Friday, April 17, 2015

And so to home

Prehistoric Man had one thing on all of us – he never experienced Jet Lag. And of course that’s also true for Bronze Age Man, Iron Age Man, Roman Era Man, Medieval Man, Renaissance Man and all of humanity up until Alcock & Brown decided to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland in June of 1919. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith kept the ball rolling with the first Trans-Pacific flight in May of 1928, and since that time it’s all been downhill although I suspect that those early flights were so slow and so tense that no one thought much about how they felt the morning after their arrival. Prior to the first mention of the term by a columnist by the name of Horace Sutton in a February, 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times, no one had any  name for it. Jet travel was not yet 15 years old when the phrase was coined and I suspect people had an idea about what was afflicting them, even if they didn’t know what to call it.
Well I know a lot about it, knowledge gained painfully over these last 10 years of jumping over the big ponds. Going to Asia was never that bad, coming home was miserable – the effect lasted for so long that at one point I considered giving up on trips home that lasted less than two weeks. Going and coming from Europe is less sickening, but not completely without a cost. Particularly on that travel day home when you stay up for 24 hours (less what sleep you might catch on the plane) and then go to bed at your regular home-time. You wake up at midnight, and every hour thereafter until 4 when you really just want to get up and get going despite the fact that it’s pitch black outside and the world hasn’t started yet.
So you try to lie in bed until a more reasonable hour when you do your chores and eat breakfast, all the while dreaming about that 10:30 AM nap. And that’s where we are today.
The ride home was pretty nice once we cleared the clouds hugging the mid-Atlantic. While the polite thing to do is to keep your window shades down, I sneak a peek every once in a while and yesterday was good day for that. Bright late spring sunshine pouring down on a vast expanse of sea ice, spread as far to the north as I could see. Coming in across Labrador and Newfoundland, the land was clearing up but the harbors were all still choked with bright white ice. We crossed somewhere into New England and flew straight across Quabbin Reservoir, one of my old favorite places in Massachusetts. Google Earth makes this kind of high altitude sightseeing possible – I love to take photos and come home and compare them against the satellite shots. It imparts a nicely detailed relationship with the physical world.
Our trip was pretty great, we visited some new places, and devoted time to some old favorites, all the while bathing in the history the place and how as Spain evolved, our little corner of the world did too. We averaged about 15,000 steps and close to 7 miles of walking each day, data points that our knees will certainly attest too. Particularly those steps taken on slick wet cobblestones. It was a wonderful time, and like every trip before, we start talking about what we’re going to do next year.

But for now it’s back to horses and gardens and home construction and all those things that make the rest of the year pretty great too.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

One last evening and one last night

We chilled out at home for a couple of hours, arranging our suitcases and getting in the “time to go home” mindset. The gray weather had passed and there was actually sunshine pouring in the skylights so we thought it might be nice to have an early evening walk. We left, headed down Carretas across Puerta del Sol and picked up Arenal for a stroll down to the Opera district. The weather was nice now, no clouds, a mild temperature and just enough of a breeze to be enjoyable. We took a new street out of the Plaza de Cervantes and walked through some nice neighborhoods, well-tended apartment buildings, clean streets, nothing like the commercial grime of the street where we’ve been staying. I’d remarked about the cleanliness of our neighborhood when our train to Avila passed through the northern suburbs. No uncollected trash, no overflowing bins. I think it comes from the mix of the area around Plaza Mayor, where you have tons of restaurants and shops located on the ground floors of the apartment buildings. More trash generated means less trash collected.
For grins we walked along Calle Ferraz with the goal of visiting the Temple of Debod, the friendship gift from Egypt to Spain. Crossing Cuesta San Vicente, we marveled at the most amazing Wisteria plant, pale purple blossoms covering both sides of the bridge over 4 lanes of traffic. The Temple was closed which meant that the park was more or less empty, a nice change from the last time we visited when it was sort of mobbed. We’d hoped for a last view of the Guadarrama Mountains from the paseo at the back of the park, but the air was too hazy. We left the park, crossed Plaza de España stopping for a look at the statue of Cervantes, gazing down on his two most famous creations, Quixote and Panza, and then took the exit on the far side, braving the commuting crowds on Gran Via for the walk back home.

We had promised our friends at El Mandela that we’d come by on our last night for dinner, but when the time came I just didn’t feel like doing it. After more than 2 weeks of restaurant eating in a foreign language with all the extra mental work that involves, I just wanted to do something simple. We left the apartment and headed off towards an alley we’d nicknamed “Paella Street” when we’d discovered it a couple of nights ago. But mentally I just wasn’t into it and the thought of spending 40 euros for a pan of rice just wasn’t appealing to me. The sky had gotten pretty ugly since our earlier walk and I wondered if it made sense to stop at home for the umbrella. I let it go though as the suitcase was packed and it was on the bottom and I really didn’t want to undo all my good work. Besides, we were only going to be out for another hour or so and what could possibly happen in that time?
We wandered past a few more options, scoped for empty tables at Mercado San Miguel (there were none) and finally decided that we’d just follow our original plan. Turning down Calle Espejo we walked up to the door of El Mandela and found it locked. Jose saw us and came over and opened up, smiling and showing us to “our” table. We ordered wine and food and settled in for what turned out to be a very nice evening. MLW had her signature fish, I chose the chicken and plantain stew this time, and spiced it up a bit with their infamously hot pepper sauce. We had a nice talk with Jose about their business model (since they get virtually no guests during the week) and an in depth discussion of the politics of the anti-monarchy people and the Spanish Civil War. While talking, I had one eye on the sidewalk outside as it had started to sprinkle. Not much at first, and not consistently. But of course by the time we were ready to go, the thunder started and the skies opened up.
People were passing by without umbrellas, and I kept joking by saying “They don’t care” but they were getting soaked. We left in a sprint, hugging the side the building where the downpour was somewhat mitigated by the eaves up above. But it kept getting worse so at the first opportunity, we ducked into the shuttered doorway of a building and sat on the stoop, out of the deluge.
People kept passing by in various degrees of wetness. A few good shots of lighting streaked overhead, followed by almost instantaneous thunder. The rain kept getting stronger and stronger and a small river started flowing down the middle of the cobblestones. I suggested we give it 15 more minutes before deciding and so we sat and watched and tried to guess the volume of the rain in the one streetlight overhead.

And it did let up a bit, almost at the end of that 15 minute wait. Deciding that we really couldn’t sit there all night we made a dash for it, running from overhang to awning, crossing Calle Mayor and darting past San Miguel until we got into the first tunnel at Plaza Mayor. At least now we could stay out of it for a good portion of the remainder of our walk. MLW scavenged some cardboard from the trash pile of one of the restaurants and we used it to fashion some rough hats. Under better circumstances we could have stayed dry on the portico to the far side, but this year two of the sides are under construction so we were deprived of a significant portion of the cover. Our cardboard hats did help though as we forged ahead. We passed a street vendor who tried to sell us an umbrella twice in two blocks, refusing him both times. Shooting out of the Plaza we rounded our corner and then only had to concentrate on not falling down on the wet marble sidewalk until we reached our front door.
Airport trips always come too early, but at least there was a cab waiting for us at the end of the street this morning. The rain had stopped which was nice for us since starting on a 24 hour trip with wet shoes was not something I wanted to do. The cab absolutely reeked of some cheap masking scent, like the worst toll road bathroom cleaner you’ve ever smelled. The drivers are all smokers, and I’m sure smoking in the cars is against the rules so they cover it up with a suffocating level of scent. This guy did drive fast though, and his constant Facebooking while driving didn’t appear to put us at too much risk.

From the front door at Barajas T4 it was just the ride home. 10.7 hours in the air - eating, dozing, movies, landing, a new process at immigration (scan your passport and go on) and now the final hour waiting for the last leg home. A long day with a good bed stocked with better pillows, waiting at the end.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Our Last Day in Madrid

Over the last couple of years we’ve sort of stumbled into a kind of tradition, walking down to the Royal Botanic Gardens, taking a stroll and getting rained on. That was pretty much the agenda for today, and as one can hope for on any travel day, all the pieces fell into place.
The one thing we had somehow managed to miss over these last two weeks of fun has been a healthy meal of chocolate and churros. I did have that folder full of them back in Sevilla, but I’d forgone the chocolate in the interest of being able to fall asleep. We’ve spent the last couple of days wandering around here and yet the time never seemed right. So this morning we left home with the express goal of having a second breakfast comprised of that most wonderful Spanish treat.
Rather than take the long haul to the Valor over on Gran Via, we chose instead to patronize San Gines, the older churreria in Madrid, and unfortunately a favorite of tourists (the place is mentioned in every guide book ever published in every language.) Upon arrival, sure enough the non-Spanish speaking hordes were spilling out the door. But we were committed so we queued up. I ducked out for a second to check on another entrance to the left, apparently a whole second San Gines but with much less of the old cultural flavor of the one where we were waiting. When one of the servers came out and started pointing us in that direction, I asked “Abierto?” and he said yes and we shuffled to the side, ending up second in line instead of zillionth. Unfortunately we were second in line to a family with a bunch of kids that they couldn’t keep corralled long enough to figure out what they wanted. The chaos only lasted a few extra minutes though and we had our order pretty quickly.
It’s a wonderful treat, dripping in simultaneous waves of guilt and pleasure. You can enjoy them as long as you don’t think about what you’re eating which is really nothing more than hot oil, flour, sugar and a giant-sized molten candy bar. You eat slowly and savor every bite, planning all the while to head to the nearest Starbucks to get a coffee to dilute the giant slug of chocolate that you’ve ingested. It was fun though and the Chinese couple at the next table taking selfies of themselves shoving churros in their mouth was an unexpected entertainment bonus.

We really did stop at Starbucks for dilution and from there wandered down to the Paseo del Prado where we grabbed a bench to enjoy our drinks. We sat opposite a fountain with a water nymph giving the “sit” hand signal to some sort of alien creature with three nipples on its face, dispensing water. Slug? Dragon? Who even knows? A young woman came by with a pair of some kind of Mastiffs which she freed to run around on the grass patches that were clearly marked “No dogs.” To her credit, she did clean up after them, including using a paper towel to mop up the grass when one of them peed.
It was getting cold with low gray clouds blowing past and a moderately stiff wind picking up. We got up and crossed the street towards the gardens, only to get stalled by a very large group of teenagers, mostly boys whom were heading into the garden. For the life of me, I could not grasp why any tour leader would think for even the shortest second why a bunch of teen-aged boys would be interested in a spring flower display, but there they were. Once they passed through the group gate we went on, dissing a woman who was trying to sell us a package of greeting cards for the purpose of helping the elderly disabled children.

The gardens are a great place to spend a last day before traveling. Peaceful, mostly quiet (aside from the groups of elementary school children running around screaming) and full of good energy and fresh air. Lots of bird song and beautiful blooms. We were lucky this year because a lot of the spring flowers were still in bloom, along with many of the trees and quite a few Rhododendrons. Our favorite plot, the vegetable garden, was replete with as much chard as I’ve ever seen. We walked from one end to another and then back until we’d covered the place from top to bottom. And just like that, it started to rain as we were heading to the exit. Crossing the Paseo we stopped in Starbucks for a coffee and a sandwich to split before heading back up hill along Paseo de Lope Vega and Las Huertas.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Something different - MAN, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional

Today was tagged a recovery day after the rigors of yesterday’s travel. We decided that we would visit the Museo Arqeológico Nacional for a change of pace. Rather than experiencing history in situ, we thought it might be different to visit a collection of it. And as it turned out, we’re very glad we did.
Stopping for coffee at a Starbucks on Alcala, we took a window seat and spent some time assessing passersby as tourists or locals. From there it was a downhill stroll to the Paseo del Prado, stopping along the way to watch a drama unfold in the very busy intersection in front of the Metropolis Building.
Two women were frantically trying to stop traffic, but we couldn’t figure out why. They had their faces in the driver’s side window of a red compact car that suddenly started to roll into the oncoming traffic. A motorcyclist jumped off his bike, swung open the door of the rolling car and tried to steer it out of the oncoming cars. But he couldn’t turn the wheel and the car continued, crushing the guy between it and a car stopped at the light. The rolling car finally crashed into the front of another car, bringing it to a stop, with the motorcyclist trapped between the two. Some pedestrians ran over and dragged the motorcyclist out from between the two and suddenly there was a policewoman on the scene. The motorcyclist was walking around, clearly dazed and probably hurt but not too seriously has he was able to remain upright. There seemed to be another man sitting on the ground by the crashed car, perhaps the original driver. As far as we could figure, the driver must have passed out behind the wheel and the women were trying to get help. Thankfully no one seemed seriously injured.
We came to the building that (my loyal friend) Google Maps had identified as the Museo, and after climbing about a thousand steps and asking, we found out it was actually the National Library. The Museo was around the backside of the building. Back down the steps and around the block and we found the entrance.
What a museum, probably the best representation of this kind of material we have ever seen. I’ll admit I’m sorry I had not visited before. The first floor was dedicated to the emergence of hominids through the beginning of the Iron Age. The displays ranged from skulls and skeletons to tools and pottery and on to more complex tools, tapestries and of course weapons. Each era was accompanied by a very thorough yet accessible video representation of the significant events. The displays and information were so captivating that we didn’t take a single photo. Australopithecus through early Hominids through Neanderthals up to Homo Sapiens, the entirety of evolving humanity represented in tools and art. Just incredible. We spent more than two hours poring over the material.
Moving upstairs we spent far less time than we should have visiting the ancient era from the Celtiberians to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and finally the Moors. If we hadn’t nearly spent all our energy getting through the Ice Age, we would have had at least as daunting a task of absorbing this material. We focused mostly on the ancient Spanish and Celts, because it was so well represented and it filled a gap in our understanding of the local, pre-Roman history. Wonderful sculptures, a lot of horse related artefacts and even another pair of Verraco, statues similar to those we saw yesterday in Ávila. I learned an awful lot about the period, and I was glad to have had the opportunity to see such a good collection from this era.
The Moors were not quite as well represented, although there was a very nice model and depiction of the Mezquita in Cordoba including a hanging ceiling, demonstrating the construction and architectural flourishes. Beyond that, a bit on the Visigoths and some truly exceptional Roman mosaics. All a feast for the eyes.

Checking the time we saw that we’d spent a full 4 hours getting educated so we left but not before telling the guy working at the information desk that we thought it was one of the best ever. A really unexpected treat.