, the very up tempo Antonio. On our second visit, Antonio was out and Rashel was back. Tonight both were in and they greeted us like family. It's so nice to make this kind of acquaintance when traveling, a restaurant that you like and where they are friendly. We visited over tapas, exchanging photos of horses - our two minis and Rashal's Arab. The place got busy and the flamenco music got turned up loud. When a big group of Germans came in, we gave up our table - there are only 4 inside and Rashel gave us a glass of sherry to take to the outside tables. We sat there for a bit visiting with Antonio as he tried to cajole passing people in for dinner. It was getting a bit nippy and the sherry was coming up short in its ability to keep us warm so we paid our bill and made our goodbyes, promising to return the next time we find ourselves here.

























Sunday, April 15, 2012

Toledo

Toledo was on my list of day trips when I had first planned this trip. We got sidetracked though when we arrived in Madrid on our first day and had a conversation with our cabbie about Segovia. He told us that it was the finest city in Spain and so when we had the chance, we went. But Toledo remained in the back of my mind and when we were done wandering the streets of Madrid with a couple of days remaining, we took the chance.

The weather on this trip has been “unsettled.” We’ve been threatened with inundation a couple of times and actually watered once or twice; the skies of Segovia were particularly intent on teaching us a springtime lesson. As we packed up to leave for this next outing, the sky spoke volumes – big, wet gray clouds in all directions so the umbrellas were once again included. We got sprinkled on as we walked up Calle Arenal to the Sol Metro station, a portent of things to come. This being Saturday, the subway was much busier, but still nothing compared to China. And it was only 4 stations down the line to Puerta de Atocha where the line joined the train system.

Each visit here reminds me of that awful day in 2004 when al-Qaida bombers killed nearly 200 Spaniards during a weekday rush hour. Almost 8 years to the day of our first visit. A monument called Bosque del Recuerdo is located in the Bien Retiro park and consists of 192 cypress and olive trees, one for each of the victims. Today the station is once again the modern hub of rail travel for this country. After a bit of aimless wandering we found our gate (“via” in the local parlance) and boarded a half hour before departure. Somehow we drew the unlucky card and got 2 of the 8n seats that face each other at the center of the car. Those provide ample legroom if no one sits across from you or none at all if they do. I suggested that the ticket salesman had liked us and so booked these as a favor. My Lovely Wife suggested otherwise. A family of three – two adults and a bossy 20-something showed up and dashed my hopes. But they were not across from us, they wanted our seats. The young woman was insistent, first demanding that the location was theirs and then suggesting that we were in the wrong car. We showed her our tickets – Row 5, Seats 5A and B – and that’s where we were. She argued a bit more while Papa got his out and gee whiz, darned if they weren’t in the wrong place. I watched them wandering down to row 9 where they settled in. I just love how indignant people get when they think they’re right, and then how quiet they get when they’re not. I suppose one of the three got the notion that they were in 5 and never bothered to check again. We say alone until just before the departure time, thinking we had lucked out, but then a mother and her daughter showed up. I was glad for the 30 minute ride - my toes were falling asleep from that bad sitting position.

The countryside between these two cities is not worthy of a mention – industrial parks, dumps and trashy apartment blocks. Only a few vistas of neatly trimmed Olive trees made it worth looking out the window. We arrived and grabbed a cab, not knowing how far it was to the old city and while doing so, the rain materialized. We arrived at Plaza Zocodover in about 10 minutes, the last 5 of which were almost all straight uphill. It is said that all streets in Toledo lead up, and I think that sentiment is correct. We had a nice lunch of coffee and ham bocadillos and waited for the rain to stop. My first impression was that we had stumbled into the biggest tourist trap in Spain, and on a Saturday no less. The city was mobbed. We left the restaurant and started uphill, the Cathedral being our first destination. It is supposed to be the largest and grandest in Spain, and at the high point of the city. It took us a while to find it even though it dominates the skyline. The surrounding streets are so narrow and so hemmed in by tall buildings that it’s tough to get your bearings. I had map I’d ordered on line, sort of a tourist’s guide which had the unfortunate “feature” of showing not only where the sights were located, but depicting them in 3D floating above the town. This served the purpose of confusing where they actually were which did not lend much confidence in plotting a route. We finally found the place which is so large that it’s hard to believe you can’t find it, and after getting turned around at the group entrance door we made our way in.

I was pretty amazed at the church in Segovia, but this one really knocks you over. The inside is enormous and the main altar and choir areas simply put everything you’ve seen to shame. The private chapels in Segovia were by comparison much more ornate than these, but the rest of the place wins by a long shot. The collection of paintings in the Sacristy would put any museum to shame simply by the volume of works by El Greco, Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian and other Masters. The presentation wasn’t great, but the sheer number took your breath away. The rest of the place continued to amaze, and even the courtyard – a central feature in all the great churches and my personal favorite place – was amazing for its size and the frescos decorating the walls. I could probably go on for another 1000 words about this and that, but suffice it to say no other cathedral is going to knock this one off the breathtaking pedestal any time ever.

Back out into the streets and after an unexpected hail storm we went on the hunt for the oldest synagogues in the city. Toledo has been an important location since the Bronze Age, passing through the hands of the Visigoths, Romans, Arabs and Reconquistas during its 2500 year history. It was long regarded for its atmosphere of religious tolerance and there were healthy populations of Jews, Christians and Muslims living side by side until the expulsions in the late 15th century. The Sinagoga del Tránsito is one of only two surviving here. Built in 1385 it retains the beautiful simplicity of its time. It wasn’t much of a tour after the Cathedral, but a nice stop once we found it. Which wasn’t easy thanks to the town maps. From there we visited the Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes which was not on our plan but beckoned once the rain began in earnest for the third time. Sometimes you let weather be your guide and often it does a great job in that role. This place, built to house the tombs of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella turned out to be a very nice stop. We were not able to see the church – there was a wedding going on that was complete with a huge boy’s choir – but the cloisters were very nice. Again a beautiful courtyard, this one with orange trees, and gorgeous carved wooden ceilings and stone work. A good place to wait out a downpour. The King and Queen ended up buried in Granada following the final defeat of the Moors as a potent reminder that from that day on, Spain would be a Christian land. It’s a shame, because this place was so very nice.

We stopped for Chocolate and Marzipan Cake (Toledo style) and then went in search of one last place – the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz. This little chapel, built in 980 began its life as a mosque and was converted to a church in the 12th century. After some prodigious map reading and a lot of climbing and descending we found it tucked away in a quiet little neighborhood on the edge of the city walls. I think this turned out to be my very favorite place in Toledo. So tiny, simple, empty and beautiful. The main “hall” if you could it that had nine unique domes supported by arches and pillars crafted to copy the main mosque in Cordoba. Much of the material used to build the mosque is incomplete in details, as they were re-used from older Roman and Visigoth buildings. Out front a 5 meter Roman road runs past the site. A beautiful garden, typical in Islamic style, sits off to the north and behind that the top of the city walls offer a splendid view of the surrounding area including the gates to the city. Bookending this visit with the Cathedral and this small wonder was a nice way to frame Toledo. We headed down the hill and after stopping to stare at the most amazing Wisteria plantation we caught a cab back to the train station. Many of the people we’d ridden down with were there waiting to return to Madrid. Apparently we’d picked a popular combination of day trip times.

After two weeks, hunting and gathering for dinner gets a bit tiresome – especially when the offerings are so vast. I’d had my eye on a little restaurant around the block and of course, it turned out to be closed. It seems many of these little holes in the wall are a labor of love, open only when the owner feels like cooking. We chose another around the block and of course it only being early evening we were the first to arrive. The waitress (I say “the” because no one else was there) said they were not open but that we were welcome to wait. In a mix of English and Spanish we arrived at 30 minutes being the expected time. But when she pulled off her sweatshirt and started to fill the rolling bucket to mop the floor we decided it might be longer. We told her we’d come back and went off to find another place, this one on the Plaza Mayor. We sat downstairs in the vault (that smelled faintly like Mr. Clean), drank house wine, listened to a table full of college-aged women language majors carry on about their worldly experiences and enjoyed the evening. Salmon au gratin for My Lovely Wife and breaded lamp chops for me. A nice end to the day and ironically one of our fanciest yet least expensive dinners during our time here.